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Titian's Bacchus and Ariadne | reviews, news & interviews

Titian's Bacchus and Ariadne

Titian's Bacchus and Ariadne

A young man's masterpiece

In 1519 Titian was commissioned by Alfonso d’Este, the famously irascible Duke of Ferrara, to provide the first of three paintings for a study, the so-called camerino d’alabastro or alabaster room. If the following five years of delays and procrastination drove the duke almost  to distraction, they produced what is arguably the most famous room in the history of Western art.

When I first saw Bacchus and Ariadne it hung on its own screen in front of a huge doorway, linking two of the most important parts of the National Gallery. You could see it shining out from several rooms away, a jubilant shout of a painting: the great whirl of movement with its immensity of implausibly pure, undiluted ultramarine – the clearest and most expensive royal blue – into which the beautiful Ariadne is pointing, the serpentine sweep of her scarf standing out in a stabbing jolt of vermilion. The crimson of the god’s cloak, flung out into space as he leaps from his chariot, sets the whole composition in spiralling motion – his retinue of fauns, meat-wielding satyrs and nymphs crashing their cymbals and tambourines as they surge forward out of the viridian forest. Clapping eyes on Ariadne for the first time, Bacchus leaps towards her, promising her the stars – in the form of the constellation, in the top left of the painting, that she will eventually become.

Bacchus and Ariadne has been moved several times over the intervening decades, but wherever it is there’s always a clamour around it. Admittedly, if you flag up a painting as a key work on the audio guide, and put a seat in front of it, people will naturally gravitate towards it. Yet people’s eyes light up as soon as they catch sight of it, even if they don’t know precisely what it is. For the painting is, of course, one of the most famous in the world, part of series that provided the model for the mythological painting for centuries to come – whose mood still impinges on our idea of pleasure as a social and cultural phenomenon.

This was Titian’s second painting for Alfonso d’Este’s camerino d’alabastro, a room that was to be a shrine to love. Not to romantic love or to Christian love, which are just two sides of the same coin. Not to platonic love, an idea that was very fashionable at the time – nor even to purely physical, carnal love. The camerino was to be a celebration of pagan love – love subject to the arbitrary caprices of the gods, inspired by, sanctified or thwarted by the ancient spirits of the landscape. Love that emanated directly from the Mediterranean earth – a fitting subject for a man’s room – its bawdiness and carnality mediated by centuries of culture and literature.

On 30 January 1523, Bacchus and Ariadne, then in an unfinished state, was carried by barge from Venice up the river Po to Ferrara. Payment was then made for a facchino (a porter) to carry the canvas on his back from the river port of Francolino into the city of Ferrara itself. Given that the painting was over six feet wide by almost six feet high and would have been robustly packaged the porter must have been bent double as he staggered the eight miles, the assistants designated to courier the painting walking alongside.

Bacchus and Ariadne had been commissioned in April 1520, and from the outset Alfonso had applied continuous pressure on the artist, first to commence the painting, then to finish it. For the previous 18 months, Alfonso had, through his agent in Venice Jacopo Tebaldi, variously threatened, tempted, cajoled, flattered and otherwise attempted to impel Titian to bring the painting to Ferrara to complete it under his own exacting gaze. Titian was paid an extra “refresher” advance; invited to spend Christmas in Ferrara in 1521 (on the understanding that he bring the painting with him); implored to accompany Alfonso to Rome, a city he’d always wanted to visit, to pay homage to the new Pope, Clement VII – a gesture that was an immense compliment on the part of the duke. And all to no avail. Titian appeared first flattered, intrigued, alarmed and then evasive; had always some other obligation, some illness or more obscure debilitation or commitment that allowed him to wriggle out of whatever was proposed.

Now, nearly three years after the original commission was accepted, the painting was at last in Ferrara. Titian’s assistants were ensconced in the Castello Inn ready to begin work – indeed, in all probability, had already embarked on the final stages of the painting. But where was Titian? Not in Ferrara, nor even in Venice, but in Mantua, engaged in discussions on further commissions with Alfonso’s nephew Federico Gonzaga, son of his sister Isabella. What the hell was young Titian playing at?

Born Tiziano Vecellio in Cadore in the Dolomites around 1489, Titian had been apprenticed as a painter in Venice at the age of ten. Now 30, and established as one of Europe’s leading artists, he was already snowed under with major projects when he was impelled to accept the commission for Bacchus andAriadne. Within days of taking on his first painting for Alfonso’s camerino, The Worship of Venus, he had been commissioned to create a massive monumental altarpiece for the Pesaro family in the Frari Church in Venice,  which was still barely started. He had commenced work on two further large altarpieces for Brescia and Ancona, and had just received notice from the Venetian government that unless he attended to his obligations in the Doge’s Palace - notably the painting The Battle of Spoleto, which he hadn’t touched for years - he would lose his sanseria (state pension), and be obliged to repay all advances so far remitted by the authorities, an amount running into hundreds of thousands of pounds by today’s standards.

Titian, like all independent artists – like all freelances in any age – was dependent on a steady flow of commissions to keep his business afloat. Once the advance of a third of the final fee had been paid and a definitive start made on the work, it would be put to one side, and wouldn’t be completed until the patron began to apply serious pressure. At this point in his career Titian could have delegated more to assistants. He could have loosened his grip on the quality of the output of the workshop ever so slightly, on the assumption that some of his assistants were almost as good as he was, and that the power of his signature having been established, the majority of patrons wouldn’t have been able to tell the difference.

But Titian had no intention of doing that, and certainly not with patrons of the stature and importance of Alfonso d’Este. The only way he could keep his stock intact, increasing his fame, giving himself a degree of power equivalent to his patrons’, was to keep on exceeding their expectations with every new work, to make each painting more astounding than the one that had gone before. And the only person who could make a Titian painting great was Titian himself.

Titian was only doing what every man of his station, every artist, every tradesman, did as a matter of course: trying it on

In August 1522, Alfonso’s agent in Venice, Jacopo Tebaldi, made one of his regular visits to Titian’s studio to ascertain the extent of progress on Bacchus and Ariadne and to attempt, if it were possible, to move things along. Staring pointedly at the canvas he observed that the car carrying the god Bacchus and the two leopards pulling it had been completed alongside two finely realised figures. But the rest of the figures and the surrounding landscape were not even begun – though the artist insisted that the painting would be finished over the following fortnight.

After it had been agreed that the painting should be shipped to Ferrara in October, and Tebaldi was about to leave the studio, Titian suggested that it might be necessary for him to receive a letter of safe conduct before he made the journey to Ferrara, so much had he tested the duke’s patience. Tebaldi was at once impressed that the painter still regarded his employer with some degree of awe and fear, and amused and exasperated by Titian’s protestations that he would take on no more commissions, not even from God himself, until he had finished the duke’s painting – the like of which he had heard so many times before.

For Tebaldi, Titian was an intriguing character. His venality and transparent duplicity were contemptible, yet understandable in someone of his background. Titian was only doing what every man of his station, every artist – every tradesman – did as a matter of course: trying it on. Yet Tebaldi, like his master Alfonso, had no doubt of Titian’s capacity to produce a masterpiece. That was the power Titian had over them. And Tebaldi confided finally to the duke that he had no option but to humour the artist by giving him more money.

As for Titian, his first concern was to maintain his independence. If you became over-dependent on these people’s patronage, if you allowed them to get their claws into you, your life wouldn’t be your own. The only way to retain such people’s respect was to assert your independence, to make them aware that there were other, equally powerful people also pressing for your services, while always using the correct formulas in addressing them, always making the appropriate ritual obeisances and remembering not to push them too far.

Extracted from Mark Hudson's 'Titian: The Last Days', published by Bloomsbury

Look at Titian masterpieces in Gallery and read Mark Hudson's extract: Titian in Love

The exhibition 'Titian, Tintoretto, Veronese… Rivals in Renaissance Venice’ is at the Musée du Louvre, Paris, until 4 January 2010. Information here

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