Thursday, July 23, 2009

From the Mountains to the Lagoon

The first chapter of Peter Humfrey's 2007 monograph on Titian is called 'From the Mountains to the Lagoon'.  Titian was born in Pieve di Cadore, a small town in the Dolomites, and later 'acquired property there and invested in his family's timber business, which carried logs from the mountains and valleys of Cadore to the boatyards of Venice by way of the River Piave and the Adriatic Sea.  Titian's enduring affection for his homeland seems to be reflected in the jagged peaks, precipitous rocks, rushing torrents and dense forest that he added to the existing repertory of Venetian painting.'


Titian, background to Giovanni Bellini's Feast of the Gods, 1529

Humfrey's first example is actually a Giovanni Bellini painting, Feast of the Gods (1514), which had been the first commission for Alfonso d'Este's camerino in Ferrara.  Once Titian started producing paintings like Bacchus and Ariadne for Alfonso, Bellini's painting would have looked a bit old hat, so Titian was asked to re-work the landscape.  Another work that seems to draw on Titian's memories of the Dolomites is the mountainous background to the Presentation of the Virgin in the Temple (1534-8).  And a third example given by Peter Humfrey is the 'savage, fitfully illuminated landscape' of St Jerome in Penitence, painted just before Titian's death in 1575 (a far cry from the generalised Arcadian landscapes he had painted under the influence of Giorgione seventy years earlier).

Titian, background to Presentation of the Virgin in the Temple, 1534-8

The influence of Titian's birthplace is not discussed in A. Richard Turner's classic survey, The Vision of Landscape in Renaissance Italy.  Instead he shows the great range of landscapes Titian was able to paint, beginning his account by quoting Count Francesco Algarotti's view, expressed in 1756, that 'Titian, nature's greatest confidant, is among landscapists the Homer.'  For Algorotti, 'perhaps the most beautiful landscape ever painted is that of the Peter Martyr, where for the variety of trunks, of leaves, of the various bearings of the limbs one can discern the difference between one tree and another; where the land is so well partitioned and rolls on with such natural grace; where a botanist would go to gather plants.'


Titian, engraving after The Death of St Peter Martyr, 1530

Looking back to Kenneth Clark's Landscape into Art, I find the following: 'anyone who has visited Cadore will recognize that the impressions of Titian's native place remained with him all his life.  The rocky hills with their thick clusters of trees, the rushing streams and blue mountain distances are seized upon with Titian's sensual power, and crowded into the small background of a portrait.  Very occasionally they are given more space, and we recognise the origin of all Carracciesque landscape.  The great hunting landscapes by the Carracci in the Louvre are no more than freer and more crowded versions of the Venus of the Pardo which hangs opposite them; and from the lost St Peter Martyr, the most copied picture in the world, there flowed a series of landscape compositions which furnished the seventeenth century.  Titian's appetite for nature gives to his landscapes a magnificent fullness.  His trees, in particular, have a weight of leaf and roundness of trunk never surpassed, and it is not surprising that Poussin and Rubens, Constable and Turner all looked on him as a source of inspiration.'

Among all the many qualities that distinguish Titian, how wonderful to think that he painted a 'roundness of trunk never surpassed'...

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