Crack! I wake in a drench of adrenalin and fear. What was that? Something dropped from a plane? But apart from wind in the trees it is darkly silent outside. No plane is manoeuvring over Cumnor Hill on its way to Brize Norton, common enough at three-ish in the morning hereabouts. There is a more obvious explanation, and I am able to relax. Autumn has arrived. The conker season has begun, with its sporadic impacts on our roof. Could such a smallish object really have made such a tile-rattling thunk? Apparently so.
But I cannot slip back immediately to sleep. My brain has started chuntering. Am I half-awake or half-asleep? I start to think about the Titian exhibition, which we visited recently at the National Gallery. It seems strange to think of the gallery at night, now completely bereft of visitors. What happens to paintings when there is no one there to look at them? Perhaps all the figures climb down to stretch their legs and relax a bit, after a hard day posing in those uncomfortable positions which the artist has devised to show off his skills. The Titian room would be a strange crew of nude women, a few hunters and a handsome male god, a bull, and a lot of dogs. (The fishes and flying babies, not subject to gravity in the same way, can probably stay where they are.) There is only one bench for them all to sit on, and that probably covid-infested, though I used it most gratefully during the day. These foolish thoughts mean that I might be falling asleep – but the moment I realise this, I am sharply awake once more…
In the morning there is a lustrous glossy conker on the table outside the window (is it Titian red?), with its shell neatly split in two, both segments showing fresh green spikes outside and buttery yellow inside. The Virginia creeper two houses away is resplendently red; the darker purple of the nearby maple is equally gorgeous. Mysteriously a rose right by the window is trying to put out a few red blooms.
As top European artist of his day, Titian was commissioned in about 1550 by Philip II of Spain to complete a number of paintings of subjects chosen by the artist. Titian chose myths from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. The resulting works are called the Poesie, the poems, and have never been seen together in a gallery before. Indeed they were never together in Spain, as they were sent to various royal palaces; nor would they have been seen together in Venice when they were painted. All of them are familiar from books, but two of them are very familiar, ‘Diana and Actaeon’ and ‘Diana and Callisto’, being part of the NG’s collection and in fact shared with the National Gallery in Edinburgh where I first looked at them with pleasure. Another is also in the NG – ‘The Death of Actaeon’; ‘Perseus and Andromeda’ is from the Wallace Collection; ‘Danaë’ from Apsley House; ‘Venus and Adonis’ from the Prado; and ‘The Rape of Europa’ is from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston.
There are an awful lot of nude women. I remember as, say, a ten-year-old, in the Louvre being intensely embarrassed by all the voluptuous female flesh (Rubens?). Or to be more accurate, I remember my mother’s amusement at my apparent state of mind. I was probably not much aware of my shock until it became a subject for gentle mockery, rather than what seemed to me a completely natural and proper reaction. I was then embarrassed to be embarrassed.
Nudity in an art gallery is now so ordinary an experience that it would be difficult simply to suffer embarrassment. Somewhere at the back of my mind there is a high-brow distinction between the Naked and the Nude, perhaps to do with art and pornography, but I can’t at the moment remember which is which (and isn’t pornography in the eye of the beholder? Note to self: is all this in Kenneth Clark’s The Nude? Find and read.)
Though it is no doubt impossible to determine an artist’s intention, it is clear that Titian was very interested in painting naked female flesh. A flagrant example is the ‘Venus of Urbino’ in the Uffizi. That young woman is most obviously displayed for the ‘male gaze’, looking out as she does, not exactly coyly, at the onlooker. Titian had obviously seen women without their clothes on – unlike I guess Michelangelo, whose statues of ‘Dawn’ and ‘Night’ in the Medici Chapel look to me like men with (different) appendages. One review of the exhibition made great play of Titian’s use of prostitutes as models, pointing out that a rich patron tried to lure him away from Venice by suggesting he was free to bring his whole retinue of females with him. I rather doubt if ‘prostitute’ is exactly the right word for those young Venetian women who were prepared to pose naked for a famous painter.
In several of these paintings there is a male onlooker, or one that is part of the plot. Actaeon is the handsome young hunter who has had the misfortune to disturb Diana and her retinue during their nude water-party. His look of fear, and the nymphs’ various expressions of disquiet, show that he and they know this happenstance will end badly. And what of Diana’s face, visible but strangely framed by her arms? I’ve always found its position puzzling. Does it seem not quite properly attached to her neck and body? Perhaps the slight contortion suggests she is concealing her expression of cruel malevolence, something she might want to keep private. She
will turn Actaeon into a stag and his hounds will pursue him to his death (the subject of another quite different kind of painting by Titian on an adjacent wall). Next door to ‘Diana and Actaeon’ is a very similar water-party, but this time it is the cruelty of the handmaidens that is the subject. They are exposing to the goddess the body of their companion Callisto. They have noticed that she is pregnant and therefore falls foul of Diana’s cult of virginity. In Ovid’s version of the myth, her calamity was brought upon her because she had the misfortune to attract the attention of Jupiter. Callisto is expelled from Diana’s entourage, whereupon Jupiter’s jealous wife Hera changes her into a bear. Years later she is hunted down by her teenage son Arcas, who is about to kill her when Jupiter takes pity on her and turns her into a constellation – our Plough: Ursa Major, the Great Bear. Opposite these paintings is another depiction of a young woman, Europa, whom Jupiter finds attractive, and for whom he goes to the bother of turning himself into a bull. And what a peculiar bull Titian has given us. As he emerges from the sea Europa tumbles in disarray off his back, while he looks mildly and knowingly at the observer.
It’s not surprising that the exhibition is subtitled ‘Love, Desire, Death’. The wages of rampant male sexuality, Jupiter as its avatar, are various kinds of misery. Equally deadly are the strictures of Diana’s enforced virginity. However much these naked women may be on display to titillate the viewer, the messages of the paintings are very far from a joyful celebration of flesh.
The Titian exhibition, for which you have to book in advance, is open until mid-January 2021.
Several of Learn Italy’s world-beating, oven-ready, moonshot trips are ready and waiting for the ‘new normal’ to be less new and more normal. Get Covid done!