Tiziano Vecellio, better known as Titian, was one of the most prominent painters of 16th-century Venice. Over the course of his career, he created an eclectic body of work that encompassed mythology, portraiture and religion. We profile ten essential works by Titian.
Assumption of the Virgin, the towering altarpiece in Venice’s Basilica dei Frari, was Titian’s first major public commission in the city, and when the painting was unveiled in 1518, it established the young artist as one of the leading figures of the Venetian School. Noted for its bold use of color, epic scale (almost 23 feet tall) and drama, the Assumption of the Virgin was a revolutionary work of art in its time, and Titian would go on to compose more altarpieces including the Gozzi Altarpiece in Ancona and The Death of Saint Peter Martyr, painted between 1526 and 1530 but sadly destroyed by fire in 1867.
Amongst some of the first works Titian created, focusing on mythological subject matter, Bacchus and Ariadne depicts the first meeting of the Greek god of wine and Cretan princess on the island of Naxos and has been described by many critics as the artist’s greatest work. Originally commissioned by Alfonso d’Este, Duke of Ferrara, as part of a series of paintings for a private room in the Ducal Palace – which also included Giovanni’s Bellini’s The Feast of the Gods and two other works by Titian, The Bacchanal of the Andrians and The Worship of Venus – Bacchus and Ariadne today hangs in London’s National Gallery.
Painted in 1538 for the Duke of Urbino, Guidobaldo II della Rovere as a gift to his young wife Giulia Varano, Venus of Urbino has been described by many as unabashedly erotic – most clearly represented by the sensual, seductive presence of the Roman goddess of love – though other interpretations have focused on other allegories such as fidelity (symbolized by the dog) and motherhood, embodied by the housemaid and young girl in the background. Though to have been inspired by his peer Giorgione’s Sleeping Venus, the painting has in turn inspired other works including Édouard Manet’s controversial 1863 painting Olympia.
Part of a series of mythological paintings – alongside other works including Venus and Adonis (1554) and Diana and Actaeon (1556–1559) – created for King Philip II of Spain that Titian referred to as Poesie, The Rape of Europa portrays the abduction of Europa from her homeland, the ancient city of Sidon, to Crete by Jupiter (Zeus in Greek mythology) in the form of a white bull. Owned by Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum since 1896, the painting today – though praised for its luminescent colors and vivid texture – has incited controversy for its eroticization of rape, but remains one of the best preserved examples of Titian’s Poesie series.
Titian’s Danaë paintings were a series of at least five compositions focusing on the legend of the mythological Greek princess and her seduction and impregnation by Zeus who appears in the painting as a shower of gold. The artist’s first version, today hanging in Naples’ Museo di Capodimonte, includes the figure of Eros and was commissioned by Cardinal Alessandro Farnese – a clergyman and noted patron of the arts, but also a notorious philanderer. It is thought to be a satire on Renaissance Italy’s preoccupation with courtesans. Looted by German troops during World War II, the painting was eventually returned to Italy in 1947.
Another artwork from Titian’s mythological Poesie series for King Philip II of Spain, Diana and Actaeon depicts a scene from Roman poet Ovid’s Metamorphoses in which the Greek hero stumbles upon the nude goddess of the hunt which, as the artist’s later painting The Death of Actaeon reveals, results in his demise. Acquired by London’s National Gallery and the National Galleries of Scotland in 2009 for £50 million, Diana and Actaeon and its companion Diana and Callisto – which was purchased by the same galleries three years later for £45 million – were once described by British painter Lucian Freud as “simply the most beautiful pictures in the world.”
Painted when Titian was just 25 years old and commissioned by Venetian secretariat Nicolò Aurelio to mark his marriage to his wife Laura Bagarotto, Sacred and Profane Love today is one of the most important works in Rome’s Galleria Borghese, so prized, in fact, that when the Rothschild family offered 4,000,000 lira for the artwork in 1899 – which was then more than the worth of its entire collection – the gallery refused. Numerous interpretations of the painting have been debated, though Galleria Borghese reads it as an expression of Titian’s belief in the exaltation of both heavenly, symbolized by the nude Venus-like female, and earthly love, represented by the clothed female subject.
Venice’s Basilica dei Frari is also home to another Titian masterpiece, the Pesaro Madonna (also known as Madonna di Ca’ Pesaro) – a work commissioned by Jacopo Pesaro. It depicts Venetian nobleman and military leaders being presented to the Virgin Mary by Saint Peter. Executed between 1519 and 1526, the Pesaro Madonna broke with tradition at the time in Titian’s placing of the Virgin Mary and Christ in an off-center position – unlike many other altarpieces preceding it that placed devotional figures at the epicenter of a composition – and is, thus, today considered a milestone in the Venetian School of painting.
A further work commissioned by the Farnese family, Pope Paul III and His Grandsons depicts the pontiff and two of his grandsons – Alessandro (who had also commissioned the earlier aforementioned Danaë painting) and Ottavio. As with much of Titian’s portraiture, the work features a significant psychological undertone, and a closer look at the painting can reveal much of the complex familial relationship between its three subjects – art critics today interpret the artwork as a message to the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V that the Pope, despite his great age, remained a dominant patriarch in control of his quarreling grandsons.
From the late 1540s onwards, Titian created a number of self-portraits, and the work that today hangs in Madrid’s Museo del Prado is one of just two self-portraits the artist painted that survive, the other being an earlier work currently displayed in Berlin’s Gemäldegalerie. The Museo del Prado believes the artist turned to self-portraiture in his later career in order to circulate his image and establish himself as one of most important artists of the High Renaissance and a man of great nobility – which in this Self-Portrait is suggested by the inclusion of his golden chain, signifying his rank as a Knight of the Golden Spur, and paintbrush, representing his artistic talents.