Three's company

By JEFFREY GANTZ  |  March 11, 2009

The drawback of this approach — which is what the Gardner Museum has been doing in its special-exhibitions room — is that you don't get an overview of the individual artists. And the show catalogue defers to the primacy of the intellect. Aretino's "female pope among cities," Wordsworth's "eldest child of Liberty," Byron's "The revel of the earth, the masque of Italy," and Henry James's breathing of "conscious, reluctant mortality" are conspicuous by their absence — not to mention the magic of Carnival, the rhythm of water lapping against gondolas, and the seductive sibilants of Santazustina and Sanzanipolo.

But it's a stupefying collection. And here's an attempt at that overview.

Titian
His name may conjure opulent (by Florentine standards) nudes, but Titian's actual range is off the charts: Sacred and Profane Love, the Frari Assumption of the Virgin, Bacchus and Ariadne, The Presentation of the Virgin, Venus of Urbino, Pope Paul III and His Grandsons Alessandro and Ottavio Farnese, Charles V at Mühlberg, Europa, The Flaying of Marsyas, The Martyrdom of St. Lawrence, the late Crown of Thorns, the late Pietà, and at least a couple of Self-Portraits. You'll find only one of these in Boston, and it won't be at the MFA: Europa, America's outstanding Titian, will be holding down its usual spot high on a wall in the third-floor Italian room across the street at the Gardner Museum. Ilchman explains that he didn't want to ask the Gardner for it unless he had a good pairing; the obvious candidate was Veronese's The Rape of Europa (where it's party time for Europa, her friends, and Jove the bull) at the Doge's Palace in Venice, but the curator there was reluctant to let this behemoth (it's nearly 8x10) go.

Still, there's more than enough here to stamp Titian as the Shakespeare of Renaissance artists. His women — whether clothed, like Flora, or nude, like Venus Anadyomene and Venus with a Mirror — hover between independent and inviting (having discerned our gaze in that mirror, Venus covers her breasts — sort of), spirit and flesh, licit and not. His men are puzzles to be solved; Pope Paul III doesn't look such a rube as he does in Pope Paul III and His Grandsons Alessandro and Ottavio Farnese (or is he playing possum?), but the weight of the papacy is palpable, and perhaps religious doubt. The worn, haggard St. Jerome in the Wilderness suggests that being a saint is no easier. Titian's Supper at Emmaus is understated, the surprised reactions of Luke and Cleopas being subsumed in the welter of details (like the salt dish on the table and the dog and cat underneath) — it's the miraculous as part of the everyday. Danaë haunts as Tintoretto's version does not; you wonder why Danaë's face is in shadow as she experiences her first orgasm.

Here and there you find personal echoes. His Catherine in the 1513-'14 Virgin and Child with St. Catherine, St. Dominic, and a Donor looks remarkably like the one he did some years later (1530) in Virgin and Child with St. Catherine of Alexandria and a Rabbit (better known as the Madonna of the Rabbit), and she's more tender and expressive than the staid Giovanni Bellini workshop figure of Virgin and Child with Saints or her self-consciously theatrical counterpart in Veronese's near-by The Mystical Marriage of St. Catherine of Alexandria. Titian's wife, Cecilia, died in August 1530, a few days after giving birth to their daughter, Lavinia; he never remarried. The rabbit is, of course, a symbol of fertility. Perhaps these St. Catherines are Titian's tribute to his wife.

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Related: Slideshow: Titian, Tintoretto, Veronese at MFA, East meets West, Let's talk about sex, More more >
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