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Exciting new acquisition
1:37pm Tuesday 30th June 2009 in Arts
In our series counting down to the new Ashmolean, we come, via the museum’s superb Western Art collection, to Renaissance Italy in the mid-16th century — and focus on a new painting by Titian.
I say ‘new’, for I’m not referring to Titian’s wonderful Portrait of Giacomo Doria, a painting we already know and love, one of the finest and most popular in the Ashmolean’s collection, but an exciting new acquisition — made in perfect timing for the museum’s reopening in November.
The Triumph of Love was painted in the 1540s, but only now, after conservation work at the National Gallery in collaboration with the Ashmolean, has it been proved beyond any doubt that it is a Titian.
While consensus existed that it was a Titian, doubts remained due to its very dirty and over-painted condition. Having been in private collections in Britain since the end of the 18th century, fumes from candles, fires and so on had made it grimy.
After cleaning, Catherine Whistler, curator of Italian paintings at the Ashmolean, could see it was in very good condition, the paint had not lost its freshness.
“Infrared reflectography enabled us to see beneath the picture surface to the underdrawing — and this is so evidently by Titian,” Catherine said. “It is free and spontaneous, showing many changes of mind, like a creative drawing, someone working it out as he went along, not the work of a pupil or a copy.” The painting shows a small figure of Cupid who has just fired an arrow, lightly balancing on the back of a growling lion. He is ‘taming’ it, the picture alluding to the power of the god of love: the power of true love to conquer the wilder, mightier passions.
Virgil’s phrase Omnia Vincit Amor was often used in 16th century allegorical and mythological paintings, and Cupid usually depicted using reins to ride the lion. In this picture Titian responded to the theme with characteristic originality.
He created a striking illusionistic round window with fantasy lagoon and Dolomites in the distance, a playful Cupid, and lion breaking through the ‘window’ into the viewer’s space.
The oil painting, mounted on panel, diameter 88.3 cm, was cut down to a roundel from a taller, possibly rectangular picture at the end of the 17th century, explained Catherine, who researched and reconstructed the painting’s history.
It was made as a cover for another painting. Titian painted it for his friend and patron, the renowned Venetian collector, Gabriel Vendramin whose palazzo on the Rio di Santa Fosca in the heart of Venice was famous for its art and antiquities (he had one room dedicated to Titians).
Covers like this, known as ‘timpani’ in Venice, ‘coperti’ elsewhere, were once common, though few survive or are identifiable today. Thus, the Triumph is a rarity: a surviving, documented timpano.
“It is a fascinating area of art history, but not much researched,” Catherine said. “In the 16th century and earlier, owners of paintings often had covers for them, as protection from dust, dirt, sunlight, possibly for decorum so the painting beneath was not open to everyone’s gaze, or to be discrete about ownership. No-one writes about them at the time, but we know they existed from inventories.”
“Using a cover or curtain prolongs the whole act of viewing,” Catherine continued. “It makes it a sequential act, adding to the collector’s pleasure.
“To me, it’s like a poem. You may get references to beauty or such early on. Then you come bit by bit to what the poem is really conveying. In our picture’s case, you have to have true love on your mind before you uncover and look at the portrait behind.” Coins and medals are an important visual reference. These have a portrait on one side, and on the reverse an emblem or symbol that tells you more about the person. Vendramin had hundreds in his collection. People at that time were used to the idea of portrait and reverse, whether decorated reverses of panel paintings or the reverses of medals. The timpano provided a gloss on the image it covered.
This particular painting acted as a cover for a portrait of a noblewoman by Titian: a lady dressed in black (very expensive at the time) who held her right hand to her chest.
But who was she? “Here we enter the realms of speculation,” Catherine replied. “We know Titian painted a portrait around 1543 of Elisabetta Querini Massola who was famed for her beauty. She had poems written about her. This was normal, a courtly way of behaviour, to praise beauty. She and her husband were patrons of Titian.” The original painting is lost, though there are thought to be one or two copies.
After exhibition at the National Gallery (July 23 - September 20), it will come to its new home, the Ashmolean for November’s reopening. It’ll be in the Italian Renaissance gallery above a display of coins and medals, so that, Catherine hopes, visitors can enjoy making those visual references for themselves.
Titian’s Triumph of Love was accepted by HM Government in lieu of Inheritance Tax and allocated to the Ashmolean Museum for £430,143. It was acquired with the aid of The Art Fund (including a contribution from the Wolfson Foundation), Daniel Katz Ltd, the Friends of the Ashmolean, the Tradescant Group, the Elias Ashmole group, the Virtue-Tebbs, Russell and Madan Bequest Funds, Mr Michael Barclay, the late Mrs Yvonne Carey, the late Mrs Felicity Rhodes and many private donors.