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The Renaissance in Art: Titian's Sacred and Profane Love

Updated on October 30, 2018

A Biography of Titian

The Renaissance, etymologically meaning “re-birth,” was a time period driven primarily by the importance of knowledge, education and art. Tiziano Vecelli/Vecellio, famously known as Titian, painted a 1514/1515 masterpiece Sacred and Profane Love, or l'Amor sacro e l'Amor profano. He epitomizes Renaissance characteristics to its fullest, in which 400 years after his time, scholars and critics continue to remember him. This analysis of Titian’s Sacred and Profane Love will include a brief biography of the artist, the elements of Renaissance characteristics used, an interpretation of the painting by art critic Paul Barolsky, amusing facts, and its commission.

Titian was born in 1488-1490 in an Alps village of Pieve di Cadore, seventy miles north of Venice. Derived from a family of soldiers and lawyers, historians presume that his early infancy was comfortable, yet not lavish. His boyhood was the era of Luther’s Protestantism, and rise of the Spanish empire; an unprecedented period of shockingly tolerant social expression, especially for Venice. One must come to an understanding of 16th century Venice to perceive Titian’s works, since his paintings reflected reality in his personal exposition of life, whether it was graceful or morbid. The art prodigy moved to Venice to become the apprentice of a mosaic designer, Sebastiano Zuccato, at the age of 9 or 10. It was a city where businessmen, refugees, and merchants flocked as many sought a new life of opportunity amidst a quickly developing city. Venice had become so secular that foreigners would paint a portrayal of Venice in their hometown above brothel entrances. The rich hunted artistic talent for commission, in which Titian was an exceptionally popular choice amongst competing painters. Titian’s work is extracted from the depths of a time where Venice provoked and thrilled its citizens. He effectively uses Renaissance elements and techniques, being a Renaissance man at its finest.

Titian is noted by scholars of his perfectionist style and his prodigal talent which forces his works’ interpreters to become mysteriously aroused. One of the artist’s students depicts his passion:

Titian used to turn his pictures to the wall and leave them there without looking at them, sometimes for several months. When he wanted to apply his brush again he would examine them with the utmost rigor, as if they were his mortal enemies, to see if he could find any faults; and if he discovered anything that did not fully conform to his intentions he would treat his picture like a good surgeon would his patient, reducing if necessary some swelling or excess of flesh[…]and if a foot had initially been misplaced correcting it without thinking of the pain it might cost him[…]

Flourishing in juvenescence and young adulthood, Titian befriends and partners with many different Venetian artists whom he gathers unparalleled techniques; the preciseness of mosaicist Zuccato, the realistic approach of the Bellini brothers, and shadows and emotion from Giorgione. His compeers called him “the sun amidst small stars.” Attention had quickly been drawn to his flair, which led to his 1508 commission of the German trade centre, Fondaco dei Tedeschi. The Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, King Philip II of Spain, Queen Mary of Hungary, Pope Paul the III were some of his eminent commissioners, including local powerful nobles or dukes. Titian could have lived luxuriously in his commissioner’s prideful abode, however, he remained in Venice as he found relationships with friends and family to be of utmost value.

Titian was flirty, and had done more with his female models than merely paint them. The nudes he painted in his masterpieces were languish, comparable to the modern Maxim magazines. It is assumed that he married several of them, and through the years their disparate wombs bore four children. Historians have not discovered the identity of these mothers in assurance. Of these children was Titian’s eldest, Pomponio, a rebellious boy who desired a life of risk and worldly amusement; however his heedlessness aggravated the father-son bond. Pomponio’s father wanted him to succeed in a life of priesthood, as many Venetian citizens envisaged nothing but success from Titian and his bloodline. Titian handed his artistic management, affairs and business to Orazio, Pomponio’s younger brother, who always drew near to his father especially during old age. As Titian reached the elderly stages of life, his charisma and flamboyant nature comes to a decline due to tragedies of loss. Cecilia is the more well-known of his wives, who was with Titian in his late days; she died years before him. Lavinia was a graciously feminine and loving daughter who also perished several years after marriage. His painting and diligent work kept his mind active, away from depressive thoughts. He painted only two eld self-portraits, where in one he is represented in a priestly, divine impression; and the other of royalty, in a potentate and glorious stance.

Titian’s paintings further transformed in his latter years, in a style where his work involved hefty strokes of oil paint which added a presence of texture. This technique incorporates a sensation of contour, life, and more importantly, imagery. Thick layers enlarged the painting, where a two-dimensional springtime bud seemed to be in a voluminous full-bloom. His colour mixing became extraordinary, where an orange pigment glistened as if it was gold. Art historian Johannes Wilde describes his eye for colour as:

[…] Split up and dismembered, and have been distributed in small particles all over the picture space[…] Not the smallest point in it has been left neutral; and, potentially, every single brush stroke contains all the colors of the picture.

After a base of colour, his intricacy in finishing touches truly accentuated figures of importance. Many loved him, as Henri the III, king of France visited Titian several years before his death in the mid-1570s, due to the returned Black Death Plague which took the lives of 50 thousand Venetians. He painted a pieta as an exchange for his dying wish; which was to be buried in a chapel in the Frari church in Venice.

Titian's Artistry

Each artist has a means of lasting throughout history, as Da Vinci’s is his development of new art techniques, famously known as the Renaissance characteristics. His skill is distinguished in the Mona Lisa; his astonishing workmanship will never cease. For Titian, it is his ability to create a crisp emotion through his artistry, which resulted in 400 years of artistic and scholarly interpretation of his life and finest art pieces. Titian easily took the Renaissance elements originated by Da Vinci and elevated them in all of his works, especially in his unmatched piece of Sacred and Profane Love. He was a prodigy, of natural talent, never failing at a pencil or brush stroke even as a beginning artist, even as an infant in the womb.

Among such Renaissance characteristics, Titian effectively incorporates many of them in his painting, Sacred and Profane Love. Medieval art was primarily concerned with the use of emboldened and vibrant colours, with backgrounds usually a solid colour like gold. Sacred and Profane Love uses an entire scenery for its backdrop, with a Renaissance technique called Sfumato, where the colours used are of lesser contrast, blended together in a blurred fashion. This gives depth to the painting, where the subjects in the foreground are of clarity while the background is not distinct. The human eye mimics this technique, where objects of focus are clear, while objects that surround are not. Renaissance art highlighted this aspect of realism, which had been unnoticed in the medieval period.

Renaissance art popularized a specific posture called the Contrapposto, in which figures sculpted or painted would suggest the “classical” stance, where one foot is placed in front of the other. Donatello’s bronze statue of David uses this stance, as well as Michelangelo’s marble counterpart. It has become a fashionable position for Renaissance artists’ models; almost all Renaissance paintings integrate this element. Contrary to the medieval art period, medieval figures look flat and stiff, with little creativity in posture. Titian paints the Profane Venus in such a manner where her legs are elegantly crossed, demonstrating the quintessential Contrapposto.

Anatomical study skyrocketed in this era, which influenced Titian’s accurate knowledge in the human body, evident in Sacred and Profane Love. Human subjects in the Renaissance period involved advanced detail in body expression and stance, where nudity was normalized due to the increased educated in anatomy. The Profane Venus, in her nudity, shows Titian’s anatomical expertise. Medieval art models were generally fully covered in stiff cloth as the interest in proper human anatomy was not of any importance to the artist.

Perspective became of artistic trend at the very beginning of the Renaissance revolution. Every architectural building and human corpse always began with perspective lines, which contoured the two-dimensional canvas in a way where the artist could locate points of depth. Brunelleschi, the creator of the Florence Cathedral Dome invented such a technique. Little interest in three-dimensional work had been seen in medieval art subjects, as faces were flat and rigid. Titian’s Renaissance art differs drastically, where the infant Cupid’s face is looking down. Titian efficiently hides part of Cupid’s lips and chin, but emphasizes his nose and forehead. This trick gives an added dimension, where interpreters can agree that Cupid is not simply in a flat dimension; he is looking down. The right side of the Profane Venus’ face is partially hidden and is also smoked in a shadow, while her left side shines in the light, revealing the Renaissance-popularized ¾ facial view. Titian also hides much of Sacred Venus’ left forearm, allowing her hand and fingers to seemingly come out of the page.

The Renaissance period introduced a mass interest in secularism, another Renaissance technique. Subjects painted in the medieval times are usually religious, where important figures are larger than the ones of lesser importance. An example, is the Virgin Mary as the centremost divine figure, and the angels surrounding the immaculate conception would be miniscule in comparison. In Titian’s piece, irreligious, Roman mythological subjects are of his point of interest. Titian’s figures are presumably of two versions of Venus, and cupid, who are not traditional catholic icons. All figures are distributed in proportion, the female subjects of same size, and the baby evidently smaller, reflected from reality, not from varying importance. The nudity as shown in Titian’s interpretation of a profane Venus would have been unseen in the medieval period.

Titian’s Sacred and Profane Love is indisputably a valuable painting of renaissance art, a 16th century masterpiece at its finest. Scholarls, academia and art critics can verify Titian’s prodigal work. The 1998 art analysis of Paul Barolsky unfolds this mysterious piece, where Titian’s exceptional mind comes to light. The Venus is Titian’s subject, where he describes the goddess of love as both sacred and profane. The Sacred Venus demonstrates beauty, grace, and felinity, whereas the Profane Venus releases a rebellious, primitive, sexually animalistic energy. The presence of opposites suggest an affinity between the sacred and the profane, where love (Cupid), sits in between, or must be a perfect mixture of the two elements. In 1613, the century preceding Titian’s time, Sacred and Profane Love was said to be “Beauty Adorned and Beauty Unadorned,” describing the essences of the two opposite women.

The Profane Venus holds the flame of love in her left palm, looking at her earthly counterpart. She is robed in the colour of passion, a fiery red. The Sacred Venus wears a symbol of marriage, a white dress which suggests purity. She wears red undergarments, which connotes a harmony between passion and elegance. The Profane Venus is dominated solely by the passion of herself, love; as Venus is like Aphrodite but a Roman counterpart, the goddess of love. Cupid, the god of erotic desire, sits at the centre of the picture, which reminds its interpreter that “the story of love, inevitably complex, [it] is informed by intense desires and passions, even rage and jealousy.” This painting validates Titian’s immaculate creativity and ability to find an equilibrium between the yin and yang in a simple yet complex projection of colour. The capability to create a piece of provocative imagery is mastered by such an explicit Venetian artist, where many of Venice’s common citizens in his time, including the modern time, cannot comprehend it. Titian is of exceptional breed, where experts even centuries after his death can ascertain Sacred and Profane Love as a masterpiece.

Renaissance artists such as Titian commonly could not paint with their own money, and required a commission from an individual of wealth and status. Sacred and Profane Love is presumed to have been commissioned by Niccolò Aurelio, a secretary to the Venetian Council of Ten to celebrate his marriage to a young widow, Laura Bagarotto.The painting was bought by Cardinal Scipione Borghese in 1608, and has been located in Rome’s Galleria Borghese since 1693 without its original name. Its physical condition is not quite as it had previously been; despite this, it remains a magnificent and timeless painting. The famously rich Jewish Rothschild family offered the Galleria Borghese 4 million Turkish lira, which is equivalent to approximately 654 thousand US dollars for the piece. It came as a surprise to many, as the Galleria held artifacts worth only 3.6 million lira altogether. In modern day, the painting is worth millions of American dollars; its value persists to proliferate.

The condition of its history is faulty, since the authentic name of the painting is not Sacred and Profane Love. The Borghese named it Amor Divino e Amor Profano. Historians do not know exactly the true meaning of Titian’s masterpiece, however its symbols can be speculated as does the famous art critic and author Paul Barolsky in his effective and alluring interpretation. Nonetheless, Sacred and Profane Love represents Titian’s masterly brushstrokes, revealing the epitome of the Renaissance time period, indeed a work of fine artistry.


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