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Titian's Sexy Danae, His Portraits for the Farnese and the Sacred Profane Rome of Pope Paul III

Updated on March 21, 2015
Titian, Danae (1544-1546) - detail, Naples Capodimonte Museum
Titian, Danae (1544-1546) - detail, Naples Capodimonte Museum | Source

Titian Travelling to Rome

At the end of September 1545, the Venetian Master Tiziano Vecellio (Titian), who had always been reluctant to leave Venice, decided to move to the papal court in Rome. He stayed there, welcomed with honour, for some months (exactly until March 1546) engaged in the portraits for the Pope and his familiars.

From the beginning of the century, when Julius II had reinforced the policy inaugurated by his predecessors for the renovation and the decoration of the city, Rome was the European capital of the art, with no doubt. The current Pope, Paul III, born Alessandro Farnese, had been elected ten years before at the age of 66. Despite he had been striving throughout all the life to improve the fortune of his family, he had begun significant works to make the city even more majestic. He was a man of the Renaissance, contemporary to Michelangelo and he had a great faith in the power of the art.

Rapahel, Portrait of the Cardinal Alessandro Farnese  (1512), Naples Capodimonte Museum - The cardinal Alessandro Farnese Senior, who will become Pope in 1534, with the name of Paul III, was portrayed by Raphael at the age of 44
Rapahel, Portrait of the Cardinal Alessandro Farnese (1512), Naples Capodimonte Museum - The cardinal Alessandro Farnese Senior, who will become Pope in 1534, with the name of Paul III, was portrayed by Raphael at the age of 44 | Source

The relationship between Titian and the Farnese had begun some years before, in 1542, when the artist had done an admirable portrait of the young Ranuccio Farnese, son of Pier Luigi and grandson of the Pope. Titian had gained a consolidated fame of portraitist, working for the great characters of the European aristocracy, first of all the Emperor Charles V, immortalized with his dog in a portrait that had surprised all the European rulers. The elder brother of Ranuccio, the cardinal Alessandro Farnese Junior, knew the importance that a well executed portrait could have for the image of the family. Exactly in those years, the Pope was attempting the reckless operation of detaching the Duchy of Parma and Piacenza from the State of the Church, to assign it to his son Pier Luigi. The power of the family, a sort of new Borgia, was growing and needed to be celebrated.

On the other hand, Titian had good practical reasons to cultivate the benevolence of the cardinal Alessandro. He had put his eyes on the benefice of a rich abbey (San Pietro in Colle in Cenedese) for his son Pomponio, who had been initiated to the ecclesiastic career. But the benefice was occupied and discharging the owner was not an easy job. The cardinal Alessandro could be a powerful ally in this affair.

Rome around 1490
Rome around 1490 | Source

A Sexy Danae for a Worldly Cardinal

Monsignor Della Casa, apostolic nuncio in Venice and refined man of letters, is the intermediary between Titian and the cardinal Alessandro. In a letter to the cardinal, he describes the painting to which Titian is working, by words able to arouse the interest of every man. The painting, commissioned by the cardinal, is a nude Danae in the act of receiving the love of Jupiter featuring one of his most original disguises: golden rain. Della Casa’s words express eloquently how the mythological episode is just a pretext to represent an attractive scene of nude. “A nude” he says describing the painting “that would light a devil on the cardinal San Sylvestro”. The cardinal San Silvestro is a Dominican theologian so old to be supposed completely indifferent to the attractions of the flesh. He continues “the nude you saw in the rooms of the Duke of Urbino is a “teatina” compared to this one”. The nude to which Della Casa is referring is the famous Venus of Urbino, painted by Titian ten years before for the Duke of Urbino, Guidobaldo II della Rovere. The Teatini were a religious order aimed to restore in the Church the principles of the Apostolic life. In fact, reading this letter addressed to a cardinal, son of a son of the Pope, we could be induced to think that such a restoration was urgently needed….

Titian, Danae (1544-1546), Naples Capodimonte Museum
Titian, Danae (1544-1546), Naples Capodimonte Museum | Source

Anyway, let us give an insight to this provocative Danae. Titian brought the canvas with him in his travel to Rome to give it to the cardinal. It is well known that Michelangelo and Vasari, visiting Titian, could see the painting in the palace of Belvedere, where he was housed. Michelangelo, as Vasari reports in his book, praised it very much publicly – i.e. at the presence of Titian – but in private – i.e. alone with Vasari – complained that Venetian painters did not learn to draw, still admitting Titian’s sapient use of the colour. In fact, two opposite worlds were in comparison. The plastic world of Michelangelo, where the drawing and the colours that render the plasticity of the bodies are intended to represent a concept, a piece of history. The world of Titian, built in the colour, near to the nature and to the emotion more than to the history.

Titian, Venus of Urbino (1538), Florence Galleria degli Uffizi
Titian, Venus of Urbino (1538), Florence Galleria degli Uffizi | Source

The radiographies of the painting demonstrate that Titian had initially conceived a scene similar to the Venus of Urbino, with a small figure in the background recalling the servant in the Venus. He successively cancelled this presence, putting the glimpse of a shaded landscape in place of it, to concentrate the attention on the Danae’s body and to accentuate the sensuality of the scene. The clear body of the woman is emphasized by the dark background, the light illuminating the body gives it a consistency that is transmitted to the observer. A curiosity: Danae wears a small ring on the little finger, as the Venus does.

Titian has conferred another significant variation to the scheme of the Venus. Here the woman is not represented in a lying position, passive with respect to the around environment. She is reclining, one might say as the Night in the Michelangelo sculpture for the Medici’s Tomb, but animated by a sensuality that is completely absent there. She is depicted on the white sheets of an unmade bed, while offering herself to the incoming rain that appears as a dark cloud over her, enhancing even more the clearness of her body. It is evident to everyone, to the cardinal first of all, that the mythological episode is by far overcome by the free eroticism of the representation, which is also suggested by the presence of Love on the right side.

Rapahel, Portrait of Julius II (1503), London National Gallery
Rapahel, Portrait of Julius II (1503), London National Gallery | Source

Portraits for the Farnese

The tradition of the papal portraits had been inaugurated by Raphael. He portrayed Julius II sitting on the chair which, as a throne, represented his power. But the expression of the old Pope, who will die two years later, transmits a mixture of energy, authority and transcendence, as he were already looking afterlife, how no word could do. To notice that Raphael, before portraying Julius II, had made the portrait of a young and ambitious Alessandro Senior (i.e. the first cardinal Alessandro Farnese, the future Pope Paul III) wrapped in the red of his cardinal dress.

Raphael, Portrait of Leo X with the Cardinals Giulio de' Medici and Luigi de' Rossi (1518-1519), Florence Galleria degli Uffizi
Raphael, Portrait of Leo X with the Cardinals Giulio de' Medici and Luigi de' Rossi (1518-1519), Florence Galleria degli Uffizi | Source

Seven years later, in 1518, Raphael depicts Leo X, the first of the three Popes from the Medici family. The placid expression of this young Pope, aged only 43 at the date of the portrait, can not be compared to that one of Julius II, but he receives authority by the same simple and regal pose than his predecessor and by the same chair. The Pope is portrayed with his relations, the cardinals Giulio de’ Medici and Luigi de’ Rossi, who participate the spiritual power of the Pope, but are figured on foot, beside the Pope, as satellites of his authority.

After the death of Raphael in 1520, Titian looked to be the artist most able to communicate a sentiment through a portrait. He had already executed a splendid portrait of the young Ranuccio Farnese, the fourth son of Pierluigi, nominated cardinal by his grandfather Paul III at the age of fifteen, with some scandal because in this way the Farnese had two contemporary cardinals, thing never seen even under the Borgia. Anyway, Ranuccio (1530-1565) is considered a man of culture, protector of the arts and righteous. Titan portrayed him in 1542. The boy wears the mantle of the Knights of the Order of Malta and starves slightly down, featuring an expression of respect, pride and intelligence at the same time.

Titian, Portrait of Ranuccio Farnese (1542), Washington National Gallery of Art
Titian, Portrait of Ranuccio Farnese (1542), Washington National Gallery of Art | Source
Titian, Portrait of Paul III (1543), Naples Capodimonte Museum
Titian, Portrait of Paul III (1543), Naples Capodimonte Museum | Source

One year later, Titian portrays the Pope Paul III during his staying in Northern Italy. He inspires explicitly to the founder of the papal portraits, Raphael’s Julius II, however with some little but significant deviations. Paul III is portrayed without the headgear: this increases the expressiveness of his face. His right hand is not resting on the arm of the chair, enhancing the movement of the Pope toward the observer. The purple of his mantle covers the back of the chair and forms a sort of pyramid which drives the attention towards the face of the Pope, at the vertex.

Titian, Portrait of Charles V with His Dog (1533), Madrid Prado Museum
Titian, Portrait of Charles V with His Dog (1533), Madrid Prado Museum | Source

Pope Paul III and his Combative Grandchildren

The work that Titian was now attending in Rome, under the direction of the cardinal Alessandro, was more delicate. The Farnese family was going through a crucial step. The Pope had convoked the council of Trent, intended to contrast the Protestant Reformation. The attempt of assigning the Duchy of Parma and Piacenza to the Farnese had been successful. Paul III had designated his son Pier Luigi, conductor of the pontifical army, as the Duke of the new state, in August 1545. However this decision had aroused the discontent of Charles V, who would have preferred the choice of his son in law Ottavio (Ottavio, son of Pier Luigi, had married a natural daughter of Charles V, Margaret of Austria). Of course, Ottavio too had not appreciated the move of his grandfather.

In the minds of Alessandro Junior and his grandfather, the new portrait had to send a message to the world and to the family. But what message or what messages? The inspiration model had to be the portrait of Lion X: the Pope sun and two ancillary relations in his orbit. However, here the message had to become more subtle. Alessandro is interested to state the new leaders of the family. They are Alessandro himself and his brother Ottavio, but with a distinction. As a cardinal, Alessandro is admitted to share the spiritual experience of the Pope, he and the Pope are in the same sphere, though at two distinct levels. Ottavio is the heir of the temporal power of the family and he is subordinated to the power of the Pope. The great absent in the portrait is Pier Luigi, but he was ill and enjoyed such a bad name to be not presentable. He had a separated portrait by Titian, in armour as it was suitable for a warrior as he was.

Titian, Portrait of Paul III with the Grandchildren (1546), Naples Capodimonte Museum
Titian, Portrait of Paul III with the Grandchildren (1546), Naples Capodimonte Museum | Source

Titian had only a few months to give life to his portrait. He was used to sketch the masses of colours on the canvas and to return to work with it after a long time. The Pope is at the centre of the scene, sitting on the classic seat from which he exercises his spiritual power. There is a significant particular to notice about the position of the pontiff. He is not figured behind the table, but beside it, because his red shoe had to be well visible to the observer, to remember the episode of 14 years before in Bologna, when the Pope Clemens VII and the Emperor Charles V met to renovate their alliance and the Emperor bowed to kiss the foot of the Pope.

Titian, Equestrian Portrait of Charles V (1548), Madrid Prado Museum
Titian, Equestrian Portrait of Charles V (1548), Madrid Prado Museum | Source

Only one colour is used throughout the canvas: the red of the Church that Titian declines in all his nuances. The cardinal Alessandro and his brother Ottavio are not at the same level. The first one is behind the table and has a hand on the back of the chair. He participates the same world of the pontiff and, moreover, he candidates to the succession of the Pope. The second one, Ottavio, represents the temporal power and is not admitted to the sphere that the Pope shares with Alessandro. Noteworthy detail, he is figured in the act of bowing to the Pope. This representation is a warning toward the Emperor, meaning the subordination of the temporal power to the spiritual one. But it is also a message of peace: Ottavio, the son in law of Charles V, and not Pier Luigi, is the designated heir of the family’s temporal interests (the Duchy of Parma and Piacenza). Maybe it is not a coincidence that two years later a conspiracy by Charles V will kill Pier Luigi.

The work of Titian was highly appreciated by Alessandro and the Pope and they are ready to remunerate him. A short time after his return to Venice, Titian learns that Giulio Sertorio, the legitimate holder of the benefice strongly wished by Titian, is ready to renounce to it. Moreover, Titian is invited to Rome by Alesandro to assume a new remunerative office. But in the same days, he is called to Augsburg by Charles V, to celebrate the victory of the Emperor against the protestant army. About the benefice, unfortunately for Titian, other powerful suitors had arised meanwhile and the artist will never be able to get his hands on it.

Michelangelo, Conversion of Saul (1542-1545) Vatican Palaces Cappella Paolina
Michelangelo, Conversion of Saul (1542-1545) Vatican Palaces Cappella Paolina | Source

Other Artists at the Court of the Farnese

Titian arrived to Rome in the autumn of 1545 and returned to Venice in the spring of 1546. In the same period, other artists received commissions, sacred and profane, by the Farnese. The “divine” Michelangelo, who had just finished the Last Judgement in the Sistine Chapel, was working to the decoration of the Cappella Paolina, completed a few years before by Antonio da Sangallo the Young, appointed architect of all the Vatican constructions. The Florentine Giorgio Vasari, author of the famous book about the Lives of the Artists, had completed the frescoes of a hall in the Palazzo della Cancelleria in a record time. The room passed into history as the Sala dei Cento Giorni (Hall of One Hundred Days) because of the amazing rapidity in the execution of the works rather than their quality. Antonio da Sangallo, again, was sweating to give a form to the façade of the St. Peter’s Basilica, the greatest construction in progress in Rome in those years.

Michelangelo, Crucifixion of St. Peter (1546 - 1550), Vatican Palaces Cappella Paolina
Michelangelo, Crucifixion of St. Peter (1546 - 1550), Vatican Palaces Cappella Paolina | Source

Paul III is the last Pope of the Renaissance. He had a great confidence in the value of the art and did not hesitate to confirm to Michelangelo the commission for the Last Judgement in Sistine Chapel, in 1536 after the death of Clemens VII. Moreover, he wanted his own chapel, to counterbalance the fame gained by Sixtus IV with the Sistine Chapel. He commissioned the project of the Cappella Paulina to Antonio da Sangallo and appointed Michelangelo to the decoration of the walls. Despite the attacks the artist had received for the nudity in the Last Judgement, he left him free to interpret the subjects chosen for the two frescoes in the chapel: the Conversion of Saul and the Crucifixion of Saint Peter. The old Master, also engaged with the never ending works for the tomb of Julius II, took nearly ten years to complete the frescoes. The figures depicted in the two scenes have the same strength than the Sistine Chapel’s frescoes, but they did not have the same success, probably also because they feature a tormented vision not more aligned with the ideals of the Counter Reformation expressed by the Council of Trent.

In the occasion of the visit of the Emperor Charles V in Rome, in 1536, he inaugurated a trend that will make school: destroying the poor buildings of the Christian period (including the churches) to put in evidence the monuments of the Roman era. He wanted to impress the dominator of the European policy with the extraordinary heritage that the current Rome could vaunt.

Antonio da Sangallo, Project for the Basilica of St. Peter (a. 1545)
Antonio da Sangallo, Project for the Basilica of St. Peter (a. 1545) | Source
Saint Peter under construction, in an engraving of 1536
Saint Peter under construction, in an engraving of 1536 | Source

Meanwhile, the works for the immense St. Peter’s Basilica, initiated by the other great patron of the art Julius II, were going on, under the direction of Antonio da Sangallo, who had materialized his project by mean of an accurate wood model of the church, still on display in the rooms under the Basilica’s roof. Antonio da Sangallo was also the architect of the private palace of the Farnese family that was becoming one of the most magnificent palaces in Rome and also in this occasion he was substituted by Michelangelo at his death. The palace had been bought by the first cardinal Alessandro Farnese, the future Pope, around 1512. The restoration works, interrupted by the Sack of Rome, were carried out and concluded by his grandson, the cardinal Alessandro Junior, more than 50 years later.

Palazzo Farnese in the XVIII century in an engraving by Giuseppe Vasi
Palazzo Farnese in the XVIII century in an engraving by Giuseppe Vasi | Source

A story says a lot about how the times were changing. The cardinal Alessandro Farnese Junior was preparing the festivities for the wedding of his sister Vittoria, beautiful, they say, as her grandmother Giulia, who had been the lover of the Pope Alexander VI Borgia. Since the construction of the Palazzo Farnese had not been completed yet in the spring of 1546, Alessandro decided to celebrate the wedding in his own palace, the Palazzo della Cancelleria, near to Campo de’ Fiori. This palace had been built by the cardinal Riario della Rovere, apparently thanks to a fabulous winning at dice. Alessandro called Giorgio Vasari for the decoration of the hall at the main floor, requiring him to complete the frescoes within one hundred days. Giorgio Vasari tackled the job, they say, with more assistants than brushes, but he was able to meet the commitment. Proud of this performance, he showed Michelangelo his works, underlining that it took him only one hundred days to complete his task. Michelangelo answered laconically only “I see….”. However, Alessandro Farnese was completely satisfied with this result and the hall that certainly is not a Renaissance masterpiece, is still known as the Sala dei Cento Giorni. Fifty years later, yet another cardinal of the family, Odoardo Farnese, called Annibale Carracci for the decoration of the Palazzo Farnese’s Gallery, giving life to a masterpiece of the nascent Baroque. But this is another story.

© 2015 Massimo Viola


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