by MARK ARTURO
Alfonso, the Duke of Ferrera, had chosen Raphael to paint a canvas for him. It would be a spirited depiction of the intervention of the god Bacchus to defend a woman, Ariadne, left alone on an island to die by her lover Theseus, the founder of Athens.
The Duke used a go-between to deal with his artists, Jacopo Tebaldi. Raphael died in 1522, and Bellini was right behind him, so the Duke wanted Titian to paint the canvas. This was a problem, since Titian had no intention of doing this.
After no sign of Bacchus and Ariadne, which he had already paid for, the Duke wrote a letter to Jacopo Tebaldi:
Take care to speak immediately to Titian and tell him to do me a portrait as soon as possible and as though it were alive of an animal called gazelle, which is in the house of the most honorable Giovanni Cornaro. It should fill the entire canvas. Attend to this matter diligently and then send it to us immediately advising us of the cost. And remember to send those spice jars, which were supposed to be sent to us some days ago.
By the time Titian made it to Giovanni Cornaro’s, the gazelle was dead and its body had been tossed in the canal.
Titian kept his girlfriend/housekeeper, Cecilia, in a small house near his studio. She was the daughter of the barber from the country, and she bore him three children, losing the last to a miscarriage. Titian named his first son Pompeo.
It so happened that Bellini had once painted a gazelle. Titian went to see it, and pretended he would paint another for the Duke. He never did, and Giovanni Cornaro’s house burned down in a fire a few years later.
The Duke got progressively more impatient:
See to it that you speak to Titian, and tell him from us that when he left Ferrera he promised us many things, and up to now we have not seen that he has kept any of them, and among others he promised to do for us that canvas which we especially expect from him: and because it does not seem to us worthy of him that he should fail to keep his promises, urge him to behave in a way that will not give us cause to be saddened and angered with him, and to make sure above all that we have the above-mentioned canvas quickly.
Ariadne was King Minos’ daughter. She was left on the beach because Athena appeared to Theseus and told him to leave Ariadne and her sister, who had been married to Theseus but preferred her stepson. Theseus left Ariadne even though she had given him the clue that led him out of the labyrinth.
Titian could not concern himself with these events of the distant past. He was distracted by an altarpiece he was preparing for the local legate. Alfonso considered demanding this piece, and the artist was willing to comply for a price. But it was really Bacchus and Ariadne that the Duke wanted. The Duke invited Titian to spend the Christmas holidays with him: would he perhaps consider bringing Bacchus and Ariadne? Titian went to Treviso instead.
The Duke was irritated, but it’s not like there was another master painter handy. On Tebaldi’s suggestion he invited Titian to come with him to Rome and meet with the pope:
Please advise Titian that if he wants to come he must come quickly. We would dearly like his company, but tell him he must not speak of this matter to anyone. And perhaps he should dispatch our picture at his earliest opportunity because there will be no question of his doing any work on our journey.
I myself recently broke off a relationship. I had been thinking about it for awhile, but recently I was at the Museum of Modern Art, and it didn’t feel quite right. Actually, nothing did. I guess that’s why I am thinking about how Bacchus and Ariadne and how art used to be, even if the conclusion is that the profession is not terribly different now from how it was then.
When Theseus returned to Athens, they left his ship in the docks. Ariadne had given him a ball of yarn to find his way out of the labyrinth. He missed her a lot, but he didn’t go back for her.
Neither the Duke nor Titian went to Rome to see the pope. The heat was now on Tebaldi, who began making excuses for the artist. Most were unflattering – Titian spent too much of his time whoring, he spent money too freely and the like. The first part was maybe partially true. The artist loved the attention of women, but he was not known for consummating the delicate pleasure of flirtation. It was actual work that prevented him from doing what the Duke asked, as well as, perhaps, a lack of inspiration.
At this point the Duke was apoplectic and Titian knew it. He told Tebaldi that “if Christ were to offer him work he would not accept anything if he had not finished your canvas first.”
Ariadne waited on the island called Naxos for some time. Bacchus took pity on her and when he married her, he gave the woman a golden crown. (Better to be married to a god than a man.) The way she looks at him when he saves her lets you know that she is actually the one saving him, a concept that is integrated into the various majority of wedding toasts I have heard recently. By the time Titian had his first daughter, he was married to Cecilia.
When Cecilia was critically ill and in labor with Titian’s fourth child, he hastily married her so that his sons would be acknowledged as his own. She recovered and lived five more years. The Duke married as well, his second such arrangement, to Lucrezia Borgia.
After Bacchus and Ariadne, Titian spent the vast majority of time working on portraits for his wealthy patrons. According to his closest friend Aretino, he could finish them “as quickly as another could scratch the ornament on a chest.” I have always hated Titian’s portraits. The Duke may have been impatient, but he did wait. If the painting wasn’t worth the time it took, he would not have waited.
Mark Arturo is the senior contributor to This Recording. He is a writer living in Manhattan. You can find an archive of his writing on This Recording here.
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