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Titian’s Women: Applying Modern Social Norms To The Renaissance

August 19, 2021
A woman and animals in a landacpe

Titian – Rape of Europa

In 1896, Boston socialite and art collector Isabella Stewart Gardner purchased Titian’s Rape of Europa from the Earl of Darnley. Bought for $100,000 (or about $3.2 million today), it was considered the museum’s greatest painting in an American collection. For many experts, The Rape of Europa is still the greatest Renaissance work in the United States. It was created in 1562 as the last installment of a series of six paintings commissioned by the King of Spain, Philip II. They are commonly referred to as Titian’s poesie, or poetry transferred to the canvas. The collection of works was only together for about 17 years, as one of them was given as a gift to one of the king’s advisors in 1579. Two of them are now in London: Danaë at the Wellington Museum, while Perseus & Andromeda sits in the Wallace Collection. Two others, Diana & Callisto and Diana & Actaeon, belong to the National Galleries of Scotland in Edinburgh. The sixth, Venus & Adonis, belongs to Madrid’s Museo del Prado. The National Gallery in London also has a seventh painting, The Death of Actaeon, which was never presented to Philip. The entire series uses subjects from classical mythology, pulling primarily from Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

All six works were reunited in a show at London’s National Gallery earlier this year, with The Rape of Europa leaving the United States for the first time since it arrived in Boston 125 years ago. The show later moved to the Prado and has now arrived at the Gardner Museum in Boston under the name “Titian: Women, Myth & Power”. For many, this is the first time that artists, critics, and the public can properly see The Rape of Europa. At the Gardner Museum, the painting has always customarily been displayed rather high up on the gallery wall, but it has now been brought down to eye level. Furthermore, the reunion has allowed the painting to be cleaned for the first time in a long while. It had previously been covered in a film of smoke and dust after spending years near one of the fireplaces in Gardner’s house.

More than one critic has referred to the painting series as “sensual”, which may be a bit of an understatement given the amount of exposed female flesh. The story of Europa revolves around the Roman god Jupiter disguising himself as a snow-white bull to seduce her. She climbs on his back, and he carries her off, galloping across the ocean to Crete. In Titian’s rendition, Europa clutches to one of the bull’s horns as she tries to stay on his back. Her robes are sliding off, exposing her breast, with her legs clumsily spread in her effort to maintain her balance. It is important to note that the eponymous rape comes from the Latin raptus or rapere, meaning to seize or capture. While Titian’s definition may be different than the modern one, the implication of what followed is more than clear. In this reunion, the Gardner Museum has displayed this canvas right beside Perseus’s rescue of Andromeda. She is chained to a cliff, wearing only a length of silk fortuitously fluttering in the wind to cover her pelvis. Her parents, the king and queen of Aethiopia, have chosen to sacrifice her to the sea monster sent by Neptune to ravage their coast. The bare basic details will be familiar to anyone who has watched Clash of the Titans, either the original or the 2010 remake of “Release the Kraken” fame. In the background of Titian’s piece, Perseus battles the monster wielding a hooked sword, flying above the beast with the aid of Mercury’s winged sandals.

At the Gardner, Perseus & Andromeda and The Rape of Europa are now displayed side by side on the same gallery wall, which seems fitting since they both revolve around the similar theme of women in distress. Two other paintings have also been paired together in their display, both depicting episodes from the life of the goddess Diana. In one, the hunter Actaeon stumbles upon Diana and her nymph companions bathing in a stream. While not shown, the story goes that Diana punishes Actaeon by turning him into a stag to be ripped apart by his own hounds. Hanging right beside Diana & Actaeon is Diana & Callisto. In the myth, one of Diana’s companions, Callisto, becomes pregnant by Jupiter, and the painting shows Diana ordering her nymphs to tear her clothes off to reveal this.

Now, one of our primary tasks as viewers is to determine for ourselves what Titian meant to convey in these works. These could just be a great artist using classical mythology combined with his talent to perhaps amuse a young prince known for his sexual prowess. Or was he, as Lloyd Schwartz commented, creating somewhat of a cautionary tale “warning him against the danger of royal sexual overdrive?” Whatever the answer, Holland Cotter of the New York Times made a refreshing and nuanced overview of how these works can be viewed today. While the paintings’ display at the Gardner has highlighted some of their shared themes and other similarities, almost all the works in the series have something in common. Not only is the nude female form omnipresent, but the women themselves play a specific role: the object of lustful desire. While in some of the scenes, they remain as just the focus of the male gaze, in others, like The Rape of Europa, men act upon those desires. Half of the paintings (Diana & Callisto, Danaë, and The Rape of Europa) show Jupiter’s forceful impregnation of multiple women. Cotter highlights the problem posed by Titian’s works, that “the whole cycle, with its repeated images of gender-based power plays and exposed female flesh, invites #MeToo evaluation, and raises doubts about whether any art, however ‘great,’ can be considered exempt from moral scrutiny.

While ‘cancel culture’ has become an overworked buzzword nowadays, is it appropriate or even possible to apply such analysis to artworks created almost 500 years ago? Are these just paintings, or are they historical texts that warrant analysis without judgment? Of course, Titian is hardly the only artist who teased the male imagination. The naked female form has been used as an artistic subject from the Venus of Willendorf all the way to the works of Picasso, Kahlo, Hopper, and Balthus. Furthermore, this kind of scene, what Dahlia Balcazar has referred to as “the heroic rape tradition of Western art”, has been used as a subject by Titian, Rubens, Bernini, David, and many others. Yeah, Jupiter was a serial philanderer and a rapist. The details of the stories have not changed. But using the gift of retrospect, some are justifiably asking if this is permissible now. Is it acceptable for a scene of sexual assault to not only be depicted with the beauty that Titian shows us in his Danaë, but to also be celebrated as a masterwork? Schwartz ended his commentary by invoking Aristotle, and how conversations like these will often concern themselves with how beauty and terror are often inseparable. But does that assumption still hold water?

By: Nathan Scheer