Titian: Painting the myth of Bacchus and Ariadne | National Gallery


Yes, indeed, it is a real pleasure
to talk to you about this painting. I always enjoy talking about it. My name is Matthias Wivel. I am the Curator of 16th century
Italian Paintings here at the Gallery. So, this is one of the pieces
in my care at the moment. It is Titian’s ‘Bacchus and Ariadne’, and it depicts a moment
described in classical poetry. I’ll return to that. It is the moment
when Ariadne and Bacchus meet. Ariadne is the daughter of King Minos, and she helps Theseus defeat the Minotaur, and extract him from the labyrinth
where the Minotaur is on Crete. And then they go off together, a couple. But, immediately, Theseus,
fickle as he is, goes off and abandons her, and you can see that in the picture. Out in the far left, you can see his ship leaving the shore. Ariadne is left behind, and she is distraught,
at least according to Ovid. According to Catullus,
who is the other main source of this, she is furious. So, it’s up to you
to perhaps interpret the emotions going through her in the painting, and Titian looked at both sources. In any case, she’s been abandoned, and then, suddenly,
she hears behind her noise: cymbals, shouts, yells, song, and turns and sees Bacchus,
the God of Wine. He’s returning from India,
where he has had a triumphant visit, and is coming back with a retinue
of revellers and partiers, satyrs, drunken maenads,
and so on and so forth. They’re all depicted here. And at that moment, they see each other, and fall in love. And it’s just
beautifully depicted by Titian. The way that she turns,
like a ballet dancer, to face Bacchus, and her turn is accentuated
by this red scarf that wraps around her. And he, on his chariot,
pulled by two cheetahs, jumps unselfconsciously
from the chariot to her. It’s a slightly awkward jump. He is so taken with her
that he forgets himself, and that’s beautifully depicted. He’s suspended in mid-air in a slightly hazardous leap
from the chariot. And their eyes meet.
This is the moment when their eyes meet. And I think this is the greatest depiction
of love at first sight that I know of. It really captures
the magic of a moment like that. So, that’s the moment
that Titian is going for. Obviously, there is a lot more going on. I will just quickly suggest what happens
after this, and Titian does this… This is always the challenge
when you do a narrative painting: in one image you have to capture a story, and Titian here is doing
a very literary painting. He is referring to stories
told by classical poets. And so, he suggests the before by having
Theseus leave, out on the far left, and he suggests the after
by the constellation up there. That’s the Corona Borealis, the constellation, and it consists of eight stars. It differs in the sources, but what happens
is that because she is a mortal, and she engages with an immortal, a god, obviously, at some point,
she’s going to die. That is inevitably what happens
if you engage with the gods, in general. And some of the sources have him transforming her
into this constellation to perpetuate her in the sky, as a sign of their love. Others have hazarded
that it’s her wedding wreath, the wreath she wears
when she weds Bacchus, that he throws into the sky,
and it turns into these stars. A little background on the painting. It was painted
for Duke Alfonso d’Este of Ferrara between roughly 1520 and 1523. It was delivered to Ferrara in 1523. Titian was a Venetian painter,
and worked in Venice, but visited Ferrara
for this very prestigious commission. It was a commission
that consisted of a series of paintings that Duke Alfonso had originally
commissioned from other artists, the greatest artists of the time: Giovanni Bellini,
Titian’s possible teacher, or at least the greatest inspiration
in his early career. And that was the only Venetian painter. Then the other painters
that he’d commissioned were Florentine, or central Italian. There was Raphael,
Michelangelo, and Fra Bartolomeo. So, really, a murderous row
of the greatest artists at the time. Now, what happened
was that Fra Bartolomeo died. Only did some sketches. Raphael died in 1520.
Also, didn’t do anything. He had also done a sketch,
but it didn’t go anywhere. And Michelangelo,
as usual, didn’t deliver. Michelangelo sometimes delivered,
but often didn’t, and in this case he didn’t, and there was a long correspondence between the Duke and Michelangelo,
but it never worked out. So, actually, Titian ended up
taking over most of the commission. There’s a court painter at Ferrara
who did one of the pictures. Dosso Dossi did one. It’s a lost picture.
We don’t have it any more. But the other pictures,
there’s the Bellini, ‘Feast of the Gods’. It is in the National Gallery
of Washington, and it was later retouched by Titian
to bring it up to… To sort of update its style
to fit with the other paintings. Then it’s the ‘Feast of Venus’
and ‘The Bacchanal of the Andrians’, both in the Prado. And then it’s this. So those are the pictures
that were part of this cycle. They were meant for a small room that Alfonso had set up for himself. Sort of a room where he could retire
to contemplate, or to just enjoy himself. A small room for just enjoyment, for a camerino,
as is described in the sources, and with beautiful objects
where he could retire. So, it’s meant
for quite an intimate setting. Actually, probably, a room
smaller than the one we’re in now. Not much smaller, but somewhat smaller. We try to approximate
that general sense of intimacy, but also quite grand scale, indicated by the painting here. So, that’s the context of the commission. So, Titian was very, very focused on, or very intent on outdoing his peers, and he was always painting
in competition with somebody. And here he got his chance. I mean, he had had
his popular breakthrough in Venice. He was, by this time, quite famous, but he was still fairly young,
and very, very ambitious. And this was his chance to compete
with the greatest artists of the time, not only Bellini, his senior,
in Venetian painting, but also Fra Bartolomeo,
Raphael, and Michelangelo. And, really, this is Titian trying
as hard as you’ll ever see him do. It is immensely detailed. Everything is rendered
with great intention, and real attention to detail really to make the story come to life. The inspiration from Raphael can be seen
very much in the main figure of Bacchus, which is really quite unprecedented. I mean,
even though he’s looking at Raphael, he’s doing something that Raphael
would never have done here. Raphael painted in the Papal Apartments,
the Stanza in the Vatican. He painted ‘The Expulsion of Heliodorus’
with an angel suspended in mid-air, flying, of course, as angels do. And that’s as close to a precedent
as we get from this. But Raphael’s figure is elegant. It’s an angel. It’s an angel expelling
a heathen from the Temple in Jerusalem. Here, as always with Titian, the figure expresses the inner life
and the story. He is suspending a figure in mid-air, but, as I said, it’s a figure who is
maybe going to land very uncomfortably, because he’s thinking of something else. And it’s wonderful, you can almost
feel the breath running through his body. You can feel, sort of, the exhilaration
of these two figures. Her, too. I mean, it’s just always what Titian did with great, great attention
to the inner life of his characters. So, that’s, in a sense,
the Raphael inspiration. He’s also trying something, which of course, was very important
to artists at the time. Artists really wanted to be
at the forefront of what they were doing to integrate classical sources, both literary sources,
as Titian is doing here, and visual sources. That is one of the hallmarks
of what we understand as the Renaissance, is the updating of classical form
to a modern idiom. And this painting, in many ways,
does resemble a Roman relief. It’s organised very much like a relief
with movement from right to left, and then, of course, with the bookend
of Ariadne turning, and dynamising
the other end of the painting. It is this, sort of,
freeze-like composition, but with very
three dimensionally rendered figures, and that is, of course,
something that Michelangelo was great at. And Titian was very aware
of what Michelangelo was doing. Most importantly,
in terms of antique sources here, is this figure with snakes… …wrung around him there. He’s based on the Laocoön,
the famous Laocoön, which had been unearthed in Rome in 1506, and was a sensational discovery,
because it’s described in ancient sources, and here it was, this famous sculpture
that everybody had read about, but nobody had seen,
and suddenly it was there. It’s ‘Laocoön and His Sons’
being killed by snakes. I’m sure you will have seen it. And this is an adaptation.
It’s not a copy of the Laocoön. The arm is very, very close
to the statue in the Vatican. So, Titian is showing his erudition, and then he’s also showing
just his abilities as a painter. And the latter really comes out in the variety of detail
and the attention to detail. The one thing
that most people notice immediately, it’s one of my favourite parts,
of course, are the cheetahs. They’re so lively.
They’re so true to life. And surely not based on… It’s an exotic animal that, obviously,
you wouldn’t find in Italy normally, and often
when you’re doing exotic animals, people would refer to model books,
or other drawings by other people of these kinds of exotic animals. But these are so realistic that they
must have been based on a real animal, and the theory is that Alfonso had
a cheetah in his menagerie at Ferrara, that he had a little zoo. We know he had animals like that, but we
don’t know for sure that he had cheetahs. But also in Ovid it’s described as tigers, and… the cheetahs are not described. So, it could also be
that’s the cat he had available, this fascinating animal. Of course, Bacchus is associated
with the leopard. You often see Bacchus with a leopard skin, so it could also be an awareness
of that association that we have here, but it’s a cheetah, not a leopard. Anyway, that’s a discussion
one could have. But he is associated with that. Other wonderful details
in the picture are… It’s just the sense of play, the sense of abandon,
that these figures… We have Silenus here sleeping on his… Another very realistically
rendered donkey, and he’s sleeping
and he’s going to fall off, because he’s so drunk,
and he’s this fat reveller here. We have these wonderful ladies
with their garments blown by the wind, suggesting their dancing movements. We have the little satyr here in front,
dragging a heifer’s head. There’s also something
unpleasant about it. It does suggest the abandonment… …that Bacchus impersonates. I mean, he’s the God of Wine. He is what happens
when you lose control, in a way, when you consciously lose control, when you drink, when you party. So, there’s a slightly
disturbing undercurrent. I mean, this dismembered animal
right there. There’s a little lapdog… …barking at him,
and he doesn’t notice at all. That dog probably… Examinations of the picture reveal
that it’s a late edition to the painting, and one imagines
that it might actually be Alfonso’s dog that he wanted included in the picture. Another late edition is this beautiful
lemon-yellow piece of cloth down here on which this vessel lies,
this bronze vessel, with Titian’s signature on it. Beautifully arranged with the signature… …accentuated by the fact
that it’s on this yellow piece of cloth. That yellow piece of cloth
is also a late edition, and I think it’s something that Titian
adds to give another accent there. If it weren’t there, it would maybe be
a dull area of the picture, and he really doesn’t want
this picture to be dull. I mean, everything has to be
at a maximum level of interest. Beautiful flowers. We have iris, we have columbine
and we have a caper flower down there, and they’re rendered
with botanical detail. Something that Titian didn’t generally do. It’s quite unusual for him to be that
naturalistic in his rendering of plants. I mean, he did it to an extent,
in this period, but later on he would be more expressive,
and more suggestive in his rendering of such details. And this probably is Titian
being aware of northern painting, especially Albrecht Dürer,
who had visited Venice, I mean, 20 years before, but left an incredibly strong impression
on Venetian artists, and, obviously, had brought all
these famous drawings he did of plants. ‘The Great Piece of Turf’, ‘The Turf’
in the Albertina is the most famous. It’s a piece of grass, but
it’s wonderfully, wonderfully evocative, and detailed and very clear in its visual registration
of what it shows. I think Titian’s also competing
with Dürer here, as if Michelangelo, Raphael
and Fra Bartolomeo weren’t enough. I should maybe say
a little bit more about the sources, because Titian did not read Latin, and would probably not have come up
with this on his own, in a sense. He was friendly with humanists in Venice
and its environs. Lots of very erudite, learned people… …that he knew. Surely the scheme of this room,
which is all based on classical sources, this is the only one
that’s based on a narrative. The others are based
on recreations of paintings described by Philostratus. Like, paintings that existed in antiquity
that we no longer know, that are described, and that Titian
then recreated for Alfonso. And this is probably done,
the scheme is probably devised by a humanist at the Court of Ferrara,
in dialogue with Titian, and Titian reads the sources
in translation, and then decides what to do. But it’s a very literary painting
in a way, but it’s, at the same time,
as I said earlier, gloriously visual and sensual, and I think the sensuality
also really comes out in the landscape. I mean, this is one
of Titian’s great, great specialties, and, really, one of
his great contributions to painting is the way he can
just do an evocative landscape that makes you want to float into it. And if you walk up
close to the painting afterwards, do look at this part of the painting here,
the landscape that you see here. It’s so beautifully rendered.
It’s very, very well preserved. That’s one of the best preserved parts
of the painting. It’s tactile, and the shifting light from the sun,
shooting across these green fields here – it’s really very exquisitely done,
and Titian at his best. And then, of course, receding
towards the blue haze on the horizon. And, actually, one interesting thing
is that this series of paintings was Titian’s first great engagement
with mythological subject matter, and, famously, his other great, I mean, there are several,
but two main ones: this is the first project, and then in the 1550s
through the early ’60s, he painted the famous mythologies
for Philip II, the King of Spain, who, in the latter part of his career,
was his most important patron. And we have two, maybe three of them, at least we have three mythologies
of that period in Room 6,
just on the other side of the Holbein’s. As you know, these very famous paintings that were painted in the 1550s,
same format. And I think Titian at that point,
he was given carte blanche to do a series of mythological paintings
for Philip of Spain. He chose the subject matter himself, probably in consultation
with literary friends, possibly, but it was not stipulated by Philip. Titian chose the same format, and he
did not have a particular space in mind. He was thinking of a space, but he did not
have this particular space in mind, but he had found, I think,
at the time, in the 1510s and ’20s, when he worked in Ferrara,
that this was a format that suited him, and that worked well for
the kind of painting that Philip wanted. Therefore, when you go
and see ‘Diana and Actaeon’, ‘Diana and Callisto’
and ‘The Death of Actaeon’, you will see they’re approximately
the same format. Another thing which is so interesting
about it is that here we have Titian at his most detailed, the most meticulously rendered type
of painting from him. And in those paintings,
it’s his famous later style, where he opened up his brushstrokes,
and had colours merge into a totality
that’s often more suggestive than it is specific. But, actually,
when you see the landscape here, and just compare the landscape
in especially ‘Diana and Actaeon’, you’ll see that there’s real continuity. It’s the same basic procedure. He paints it in the same way,
and it’s very similar. It’s almost 30 years later.
25 years later or something. And it’s very, very similar. There’s a logical progression. Even though one tends
to regard late Titian as quite radical, it’s not radical
in terms of his own development. It’s actually quite logical. And I think the privilege of being able
to see this with those pictures, in the same series of rooms,
is quite wonderful. What else is there to say? I think I will leave you
with those observations, and just, once again, encourage you
to look at the two protagonists. I mean, it really is… It’s a wonderful moment captured. It’s one of these moments
that just burns into your mind. I mean… it is so originally conceived. It looks like
not quite like anything else. I mean, people
have been chasing for prototypes. I mentioned Raphael.
There’s also a Roman sarcophagus… There’s always a Roman sarcophagus when
you talk about Renaissance paintings. There’s always a Roman sarcophagus
with a figure that’s vaguely like it. Even if he just got it
from a Roman sarcophagus, this figure, this wonderful figure, it’s perfectly conceived
for the particular story he wants to tell, and for the emotions
he wants to illicit in the viewer, what he wants us to think about, so that moment is one to savour,
and one to remember. Thank you.

23 thoughts on “Titian: Painting the myth of Bacchus and Ariadne | National Gallery

  1. Due to Titian's immense productivity we are blessed with some wonderful paintings across his entire life and range at the Gallery.

  2. Amazing colour in painting ,I always thought he was flying not jumping , like he had winged feet and to me she is putting her hand up to show that the group are standing in front of a painted background like in a theatre ,even the cheater seems to be standing in front of a reflection .

  3. I love this painting, went to see it today. I am confused by one thing: Theseus' sails seem to be white? Didn't he forget to change them from black and that is why his father Aegeus threw himself off a cliff?

  4. TIZIANO, not Titian….
    You'd like if we, in Italy, should call your president TRUMPO, GEFFERSONIO, BUSCIO, RUSVELTO, CHENNEDI, GIONSON??? (Or Matthias Wievel= Matteo Vivello??)

  5. Agreed, the lectures are wonderful, but more voice alone with focus on the painting would be helpful. Wonderful informative engaging, just would like to be able to digest the paintings along with the informative descriptions.

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