#TitianLive: ‘Diana and Actaeon’ and ‘Diana and Callisto’ | National Gallery

Hello my name is Matthias Wivel, I’m the
Curator of 16th century Italian Paintings at the National Gallery in
London. Welcome to this series of 5 live transmissions on Titian’s so called ‘poesie’
of which we’ll be talking about two today: the ‘Diana and Actaeon’ over here and the ‘Diana and Callisto’ over here. These are part of the series of six mythological paintings that Titian painted for Philip II, King of Spain in the 1550s and
early 1560s. They are amongst the most significant
paintings in the history of art in Europe They influenced generations of
painters and appreciators of art and were dispersed in
subsequent centuries from the Spanish Royal Collection and went to
various distinguished collections across Europe and ultimately America and
this series of transmissions is in preparation for their reunification very
soon, starting at the National Gallery in London then going to the Scottish National Gallery, where we are
today, and then to the Prado in Madrid, coming back to the Spanish Royal
Collection and ultimately to the Isabella Stewart Gardner
Museum in Boston. This will be the first time they’re seen together since the
later 16th century so it’s a really remarkable event and one we’re very
proud of presenting to you. I’m here with my colleague Aidan Weston-Lewis,
Chief Curator at the Scottish National Gallery and turn over to him. Thank you. Yes, well we’re very fortunate in having had these two great pictures on display
in the Gallery for most of the time since the end of the Second World War.
They were placed on loan here as part of the incomparable Bridgewater Collection
of Old Master paintings in 1945 and remained on permanent display
until an opportunity arose in 2009 to acquire the paintings. A huge sum of
money was understandably involved for such celebrated pictures and we
partnered with our colleagues in London to successfully acquire them. The second
was acquired in 2012 and they now rotate every few years between display in
Edinburgh and display in London and they will be a core element in this wonderful
forthcoming exhibition that Matthias has just described. I will say a few words
initially, a closer look at the ‘Diana and Actaeon’ painting. They were very much
conceived as a pair, these two pictures, but, in common with the other paintings
in the series, the basic source for Titian’s pictures were accounts in the
classical authors, classical mythology, principally Ovid’s ‘Metamorphoses’.
Titian didn’t really have any Latin and fortunately for him
Ovid’s ‘Metamorphoses’ was translated into a number of Italian
editions during the course of the 16th century including one by a
close friend and supporter of his, Lodovico Dolce, and it meant that he could have access, as it were, to the stories
but very interestingly… – And this is why they are called ‘poesie’ right? – Exactly. They’re called ‘poesie’ because it basically means that they’re painted
poems, they’re painted illustrations of these classical favors but equally,
Titian being Titian, he was rather assertive and an independent character
and he doesn’t follow slavishly the classical literary accounts and in fact
he varies those stories quite significantly and alters the narrative
setting in ways that I shall describe in a moment. The basic story is that the beautiful young huntsman, Actaeon, after a
successful morning’s hunt is struck down by the heat of the day and he enters a
cool grove in Arcadia, in the countries over there, and he stumbles inadvertently
upon Diana, the goddess of the hunt and of the moon and of chastity, and a band
of her nymphs bathing at a spring and witnesses them naked. This is an affront
to Diana’s vow of chastity: the fact that she’s been seen naked. Actaeon is subjected, as a result, to
her wrath. He is actually transformed into a stag and he’s subsequently torn apart by
his own hunting dogs and killed, one of whom is visible here in the corner of
the painting, a beautiful detail. Ovid describes this scene as a completely
natural wilderness with a kind of natural, arched cave whereas Titian
deliberately does something opposite to that. Instead of a natural setting he
introduces these kind of ruined grotto arches into his setting and a rather
unstable big fountain basin here in which they’re bathing which is
clearly a man-made thing and it’s the sort of opposition, what they would have
called a ‘paragon’ in Italian at the time, that he loved to engage in; Ovid says one
thing, he does another and he indulges beautifully in these contrasts of
textured surfaces in his painting. Ovid describes Diana’s nymphs as, as
soon as they’re aware of Actaeon’s intrusion they jump up and they surround
Diana in a cluster to protect her from his gaze. Of course Titian does
something very different He doesn’t do that at all. He actually shows a series of her nymphs looking rather
relaxed in a variety of quite appealing poses really chosen, I think, to
emphasize their variety: one seen from the back, one sitting down, one hiding
behind the column in the center and he also introduces rather cleverly a suggestion of his ultimate fate in the sense that there’s a stag’s head
and some stag skins, there’s some deer skins, suspended in the branches up above
the group of figures. Matthias, is there anything you want to add to that? – I mean, it’s just wonderful how Titian uses this story to, as you say, show beautiful
women in different kinds of poses and he actually writes to Philip that that’s
what he’s going to do, he’s promising that he’s going to show him a variety of
women in different poses. These are very erotic pictures, these are pictures about
desire and about looking and this perhaps, more than any of them, is about
looking. It is about this forbidden view that Actaeon has when he draws the
curtain and sees these women but inadvertently that he’s not supposed to
see and I think what Titian really managed to evoke is the youthful
innocence of Actaeon and, to me at least, his unawareness of his own
beauty and this proves to be his undoing. He’s stumbled into something where he’s not supposed to be and I think there’s that sense of
fatality to it that gives it… It’s not just enjoyable to look at, there’s
this dark undercurrent of something more problematic. – The whole series centres
around this kind of dynamic between the gods and mortals and how particularly
the mortals can end up as innocent victims, if you like, of their supreme
power of the gods and in both of these pictures in fact Diana exacts a pretty
severe revenge on, effectively, innocence and the bigger
story there, of course, is that it’s humanity, the impossibility of as it
were, challenging bigger issues…fate, that we all have to address so they’re bigger
stories behind what are really very beautiful displays of artistry. Of course,
one sees Titian is famous for his wonderful colour, for his very varied and
beautiful brushwork and we see this here in spades in terms of his
wonderful description of the reflections in the water, the bubbling spring was
beautifully painted Murano glass vessel with gilt decoration, the
mirror that the figures are holding and then the Crimson drapery and the
very, very beautiful use in the background of rich
ultramarine for the mountains which is one of the most expensive pigments that
could be used. Venice, of course, is the… there’s a massive trading nation with
huge trading links with the Middle East and beyond the Silk Road and most of
these very expensive pigments were imported from those sources into Venice so Venetian painters had the pick of the pigments to work with. – Titian really made
the most of it. I mean, it is about sensing. He’s all about bodily sensation,
about seeing things, but also about feeling them and about giving us more
than just a visual experience here but a tactile, a physical experience, and I
think the texturing of the paint, the colours, that you so
beautifully describe, all contribute to that and these are very bodily
paintings in that sense. I also maybe should just point out this. It’s
interesting also that he is somebody who pays attention to people and there’s a black servant of African origin
here right next to Diana which provides an interesting contrast in terms of
their skin tone with Diana’s very pale skin next to
her darker skin and I think he’s… Venice is a very cosmopolitan city at
this point, perhaps the most cosmopolitan in Europe, and does have a population of
people of African origin and I think… I mean it’s unclear but I think
she has a very specific physiognomy and I think she is probably a real person
that he hired to sit for him. He’s paying attention to people and he wants to
bring in a person so I think he’s based this servant here on a person. – A huge amount of technical analysis on these paintings is being conducted, partly in
the run-up to the exhibition, and very interestingly x-ray and infrared images
show that the black maidservant in this picture actually was
originally shown as a white nymph and that was a relatively late change.
Probably, I think, actually just to expand the variety. Titian was really keen to
show as much variety, as much contrast, as much dynamic, if you like, between these
things in his paintings as possible and I think that’s probably why she was
introduced. It may be she’s black also to distinguish her from the other nymphs
who are part of Diana’s hunting companions whereas she’s probably
actually shown as a maidservant… – It reflects the role
of people of African descent often at this time. They were often in
kind of menial positions. – Many of the features you’ll see in this picture of
course that we’ve just been looking at are common to ‘Diana and Callisto’ and Matthias, I think, is going to dig a little further into this one. – Yeh, so in a way this story that Titian is telling here also comes from Ovid and it complements the story we’ve just talked about. It’s not the direct
continuation of the story – there’s another painting that does that, that is also going to be in the exhibition but not part of this series because it’s not one of the pictures that Titian sent to Philip
but this kind of continues. We see the consequences of transgression in this
painting. This is the story of Callisto here She is one of Diana’s nymphs. One day Jupiter, the King of the Gods, he is out sort of revivifying the landscape, as gods do, he’s filling empty rivers and
so on…He sees this beautiful nymph and lusts after her and then he transforms
himself to look like her mistress, Diana, and approaches her so she won’t be
afraid of him but as soon as he gets close he transforms back to his
true appearance and rapes her so she becomes pregnant and because
Diana’s nymphs are supposed to be chaste it’s a big sin for them to
be pregnant, she’s not supposed to do that. So she doesn’t tell
her fellow nymphs or her mistress that she’s pregnant. Then nine months later they’re bathing in a spring, and that’s the scene
we see here, and she starts blushing and won’t take off her clothes and the other
nymphs start suspecting something so they tear off her clothes
violently and this is what we see here: the nymphs tearing off her clothes, exposing her
pregnancy down here, and that of course is unforgivable so Diana banishes
Callisto from the group and she’s sent into the wilderness and, subsequent
to this story, she is then turned into a bear and roams the landscape for many
years and ultimately meets her son, Arcas, who is out hunting and he’s just
about to kill her with his bow and arrow but then Jupiter sees that
and takes mercy and transforms them into two constellations in the sky.
That’s past what we see here. -It was Jupiter’s jealous wife, Juno, who
transformed her into a bear so it’s again another goddess inflicting a
punishment on an innocent nymph, ultimately because she’s angry with her
husband for having been unfaithful. – Yes, this completely innocent person is
caught up in in events beyond her power, beyond her knowledge, and is just
affected by them and this talks again to how fate and life treats us, how we cannot predict how things happen and from
one point to the next everything can change and become dramatically different
and often horrible, not always, I mean, but some of the other pictures
are more positive. – What’s notable about these two pictures is that although it’s a coherent series of six pictures, these two within the set
were conceived much more closely as a pair than any of the
others. He did think of them each as being paired within the set but if one looks
at them together, there are all sorts of resonances and they sort of speak to
each other in a very interesting way. – One thing is the story. That’s why, in a way, this continues the story of that even though it’s a different story in that you see the consequences and this is
really, to me, it’s a very resonant image of a woman
caught up in something that she’s lost control of and it’s essentially a
rape victim being ostracised by her peers and it’s perhaps, for me, the
the coldest of the ‘poesie’. It’s the most heartbreaking of them. Diana is
completely unfeeling in the way she’s described here. You alluded to the fact that they’re visually coherent, these two pictures? – Absolutely, both in the number of figures, the
figure scale which is relatively small compared to the other four paintings as
you will see later in this series. Each has just two large
figures as their main protagonists were here we have eight or ten in each
painting, slightly smaller in scale, but that’s just one of the ways, if one looks
at the landscape background of each for example, there’s a sort of continuity in
them: each has a diagonal stream with beautiful reflections in it which sort
of echo each other, each also has elements of sculpture with reliefs which
also support each other in this way. We know that they were painted over
a three-year period between 1556 and 1559, sort of side by side. Titian speaks
to them in letters to his patron, Philip, together and he really is
thinking of them very much as an organic pair, if you like,, within
the set. – Yeah and when you see them together you can see how the landscape appears to continue from the ‘Diana and Actaeon’. There’s a sloping hill going up and there’s the stream in front curving
around in the foreground and that continues over into the ‘Diana and Callisto’,
where you see the hill sloping downwards and the stream continuing and
on either side there are different coloured curtains and in
the far corners of each, there’s a bow and arrow dropped on the
ground. So they’re really visually coherent in that sense, they’re meant to
be seen together as indeed they have been ever since…well…ever! There’s still lots of questions to be asked and answered about these paintings. The big one being we don’t really know where they were painted for or whether there was a specific setting that Titian and his
patron had in mind for them. At the time they were commissioned, Philip had no fixed
abode, he’d not yet assumed the throne of Spain. In fact one of these paintings in
the series was received when he was in London because he married
Mary Tudor and became King consort of England for a brief period and so, when
he was receiving these paintings in Spain in 1560 after being transported
from Italy, they arrived in Toledo which was then the seat of
the court briefly but then within a year they’d been transferred to
Madrid which then became the principal and permanent residence of the King but
it’s very unlikely that they were actually envisaged for a specific
setting which makes it very interesting that one unique aspect of this pairing
of pictures is that the lighting of the paintings is the opposites in each
picture. The picture there, ‘Diana and Callisto’, is lit from the right-hand side
and more usually, as was standard practice in most Western painting, ‘Diana and Actaeon’ is lit from the left which begs a question about how Titian may have envisaged
them to be situated, perhaps on either side of a window. Lots of unanswered
questions! – All the others are lit from the left, all the other ‘poesie’, so it’s usually not random when you have light coming in but there could
be a variety of reasons for it. It’s not necessarily because he knew exactly
where they were going, it could be that he’s imagining a space or it could be just
for variety’s sake. I mean, we really don’t know. I mean, these are
questions that are hard to get to. I think that’s it. Thanks for listening
and I hope you enjoy the series.

14 thoughts on “#TitianLive: ‘Diana and Actaeon’ and ‘Diana and Callisto’ | National Gallery

  1. I don't think it makes sense so say of a learned Italian 16th century painter that he had 'no Latin'. He obviously wasn't a classical scholar,: he was a painter. Nevertheless, Latin was part of everyday life in Catholic Venice (in Italy generally – and Spain too for that matter) in a way that is hard for us to imagine today, when knowledge of Latin is seen as a sign of being highly educated. That wasn't the case in the 16th century. Even the moderately educated had been exposed to Latin from a young age. Learning to read and write in 16th century Italy and Spain implied some exposure to Latin. It was the language of the Church and and the language of Science. It was not for nothing that Titian signed his name in Latin. Latin was everywhere.

  2. Like always, I have to defend WINTER AND COLD 😛 I don't understand WHY people think that COLD is a symbol of bad and hot is a symbol of good 😛 it is ridiculous – comparing another example, in the Far East (Japan) – white is a color of mourning and BLACK is a color of HAPPINESS 😀 So as You see – IT DEPENDS how we (people in general) agree and accept this or that… and that's it! 😀 For me COLD is a symbol of THINKINGNESS, RIGHT-MINDED, GENTLE AND QUIETNESS <3 and hot is bad, hell, burn, loud noise etc. I love WINTER <3 This horrible tragedy in Australia now is a consequence of WARMING climate. NOT COLD 🙁

  3. Am I the only one who felt awkward for Dr? Weston-Lewis, forced to stand by glumly for a minute and a half before being introduced (and then not having the chance to say goodbye)? It's always a pleasure to listen to well-informed people discussing art, and the ingenious Dr? Wivel is well paired with the engaging Dr Weston-Lewis in elucidating and exploring these Titian gems. Two questions were however unanswered for me: 1) In a painting intended to display a variety of unclothed female bodies, why is the black girl clothed? 2) Did Diana seriously expect that such a flimsy curtain would conceal her from random passers-by?

  4. Love Titian and 16th & 17th century Italian Art! Very much enjoyed hearing your talk with the painting visuals. Thank you.

  5. It might be even better to have 3 cameras set up and a mixer. It would make for less 'awkward' moments and easier cutting between paintings and details.

  6. Who can fault Titian's use of theatre, colour and inventiveness in his depictions. His one weakness to me however was his disproportionate rendering of the human form. Figure painters today go to great lengths to get the human form absolutely correct in the main; notwithstanding the trend to depict 'plump/rumpy' females Titian manages to paint the heads far smaller than the rest of the body.
    Take a look at Diana's head in the first painting. It's minuscule when compared to her left arm and thigh, even allowing for linear perspective.
    Surely Titian spotted it; surely!

  7. I would love to hang out with Phillip II. He certainly had a great taste in art and also the best artists in Europe working for him.

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