Titian – Women, Myth, and Power: A Footnote

Of course my wife, Laurel, and I had to see the much-heralded exhibit at Boston’s Gardner Museum in the fall of 2021, “Titian – Women, Myth, and Power.”  For the first time in 500 years (!!), this preeminent Renaissance artist’s series of six monumental paintings of mythological themes from classical antiquity had all been gathered in the same room.  This was the exhibit’s only showing in the U.S., along with stops in London and Madrid.  I came home thinking about how to construct the following footnote.  

     Titian created these grand paintings between 1551 and 1562 for King Philip II of Spain.  All of them featured fulsome naked women, with titles like “The Rape of Europa” and “Venus and Adonis.”  Especially in Boston, where two confident women were at that very time competing for the office of mayor, this exhibit had to be about – women and power.  And, all the more so, in view of many thousands of years of male violence directed against women, the Gardner exhibit had to tell that story in so many words, whatever other aesthetic values it might have sought to highlight more visually.  That the Boston Globe’s – male – reviewer did not even allude to the issues of women and – male – power, I found sobering, but not surprising.  

     For me, the exhibit was a wrenching experience.  What about the male gaze, Paul?  How much has your own consciousness, not to speak of your unconscious, been distorted and contorted by that gaze?  As a male who, in his eighties, is still struggling to outgrow his adolescence, can you answer this question, notwithstanding your longstanding public support for women’s liberation and the more than fifty years you have invested in what apparently has turned out to be a genuinely humane marital partnership?  What do you really see when you contemplate those paintings?

     Be that as it may, no one who has an ounce of objectivity in their soul can rightfully deny that we still live in what many women in our era have consciously or unconsciously thought of as a “rape culture.”   This wasn’t just Philip II of Spain’s problem, nor only the problem of eager sycophants like Titian.  Coincidentally, the night before our visit to the Titian exhibit, Laurel and I had seen the film The Last Duel, featuring Matt Damon and Ben Affleck – which, in medieval guise, was all about male violence in general and the rape of women in particular.  This stuff still sells.  And it still tells.

     While I keep pondering it all, with sadness and even dread, I now come to the point of this discussion.  My footnote, it turns out, is about the same theme, rape, but in this case the rape of the earth and the forgotten peoples of the earth – a theme I learned many years ago from ecofeminist theologians.  In the historic West, if not elsewhere, nature has been feminized – think “Mother Nature.”  And nature has routinely and often self-righteously been violated by the powerful, most of them men.

     Titian has been celebrated for his attention to nature, and perhaps rightly so.  One scholar, Antonio Mazzotta, has argued indeed that Titian’s first great achievement as a painter was to depict nature with a new vitality, this under the influence of Bellini (whom I myself once modestly championed for his great painting of St. Francis).  Titian apparently projected this celebration of nature under the influence of yet another famous artist, the German master, Albrecht Duerer.  The latter’s works, which often featured naturalistic images of plants, animals, and landscapes more generally, were hugely popular in Venice early in the sixteenth century, according to Mazzotta.

     But I didn’t see any thoroughgoing influence of Duerer in the six paintings by Titian at the Gardner.  Duerer was interested in nature in itself, as a world with its own meanings.  In those paintings by Titian, nature regularly appeared as – background.  It was a richly colored background, to be sure.  But to me, nature in those paintings seemed to be more akin to representations in some medieval and late-medieval paintings, where one can see that milieu of God’s creation, often in variegated colors, but only through a window next to or behind the Virgin.  

     The world of nature in such paintings is, as it were, boxed in. There, to be sure, nature is often strikingly embellished with colors that sometimes have prompted me to think of works by Turner.  But nature is still defined by the dynamics of human power, however elegant or spiritual that power might sometimes have been envisioned to have been.  So for Titian, in these particular paintings at least:  the human mythos defines everything else.  For Titian, the human action in the foreground is the whole point of each of these paintings.  The natural background is precisely that, background.

     And, in fact, as well as in art, that mythos of the human for many of Titian’s contemporaries was also a mythos of violence – not only toward women, but also toward subjugated peoples more generally and indeed toward the earth itself.  Philip II stood for – Empire.  For Philip II, the world is there for the taking.  The world is there to be exploited for the sake of the powerful, particularly the dominant males.  Nature, however beautiful it might be in the gaze of the lords of this world, was most fundamentally for them a cornucopia of resources, such as gold or spices or mahogany or slaves – or beautiful women.  

     Given this colonizing vision of the world that Philip II took for granted, could the global ravages of modern capitalism, in every corner of the earth, be far behind?  Rape culture, it was soon to be revealed, plied its ravaging and raging not only against women, but also against the poor of the earth and the earth itself.  That is the footnote I want to add to the truths about women, violence, and power that are so dramatically evident, for those who have eyes to see, in those six magnificent paintings by Titian.  When you see the six naked women, you see what was to become the future of the whole earth.