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Titian's 'Poesie'

Titian’s ‘Diana and Actaeon’ and ‘Diana and Callisto’ formed part of a series of six large mythological paintings with subjects drawn from the ancient writer Ovid’s ‘Metamorphoses’. This is one of the greatest series of paintings in European art. They were painted over a ten-year period (about 1552-62) for the Spanish king, Philip II, who was Titian’s most important patron for the last two decades of his career. This project probably originated when Titian met Philip, then still heir to the throne, at Augsburg in the winter of 1550-51. The other pictures in the group are 'Danae' and 'Venus and Adonis' (both in the Prado, Madrid), 'Perseus and Andromeda' (Wallace Collection, London) and the 'Rape of Europa' (Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston).

The series was not planned in detail from the beginning, but evolved on a piecemeal basis, and Titian enjoyed exceptional freedom both in the choice of subjects and the way in which he painted them. At one stage he planned a scene of ‘Jason and Medea’, but nothing more is heard of that work. The

'Death of Actaeon' (National Gallery, London) was intended as part of the series but was apparently never finished and was certainly never sent to Spain. In his letters to his patron Titian referred to these paintings by the term ‘poesie’, or fables, probably to distinguish them from the more standard ‘istorie’, or history paintings.

We know from a letter that ‘Danäe’ had been delivered by 1554, and that Titian painted ‘Venus and Adonis’as a pair to it, although the canvases differ in size. The two Diana scenes were also planned as a pair within the larger series: they were designed and painted at the same time, and their compositions balance and echo each other brilliantly. The artist thought that his series of ‘poesie’would be displayed together, but – unlike his earlier series of mythologies painted for the Duke of Ferrara – it is doubtful whether the king had a specific room in mind. They were most likely hung in one of the private wings of the Alcázar Palace in Madrid. 

The completion of ‘Diana and Actaeon’ and its companion ‘Diana and Callisto’ was announced by Titian in a letter to his patron Philip II of 19 June 1559, although he in fact continued to work on them over that summer. On 22 September he wrote again, stating that he was about to send them to Spain, together with a painting of the ‘Entombment of Christ’, and specifying that he had laboured on them to the best of his ability for ‘three years, and more’. 

Titian’s two Diana scenes have been admired by numerous artist artists. The Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens made full-size copies of them during a visit to Madrid; the Spanish master Diego Velázquez was responsible for rehanging them in the Royal Palace; and more recently the British painter Lucian Freud described them as ‘simply the most beautiful pictures in the world’.