This landscape is much more complicated than it might appear at first glance. It is one of a group of about a dozen landscape and figure 'drawings', traditionally attributed to Titian or his circle, which were exposed as deliberate but very early forgeries in a controversial article published in 1979. The substance of the arguments presented there is for the most part persuasive, but scholarly opinion since has been sharply divided over the issue of the precise status of these sheets. In one camp are those who continue to believe that they are preparatory drawings for parts of the woodcuts designed by Titian to which they relate so closely; in the other are those who are persuaded that they are derived from the woodcuts — offset impressions made in a print workshop which were then worked up in pen and ink for sale.
The Edinburgh landscape relates in a complex way to a woodcut of St Jerome in the Wilderness after a design by Titian, which is generally dated to around 1530. The wooded bluff that occupies most of the left portion of the 'drawing’, and the rather indistinct rocky river bed and stump at the bottom, correspond precisely in terms of scale and detail, but in reverse, to the upper and lower right corners of the woodcut. It appears that the Edinburgh landscape was created as follows: an impression of the woodcut was taken from the block in the normal way; while still wet, this was cut up into sections; two of these sections were then brought together and an offset or counter-proof of them was made onto a new sheet; once dry, the resulting image was then partially strengthened in pen and ink, and the water-mill and other buildings at the upper right were added freehand. When the woodcut was cut into sections, the lower portion was deliberately silhouetted round the back of the sleeping lion, leaving the blank area at the lower right of the sheet.
Like all of the sheets in this problematic group of works, the one in Edinburgh has a rather blurred, faded, washed-out appearance, which could readily be explained by the fact that most of what we see was generated mechanically in the form of a rather weak offset. Some of the fainter hatching lines, especially those on the bank at the centre left, have a broken, dotted appearance, as if the ink from the print did not 'take' to the paper properly; this is particularly clear under high magnification. Printer's ink has been detected in the Group of Trees (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York), and it is very likely that it is present here too, although it has not been analysed. Following examination of the drawing under infrared and ultraviolet light, as well as under the microscope, what is certain is that the buildings and other free-hand additions to the Edinburgh landscape were done in a different ink to the offset areas.
It has been argued that the Edinburgh sheet and the others like it originated in a Venetian print workshop around 1515-25, and that they were created as deliberate forgeries of Titian's drawing style for sale on the open market. Although we have little firm evidence, there must have been a reasonably healthy demand in Venice for landscape drawings and prints, or so many would not have been produced. Yet it seems unlikely that the production of these hybrid images was market-driven especially since their creation as outlined above would have entailed the mutilation of perfectly good impressions of the woodcuts. A less venal explanation could be that they were creative experiments, a time- and labour-saving means of generating new and unexpected compositions by effectively cannibalising and collaging together disparate components of an existing image. If successful the results could, of course, be offered for sale.
This text was first published in The Age of Titian: Venetian Renaissance Art from Scottish Collections (2004)