Titian (Tiziano Vecellio), was the most celebrated and influential artist working in Venice in the sixteenth century. More than any other painter, his work embodies the rich, vibrant colours, loose brushstrokes and keen interest in effects of light that are the distinguishing features of Venetian art of this period. 

A highly versatile painter with a lifelong interest in colour, he created numerous portraits, landscapes, mythological scenes and devotional pictures during a career spanning seven decades.  Without precedent in western painting, his works have inspired generations of artists, right up to the present day.

‘Titian by a few strokes knew how to mark the general image and character of whatever objects he attempted to re-create. His great care was to preserve the masses of light and shade, and to give by opposition the idea of the solidity which is inseparable from natural objects.’

Sir Joshua Reynolds.

The National Galleries of Scotland, in partnership with the National Gallery, London, recently acquired two of Titian’s most celebrated mythological paintings, Diana and Actaeon and Diana and Callisto (in 2009 and 2012 respectively). Painted between 1556 and 1559 for King Philip II of Spain, these hugely important and influential pictures are the crowning glory of both galleries’ exceptionally rich collections of sixteenth-century Venetian paintings.

Who Was Titian?

Titian was recognised during his lifetime as the most talented painter in Venice, and he has retained that distinction ever since.  He was born at an unknown date, probably between 1485 and 1490, in Pieve di Cadore in the Dolomites, but came to Venice as a boy and was based there throughout his long career.  He probably trained in the workshop of Gentile and Giovanni Bellini, and was later closely associated with Giorgione. His earliest securely datable work is a series of frescoes in the Scuola del Santo in Padua, which was commissioned in December 1510 and carried out the following spring.

Attributed to Giorgione, Portrait of An Archer, 1500-1510

His earliest securely datable work is a series of frescoes in the Scuola del Santo in Padua, which was commissioned in December 1510 and carried out the following spring. Prior to that, probably in 1508-9, he had collaborated with Giorgione on the decoration of the exterior walls of the Fondaco dei Tedeschi in Venice, and a number of easel paintings are usually assigned to these earliest years of his activity.

By 1513 he had received an invitation to go to Rome to work for Pope Leo X (which he declined), and in the same year he applied to the Venetian government to succeed the elderly Giovanni Bellini as official painter to the Venetian state. With the installation in 1518 of his celebrated Assumption of the Virgin above the high altar of the church of the Frari – a work of astonishing originality and enormous influence – his position as the leading painter in Venice was secure.

Titian excelled as a painter of altarpieces, devotional works, classical mythology and allegory, and his unrivalled talents as a portraitist were in huge demand. He received prestigious commissions from Venetian churches – prominent among them the Ca’ Pesaro Altarpiece in the Frari, the Death of Saint Peter Martyr in SS Giovanni e Paolo (destroyed by fire in 1867), the Martyrdom of Saintt Lawrence in the church of the Gesuiti – and from the Venetian government – notably major works in the Doge’s Palace, most of them tragically lost in two fires in the 1570s.

As Titian’s career advanced he came increasingly to work for patrons outside his adoptive city.  Among the most important were the Este of Ferrara, for whom he painted the celebrated cycle of mythologies which included the Bacchus and Ariadne now in the National Gallery, London; the Gonzaga of Mantua and the Della Rovere in Urbino; and Pope Paul III Farnese and his family, who prompted his only visit to Rome, in 1545-6.  His long relationship with the Habsburg family began in 1530, first with the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, who knighted him in 1533, and later with his son Philip II of Spain, the recipient of most of his best pictures from the early 1550s onwards, including the great series of poesie of which Diana and Actaeon and Diana and Callisto form part. 

Over his immensely long career Titian produced work of an astonishing range and complexity.  With their sumptuous colour and lively, broken brushwork, his paintings are prized above all for their technical wizardry, and for the narrative skill, psychological insight and sheer inventiveness he brought to often familiar themes and genres.

Venetian Art in the 16th Century

The sixteenth century proved to be an exceptionally creative period in the history of the Republic of Venice, stimulated by its political stability and role in European trade. The Republic was a significant military and naval power with an empire that reached down the Adriatic Sea and to the Eastern Mediterranean. Venice’s territories extended to parts of the Italian mainland, including the cities of Padua, Vicenza, Verona and Bergamo.

Venice’s unique geographical position and stable system of government separated it from the other warring city-states that existed in Italy; Venice was in a position of independence and strength. The city was also incredibly wealthy. Trading links throughout the Mediterranean and to the east provided significant income from the customs duties imposed on merchants, as well as the manufacturing industries. A wide variety of goods were imported and exported from Venice; including spices, jewels, marbles, fabrics and metalwork.

Lorenzo Lotto The Virgin and Child with Saints Jerome, Peter, Francis and an Unidentified Female Saint About 1505

Furthermore, due to Venice’s role as a key trading post, pigments of exceptional quality from across Europe and beyond were readily available to the city’s artists, stimulating the use of bold colour in Venetian painting. One example is ultramarine, a deep and brilliant blue created from ground lapis lazuli, imported from Afghanistan along the Silk Road. In Titian's paintings, we can see examples where ultramarine is present in areas such as the backgrounds and the clothing of his figures. It was also mixed with other pigments to create different colours , such as the lilac of the fabric that covers the lower half of the nymph on the left hand side of Diana and Actaeon.

Lilac drapery from Diana and Actaeon, made up of Ultramarine mixed with Lead White and Red Lake.
The mountains in the background of Diana and Callisto, where Titian used Ultramarine to create their deep blue colour.

Canvas, the fabric of ship sails, was more popular as a support for paintings in Venice than elsewhere, and this may have stimulated a preference for the bold, highly visible, expressive brushwork which is such a distinctive feature of Venetian painting.

Titian's Poesie

By the 1550’s, Titians reputation had spread beyond Venice and for the last two decades of his career, Phillip II of Spain became his most important patron. Over a ten-year period, Titian created a cycle of six large scale mythological paintings for Phillip, known as the poesie. Based around Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Titian considered these works to be the visual equal of the poetry that they were inspired by. 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.

The six pictures that Titian created as part of the poesie cycle were:

The Diana Paintings

The two paintings including the goddess Diana depict scenes from the Metamorphoses relating to her punishment of those who defied her. Diana and Actaeon tells the story of a young hunter who wandered into a sacred cave, accidentally intruding on Diana and her nymphs bathing in a spring.

With sudden screams, clustered around Diana
to clothe their body with their own. But she stood taller
a head taller than them all;
and as the clouds are coloured when the sun
glows late and low; or like the crimson dawn

Ovid, Metamorphoses, Book III
Titian (Tiziano Vecellio) Diana and Actaeon 1556 - 1559

Titian takes this moment of discovery and creates a scene of high drama and tension. Actaeon bursts into the composition from the left, standing opposite Diana, who recoils, attempting to cover herself with assistance from her attendant, whilst glaring with fury at the intruder. Actaeon’s arms are raised in a gesture of horror, as he realises who he has stumbled across, knowing divine vengeance will surely be taken upon him. Reinforcing the sense of conflict between goddess and hunter, Diana’s lapdog yaps and bares its teeth at Actaeon’s hound, who stands beside his master. A final indicator of tension in the picture is evoked by the turbulent sky in the background. Diana’s vengeance upon Actaeon was particularly gruesome, transforming him into a stag to be hunted down and torn to pieces by his own dogs. His fate is alluded to in the painting by the stag’s head on top of the pillar. Actaeon's fate is also referenced to in Diana and Callisto, through a small relief of a stag hunt on one of the pillars in that work.

Detail from Diana and Actaeon, showing the stags head on top of the pillar, and the hunting scene taking place in the background between the pillar and the trees
Detail from Diana and Callisto, with the relief panel showing a stag hunt below Titian's signature

Diana and Callisto deals with a similar theme of divine punishment, although this time her fury is directed towards one of her nymphs. Callisto was seduced by the god Jupiter, breaking her vow of chastity and falling pregnant Her pregnancy is later discovered by Diana when the goddess and her followers come across a quiet place to bathe.

Charmed by the place, the goddess dipped her feet
Into the stream; and that was charming too.
'No spy is near', she said, 'here let us strip and bathe.'
The poor girl blushed; they all undressed;
One lingered waiting. As she hesitates, They strip her body - and her secret - bare.
Aghast, she spread her hands to hide her shape.

Ovid, Metamorphoses, Book II
Titian (Tiziano Vecellio) Diana and Callisto 1556 - 1559

This is the moment that Titian selected for his painting. We see Callisto's clothing torn away (but she still wears her red boots) and held by four other nymphs as her swollen belly is humiliatingly exposed before the goddess. Once discovered, Callisto was banished by Diana, and further punished by Jupiter’s jealous wife, Juno, by being turned into a bear.

The links between the compositions of Diana and Actaeon and Diana and Callisto balance out the paintings when viewed together. The poses of the figures in Callisto complement those of Actaeon, along with the curtains that hang in each scene. As well as this, the streams at the bottom of both paintings diagonally descend and ascend, creating a continuity between the pictures.

Titian (Tiziano Vecellio) Diana and Actaeon 1556 - 1559
Titian (Tiziano Vecellio) Diana and Callisto 1556 - 1559

The choice of subjects in the poesie cycle may indicate Titian’s awareness of the erotic tastes of an influential patron who was at that time still a young man. The bathing scenes lend themselves to extensive depictions of the female nude, although justified by their classical subjects and poetic aspirations. Titian fully exploited the opportunity to evoke the texture of female flesh, one of the most admired aspects of his work. The paintings also show many other effects of light, atmosphere and texture – with depictions of water, glass, fur and fabric scattered throughout both pictures.

Detail from Diana and Actaeon, showing the glass and the light reflection in the mirror
Detail of the lapdog and the red fabric Diana is sitting on in Diana and Actaeon - demonstrating how Titian depicted the folds and details of fur and fabrics.

The Diana pictures, however, also raise questions for us today around themes of innocence, guilt and justice. Although Diana represents divine law and chastity, the viewer is compelled to pity Actaeon and Callisto – did their actions truly deserve the cruel punishments that Diana gave to them?

Titian’s work continued to have a lasting influence on the development of western art after his death in 1576. The Diana scenes have been admired ever since they were painted, not least by 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. More recently, the 20th-century painter Lucian Freud described the Diana’s as 'Simply the most beautiful paintings in the world'.

ArtStars: The Titian Diana's

Curatorial and Conservation specialists at the National Galleries of Scotland take a closer look at Titian's Diana and Actaeon and Diana and Callisto.

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The History of the Diana Paintings

After they were moved to Madrid, the poesie remained in the Spanish royal collection, passing down to Phillip II’s successors (Phillip III and Philip IV). By the early seventeenth century, the paintings had been hung in the Royal Alcázar in Madrid, in the summer apartments. Access to this space was permitted only to a select few, and whenever the queen was to enter the apartments, they were hurriedly covered by curtains.

In 1623, the idea of presenting the paintings to the English King Charles I as a diplomatic gift was proposed, as part of negotiations regarding a potential marriage between him and Phillip’s daughter. Although the paintings were packed into crates, ready to be shipped to London, they never left the Alcázar, the negotiations failing to bring about a match.

Edward Scriven Francis Egerton, 3rd Duke of Bridgewater, 1736 - 1803. Promoter of the Bridgewater Canal 1847

Charles however was able to acquire Titian’s Pardo Venus (Musée du Louvre), and Veronese’s Venus, Cupid and Mars (National Galleries of Scotland) where they formed part of his legendary art collection, until his execution and its dispersal by Oliver Cromwell.

The Diana paintings were later presented to the French ambassador in 1704, before being added to the famous art collection of Phillipe II, Duke of Orléans, where they remained until the end of the 18th century. The fallout from the French Revolution led to the London sale of the Italian and French paintings from the Orléans collection in 1798.

The Diana paintings were among a group of works from the collection acquired in this sale by a consortium of three British buyers – the 3rd Duke of Bridgewater, the 2nd Marquis of Stafford and the 5th Earl of Carlisle. The Diana’s were chosen by the Duke of Bridgewater, and they were displayed in the picture gallery at Bridgewater House in London, where they continued to pass through his family.

During the Second World War the paintings were evacuated to protect them from bomb damage. Bridgewater House was badly damaged by bombing and in the immediate aftermath, the 5th Earl of Ellesmere, who had inherited the house and the collection, offered a selection of pictures on long term loan to the National Gallery of Scotland. Greatly enriching the galleries holding of Italian art, they took pride of place among the works on display in the gallery. The Bridgewater Collection Loan has remained at the gallery since 1945, cementing its reputation as an pre-eminent collection of European art and allowing visitors from across the world the opportunity to experience these beautiful works in person.