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Sex and Power: Titian at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

From August 12 to January 2, Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum (ISGM) displayed an exhibition of Titian’s six poesie, or poetic paintings, in “Titian: Women, Myth, and, Power.” Titian was a popular Venetian painter from the Renaissance era. Famous for his ability to paint anything from landscapes to portraits to historical scenes and for his use of color, Titian attracted patrons from all across Renaissance Europe with his works of art. One of these patrons was King Phillip II of Spain, for whom the poesie were completed. This collection of paintings depicts a range of scenes from the mythology of classical antiquity and took over a decade to create. What resulted from this commission was one of the most sought after collections from one of the greatest artists in Western culture. Standing in the ISGM feeling small next to these monumental pieces is even more deafening when reminded that this exhibit is the first time in over four centuries that the six works can be witnessed together.

The famous Rape of Europa is a part of the ISGM permanent collection, purchased by Gardner in 1896. During the materialistic Gilded Age in the United States, artists such as Titian became extremely popular among elites, and this purchase resulted in The Rape of Europa becoming one of the most famous pieces of Renaissance art in the United States. The room in Gardener’s house that displayed the piece was promptly renamed “The Titian Room," and it became a defining attraction in Boston. The piece depicts Europa, princess of Phoenicia, being abducted by Zeus, the king of the Greek pantheon of gods, disguised as a bull. Europa and her descendants founded the Minoan civilization and she is known as a physical manifestation and namesake of Europe. This etymology and tradition of Europa as the mother of Europe has also sparked questions among scholars about the painting’s current home in the United States.

This painting and many others in the collection painted for Phillip II depict mythological women and deal with topics of power, sexuality, and beauty. Notably, they all depict the nude female form. All of the pieces are inspired by stories and texts from antiquity such as those of the Roman poet, Ovid. Violence is frequently used as a vehicle for these themes but Titian uses them in very implicit ways. In one of the more famous of the poetries, Diana and Actaeon, Titian works with a story in which the goddess Diana turns a hunter into stag, who is then killed by his own dogs for watching her and her maidens while bathing. Despite being a very gruesome tale about gods, death, and punishment, Titian chooses instead to depict when Actaeon first stumbles upon the women bathing. Scenes of beautiful women and men haunted by dark and violent fates is the triumph of Titian as he visually reconciles the beauty and horror of these stories.

Sex and sexuality within power structures is also a major theme throughout these paintings, both overtly (such as the depiction of the nude form) and more subtly. In Diana and Castillo, another poesie, the virgin goddess Diana learns that Zeus impregnated one of her followers. In some tellings of this story, Zeus lures Castillo in using the nude form of Diana. This story and painting is wrought with complex power structures between male and female gods as Zeus disrespects Diana’s covenant between men and women, as well as gods and mortals. 

Other conversations have also been raised in regards to these pieces and how they impact the understanding of the classical tradition in popular culture. A major example of this is found in scholarship surrounding the painting Perseus and Andromeda. This painting depicts the story of the Greek hero Perseus as he saves the chained Andromeda from a terrible sea monster. As well as being a passive and powerless victim within the narrative, Andromeda is depicted with ivory white skin. Andromeda, however, was the princess of Ethiopia and is described by ancient authors such as Ovid and the Greek lyric poet Sappho as having dark skin. She has a mixed tradition in terms of how she is depicted throughout art versus narrative history. Despite her Ethiopian heritage, Andromeda in this painting and others has a very light skin tone. The whiteness and Eurocentricity of this depiction of Andromeda has resulted in modern scholars implicating this painting into conversations of revisionist history and erasures of African history on a global scale. 

The painted poetries and the meaning of their stories have changed as society has changed. From myth to commission to priceless works of art, Titian’s poesie and their relevance have stood the test of time. This has been a unique experience of witnessing these sister pieces together at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum before they are once again separated for another few centuries.


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A history major with a fascination in all things old and ancient. Ask me about my photograph collection!