Titian in time: art as experience

The art of the special exhibition may be to create a special and otherwise unobtainable experience, offering in a single event, such as Titian: Love, Desire, Death at London’s National Gallery, something which would otherwise take time and travel to experience. While such exhibitions often bring together new combinations of artworks, they can also involve the recreation of a past arrangement, normally unattainable. The National Gallery’s exhibition brings together a small group of paintings originally intended to be shown together but long since scattered into separate collections. The paintings, known as the ‘Poesie’ because they respond to scenes from classical poems, Ovid’s Metamorphoses, were supplied to Philip II of Spain to decorate his private apartments. They were delivered to Philip in Spain by Titian from his workshop in Venice between 1551 and 1562, but separated soon afterwards, eventually finding homes in major collections across Europe and the USA. The exhibition would provide the visitor with a glimpse of something private and rare, in a short moment in time recreated in the present.

Titian (1490-1576) – Diana and Actaeon, 1556-9, National Galleries of Scotland/National Gallery. One of the six Poesie paintings displayed at the National Gallery.

But what is at stake in such an act of recreation? Whose view is being recreated, that of Philip or those visiting his apartments? It is not that of Titian himself. Only Philip and his courtiers had access to these paintings as a group, and even then not for long. Titian himself never saw this specific group of paintings as they are presented here, assembled together in matching frames; the canvases were dispatched piecemeal on completion (payment was far from prompt). Possibly Titian and his team could have assembled a display from studio copies and derivative renderings of the same scenes – and identification of these particular canvases, rather than other versions, as the Poesie series is fairly recent. It seems that we are looking at an act of collection rather than an act of creation, and that what is being re-created is the display of Philip’s monarchical power as much as Titian’s creative brilliance.   

Can the contemporary viewer recreate those original acts of viewing, or has Philip’s power and Titian’s message leached away to leave only an aesthetic experience? Viewing and decoding the details of the scenes might require a knowledge of classical texts and mythology, such as an educated sixteenth-century prince and his courtiers might well have had, but many modern visitors will need to consult the website, the catalogue, or listen to Mary Beard’s informed classicist take. On the other hand, a modern viewer sensitised to the depiction of power in human relations might appreciate the interactions of Titian’s characters, divine and human, male and female, without possessing a detailed knowledge of Ovid’s Metamorphoses

Titian, The Death of Actaeon, 1559-75, begun as part of the Poesie series but not delivered to Philip.

The paintings themselves explore critical moments of danger and change, encounters between divine and mortal, male and female, mediated through sexual desire and the exercise of power, which are fateful to the weaker party. Jupiter appears to Danae as a shower of gold, setting in motion future events which are illustrated in another painting in which their son the hero Perseus rescues Andromeda. The power of goddesses is less certain. Diana will take revenge on Actaeon, the hunter who sees her bathing, as well as on the nymph Callisto, whose pregnancy by Jupiter is revealed. Venus clings to her beloved, the hunter Adonis, but cannot prevent his departure or death. In the final completed painting Jupiter, in the form of a bull, carries off Europa; a related but unfinished picture, shown here although never delivered to Philip, shows the death of Actaeon, at the moment at which Diana transforms him into a stag and his own hounds attack him. Titian simultaneously valorises the display of power and questions its impact on humans: his message to the court is not an entirely comfortable one. 

Recreating historical collections for private display is a familiar organising principle for art exhibitions. Some recent examples include the Royal Academy’s Charles I: King and Collector (2018) and Houghton Revisited at Houghton Hall in Norfolk (2013), which took the format to another level by redisplaying the collection, now at the Hermitage in St Petersburg, in its original site, where it was displayed before Robert Walpole sold his collection to Catherine the Great in 1779. These shows, while providing insights into the eye of the historical collector, also contained implicit questions about the transience of wealth and power. But more could be said, both about the way such displays risk, without careful curation and contextualisation, a bleaching  of the politics involved in the acquisition of the collections and the power wielded by their owners, and about the use of such acts of recreation as an organising principle. While not precisely commemorations, these recreated exhibitions are suggestive of the ‘regime of heritage’ outlined by François Hartog in his Regimes of Historicity as a current cultural mode for managing our relationship with the past. While they can be presented as acts of democratisation, opening up the palace and the country house to all, by presenting them as special and limited experiences, they may simply create a new form of cultural privilege. One might even see such events as 

In a way, history repeated itself. Just as an outbreak of plague in 1576 ravaged Titian’s Venice and ended his long and productive life, the Covid-19 pandemic forced the National Gallery to shut its doors only days after the exhibition opened. The exquisite moment would remain unattainable for months, until the gallery briefly re-opened in July, permitting lucky visitors to see Titian’s work in much less crowded conditions than has previously been normal for special exhibitions. The planned schedule which took many of the paintings on a tour of their home galleries was abandoned, and the London display had to close twice again as further lockdowns shut museums. For a culture of heritage in which participation in a spectacular event is valued so highly, the thwarting of the exhibition and loss of the potential experience became an event in itself, with its own BBC documentary ‘Titian – Behind Closed Doors’. Titian’s depiction of humans, powerless against capricious forces, was as applicable to the 2020 exhibition as it had been to the Poesie’s original viewers. 


  • Hartog, F. (2015) [2003], Regimes of Historicity: presentism and experiences of time, trans. S. Brown (New York: Columbia University Press).
  • Wivel, M., et al. (2020) Titian: love, desire, death (London: National Gallery Company).

Author: Carol Atack

Researcher in ancient Greek political thought and history, and its contemporary reception. Post-doctoral researcher on Anachronism and Antiquity project, Faculty of Classics, University of Oxford.

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