Art Criticism

Titian Danaë
The National Gallery London

Titian's Danaë

Fearing the oracle’s forecast that one-day his daughter would bring forth a son who would slay him, Acrisius, King of Argos, imprisoned his beautiful daughter Danaë in a tower of bronze to keep her pure. But Jupiter, hearing of her legendary beauty, wanted to possess her and metamorphosed himself into a shower of gold in order to gain entry to her chamber. The result of their union was Perseus, later famed for his slaughter of the stony-faced Medusa. When Tiziano Vecellio, perhaps the greatest painter of the Venetian school, was commissioned by Cardinal Farnese to paint Danaë, his papal nuncio Giovanni della Casa, archbishop of Benevento informed him that in comparison to Danaë, Titian’s earlier Venus of Ubrino looked like “a Theatine nun”. Danaë, he claimed, would cause the very “devil to jump on the back” and arouse even the famously austere reforming Dominican Tommaso Badia, Cardinal of Silvestro to lust. That her features resemble those of Farnese’s mistress, Angela, is no mere accident. The miniaturist and illuminator Giulio Clovio had supplied Titian with a likeness of Angela. His bespoke heroine was designed to flatter and ingratiate, to win the artist praise and future commissions. Titian was keen to secure a benefice for his eldest son Pomponio, who had become a priest and there was also his lavish lifestyle to maintain, for he lived in seigniorial style and was known to be both musical and a brilliant conversationalist. It was said that Charles V so enjoyed his excellent company that he had his apartment placed near his own in Augsburg in order to facilitate secret meetings.

In the Farnese version Danaë lies relaxed against the crumbled linen and plumped pillows, while her eyes look up in eager anticipation towards the coins that rain down in a shaft of honey-coloured light towards her open thighs. As befits a royal princess she wears a ring set with a blue gemstone. A precious bracelet encircles her wrist and pearl earrings flash beneath her coiled hair. This is no rape. But a woman awaiting her lover, anticipating the transportation of his Midas touch. Not only did Titian paint his patron’s mistress but, the painting implies, that patron must have been something of a stud for Danaë to look so enraptured. Perhaps the Cardinal was flattered at being likened to the amorous god. For his great wealth, like the god’s gilded semen, gave him the power to possess whatever he desired. Beauty, a woman, a painting by the master. Yet Danaë’‘s face is half-turned away. Presumably the Cardinal would not wish his courtesan to be too easily recognised and the mythological cover story endowed the erotic painting with an air of historic respectability even if it was destined only for the privacy of his camera propria. Describing Venus and Adonis, Titian’s contemporary, Lodovico Dolce, spoke of the painter’s ability to arouse his viewer. There is, he claimed, “no one so chilled by age or so hard in his makeup that he does not feel himself growing warm and tender, and the whole of his blood stirring in his veins.” That Michelangelo was less susceptible to Danaë’s charms was made clear on a visit to Titian’s studio when he lamented the lack of disegno and the overemphasis of colorito. After all hadn’t Aristotle defined everything in the world as being constructed of form and matter, including humans? Matter was female and physical and, therefore, only given shape by masculine form, which related to the soul. Titian may well have intended Danaë to compete with his visitor’s Leda but where Leda lowers her eyes, Danaë blushes in anticipation, the foot of her raised leg supported in amorous readiness by the edge of the couch. Michelangelo’s churlish remark may simply have been due to professional rivalry or perhaps he had little sympathy with such an overt display of heterosexual eroticism. He did, after all, prefer boys.

In 1554, five years after the Cardinal’s commission, Titian painted another version of Danaë for Philip II to be hung in the Royal Palace in Madrid. Here a nurse who catches the shower of golden coins in her apron has replaced the bedside cupid, symbol of love. Was Titian making a smutty pun by painting a bunch of keys (chiavi) at the nurse’s waist, knowing that chiavare, ‘to imprison’ also meant to fuck? Did he now see Danaë, as both Horace and Boccacio had done before him, as a harlot who had sold herself to Jupiter for profit or was he simply responding to the King’s penchant for erotica? For Philip’s version is both more openly alluring and ominous than the Cardinal’s. The painting throbs with heat. The previously golden shower now bursts from a thunderous sky. The drapery and trim decorating Danaë’s pillow are red and her skin is tinged with reddish rather than golden hues. A sheet no longer conceals her thighs and her left hand rests between her legs, while her lips are parted in an orgasmic sigh. By her side a small dog dozes curled among the rumpled sheets. How silent Jupiter must have been during his amorous escapade, for in all the commotion the little dog never stirs. Sight dominates over sound. In these visual poetics Titian reaffirms the primacy of vision as the language of love.

In his third version painted in the mid 1550s, Jupiter is just visible in shadowy profile among the clouds. A rose, that age-old symbol of love, has been placed on Danaë’s bed while the nurse now catches the coins on a golden salver. The clattering noise of profit is thus contrasted to the silent shower of gold spilling into Danaë’s lap highlighting her virtue compared to the nurse’s veniality.

Neoplatonic notions filled the air Titian breathed, seductive as those of psychoanalysis today. Idealised images of Love and Beauty dominated the thoughts of the intellectual and cultural elite that surrounded him. The soul was seen as inflamed by divine splendour, which glowed in humans like beauty in a mirror. But Titian identified with real women in a way no painter had before. His empathy, his love of colour over form, his emotional perception and psychological fusion with the female subject emphasized that creativity was something deep, chthonic, elemental. Danaë’s erotic rapture embodies the very painterly passions of Titian himself.

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2011

Image Courtesy of the National Gallery

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