I would like to say a word in praise of Titian’s clouds. The Victorian critic John Ruskin claimed his contemporary hero, JMW Turner, painted the atmosphere and weather much better than those old European masters, although he did concede some points to Venetian artists for natural observation. In fact, the skies of Venetian Renaissance art are ever-changing, strongly nuanced, swagged with tempestuous power.
You can breathe some of these paintings. The works of Giovanni Bellini are very vivid: his portrait of Doge Leonardo Loredan seems infused with the calm, warm air of Venice; it has tangible atmosphere, it is oxygenated. Nature gets more dynamic with Giorgione’s Tempest. In Titian’s paintings, the clouds play fantastic roles in elusive dramas of the spirit and senses.
In Titian’s Sacred and Profane Love, in the Borghese Gallery in Rome, two women – one richly dressed, the other nude – meet by a classical monument in the countryside. Their relationship is deeply mysterious and suggestive. Is the woman in a dress the “earthly Venus”? Is her naked companion a more spiritual, heavenly figure? Either way, the work is intensely poetic, and the landscape and sky raise it to sublime heights.
In The Bacchanal of the Andrians, the poised ambiguity depicted by Titian in Sacred and Profane Love gives way to revel and joy. A shepherd and hunters populate the green valley behind the marble basin. Beyond them, a village twinkles by a blue lake; above it all, silken clouds erupt over a band of yellow sky. Silver light catches these massing clouds, illuminating them like a flash of emotion or truth. Again and again, that kind of heart-stopping incandescence catches Titian’s clouds. Boozers cavort. Nudes disport. Yet above their pastoral party, great piled columns of white vapour are caught by the sun and set alight as if by inner fire.
Titian must have watched the skies continually. He grew up in the countryside, near mountains where storms and heavy atmospherics would have coloured the Adriatic azure. In his early painting Concert Champetre (which used to be attributed to his mentor and rival Giorgione), the sky is brooding and smoky with cloud, while two men in courtly dress and two naked women relax in a meadow. Love and freedom perfume Titian’s paintings, but the changing skies warn that nothing is forever.
Perhaps it was the mutability of Titian’s skies that deepened his appeal for British art collectors. Is any other Renaissance painter quite so abundantly represented in our galleries? His works were coveted by, and bought for, English and Scottish country houses for centuries. His landscapes might be classically Italian, but they have so many ripenesses of sky and cloud, such a sense of weather, that it fits a northern European setting. British collectors would have looked from their rainswept estates to their Titians, and seen similarities. Only when it rains for Titian – as in his painting, Danae – it rains gold.
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