Titians Altarpieces

     What was the importance of these two altarpieces for the development of painting
in Venice, both from a stylistic and iconographic point of view? It has been
said that Titian’s Assunta, which adorns the high altar, and Pesaro (on the
left aisle of the chapel of the Immaculate Conception) stand mid-way between the
past and the future of Venetian painting. This infers that Titian drew on
established traditions learnt from his masters Bellini and Giorgione, and imbued
his works with a freshness and inspiration not seen before. Furthermore, it
becomes apparent that his sensitive construction of the works – considering
the authority of his patrons – facilitate a depth of interpretation which
highlight both the sacred and civic concerns of the time. To illustrate

Titian’s progressive role in Venetian art history, I will draw on Renaissance
documentation, and contemporary research that notes the stylistic and
iconographic elements of these altarpieces. In 1568 the Florentine chronicler

Vasari wrote of Titian, "Titian...who has adorned with great pictures the City
of Venice...deserves the love and respect of all craftsmen, who ought to admire
and imitate him in many things. For he is a painter who has produced...work
which...will live as long as the memory of illustrious men endures" . This is
a useful starting point for such an investigation: this representation is valid,
since Vasari had met and spoken to him while writing the book, and being a

Florentine he wasn’t so susceptible to employing the Venetian rhetoric which
could tend to be biased The contemporary chronicler Ludovico Dolce recorded the
shock and criticism the Assunta attracted when it was first unveiled. Such
controversy points to its radicalism and supports assertions that it was
influential for developing artists: "For all [the panel’s grandeur and
awesomeness], the oafish painters and the foolish masses, who until then had
seen nothing but the dead and cold works of Giovanni Bellini, of Gentile, and of

Vivarino..., which were without movement and modelling, grossly defamed the
picture. Then, as envy cooled and the truth slowly dawned on them, people began
to marvel at the new style established in Venice by Titian..." There is good
reason to conclude that the Assunta and Pesaro altarpieces rank amongst the
finest and most notary of Titian’s works. In his book, The Altarpiece in

Renaissance Venice, Peter Humfrey claims that the exceptionally large number of
churches in Venice elevated the prevalence of this style, as they all needed to
be decorated. The lack of fresco painting (due to the humid climate) meant more
panel paintings were constructed, and so "Venetian painters tended to
concentrate their most ambitious efforts...on altar painting" Limitations of
the investigation The lack of primary documentation from this era hinders our
ability to place the artwork in its socio-cultural context. When relying on the
rhetoric of the State-appointed historians, we must consider the bias that
results from their upholding of the ‘Myth of Venice’. Obviously, the value
of these to the research question is limited; being contemporary, they are
unable to describe Titian’s long-term influence on Venetian painting.

Definition of key terms When analysing artwork from a stylistic point of view,
all visual (not metaphorical) factors are taken into account. Issues of
composition, symmetry and asymmetry, colour palette, application of paint, and
rendering of forms are all relevant. Iconography refers to any elements of the
painting that can be left open for a religious or sacred interpretation. These
two points of view are inextricably linked: for example, the placement (re:
composition, thus stylistic element) of the Madonna and Child, elevated in the
centre of a devotional painting also has iconographic references: this was their
traditional position, and portrayed their roles as intercessors between the
figures below, and God in Heaven above. In this context, the altarpiece refers
to a painting set behind an above the altar in a Christian church. Painted
altarpieces might be accompanied by sculpture, as in the case of Titian’s

Assunta, which features three free-standing marble figures on the frame. The
term sacra conversazione refers to the type of composition made popular by

Bellini, where a group of saints are gathered in a unified space. Any
‘conversation’ between saints is solely spiritual and internal;
paradoxically, as soon as obvious communication takes place (in the case of

Titian’s Pesaro), the composition no longer conforms to what constitutes a
sacra conversazione . Established traditions in altarpiece design Titian was
painting amongst the turbulent climate of the age of Reformation and the

Counter-Reformation: this may have influenced his work, endowing it with a
greater sense of drama and more overt display of emotion which is evident
especially in Assunta. This was a significant development from the entrenched

Venetian style established by Bellini: his altarpieces were characteristically
tranquil and meditive (Humfrey refers to Bellini’s Diletti, S. Giobbe and St

Catherine of Sienna altarpieces in defining the sacra conversazione). His style
embodies the Venetian ethos of ‘La Serenissima’. Stylistic developments in

Assunta and Pesaro altarpieces While depictions of the Assumption scene had been
painted by such names as Vivarini and Palma Vecchio, Titian’s subjects are
much more powerfully built and more dynamic in their gestures than the
relatively angular and timid figures in the earlier altarpieces. There is a mood
of vivacity and upward movement, driven by the shifts in dark and light through
the three zones (disciples, Madonna, God and angels). The viewer’s eye is
arrested by the raised arms of the disciples, the foreshortening of the
virgin’s body refuses to let the eye rest, until it reaches the sweeping group
of angels. Rosand affirms the stylistic importance of this work, in suggesting
that its unveiling heralded the arrival of the classical High Renaissance in

Venice. Titian’s dramatic gestures and breadth of form draws comparisons to
the art of Raphael, and in particular, his Assumption. Some scholars suggest

Titian may have seen preparatory sketches for this work around the time he
received the commission for Assunta , in which case the originality of his work
is dubious. However, the fact that he hadn’t yet undertaken the ‘artist’s
pilgrimage to Rome’ and viewed the works of Raphael and his contemporaries,
offers credibility in terms of his artistic innovation. A justification of why

Assunta was not accepted by the patron, Guardian of the Fransiscan order, Fra

Germano, was because the human forms are too sensual. A highly rhetorical
passage from a 1910 book by Charles Ricketts, asserts that "the face of Mary
satisfies us as expressing ecstasy in a human type" . While being ultimately
subjective, it sheds light on how people would personally react to it. The
exuberant vitality would have been frightening and even offensive, to
generations used to Bellini’s style. The Assunta is notable in combining two
significant biblical events: the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, and the

Coronation. The Coronation was a theme most usually represented in a horizontal
format, yet perhaps this extensive thematic content would have offered more
scope for drama and innovation when it was to be set in a tall, arched format.

Infact, when Titian received the commission to construct this work, it was the
largest altarpiece that had ever been seen in Venice. In the same way, Pesaro
demonstrates an unorthodox blending of styles: the altarpiece painting and the
votive portrait style. He transforms the traditional composition of the sacra
conversazione from one of centrality, to asymmetry. Rona Goffen supports this
notion, claiming there was "no real precedent in earlier altar paintings for
this asymmetrical scheme" . The shift in the Madonna and Child’s positioning
has iconographic ramifications, as a central position reflects their supreme
role in the relationship with the saints and patrons. They still dominate the

Pesaro, their elevation conveys importance, and their split attention (Madonna
looking to the left, and the Child to the right) is the key to uniting the two
groups. Titian draws on characteristics of the popular votive picture (paintings
depicting a patron venerating a saint in a more intimate association) – for
example, Titian’s Bishop Jacopo Pesaro Presented to St. Peter by Pope

Alexander VI – which include profile perspectives of subjects, asymmetry, and
inclusion of things that represent the patron. The advent of x-ray technology
has shown the extent to which Titian refined, and reconstructed stylistic
elements of the Pesaro which were originally more Belliniesque in concept. The
discovery of underlying pentimenti support this claim, and reveal at least two
changes of plan: the first resembles a Bellini work, with a vaulted loggia-like
arrangement. The second experimented with a curtain slung across and a

Corinthian capital, before the final two colossal columns were executed.

Obviously he maintained an awareness of his teachers and a connection with the
familiar, yet he presents a notable departure from the Venetian tradition of the

Quattrocento, in the disjuncture he establishes between the realm of the church,
and inside the painting. Titian has successfully reinterpreted the relationship
between the image and the worshipper, ‘denying access to the observer’, in
contrast to Bellini’s devotional portraits, where the viewer was able to
connect with the humanity of the Virgin Mary by her gaze out of the painting.

Iconographic developments in the Assunta and Pesaro altarpieces Much has been
written about the role of the columns in the background of the Pesaro
altarpiece. David Rosand cites historical texts which interprete the columns to
be architectural symbols of Mary, "the heavenly ladder by which God descends
to Earth, so that through her, those men who merit it ascend to heaven" If we
agree with this summation of Mary as the ‘stairway to heaven’, then these
columns can be seen as iconography, rising up to heaven. This appears plausible,
since there doesn’t seem to be any indication of a natural termination to
these columns. Alternatively, the columns could be a direct illustration of the
text of Ecclesiasticus 24:7, "and my throne is a cloudy pillar". This has a
special relevance, since other passages from Ecclesiasticus 24 have been linked
by art historians to the Immaculate Conception, which is the theme of this
altarpiece. The issue of the Immaculate Conception – the idea that Mary was
exempt from original sin at the moment of her conception – was the cause for
much antagonism between the Fransiscans and the Dominicans, who preferred to
believe that like St John the Baptist, Mary hadn’t been conceived without sin,
but sanctified in the womb. Thus, not only are the columns significant
iconography within the altarpiece, but relate to themes which promote the

Fransiscan theology. Adversely, Humfrey dismisses any iconographic significance
that these columns might contribute. "Their purpose is primarily pictorial: to
give greater structural coherence...and to endow the scene with an aura
of...grandeur." This alternative appears to supplement the x-ray evidence that

Titian experimented with a variety of architectural solutions to create a
setting that would achieve architectural, as well as theological decorum Like
many devotional scenes that depict the Madonna and Child, there are many
references to Christ’s destined crucifixion. It should be noted that

Fransiscan theory concentrates on the Passion, which can be read here as
evidence of patrons’ concerns being inextricably linked with the subject
matter of these works. Mary’s gesture towards his raised foot alludes to his
stigmata and the crucifixion. Titian follows popular depiction of St. Francis
(patron saint of the Fransiscan order); his open hand alludes to his stigmata,
yet is also a tool to allow the eye to travel around the composition. St.

Francis’ position makes him intercessor between the Pesaro family and Christ.

These allusions to the Passion become explicit in the depiction of the two putti
in the clouds, who support a large wooden cross. The extent of the Pesaro’s
iconographic significance can be challenged with the knowledge of the particular
troubles Titian had to overcome regarding the placement of the work. The viewer
first encounters the altarpiece from an angle, approaching the high altar.

Hence, the composition must accommodate not only this view, but a full-frontal
perspective. It seems that these conditions would have challenged Titian’s
creativity, and the question of what stands due to necessity and what stands as
iconography in this work makes analysis a complicated issue. With the Assunta,

Goffen suggests that the stylistic feature of circular forms carries
iconographic relevance. While they unify the composition within the painting,
the curved architecture of the choir screen and the apse, they refer
metaphorically to God, "circles being His geometric equivalent" . The gold
tones prevalent in the work allow for a similar reading, that golden light
represents His divine illumination. The light becomes more intense and golden as
we cross the boundary between the mundane and the sacred realms, reaching its
full density when it reaches God. This golden light and illumination embodies

Mary’s triumph over sin and death. The extent to which the role of patronage
inhibited artistic innovation We have an inhibited ability to interpret works as
reflections of the artist’s innovation and artistic development since they
were largely contrived according to the demands of the patrons. In Titian’s

Pesaro, Jacopo Pesaro’s demands were well documented. The terms of Titian’s
commission stipulated that he include full-length kneeling portraits of Jacopo,
his brothers and nephew . In meeting these requirements, this could perhaps
account for Titian’s unusual composition, and if true, it negates the
interpretation of significant stylistic innovation. It appears Pesaro wanted
numerous images represented in his altarpiece, supported by Ettlinger who
studied the iconography of the columns: "Pesaro...believed that a successful
integration of all elements could be achieved" . Alongside the depiction of
the Immaculate Conception (and his veneration of it), the inclusion of his
family, and emblems which celebrated his illustrious military career were
involved. The presence of so much diverse symbolism complicates an
interpretation of the artwork’s iconography, which has been demonstrated in
the plethora of scholars’ explanations in regard to the columns in the
background of the Pesaro altarpiece. As a Mendicant friar, Fra Germano Casale
could not own property, although he is commerated as the "patron" of the

Assunta . The date of unveiling and his name is inscribed on the frame, which
sufficiently serves as documentation of the patronage and commission. Even if

Germano relied on bequests to the Frari to fund the work, his vested interests
are apparent when we read of his constant harassing of Titian while it was being
painted. It reinforces the notion raised with the Pesaro, that the presence of
the patrons places an influence on the outcome of the painting, so much so that
it enables interpretations based on the political and social interests of the
patrons. It is the many possible readings of these works, not only from a
stylistic and iconographic point of view, that make the Assunta and Pesaro such
enigmatic and monumental works. In capturing the ideals and beliefs from their
time while exhibiting such progressive artistic features, they hold great
importance for the development of painting in Venice.


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vol.27 April/June 1984 p.15-22 2. Ettlinger, H. ‘The Iconography of the

Columns in Titian’s Pesaro Altarpiece’, in Art Bulletin vol.61, 1979 p.59-67

3. Goffen, R. Piety and Patronage in Renaissance Venice: Bellini, Titian and the

Fransiscans, New Haven, Yale (1996) 4. Humfrey, P. The Altarpiece in Renaissance

Venice, New Haven and London (1993) 5. Licht, F. ‘Titian: The Majestic Voice
of All Venice’, in Art International no.11 Summer 1990 p.90-93 6. Ricketts, C.

Titian Methuen & Co.Ltd, London, 1910 7. Rosand, D. Painting in Cinquecento

Venice: Titian, Veronese, Tintoretto, New Haven and London (1982) 8. Rosenthal,

M. ‘In my view... Titian’s reputation: the limitations of history’, in

Apollo, Dec. ’93 p.395-8 9. Tietze, H. Titian: The Paintings and Drawings The

Phaidon Press Ltd, London 1950