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Titian’s Landscapes

Melville’s copy of Titian’s Landscape, with Herdsmen was engraved in mezzotint by John Linnell for England’s Royal Gallery of Pictures in 1840. Then the original painting was called “a fine specimen of this great Master’s versatility of genius. The horizon and the foliage are painted with powerful effect. The bright green tint of trees, stands out in fine keeping with the brilliant sky. The herdsman and his assistants, anticipating a storm, are hastening their cattle towards some farm-buildings, followed by a goat. This beautiful picture has always been considered one of the finest gems in the Royal Collection” (Linnell 10). The painting was called A Stormy Landscape with a Shepherd Boy and Cattle when Roy Bishop described it as part of the Royal Collection in 1937, emphasizing that “these wild peaks are the mountains of Cadore, some fifty miles north of Venice” (Bishop 147-48). Harold Wethey in 1969 treats this Landscape with Shepherd and Flocks as a copy by a sixteenth-century follower of Titian; he sees its “landscape” as “closely based on Titian” but the actual painting as “technically inferior to Titian’s own work” (3: 213, cat. no. X-19).

Melville himself would have had no cause to consider the painting anything but an authentic Titian. Titian had long been admired for the landscape background in many of his large-scale paintings, but Landscape, with Herdsmen reproduces a rare Titian painting in which the landscape is itself of primary interest. The herdsmen in Melville’s engraving are descending a steep swerve to the left before the land rises to a small town and church spire in the middle ground before stretching out toward distant mountains next to slanting rain from a stormy sky. The clearing in the sky that Titian left directly above the line of mountains allows us to see the distinctive dolomite formations that Titian saw during his childhood in the Cadore region of northern Italy. John Linnell, who engraved Melville’s copy of this painting, had also painted the portrait of Samuel Rogers now in the Tate Britain Museum (fig. 9 in the introduction to this section).

Melville’s engraving of Titian’s Landscape, with Herdsman had a fine companion in Scene in the Cadore Country, one of three artworks by Titian that were reproduced in The Renaissance of Art in Italy (fig. 1). Based on a drawing in the Pitti Palace in Florence, this engraving helped to illustrate the section of Lucy Baxter’s text that provided much more information about Titian’s native region of Cadore than Melville had access to from Vasari, Lanzi, or Valery. Here Melville would have read that “Cadore is the ideal of an artist’s birthplace, whose wild and picturesque beauty could not but foster imagination in such a temperament, ghost-like dolomites rising around the peaceful valley in all their grandeur and fantastic shapes like blocks of marble in Nature’s sculpturing hands. . . . Sometimes these giant crags are grey, sometimes dark, now they glow with golden light, then blush crimson in the evening rays” (281).

crop CAT 109 fig 1 Titian Scene in the Cadore country, Renaissance of Art in Italy, p. 282.jpg

Figure 1. Titian. Scene in the Cadore Country, from the drawing in the collection of the Pitti Palace, Florence. In Lucy Baxter, The Renaissance of Art in Italy, 1883, p. 282.

Perhaps the shape-shifting colors of those magical dolomites of his youth helped inspire the finesse and fluidity of layered coloring that Titian later introduced to Italian oil painting. Reading Baxter’s description of the shifting shapes and colors of the dolomites near Cadore probably reminded Melville of shifting shapes and colors he had so conspicuously depicted on the face of Mount Greylock in his prose sketch “The Piazza” in 1856. Although Titian established his reputation and centered his adult life in Venice, fifty miles south of Cadore, he remained closely attached to his native city until his sudden death from a plague in Venice in 1576. From 1508 to 1512, members of Titian’s family in Cadore “were prominent in defending their mountain fastness” against the Austrian invasion under Maxmillian; one brother “left Titian’s studio to join the Venetian army, only returning to it again after the peace of 1512” (Baxter 281-83).

The closest image in subject matter to Titian’s Landscape, with Herdsmen in Melville’s collection is Claude Lorrain’s The Herd Returning in Stormy Weather (CAT 123). Claude used a horizontal rather than vertical format to show the breadth, rather than the depth, of the landscape through which his herd is moving. Claude used an etching needle to “draw” his figures over a copper plate covered with wax over which acid was poured, the acid biting the plate with lines that would hold the ink from which the image was printed after surface ink was wiped away. Linnell’s mezzotint plate from which Melville’s copy of Titian’s Landscape was printed reversed this process by moving from “darkness to light.” The mezzotint engraver employs a “rocker” to cut tiny holes across the entire surface of the copper plate so that the plate, if inked at this stage, would print uniformly black. It is at this point that the engraver employs etching or engraving tools that will clear the ink from those areas that will leave the white of the paper untouched as it is pressed into the inked paper in the printing process. In Linnell’s mezzotint of Titian’s Landscape, with Herdsmen, three prominent areas of uninked white allow us to distinguish clearly among dozens of sheep in the herd, to see the line of the distant dolomites, and to feel the energy of the dark clouds from which the rain is falling beneath the high, clear sky at the upper center. Melville’s copy of Duplessis’s The Wonders of Engraving differentiated clearly among various engraving techniques, and these two prints allowed for an excellent contrast between similar subjects rendered in etching versus mezzotint.