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Titian’s Noli me Tangere

Titian is another painter in whom Melville had a lifelong interest. In 1849, when he was thirty years old, in his first exposure to authentic Old Master paints, “A Venus by Titian” was one of the few titles he singled out among hundreds upon hundreds at Hampton Court in England. This was probably its copy of the Venus of Urbino in Florence, though Hampton Court also had a copy of Titian’s Venus at Her Toilet with One Cupid (NN J 16, 283; Wethey 3: 204, 242-43). A week later Melville wrote in his journal that the Dulwich Gallery is “full of gems—Titians, Claudes, Salvators, Murillos.” Among those he also specified was “The Venus” (NN J 20).  Prominent among the Titians at the Dulwich Gallery was The Rape of Europa, a voluptuous canvas in the painter’s later style whose original is currently at the Gardner Museum in Boston (Wethey 3: cat. 32, p. 174). The Dulwich also owned a copy of Titian’s Venus and Adonis; Hazlitt considered this to be “one of the best we have seen” in his essay on “The Dulwich Gallery” in Melville’s library (Hazlitt, Criticisms, 36). During his two visits to the private collection of Samuel Rogers at the end of London visit (as was mentioned in the previous entry on Raphael), Melville would have closely examined Titian’s Noli me Tangeri (fig. 2), which Rogers considered the “gem” of his collection and bequeathed to London’s National Gallery at his death in 1856 (NN J 16, 20, 367-69; Wallace 1992: 286). 

CAT 109 fig 2 Titian noli me tangere national gallery.jpg

Fig. 2. Titian. Noli me Tangere, oil on canvas, c. 1514. National Gallery London.  From the Collection of Samuel Rogers.

Noli me Tangere is an early masterpiece by Titian. It is thought to have been painted in 1514, a few years after Sebastiano left Venice for Rome after painting Mary Magdalene and her sister saints in the altarpiece of San Giovanni Crisostomo. Titian is here depicting the scene in the Gospel of Saint John (20:14-18) in which Christ, having appeared before to Mary Magdalene to comfort her after the Resurrection, tells her not to touch him (noli me tangere). This same scene was painted in a very different way a century later by Rembrandt in a print that Melville collected (see CAT 199). Elizabeth Rigby, later Lady Eastlake, was a frequent visitor to Samuel Rogers’s collection during the period of Melville’s 1849 visit. In the commentary she published in the Quarterly Review in 1888, here is what she remembered from her visits to this “glorious” work by Titian four decades later: “The impetuosity with which [the Magdalene] has thrown herself on her knees is shown by the fluttering drapery of her sleeve, which is still buoyed up by the air: thus with a true painter’s art telling the action of the previous moment” (508). In 1854 the German art historian Gustav Waagen agreed with many in considering Noli me Tangere “the gem” of Rogers’s collection. “In the clear, bright, golden tone of the flesh, and careful execution, in the finely-expressed and impassioned desire of the kneeling Magdalen to touch the Lord, and in the calm dignity of the Saviour, we recognize the earlier time of this master. The beautiful landscape, with the glowing horizon above  the blue sea, is of great importance in relation to the figures, proving how early Titian attained extraordinary excellence in this respect, and confirming that he was the first to carry this branch of the art to perfection. This poetic picture is, on the whole, in very good preservation; the crimson drapery of the Magdalen is of unusual depth and fulness” (2:77).

By 1877, a year after Melville published Clarel, Titian’s Noli me Tangere, the “gem” of Rogers’s private collection in 1849, was now entering its third decade as a treasure of London’s National Gallery. In that year J. A. Crowe and G. B. Cavalcaselle published a two-volume biography of Titian: His Life and Times with “some account of his family, chiefly from new and unpublished records.” This book, an essential source for the new information about Titian’s life in Cadore in Melville’s copy of the New York edition of The Renaissance of Art in Italy, included a full-page engraving of Noli me Tangere accompanied by a rhapsodic description of the painting itself. In this painting from “the days of Titian’s youthful striving . . . we see the figures thrown with sparkling lightness upon a beautiful vista of undulating country. The scene is laid in a dip of hills near the shore of a bay, the distant unrippled surface of which is tinged with the deep pure blue of an evening sky, scantily flaked with cloud. On a hill to the right is a clump of farm buildings from which a road descends. Here a dog follows his master, whilst a shepherd to the left ‘ranges the valley free.’ In the bends of the ground the bushes are toned to the dusk of the gloaming. In the strong relief upon the sky an oak sapling throws out its boughs and jagged leafage, the trunk rising from a brown tinged knoll, clothed with verdant grasses, in the foreground of which Christ appears to the Magdalen” (1:208-09).

So much for the landscape itself. The Savior himself “stands slightly covered with a hip-cloth and gathering with his left [hand] the folds of his blue mantle, while he grasps the hoe with his right. . . . His flesh is surprisingly modelled in silver tones broken with tender greys. . . . There is a rare beauty in the mild and regular features, which are lighted with compassion as Christ looks down and utters the words. The Magdalen seems to have trailed up to Christ on her knees, and raises her hand to touch him as she rests her left [hand] with the ointment on the ground, her attitude full of longing as she stretches forwards and gazes with half-open lips. One cannot look without transport on the mysterious calm of the beautiful scene, which Titian has painted with such care yet with such clever freedom. The picture is like a leaf out of Titian’s journal, which tells of how he left his house on the canals and wandered into the country beyond the lagoons, and lingered in the fresh sweet landscape at eventide and took nature captive on a calm day a summer’s end. It is the perfection of that poetic scenery which, in early years, attracted him” (1:209-10).