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Melville and Titian’s Women

Melville’s attentiveness to Titian’s paintings as a young man in London in 1849 continued, and intensified, during his travels through Italy in 1857. Melville noted individual paintings by Titian at the Sciarra and Doria Pamphili galleries in Rome, at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, at the Accademia in Venice, and at the Palazza Madama in Turin (109, 115, 118, 122).  His eye for Titian’s women, whether Magdalens or Venuses or living Italians, remained strong throughout. At the Sciarra Gallery in Rome he noted “A Lady by Titian—The crimson and white sleeves—The golden haze of his pictures (Danae)” (NN J 109). The woman in sleeves was then known as Titian’s Bella Donna, which the 1858 edition of Murray’s Handbook of Rome and its Environs called “one of Titian’s finest portraits” (263). Now at the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum in Madrid, the painting is currently attributed to Palma il Vecchio and entitled Portrait of a Young Woman Known as “La Bella”; the “crimson and white sleeves” pale in comparison to the bright red fabric that covers her shoulders and bares her neckline (Wethey 2: cat. X-10; Pérez-Jofre, color plate p. 162).  The “golden haze” in Titian’s Danae is Melville’s phrase for coloristic blur of the shower of gold suspended over Danae’s unclothed body (Titian’s original was in a Naples museum Melville had visited two weeks earlier; J 102, 104, 478; Wethe 3: cat. 5). 

At the Doria Pamphili Palace on March 10 Melville noted “Two portraits of Raphael” and “One of Titian’s women.” The latter must have been the palace’s copy of Titian’s Saint Mary Magdelene in Penitance, whose original he would soon be seeing in Florence, for Melville went on to note: “profuse brown hair on Magdalen—Thought I detected a resemblance between it & his portrait of his wife—only the Magdalen idealized” (NN J 111). The brown hair over the bare breasts is indeed the most striking feature of this painting. Even Wethey, usually quite circumspect, says of the original in the Pitti Gallery, “the sensual appeal of the female nude was the artist’s unmistakable intention in this luxuriant work” (Wethey 1: cat. nos. 120, 122).

At the Pitti Palace and Uffizzi Gallery in Florence Melville’s “excess of pleasure” was extreme. The delights were so numerous, they were “idle to enumerate.” Melville did record in his journal that he was “charmed with Titian’s Venus” at the Uffizi (J 114-16). This is the celebrated Venus of Urbino (fig. 3) that Titian had painted for the court of Eleanor, the Duchess of Urbino, in 1538, a copy of which Melville had seen at Hampton Court eight years earlier.

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Figure 3. Titian. Venus of Urbino, oil on canvas, 1836. Uffizi Gallery, Florence.

At the Pitti Palace, Melville would also have seen the Portrait of a Lady ("La Bella") that Titian had painted for the court of the Duchess of Urbino a year or two earlier (fig. 4).

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Figure 4. Titian. Portrait of a Lady (“Bella Donna”), oil on canvas, 1536-38, Pitti Palace, Florence.

The lady in this painting is clothed in a striking blue dress with slashed sleeves. In 1878 Thausig speculated that Eleanor, the Duchess of Urbino, was herself the model for both of these paintings, though both associations have since “been laid to rest by scholars” (see Wethey  2: cat. 14 and 3: cat. 54). Whoever their models were, La Bella and the Venus of Urbino are two among many female portraits by Titian that Melville admired both as a traveler and a poet.

Melville’s journal entry at the Uffizi Gallery about being “charmed with Titian’s Venus” is probably referring to the celebrated Venus of Urbino, but the Uffizi also owned a Venus and Cupid in which the elongated, reclining goddess is stretched out with her head to the right rather than to the left. There is no doubt about which Venus Melville is alluding to in Clarel when he writes of “Urbino’s ducal mistress fair-- / Ah, Titian’s Venus, golden-warm” (NN C 4.26.231-32).  His phrase “Urbino’s ducal mistress fair” would appear to be a very knowing allusion to the debates in such authorities as Vasari, Valery, and Murray as to whether the actual woman depicted in the Venus of Urbino had been the Duke of Urbino’s wife, his “mistress,” or simply an unknown model (NN J 493-94; Murray, 7th ed, 164). The phrase “ducal mistress” could apply to either the duchess or the mistress of the Duke. The “mistress fair” could apply to the Duke’s duchess in a common sense way, but it can also be read in the way Valery reads a Titian portrait at the Pitti Palace (most likely La Bella) as “his Mistress, called Titian’s fair one.” The phrase “Titian’s Venus, golden-warm” ties Melville’s allusion directly to the “Titian’s Venus” with which he had been “charmed” at the Uffizi in 1857. Valery addresses the “charms” of this female figure in terms the dichotomy between “the perfection the form” (“the voluptuous languor of her features wonderfully express the vague passion of a young woman”) and the “countenance” of the model (whom “it has been supposed that of the duke d’Urbino’s mistress”) (Valery 374, 326).  Melville condenses all these possibilities and speculations into his phrase “Urbino’s ducal mistress fair.”

In the narrative of Clarel itself, this richly ambiguous phrase belongs not to Melville but to “the prodigal,” the most sensuous character in the poem. The prodigal speaks of Titian’s Venus of Urbino as “Earth’s loveliest portrait . . . mysterious as the unfathomed sea.” He also associates her with “Judean grace and form,” that “grave, deep Hebrew coquetry” through which “Bathsheba David won.” Earlier in the same canto he had alluded, in a more subtle manner, to another of Titian’s women, asking “Blue eyes or black, which like you best? / Your Bella Donna, how’s she dressed” (NN C 4.26.228-236, 201-02).  He and Melville could be alluding to the Bella Donna whose “crimson and white sleeves” had caught Melville’s eye in the Sciarra Gallery or to the Portrait of a Lady (“Bella Donna”) at the Pitti Palace.

Melville’s appreciation of Titian climaxed, appropriately, in Venice, where the painter had lived for much of the sixteenth century. On April 4 he took note of two huge religious paintings, “Titian’s Assumption” and “Titian’s Virgin in the Temple” (The Assumption of the Virgin and The Presentation of the Virgin at the Accademia, the gallery into which had been gathered masterpieces by all of the city’s leading artists). Titian had already begun painting The Assumption, a huge canvas for the main altar of the church of The Frari in Venice, when he was still completing Noli me Tangere (Crowe and Cavalcaselle, 1:210). Baxter expresses great appreciation for Titian’s Venuses in The Renaissance of Art in Italy but she uses his Assumption, for which she supplies a full-page engraving (fig. 5), to argue that, though he is “inimitable in pagan themes, Titian’s masterpieces are Christian. Nothing can be more grand and earnest than the ‘Assumption,’ in the church of the Frari, finished in 1518. The beautiful ecstasy of the ascending Virgin, and the grace of her drapery, the living garland of the cherubs which surround her, and the passionate emotion of the Apostles left below, are all marvellous; and all these figures, each with its own life and motion, are toned down to a whole of complete harmony, with not a discordant note, not even an accent too strong” (Baxter 286-87).

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Figure 5. Titian. The Assumption of the Virgin, 1518, Accademia, Venice. Engraved for The Renaissance of Art in Italy, 1883, p. 285.

The day after Melville visited The Assumption of the Virgin at the Accademia was a Sunday. He spent a beautiful sunny morning sitting under an arcade in Saint Mark’s Square watching the world walk by. After a trip out to the Lido for a relaxed day of sightseeing, he made an instinctive comparison between the art he had been seeing in the galleries and the life in the streets. “Numbers of beautiful women. The rich brown complexions of Titian’s women drawn from nature, after all. . . . The clear rich, golden brown. The clear cut features, like a cameo” (NN J 119). Such images from real life Melville no doubt kept as a touchstone when writing of “Titian’s Venus, golden-warm” in Clarel—or when reading about Titian in his books by Vasari, Valery, Hazlitt, or Baxter.