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“Shapes more lax by Titian drawn”

Lucy Baxter, as Leader Scott, published The Renaissance of Art in Italy more than three centuries after Giorgio Vasari published the revised edition of his Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, but she, like he, still saw Raphael, Michelangelo, and Titian as the greatest of all Italian Renaissance painters: “What Michelangelo had achieved for form and Raphael for sentiment, Titian did for color; thus in three great contemporaries the triune nature of Art was brought to its fullest development” (Baxter 291). But what Baxter saw a perfect trinity in art—that Michelangelo excelled in “form,” Raphael in “sentiment,” and Titian in “color”—was seen by Vasari and many of his followers as a deficiency on Titian’s part. This is shown in two passages Melville marked in his copy of Vasari.

The first passage is a comment from Sebastiano pertaining to Titian’s early Venetian paintings: “Fra Bastiano del Piombo . . . told me that if Titian had then gone to Rome, and seen the works of Michelangelo, with those of Raphael and the ancients, he was convinced, the admirable facility of his coloring considered, that he would . . . thus have rendered himself equal to the Urbinese or Buronarroto, as regarded the greatest foundation of all, design.”  The word “design” at the end of this passage was both checked and underlined by Melville (Vasari 5:385). Vasari returned to this subject in his account of the first trip that Titian finally did make to Rome in 1546, when Vasari and Michelangelo went together to visit the studio at which Titian had just finished his painting “of a nude figure representing Danae, with Jupiter transformed into a shower of gold in her lap.” After hearing others praise the work, Michelangelo privately lamented to Vasari that “the Venetians did not study drawing more,” for if Titian “had been aided by Art and knowledge of design, as he is by nature, he would have produced works which none can surpass.” Melville underlined the word “design” in this passage as well (Vasari 5:394-95). He in his later years was becoming a connoisseur of pictorial art who was as interested in the function of design and expression in the art of painting as in the art of poetry he was himself learning to master.

Cecil Gould’s entry on Titian in the Grove Dictionary of Art in 1995 shows how attitudes toward the “design” in evaluating Renaissance art had continued to evolve in the century following Melville’s own death. Gould notes that until the twentieth century many authorities had considered Raphael to be “the greatest of all painters,” whereas more recently many would give that distinction to Titian. Whereas “Raphael was seen as the purest exponent in modern times of the antique idea and was idolized by the advocates of disegno,” beginning with “Vasari in the 16th century,” Raphael’s fame began to decline as “the prestige of antiquity” fell, “and that of Titian, as the exponent of the rival, colore faction, rose accordingly.” Gould ends his entry by noting that “two of the Farrara bacchanals, the Worship of Venus and the Andrians,” that Titian had painted before arriving in Madrid in the 1630s “had already exerted a vital influence on such . . . artists as Poussin” resident in Rome (31:44). Such paintings had also influenced the “Afterward” canto in Clarel, whose title character, after hearing a “masquer” sing rhapsodically about the Golden Age, begins to question “if in frames of thought / And feeling, there be right or wrong.” Clarel wonders

Whether the lesson Joel taught
Confute what from the marble’s caught
In sylvan sculpture—Baccant, Faun
Or shapes more lax by Titian drawn. (C 3.20.33-38)

The “laxity” of Titian’s shapes speaks as knowingly to the “design” question as it does to the moralistic one.