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Titian, Madonna of the Pesaro Family

Titian, Madonna of the Pesaro Family, 1519-26, oil on canvas, 16' x 9' (Santa Maria Gloriosa die Frari, Venice). Speakers: Dr. Beth Harris & Dr. Steven Zucker. Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

(lively piano music) - [Voiceover] We're in the church of the Frari in Venice and we're looking at Titian's Pesaro altarpiece. - [Voiceover] Right now where we're looking at it is in a chapel right next to the altar but originally and for a long time, this painting stood on a wall along the left side of the nave. - [Voiceover] This is important because it was in back of the altar of the Pesaro's and people would come and pray to it as they walked directly up to it, but also many people would walk by it on their way to the high altar. And so people would see it at a kind of angle and this is something that Titian took into account. - [Voiceover] Titian had painted the Assumption of the Virgin before this for the altar of this church so he very familiar with walking its spaces, and he would have thought about the line of sight as one approached this painting from the left. You could see how that makes total sense. The virgin looks down past Saint Peter toward the patron Jacopo Pesaro at the lower left of the painting. - [Voiceover] Now Jacopo Pesaro was the leader of the papal navy and he had won a significant victory against the Turks, and this was seen as a Christian victory over Islam. - [Voiceover] You can see the coat of arms of the pope in the banner that's carried on the left. - [Voiceover] And there were also the coat of arms of the Pesaro family. We can see a prisoner of war wearing a turban. - [Voiceover] And a soldier behind him so we can understand this as giving thanks for a military victory. - [Voiceover] That solider in the background has been interpreted by some as possibly being Saint George. Saint George is often seen as being victorious over evil. So what we have is a Western Christian viewpoint very much rooted in thinking of the 16th century. - [Voiceover] When we think about this type of painting we might remember Bellini's San Giobbe Altarpiece or San Zaccaria Altarpiece, both important precedents in Venetian painting. That idea of the Madonna and Child surrounded by saints but of course, this painting also includes the donor, Jacopo Pesaro on the left and his family on the right. So it's different than a straightforward sacra conversazione. - [Voiceover] It's different from a traditional painting by Bellini in a lot of ways in large part because of the way that it is offset. Look at the angle that the architecture comes towards us. The Virgin Mary is not enthroned dead center instead she's up high as she has always been but she looks down to her right while Christ looks down to his left to Saint Francis who in turn offers the Pesaro family up to the Virgin, up to Christ. On the other side we see Saint Peter, a key at his feet and he seems to be making a notation in a kind of register of those that are permitted into heaven. - [Voiceover] And he looks down at Jacopo Pesaro as a mediator or intercessor between him and the Virgin. The parrying of the Virgin's head moving one way and Christ moving the other giving us that sense of divided attention between these two important groups in this painting. We think that the two columns which are so large here were not painted by Titian but were added later. - [Voiceover] And what they do is obscure a barrel vault that would have rose up the right wall and then disappear somewhere near the apex of the painting. What is important for me is the color. Look at the vividness of that blue, look at the vividness of the gold especially worn by Saint Peter. That gold is right in the center near that white book. And then on three sides of that we have this brilliant red. - [Voiceover] Unlike the spiritual figures in this painting who sit on those stairs, in the court of heaven, Mary high up on the top step but so on the throne of heaven, the spiritual figures in the painting are all filled with movement and dramatic energy. But the patron and his family are in profile. They have a flatness to them. They register to our eye as occupying a different world, except of course for the youngest member of the Pesaro family who looks out at us. - [Voiceover] That's Leonardo Pesaro. - [Voiceover] And you can see that the way that Mary moves, the way that Christ moves, and even the way that Peter moves in their elegance and in the complexity of their bodies is very high renaissance and can remind us of the work of Raphael or Leonardo. There's a fluidity there. - [Voiceover] There's also a wonderful playfulness. Look at the Christ child. The way that he lifts Mary's veil and encloses himself in that. - [Voiceover] Like a halo. - [Voiceover] Like a halo and the way a child really would play around his mother. - [Voiceover] And he does look as though he needs to be held back, and perhaps that's a metaphor for Mary's anxiousness for Christ's future. - [Voiceover] If you look closely Christ's left foot is up. He's about to take a step out of Mary's palm. And some art historians have seen that stepping as a precursor of the moment when Christ steps out of the tomb. So even shown here as a child we have this view forward of the triumphant end when Christ is resurrected. - [Voiceover] And look at that brilliant illumination on Saint Peter and on Mary, the light coming from the left, from the direction of the entrance of the church, from the direction we would approach this painting which unified our space with the spiritual space of the figures. - [Voiceover] That's done in part through a really complex geometry of this painting. This is pyramidal composition that brings our eye not only up towards the Virgin Mary and Christ, but also deeper into this pictorial space of the painting. - [Voiceover] Or you could see also a pyramid with Peter at its apex too with the donors on either side. And a compositional shape is often used in the high renaissance. - [Voiceover] And look at the way that the mast of the flag helps to offset and balance the mast of the Virgin Mary. - [Voiceover] The sense of illumination, the depth of the color, all of these only possible of course with oil paint which Titian is a master of. - [Voiceover] There is another painting that Titian must have seen. It's just off the nave in a side chapel near the cloister by Paolo Veneziano. - [Voiceover] A painter from the 14th century in Venice and it shows a very similar image with the Virgin and Child, two saints and two donors. And like the Titian, Mary and Christ tilt their heads and move in different directions. - [Voiceover] There's also just like in the Pesaro altarpiece an image of Saint Francis who is shepherding the donor to Christ and the Virgin Mary. Titian would have been familiar with this painting, and we see a painting that looks in no way like the Titian but it has subject elements that are very similar. (lively piano music)