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Titian, Pieta

Titian and Palma il Giovane, Pietà, c. 1570-76, oil on canvas, 11'6" x 12'9" (Galleria Dell'Accademia, Venice). Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

(lighthearted music) Male Voiceover: We're in the Accademia in Venice, standing in front of a very late Titian. In fact, a painting so late in his life, that not only did he intend it for his own tomb, but it was unfinished at this death. Female Voiceover: Parts of it were finished by another artist after Titian's death. Male Voiceover: We have some evidence that the angel holding the large candle may have been added by that later artist. Female Voiceover: The painting was intended for his tomb in the church of the Frari here in Venice, that Titian painted two other great paintings for; his Assunta, or the Assumption of the Virgin, and also his Pesaro Madonna. So, this was a church that he was very familiar with, that he had a relationship with. Male Voiceover: And where he is buried; although, there was a dispute, so this painting was not added. This is a Pieta, which was a rare subject for Titian, and we think that it would have been on the right wall, so you would have approached it at an angle; and it helps to explain the composition. Female Voiceover: That's true, generally, for Titian's work, that he was very aware of the approach of the viewer toward the painting in the way in which the figures depicted related to the viewer. Male Voiceover: Well, look at the composition of this painting. You have a very stable architectural form in the middle, and that might well create a sense of stability; but in Titian's hands, it doesn't, because he's got this wonderful diagonal that moves up from the lower right corner through the figure that is draped in red that some art historians think may be St. Jerome, through the shoulders of Christ, to Mary, wearing blue, finally to Mary Magdalene, who stands, and then that line is stopped by her right hand. Female Voiceover: She strides forward towards us, although she looks away from us. Some art historians think that the figure St. Jerome, who's kneeling and grasping the hand of Christ, looking up at Christ and Mary, may be a portrait of Titian himself; and Titian does appear, we think, in the Pieta, in a painting within the painting that we see on the lower right. There's a small image of two figures praying toward a Pieta. Male Voiceover: That's stacked right over the family crest, which you can see just below that canvas. Female Voiceover: That identification with Titian and his son is pretty certain; so this is personal image for the artist. It's clear that Titian often worked on paintings for long periods of time, returning to them again and again, which is something you can do with oil paint; but, to me, it makes sense that you might not finish a painting that's destined for your own tomb. Male Voiceover: The forms that frame the central figures are enormous and powerful. On the left, you see Moses holding the laws, holding the staff that he'll strike a rock with to create a spring miraculously. On the right, you see a sculpture of a pagan holding a cross. Female Voiceover: So, Moses, from the Old Testament, the Sibyl figure from classical antiquity, who prophesied the coming of Christ, and so therefore, she holds a cross, and these two figures represented a sculpture because they are from the older pagan and Jewish traditions. Male Voiceover: But, Titian also refers to his own history much more directly in this painting. In the center, it is this massive piece of architecture, this apse. We can see this rusticated masonry, and a broken pediment at the top, but inside you see this concave space with a mosaic at its top that reminds us of the mosaics in San Marco in Venice, that were referred to [unintelligible] of Giovanni Bellini, the great Venetian artist that came before Titian. These were formative paintings for Titian's own early career, and here, in his last years, he refers back to this history. Female Voiceover: Although the painting is unfinished, we do get a sense of how oil paint allowed Titian and other Venetian artists to work on paintings over a long period of time to be expressive with their brushwork, to have a sense of immediacy and individuality in that brushwork, to create forms that were open, that lack a kind of finality. Male Voiceover: That's right, this painting feels mutable. It feels as if Titian might have continued to push the paint, and that form might resolve, or in some places, continue to dissolve. Part of the power of this painting has to do with the fact that it is represented at night, but it allows Titian to have these figures, these forms, emerge out of darkness. Female Voiceover: The light almost seems to emerge from Christ. There is that interest in spiritual light, that is something we see in the work of Titian going back to his other paintings in the Frari, like the Assumption. The figures are life-size, the painting itself, is probably about 10 feet high. This is still, though, a very intimate and personal image. (lighthearted music)