Titian’s First Masterpiece
On 3 April 2012, a new exhibition entitled “Titian’s First Masterpiece” opened at the London National Gallery. The event marks the first time that the Hermitage canvas “The Flight into Egypt” is being shown to the public since its restoration.
The canvas is one of the better-documented works of the Venetian Renaissance school, whose nearly five-century history can almost be traced right back to the moment of its creation. “The Flight into Egypt” was viewed by Giorgio Vasari, and was described in the writings of another well-known Titian biographer, Carlo Ridolfi.
The painting made its way to Russia as part of the collection of the First Minister of Augustus III of Saxony and one of the most prolific art collectors and patrons of the 18th Century – Count Heinrich von Brühl, from whose descendants Catherine the Great acquired it in 1768. By 1769, Jacob von Stählin was already making the respective entry in his “Chronicles” referencing the “List of the most important paintings in the gallery created by Her Majesty, Catherine the Great, in the new Winter Palace in Petersburg.” Later, the canvas was transferred to Tauride Palace and then, in connection with the restoration work begun there in 1843, dispatched together with other paintings to Gatchina Palace, hanging in the picture gallery that was to remain at the location until 1924.
“The Flight into Egypt” conveys little of the mature manner – much-less later style – of the master. At one point, in fact, the suggestion was even advanced that it was likely the work of Paris Bordone (the painting was published in the Yesteryear (Starye Gody) Review with just such an attribution in 1915), though the traditional attribution was later returned to Titian. Yet, it remains to this day one of the artist’s least-studied and most elusive works.
The answers to many questions were to have been provided by the restoration and thorough revelation of the painting from many centuries’ worth of accumulated over-painting and restoration materials. Naturally, the assignment of this task was accompanied with the degree of caution one would expect in such a case – available information on previous restorations first had to be studied, after which a technical analysis of the integrity and condition of both the canvas and its over-layers of paint had to be performed.
The first reports of the restoration of Titian’s painting are relayed to us by Jacob von Stählin. They refer to January 1769 – a time when the Brühl Collection was still located in the Winter Palace. Subsequent movements of the painting to the Tauride Palace and then the Gatchina Palace were not accompanied by significant restorative endeavors. Following the painting’s return to the Hermitage in 1924, only preventative restoration work was undertaken.
During the course of modern restoration work, infrared light revealed certain adjustments by the author (the burro’s lifted leg and figure outlines of some of the animals are two-dimensional), though it failed to uncover any significant changes in overall composition.
The most astonishing and unexpected revelation was provided by an X-ray of the painting. It showed that the author had initially sketched an entirely different composition – one placed squarely in the center of the canvas and including three figures smaller in scale than the characters depicted in “The Flight into Egypt.” The subject of this composition could be aptly described as the “Adoration of the Child.”
The “Adoration of the Child” visible on the X-ray photo was initially intended for a canvas format and size identical to that of “The Flight into Egypt,” and it’s possible that the artist had planned an entirely different relationship between the figural and landscape elements that we see today.
There is every reason to believe that “The Flight into Egypt” was Titian’s first major work, created circa 1507. It was created by an artist who – if we are to believe Vasari – had switched from the Giambellino to the Giorgione studio and had undoubtedly come under the tremendous influence of the latter’s creative personality. First and foremost, this was expressed in the color composition of the painting, in the very idea of placing figures against a landscape backdrop – a landscape imagined as a pastoral idyll.
At the same time, the interpretation of such motifs, the rendering of subjects both obvious and hidden, evidence Titian’s resolute artistic individuality. Before us is the grandest landscape not just of the Venetian but of the entire Italian school of the early 16th Century. The very concept is an expression of the young artist’s uncompromising innovation.
The very idea, first hatched, of presenting the “Adoration of the Child” against such a sweeping landscape panorama rested heavily on the interpretation of the theme by Giorgione – in terms of composition, it was associated with certain well-known Giorgione versions of the same or similar subjects. Be that as it may, it is nonetheless proof of the young artist’s active search: by rejecting the standard compositional arrangements of the day, Titian is developing the idea of the landscape background, one used on numerous occasions by Giorgione in the "Adoration..." themes. That said, the search itself travels in different directions: alongside the innovative approaches and concepts of Giorgione, the influence of the Northern – Dutch and German – masters are also clearly detected in the painting. The initial interplay between figures and landscape lends the latter an almost panoramic-like quality: a similar spatial concept can be found, for example, in “Rest on the Flight into Egypt,” attributed to Joachim Patinir, and also stored at the Hermitage. Atypical for Venice and the iconographic staging of the “Adoration of the Child”: Saint Joseph holds the swaddling in which Christ is wrapped – a motif Titian also borrowed from the Dutch masters.
It is difficult to say just who or what prompted the artist to change the subject to “The Flight into Egypt” – the theme is almost entirely absent from the Venetian school of the day. If the artist is experimenting – adding something new – in the “Adoration of the Child,” he certainly behaves as a traditionalist in “The Flight into Egypt” in his creation of a composition that harkens back to the Giotto fresco on the same subject at Cappella degli Scrovegni. By moving the figures to the left-hand side of the canvas, Titian has given them steady, unhurried movement across the plane of the painting. The strict laconism of the Giotto-inspired composition, infused with the rich tones of the oil palette, combined with the dappled herbarium of the foreground and well-developed landscape of the background, leaves the painting resembling a tapestry more than a fresco.
The figures of the main characters changed radically after cleaning: the tone of their garments are dramatically different, both in terms of color and light-and-dark modelling, which now more closely resembles that found in earlier works. The relationship between figures and background revealed in this latest version has given them a degree of monumentality, while the framing of the composition lends “The Flight into Egypt” a certain archaic quality. The angel prototype harkens back both to the angels of Bellini and the so-called “page-boys” of Giorgione. But the Giorgione motifs are most strikingly rendered in the landscape. The intricately-developed vegetative cover of the foreground preserves the almost botanical-expository precision found in Leonardo, Durer and sometimes Giorgione himself (simply compare with the foreground in “Judith”).
It is noteworthy that, having created “The Flight into Egypt,” Titian never returned to the subject again – indeed, it would seem that the next to deal with it in Venice, some thirty years later, was Jacopo Bassano, incidentally choosing the same, Giotto-Titian compositional arrangement.
Compiled on the basis of materials provided by A.S. Artemeva, Ph.D. in Art History
The Flight into Egypt