After intense speculation and appeal after appeal, hopes are now high that Titian’s Diana and Actaeon, which has been on long-term loan to the National Gallery of Scotland in Edinburgh, will be saved for the UK. The National Galleries in London and Edinburgh are expected to raise the £50 million (US$74 million) to purchase the painting from the Duke of Sutherland. It is a colossal sum of money. But the country could not let it go abroad. Why? Here, detail by detail, are the elements that make it such a revolutionary work, with a sensual power that inspired legions of artists — though none ever equaled its hedonistic magic and undercurrent of mystery.
At the work’s heart is one of the most sumptuous collections of nudes ever painted. The goddess Diana and her nymphs are bathing in a woodland pool when the hunter Actaeon chances by. It’s a story that gives Titian ample opportunity to glory in women’s bodies. In Renaissance Venice, where Titian was the leading painter, courtesans (basically high-class prostitutes) were a recognized part of society and artists regularly portrayed them — but never more ecstatically than here, in what is in all likelihood a brothel scene cloaked in myth. Titian’s brushstrokes tingle with desire. This is not just a painting of nudes, but one that goes in among them, almost making love to them.
Oil painting was, it has been said, invented to portray flesh, but it was also invented to portray reflection. Mirrors complicate and enrich Titian’s imagined world. The mirror balanced on the fountain, the bulbous glass vessel next to it, and, most of all, the green water in which forms become spectral and eerie — all serve to multiply the pleasures of looking.
SUGGESTIVE PINK VELVET
Soft stuff is everywhere — the rich red velvet on which Diana is sitting, the pink hanging that fails to hide the bathers from a male voyeur, various drapes and towels. These sensual velvet textures are erotically suggestive.
A FINAL CELEBRATION OF NATURE
The loveliness of the trees and grass, the sky’s blue clouds, give reality to a mythological scene. Moreover, the autumnal leaves remind us that Titian was getting old. His vision of the nude is a final lingering celebration. Carnevale, the great festival of Titian’s Venice, means: “Flesh, farewell!” It is a last hedonistic bash before Lent. This is Titian’s carnival.
MYSTERY OF THE HIDDEN NYMPH
The nymph who stands with her back to us looks different from her companions. Her skin is olive, her muscles masculine. It’s unsettling. Has a man infiltrated Titian’s nudes? A non-European? The mystery turns you into Actaeon — you’re right there in the picture, wanting to see more. And, like Actaeon, you’re punished, if only with a tease. It’s a prompt to make you look beyond surface beauty to the whole mystery of existence.
PETS TO LIGHTEN THE TONE
A comic contrast of “male” and “female” pets lightens the grandeur of the scene. Actaeon’s hunting dog is bravely confronted by Diana’s little yelping lapdog. This is also a portent of what happens next in the myth: Diana will turn Actaeon into a stag to punish his voyeurism, and he will be torn to pieces by his own hounds.
A GENIUS FOR COLOR
Black slaves were becoming more visible in Titian’s Europe. Yet his portrayal of Diana’s African attendant is as much an example of his genius for color as of his ability to perfectly evoke their place in Venetian society. You are dazzled and mystified by the brightness of Diana’s pearl-like skin; through juxtaposition, the black skin helps create that dazzle. Does Titian, too, include a black servant to show that he is actually portraying the courtesans of Venice? Is she the crucial clue that this is a brothel scene?