Exploring Titian’s ‘poesie’ collection — an interplay of greed, lust, anger, arrogance, and power
Titian was a prolific artist and an excellent storyteller. In addition to his remarkable artistic skills, he knew how to please his patrons. He commissioned paintings for Europe’s most powerful and wealthy patrons — the Medici, Emperor Charles V, Philip II of Spain, Francis I of France, and Pope Paul III.
Titian’s versatility is reflected in a wide range of subjects he covered in his long career. Portraiture, nudes, anatomy, classical, or religious images — you name it and Titian painted it.
When a portrait of a 21-year-old Prince Philip, son of Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor, and King of Spain, became a success, Prince Philip was added to Titian’s list of royal patrons.
Titian’s most ambitious project in his career was the “poesie” collection commissioned by Prince Philip. He created 6 mythological paintings in a span of ten years from about 1551 to 1562. The term poesie was used because he considered the paintings as “visual translations of poetry.”
Like poetry, the paintings touch our emotions and imagination through their rhythm of color, the language of symbols, and expressive subjects.
These paintings were inspired by Ovid’s Metamorphoses and other classical works. Prince Philip gave Titian the creative freedom to compose, interpret and innovate.
1. Danaë — greed and seduction
This is the first painting in the poesie series. Danaë was the daughter of King Acrisius of Argos who was an heirless king. She was locked by her father to prevent her from ever having a son.
This was done because he believed in the prophecy by a fortune teller, Oracle, that his daughter’s son could be his successor. The only caveat was the newborn would kill his grandfather.
Eventually, Jupiter descended from Mount Olympus and seduced Danaë by showering rain of gold. Danaë was enticed and became pregnant. They had their child, Perseus, who is featured in another painting of the poesie series.
2. Venus and Adonis — unrequited love
Titian painted Venus who tried to physically restrain Adonis, the beautiful hunter, to not go hunting. However, his fate was irrevocable. He was gored to death by a wild boar.
3. Diana and Actaeon — anger
This depicted the moment when Actaeon, the hunter, accidentally encountered Diana and her nymphs bathing. Diana, a princess wearing a crown with a crescent moon became infuriated and turned Actaeon into a stag. Unfortunately, Actaeon was torn to death by his own hounds.
4. Diana and Callisto — power and disguise
In this painting too, Titian depicted the wrath of Diana. As soon as Diana knew about her hunting companion and nymph, Callisto’s pregnancy, she asked other nymphs to strip her and reveal her pregnancy.
Diana wanted to kill Callisto after knowing her rape by Jupiter (who changed Callisto into a bear). Jupiter immortalized Callisto by transforming her into the constellation Ursa Major (the Great Bear).
5. Perseus and Andromeda — revenge
Andromeda was the beautiful daughter of King Cepheus and Queen Cassiopeia.
Cassiopeia believed that their daughter is more beautiful than the sea nymphs. This claim offended Neptune, god of the sea and he sent a monster to destroy Cepheus’s kingdom. The monster tried to abduct Andromeda and she was chained to rocks.
The hero Perseus came to rescue her. He killed the monster and later married Andromeda.
6. Rape of Europa — abduction and rape
Jupiter disguised himself as a bull. Europa approached the bull and tried to tame her by putting flowers around its horns and jumping on the back. The bull (aka Jupiter) took her into the sea and carried her off.
Europa desperately gazed at her companions on the beach.
Titian’s handpicked stories in the poesie series exuded dramatic and intense moments; seduction, greed, lust, anger, arrogance, and power.
But the bigger question is — why did the Greek and Roman mythology let their Gods have flaws?
Because they didn’t see their Gods as all-powerful beings. Their concept of celestial beings was based on the fact that their Gods and Goddesses were similar to humans, the only distinguishable characteristics were that they were immortal, and they were infinitely more powerful.
The Jungian writer, Robert Johnson, believes that “When we dismantled Mount Olympus (home of the Greek Gods) we turned the gods into symptoms.” This is why it is interesting to see the Gods from this viewpoint — what do we have too much of and what are we missing? The Gods may provide a metaphorical clue….