Titian’s physician’s portrait uncovered in a basementIt’s hard to imagine that experts in a museum could see, yet incorrectly identify a painting by the prolific Italian painter Titian. But it happened.
By: Sharon Cox, The Jamestown Sun
It’s hard to imagine that experts in a museum could see, yet incorrectly identify a painting by the prolific Italian painter Titian. But it happened.
According to Jonathan Jones, in last month’s story in The Guardian, the portrait of Titian’s personal physician was rediscovered at London’s National Gallery, hidden deeply behind stacks of paintings.
The good doctor’s great contribution to the world was to research and name a sexually transmitted scourge rapidly growing in Italy: syphilis. Jones credits him with heroism and deserving a far greater placement for his discoveries than the bottom of a stack in the vast storage bins of England’s National Gallery.
“Now at last the scientific hero Girolamo Fracastoro, liberated from the neglect that saw his portrait sentenced to oblivion, takes his place among the gods and goddesses, patricians and prostitutes painted by one of the most beguiling magicians ever to wield a brush, “ Jones said, “in what I, for one, believe is the greatest collection on earth of Titian’s paintings.”
Titian (given name was Tiziano Vecellio) was a sensitive and yes, sensual painter of beautiful people. He had what’s called the eye of a painter’s painter. Jones’ opinion is one echoed by those in the know across the art world.
Titian’s “exquisite eye is charged with sensuality,” Jones wrote. “Time after time he portrayed the beauties of Venice, in the long-ago days when the city was famous for its courtesans rather than its tourists (of course there were sex tourists, like the English traveller Thomas Coryate who raves about the courtesans in his 1611 book Coryate’s Crudities).”
Jones said a visitor to Titian’s studio by the Grand Canal in the 1520s claimed the painter was exhausted from sleeping with his models, and that “Titian’s name can be linked with another, more painful aspect of sexuality in Renaissance Italy.”
Syphilis was likely brought to Europe from the Americas following the return of Christopher Columbus. Girolamo Fracastoro studied the pox which Italians called the French disease, because French soldiers carried it into Italy in 1494.
Titian’s portrait may have been done in gratitude for curing his syphilis. He would not have been alone in doing a portrait to thank a doctor for a cure. According to Jones, “It ravaged faces and bodies, and another painting of a doctor in the National Gallery was done by the artist Lorenzo Costa as a thank you for curing his dose (of syphilis).”
Jones said the painting has been hidden since 1924 and the exotic fur Titian depicted draped over the good doctor’s shoulders helped to draw attention of the “fresh, new eyes” now filling the job of curator at the National Gallery.
Art historian Paul Joannides saw the painting and had it sent for cleaning and restoration, where it was discovered to be a Titian, and not some unknown Venetian painter.
Jones said “this must mean the National Gallery now has the finest collection of Titians in the world — it already owned (among others) the elegantly frenzied “Bacchus and Ariadne,” the heartbreaking Easter landscape “Noli me Tangere,” and his portrait of a man with a mesmerising blue sleeve.”
The Louvre in Paris houses “Man with a glove,” one of my personal favorites. It is simple and again, sensuous in its depiction. But it does not include the fur so beloved by so many art enthusiasts. In Jones’ story, he wrote that the lynx wrap gave away the actual painter of the good doctor Fracastoro.
“We are feasting our eyes on a flecked mist of white, gold, brown and black, a virtuoso, nearly abstract performance that has all the magic of Titian,” he said. “With joyous freedom and a casual command of fluffy gossamer colours, the master sensualist has recreated the richness of a lynx fur hung over Fracastoro’s shoulders.”
Fracastoro was the researcher behind syphilis as well as the concept of how contagious diseases were passed from person-to-person — by “spores.”
In a time when garlic worn in a mask was thought to cure the Black Plague, this concept was enormously important. And those who sought the truth by empirical means belonged to a select few — and most were scientists of the first degree, but the concept of blind testing was not yet mainstream.
But exotic animal furs were mainstream, so showing it in a portrait implied wealth or a person of great importance. And the doctor’s diagnosis and treatment, for Titian, was of utmost importance. So to show his appreciation he laid upon his shoulders a rare and much revered animal skin.
Jones said “the lynx is an appropriate animal for such a man to sport on his shoulders, for this cat was famous for its eyesight,” and the lynx was the animal used to represent Italian scientific pioneers. Galileo was among those who belonged to the Academy of Lynxes, which “associated the creature’s eyesight with the pursuit of empirical truth.
The portrait symbolizes what was a great discovery during the pre-Renaissance era. It’s wonderful that it has returned to its proper position and recognition.
If anyone has an item for this column, please send to Sharon Cox, PO Box 1559, Jamestown, ND 58402-1559.