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In Rome, the most anticipated art exhibition of the year, Tiziano (Titian), has been unveiled at the Scuderie del Quirinale. And it delivers on its promise: to bring together, for the first time, dozens of pieces by Venice’s most famous painter and to show how his style developed over the course of the 16th Century.
Few shows could be more ambitious than this one. The artist, born Tiziano Vecelli in 1490, found success by the first decade of the 1500s, was known across Europe by the 1520s and had become a favourite of such notable patrons as Holy Roman Emperor Charles V by the 1530s. When he died in 1576, Titian wasn’t just the most famous painter in Venice; he was one of the most influential Italian artists in history.
Of course, retrospectives on famous artists run a serious risk: it’s not easy to acquire a real sampling of the artist’s best works, or even those from different stages in the artist’s development. Curators often use pieces by the artist’s peers or students to contextualise the artist or fill in the gaps.
Not here. In Tiziano, which runs until 16 June, one showstopper follows the next. And every one of the 39 works on display are by Titian himself, with the exception of a mosaic by Valerio Zuccato, done after the master’s preparatory design.
From the first room, it is clear that this exhibition is dedicated to the artist’s best pieces. His famed Self-Portrait, a sombre piece showing the master at 75 (on loan from Madrid’s Museo Nacional del Prado), proves he was just as attentive to psychological detail when it came to painting himself as when he painted others. On the adjacent wall hangs the Martyrdom of St Lawrence, a monumental – and spine-tingling – canvas commissioned in 1547 for the Jesuit church of Santa Maria Assunta in Venice, which shows the saint being burned alive beneath a stormy night sky.
From that powerful start, the show reverts to Titian’s early years, particularly as a painter of religious scenes. With its vibrant colours, skilled sfumato (the Renaissance painting technique perfected by Leonardo da Vinci that makes outlines look super-soft and almost smoky), and limpid-eyed Mary, the Madonna and Child from the Accademia Carrara in Bergamo shows the painter’s precocity: he painted it when he was only 17 years old. The show follows the master through his various phases, right up to the 1563 to 1565 Annunciation from Venice’s Chiesa di San Salvador, a piece so innovative, thanks to its sketchy brushstrokes and diffused dashes of light, that painters wouldn’t explore a similar style for another three centuries.
The show’s upper floor explores Titian’s secular paintings, including his famed portraits. Titian wasn’t just talented technically; he was penetratingly perceptive, especially of his subjects’ emotions and personalities. The celebrated Charles V with Dog shows the Holy Roman Emperor at the height of his power, with an expression and pose to match. Some of Titian’s most beloved female portraits are here, too, including La Bella from Palazzo Pitti in Florence. With her honey-coloured hair, arched brows and white skin, she wasn’t just a beauty; she represented the beauty (“la bella”) of the era.
Of course, not every one of Titian’s masterpieces is on display. Among the most notable omissions are the ground-breaking Assunta of the Basilica di Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari in Venice, which skyrocketed the then-28-year-old to fame; his mysterious Sacred and Profane Love from the Borghese Gallery in Rome; and his very last work, the heart-wrenching Pietà from the Accademia of Venice, complete with a self-portrait of 85-year-old Titian as an anguished Nicodemus to the dead Christ.
Aside from those absences though, the only note of discord is – as so often with Italian exhibits – the show’s English translations. Luckily, Titian’s work is brilliant enough to appreciate on its own… even if you don’t wade through the accompanying texts.
Entrance to the exhibition costs 12 euros; you also can book your ticket online.
Amanda Ruggeri is the Rome Localite for BBC Travel. She also writes revealedrome.com.