Sunday, 26 July 2009

Tiziano Vecellio

Flaying of Marsyas 1576
Oil on canvas 212 x 207cm
National Gallery, London
March 2003

This was a wonderful exhibition of over 40 of Titian's paintings, from all periods of his life, crammed into the Sainsbury Wing of London's National Gallery. It was a great opportunity to see this work together and despite the crowds I visited several times.

The painting I have chosen is one of his late works and one of his greatest. I always recognised in his work the superb deftness of touch and use of glazes, but in this painting, seen for the first time, the paint is palpably like flesh.

The setting and grouping of the painting in the gallery added to its’ melancholic aspect. Hung high on the wall between the “Death of Actaeon” and “Tarquin and Lucretia” our gaze is level with Marsyas’ eyes. We look closely to see if he has found a way to transcend the inherent horror of what is happening to him as a result of his hubris.

The painting depicts Ovid’s account of the punishment of the satyr Marsyas for daring to challenge Apollo to a flute contest and then losing. Titian paints a life sized Marsyas paying his forfeit by being hung upside down and flayed alive. Much has been written about which parts of Ovid’s myth Titian has based the painting on, with debate about some of the figures being merged with Christian iconography; for example Apollo doing the flaying has angels wings and Pan carrying a bucket for the blood, who only makes an appearance later in the tales, is a metaphor for the devil. What is not contested is that the figure of Midas, who judged the contest, is a self portrait of Titian.

Midas, once a student of Orpheus (who may be the figure playing the lira da braccio and gazing heaven wards), is painted in the classic pose used throughout history to evoke creative thought as well as melancholy. According to Aristotle, "All extraordinary men distinguished in philosophy, politics, poetry, and the arts are evidently melancholic"[1]. In Titian's Marsyas, Orpheus' music possibly represents a cure for Midas' melancholic despair as his unseeing eyes stare blankly downward at the pool of blood on the ground, bound to the terrestrial reality in front of him. His own mortality horribly emphasised by the small cute dog hungrily lapping up the spilt blood.

So much about this painting is brilliant. The theatre and oppressive intensity created by the closeness of the figures to the front of the picture plane, Titian's vibrant brushwork almost as violent as the subject and the fact that up close the image dissolves into just paint with the figure and ground almost indistinguishable. The painting has rightly been seen as a meditation on mortality and human suffering, it is also a huge source of inspiration to anyone wanting to coalesce a body of brush strokes into the illusion of flesh.

[1] In the fifteenth century, Marsilio Ficino (in the De vitatriplici, 1489) reconciled an Aristotelian connection between melancholic humor and exceptional talent with the notion of Plato's mania - the rapture of a divinely inspired frenzy of the soul which tries to grasp through the senses divine beauty and harmony. Saturn, the source of the melancholic state of mind, was also "united" by Ficino with Mercury, the traditional god of the arts.

©blackdog 2009


  1. This is a very good analysis- perceptive and elaborated in any aspect! I followed your description and interpretation with great interest, for this Greek myth has irritated and angered me since my schooldays (as we read Herodot, Xenophon, and Ovid) because of its indescibable cruelty- and I never understood/understand the bloody action against Marsyas! The man on the right side sitting in the pensive gesture looks very melancholic and he could express also my feeling of sadness while looking at this painting. The satyr Marsyas played so beautifully the flute, he was a real artist, geniously and divinely gifted, an ugly-ridiculous man in the opinion then, not accepted as real human! Was his art a kind of human 'hybris' against the god -as some interpretations of the tale waned to say? Apollo is told to be the god of the light, the clarity and the art (Mercury??)- the story is and remains for me a scandalon for ever! Perhaps for Tizian,too? The contrasts visualized in his painting (see also the artist/musician-figure -dressed in the beautiful Tizian-red- on the left side) must evoke a kind of disgust, compassion and criticism combined with a deep feel of melancholy! It is a painting that may deplore the loss or death of art, a 'painting of melancholia' indeed!

  2. see and read the poem "Apollo and Marsyas" by the Polish author Zbigniew Herbert (1957)- inspired by Tizian's painting!

  3. Thank you Philine - I could have written so much more but sorry if I didn't make it clear that the old man with the pensive gesture is Titian. There are many interpretations of the meaning, but one is that nearing the end of his days he is looking back with an artistic melancholy (see Ficino). Marsyas' hubris was that he thought he was better than Apollo and again this may be Titian atoning for his own sin of hubris during his illustrious career. I should also have mentioned the young satyr holding back the large dog - his is the only gaze at the viewer, one of innocence perhaps

  4. Thanks for the additional remarks- yes, the myth and the painting is beyond any interpretation (unausschöpfbar; concerning discussion about art...). It is interesting that Titian as well as Apollo (playing the kithara) are dressed up in a Titian-red gown- there may be a secret ralationship between them- it is another shade of red than the darker bloody red! One man wears a Phrygian hat.
    I should know more about biography and work of Titian/Tizian! If I one day should come to the National Gallery in London, I must look at all the paintings you have mentioned!

  5. The sculpture of "Marsyas II" by Alfred Hrdlicka (an artist whom I am very impressed with) shows a figure who is rebelling against authorities and force!
    In the Greek mythology the satyr/silen is a Dionysian servant full of fun and sexual desire- the antipode to the Apollinian behaviour- but I don't prefer an interpretation a la Freud!

  6. I note your comments on the gown but think this relates to the figure playing being Orpheus, the teacher of Midas (the titian character) Some readings have the player as a younger Apollo, but I don't think that is right - Apollo is doing the skinning! The confusion comes about because Titian has used two versions of the story in one painting. One where Marsyas fails in his challenge and another later tale, where the opponent is Pan (his pipes are hannging from the tree). In the latter story Midas (Titian) is the judge. So lots of artistic licence so that Titian can make his point - but all that said it is the painting itself which is wonderful.