TIZIANO VECELLIO, called TITIAN

(Pieve di Cadore, ca. 1488- Venice 1576)

 

St. Sebastian

 

Oil on canvas

74¾ x 37 ¾ inches
(190 x 96 cm)

 

Signed on the rock, lower left, "TICIANVS"

 

Provenance:

Probably the artist’s gift to Federico Gonzaga, Duke of Mantua, ca. 1530
Lore Heinemann, New York, ca. 1960 – 1990
Sale, Christie’s, New York, May 31, 1990, lot 114, as Studio of Titian, with incorrect provenance and literature
Masoud Rejaee, New York, 1990-97
Private Collection, 1997-present

 

Engraved:

By Raphael Sadeler (1561-1628); cf. Hollstein's Dutch and Flemish Etchings, Engravings and Woodcuts ca. 1450-1570, ed. K. G.Boon, vols. XXI-XXII, Amsterdam 1980, no. 116. Isabelle de Ramaiz, Raphael Sadeler I (The Illustrated Bartsch, 71), Part 2 (Supplement) New York 2007, p. 205, nos. .053 and .053C1, ill. pp. 206-7.

 

Exhibited:

“From Sacred to Sensual; Italian Paintings, 1400-1750,” New York: Berry-Hill Galleries, Jan 20-March 14, 1998, exh. cat. by Robert B. Simon, pp. 24-27.

“Exhibition, 4th June-18th July 2008 at Partridge Fine Art Ltd,” London: Whitfield Fine Art, 2008, exh. cat., pp. 2-5.

“Il Potere e la Grazia, I Santi Padroni d’Europa,” Rome, Palazzo Venezia, October 7, 2009 – Jan 31, 2010”

 

Literature:                        

David Rosand, “Titian’s Saint Sebastians,” Artibus et historiae, no. 30 (1994), pp. 30-37, figs. 8-10.

Diane Bodart, Tiziano e Federico II Gonzaga; storia di un rapporto di committenza Rome 1998, p. 79n.126

Paul Joannides, “Titian and the Extract,” Studi Tizianeschi, IV (2006), pp. 135-148. Fig, 100

Peter Humfrey, Titian;The Complete Paintings, Ghent 2007, p. 127

Carlo Corsato, in Il Potere e la Grazia, I Santi Padroni d’Europa, exh. cat., Rome 2009, cat. no. 2.2

 

This majestic depiction of Saint Sebastian emerged from obscurity little more than twenty years ago and is thus a recent addition to the corpus of works by the great Venetian master.  While Titian’s authorship of the painting has been broadly acclaimed and its date of ca. 1530 accepted, the St. Sebastian is only now becoming the object of more specialized enquiry, considering, among other issues, its relationship to other works by Titian, the circumstances of its commission, and its early history.

 

Titian’s St. Sebastian is a life-size depiction of the Roman martyr, nude save for drapery wrapped about his waist, bound to a tree and standing in a relaxed, gentle pose that could serve as exemplar of Renaissance contrapposto.  Two arrows pierce his body, each drawing a clean trickle of blood but causing no obvious pain or even discomfort.  Sebastian is introspective and resigned, a passive youth with his head downcast and his face in shadows, even as the low vantage point looking up at the towering body, the massive tree to which he is tied, and the panoramic landscape beneath the billowing clouds all serve to underscore his heroic stature.  St. Sebastian was a perennially popular saint for representation, both in his traditional role as intercessor in times of plague and as pretext for the portrayal of the heroic male nude.  In Venice, where there were fourteen outbreaks of plague between 1456 and 1528, the saint was particularly venerated and large-scale independent representations of the saint were painted by some of the greatest masters of the city– Antonello da Messina, Andrea Mantegna, Vittore Carpaccio, Giovanni Bellini, Cima da Conegliano, Giovanni Cariani, Sebastiano del Piombo, among others.

 

San Niccolò ai Frari Altarpiece

San Niccolò ai Frari Altarpiece

The pose of our St. Sebastian is directly related to that of the saint in Titian’s San Niccolò ai Frari Altarpiece, now in the Pinacoteca Vaticana in Rome --a figure singled out for critical praise in Titian’s lifetime and after.  The date of that work is not known with any certainty.  While elements of style suggest the mid 1520s, the signature, using the form “TITIANVS” –not employed by the artist until the mid-1530s– indicates a later one.   Since critics agree in dating our St. Sebastian ca. 1530 –supported by the artist’s use of his earlier signature format of “TICIANVS”– the question remains whether the San Niccolò ai Frari Altarpiece preceded the St. Sebastian, and thus served as a direct model for it, or whether it was painted later, suggesting that the success of the pose in the present work engendered Titian’s repetition of the figure in the public commission.[1]

 

Paul Joannides plausibly argues for the primacy of the present painting, although the visual evidence might suggest otherwise.[2]  In comparing the two Sebastians, that of the Vatican altarpiece seems relatively stocky, perhaps a bit ungainly.  In our independent painting Sebastian appears more lithe and elegant, even as he has become older and heavier, slightly bearded and less epicene, and with greater definition of his physical features.  That paintings might remain in the artist’s studio for years –begun, set aside, revisited, revised, perhaps modified for another commission, or adapted as a gift, and only completed at some remove--further clouds the relationship and chronology between the two St. Sebastians.  The question seems likely to remain open. 

 

Another unresolved issue is whether the St. Sebastian was painted as a completely independent work, as one intended to be paired with another painting of similar dimensions (most likely another saint), or perhaps as one conceived as part of a larger commission (which may never have been fully realized).[3]  Joannides has rightly noted the similarities and complementary features that the St. Sebastian shares with Titian St. John the Baptist (Venice, Accademia) --a work of related size, format, and date-- and suggests that it, or another version of that composition, might have formed a pendant with the Sebastian.

 

Whatever the circumstances of its commission, the painting seems to have remained with the artist until he decided to present it as a gift to his patron Federico Gonzaga, Duke of Mantua, apparently in lieu of other works Titian was unable to finish as planned.   Such is the persuasive thesis of David Rosand, who, in his 1994 article publishing the painting, associated it with a St. Sebastian mentioned in a letter of August 6, 1530, from Benedetto Agnello, the Gonzaga representative in Venice, to the Duke’s secretary Gian Giacomo Calandra in Mantua. Calandra had just met with Titian who, he reported, was disconsolate over the death of his wife, buried the previous day.  During his wife’s illness Titian had been unable to work on two commissions for the Gonzaga, a portrait of Cornelia Malaspina and a painting of “nudes,” but he had sent a painting of St. Sebastian to the Duke.  Calandra inquires,  “Our master Titian desires to know whether his Lordship likes the ‘St. Sebastian’ lately sent to him, which he admits is but an ordinary performance as compared with the ‘nudes,’ and one which he only produced as an entertainment in token of the devotion which he feels for his Excellency.”[4]  The artist’s apologetic reference to the painting –in Italian, a “cosa da donzena,” literally one of a dozen, an ordinary thing—like his obsequious profession of loyalty, are conventional modes of address to his noble patron.  An “ordinary performance” from Titian was likely to have been an extraordinary achievement.

 

Unfortunately, the later history of Titian’s gift to the Duke is not known with any certainty.  It does seem likely to be the same painting as the large, but unattributed, Saint Sebastian in a gilded frame recorded in a Gonzaga inventory of 1540-42: “uno quadro de uno Santo Sebastiano, grando, dorato.”[5]  The association of the present painting with the Gonzaga gift is compelling, but at present unprovable.  Bodart questions it, suggesting without basis that the Gonzaga painting was a copy of the Alveroldi Sebastian, while Joannides fully supports it.  Later references to a large St. Sebastian by Titian in other collections are suggestive, but in the end, unverifiable as well.  The great collector Thomas Howard, Earl of Arundel, owned a life-size St. Sebastian by Titian: the 1655 posthumous inventory of his wife, Althea, in Antwerp included a “Titiano…S. Sebastiano grande del naturale.”[6]  And fifty years later and less than one hundred miles away, a life-size St. Sebastian by Titian, perhaps the same picture, was sold in 1705 from the collection of Jan François d’Orvielle in Amsterdam: “65…Een Gebonde Sint Sebastiaen, Levens groote, van Titiano…165.”[7]  Nineteenth-century London auctions included several references to Titian St. Sebastians, but almost always without indications of size or composition.   It is to be hoped that further provenance research will help establish the painting’s whereabouts before its recent discovery.

 

Writing in 1557 Ludovico Dolce praised Titian’s St. Sebastian in words equally applicable to the present painting or the San Niccolò Altarpiece as,

...a nude male, of the most beautiful shape and with shading of flesh so close to reality that he does not seem painted, but alive.
— Ludovico Dolce (1557)

 

Pordenone, Titian’s rival, is said to have remarked that “in that nude [Titian] had used flesh instead of paint.” In his Life of Titian, published in 1568, Giorgio Vasari extolled the figure as one “painted from life and without any artifice employed to embellish the beauty of the limbs and torso, there being nothing other than what he saw in nature, so that it appears as if a print were taken from the live model, so flesh-like and natural it is; but for all that it, a work of beauty.”[8]

 

What struck these contemporary critics was the absolute naturalness of the figure in both its pose and its execution, the illusion of effortless depiction without the “artifice” of a painter’s manipulation, and the moving portrayal of the martyred saint as a man, a physical emblem of humanity and patient suffering.  These qualities no doubt proved powerfully resonant to an audience seeking faith, intervention, and solace in times of plague and doubt.

 

Further Considerations

Questions of workshop participation must always be considered with Titian’s large-scale works, but, as has been observed by several scholars, there are no demonstrably inferior passages in the St. Sebastian.  In fact what for another artist typically might be delegated to an assistant, the “secondary” landscape, is here one of the most brilliant portions of the picture and manifestly by the master himself.  Thus while some workshop participation may be assumed, the hand of an assistant is nowhere to be found. [9]

 

The painting was recently (March 2005) conserved by David Bull and underwent technical examination and tests at the Straus Center for Conservation of the Harvard University Art Museums in the spring of 2008; reports from each are available.  A symposium on the painting was held at the Palazzo Venezia in Rome on Jan. 11, 2010.   In addition to the scholars cited in the text above, Titian’s authorship of the St. Sebastian has been confirmed upon first-hand study by the following specialists on the artist: Rona Goffen, Frederick Ilchman, Ian Kennedy, Terisio Pignatti, W. Roger Rearick, and Francesco Valcanover.[10]

 

An engraving by Raphael Sadeler records the St. Sebastian with some modifications to the landscape setting.  The inscription on the print – "Titian invenit / Cum pri. Su Pont. et S.C.M. / Raph. Sadeler excudit."–  includes the papal privilege that Sadeler obtained in 1598 and suggests a date for the engraving between that year and 1604, when Sadeler returned to Munich.  As is typical, the print is in the reverse sense to the painting.  A variant by Sadeler, published by de Ramaix (see above), inscribed simply “S. SEBASTIANVS… Raph: Sadeler” is yet again reversed, that is, in the same sense as the canvas. Where precisely the painting was at that time -- whether still with the Gonzaga in Mantua or perhaps placed in some public ecclesiastic setting -- is not known. 

 

Titian’s image of St. Sebastian clearly achieved some celebrity in the artist’s own time and in the years following its completion, as the evidence of several painted copies and variants of the composition indicate.  These include the following (most illustrated below):

 

1) Oil on canvas, 182 x 113.5 cm, Bologna, Pinacoteca Nazionale, on loan to Palazzo Madama, Rome, (inv. 920)[11]

2) Oil on canvas, 132 x 106 cm, Milan, Museo d’Arte Antica del Castello Sforzesco (inv. 23)[12]

3) Oil on canvas, 185 x 72 cm, Formerly Count Alessandro Contini-Bonacossi, Florence; sale, Christie’s, London, July 7, 1972, lot 84, as Workshop of Titian.[13]

4) Oil on Copper, 22 x 16 cm, Sale, Hotel des Ventes de Boulogne (Commissaire-Priseur Etienne Jonquet), March 30, 1990, as anonymous Seventeenth Century[14]

5) Oil on canvas, 193 x 135.5 cm, Florence, Galleria Palatina and Appartmenti Reali, (inv Poggio Imperiale 1860/1861, no.  1213)[15]

6) Oil on canvas, 188 x 92 cm.  Formerly (?) Harrach Collection, Vienna, no. WF 256 with attributions to Pordenone and Natalino da Murano[16]

7) Red chalk on paper, 300 x 148mm.  Bayonne, Musée Bonnat, Inv. NI11761.[17]

8) Oil on canvas, 230 x 130 cm. Cesare Vecellio, Saints Roch and Sebastian, ca. 1580-90. Vigo di Cadore, Beata Vergine della Difesa.[18]

9) An anonymous Madonna and Child with Saints Sebastian and Roch, Sacresty of the Chiesa dei Gesuiti, Venice, cited by Crosato

 

[1] Technical evidence discovered during the conservation of the San Niccolò Altarpiece indicates that Titian first conceived the figure of St. Sebastian in a demonstrably different pose from that seen in the finished painting -- one apparently close to that drawn by Titian in his woodcut of Six Saints.  In that work five saints closely follow the poses found in the San Niccolò Altarpiece, except for St. Sebastian, who is depicted quite disparately-- his head looking up, torso rotated towards the viewer, and with one leg in front of the other.

[2] Joannides, who first treated the St. Sebastian in his 2006 article cited above, has recently (2012) written a short essay on the painting, here attached.

[3] As, for example, the St. Sebastian that remains one part of Titian’s five-panel Alveroldi Polyptych in Brescia, completed in 1522

[4] “Esso Maestro Ticiano desideraria sapper come il Sr nostro è restato ben satisfatto del S. Sebastiano, che li ha mandato ben chel dica che sia cosa da donzena, al respetto de laltro dono chel farà del quadro de le nuede, et che solamente lo ha donato per uno intertenimento, et per segno sella servitù chel porta a sua Excellentia.”  J. A. Crowe and G. B. Cavalcaselle, The Life and Times of Titian, 2nd. Ed. (London 1881), I, 448-440.

[5] Daniela Ferrari, Le Collezioni Gonzaga; L’inventario dei beni del 1540-1542  (Milan 2003), no. 1297.   Less secure, yet nonetheless plausible, would be its inclusion in a later inventory of 1602 as a work by Titian’s master, Giorgione: “un So Sebastiano, di mano de Zorzone da Castelfrancho.” Cf. Vincenzo Luzio, La Galleria dei Gonzaga venduta all’Inghilterra nel 1627-28 (Milan 1913), p. 281, bothquoted by David Rosand, “Titian’s Saint Sebastian: a postscript” (written communication, 2009; attached).  The Gonzaga collection was sold to King Charles I in 1627, but the painting does not appear in any of the posthumous inventories of the “Late King’s Goods.”  The painting may well have left the Gonzaga collection before the sale. Charles I did own a St. Sebastian attributed to Titian.  On the basis of the description in Van der Doort’s 1639 catalogue of the King’s collection, this painting was probably after Titian’s Alveroldi  St. Sebastian.  However, van der Doort does not list this as one of the “Mantua Peeces,” indicating that this painting did not have a Gonzaga provenance. See Oliver Millar, Abraham van der Doort’s Catalogue of the Collections of Charles I (1639) (Glasgow 1958-60). (Walpole Society, XXXVII), p. 9, no. 4.

[6] Lionel Cust and Mary L. Cox, “Notes on the Collections Formed by Thomas Howard, Earl of Arundel and Surrey, K. G.,” Burlington Magazine, Vol. 19, No. 101 (Aug., 1911), p. 284.  Mary F. S. Hervey, The Life, Correspondence and Collections of Thomas Howard, Earl of Arundel (Cambridge 1921), p. 488, no. 360.

[7] Gerard Hoet, Catalogus of naamlyst van schilderyen, met derzelver pryzen zedert een langen reeks van jaaren zoo in Holland als op andere plaatzen in het openbaar verkogt. ('s-Gravenhage 1770), I, p. 84.

[8] Ludovico Dolce, Dialogo della pittura, intitotalato l’Aretino (1557), ed. P. Barocchi, in Trattati d’Arte del Cinquecento, I (Bari 196), p. 203.  Giorgio Vasari, Le vite de’ più eccellenti pittori, scultori, ed architettori, ed. G. Milanesi (Florence 1906), VII, p. 436.

[9] Our understanding of Titian’s workshop practice suggests that it was not a “geographic” one, with assistants executing less significant portions of a painting, while the master focused on the principal subject.  Rather the workshop operated on more of a “temporal” or communal basis, in a collaborative process over time in which membersparticipated in the preparation, evolution, and elaboration of compositions that, when completed, would warrant the full designation of the master’s authorship, whether or not they bore the imprimatur of Titian’s signature, as the present painting in fact does.

[10] David Rosand, Meyer Schapiro Professor of Art Emeritus, Columbia University, author of Titian and the Venetian Woodcut (1976), Titian (1978), The Meaning of the Mark: Leonardo and Titian (1988), Painting in Sixteenth-Century Venice: Titian, Veronese, Tintoretto (1982, rev. ed. 1997), and numerous publications on Titian and Venetian painting.  Paul Joannides, Professor at the University of Cambridge, author of Titian to 1518;. The Assumption of Genius (2001) and numerous articles on Titian. Rona Goffen, former Professor at Rutgers University, author of Piety and patronage in Renaissance Venice : Bellini, Titian, and the Franciscans (1986), Titian's women  (1997), Titian's “Venus of Urbino (1997) Renaissance rivals : Michelangelo, Leonardo, Raphael, Titian (2002), and numerous articles on Titian. Frederick Ilchman, Curator of European Painting, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and author of Titian, Tintoretto, Veronese : rivals in Renaissance Venice (2009). Ian Kennedy, former Curator of European Art, Nelson-Atkins Museum, Kansas City, and author of Titian, circa 1490-1576 (2006). Terisio Pignatti, Former Professor at the University of Venice, Former Director of the Civic Museums of Venice, author of Tiziano : disegni (1979), The Golden Age of Venetian Painting (1980), Titian (1981),  numerous books on Venetian painting and articles on Titian. W. Roger Rearick, Former Professor, University of Maryland, author of Tiziano e il disegno veneziano del suo tempo (1976) and numerous articles on Titian. Francesco Valcanover, Former Soprintendente of the Venetian Galleries, author of Tutta la pittura di Tiziano (1960), L'opera completa di Tiziano (1978) Tiziano : i suoi penelli sempre partorirono espressioni di vita (1999), and numerous articles on Titian.

[11] Rosa D’Amico, in Pinacoteca Nazionale di Bologna; Catalogo generale, vol II (2010), p. 371, cat. no. 247, as after Titian

[12] Andrea de’Marchi, in Museo d'arte antica del Castello sforzesco : pinacoteca. III (Milan 1999), cat. no. 625, as by Alessandro Turchi, called l’Orbetto.

[13] Bernard Berenson, Italian Pictures of the Renaissance; Venetian School  (London 1957), I, p. 186, as by Titian; Harold E. Wethey, The Paintings of Titian, I. The Religious Paintings (London 1969), I no. 63.1.

[14] La Gazette de Hotel-Drouot, no. 12 (March 24, 2000), p. 67 ill.

[15] Tiziano nelle Gallerie fiorentine, ed. Mina Gregori, et. al., exh. cat., (Florence 1978-79), pp. 289-290, cat. no. 81, as workshop of Titian

[16] Wethey, The Paintings of Titian, I, s.v. cat. no. 135

[17] Wethey, The Paintings of Titian, I, s.v. cat. no. 135; Jacob Bean, Les dessins italiens de la collection Bonnat  (Paris 1960), cat. no. 210.

[18] Illustrated in Giorgio Tagliaferro and Bernard Aikema with Matteo Mancini and Andrew John Martin, Le botteghe di Tiziano (Treviso 2009), pp. 296 ill., 302.