Titian’s ‘Assunta’ in the Frari, a revolutionary manifesto
Titian is the undisputed genius of Venetian painting, considered to be one of the founders of modern painting. Taking a look at some of his works in Venice will not only provide us with a feast for the eyes, but will also help us understand the reason behind his fame.
Titian was born in Pieve di Cadore, a small town in the Dolomites, circa 1483-85, and died of the plague in Venice in 1576. During his long life he painted for emperors, popes and princes. He died at a good old age, having attained great fame.
My ideal tour of Venice includes, right after the Palazzo Ducale (see post by Rossana Colombo), a stop in the Frari church a Venetian Gothic masterpiece. Walking the picturesque streets in the San Polo district, a relatively unknown side of Venice, a majestic church appears, built by Franciscan friars between the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. The interior of the church is an extraordinary visual experience, bringing the secret and unknown Venice to life!
“Assunta” – “Assumption of the Virgin” – 1516-18
In a truly prestigious position within the large church, on the high altar, you will find one of Titian’s most famous works, the “Assumption of the Virgin” or simply the“Assunta”. This painting made Titian a very well-known painter, comparable to Raphael and Michelangelo.
Advancing along the church’s main nave, you will notice that the painting can be viewed from the farthest point from the high altar, as the young Titian was able to use the arch of the friars’ choir to his advantage, making the space narrower, perfectly framing the picture.
The painting tells of a miracle: the assumption into heaven of the Virgin at the end of her earthly life. A miracle and a vision materialise before our eyes: in the lower part we see the Apostles, in the shadow of the earth, thrown into confusion at the sight of the Virgin being carried toward a golden sky with a multitude of clouds and joyful cherubs. The Almighty floats like a large bird in the upper part of the composition, while a wondrous Angel holds the Coronation crown in his hands.
The Virgin is shown in ecstasy, or perhaps amazed herself, bareheaded and dressed like a commoner. This was truly the first of its kind!
What made this large painting (the largest ever painted by Titian) so innovative, so much so that it was initially rejected by the very friars who had commissioned it?
A revolutionary manifesto of the second Renaissance
With this large painting Titian created something completely new in terms of altarpieces.
The miracle of the assumption of the Virgin to heaven is narrated by Titian with great realism, this “massive infraction of Nature” becoming something real and immediate.
There is none of the composure that characterises other works depicting the same subject, nor do we see the Apostles in static poses, but an overall confusion of arms and bodies, exactly as might be expected in real life if, all of a sudden, a young girl, real and nearby, ascended to heaven, carried on a luminous cloud by jubilant cherubs.
Then there is the novelty in terms of how this subject was treated by Titian, compared with typical iconography: no reference to the tomb of the Virgin, to death, to mourning, no landscape, no buildings to frame the scene.
Order and scale are replaced by motion and colour, creating a real visual sensation. A great dynamism animates the scene: the swaying motion of the apostles, the upward motion of the joyous angels, the breeze that fills the Virgin’s cloak. Above all, the sumptuous use of colour – notice the 3 points of red of the two apostles below and the Virgin above, the warm, golden light of heaven, the contrasting areas of light and shadow – illustrates the specific qualities of Venetian painting: the use of colour as a building block, as opposed to the focus on the perfection of the design that is typical of central Italy.