Titian’s Pesaro Madonna
Titian’s Pesaro Madonna
After four years, Titian’s famous painting returns to its original location following a conservative restoration curated by Save Venice.
Titian in Frari Church
We have already discussed the magnitude of Titian, or Tiziano Vecellio (Pieve di Cadore 1483-85 (circa) – Venice 1576) in the post discussing the “Assumption” decorating the high altar of Frari Church (see my post of Titian’s Assunta).
We would like to discuss another masterpiece by the great painter in the same church.
Frari Church is in a fairly central location which is at the same time outside the more travelled routes and will surprise you for its architecture and works and leave you with an indelible memory of Venetian culture and art during your Venetian tour.
A special event gives us even more reason to discuss this great painting: the canvas’s restoration has finally been completed; it took two years and was funded by the private US committee for the safeguarding of Venice, Save Venice. The painting will return to its original location after four years of absence.
Pesaro Madonna: “The Virgin with Child Enthroned, with the Saints Peter, Francis, Anthony and Pesaro donors.
The Altarpiece (oil on canvas – 1516-1526) is in the fourth altar of the left nave: the altar of the Immaculate Conception. It has always remained in its original location. This painting of considerable size – almost 5 x 3 metres – depicts that which in Italian art is called Sacra Conversazione, or sacred conversation.
The Sacra Conversazione as a painting genre
This genre developed in Italian Renaissance painting and depicts, in a single canvas or panel, the Madonna enthroned with Child and surrounded by Saints who do not appear to have relations with each other, but to dialogue – or “converse ” – at a higher mystical or theological level.
This pictorial genre represents the evolution of medieval polyptychs in which the figures of the saints and the Virgin were represented in separate panels from each other, then brought together within a frame. The Sacra Conversazione presupposes a perspective and spatial unit that painters only acquired in the second half of the 15th century with the rediscovery of perspective.
The Pesaro family, great donors
Titian’s Assumption for the high altar of Frari Church had exceptional notoriety in 1518. The bond that the Pesaro family, prominent members of Venetian nobility, had with the church was equally important, as they financed great works within it.
In 1518 Jacopo Pesaro – the Bishop of Paphos on Cyprus Island who had been appointed head of the papal fleet by Pope Alexander VI Borgia during the wars against the Turks – purchased the altar of the Immaculate Conception along with his brothers and in turn received permission to transform it and the surrounding area into a family tomb.
In 1519 Jacopo decided to commission the Altarpiece to Titian, which was not completed until 1526.
Beyond its religious meaning, the Pesaro Madonna aims to glorify the figure of Jacopo as a victor in the Battle of Saint Maura of 1503 against the Turks: on the left side of the painting we can in fact see the celebratory portrait of Jacopo kneeling in the company of a soldier saint holding the banner with the coat of arms of Pesaro and Pope Borgia. He also had the honour of leading the defeated Turk, with a white turban, before the “supreme Christian leaders”: St. Peter, the Virgin with Child, St. Francis and St. Anthony.
On the right of the painting the two saints Francis and Anthony introduce the wonderful family group depicted below: Jacopo’s brothers and the young nephew Leonardo, who is the only figure with his gaze directed outward, establishing contact with the spectator and with life (let’s not forget the funerary purpose of the altar).
Two monumental columns are suspended in air and placed behind the figures of Peter and Mary; they seem to have a purely symbolic function of the Virgin as “doors of heaven”. Above, two angels play with the cross; this motif is repeated below with the open arms of St. Francis.
The breaking of a tradition
A “new” painting which was almost as revolutionary as the Assumption. After centuries in which painters placed the Virgin with Child in a central, frontal, balanced position, in this painting Titian places them laterally, above a tall stand. The composition is diagonal and asymmetrical, thus giving the scene dynamic, ascending movement.
This new type of composition will affect the painters of the second Venetian Renaissance as well as Baroque painting of the 17th century.
Despite the fact that the Virgin is in a decentralized position, she still remains the centre of attention thanks to the play on gazes and gestures: the Virgin looks toward Jacopo Pesaro, the Child looks in wonder at St. Francis (perhaps because he’s looking at his stigmata?) while he plays with his mother’s candid veil. St. Francis and St. Anthony indicate or look at the Pesaro family kneeling at their feet.
The tall columns in the background of the canvas do not create that architectural cage that generally encloses the Sacra Conversazione. The space is open and indefinite.
The colours and consistency of the garments, the fresh and palpable incarnations of the Virgin and Child, the contrast between the brightness of the lower part and the dark clouds above, all contribute to creating a lavish and innovative composition.