With its Byzantine inheritance, Venetian compositions were traditionally symmetrical, and this pattern carries through into the high Renaissance sacra conversazione, with saints grouped symmetrically on either side of the Virgin’s throne. But with increasing realism compositions began to open up and spread over the surface of the picture. This is obvious in the work of the Bellinis, Carpaccio, Antonello da Messina, and then Giorgione. Venetian mastery of light and air ate away hieratic symmetry from within; an excellent example is a Bellini altarpiece with St. Christopher in San Giovanni Crisostomo (1513). Though the composition is perfectly balanced and regular, the vivid and convincing fall of light and shadow ensures that it doesn’t feel that way. It’s the particularity of the way that light falls that produces an effect of the real. But the most dramatic and important example of an open and asymmetric composition is Titian’s Pesaro Altarpiece (1519-26). The diagonal architecture is startling, unprecedented, perversely asymmetric and very difficult to justify in any narrative, compositional or logical terms. The top third of the painting is occupied by two columns that have no apparent reason to exist, except that they do. In all the many times I’ve seen the picture I have yet to discover any relation between these columns and the architecture of the Frari. Since Titian has posited the existence of the columns then they must extend the full length of the picture, but this kind of logic goes nowhere except where the artist wants. Arbitrariness that unfolds as necessity is the formalist concept of artistic freedom.
The art historian would explain Titian’s break with the arrangement of the traditional altarpiece, well represented by Bellini’s Enthroned Madonna and Child (1418) in the same church, by pointing out that it is part of a larger strategy to raise the status of the artist from medieval craftsman to independent inventor—and Titian was the object of much conversation on this topic even during his life. Words like sovereignty, mastery, and genius hardly seem out of place, but while the contemporary viewer might use those words to describe how the work feels, the scholar who shows us what those same words mean in historical terms can hardly open up the experience of the work any further by doing so. An ahistorical, “formalist” reading can still grasp the matter fully.
Further, the way that the drapery of the Virgin becomes confused with that of the saint in front of her, the way that the two differently coloured shapes appear to be joined, makes them break out and lift off, attracting and distracting the eye. This picture may mark the invention of consciously abstract shape, and as such testifies to Titian’s astonishing modernity.
Titian’s compositions are usually a little clunky, favouring the contingently awkward over the balanced arrangement, but at its best they spread out over the surface in wonderfully orchestrated groupings of limbs. The closest comparable designs are in the works of Michelangelo, especially the Pauline frescos, and these, together with Titian’s most complexly composed works, are the Renaissance sources for modern open and all-over compositions. This might be a good way to look at the two mythologies formerly in Edinburgh, Diana and Callisto and Diana and Actaeon (both 1556-59), but the latter is something a little different. It is based on a pyramid, and so it might be a response to the strengths of Raphael and Leonardo, a Venetian dialogue with the high Renaissance in Rome and Florence. Certainly the pyramid is a stable form, but Titian makes it truly massive by letting it tip toward the left, as if sinking into the soft ground under its own weight.
In early Italian paintings each discrete area is outlined and filled in with a colour. That colour might be accompanied by another that models form, as in areas of drapery for example, but the overall effect is that of a quilt or map, with adjoining patches of different colours. Oil on canvas brings new structural possibilities; paint can be built up in layers. The bottom layer, the toned ground, shows through, and colour floats free of drawn boundaries. The overall colour harmony of a picture has to be integrated with a tonal scale that is also a structural method, and this is a difficult task. Filling in every area with colour right up to the edge would destroy the new kind of unity that the method allows, while a stress on tone tends to make colour into a secondary element. Actually this is no diminishment of colour’s expressive beauty, just a more complex and layered kind of organization, but the main tendency until modern times was toward an overall brownness. In the seventeenth century underpainting became darker and less transparent, and colour became a matter of accents added to a fundamentally tonal picture. Caravaggio, Poussin, Magnasco, Rosa—the Baroque examples are many. In his old age Titian gets darker, browner and more tonal—he must have been very important for later developments in tonalism—but the two mythologies in London are right on the cusp; underpainting shows through everywhere, but colour is also present everywhere. The red of the curtain, the emerald of the landscape and the deep deep blue of the sky in Diana and Actaeon are rich and intense despite their darkness, but certain effects, like the thick blob of white paint that makes the sparkling water of the fountain in Diana and Callisto, are only possible with oil paint and toned canvas. Here Venetian colourism is perfectly balanced with the new tonal structure. Among Titian’s followers the two streams divide; Tintoretto is the tonalist, with floating areas of colour, often glazed, and Veronese stitches his brushstrokes together and spreads rich opaque colours evenly in every quarter of the canvas. Tintoretto paints broadly and tonally, Veronese colours everywhere in small strokes for an overall tapestry effect, but the moment of balance achieved in Titian’s mythological pictures is a touchstone of modern painting, not equalled until Cézanne.
In Titian’s mythologies, pictorial realism is accompanied by psychological realism, and this is another important origin of the modern, and even, though it is hard to justify this view, of modern abstraction. The expression on the face of the nymph under Diana’s arm in the Callisto is acutely revealing. This picture is a chamber comedy of jealousy, intrigue and petty passions; it could be a novel or play about court life, in fact that might have been the real value of an erotic mythology for its princely collector—that it was a kind of masque, or masquerade. It seems that Titian is looking forward to Watteau.
The origins of modern realism in secular mythological pictures deserves more examination. Titian’s example here is important for Veronese’s enigmatic mythologies. They should be seen less as allegories and more as poetic stagings of modern experience. The so-called Allegory of Love (c. 1575) in London is a great example; I would place the four panels in a different order than is currently suggested, starting with the marriage and ending with the jealous delirium, and I would pay special attention to the continuities of character between the panels. It’s a short novel, or even a movie, and the tale presupposes a very modern mobility of affection. What I would like to suggest, though again it will be hard to convince, is that the subject matter is also important for abstract art. Let me make a stab at this unlikely thesis.
I’m saying that one kind of abstraction comes out of realism, not out of the hieratic, symmetrical and geometrical art of ornamental patterns, Islamic mosaics, icons, or religious fetishes. The abstraction I see emerging in Titian is particular, specific, unique, and not in any way general. But in all literature, including theatre, the modern turn to the specifics of daily life involves confrontation with generic and conventional forms. Both Titian’s mythologies and Veronese’s Allegory of Love are painted courtly masques, so in one sense completely conventional and mannered, even as their technique brings an unprecedented vividness and realism to the depiction—including the nudity, not possible in theatre at that time. But somewhere in this rich mix is a connection between love as the desire for a particular, singular object, and sex as repetition, that resonates with the aesthetic struggle between conventional forms and realism as the experience of a vivid, never to be repeated here and now. I guess art had to become secular to become abstract, and secular means erotic instead of religious.