Iconographic analysis - a Titian case study

November 10, 2011

...internal perfection produces the external. The former we can call goodness, the latter beauty.
Marsilio Ficino
Commentarium in Convivium Platonis de Amore

The iconographic study of art has become an increasingly esoteric pursuit. That art of any period contains symbols representing deeper meaning is universally accepted. In Renaissance art specifically, complex readings are required of certain works - attempting to coalesce a dazzling array of motifs into a unifying construct - one which is not explained in notes left by the artist, but by an art historian speculating on the topic centuries later.

The language found in this area of study uses terms borrowed from literary analysis and philosophy - often in French and Latin, adding an unnecessary layer of complexity, and perhaps pretension. That these commentators sought to explain these concepts with complicated terminology was detrimental to its survival as an accessible element in the study of art.

Iconographic analysis via systematic review
Evidence based approaches are shaping many fields of study. Whilst integral to the medical field, its use in art history is justifiable, and has already been practised by some authors to a degree. The primary aim of a systematic review is to examine the breadth of quality research on a given topic or question. Professor Salvatore Settis' 1994 volume, Giorgione's Tempest - Interpreting the Hidden Subject contains an overview of the range of interpretations offered on the famous Giorgione piece. It is a noteworthy example of a systematic review applied to iconographic analysis. To date, such a review has not been attempted for Titian's Sacred and Profane Love.

New approaches have revitalised the study of Renaissance symbolism, albeit in a plainer form of language. Marcia Hall's landmark use of the phrase "making strange" in the 2011 publication The Sacred Image in the Age of Art can be seen as one of the turning points in this process. This was followed by Alexander Nagel's astounding The Controversy of Renaissance Art, also published in 2011 - whose very first chapter dives confidently into The Effects of Estrangement. Such titles have rejuvenated Renaissance studies - looking at the era with a sense of its truly radical and momentous nature.

Hidden amidst this is the elusive subject of the deliberately ambiguous "mystery painting" - an elaborate scheme of symbols and references - designed to perplex and please patrons and observers. Increasingly, art historians studying more thematically complex works such as Giorgione's Tempest, or the elaborate motifs seen in the works of Northern masters, have acquiesced that a daring sense of ambiguity was a common thread for pieces designed for private enjoyment:

Professor Salvatore Settis on patrons and mystery paintings

From a chronological point of view, such paintings were popular throughout the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. The thematic cacophony of works by van Eyck, Bosch, Carpaccio and Giorgione (to name a few) were seen as the painterly response to the powers of literature. The advent of the printing press had increased the availability of texts, a process formerly dependent on manual production. In Venice, The Aldine Press published volumes of classical texts as well as  contemporary constructions inspired by classical themes - such as the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili.

Making assumptions about what an artist did or did not know of certain texts or themes is perilous. In the absence of documentary evidence, it becomes a speculative discussion with no clear end. In saying this, we must also explore the variety of readings offered on a particular work. It is arguably more constructive to be aware of the rich complexity of meanings offered across time, reflecting on their contribution to the body of knowledge on a particular work or artist. 

As a case study, I would like to present Titian's famous work depicting two women sitting atop a sarcophagus filled with water, stirred by a cupid or putto.  An inventory entry dated 1693 gave this work its enduring title - Sacred and Profane Love - based on a popular literary theme of the time. Prior to this it had been listed as Beauty Adorned and Unadorned. It is widely considered the jewel of the collection at Palazzo Borghese in Rome, and ascribed a 1514 completion date.

The history of interpretation of this work is emblematic of the history of the study of Renaissance art across the sixteenth century in particular. As adeptly summarised by Eugene B. Cantelupe in an 1964 article published in The Art Bulletin, the interpretations ascribed to Titian's famous duo fall into three broad categories: Literary, Philosophical and Allegorical (which I will expand to include Sacred Synthesis. ie. mixing sacred and pagan allegories)

To deny artists inspiration arising from text is to deeply misunderstand the creative process, particularly during the Renaissance. An increased availability of printed materials attracted those with a yearning for knowledge - whether for the pursuit of gain, or a deeper internal mechanism. To cater to potential patrons, it was in the interests of artisans to have an awareness of these themes, including the way they had been depicted by previous artists.

The study of altarpiece contracts will reveal a common stipulation of a work to be executed modo et forma - thematically translated as "in the style of".  Hence, artists' borrowing or "quoting" from previous depictions was not only an acceptable practise, but often contractually stipulated. Whilst the sixteenth century brought many things to painting, a reckless independence from the intellectual whims of patrons (private or institutional) was not one of these. 

For Titian's enigmatic duo, we can go back as far as 1917 to find a literary interpretation, with Louis Hourticq's exploration of that famous Aldine text, Hypnertomachia Poliphili - generally attributed to Fra Francesco Colonna - and often described as a romance. This reading gained footing with Walter Friedlaender's 1938 addition of the tintura delle rose element of the story - a rite performed by Cupid at a fountain, indicating Venus and Polia , the two chief female characters in the novel. This was further explored by Rachel Wischnitzer-Bernstein in 1942, who enlightens and befuddles with what she describes as an ut pictura poesis interpretation. In less ostentatious terms, this means "a poetic picture" or visual interpretation of a literary source. Taking a closer look at two particular woodcuts from Hypnerotomachia, we discover some striking similarities in Titian's design for the sarcophagus: (image below, adapted after Friedlaender)

Left-Top: The Horse of Mischief   Right-Top: Tomb of Adonis from the Hypnerotomachia woodcuts

A detailed exploration of Renaissance iconography will inevitably include Erwin Panofsky - whose writings are arguably infused with ego and brilliance in equal measure. Modern commentators, such as Margaret Koster-Koerner have - perhaps accurately - labelled his work as "part manifesto." Prior to his landmark texts, the study of the internal meaning of Renaissance art was the pastime of a select circle of individuals. Panofsky's method, perhaps inadvertently, empowered subsequent generations to contemplate the Renaissance beyond galleries and churches - into classrooms, theatres and as part of general public discussion in various media.

Panofsky is credited with the first philosophical reading of Titian's great work, which still endures in many texts today. Panofsky identified the women as a reference to Marsilio Ficino's commentary on Plato - the personification of "Twin Venuses" one representing transient earthly beauty and the other a more heavenly and enduring love.

The source of this is Ficino's 1469 commentary on Plato, whose exploration of loves seems to fit aspects of the painting quite well:
....the internal perfection produces the external. The former we can call goodness, the latter beauty. For this reason, we say that beauty is a blossom of goodness, by the charms of which blossom, as by a kind of bait, the hidden internal goodness attracts beholders. But since the cognition of our intellect takes its origin from the senses, we would never be aware of and never desire the goodness itself hidden in the heart of things if we were not attracted to it by the visible signs of external beauty.

Ficino's work proliferated throughout Italy in the early sixteenth century, including Venetian publications. The popularity of texts and artworks exploring the theme of love and the symbolic role of women is a well-documented area in Renaissance studies, of which works by Charles Nelson and more recently Rona Goffen and Ingrid Rowland are particularly noteworthy.

This philosophical reading was supplemented in 1948 by R. Freyhan, who speculated that the similar looking female figures represent the dual nature of Caritas (Charity), with Amor Seculi (earthly love) and Amor Dei (heavenly love) being ascribed to the gowned and semi-nude figures respectively. In 1958, Edgar Wind's account in Pagan Mysteries in the Renaissance presented the first approach examining the relationship between the compositional planes of the piece. He concluded  the overall theme of the work as a "figured dialogue de voluptate," describing the relationship between beauty and love. Wind astutely noted this theme on the frieze adorning the sarcophagus - where animal passions towards violence are chastened by love.

Unfortunately, there is no agreement on what exactly the frieze image refers to. It is indeed possible to find analogous images in the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, whereas others look for sacred sources, or compare it to similar devices employed by Titian in other works - such as the relief seen in Alexander presents Jacopo Pesaro to Saint Peter (c.1506-1511).

Anyone interested in forming a more complete picture should be aware of the range of interpretations that exist, which is more informative than picking one and trying to mould it to fit a pet theory. This should not discourage those looking to present new interpretations, though this must be done with a more complete awareness of what has preceded.

Sacred and Profane Love presents a complex array of symbols. An allegorical reading of these will attempt to ascribe meaning to each one, determine a possible source - which may be visual,  literary (including sacred texts) or philosophical - and attempt to merge it into an overall meaning. This mode of distillation is no mean feat - particularly to works with such a large amount of symbolic items.

Those who have investigated this piece in more detail will know one thing for certain - there is no consensus on its meaning. Recently, the original disposition towards a philosophical reading has given way to more straightforward interpretations - with a focus on documentary evidence, literary and visual source material. This is nicely summarised by David Rosand:
Panofsky has given the Sacred and Profane Love its canonical interpretation. His reading, however, has hardly gone unchallenged. Recently, the debate over the exact nature of the iconography of the picture has reached a particularly feverish pitch, as serious scholars—in what can only be described as anti-Panofsky hysteria—have vehemently argued against any philosophical, especially Neoplatonic, dimension to the painting. Insisting on what they call “straightforward” interpretation, these critics reject the reading of the image as a representation of twin Venuses, terrestrial and celestial…Instead, they prefer a more prosaic path. Forced by the presence of Cupid into acknowledging the identity of the nude figure, at least, as Venus, they see the clothed beauty as the bride herself, the painting is thus to be retitled “Laura Bagarotto at the fountain of Venus."
Mixing Allegories - Sacred Synthesis
Adding to the Caritas theme established earlier by Freyhan, Cantelupe's fascinating 1964 exploration takes themes from classical (Ovidian) sources, and presents them as a synthesis to deliver a sacred message:
Hence, Titian's roses, rosebush, rabbits, and landscape caccia scenes allude generally to the theme of love,"but specifically to the love of Venus for Adonis-a legend of pain, sacrifice and resurrection-which the Renaissance allegorized into a myth of rebirth and eternal life. Therefore, the flowers, animals, embossed basin--and even the sculptured fountain which suggests the tomb of the resurrected Adonis and Christ-may allude to the dual nature of love in Platonic philosophy and Christian doctrine. Such a mixture of pagan and Biblical conceptions, which the "solvent of Neoplatonism" made possible in Renaissance thought," would certainly have been understandable as well as acceptable to Titian, his patron, and his audience.
There is also a mixed Christian and pagan thread in Friedlaender's 1938 reading, which further illustrates the Renaissance exploration of the art and literature of the ancients to re-purpose and distill its elements to serve an overriding Christian theme. From his description of the Hypnerotomachia scene represented by the Tomb of Adonis woodcut (image above):
Here, so relate the nymphs, once a year on the day of the death of Adonis, Venus comes out naked from the basin and here, in the company of her son, she effects the mystery of the tintura delle rose, the transformation of the white roses into red ones by her own blood. It is a kind of symbolic transubstantiation. Here, too, pagan and Christian ideas are mixed: the mystery of love, symbolized by the white and red roses, enacted through the infusion of the Divine blood. After having finished their story the nymphs address the young bride Polia, who has meanwhile gathered flowers for a wreath for Poliphilo...

Iconographic analysis
Having covered the spectrum of responses to Titian's Sacred and Profane Love, the only factor that can be stated for certain is that interpretations of it were variable. To counter this variability, it may be more useful to start from the assumption that the complete meaning of the painting intended by Titian is not known. As Cantelupe states:
In the absence of a text or program for the painting, the addition of another interpretation to those already in existence seems unnecessary, perhaps futile...
This does not stop Cantelupe from forwarding his own reading, which can essentially be categorised as falling into the allegorical category. It is a clever synthesis, admittedly, but like the myriad other readings already mentioned, takes us no close to a definitive answer.  Indeed, part of the problem in this sense seems to be an inability for some to admit that a comprehensive explanation may never be known.

A more informative approach to iconographic studies is to consider the painting at a compositional and thematic level - to look at the work in different planes as well as a unified entity. Approaching a symbolic Renaissance painting in this analytical manner will provide more information than to speculate on interpretations alone. Artists were often aided by scholars in these thematic constructions. In this instance it has been argued that Pietro Bembo may have been involved - as he was known to the Aurelio family (who received the work) and to Titian. However, there is no surviving evidence to verify his direct involvement, so it must remain in the realm of speculation.

This analytical approach will produce a more complete set of features to explore separately, identifying possible sources, and attempting to combine them into a collective entity. It is also possible that a unified meaning is not viable - in which case a detailed summary of its constituent elements will be more useful than an interpretation based on selective elements. This mode of selective reasoning can introduce potential weaknesses to a reading. eg. why concentrate on the figures and sarcophagus and not on the different backgrounds indicated in the landscape? Only by looking and exploring all elements can we come closer to reconstructing the process used by the artist.

To achieve this, it is useful to obtain a decent image of the painting: link. Then, either printing it out or using an electronic imaging program, divide the image into spatial planes. This will vary between individuals, although the goal is to describe the key areas of space on the work. In my attempt, I have divided the picture into four parts. A central line is important because there are obvious differences between the left and right sides of the painting, both in the foreground figures and background scenes.

A: Left background  B: Left foreground C: Right foreground D: Right background ; an additional space could be delineated for the sarcophagus itself and the space within

Having divided the planes, proceed to mark as many individual features as you can. Below is my attempt at this. In addition to the two female figures,  there are over twenty features to look into. Quoted descriptions of the background scenes are via Cantelupe:

A: "A cityscape, dark and crowded"  B: Horse and rider, left background C: Rabbits D: Flowers  
E: Floral tiara

F: Gloved hand and urn G: Gloved hand and flower H: Cupid/Putto stirring waters I: Flower (rose?) at sarcophagus rim J: Horse and rider on sarcophagus

K: A plate L: Described as a rose bush M: Shield of Aurelio family N: Flowing water from spigot - ?feeding the rose bush O: Flower at base of rose bush, centre foreground

P: A standing male beats another male lying below, on sarcophagus Q: The semi-nude's urn, with plume of smoke R: "A pastoral landscape, bright and spacious" - A church steeple is also noted S: Shepherd(s?) and animals T: Horse and riders, with hunting dogs, right background

U: Right foreground flowers V: Butterfly, right foreground

The next step in this analytical process is to examine the existing literature on the topic. Cantelupe's summary suffices until 1964, though much more has been written since, including recent works such as Titian's Women in 1997 by Rona Goffen, and Ingrid Rowland's 2008 title From Heaven to Arcadia - which is in some ways a response to the gender politics that pervades Goffen's approach. Finally, having gathered information on the elements in the painting, its documentary history and its interpretations - can this be synthesised into an overall construct?

Is there a unifying theme in Sacred and Profane Love - or should we be content to accept it as a probable wedding commission for Laura Bagarotto for her marriage to Niccolo Aurelio? I would like to clearly state I have no inclination toward picking a favourite theory. I enjoy the challenge the painting poses, and am content to have it as an enduring mystery. This does not mean the readings offered to date are incorrect, simply that I prefer to explore each without making a leap of faith on one particular outcome. I value this approach as more fruitful - most texts on the topic are either quite vague or forcefully guide the reader down a particular path. Hopefully, this post will encourage readers to approach this, and similar works methodically. 

Titian's Sacred and Profane Love continues to delight viewers precisely because it is a tale with no end. Scholarly jousting has produced important documentary evidence - tentatively identifying the patron who received the work, and speculating on the individual who commissioned it. There are valid arguments for a literary, philosophical and allegorical (including sacred) meaning. It is useful to examine each in detail, as this approach will provide more information.

It is pleasing to note, the exploration of symbolic meaning in Renaissance art is in a state of revival, as scholarly commentators and independent researchers explore visual and documentary sources for a new thread of meaning to add to the already rich selection. In an upcoming guest post, Dr. Francis P. DeStefano will present a new reading of Sacred and Profane Love as the "Conversion of Mary Magdalen," a popular subject in Renaissance art. Readers are encouraged to approach it with the level of scrutiny the painting was created to elicit. 

Ames-Lewis, F. Neoplatonism and the Visual Arts at the Time of Marsilio Ficino in Allen, MJB. Rees, V and Davies, M. (eds) Marsilio Ficino : his theology, his philosophy, his legacy. Brill's studies in intellectual history. 2002. pp.327-338

Cantelupe, EB. Titian's Sacred and Profane Love Re-examined. The Art Bulletin. Vol. 46, No. 2 (Jun., 1964). College Art Association pp.218-227 link

Ficino, M. Marcel, R (ed) Commentarium in Convivium Platonis de Amore. 956. Paris pp.178-179

Friedlaender, W. La tintura delle rose (the Sacred and Profane Love) by Titian. The Art Bulletin. Vol. 20, No. 3 (Sep., 1938). College Art Association. pp. 320-321 ; 323-324 link

Goffen, R. Titian's Women. Yale University Press. 1997.

Hall, MB. The Sacred Image in the Age of Art. 2011. Yale University Press

Januszczak,W. (feat. Settis, S) The Tempest by Giorgione. Every Picture Tells a Story. (documentary) ZCZ Films. 2003

Koster, M.L. The Arnolfini Double Portrait: A Simple Solution. Apollo. Sept 2003. pp.3-14. link

Nagel, A. The Controversy of Renaissance Art. 2011. University of Chicago Press

Nelson, JC. Renaissance Theory of Love - The context of Giordiano Bruno's Eroici furori. Columbia University Press. Full text at Questia link

Nethersole, S. Devotion by Design. Italian Altarpieces before 1500. National Gallery Company. London. 2011

Panofsky, E. Studies in Iconology: Humanistic Themes in the Art of the Renaissance. New York, 1939. pp. 148-160

Rowland, I. From Heaven to Arcadia - The Sacred and The Profane in the Renaissance. New York Review Books. 2008. pp.119-147

Rosand, D. Goffen, R. (ed) So-and-So Reclining on Her Couch. Titian’s Venus of Urbino.  Cambridge University Press, 1997. pp. 37-62

The Electronic Hypnerotomachia Poliphili. 1997. Delft University of Technology and MIT Press. Accessed 8 November 2011 link

Wind, E. Pagan Mysteries in the Renaissance. 1958. pp.121-128

Many thanks to Dr. Francis P. DeStefano from Giorgione et al and Prof. Monica Bowen from Alberti's Window for their generous resource sharing.


Glennis said...

A very thought provoking post. It reminds me not to jump to any facile interpretations. My mind so tends to want to settle on meaning this isn't always easy. It reminds me a little bit of zen training (avoiding the black and white in favour of reality :)

Looking forward to the Conversion of Mary interpretation.

Unknown said...

Cheers for the comment Glennis. I like the Zen anaology! From the feedback I am receiving, I am pleased to have presented a case for a methodological approach to this topic.

I simply found it frustrating to read so many accounts of this painting (and others like it) - each of the authors absolutely convinced of their reading without any sound reasoning for it. These statements are made as if they are fact, when they could instead be presented as possibilities - which is exactly what they are.

It was nice to see some 'meta' thinking as early as 1964 with Cantelupe's identification of the futility of striving for a definite answer in the absence of a program from the artist.

We of course always welcome new interpretations - but as long as the authors check their intellectual vanity at the door and are willing to have their reading picked apart for what is omits, as much as it includes.

Kind Regards

Paul Doughton said...

Another very good post, and thank you so much for the decent image. In many ways I wish I had never seen this painting… the Sacred and Profane Love doesn’t require another interpretation, it requires a translation – because what it states has been written for all to see. But just how does one articulate visual language into textual? I appreciate that one of the most difficult tasks of any writer is ‘to get ones self out of the story’, less we become burdened by ‘interpretation’. Strangely, even when the programme is laid out, the art-historical personality is so strong that it still cannot see, it argues, whereas a philosopher and psychologist have no problem with 'an sich'.

Alberti's Window said...

You've put a lot of work into the details and images that you have provided! I look forward to reading Frank's post.

I think your approach makes sense, and I can see why you do not subscribe to one theory more than another. In art history, we usually explore this "systematic review" in the guise of a historiographic analysis. Through historiography, we explore possible interpretations and also show how interpretations for a work of art have morphed/developed/disappeared over time.

In the academic world, however, I also feel like scholars and art historians today want to further the discourse on a subject. Presenting a systematic (or historiographic) review is very helpful, but I think many scholars also want to feel like they are contributing something new and definitive to the topic-at-hand. Perhaps this pressure stems from the way that academia is established (e.g. tenure track positions, pressure to publish, etc.)?

Due to this pressure to contribute to the discourse, I think most writers take a very "convinced " or strong stance in their reading of a work of art. (I think the key for scholars, though, is to maintain flexibility and be open to the possibility of being compelled by other arguments, too - or several arguments, for that matter!)

I appreciate the willingness of these "convinced" scholars to at least try and solve the mystery for works of art (and to bridge the "melancholic" gap of history, to borrow from Michael Ann Holly). If these writers that you mentioned had each been endlessly inclusive of previous theories regarding "Sacred and Profane Love," then there wouldn't be a myriad of interpretations for you to enjoy! :)

Unknown said...

Cheers for the comments!

@Paul - I notice your own blog is dedicated to exploring the different readings for this work in more detail. I hope you can complete this task without any great injury to your sanity - I just took a glimpse at it and its seemed like an inescapable labyrinth!

@Monica - Good point. Historiography is a meta-analytical process. This being said, there is very little on Renaissance historiography out there - what has been published is largely about the 'myth' of the Renaissance and setting aright problematic areas like the history of science. For specific iconographic masterworks, there is very little from this perspective outside works such as Settis on 'Tempest' and Brill's 'Companion to Aphrodite' published last year.

After reading Hall's and Nagel's books, I contemplate the likelihood of an entire historiographic volume (or sys-review) dedicated to "Renaissance estrangement" - It would be welcomed as a landmark text heralding a new, accessible and exciting approach to Renaissance iconography.


K. Bender said...

Once more a most gratifying post for many reasons, not the least for its critical approach to endless 'academic' interpretations. The comments of Alberti's Window are indeed to the point: the pressure to publish has a harmful effect in all sciences.
But let's return to the painting itself: it is a totally new composition - like so many works of Titian - and this is why we consider it as a genuine master work of a giant. It seems there are no predecessors for this theme and I do not know about similar compositions of the same breadth by any successor.
With regard to the past - and forthcoming - interpretations, I add three quotations of well-known art historians:

* "the painter stepped beside the poet and the humanist and said : I express my own self " (Gombrich, E. H. 'Botticelli's mythologies - A study in the Neoplatonic symbolism of his circle' in Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 8: 7-60, 1945, p.60)

* "..the Renaissance (...)is thought to have looked on classical literature as a source of pleasure, aesthetic as well as sensuous.
As a logical consequence, it must have wished to banish allegory, which hid or disguised the real figures of the Gods." (Seznec, J. 'The survival of the pagan Gods - The mythological tradition and its place in Renaissance humanism and art'. Harper Torchbooks, New York. 1961. p.96)

* and the words of Panofsky to avoid over-interpretation: "...the use of historical methods tempered, if possible, by common sense."(quoted on p. 46 in Schmidt, P. 'Aby M. Warburg und die Ikonologie, mit einem Anhang unbekannter Quellen zur Geschichte der Internationalen Gesellschaft für Ikonographische Studien von Dieter Wuttke' Gratia : Bamberger Schriften zur Renaissanceforschung. Heft 20, Bamberg.1989).

They help me, not being an art-historian, to understand and enjoy the paintings.

Sedef said...

"...the deliberately ambiguous "mystery painting" - designed for private enjoyment"

These comments bring to mind Titian's painting cover "Triumph of Love" meant to conceal as well as stimulate conversation.

Maybe a Renaissance audience expected to be engaged intellectually?

Fascinating post as always.

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