Museum Secrets

The Masked Matriarch

January 14, 2021 Ashmolean Museum / Lucie Dawkins / Catherine Whistler Season 1 Episode 14
Museum Secrets
The Masked Matriarch
Show Notes Transcript

Catherine Whistler, Keeper of the Western Art Department, introduces us to Titian’s Triumph of Love, an amusing painting which hides a secret: it was once the cover of a portrait of one of the most formidable women in Venice.

Titian’s Triumph of Love – View it here

If you want to take a closer look at Titian’s Triumph of Love, you can view it at the link above, or visit the podcast page on the Ashmolean website:

Producer: Lucie Dawkins
Presenters: Lucie Dawkins and Catherine Whistler

About Museum Secrets: The curators at the University of Oxford's Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology have been recording bite-sized tales of the wonderful, and sometimes unexpected, life of a museum. We can’t wait to share them with you! Join us every weekday for 3 weeks, from 28 December onwards, for a daily dose of cheer.

Lucie: This is Museum Secrets from the Ashmolean. 

I’m your host, Lucie Dawkins, and every day I’ll be bringing you a bitesized undercover story from our collections. Step in through the front doors, and join me for some joyful, wonderful, and sometimes bizarre tales hidden in the objects. We will be going behind the scenes and beyond the labels, into dark corners of the storerooms and into the minds of the curators.

Today, we walking up the stairs immediately to the right as we enter the museum. At the top of them, we are entering Gallery 43. In it, there is a round canvas by the Venetian Artist Titian, showing a small boy balanced on the back of a lion. Here’s Keeper Catherine Whistler, to tell us more.

Catherine: Like a circus rider, this curly-haired boy balances on the back of a roaring lion. Look at the lion’s sharp teeth and snapping tail – he’s crouched like a coiled spring, a wild animal whose paws are on the very edge of the picture.   We should be terrified by this ferocious lion invading our space - but he’s really looking rather puzzled – how come this small boy is in charge?  The wings and the bow and arrows are the clue: this is Cupid, the god of love.  Despite his small size, Cupid has real power.  The power of love will tame us, no matter how strong we are!    Once we fall in love that’s it, resistance is hopeless, we are under the spell of our beloved.

Cupid – Love – conquers us all.   And it’s happening in a sunny landscape with the blue waters of a calm sea and rugged mountains in the distance. We’re in a garden at the edge of a lagoon, with a hedge enclosing the space – some of the greens have turned a bit brown over time.   We’re meant to think of Venice as the place where love’s arrows have hit home.  

Actually, we are looking through a round window that catches the light at the right – the lion’s paws are on the windowsill.  The canvas was originally almost square-shaped – it lost its corners when it was cut to a circular shape, much later. 

 Imagine walking into a room and looking at this picture on the wall with its illusion of an open round window.  The image of Love triumphant would have been utterly arresting. 

Titian painted this around 1543-1546.  We can see some changes of mind as he thought about how to make the image really sing.  If you look above Cupid’s head, you can see the shape of his curls drawn higher up beneath the thin paint of the sky –and then a little to the right, the outline of a much larger wing.  

When I first saw this painting about fifteen years ago, it was covered in a brownish sludge – the dirt and the soot of many decades in country houses – and it had really fallen off the radar in art history – was it even by Titian?  To cut a long story short, a lot of detective work was done in libraries and archives, and I had help from art historian friends in Venice.  And, the sludge was gradually cleaned off and technical investigation of the painting carried out by Jill Dunkerton in the National Gallery – I had a lot of fun visiting Jill in her conservation studio and seeing the rich colours and free brushwork of the painting slowly come to light.  

We staged an event early one morning in the National Gallery, with a gathering of art historians talking about this newly-revealed painting – it was on an easel and we were able to move it about and compare it directly with Titian paintings on the walls.  

Today, we’re certain that it’s by Titian, and we know that he painted it for a friend, a wealthy merchant in Venice called Gabriele Vendramin.  And, Titian’s image actually references one of Vendramin’s prize possessions, an antique bronze showing Cupid trampling on a lion. 

Yet mystery and secrecy surround this Cupid, in that the picture had an active role in hiding something precious from view.   It was exciting to discover that this painting was made as a cover for a portrait of a Venetian noblewoman, also by Titian.  In grand Renaissance homes, painted covers hiding other pictures were fairly common, though they fell completely out of fashion by about 1600.  It’s incredibly rare to be able to identify one today: it’s been possible to do this by studying historical documents and inventories relating to the Vendramin collection.

So, if you visited Gabriele Vendramin’s home in Venice, you were not permitted to look at Titian’s noblewoman, who was a secret presence on the wall.   First you had to admire the Triumph of Love, with its message about true love conquering all – indeed, conquering all in Venice. 

Only then, when you were in the right frame of mind, would the hidden woman be unveiled.  So this was tantalising, with the suspense of anticipation, and the delayed pleasure of recognition.  You can imagine the sociable gathering of friends, the chat about the mystery, the moment of revelation, the reactions in seeing the hidden portrait.  

It’s fun to think how this might have happened – could the Triumph of Love have been hinged to the frame of the portrait to slide across, or to open up like a door, or was it lifted off at a wave of Vendramin’s hand?  We don’t know, because it’s been cut from a rectangle down to a roundel - and we don’t know what the original fittings would have been.

But who was hiding beneath the image of Cupid and the lion?  Titian’s concealed portrait doesn’t survive, but from descriptions in the archival record I’ve been able to show that Elisabetta Querini Massola was the woman in the portrait.   Elisabetta was a friend of leading writers and intellectuals in Venice. Her beauty, grace and virtue were celebrated in poetry.  Titian had painted three portraits of her by 1544 for different people, and sonnets were written in praise of these images.  One poem compared the power of Elisabetta’s eyes with Cupid’s arrows – if she gazed on you, you could not avoid falling in love – and compared her with Venus rising from the waters of the lagoon.  Titian’s witty image chimes with this and might even have inspired the poem.  

But Elisabetta was not a shrinking violet or a pretty young maiden.  She was quite a character – ambitious and forceful, knowledgeable about art and antiquities. [We don’t know her date of birth but she was already married in 1512 so would have been about 15-16 years old by then – and she died in 1559]  By the time Vendramin acquired her portrait, Elisabetta was in her mid to late forties, and she was conducting a campaign to protect her son, Pietro.  Aged 17 and newly-wed in 1537, Pietro had violently stabbed his young wife, before fleeing to Mantua to take refuge in a monastery.  Pietro was sentenced to death for her murder. Several years later, Elisabetta and her husband Lorenzo Massola were still desperately trying to secure him a pardon through their influential connections.  

I find it fascinating that this playful painting can act as a portal into a multi-layered story.  One strand tells how Gabriele Vendramin had the portrait with its bespoke painted cover installed in a room that showcased Titian’s art – and that the cover spoke to his collection of sculpture, medals and antiquities.  Another strand tells of concealment and revelation as part of an enjoyable social experience – a sociable fiction about poetry and paintings, about Elisabetta as an artistic muse, forever beautiful with a gaze that would inspire love.  Yet, Vendramin and his friends who could look at the hidden portrait also knew about the real life of this Venetian matriarch and her family, including murder and the ferocity of maternal love.        

I hope you’ll find this picture as revelatory as I do – delving into its history has been thrilling, and reminds us that curiosity about works of art can bring us into unexpected places.  

Lucie: If you’re not able to see Titian’s Triumph of Love in person in the Ashmolean, you can always enjoy it from him by following the link in the podcast notes.Like the teapot we met earlier this week, it’s amazing what we can discover by looking underneath objects. Tomorrow’s story is all about another woman hidden in an artwork. If you are enjoying the podcast, please do rate, review, and share it, to help other listeners find us.