William Brangham: Many people call this exhibition the art exhibition of the year. It is a collection of Titian’s masterpieces that have not met together for over 400 years.
They are on display at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston.
GBH special correspondent Jared Bowen is following him closely.
This is part of our canvas art and culture series.
Jared BowenAt first glance, there is so much to absorb, a master artist working in his most majestic, nude skin, but also in an atmosphere of horror. And this is also to see the reunion of these six paintings by Titian for the first time since the Italian Renaissance.
Nathaniel Silver, curator, Isabella Stuart Gardner Museum: It’s awesome. They have not been together since they left the royal collections in Spain for several centuries.
Jared Bowen: It was the young and future King of Spain, Philip II, who commissioned Titian to write this series in 1550.
According to curator Nathaniel Silver, hiring a Venetian artist was akin to hiring Picasso as your interior designer.
Nathaniel Silver: Titian was a famous artist in Europe. He painted for dads. He painted for princes. He was the personal artist of the Holy Roman Emperor, father of Philip II. Everyone who was anyone wanted Titian.
Jared Bowen: Titian has been writing for over 10 years.
At that time, Philip became king and the most powerful ruler in the world, but the monarch gave the artist complete freedom of action.
Nathaniel Silver: Usually they ordered a work of art, signed a check, and that’s it. This is really an artist with a rather big voice.
Jared Bowen: The series depicts ancient mythological stories written by the Roman poet Ovid, but Titian turned the writer’s epic text into pictures filled to overflowing with symbols.
Nathaniel Silver: Titian calls these paintings poetry. And this word literally translates as painted poems. He puts his own stamp of originality on them.
It can be said to challenge the written word with a painted image. He challenges the brush pen.
Jared Bowen: They reflect and wire about the world of violence.
In Danae’s painting, the god Jupiter turns into gold dust, descending on a naked princess to impregnate her. In Diana and Callisto, Jupiter is again the criminal who attacked one of the nymphs of the goddess Diana.
Nathaniel Silver: Diana points her finger of judgment at Callisto, banishing her from the sacred source.
Callisto is lying here. And if you look closely into her eyes, you will see that she is crying and the other nymphs around her are exposing her pregnant belly. This is nothing less than shaming a rape victim by her peers.
The whims of the gods leave so much mortal fate out of the hands of mortals themselves. This is a complex picture. This is a very complex picture.
And it’s hard to reconcile the beauty of the way he’s written, the fabulous palette that Titian uses, the incredible sunset behind him, with the horror of his plot.
Jared Bowen: The works are metaphors for war and conquest, as well as a world of often violence. It is Titian who offers commentary while working at the peak of his career.
Nathaniel Silver: Painter. He is a virtuoso with a brush. He knows how to apply a minimum of paint to create a specific figure and get the most out of it.
Peggy Vogelman, Director of the Isabella Stuart Gardner MuseumA: One of the things I love about the installation at Gardner is how closely they communicate with each other.
Jared Bowen: Peggy Fogelman is director of the Boston Gardner Museum, the final stop on an international work tour that has been stalled but not derailed by a global pandemic.
Peggy FogelmanA: This is not an easy undertaking, and in fact, it took several years of negotiations.
Jared Bowen: The works remained in Philip’s palace in Madrid for only about 20 years before being scattered throughout Europe. But this one, called “The Rape of Europe,” came to the United States 125 years ago thanks to the discerning founder and collector of the museum, Isabella Stewart Gardner.
Here Jupiter reappears as a bull, this time sneaking with Princess Europa to Crete, where he impregnates her and she eventually gives birth to the first European civilization. It was a prized masterpiece by Gardner, if not unpleasant.
Peggy Fogelman: When it came to Boston, it made a splash. She talks about men bowing to Europe and women looking away. She really liked the emotional responses to works of art.
Jared Bowen: The purchase was so grand that Gardner’s friend, writer Henry James wondered if her father would sell her one of the Vatican rooms next time. And she liked the painting so much that she took a special place in her museum, built in the form of a Venetian palazzo.
Peggy Fogelman: Titian Gallery. She named the entire gallery after this painting, she was so fascinated by it. And everything that is located on the wall and the colors of this fabric really evoke memories of the painting.
Jared Bowen: At the end of the exhibition, Europe returns to an empty space on this wall. The remaining five paintings are returning to their European museums, but according to curator Nathaniel Silver, this unique reunion has made them more relevant than ever.
Nathaniel Silver: We see terrifying things every day, and we have to reckon with these forces beyond our control. And this is exactly what Titian forces Philip to do.
Jared Bowen: For PBS NewsHour, I’m Jared Bowen from Boston.