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100 Best Paintings in London

Text by Geoffrey Smith


Arcadian Dreams / Symbolist Visions


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Titian: Bacchus and Ariadne - 1522-3

London, The National Gallery

Glorious colour — this sums up the first impact of the picture. And it encapsulates the difference between the art of Venice and that of Florence. This picture could only have been made in one city in Renaissance Europe — Venice, and by one artist, the greatest of all Venetian painters, Titian.

One pigment in particular is used lavishly — the ultra-expensive ultramarine which Titian used in the coruscating sky and in Ariadne’s drapery. This was an important commission and Titian’s patron Alfonso d’Este, Duke of Ferrara, must have sanctioned the profligate use of such a precious substance in order to secure the best possible results. The painting was destined to hang in Alfonso’s studiolo — a study where paintings, books and objets d’art were assembled for their owner’s use and contemplation, where music could be played and poetry read in the company of scholars. One work, by Giovanni Bellini, had already been purchased for this room and other paintings had been commissioned from Fra Bartolommeo and Raphael, but they both died leaving only drawings. So Titian, who was already working on one picture, was asked to fill the gaps with another two — all illustrating bacchanalian subjects  — and it seems that Titian may well have used Raphael’s drawings as the basis for some parts of this picture.

Ariadne, the daughter of Minos, King of Crete, had assisted Theseus in his successful quest to kill the Minotaur deep within the labyrinth. She accompanied him when he left Crete but he showed his gratitude by abandoning her on the island of Naxos. There she was discovered by the god Bacchus (Dionysus). He was the focus of an earthy cult whose followers used wine to aid their entry into a trancelike state during which they would tear animals apart and eat their still warm flesh, believing that in so doing they were ingesting the god, thereby guaranteeing their eternal existence. Enraptured by Ariadne’s beauty, Bacchus married her, gave her a seven-starred crown and ensure her immortality by converting the crown into a constellation after her death.

Ariadne is seen on the extreme left, her constellation already suspended in the azure sky above her, distracted from her distraught reverie at the swift exit of her treacherous lover (in the ship seen on the horizon) by the clamorous arrival of her next devotee, Bacchus. Titian has captured him in mid-air as he leaps from his leopard-drawn chariot, his sumptuous, silken cloak billowing behind him creating the most beautiful counterpoint with the perfect sky. The god is accompanied by his drunken, entranced entourage.  One of his female retinue (a Maenad) is about to clash her cymbal; next to her a naked satyr-man is wreathed with snakes — symbolic of rebirth after death because snakes shed their skin. Behind him a similar satyr-like creature waves the dismembered leg of one of the group’s bestial victims.

There had been no tradition of representing these bacchanalian subjects in paint before Titian but his evocation of a pre-classical Arcadia peopled by gods and mythical beings is compelling and magnificently painted.

Image: Courtesy of the National Gallery, London

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Contemporary Works

1521 Jan Gossaert: Descent from the Cross; St Petersburg, State Hermitage Museum

1523 Hans Holbein the Younger: Erasmus of Rotterdam; Paris, Musée du Louvre

c1526 Jacopo Pontormo: Deposition; Florence, Sta Felicita

Further Paintings of Interest

A Hunting Scene

Piero di Cosimo

The Three Philosophers


Pope Julius II