Text by Deanna MacDonald
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Not all religious images were intended to hang in a church. Renaissance inventories indicate that ninety percent of artisan homes in the Veneto contained at least one painting; the upper classes would have had more. Often the pictures were of saints but the most popular image by far was the Madonna. Called Nostra Donna, she was considered the protectress of the house and her image was used for private devotion. Near the end of the 15th-century, Italian artists like Giovanni Bellini began to depict the Madonna, not in a stylised iconic setting, but in a naturalistic Terra Firma landscape, as seen here in the Gypsy Madonna, by Bellini’s student, Titian.
One of his earliest masterpieces, Titian was only 22 years old when he painted it. Yet he already shows his complete mastery of High Renaissance techniques. (He also knew his marketplace: he chose a red and green colour scheme, which according to inventories were the most popular interiors colours in middle class homes.)
The painting was given the descriptive ‘Gypsy’ in the 19th-century because of the Madonna’s unusual dark appearance - Venetian painters generally preferred blondes. She is nonetheless lovely with a gentle, melancholic expression and stands with the Christ child before a backcloth of costly fabric that looks as if it had just been unfolded. Reflecting a growing realism in art, she is more like a simple country girl than the Queen of Heaven. A hazy landscape opens up behind with a serpentine road giving the impression of depth.
The image clearly shows the young Titian’s greatest influences: Bellini and Giorgione. From Bellini he appropriates rich colour and lucid structure, an influence easily seen in a comparison with Bellini’s near contemporary Young Woman at her Toilet (also in the Kunsthistorisches Museum). From Giorgione, with whom Titian worked, he gained a preference for earthy colours and dreamlike atmospheres; take note of the mysterious man who sits beneath the tree. Yet the young Titian already displays the unique touch that would make him the most celebrated artist of his time.
The Gypsy Madonna displays his unrivalled sense of colour: expressive hues are repeated in the landscape, figures and backcloth, unifying the composition. The brushwork is masterful, both liberal and subtle. His figures are moulded with fullness, volume and fine nuance, creating an exceptionally expressive surface. The result is harmonious and exquisitely beautiful.
Titian would go on to become the official painter to the Venetian Republic in 1516 and court artist to Emperor Charles V in the 1530s. He enjoyed unprecedented imperial favour, even being knighted by the Emperor. A legend says that Charles V once picked up a brush for Titian, to which the artist responded, “Sire, I am not worthy of such a servant.” The Emperor replied, “Titian is worthy to be served by Caesar.”
Image: Wikimedia Commons
1505–10 Pierro di Cosimo: The Misfortunes of Silenus, Cambridge MA, Fogg Art Museum
1509–10 Hans Baldung Grien: The Three Ages of Man, Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum
1510 Albrecht Altdorfer: Rest on the Flight into Egypt, Berlin, Staatliche Museen
1510 Vittore Carpaccio: Presentation of Christ in the Temple, Venice, Accademia