Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
August 24, 2022
Marie Tanner Sublime Truth and the Senses: Titian's Poesie for King Philip II of Spain Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols, 2018. 236 pp.; 77 color ills.; 71 b/w ills. Cloth €110.00 (9781909400276)

This ambitious and at times quite astonishing book aims at a radical new interpretation of the six poesie that Titian, at the height of his powers and fame, prepared for Philip II from approximately 1553–62. The six paintings of the cycle present narratives of the mythological gods, with a focus on the interaction between gods and mortals. The book is divided into three separate sections. Part I sets out the goals and background of the commission, emphasizing the dynastic ambitions of Charles V and how this is developed in earlier Habsburg imagery. Part II contains individual chapters on each of the six poesie. Part III stands as a coda to the explications of the paintings, expanding the discussion to include the element of “mystical ecstasy” found in Titian’s religious paintings, a concept that Tanner argues is to be found in Philip’s poesie as well. Beautifully produced, there is a dazzling collection of supporting visual material drawn from across media—paintings, frescoes, tapestries, illuminated manuscripts, sculpture, coins, prints, printed books, emblemata. The footnotes are not divided according to chapters but run continuously through the text, suggesting that the book has been conceived as a single argument.

In each of the detailed chapters analyzing the paintings Tanner presents a rich brew of references illuminating Titian’s creative powers and uncovering a skein of cosmic associations. The author’s aim is to locate the paintings within the grandiose Habsburg political agenda. The ultimate message is the celebration of Philip as the divinely elected Habsburg ruler who will unite the world under a new Catholic world order.

Since the moment of their creation these works have been referred to as poesie, the use of a term that goes back to antiquity and indicates an equivalency between painting and poetry and the profound ideas that both can express. The term surfaces earlier in Habsburg commissions and is repeatedly used by Titian in reference to the works in his letters to Philip. The “sublime truth” of the title refers to the deeper meanings of Philip’s poesie as hypothesized in Tanner’s unraveling of the narratives. Titian is seen as the inventor of a new art form that presages the direction of Baroque art, presenting complex philosophical ideas—sublime truths—that come to the viewer through the senses. Through the power of vision and Titian’s mastery, according to the author, the complex and intertwined messages of the individual paintings become gloriously accessible, the transformation “of intellectual content into compelling sensual images” (77).

Tanner lays out two factors that may account for the commissioning of the paintings and the specificity of their themes. One is the notable expansion of Habsburg territory during the middle years of the sixteenth century, the period of execution of the paintings. Madrid is made the Habsburg capital and Spain, with its tradition of fervent Catholic devotion, becomes the political and spiritual center of the Habsburg empire. The second is the retirement of Charles V from political life in 1556, leaving his son, Philip II, as heir presumptive to the exalted post of Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. Building on earlier Habsburg cycles and through the mastery of Titian, the six poesie in Tanner’s interpretation become the definitive statement of Habsburg political ideology. The author underlines that the achievement belongs to both Titian and his patron—Titian’s sensitivity to the role that these paintings were designed to play, “governed by his patron’s political and spiritual aspirations” (77).

Sublime Truth complements Tanner’s earlier, prize-winning study, The Last Descendant of Aeneas: The Hapsburgs and the Mythic Image of the Emperor (Yale University Press, 1993), which traced a line of ruler glorification virtually unbroken from Augustus, the first emperor, to its culmination in the rule of Philip II. Tanner argued in that book that the goal throughout this long history was one of world domination, in which the true sovereign would ultimately be Christ, ruler of both the terrestrial and heavenly realms. The present book elaborates on that goal as played out under the aegis of Philip II.     

As has long been argued, the series is for the most part based on Ovid’s Metamorphoses, written in the second century BCE for the Emperor Augustus. Fundamental to Tanner’s argument is her referencing of other sources, in particular visual ones. The author highlights the importance of the nine Los Honores tapestries designed by Pieter Coecke van Aelst for the 1519 election of Charles as Holy Roman Emperor, given their first public viewing at the christening of Philip in 1527. The foregrounding of these tapestries and their visualizing of the Habsburgian political agenda, using much the same cast of characters as Titian, is one of the valuable contributions of her book. A second major visual source brought forward here are the celestial maps, often in global form, known as star maps. These come out of a long tradition, going back to late antiquity and beyond, in which groups of stars are interpreted as physical entities, many of them mythological figures. Star maps had been developed at an early stage of Habsburg patronage. Dürer had already provided an influential example for Maximillian I in 1515. Maps of this type became an integral part of the study of astrology and cosmology that flourished under both Charles and Philip and provide a powerful assist for Tanner in her extension of the narratives into cosmic territory.

The messages of the individual paintings are seen by Tanner to draw on a number of different bodies of information. I am foregrounding here what appears to be the major line of argument for each one. The first of the poesie to be executed depicts Danae seduced by Jove in a shower of gold, an encounter between a mortal and a god embellished with moral overtones. The narrative is interpreted as a kind of psychomachia, a battle for the human soul between good and evil. Danae is identified with the virtue of charity, her hag of a nurse with the vice of avarice. The second of the series, where Venus is abandoned by Adonis eager to return to the hunt, moves into heavenly and seasonal imagery. The narrative of a lover’s leave-taking is identified with the passage of Adonis through the zodiac, signifying the death and rebirth of the seasons. And Philip, linked to Adonis through star map imagery, becomes the protagonist of a cosmic drama.

The two Diana paintings, third and fourth in the cycle, are the heavy hitters of the series in terms of size, complexity of figure display, and multiple levels of meaning. Both show Diana in her realm surrounded by her nymphs—Diana in confrontation with the pregnant Callisto paired with Diana suddenly revealed to Actaeon. In a radical departure from Ovid the Diana/Callisto myth becomes in this interpretation a scene of misguided justice. The disgraced Callisto defends herself against Diana, emerging as an exemplar of virtue and truth, and more specifically, of Catholic truth. The Diana/Actaeon interplay is seen as a battle between the forces of darkness, as represented by Diana, and light, as represented by Actaeon. It is Actaeon, again seen as a surrogate for Philip, who will overcome the dark powers of the moon and preserve Catholic hegemony.

The last two paintings of the series, the Europa and the Perseus and Andromeda, veer even further away from Ovid to draw heavily on contemporary Habsburgian imagery, star maps, and related iconographical statements. In both, it is the unprecedented extension of Habsburg territory that is the underlying theme in paintings that “assert Habsburg dominion of the globe” (125). The series ends in a celebration of the Habsburgian universal monarchy. The Europa, which was judged by Titian himself as the masterpiece of the series, was to have a long-lived influence. In a coda to the Europa discussion, Tanner vaults from Titian to Velazquez, interpreting Velazquez’s Spinners (The Fable of Arachne) of around 1657 as a commentary on the Europa, adding anti-Christian meanings which deepen the discussion of the Hapsburg Christian conquests of Europe.

Tanner indicates in her acknowledgments the important influence for her of the methodology of Erwin Panofsky and the Warburgian school. The material was first broached in a seminar with Panofsky in 1967 at the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University, and later expanded in Tanner’s 1976 NYU dissertation. The mass of material acquired by the author in fifty years of working with it will at times prove overwhelming for the reader, making it difficult to isolate the main lines of the argument. The battery of associations ranges across the full spectrum of Renaissance humanistic thought, including medieval and Renaissance interpretations of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Western and especially Crusader political ideology, permutations in interpreting the classical world of the pagan gods, Renaissance investigations of astrology and cosmology to name only some of the major reference points. Keeping track of it all is often hard going. In its proposing of an entirely new direction for Titian studies and filled with multiple lines of exploration, the book will prove as challenging as it is stimulating for many readers.

Debra Pincus
Independent Scholar