Works of art are sometimes about other works of art. The savvy viewer can see in them how artists position themselves in relation to familiar exemplars. These relationships vary, of course, from the hero worship of Raphael and Michelangelo to the iconoclasm of modern art. The epitome of Mannerist elegance, Cellini’s Saltcellar pays diminutive homage to the Medici tombs in San Lorenzo, Florence. Manet’s 1863 Déjeuner sur l’herbe, depicting two fashionably dressed young men picnicking with a nude woman, translates Titian’s Pastoral Concert(ca. 1510), in the Louvre, into a distinctly modern idiom. And by adding a mustache and the letters “L.H.O.O.Q.” to a reproduction of the Mona Lisa, Marcel Duchamp turned Leonardo’s masterpiece into an off-color pun.
All of these quotations, as distinct from mere imitation, reflect a self-consciousness on the part of their makers that goes back to the Renaissance. Titian, for example, quoted Michelangelo in his Danaí in Naples to highlight the differences between their styles. Titian’s earlier rival had been the most mysterious of painters, Giorgione. According to Vasari, Titian grew dissatisfied with his master, Giovanni Bellini, and turned to Giorgione for inspiration. Giorgione, who was older than Titian, had probably also been Bellini’s pupil before inventing a new type of painting that aimed to rival poetry in its evocative power. Combining secular subjects with a softly atmospheric style and a dreamy, introspective mood, Giorgione’s work had a profound impact on Titian, who quickly fell under his spell.
At first they were colleagues. From 1508 to 1510, Giorgione painted the canal facade of the headquarters of the German merchants in Venice, while Titian undertook the less important facade overlooking the street. Whether Titian was working as Giorgione’s assistant or independently, as the younger artist later claimed, the two quickly became rivals. In a report corroborated by another early source, Vasari asserts that Titian’s contribution was held to have surpassed Giorgione’s, to the chagrin of the Giorgione. An epochal struggle for dominance on the Venetian scene was thus taking shape when, in the autumn of 1510, Giorgione suddenly died—of the plague, Vasari says, contracted from his mistress.
Contemporaries, we are told, could not easily distinguish Titian’s early works from the works of Giorgione, so thoroughly had the younger artist assimilated his mentor’s style. Titian’s Pastoral Concert is the most Giorgionesque of all his paintings and was once attributed to Giorgione. At the center of a lush pastoral landscape, two young men, a sumptuously dressed patrician playing a lute and a humble shepherd, exchange glances. They ignore—or fail to see—the nude females, probably classical nymphs, who accompany them. Shortly after completing Pastoral Concert, Titian painted a second version of a musical theme, Concert (1511–12), now in the Palazzo Pitti, Florence. This painting, too, was formerly attributed to Giorgione, largely because of the fashionably dressed young man on the left. It belongs to a new type of quasi-narrative composition invented by Giorgione, in which two or more figures, apparently portraits, are shown half-length in an oblong format. In the Pitti picture, the central figure abruptly turns from playing a keyboard instrument to cast a rapturous gaze at a tonsured cleric holding a viola da gamba. Both Concerts are featured in “Bellini, Giorgione, Titian, and the Renaissance of Venetian Painting,” opening at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., on the 18th of this month.
While its exact meaning has not been established, the Pitti painting seems to represent a symbolic turning point in the life of the protagonist, who literally turns away from his companion toward the older figure, interrupting the performance. Looking out at the viewer as if to underscore what is happening in the picture, the youth on the left is a Giorgionesque type like the urbane lute player in Pastoral Concert. His plumed hat further identifies him as a dandy, as in Dírer’s engraving The Promenade (ca. 1498). In Dírer’s print, the figure of Death in the background reminds the young lovers of the vanity of luxury and worldly pleasures. Though Titian’s Concert is not a vanitas or a memento mori, it similarly contrasts the self-indulgence of carefree youth with self-discipline and moral probity.
What is most striking about the painting, perhaps, is the dichotomy between the two youthful figures. One is richly dressed and vapid; the other, more soberly attired and dynamic. Neither Concert excludes the possibility of an intimate relationship between the young men depicted, but only the keyboard player in the Pitti picture is clearly a portrait. His figure shows Titian abandoning Giorgionesque poetry in favor of a newly realistic portraiture better suited to his own temperament and the needs of his clients.
Titian contrasts the artificiality and inertia of the Giorgionesque type, as he saw it, with the realism and expressive force of the keyboard player, who seems to embody the artist’s own vitality. In the context of the rivalry from which Titian had just emerged victorious, could the musician, while not a self-portrait, stand for the artist and his rejection of Giorgione’s manner?
Whatever the case, Giorgione’s untimely death cleared the way for his protégé. After another scarcely less gifted artist, Sebastiano Luciani (later called del Piombo), left Venice for Rome in August 1511, only the near-80-year-old Bellini remained an obstacle to Titian’s advancement.
David Alan Brown, curator of Italian paintings at the National Gallery of Art, is cocurator (with Sylvia Ferino-Pagden) of “Bellini, Giorgione, Titian, and the Renaissance of Venetian Painting.” After closing in Washington, D.C., on September 17, the exhibition will travel to the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna (October 17–January 7, 2007).