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Titian’s Metamorphoses

Titian, Self Portrait, 1546-7, Gemäldegalerie, Berlin, Germany.

Renaissance

Titian’s Metamorphoses

In the 1550s and early 1560s Titian delivered a series of seven large canvases to King Phillip II of Spain. Each translated a small section of the Epic poem Metamorphoses, by Roman poet Ovid, into paint. Titian coined the term “Poesie” to describe them: paintings which are poems.

People consider these seven “Poesies” as some of Titian’s most magnificent work and accordingly we shall meet each Poesie in turn, in a series of articles. Before we begin – let’s get up to speed with Titian:

Self-portrait of Titian.jpg
Titian, Self Portrait, 1546-7, Gemäldegalerie, Berlin, Germany.

The Early Career of Titian

Titian was born around 1490 in Pieve di Cadore, a small town at the foot of the Alps. By the time the young artist was launching his independent career in Venice, he had few rivals.


In 1511 Titian painted frescoes in Padua and then started to become known as a portrait artist, garnering him aristocratic clientele. In his early career he also painted prestigious religious paintings, such as the alter-piece at the church of Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari in Venice (1518). The style of this piece nodded to High Renaissance artists such as Raphael and Michelangelo in the North. In addition it was a revolutionary design because the Assumption of Mary was not declared an article of faith until 1950.

Titian, Assumption of the Virgin, 1516-18, Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari Church, Venice, Italy.

The Poesies for Phillip

Titian’s establishment as the one-to-watch among the upper echelons of Italian society reached a high point when he met with the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V in 1530. This propelled him into the imperial court and led to the royal commission of paintings from Ovid in the 1550s.

Titian, Phillip II, 1551, museo del prado, Madrid, Spain.

Titian, in fact, offered the series of Ovidian poetry-paintings to the Pope, but was turned down. He met Phillip II of Spain in Milan and Augsburg, both times painting the prince’s portrait, and presumably confirming the ambitious project.

Four things to look out for in the Poesies

1. The female nude, which would be hard to miss

These famous paintings achieve many things, not least their depictions of the female nude from all possible angles.

2. D-R-A-M-A, again, hard to miss


Their greatest feat however is the way Titian captures the drama of the stories from Metamorphoses. Each Poesie focuses on the moment just before the climax. They are incredible to behold even if you don’t know the myth behind them and can even captivate and engage the most astute viewer because of their specificity to the Ovidian poem.

3. Pairings

They’re marvelous as stand-alone paintings, in pairs and as a set. Taken as duos the paintings often mirror each other visually.

4. Drapery, dogs and dead-pan stares


As a set the Poesies offer coherent motifs, such as the dogs, the red drapery, and the power play of the gaze.

Titian’s Poesies – A Series

There was total freedom to choose which myths from the Metamorphoses to depict; and in the upcoming article, you will get to know about the first story that Titian chose: Danaë (1549-50). Visit DailyArt Magazine to find it!


Isla graduated with a first class BA in Classics from the University of Cambridge in 2018. Her specialisms were Art, Archaeology and the Roman poet Ovid. After graduation she spent a year in Japan, where she interned as a curatorial assistant at the Fukuoka Asian Arts Museum. Currently, Isla is studying for a History of Art MA at Birkbeck, London (part-time). Professionally (full-time) Isla  is the Director of the Kent Academies Network University Access Programme and also a teacher at a school in Kent.

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