Understanding Titian’s Poesie

A contribution by

Marie Tanner

Titian’s mythological paintings for King Philip II of Spain, known collectively as the Poesie, have long been appreciated by scholars for their ravishing beauty due in equal measure to Titian’s mastery as a painter and to their seductive themes drawn from classical mythology.  Three international exhibitions devoted to the Poesie in 2020-2022, at the National Gallery in London, the Prado Museum in Madrid, and the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, are bringing the paintings to the attention of the broader public and offer the ideal opportunity to reconsider their meaning.  The publication of my book, which coincides with the exhibitions, seeks to show them in their intended light.

These magnificent paintings, often mistakenly viewed as straightforward erotic art intended to titillate the king, yield to a far more serious purpose in my study. Precisely because the Poesie combine sensual beauty with classical content they provide a unique opportunity to observe how art functioned at the very pinnacle of Renaissance achievement, crafted by the one of the greatest painters of the sixteenth century for the most powerful sovereign. Simply stated, they are monuments of Renaissance statecraft in which Hapsburg political, scientific, and ultimately spiritual concerns are fused in a new visual synthesis.  The contextual material I have assembled allows us to appreciate fully the originality of the Poesie by understanding the fundamental connection between Titian’s treatment of the subjects and his patron.  While Titian’s Poesie seem to be well-known monuments of western culture, when investigated for their intellectual content they are newly revealed as compelling statements of the possibility of art to encapsulate a wide range of meaning in the blink of the eye.

This line of analysis places Titian at the forefront of a new fusion of politics and eroticism that matured in the images of spiritual ecstasy that define 17th century art.  We can now understand how the sensuous beauty and glowing color of the Poesie function as affective vehicles that inspire emotional responses in the service of theocratic ideals.  By demonstrating how the Poesie used the language of love to enhance their intellectual messages, it becomes possible to reclaim Titian’s enduring achievement in creating a thoroughly modern visual language.

About the Author

Dr. Marie Tanner is the author of the prize-winning The Last Descendant of Aeneas: The Hapsburgs and the Mythic Image of the Emperor (Yale University Press, 1993); Jerusalem on the Hill: Rome and the Vision of Saint Peter’s Basilica in the Renaissance (Harvey Miller, 2010); and Sublime Truth and the Senses: Titian’s Poesie for King Philip II of Spain (Harvey Miller, 2019), and articles on Piero della Francesca, Giorgione and Titian.  She is currently writing a study on Lucretius and Italian Renaissance art.

She received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the American Council of Learned Societies, and from the Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts at the National Gallery of Art.   She has held professorships at Rutgers University, and Queens College of the City University of New York, and is currently an independent scholar based in New York City and Rome.
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Sublime Truth and the Senses
Titian’s Poesie for King Philip II of Spain

By Marie Tanner