Two Titian masterpieces

This piece focuses on two Titian masterpieces both featuring the Farnese Pope, Paul III who was a pope of great vision and power who reasserted and strengthened the role of the papacy at the time of the Protestant Reformation. Much has been written about him and it does make fascinating reading. It is said that he oversaw three key innovations; the summoning of the Council of Trent that sat from 1545-63, the introduction of the Inquisition into Italy (which investigated in considerable depth the content of Veronese’s religious work), and the 1540 approval of the Society of Jesus (the Jesuit order) founded in Paris by Saint Ignatius Loyola.

Interestingly from an art perspective, Paul III does not often appear in frescoes as either as observer or a participant in, episodes of religious history. There are numerous portraits of him, generally in easel paintings or in the form of sculptures, but invariably he was painted alone using an imagery that was intended to focus the eye of the beholder on his powerful and intimidating personality,

Titian, it is said, first met Paul III in or around the year 1543 at Bologna, and it was this meeting which precipitated the two paintings that he did of Paul III, different but equally powerful.

The first painting and by far the most memorable one (c.1543-45,) sees him as a single seated figure. The extraordinary power of the portrait is not just in the colour and imagery – the deep and rich reds which reinforce his authority – but in its psychology. Here we see a powerful man with the crimson mozzetta around his shoulders, but what draws us in is the face – the intense, wily eyes, the strong aqualine nose, the close cropped hair, the long gray square-cut beard. All these features combined tell us that this was a man in control, a man very comfortable in his power, wearing this power with ease just as he does the crimson mozzetta. The long fingers of his right hand play with a gilded stole but they reinforce the sense that this was a man with an almost frighteningly magnetic personality, whose power was in the grasp of his own hands and he was not to be challenged.  It is almost as if Titan wanted us to be drawn to this man and specifically his face, just so that we could experience the fear of his power.


The second painting is that of Paul III and his grandsons, c,1546, Cardinal Alessandro Farnese (1520-89) on his left and Ottavio Farnese (1524-86) on this right. It has been suggested that  this painting represents a power struggle in the Farnese family, but given the power of Paul III, it is hard to believe that Titian would have been brave enough to openly paint such a struggle. It is interesting that this painting was never finished and while one can only imagine the building up of the work that Titian would have continued, there is still that sense of power and control in the image of Paul III. We can barely see his left hand but his right is almost clawed, showing the papal ring, but still giving the sense of those long gripping fingers. It is said that Paul III had a notoriously soft voice, and here we see Ottavio, who would appear to be bringing a message to him leaning forward to hear any response. The face still holds our attention, even though it is the Cardinal who appears to be looking out at us. You almost fail to notice him as your attention is drawn to ‘that face’ – so powerful. If there was a power struggle in the Farnese family, you sense that this was still a man clearly in control and prepared to do whatever was necessary to maintain that control.


Whatever you think of my thoughts on these paintings. there can be no doubt that there is power in evidence here and it both draws you and disturbs you at the same time. This is a man not be trifled with and instinct almost repels you.

They are extraordinary.


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