Art Review: Titian’s “Flaying of Marsyas”

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Titian–In the End:
From Wholesome Flesh to
Disintegrating Skin

[To view the slide show in a separate tab, place the mouse pointer over the first slide, right click, select <This Frame>, then <Open Frame in New Tab>.]

[slides 1-5]

Artist riddle:
How many artists does it take to
complete a painting?
One to do the painting
and five to drag her away from the canvas
when it’s finished.

[slide 6]

When Tiziano Vecellio (Titian) died in 1576 at an advanced age the delimiters of which are as elusive today as form edges in his late paintings, among the detritus left in what was a very busy bottega (workshop), was a large canvas on which paint melted into the story of the Flaying of Marsyas, conflated with the one about Midas, whose life was also turned upside down for errantly judging a musical competition (Fig. 1). In the aftermath of the master’s death from “a fever” and almost simultaneously that of his oldest son and business partner Orazio from plague, the abandoned houseful of art on Birri Grande in Venice became fair game for burglars, who had first pick of the hoard. Before the end of the 1570s, the place along with all its contents had been sold by the surviving younger son Pomponio.

In 1909, after long silence, the Flaying of Marsyas appeared in the art historical record. Since that emergence into contemporary consciousness, the painting has garnered much speculation as to motive, meaning, method, etc. Occam’s razor rules here, starting with incontrovertible givens. Titian loved oil paint. He spent a lifetime applying it to surfaces, mostly canvas, in increasingly complex ways that gained him notice, nobility, remuneration and not a little notoriety, all of which he shaped and fashioned to good effect but that also left their imprint on him. The Flaying of Marsyas is the Prince of Painters’ personal meditation on the choices he made–and clearly continued to make–as the artist he was. By rendering with sumptuous color and brushwork the myths that declared the superiority of divine order and reason–embodied in Apollo and his lyre–over the unfettered sensuality of satyr Marsyas and his pipes, Titian challenged the admonishing message of his subject matter. In the longstanding competitive conversation with Michelangelo’s disegno, this colorito canvas seems to be the Venetian’s attempt to have the last word.

The painting depicts the price of challenging a god at his own artistic game. Oddly, for all the paint and real estate Titian devoted to the Marsyas tale, it was the one about Midas on which Ovid lavished more words, and the character with whom the painter seems to have identified most. Regardless of whether the immediate viewers of the canvas were thieves or discerning collectors, it must have been quite a shock to whoever came upon it for the first time. So revolutionary was the appearance of the Flaying of Marsyas, [slide 7] that they must have wondered what did the great artist have in mind and hand when he chose these stories and rendered them as he did. Even those familiar with Titian’s contemporary works, like the earthy Nymph and Shepherd (early 1570s, Fig. 2)–with its similarly vibrant brushstrokes but (style-wise) backwards-glancing sculpted figures and spatial recession–were confronted with a distinctively different order of painting. Certainly considering much earlier output like his smooth Venus of Urbino (1538, Fig. 3)–with its well-defined forms, perspectival floor and geometric divisions–might have made them wonder how its artist could possibly be responsible for the Flaying of Marsyas. Seizing on the idea of the later painting’s apparently unfinished state, more-or-less erudite viewers had a handy explanation, but Titian declared his part done when he painted his name on the rock in the lower right foreground, a nicety that hasn’t foreclosed debate.

[slide 8]
Titian rendered here not one but two stories about aesthetic discernment versus sensory pleasure, and the potential for unfavorable outcomes. What becomes of the artist who professes his own brand of art to be better than Nature’s, i.e., better than that of the gods? Tied to a tree on the central axis of the composition, the inverted Marsyas suffers under the knives of the partially kneeling golden-haired Apollo and above him, his Phrygian-capped assistant–their crooked elbows echoing each other like tiered chevrons. After Minerva discarded her newly invented pipes, Marsyas retrieved them and perfecting his technique, foolishly challenged the sun god to a musical duel. The god of light chose flaying as the penalty, the pain of which Ovid communicated far more dramatically than Titian did, as evident in the poet’s lines:
[slide 9]
‘No! no! He screamed,/’Why tear me from myself? Oh, I repent!/A pipe’s not worth the price!’ and as he screamed/Apollo stripped his skin; the whole of him/Was one huge wound, blood streaming everywhere,/Sinews laid bare, veins naked, quivering/And pulsing. You could count his twitching guts,/And the tissues as the light shone through his ribs[…]”

[slide 10]
In the other poem, Midas–the only dissenter when all agreed Pan’s pipes inferior to Apollo’s lyre–inflamed the sun god’s ire at “ears so dull,” and suffered their transformation into those of an ass. “Disfigured and ashamed,” the Phrygian king wrapped his new appendages in a purple turban in an attempt to conceal them from his viewers.

Providing musical accompaniment on the Apollo side of the picture, a soloist has just completed a down bow on his lira da braccio, which visually addresses the syrinx hanging from the tree a few inches away, matching seven strings to seven pipes–a restatement of the duel between the instruments. On the other side, lined up diagonally from upper middle to lower right, a satyr enters the scene carrying a bucket, the crowned Midas sits with his hand over his mouth, and a boy holds the collar of a large, open-mouthed dog. A small dog licks up the blood flowing from the open wound of Marsyas–a bit of macabre humor for English speakers, as it is a lap dog.

The leaves in this natural setting, a mix of fiery red-orange and some version of green, echo the colors of the flesh, which are set off by the icy-blue sky, standing-flayer’s apron, bucket’s metal and Apollo’s opalescent drapery. [slide 11] Titian’s red accents ring the composition: Midas’s wrap, the blood-red strips of cloth attaching Marsyas’s left leg and–on the other side–his pipes to the tree, the musician’s garment, Apollo’s boot and [slide 12] the blood that drips down the front of the canvas as though applied to its surface, rather than following the form of the satyr’s arm (Fig. 4)–a self-aware passage that signals the image’s artifice and with it, Titian’s presence as creator/god.

[slide 13]
The composition has as its geometric center the navel of Marsyas, shifted now because of past alterations to the canvas size (Fig. 5). The navel’s central position and the strongly highlighted immediate surrounds guarantee its role as focal point to which relates all narrative action, reminiscent of the Umbilicus/Navel of the World–the axis mundi–mythological center of the world/universe made manifest in the Hellenistic symbol of the Omphalos stone. While it can’t be known whether Titian had these ideas in mind or was more simply, calling upon adolescent geometry lessons, the circular composition does reflect his deliberation on the power of the center. By assigning it to the area of the body associated with emotions, the artist directed attention to the satyr’s visceral nature.

As for the painting’s pictorial magic, technical investigations belie the impression that the Flaying of Marsyas was conceived and executed in a single sitting–or even several. [slide 14] A combination of x-rays from decades ago (Fig. 6), a published copy of an earlier version (Fig. 7) and extrapolation from a state-of-the-art, pre-conservation analysis of the elements of Titian’s Nymph and Satyr, revealed: that the painter applied pigment in complex layers according to intended color effect–in distinct sections–alternating impasto with glazes, a process that required in-between drying time and created Titian’s preferred relief-like surface; that he nonetheless worked the entire canvas at once; that he started with an underdrawing of thin, dark paint; that he exploited the canvas for its effect; and that the novelty of the old man’s style depended less on significant changes in ingredients than on his brilliant deployment of them. Perhaps apocryphal, when asked about his methods, Titian himself admitted, “svelaturetrenta o quaranta!” (“glazes–thirty or forty!”). As for the widely quoted possible eye-witness account reported by Marco Boschini–speaking through the mouth of artist Palma il Giovane–about Titian’s painting practice of “vigorous applied [color] with a loaded brush[…who] for final touches would blend the transitions from highlights to halftones with his fingers,” no fingerprints were found on Nymph and Satyr, a painting with many disappeared edges. The Flaying of Marsyas, then, was an important painting to its maker, who lavished on it much time and craft.

The copy’s agreement with evidence from the x-ray that Titian initially had a different idea about the activity and pose of the musician in the upper left, and that the child with the dog was a later replacement for the amphora in the lower right, lends credence to the existence of another version–copy or original–that predated the one left in the artist’s studio when he died. One such was recorded in a sale at the beginning of the seventeenth century. Thoughts of a flaying of Marsyas painting–and perhaps its application to the disegnocolorito debate–had obviously been marinating in Titian’s mind for some time, possibly for decades, indicating among other things that the subject itself was not necessarily pegged to the artist’s aging. As Titian neared the end of his life, however, the question of his legacy entered the picture. The myths’ long-standing presence in Titian’s thinking is further supported by his decision to invert Marsyas, an idea that seems to have sprung full grown from the brain of Raphael’s star pupil.

[slide 15]
Awash in antiquities as they were, sixteenth-century artists had a seemingly endless supply of new ideas for subjects and compositions, among them the contest between Apollo and Marsyas–and its prize. Of the motifs used to depict the popular narrative–on ancient sarcophagi (Fig. 8) and vases (Fig. 9), and as at least two types of sculpture-in-the-round of Marsyas tied to a tree in the exceedingly painful strappado position (Fig. 10)–none were known to upend the doomed satyr. During the 1520s and 1530s when Titian worked for Duke of Mantua Federico II Gonzaga, he had ample opportunity to rummage around the prince’s extensive collection of antiquities and while there, to browse that of court painter and architect Giulio Romano, with whom he developed at least a collegial relationship. Possibly among those marbles was a now-lost sarcophagus with the satyr inverted.

[slide 16]
Ideas must have been exchanged between the two artistic giants about compositions for a Flaying of Marsyas because by 1527, Giulio had sketched a scene of the punishment of Marsyas (Fig. 11), which was soon frescoed by him and assistants onto the wall of the Sala di Ovidio (Camera dei Metamorfosi) in Federico’s Palazzo del Te. (Fig. 12) [slide 17] Comparing the composition of the Flaying of Marsyas painting with that of the Apollo Flaying Marsyas drawing reveals how alike the artists’ thinking must have been. Although it’s been suggested that rather than making a copy of the drawing or being gifted one, that Titian sketched from the fresco, considering how high up on the wall the small fresco is, it’s unlikely he would have been able to see it well, even if he knew it was there. Because the drawing obviously precedes Titian’s painting, the assumption has been that the idea originated with Giulio and that proposed lost sarcophagus.

[slide 18]
An alternative hypothesis has Giulio standing in the Stanza della Segnatura in the Vatican under the ceiling fresco designed by his mentor Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino (Raphael) and looking at Marsyas upside down, either from curiosity or by happenstance. [slide 19] (Figs. 14 and 15) The strappado-twisted arms of Marsyas in the drawing echo those in Raphael’s design, providing strong evidence that the ceiling painting was a convenient source of inspiration for Giulio. When he composed his own version, Titian wisely changed the position of those arms–such tension in arm muscles making no sense in a body hanging from its ankles. [slide 20] However the idea developed, not only did it appeal to Titian but it rapidly became a standard among other artists, who likewise corrected the arms–probably guided by other Giulio or Titian versions (Figs. 16, 17 and 18). When he elected to paint these myths of musical comparison (paragone), Titian entered a conversation already in progress, possibly doing so years before he painted the version that in his lifetime never left the studio.

[slide 21]
The significant ways in which Titian’s painting veers away from the drawings of Giulio and company provide clues to the Venetian’s intentions: Marsyas, strung up by his ankles, facing front, his genitals no longer the target of a flayer’s knife and his skin still mostly attached to his body; Apollo, dropped to one knee and wielding a knife; a musician, playing a lira da braccio taking the place of the man holding the victor’s lyre; the satyr with the bucket, looking at Apollo rather than out of the canvas; and joining the party with two dogs, a child implicating the viewer with his eye contact. Most significantly, instead of covering his eyes, Titian’s Midas–his ass’s ears lost in the shadowed space ringing his head–stares intently at the butchery unfolding before him, dispassionately regarding the face of Marsyas, who no longer opens his mouth in a scream [slide 22] (Figs. 19 and 20), but turns one eye toward the spectator in close-mouthed, strained silence. Where Giulio’s drawing mostly documents the denouement of a competition, Titian’s painting invites its audience to join the artist in reflecting on the contrasting positions, and hence significance, of flayer and victim.

[slide 23]
Giulio’s repeating diagonals from upper right to lower left (arm of bucket-bearer, tree, Marsyas and assistant flayer) create movement toward the left, counterbalanced by the stooped Apollo and the lyre-carrier behind him. Depth is indicated by the profile view of the sacrificial satyr who is turned in space, and by clear views of the legs that overlap each other or as in the case of the Phrygian butcher, disappear behind another form. Titian in contrast compressed his composition by suppressing those usual depth-defining disegno devices of: overlapping forms and distinctive edges, discriminating paint application and layering, and the atmospheric perspective that leads to infinity in landscape settings. [slide 24] His painting is all colorito–evident in a closeup photograph taken under ordinary inadequate museum lighting (Fig. 21), where to the left of the satyr’s right leg, background clouds merge with a patch of red cloth above and a hand grabbing a sliver of hide below. [slide 25] The blue and gold of sky and background trees assert themselves in competition with foreground figures that meet at the picture plane, like the musician atop Apollo’s back, the assistant flayer above the god’s head, and the bucket-carrier abutting Midas.

Compared to the other figures, the centrally-located body of Marsyas is massive, lending credence to observations that in constructing his composition, Titian channeled memories of Christ flanked by holy figures, or more generally the shallow space of sacre conversazioni (sacred conversations), where Madonna and child occupy center stage amid saints and donors bracketing them, and/or recalled archaic reliefs. Such conjecturing raises questions: What additional body of knowledge did Titian draw upon, if any, besides that of his craft? What personal meanings did he cram into this visually crowded canvas?

Clearly Titian knew the myths of Marsyas and Midas, though he conflated the two. How he came by this knowledge remains speculative, with some asserting that early artistic training–beginning at age ten–preempted any formal education, making it unlikely he ever learned to read Latin. That wouldn’t have constituted much of an impediment once he fell in with Venetian intellectual types like Pietro Aretino, Pietro Bembo, Daniele Barbaro and others whose portraits he painted–their conversations teeming with philosophical, literary and artistic content as they must have been. On the other hand, Titian has been characterized as a “cultivated man” who read classical literature–including poetry–and might have known Latin and even Greek, and who was familiar with the Renaissance current of Neo-Platonist and Pythagorean numerical theories, especially those related to music.

[slide 26]
More agreement exists, however, as to the role of Midas as stand-in for Titian, though not about whether it is a self-portrait (Fig. 22). Similarly, some have misread the king’s expression and pose as that of a melancholic, applying to it phrases like: “veiled in sorrow and profound gravity,” “tearfully falls silent,” “Saturnine melancholy,” and “grand and pensive mourner.” [slide 27] Comparing Titian’s Midas (Fig. 23) with the archetype of melancholy in Albrecht Dürer’s engraving Melancholia I (1514, Fig. 24), forces agreement with assessments of his stance as contemplative. The poses are just not the same.

[slide 28]
What might Titian as Midas have been thinking as he stared at the face of the sensual satyr (Fig. 25) under the knife of the god of divine order in the act of pulling away a slice of skin? [slide 29] With both his eyes and mouth wide open, Apollo seems to be singing (Fig. 26), perhaps in a duet with the musician playing on the Renaissance version of the ancient lyre–the instrument the sun god strummed to maintain the harmony of the spheres. If this was indeed the artist’s intention, it wouldn’t be the first time he subordinated the ear to the eye, setting a scene to music with his colorito.

[slide 30]
In a 1550s composition of a musician and nude woman (ca. 1550, Fig. 27), Titian explored more explicitly the relationship between music and sensuality (i.e., sex). His choice of a pipe organ for the ogling player, who has one hand on the keyboard and the other between his legs as he conjures up his Venus and Cupid in an erotically suggestive embrace, must surely relate to the nefarious reputation of wind instruments, associated as they were with vulgarity and phalluses. Unlike Apollo’s lyre, with its fixed tuning and illustrious Greek pedigree, the pipes of Marsyas–a goddess’s discard–had a structure that enabled a flexible tonal range, its lack of limits threatening to lead its devotees astray.

[slide 31]
In his Flaying of Marsyas, Titian played the open brushwork of Venetian colorito–the unfettered sensuality/sexuality embodied by the satyr’s syrinx–against the lines of Central Italian disegno–the contained order of Apollo’s harmonic strings. Indeed the artist was, quite literally, the poster child for the freewheeling style billed as improving on nature rather than slavishly mimicking it. In the impresa most likely chosen for him sometime before 1562 by close friend Aretino or writer M. Lodovico Dolce (Fig. 28), the painter is likened to a mother bear who licks her formless newborn into something resembling herself. The accompanying poem by Dolce leaves no doubt that Titian was known to have “[…]bested art, genius and nature.” The well-deserved inclusion of this impresa in an engraved anthology devoted to those of princes and other illustrious men of letters recognized Titian as a noble gentleman of refined intellect, placing his art alongside that of literature, seeming to link it with Apollo and his lyrical productions.

[slide 32]
In a picture constructed of riotous patches of color thoughtfully applied by design, inhabited by an unusual-for-Titian amount of bare male flesh, Midas contemplates the emotional response of Marsyas to his fate, with ample reason for identification. When the Phrygian king chose the sexy sound of pipes over a god’s heavenly instrument, he earned ass’s ears as a reward, though at least hung onto his skin. With this painting, the octogenarian painter (Fig. 29)–having already sustained losses to death of several loved ones and suffered some debilitating effects of aging–reflects on his own legacy. Decades earlier, well aware of Michelangelo’s celebrated disegno, Titian had chosen to go his own way, further developing the notorious open brushwork of his Venetian colorito. Would his gift be flayed after he was gone?

By choosing these myths, Titian seemed to bow to the inevitable triumph of the austere and rational over the luxuriant and sensual, watching it be cut to ribbons. Judging from the many philosophical readings (death by a thousand cuts) of this luscious compilation of pigment, and the avoidance of its near-erotic obsession with the flesh of both actors and canvas, if that’s what the old man feared would become of his art, his Flaying of Marsyas even as it pictures defeat, proclaims victory for colorito by its very existence.


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