Word and Image: Bacchus and Ariadne

Titian Bacchus and Ariadne

About the Artist

Considered the greatest of the Venetian painters, Tiziano Vecellio, or Titian (in Anglicized form) was born in Pieve di Cadore in the mainland territories of the Venetian Republic toward the end of the fifteenth century (the exact year is uncertain). He studied first under Giovanni Bellini alongside Giorgio da Castelfranco (more familiarly, Giorgione), finishing a number of paintings for the latter, who died an untimely death in 1510. Titian’s style and subjects developed through a series of stages during his long career, though his use of dramatic color and compositional arrangements remained keynotes of his art. After mastering fresco technique early in his career, Titian’s broadening influence helped establish the newer medium of oil-based pigments on canvas as the dominant form of fine art painting in Europe. From his busy studio in Venice, Titian gained powerful patrons across Europe, including Holy Roman Emperor Charles V and his son, Philip II of Spain, as well as Pope Paul III. Titian died in Venice in 1576.

About the Painting

The Bacchus and Ariadne was commissioned originally by Alfonso d’Este, for inclusion in the Camerino d’Alabastro (Alabaster Room) in his ducal palace at Ferrara. The room was famously intended to contain works by some of the greatest of the living Renaissance artists, including Michelangelo and Raphael. When the latter died in 1520, his planned contribution was replaced with the Bacchus and Ariadne, which was completed by 1524. Titian also completed The Bacchanal of the Andrians and the Worship of Venus for the Alabaster Room, and likely reworked Giovanni Bellini’s contribution, the Feast of the Gods, after the latter’s death in 1516. The canvas (in oil, measuring 176.5 x 191 cm), which has suffered some damage from being rolled and layered with varnish, was bought in 1826 by the National Gallery in London.

Related Books and References

Ovid. Fasti, Book III

____. Metamorphoses, Book VIII (lines 152-182).

Catullus, Gaius Valerius. Carmina, Poem 64.

Easson, Angus. “The Source of Titian’s Bacchus and Ariadne,” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes. Vol. 32 (1969): 396-397.

Rosand, David. “Ut Pictor Poeta: Meaning in Titian’s Poesie,” New Literary History. Vol. 3, No. 3: Literary and Art History (Spring, 1972): 527-546.

Titian’s Sources

Scholars have suggested multiple classical sources for Titian’s depiction of Bacchus and Ariadne. In Book VIII of the Metamorphoses, Ovid relates how Ariadne helps Theseus escape from the labyrinth of her half-brother, the Minotaur, and how he then abandons her on the island of Dia, where the god Bacchus finds and comforts her. Also, in Book III of his Fasti (concerning the mythological foundations of the Roman calendar), Ovid gives Ariadne a speech complaining of her abandonment – first by Theseus and then by Bacchus as well. In the latter, however, Bacchus hears and responds to her lament by leaping to rejoin her, and then placing her crown among the heavens as the stars of the Corona Borealis.

Further, Poem 64 from Catullus’ Carmina also figures as a possible source with its vivid depictions of Ariadne’s wild grief on Dia and the riotous arrival of Bacchus and his train of followers. In fact, Catullus’ poem purports to be an instance of “ekphrasis,” the rendering in words of a piece of visual art. Catullus describes a coverlet for the marriage bed of Peleus and the goddess Thetis (mother of Achilles), on which the story of Theseus, Ariadne and Bacchus is portrayed. In this light, we can read Titian’s painting as an attempt to create (or, fictionally, re-create) the image Catullus’ poem (imaginatively) describes.

Given such a range of sources, what can we make of Titian’s own attempt to tell the story? How does the apparently momentary quality of the image shape its relation to the complex story it portrays? Without knowing the details of the myth, is it possible to get some sense of the different episodes and their emotional complications? What visual cues and clues does Titian offer to us as helps to see and understand the background story?


Materials: Writing materials

Titian’s painting seems to engage a phrase from Horace’s Ars Poetica well-known to the artist and his contemporaries: “ut pictura poesis” – “as painting, so is poetry.” In this light, Titian may be reasserting the priority of painting as an art, or, alternatively, challenging himself to produce a scene that would inspire a Catullus to poetry.

Prepared with the outlines of Ariadne’s story (e.g., her kinship with the Minotaur; her aid to, flight with, and abandonment by Theseus; her later consort with Bacchus, its end, and her “crowning” in the heavens), compose a story in prose or verse that aims to capture – or transform – Titian’s rendering of the narrative. Refine your ekphrasis of the Bacchus and Ariadne in whatever ways might lead to some conception of the relations – i.e. possible sympathies or antitheses – between visual and verbal art.

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