Artillery Row

Sex and violence: Titian’s Metamorphoses

The National Gallery are reopening their headline 2020 exhibition on 8th July

Michelangelo paid an impromptu visit to Titian’s workshop in Rome one day in the mid-1540s. Hanging on the wall was Titian’s painting of Danaë. Michelangelo had the good grace to praise it, but later he revealed his true feelings to friend and supporter Giorgio Vasari. The problem was Titian’s draughtsmanship. Such a pity, because he could have been a truly great artist, if he had only learned to draw properly.

Visitors to Titian: Love Desire Death will soon again be able to judge for themselves if Michelangelo was right: the National Gallery have announced that the exhibition, which closed in March after only 3 days because of Covid-19, will reopen again in London on July 8. Titian chose to revisit the Danaë for the first of the poesie — poems in paint — that he produced for Philip II, and which this fantastic, single-room exhibition has reunited for the first time in four centuries.

The story of Danaë, along with those of the other poesie, is found in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. King Acrisius asks the oracle if he will ever have any sons. No, comes the oracle’s reply, helpfully adding that Acrisius’s daughter will bear a son who will one day kill him. Attempting to forestall the prophecy, King Acrisius locks away his daughter in a doorless and windowless room in order to prevent her ever having a child. But this is not enough to stop Jupiter, who descends through the ceiling in the form of a shower of gold and impregnates Danaë.

Danaë, 1551–3; Wellington Collection, Apsley House, London © Stratfield Saye Preservation Trust

The poesie abound with female flesh. The earlier Danaë had started life as a portrait of Cardinal Farnese’s mistress Angela (with Titian altering the face when the cardinal began to worry if commissioning such a portrait was on message). Its erotic quality was much commented upon. One of the cardinal’s agents described it as making Titian’s earlier Venus of Urbino look like a nun.

Titian evidently revisited the subject for this reason. The commission, for a series of mythological paintings, came from Philip, heir to the Spanish throne, a man in his twenties with more adventurous tastes than his father the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, another of Titian’s patrons.

Titian was not content simply to copy his earlier work. Instead, he put his talent for invention to use. Though the reclining figure of Danaë remains much the same as before, the attendant cupid has gone, replaced by an old woman. As in the earlier painting, the gold falls in the form of coins (an allusion to prostitution), but now the old woman tries with her robes to catch the coins.


Given a free rein by Philip to choose whatever mythological subjects he liked, Titian consciously used the poesie to make the highest claims for painting in comparison with other arts. The painter did not treat his literary sources with undue deference: to be bound by Ovid could be to admit the primacy of literature.

Titian did not merely add to Ovid’s stories; he reinvented them.

The poesie can be read as part of the contemporary rivalry between sculpture and painting. Titian wrote to Philip that he had chosen in Venus and Adonis, the next painting in the series, to depict a female nude from behind so that together the two paintings would provide the differing perspectives of the human form that is an often celebrated quality of sculpture. The third painting would provide still another view.

In painting Venus and Adonis, Titian did not confine himself merely to adding elements to the story; he reinvented its central scene. In the Metamorphoses, Venus begs her lover Adonis not to hunt any dangerous beasts. A few rabbits, perhaps even some deer, would be fine. When Venus departs for a quick sojourn to Mount Olympus, Adonis ignores her warning, goes hunting, and gets gored to death by a boar. Titian paints a scene of his own imagining: Adonis struggling to break free of Venus’s embrace as he sets off on his fateful hunt. Titian was criticised by purists for inventing this scene. But how else to tell the story in paint? 

Venus and Adonis, 1553-4; Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid © Photographic Archive Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid

Titian’s lack of fidelity to Ovid wasn’t the reason Venus and Adonis caused a stir. Nor was it simply the way that Titian painted Venus’s flesh, seated with her back to the viewer, and her bottom squashed as she half-topples backwards, arms clasped around the leaving Adonis. To contemporaries, the painting was a shocking and provocative display of female desire. Ovid’s tale had the irony of the goddess of Love falling victim to romance. It didn’t have the image of a besotted, sexually unrestrained Venus grasping desperately at Adonis.


When plague struck London in 1592, keeping the theatres shut, Shakespeare had bills to pay. He wrote and published his own verse treatment of Venus and Adonis, with an Adonis entirely uninterested in a Venus who refuses to accept rejection:

Foul words and frowns must not repel a lover;
What though the rose have prickles, yet ’tis pluck’d:
Were beauty under twenty locks kept fast,
Yet love breaks through and picks them all at last.

Meeting with scant success, “sick-thoughted” Venus has to resort to dragging Adonis from his horse and smothering him with kisses. It’s tempting to discern the influence of Titian in Shakespeare’s portrayal, and it’s a reasonable speculation that the Englishman could have seen the Venetian’s paintings, which had been hugely influential. As well as being promoted with prints that circulated across Europe, Venus and Adonis had been such a popular composition that Titian’s workshop knocked out over 30 different copies.

Shakespeare would probably have studied the Metamorphoses in Latin at Stratford’s grammar school, but he appears to have been more familiar with Arthur Golding’s translation of the 1560s, from which we know he borrowed, and which Ezra Pound later called “the most beautiful book in the language”.

Even in the 16th century, Ovid could be found “problematic”

Standing in front of the poesie, some modern viewers may find their sensitivities troubled by taking pleasure from The Rape of Europa or the appalling story of Diana and Callisto. Golding, working on his translation a few years after Titian, was also challenged by the content of the Metamorphoses. Ovid was, as we would say now, problematic. Golding acknowledged this in his address to the reader, asking if there was a moral danger in “seeing vice showed lively in his hue”. The justification he proffers on Ovid’s behalf is perhaps not what you might expect from a Puritan who had translated John Calvin’s sermons and commentaries:

The author’s purpose is to paint and set before our eyes
The lively image of the thoughts that in our stomachs rise.
Each vice and virtue seems to speak and argue to our face,
With such persuasions as they have, their doings to embrace.

Ovid paints in colours that are true to life. That good is good, and bad is bad, is self-evident. The depiction of something distressing, says Golding, is not in itself cause for concern.

Title page of the 1567 edition of Golding’s Metamorphosis: “With skill, heede, and judgement, this work must be read, / For else to the Reader it standes in small stead.”

But Golding went further: to his mind the Metamorphoses was a moral work, “Fraughted inwardly with most pithy instructions and wholesome examples”. The tale of Adonis, for example, was a parable about how men should not ignore warnings of danger.

Less convincingly, the story of Actaeon was an admonishment to young men wasting their time with “hawks and hounds”, “dice and cards”, and “too much meat and drink”. That seems a bit of a stretch. It’s hard to imagine anyone reading Titian’s Diana and Actaeon as a warning against unfruitful leisure activities.

Golding described the work of his contemporary translators, refashioning Latin and Greek texts into English, as “exercises attempted of a zeal and desire to enrich their native language”. It is a description that might as easily be applied to Titian’s translations of Ovid: the poesie aim to enrich the language of painting.


For the third poesia, Titian chose the myth of Perseus and Andromeda. Again he uses licence with Ovid. In Book 4 of the Metamorphoses, Perseus is flying along the coast of Africa on the return journey from his trip to slay Medusa. He sees Andromeda, chained to a rock to appease the gods for her mother’s hubris (she had claimed her daughter was more beautiful than the Nereids, the sea nymphs) and about to be consumed by the sea-monster Cetus. Perseus glides in, coolly negotiates marriage with her parents who are standing nearby, and then flies off to debone the approaching Cetus.

Perseus and Andromeda, 1554-6; © The Wallace Collection, London / Photo: The National Gallery, London

Titian does without any parents in his composition. Understandably so perhaps. Painting a group scene, as Ovid has it, brings its its own difficulties: the eccentric Piero di Cosimo had done exactly that forty years before, depicting numerous figures in different episodes on one canvas.

Titian’s bold, distilled composition, with its intense drama, made Perseus and Andromeda a popular subject for later painters, who rarely included other figures. Translating the Metamorphoses into paint, Titian again changed them into something new.

His poesie make conversation with each other, both in subject and composition. Perseus is the child of the encounter between Danaë and Jupiter depicted in the first painting. Whereas before Jupiter poured in from the top of the canvas, now Perseus tumbles almost headlong into the creature’s maw, his wild flurry of movement contrasting with Andromeda’s poise. 

Ovid describes Andromeda as being as motionless as a statue

As well as the connection with Danaë, there’s another reason why Titian may have chosen this myth for the poesie, one that is suggested by Ovid’s description of Andromeda and which gives Titian particular scope to revisit the question of the relative merits of sculpture and painting.

Ovid describes Andromeda as like a marble statue, except for her hair blowing in the wind and the tears on her face. In Golding’s translation, when Perseus sees her:

He would have thought of marble stone she had some image been
But that her tresses to and fro the whisking wind did blow
And trickling tears warm from her eyes a-down her cheeks did flow.

So Andromeda looked like a statue. High praise you may say. But there are things that sculpture does less well than painting. It cannot, for example, as easily render the textures of hair blowing in the wind or a tear on someone’s cheek.

With his choice of subject, Titian seems consciously to be setting out to upstage sculpture. He paints Andromeda full length in a statuesque pose. The light shines off Andromeda as off polished white marble (this is Titian’s conception of a statue rather than the vibrantly painted works of Ovid’s era). Yet the posture of the figure, leaning to one side and balanced precariously on a single foot, is one that a marble statue could never maintain without falling over or breaking.

What about the un-statuelike bits that Ovid described? Where is Andromeda’s hair blowing in the wind and where are her warm tears? Surely Titian will take this opportunity to press the advantages of painting. Sure enough he does: though Andromeda’s coiffure is admirably ordered given the circumstances, Titian has furnished her with a billowing veil, instead of windswept hair, to express the effect of the wind and contrast with the statuesque stillness of her figure.

And, as well as an eye welling with tears, Titian paints Andromeda with a translucent teardrop earring to suggest the tears on her cheeks in Ovid. The invention of the earring also allows Titian to paint textures not possible in sculpture: its glass both reflects light back at the viewer and at the same time casts a reddish shadow on Andromeda’s cheek.

Diana and Actaeon, 1556-9; © The National Gallery London / The National Galleries of Scotland

The hapless Actaeon stumbles across the naked goddess Diana bathing with her nymphs. Her dignity offended, Diana turns Actaeon into a stag to ensure his lasting discretion. Titian reveals to us the secret of what Actaeon saw and could never tell.

A draped length of red fabric partially separates Actaeon from the scene, much as curtains would once have covered the poesie to separate them from the inquiring viewer for the sake of modesty. Actaeon appears to draw aside this fabric at the same time as one of the nymphs is trying to use it to cover herself. And yet the two figures are evidently some distance apart, separated by a stream.

Titian’s little additions and inventions abound: Diana’s lapdog barking at Actaeon’s hound; the stag’s skull mounted on the pillar alluding to Actaeon’s fate; the great variety of postures and attitudes among the nymphs (in Ovid they all flee, leaving Diana alone); the change of setting from a leafy bower to a classical ruin that has been swallowed up by the forest. Once more the tale has been transformed.

Diana and Callisto 1556-9; © The National Gallery London / The National Galleries of Scotland

In Diana and Callisto, designed to hang to the right of Diana and Actaeon, the goddess is again in unforgiving mood. She has discovered that her follower Callisto, bound to a life of chastity, has become pregnant after being raped by Jupiter. Diana banishes Callisto for this, after which Jupiter’s jealous wife transforms the nymph into a bear.

Titian places these two scenes, from different books of the Metamorphoses, together to create a new narrative. The two paintings continue one into another. The same stream in which the nymphs bathe flows through both. The hunting dogs in Diana and Callisto might as easily belong to Actaeon. The removing of Callisto’s clothes by another of Diana’s followers echoes the nymphs’ attempts to cover themselves from Actaeon’s gaze. Callisto and Actaeon, both victims of the cruel and arbitrary gods, wear the same orange colour around their ankles.

As Golding renders Ovid, on the unhappy fate of Actaeon, “Much muttering was upon this fact. Some thought there was extended / A great deal more extremity than needed.”


Next, Titian continues the conversation between the different arts with the Rape of Europa. Jupiter becomes so obsessed with Europa that he transforms himself into a bull and infiltrates the herd of Europa’s father in order to get near her. Drawn to the majestic bull, Europa garlands his horns with flowers and even climbs on his back, at which point he swims out into the sea, taking Europa with him.

The Rape of Europa, 1559-62; © Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston

The story is told in Book 2 of the Metamorphoses, but it is also mentioned in the ekphrasis, a literary description of a work of art, in Book 6, during the spinning contest which takes place between Arachne and the goddess Minerva. The mortal Arachne’s tapestry depicts the shameful deeds of the Olympian gods. As Golding has it:

The Lydian maiden in her web did portray to the full
How Europe was by royal Jove beguiled in shape of bull.
A swimming bull, a swelling sea so lively had she wrought
That bull and sea in very deed ye might them well have thought.
The lady seemèd looking back to landward and to cry
Upon her women and to fear the water sprinkling high
And shrinking up her fearful feet.

In Perseus and Andromeda, Titian had chosen to paint a woman described as a statue. In The Rape of Europa he chooses to paint an ekphrasis, a description of a work of art, thereby turning a literary representation back into a visual one and bringing the process full circle.

Another ekphrasis, with which we know Titian was familiar, describes the same scene. It begins the ancient Greek novel The Adventures of Leucippe and Clitophon, the only surviving work of Achilles Tatius, translated into Italian (the language in which Titian also read Ovid) by Titian’s friend Lodovico Dolce. 

The narrator has just arrived in Sidon and is exploring the streets when he sees “a picture hanging up that was a landscape and a seascape in one. The painting was of Europa.” Titian picks out details, such as cupids and dolphins, from Achilles Tatius for his own Rape of Europa. He elaborates on the description with a cupid riding on the back of a fish, a visual parody of Jupiter and Europa. The translation into painting is again loose: 

About the bull dolphins gambolled, Cupids sported: they actually seemed to move in the picture. Love himself led the bull — Love, in the guise of a tiny boy, his wings stretched out, wearing his quiver, his lighted torch in his hands: he was turning towards [Jupiter] with a smile on his face, as if he were laughing at him for becoming a bull for his sake.

The king of the gods is overcome by desire. Except that where Achilles Tatius has the literal device of Cupid leading Jupiter, Titian is more subtle. The desire that leads the bull has been internalised. The bull doubles as both captor and captive. Its expression leaves the viewer unsure whether to laugh or be repelled. It seems to contain both self-recognition and panicked helplessness. 

As Golding says, “Who, seeing Jove, whom heathen folk do arm with triple fire, / In shape of eagle, bull or swan to win his foul desire . . . would take him for a god?”

The Death of Actaeon, about 1559-75; © The National Gallery, London

The Death of Actaeon offers a violent coda to the poesie. Found in Titian’s studio after his death and sometimes considered unfinished, it is often not counted as part of the series. While the previous six paintings, in all their fleshy glory, cater to the male gaze, the last is a darker creation both in its colouring and its matter.

The whole tragedy is reduced to a single moment

Actaeon is torn to pieces by his hounds as Diana, the athletic, dynamic huntress, now clothed except for one bare breast, chases him with bow drawn. In Ovid, Diana is not part of the action. Does she appear here in case we should be in doubt as to the author of this grizzly scene?

The whole story has been distilled into a single moment. Actaeon is depicted at the moment he transforms into an animal but also at the moment he is brought down by his own dogs. The lack of either string or arrow for Diana’s bow seems to bring home the ease and dispassionateness with which the goddess brings about his death.

As Actaeon falls, he faces his dogs and Diana and the viewer all at once. His inability to cry out makes his suffering all the more intense. We are looking at a portrayal of violence as fearful as anything we might see in a modern gangland thriller.


The poesie, together for the first time in over four hundred years, show Titian at his most brilliant and his most inventive. Uniting these paintings has been a labour of love for the exhibition’s organisers. Before Perseus and Andromeda, the Wallace Collection had never been able to lend a painting as a result of the conditions of its founding bequest. The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston has provided The Rape of Europa and the Prado Venus and Adonis.

The National Gallery have today announced the exhibition’s London stay is to be extended until January. Its dates at the Scottish National Gallery have sadly been cancelled, leaving its onward journey to Madrid and Boston for 2021. Neither Perseus and Andromeda nor Diana and Actaeon are scheduled to travel. Prolonged social distancing is likely to mean that far fewer people are able to see Titian’s wonderful poesie than had been hoped. If you want to be one of them, you may need to hatch a scheme worthy of the Olympian gods.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover