For the first time in over 400 years, the pieces that comprise the Titian: Women, Myth, and Power exhibit, including a restored version of “The Rape of Europa,” are on display together at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.
The exhibit, which is filled with mythological and classical influences, is currently on an international tour with Boston as its only stop in the United States.
Tiziano Vecellio, more commonly known as Titian, was a renowned Venetian artist, known for his work in portraiture and depicting mythological subjects during the Renaissance, according to a plaque at the museum.
Titian’s exhibit at the Gardner serves as a commentary on violence and power as used against women, specifically focusing on how rape was seen a tool of warfare. It also commentates on the limited power of women at the time. For example, according to a plaque at the exhibit, if a married woman was raped by a man while married, she would be the one punished for being unfaithful. Similarly, if an unmarried woman was raped, she was often forced to marry her rapist.
Some museumgoers emphasized the importance of such historical commentary on sexual violence and women’s empowerment. While current generations may view his paintings with the #MeToo movement in mind, the people in Titian’s time period did not view this type of violence through the same lense.
“It is like a historical context,” one visitor said. “I think these were about people at a certain time, and I do believe violence and power were a huge part of it. It [was] certainly beautifully romanticized at the time.”
The center of the exhibit was Titian’s poesie,a series of six paintings, including his masterpiece “The Rape of Europa,” for King Philip II of Spain during the 1500s. According to the Gardner’s website, Titian’s main inspiration for his poesie was myths from Ovid’s epic poem “Metamorphoses.”
As interpreted today, the pieces of the exhibit—especially the poesie—communicate a different meaning when displayed together.
“[The poesie] presents a broader narrative of mythology that you don’t get from just looking at one or two pieces in the exhibit,” one museumgoer said.
“The Rape of Europa” combined themes from the rest of the exhibit, such as violence against women, for the portrayal of Europa’s story. In the painting, Europa is clinging onto Jupiter, who is disguised as a bull, as he carries her though the ocean toward Crete. Jupiter rapes Europa on Crete while the cherubs and dolphin attempt to save her. Europa’s gaze is a key focus of the painting, and the tangible fear she is experiencing is reflected in her face.
After “The Rape of Europa” was restored in 2020, the dull colors returned to their orignal vibrancy, drawing attention to Europa’s plight as the central theme for this work.
Renaissance painters did not shy away from such depictions of violence.
The accompanying pieces contrast other prominent Renaissance works, specifically those of Titian’s biggest rival Michelangelo, for their realistic portrayal of the human body. Unlike Michelangelo’s almost mathematical depictions of the human physique that make the women seem unreal, Titian humanizes the women he paints.
“It’s such an incredible representation of the humanity of the body, of the fleshiness of the body, which is so important for these stories about mythology,” wrote Steve Locke, a professor of fine arts at the Pratt Institute, on a plaque at the exhibit.
Another visitor reminisced on the accessibility of such work to the public and the ethical questions it allows all people to grapple with.
“These pieces go from being created for these privileged people, royalty, only for their pleasure, yet, they travel across time, [and] as the cultural historical context changes, they still can provoke responses,” the visitor said.
Featured Image by Shruthi Sriram / for The Heights