article 47: TITIAN’S “VENUS WITH A MUSICIAN” (x 5)

In a footnote to our article number 16, Naoko and I mentioned the Berlin version of this famous painting, and speculated on whether the organ might have been inspired by the one carried along to Italy by Antonio de Cabezón in 1548. The painter met el ciego tañedor in Milan during the Spanish Crown Prince Philip’s two-week stopover there, December 1548 to January 1549. Titian had recently returned to Venice from his meeting with the prince’s father Emperor Charles V in Augsburg. That had resulted in several portraits of the imperial family, and Charles wanted Philip painted as well. The Berlin “Venus” clearly shows the features of the young prince, so the connection with Cabezón and Milan seemed attractive.

But it has never been clear why Philip is shown playing an organ. Theories of Neo-Platonic symbolism abound: the sense of hearing versus that of sight, music as a liberal art, musica coelestis vs. musica mundana, the meaning of the presence of Venus, and so forth. Having looked into the literature more closely, I am struck by nothing so much as by the degree of disputatious uncertainty about such matters, as well as concerning chronology, purpose and destination, and even attribution of paintings to or away from the prolific Venetian. Titian ran a large studio, and nobody can say with any certainty how much of a given painting actually came from his brush, and how much from family members and assistants.

Scholarship, often using high-tech methods of research which penetrate the surfaces of pigment and canvas, continues its attempts to disentangle the five versions of this fleshy goddess, longingly regarded by a musician – in three cases an organist, in two much later ones, a lutenist. It appears that Venus herself and the basic outlines were, at least in some cases, transferred from a cartoon of the original to replicas – so great was the demand and so simple the procedure. The question then becomes: which was the original, the first of the five (or more; many Titians are known to have been lost)?

Harold E. Wethey’s authoritative three-volume treatise on Titian allots the honor to one of the two versions in the Prado – the one where Venus is conversing with Cupid. He believes it is the finest of the five, that the disputed signature is original, and that it was painted entirely by Titian in Rome in 1545. A letter from the imperial plenipotentiary of 5 October says that Titian has painted a “quadro de fantasia” for Charles, and a later one from Titian himself to the emperor* announces that the painter has done a Venere “in his name”. A Venus – which one, nobody knows for certain – was personally delivered to Charles in Augsburg, as noted in another letter of September 1548** to Charles’ chief minister, the later Cardinal Granvelle. Wethey believes the Berlin version showing the features of the crown prince was painted, or at least sketched, in Milan. By 1742 it was in the Palazzo Falconieri in Rome, a residence of a branch of the princely family of Pio di Savoia. It was eventually purchased for Kaiser Wilhelm II by his art director, Wilhelm von Bode.

A different answer which looks about equally convincing was furnished by an exhibition catalog from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Longtime chief Philippe de Montebello was departing and was honored in 1993 with a spectacular show on the theme of “Art and Love in Renaissance Italy”. Luke Syson writes about the other Prado version on pp. 327-330. In this one, the reclining nude is thought to be not Venus, but the organist’s wife or betrothed. Cupid’s place is taken by a little dog, and the man is gazing down at a ring on the lady’s finger. The organist’s face is clearly a portrait, and the lady is more naturally colored than the other Venuses; she has more portrait-like features as well. Her face was altered (an example of pentimento) from a direct glance at the musician to a more chaste downward look at the dog.

The man at the organ is thought to be Titian’s close friend, the lawyer and orator Francesco Assonica. Details in the background landscape are tropes on love and eroticism. Mr. Syson thinks this version is the one with the highest degree of participation by the master himself, although it is unsigned. It may seem strange that a man would have his wife (if it is she) portrayed in the nude, but people saw things differently in mid-16th-century Venice. And not only then and there; in the late 20th I sat at the table of a prominent, if slightly eccentric, American collector. My hostess was sitting opposite me under a disconcerting painting of her as a fountain with water spewing out of her ample breasts. This was one of several nudes of the good lady scattered around the Baltimore mansion. Her husband appeared as a sculpted satyr lurking in the garden shrubberies.

The date given in the Met catalog for the Prado/Assonica version is “ca. 1550”. The painting was sketched in Venice by van Dyck before being acquired from the Assonica family for the collection of Charles I. After the English monarch met his unfortunate end it passed through private hands before being purchased for Charles IV of Spain at a time when the regime in England had no use for nudes. Other versions would, according to this theory, be replicas traced from this one.

The Prado itself now dates its previously mentioned version – the one with the Cupid, not the dog – to “around 1555”, a decade later than Wethey, who thinks it is the Venus painted in Rome in 1545 and delivered by Titian to Augsburg. All this nicely illustrates the confusion surrounding the whole issue.

I find the Berlin version the most interesting. Its signature is accepted as authentic. To my eye it incontrovertibly shows a very youthful Crown Prince Philip. The resemblance to the bust by Leone Leoni at the Met in New York is “striking”, as Wethey says. The view of Philip’s face at an angle from behind serves to conceal the Habsburg jaw to some extent. If it was in fact adapted from a previous version, there was a happy coincidence in that respect.

But what if the Berlin version was actually the prototype painted in Rome? Philip doesn’t look older than his mid-teens in the picture. The provenances of this version and the one with the Cupid in the Prado have weak links. The language of Titian’s letter to the emperor, fairly pleading for patronage and stating that his art advanced “by itself” when in the imperial service, indicates to me a direct Habsburg connection to whichever Venus Titian was referring. In any case, the point of the Berlin picture was to show Philip’s father that the prince was, or would soon be, seriously engaged in the search for a wife, pre-represented by the goddess of love. The always precarious issue of an heir to the throne was the subliminal message.

Charles V only took a religious picture by Titian with him when he left Augsburg in 1548. There is a Granvelle family connection to the Prado Venus with the Cupid. This is a major reason Wethey and other authorities think this was the original “quadro de fantasia”, and that the emperor gave it to his minister. I would suggest that Charles might have actually left the Berlin version behind, which had been painted in Rome from a portrait of the young Philip which Titian saw there. At the time he had been engaged by Charles to paint the late empress from another artist’s model, and immediately seized the opportunity to ingratiate himself by means of a work including a portrait of his son which turned out to be too erotic for the imperial taste. Emperor Charles V, King Carlos I of Spain, was worn out, and his thoughts were already turning towards the monastery at Yuste.

The Berlin version, by the way, is the only one with both a Cupid and a dog. The white-furred canine is a symbol of loyalty – filial, in this case?


Antonio de Cabezón was present with Titian at the new Palazzo Reale in Milan on Christmas day 1548. The painter received 1000 ducats “for certain portraits” after his stay in the city, but the organ Titian and his assistants painted at least three times was in fact unlikely to have been Cabezón’s, as we suggested in the previously-mentioned footnote. In 1540, Pietro Aretino wrote to the famous instrument builder Alessandro Trasuntino, suggesting that he exchange an arpicordo for a portrait of him by Titian.*** In 1542 the “Scourge of Princes” wrote the builder again, praising an organo d’ebano (with ebony pipes?) which he had seen****. Emanuel Winternitz concluded from this that the proposed exchange resulted in an organ, not an arpicordo, and the story has entered the literature in that form, in spite of the fact that the 1542 letter specifies that the organ was for the camere di sua beatudine – for the Pope’s private chambers.

If Titian saw it in Rome, and if its general design was similar to that of Lorenzo de Pavia’s famous organo di carta (1494, with paper pipes, now in the Museo Correr in Venice), that could have been the inspiration for the first of Titian’s three organs, whether painted in Rome, or back home in Venice – either way, with the usual inaccuracies found in such depictions. But assuming the suggested exchange actually took place, Titian got an arpicordo – the typical Italian polygonal spinet – rather than something as big and cumbrous as an organ.

Titian could have used any number of small mitre-shaped organs as his model. It could only have been Cabezón’s if the original was the Berlin version, and assuming it was painted after the 1548-9 Milan encounter. But judging from the far more mature looks of Philip in the 1551 full-length portrait of the crown prince in armor, I think that hypothesis can be discarded.

Titian’s walled garden compound Biri Grande was formerly on the northern shore of the main island of Venice. Its location is now several streets back because of landfill for the Fondamenta Nuove. Everything has disappeared except for an arched gate and a possible former warehouse or studio where one can now drink coffee under a spreading grapevine. It’s a pleasant place to think about Willaert, M. A. Cavazzoni and Ippolito Tromboncino playing Trasuntino’s arpicordo while visiting their friend, who outlived them all. Titian himself played the viola da gamba, and probably the lute as well. He is shown as one the many portraits in Veronese’s “Wedding Feast at Cana” (1563), bending over a violone to read his part. When that miraculous work was painted, Titian still had 13 years to live, working to the end. He probably wasn’t 99 when he died, as was thought until recently – something like 88 is more likely. But scholarship is no more in agreement on that essential point than it is about the series of paintings discussed here.

February 18, 2022

*Rome, 8 December 1545: “ mi preferisco di raccioniarla in maniera che Vostra Maestà se ne contentarà, quando Nostro Signor Dio mi donerà gratia di poter io venir a presentarle una figura di Venere da me fatta a nome suo: la qual figura ho speranza che farà chiara fede quanto la mia arte avanzi se stessa in adoperarsi per la Maestà Vostra.”

**Venice, 1 September 1548: “...non avendo io havuto respeto a la mia vechia vita, in sul cor de la invernata per ordine di Sua Maestà Cesarea et condurli in su una careta di qui in Augusta il quadro del Cristo et la Venere, come me fu comandato per nome di Sua Maestà...”

*** Venice, 7 April 1540: “A M. ALESSANDRO DAGLI ORGANI / Ecco, fratello, ch’io ho fermato tra voi, che sete il lume de l’arte vostra, e Titiano, ch’è lo splendor del mestier’ suo il piu laudabile, il piu honorevole, & e il piu gratioso patto, che tra due cosi nobili, cosi gentili, e cosi alti spiriti si potesse mai fermare, & il caso è che voi doviate lavorargli una di quelle machine, che con il soave de l’armonia danno l’anime in preda de lo estasi; e che egli in cambio di ciò debba dipingervi in un’ di quegli esempli, che con il vivace de la natura riducono le persone in braccio de lo stupore. Ma, perché lo ingegno degli uomini eccellenti non si prevale di se stesso se non in tempo, mi è parso di metter due mesi di termine tra il compiere le la sua opera e de la vostra. Intanto il viso e l’audito, preclari principi degli altri sensi, spettano di comprendere, ne lo arpicordo che voi farete a lui e nel ritatto che egli fará a voi, lo ultimo fine de la perfezzione che si richiede ne l’una cosa e ne l’altra. Benché ciò moverá ad invidia quante imagini e quanti stormenti [sic] uscir mai del solo penello suo e de le uniche mani vostre.”

**** Venice, 8 May 1542: “A MESSER ALESSANDRO TRASONTINO / Quale maraviglia gli organi che sa costruire messer Alessandro! / Io, reverendo fratello, nel vedere e ne lo udire gli organi d’ebano usciti da la divinitá del vostro ingegno e da la eccellenzia de le vostre mani, ho pensato tra me stesso che, prevedendo il cielo il dovere farsi nel mondo un si mirabile istrumento, ci fece assordare da l’armonia de le sue sfere, accioché non si sentisse da noi in che modo quella, che esce dal magistero di voi, la supera di dolcezza. Si che le camere di Sua Beatudine risoneranno d’altra melodia che non risuonono le logge superne.”

Below: the Berlin “Venus with an Organist”.

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