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The ageing Titian met the 21-year-old Prince Philip through Philip's father, the Holy Roman Emperor, King Charles V of Spain, who was already Titian's patron.

The concept of a thematic group, or cycle, of large paintings, was probably conceived when Titian and Philip met for the first time in Milan in 1548, and subsequently at the Imperial Diet at Augsburg in the winter of 1550–1.

Titian had been summoned by Philip's father to Augsburg to paint portraits of him and also his son: 'Portrait of Philip II as a Prince', (Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid). The portrait was a success and the prince became another of Titian's royal patrons.

The subject

The large mythological paintings are inspired by stories taken from Ovid’s (43 BC–17 AD) 'Metamorphoses' and other Classical works. Titian was given free rein by Philip to choose the subjects and to create new and innovative compositions. The six paintings were produced over 10 years from about 1549 to 1566.

The Greek and Roman mythological stories provided Titian with tales from a world where immortals play havoc with the lives of men and women. The paintings share themes of seduction, disguise, and power.

Metamorphoses - tales of transformation

The tales of the 'Metamorphoses' were as well known as Bible stories in Titian's day and were a popular source of inspiration for artists during the Renaissance.

Ovid's poem is a collection of mythical tales based on the theme of 'change'; 'Metamorphoses' means 'transformations' in Greek.

Made up of 15 sections or 'books', each section of 'Metamorphoses' has around six stories.

In book two, we find the story of Callisto and Arcas which inspired Titian's ‘Diana and Callisto’. A favourite nymph of the goddess Diana, Callisto is tricked by Jupiter into betraying Diana, and suffers the consequences.

Titian’s inspiration for two other paintings, ‘Diana and Actaeon’ and the later ‘The Death of Actaeon’, was the story of Actaeon found in the third book. The hunter Actaeon sees something he shouldn't and, like Callisto, is also punished.

A decade's work

The first two mythologies, 'Danaë' (1549–50) and 'Venus and Adonis' (about 1552–4), were variations of pictures Titian had painted before. In 1556, the year Philip was crowned king of Spain,

Titian sent him 'Perseus and Andromeda' (probably 1554–6), to be joined later by the 'Rape of Europa' (1559–62).

Three years after the 'Perseus', Titian sent Philip 'Diana and Actaeon' and 'Diana and Callisto'. Designed as a pair, they share themes and compositional elements (a stream flows from one to the other), the two paintings have remained together throughout their history.

A seventh painting, The ‘Death of Actaeon’, was intended as part of the cycle but a great part of it was painted later and it was never delivered to Philip. Here Titian, painting in his mid-80s, paints Actaeon, transformed into a stag by Diana, being torn to death by his own hounds.

Image: Titian, 'The Death of Actaeon', about 1559-75

Visual poems

Titian used the term ‘poesie’ for the paintings because he regarded them to be visual equivalents of poetry.

Combining his talent as both artist and storyteller, Titian selected the stories' most dramatic moments; an unexpected and fatal encounter; a shameful discovery; a terrifying abduction; set in atmospheric, enchanted, landscapes. We look on as the gods change the lives of flawed mortals, irrevocably. 

Like poetry, the paintings touch our emotions and imagination through their rhythm of colour, language of symbols, and expressive subjects.

However, despite their beauty, there’s a deadly element to these images; love and passion, but also desperation and death.  

Image: Detail from Titian, 'Diana and Actaeon', 1556–9 ©The National Gallery, London
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