Focus on: Titian

Explore myth and meaning in the paintings of Titian.
Metamorphosis: Titian 2012
Metamorphosis: Titian 2012

Metamorphosis: Titian 2012

Metamorphosis: Titian 2012

About the video:


Diana, the chaste goddess of the hunt, exacts her revenge on Actaeon when he catches her unaware.


A re-imaginging of the story of Diana and Actaeon from Ovid's epic poem Metamorphoses, this short film was produced by Credit Suisse [external link] to accompany the exhibition 'Metamorphosis: Titian 2012' in summer 2012.


Explore the life and work of Titian through film, in-depth research and more

More from Focus on: Titian (10 videos)

Metamorphosis: Titian 2012
Metamorphosis: Titian 2012

About the video:


Diana, the chaste goddess of the hunt, exacts her revenge on Actaeon when he catches her unaware.


A re-imaginging of the story of Diana and Actaeon from Ovid's epic poem Metamorphoses, this short film was produced by Credit Suisse [external link] to accompany the exhibition 'Metamorphosis: Titian 2012' in summer 2012.


Explore the life and work of Titian through film, in-depth research and more

Paintings decoded
Discover the background of Titian's 'Bacchus and Ariadne'

About the video:


Feel the drama as love-struck Bacchus approaches the abandoned Ariadne. Revel in Titian's contrasting colours and find out about his frustrated patron, Alfonso d'Este. With James Heard, National Gallery Education.


From The National Gallery Visitor's Guide DVD


Find out more about Titian, Bacchus and Ariadne, 1520-3


Explore the life and work of Titian through film, in-depth research and more

James Heard: He was born in Cadore, in the mountains above Venice, and his name is Titian. In many ways, he is the first great modern painter, because he was using oil paint on canvas. To painting, he brought new vibrancy. Vibrancy of colour, in particular, which we can see in this painting of 'Bacchus and Ariadne', painted between 1520 and 1523.

James Heard (in the studio): The subject is taken from the Latin poetry of Ovid and Catullus. They both give slightly differing versions of Prince Theseus, slaying the Minotaur, and then, abandoning his lover, the Cretan princess, Ariadne. Titian chooses the moment when Theseus sails away, leaving Ariadne to very different fate, with the handsome young Bacchus, just returning from a tour of India. Bacchus, with his crown of ivy, and train of inebriated companions, makes an extraordinary impact, leaping from his chariot, to declare his love for Ariadne.

[Classical music playing in background]

His companions are neither polite, nor civilised, having just torn apart the limbs of a young calf, in their drunken frenzy.

[Classical music playing]

Bacchus though, makes the romantic gesture, of taking Ariadne's crown, and throwing it into the sky, where it becomes a constellation of stars.


Titian painted this for a special gallery, in the castle at Ferrara. The owner, Duke Alfonso d'Este, became impatient at the length of time Titian took to complete his masterpiece. What makes it so impressive, is the relationships between the individual characters, the repeated rhythms and, above all, the colour. Titian has used highly saturated hues, in the shadows, to create a powerful combination of colours, such as the juxtaposition of Bacchus' red lake cloak, against the lapis lazuli of the sky.

Titian: 'Diana and Actaeon' | Carol Plazzotta - Curator | The National Gallery, London

Learn more about this painting with National Gallery curator, Carol Plazzotta. Read about the painting, learn the key facts and zoom in to discover more on the National Gallery website:

Paintings decoded
Artist John Lessore and Restorer Jill Dunkerton: 'The Death of Actaeon'

About the video:


Finished or unfinished? National Gallery Restorer Jill Dunkerton studies the X-rays of Titian's 'The Death of Actaeon' to reveal the artist's indecision in painting this masterpiece, while the artist John Lessore explores the theme of his favourite painting in the collection. With actress Lizzy McInnerny performing a dramatic narration of an extract from Ovid's poem 'Metamorphosis'.


From the National Gallery DVD, 'Titian'


Find out more about Titian, The Death of Actaeon, about 1559-75


Explore the life and work of Titian through film, in-depth research and more

John Lessore: In the whole history of art, Titian is my favourite painter and in the National Gallery, this Titian of Diana and Actaeon is my favourite painting. It used to be the Bacchus and Ariadne, but this one has supplanted it. Actaeon quite unwittingly stumbled across Diana bathing in the nude and saw her.

Lizzy McInnerny: Diana dashed some water into the face of the intruder, saying, now go and tell, if you can, that you have seen Diana naked. The hero fled. He could not but admire his own speed, but when he saw his horns in the water, he groaned and tears flowed down the face which had taken the place of his own. When he hesitated, the dogs saw him. He fled and they followed. He longed to cry out, but the words didn’t come. Presently, one fastened on his back. Another seized his shoulder. They were all around him, rending and tearing. It was not until they had torn his life out that the anger of Diana was satisfied.

John Lessore: In this painting, you see he has just started, he’s still a man except for his head, but that’s enough for the dogs. They’re already beginning to tear him to bits. He is no longer their master. He is now their victim.

Jill Dunkerton: The X-ray of 'The Death of Actaeon' shows the most extraordinary number of changes. Sometimes you can make out one of the hounds that we still see in the final painting, for example, that head there, but if you look, there are many more hounds in the X-ray than there are in the painting itself.

There’s a lot of discussion and disagreement about whether a painting like 'The Death of Actaeon' is actually finished. I personally think that at this late stage of his career, Titian himself didn’t necessarily know when pictures were finished. It isn’t lacking any of the final glazes, any of the systematic build-up of colour that you get with earlier pictures and, indeed, with Titian’s earlier pictures, because that was no longer part of his painting process. He is now ranging over the whole surface of the picture. One moment, he is using a glaze; the next moment, he is using an opaque colour. In a sense, it’s unfinished because Titian probably never lived to decide the point at which it was going to be finished, but it’s not unfinished to me in a technical sense. It’s not an incomplete picture and to me it works completely as an image.

John Lessore: Nobody had ever painted in such an abstract, plastic way in which the emotion he is conveying is not conveyed by narrative so much as by shape and movement and colour. What he was doing was incredibly deliberate and refined. It’s just that the handling is so powerful that one gets the impression that the paint is slapped on any old how, which it’s not. It’s certainly not. This is a very late Titian. He must have started it when he was about 70, but gone on with it when he was in his middle 80s. The 10 or 15 years between starting it and finishing it... “finishing” in inverted commas because theoretically it is not finished, but I’m not quite sure that that’s really what Titian felt about it. I think that if he’d wanted to do any more, he would have.

Who was Ovid?
Historian Bernadine Corrigan on the life of the Roman poet

About the video:

Join historian Bernadine Corrigan as she delves into the life of Roman poet Ovid, the inspiration for Titian's 'poesie' paintings.

Discover how Ovid became a poet and uncover the scandal that banned his books and banished him from Rome.

Ovid’s ‘Metamorphoses’ are central to the spectacular multi-arts exhibition Metamorphosis: Titian 2012, on display until 23 September 2012

Bernadine Corrigan: Ovid was a poet born in 43BC, the year after the assassination of Julius Caesar. He came from a quite wealthy family and as a young man moved to Rome for his education, as was the standard thing at the time. He toured Greece in a mini Grand Tour, which was another thing that wealthy Roman men would have done. Although he took a few jobs in the judiciary, he decided not to go into public life and instead became a poet, and a very successful poet at that.

Very shortly after the 'Metamorphoses' was first published, or perhaps even the first draft was published, we’re not quite sure, Ovid was suddenly exiled from Rome. [Emperor] Augustus made the announcement himself and exiled Ovid to a place called Tomis – in modern-day Romania on the Black Sea – which was frankly a dump.

It was awful. No one went to Tomis, it was right on the edge of the Empire. The climate was terrible, there was no culture there, and Ovid was exiled and his books were banned. We don’t know why this happened. The only evidence we have is what Ovid himself tells us, and he tells us there were two reasons.

There was a carmen and an error. A carmen is a song, a poem, and an error is ... an error, it’s a mistake, an indiscretion. The carmen he’s referring to is [Ovid’s book] the 'Ars Amatoria' ('The Art of Love'), said to induce Roman matrons towards adultery, which of course was rubbish. In fact, it had been published about eight years before he was banished, so that can’t have been the proximate cause.
The error we don’t know, he won’t tell us, but he implies that he has seen something he shouldn’t have seen.

Clearly it is something scandalous to do with the imperial family and over the years everyone has guessed at what that might be. Did he catch one of the imperial family in flagrante delicto, in an adulterous affair. Did he in fact catch Augustus himself having sex with another man?

That theory was very popular in the Middle Ages. Ovid was banned and never ever made it back to Rome. He spent the rest of his life writing letters begging to be allowed back home, and he never was. He died nine years later in Tomis, very sadly.

Early Titian and Landscapes
Antonio Mazzotta

About the video:

Join curator Antonio Mazzotta as he introduces Titian's influential early-career landscape painting 'Noli me Tangere'.


More about the exhibition Titian's First Masterpiece: The Flight into Egypt, 4 April – 19 August 2012.


Explore the life and work of Titian through film, in-depth research and more

Antonio Mazzotta: At this stage we’re talking about Titian being 22–23 years old. This is the Magdalen meeting Christ after the Resurrection. What is unique is the very ambitious attempt to fuse human figures and landscape, and to create a landscape that looks natural and real. For example, the line of the back of the Magdalen is almost continued in this wonderfully shaped tree, and the line of the body of Christ is continued on the hill. So we have a sort of large X – the arms of this X are natural elements, and the legs of this X are human elements.

But also he’s able to infuse his taste for the life that exists in things. All the early descriptions until the late 18th century emphasise the fact that one could almost step into Titian’s landscapes. They felt real like never before. We can feel that the sun is rising, even though we cannot see it, through the first ray of sunlight that is catching the building on the top of the hill. It’s a dynamic nature that goes far beyond what we see, for example, the breeze that one can feel in the foreground, the grass that is almost moving, and also the white drapery of the Magdalen.

The extraordinary thing about Titian is that even if he had died at the age of 24 he would have been a highly influential artist for the following generations. The fact is that he went on painting for about 65 more years after this work. So it was an incredibly long career – and every stage of his career was influential for a different artist.

Titians Early Portraits
Antonio Mazzotta

About the video:

Curator Antonio Mazzotta explains how a young Titian formulated a completely new approach to portraiture.


Featuring Portrait of Gerolamo (?) Barbarigo, about 1509 and Portrait of a Lady ('La Schiavona'), about 1510-12.


More about the exhibition Titian's First Masterpiece: The Flight into Egypt, 4 April – 19 August 2012.

Antonio Mazzotta: Titian depicted this striking portrait when he was about 20, and the young Titian was able to formulate a completely new idea of portraiture. The pose is not static, it’s highly dynamic, so the sitter is turning. As soon as you turn, your gaze is more immediate.

He wanted to give a sense that the eyes just cross yours, and that the position is going to change very soon. So it’s a moment in time, which gives a sense of immediacy and which is a technique still employed today by fashion photographers. It was really something so new and so revolutionary in this portrait. This particular pose, which is called ‘di spalla’ – looking over the shoulder – became a standard type of portrait for centuries.

We should think about Van Dyck’s portraits and remember that Van Dyck owned this portrait. We should also think about Rembrandt’s portraits, such as the National Gallery 'Self-Portrait', executed in 1640. To be represented without any doubt, without any fear, was probably what was liked about Titian’s portraits, as well as the sense of physical presence, of reality.

This portrait was probably executed in around 1511, when Titian was about 22 years old. What is really new about this portrait is that the parapet is starting to drop, so we see more of the figure. This was incredibly new. She’s really dominating. She’s this incredible iconic female figure that can be compared to the great mothers of the history of art, from Mesopotamia to the Roman matrons. Really, she’s an allegory of woman.

There are several elements that make this picture uniquely Titian, starting from how it is painted. The handling of paint, the rendering of transparencies – like this wonderful veil – and the setting of the light, is also so clever. The light is coming from the upper left and washes this very pale skin with reddish cheeks. Also, this gives a presence of a pulsating animal. In a way this is a final point of his youth, but also a starting point for his mature style.

Poetry on canvas
Carol Plazzotta and Lavinia Greenlaw

About the video:

Curator Carol Plazzotta and poet Lavinia Greenlaw talk about Titian, the poetic painter and Ovid, the painterly poet.

Titian’s Diana and Actaeon, Diana and Callisto and The Death of Actaeon are the central paintings in the spectacular multi-arts project ‘Metamorphosis: Titian 2012’, on display until 23 September 2012.

Find out more about Metamorphosis: Titian 2012

Carol Plazzotta: I think of Ovid as one of the most painterly of all poets. Ovid always loves to set the scene. Even if you’d never seen Titian’s paintings, I think in reading the Ovid you immediately have an idea of place. He is so visual, and he makes you think visually with his descriptiveness and the adjectives he uses in the idea of touch, and the coolness, for example, the coolness of the grotto and the nakedness of the flesh, it’s all so evocative.

Titian is almost the reverse of that. He is the most poetic of painters and so in many, many ways it is an ideal meeting of minds between these two very gifted men. Ovid has a way of making poetry enjoyable, and I think Titian was a master of that as well.
He certainly knew how to spin an extraordinary tale in a painting and he did that through the gaze, through touch. For example, the nymph’s foot in the icy stream, he makes us feel its cool freshness, and so on. He employs everything in his armoury, if you like. Many of those tools or weapons, shall we say, are borrowed from poetry.

So for example, I think there’s a lot about rhyme, rhythm, contrast, antithesis and surprise, all the tactics that Ovid employed. Titian kind of recreates them in his own special style, which is particularly humane.

Lavinia Greenlaw: I think if people call Titian’s work poetic, they’re talking about poetic in the right way, which is that he uses enormous precision and depth to bring about something very, very human, rather than to create something romantic or epic. And I think Titian’s ability to draw out essential human qualities in every figure he depicted is what moved me most, this character moved me most, Callisto, because of this incredible focus on her belly. He doesn’t objectify her belly, he actually invests everything in it; he invests the acts of the Gods in it. The whole story is there, in this very, very human, swelling body.

Carol Plazzotta: These pictures are completely unprecedented in terms of their scope, the cast of characters and the psychological interplay between them, and Titian was self-conscious about this. He was the first one to call these paintings ‘poesie’, poems. And he realised he had achieved something very special.

The Artists on the Artist
Three contemporary artists take inspiration from one Old Master

About the video:


Contemporary artists Chris Ofili, Conrad Shawcross and Mark Wallinger explore the three Titian paintings at the heart of the exhibition Metamorphosis: Titian 2012, which inspired their own creative production for the show.


Hear from the artists and exhibition curator Minna Moore Ede as they discuss the production and display of their original works – 'Trophy', 'Diana' and 'Metamorphoses'.


Find out more about the artists, poets and choreographers involved in the Metamorphosis project, a unique collaboration with The Royal Ballet

Minna Moore Ede: One of the fantastic things about the project is that we’ve ended up with three very different artists and three extremely different responses.

Conrad Shawcross: This room is spectacular; to see them in this room together is really beautiful. The two paintings I respond to is 'Diana and Actaeon', the first painting and 'The Death of Actaeon', and particularly 'The Death of Actaeon' is the formal composition in which I’ve arranged my vitrine. So you’ve got Diana on the left and Actaeon on the right. Diana very large and powerful, dominating the picture, Actaeon falling backwards, submissive, smaller, compromised, vulnerable, and the idea is that I've arranged the vitrine in the same dynamic. That was really the formal gestation of the piece.

Minna Moore Ede: I particularly wanted an artist who had an almost architectural take on space and he’s an artist whose work tends to be underpinned by mathematical or scientific ideas. So automatically you’ve got an exciting possibility of someone who will really push Titian in a totally other direction.

Conrad Shawcross: The exhibition has been really well laid out but I knew about where I was from quite a while and I purposefully have arranged the objects in the vitrine so it’s very much like 'Death of Actaeon', when you’re looking at the painting its stage left and Actaeon is stage right. We’ve done all this very subtle lighting to create the reflection of the light off the surfaces, like Titian does so well.

Mark Wallinger: In Ovid, Actaeon is with a hunting party in the woods and he loses his way and he surprises the goddess Diana and her nymphs bathing, once seen forever smitten. And her gesture is somewhere between protection, not exactly a coyness but there’s something that’s about to turn vengeful and very ugly here. And with this blast of light across these female forms suddenly the light makes them vulnerable and I guess that was the moment that fascinated me and drew me to make the 'Diana' work.

Minna Moore Ede: I love the idea in Mark's work, he often just turns subjects on their head, and that really fresh perspective was something I really wanted for this project.

Mark Wallinger: We live in a world of endless titillation if you like, and I guess we also... in the last century cinema and TV has turned voyeurism into a spectator sport. I mean we sit in the dark collectively and watch films and in a way we are being put in the position of the voyeur. If we live somewhere and the lights go on in the flat opposite we look, we want to see what’s going on. So things don’t change, it’s the vehicle by which we get allowed to see a human being naked and vulnerable is perhaps different, but it's about trying to reimagine that encounter and make the viewer momentarily a little uncomfortable.

Minna Moore Ede: We had to have a painter because Titian was a virtuoso painter. So it was always very important to have that legacy and I realised the he was an artist that could go on a really big scale. He’s also an artist who is not shy of looking at narrative subjects, Biblical subjects and that was very important because, you know, that’s quite rare actually with contemporary painters.

Chris Ofili: There was a period when I was trying to think 'Oh, what's the Olympian world like? What would these people actually look like?' I had a little bit of help from a friend in Trinidad who studied Classics in Holland. So he was able to just tell me like the basics of it and that actually there’s nothing special about it. Humans don’t change, we just change our look but we're pretty much do the same things as they did all those years ago, right? So then I was able to exhale and think 'OK, it’s alright, I can just kind of make some of this stuff up'.

Titian made it up too. What I did notice quite quickly was that my approach to the painting changed. That’s when it started to get a bit tricky because I didn’t know if... where I was or where I was going with the work was any good, wasn’t tried and tested. But once I relaxed with that and let go then I was able in the tenth painting to get to this state of just kind of more loose and relaxed.

Minna Moore Ede: It's very much part of what art does, it looks back and it responds, but that response always yields something new or should always yield something new. And that says something about the original source work so it shows you what very rich paintings those Titians are.

Titian in Dance
Hear how choreographers were inspired by Titian to create new ballets

About the video:


Join leading choreographers as they discuss the three Titian paintings at the heart of the exhibition Metamorphosis: Titian 2012, which inspired the production of three new ballets performed at the Royal Opera House in July 2012.


Featuring interviews with choreographers Will Tuckett, Wayne McGregor, Jonathan Watkins, Kim Brandstrup and Alastair Marriott, and behind-the-scenes footage from the ballet rehearsals.


You can also watch extracts from the ballets performed at the Royal Opera House.

Wayne McGregor: What’s fantastic about being in this room, of course you are again overwhelmed by the Titians and them all being in one place, but more than that, I think what is incredible about the room is you have these apertures where you see alternative worlds that these paintings have stimulated and resourced.

Jonathan Watkins: I love the fact that it was created so long ago and it’s still inspiring.

Will Tuckett: It’s been a real gift to work on something that allows you to look at paintings and read something in a way that you never otherwise would have done. You'd never have looked at it in that detail and thought about how you feel about it and how you want other people to feel about it.

I think for me the thing that was interesting actually looking particularly at Diana, was working with Marianela [Nuñez]; she’s goddess of the hunt and to have somebody embody that, who most of the time is not required to have that fierce fury. I think Marianela managed to embody that beautifully.

Wayne McGregor: I think what still strikes me about the actual paintings is still the power relationships and they’re more vivid in the paintings now that I see them at scale and human size.

Kim Brandstrup: Conrad was very interested in this diagonal between the big figure in the front and the little one in the back. And that it shifts from being first Diana and then Actaeon is the 'victim' as such. There is a beautiful softness, even as powerful as Diana is. And I think my take on it is this sensual softness that comes out of these paintings.

Alastair Marriott: Something that Titian is dealing with in the paintings is a similar thing to what as a choreographer we deal with, which is how you portray women.

Obviously when this was painted all those years ago it was probably painted with the idea that men would be looking at it, and so this is a man’s idea of how he wants you to see these woman. In the same way we do that with women at the [Royal] Opera House: we build ballets around them. Especially being a feminine art form, that usually the woman is at the centre of a ballet, but it’s often a man who creates the image of the woman.

Wayne McGregor: No art form is ever finished, even if it’s fixed on paint, and I think one of the fantastic things about Titian is that it’s in this constant state of flux. And so I think that in 500 years it will also be used again as the beginning of something else.