This is Titian’s largest group portrait. The man in a red robe is probably Gabriel Vendramin (1484–1552). The man holding the altar may be Gabriel’s brother, Andrea Vendramin (1481–1547), and the boys are his seven sons. On the altar is a reliquary of the True Cross that their great-great-grandfather, an earlier Andrea Vendramin, had received on behalf of the Scuola Grande di S. Giovanni Evangelista in 1369. The relic was the confraternity’s greatest treasure and of great importance to the Vendramin.
The portrait was made for a specific place in the family’s Venetian palace, most likely the central hall. During painting, it was cut down on the left, probably because the patron changed the intended location. The three boys on the far left and two boys on the far right were late additions, possibly painted by an assistant.
This is Titian’s largest group portrait. It was recorded in March 1569 in Palazzo Vendramin, Venice, as ‘a large painting in which is depicted the miraculous cross with [...] Andrea Vendramin with his seven sons and messer Gabriel Vendramin together with its gold frame made by the hand of Titian.’ It was probably made for the central hall or portego of the family’s palace – a room that exhibited the status of its owner.
Andrea Vendramin (1481–1547) was the oldest son of the Venetian patrician Vendramin family, and his brother Gabriel (1484–1552) was three years younger than him. Their family business was the manufacture, sale and export of soap, and their uncle, Doge Andrea Vendramin, was one of the richest men in Venice. The children depicted in Titian’s portrait are the sons of Andrea and his wife Lucrezia Pasqualigo.
The Vendramin family are kneeling before a Gothic reliquary of silver gilt and rock crystal, the greatest treasure of the Scuola Grande di S. Giovanni Evangelista in Venice. Splinters of wood said to be from Christ’s cross are preserved in its upmost part. Membership of the confraternity was confined to men, which may be why Andrea Vendramin’s six daughters are not included in the portrait. The relic was very important to the Vendramin because the Guardian of the Scuola who had accepted the relic from the Grand Chancellor of Cyprus on the confraternity’s behalf in 1369 was Andrea Vendramin, the great-great-grandfather of Andrea and Gabriel.
The youngest child holding the spaniel, Federigo Vendramin (1535–1583), seems to have been painted from life; he cannot be older than about five, which would suggest a date of about 1541 for that part of the painting. The rest of the painting, however, may well have been finished somewhat later. Lunardo – the youngest adult, in profile – would have been 17 at that time. He died on 5 October 1547 and his father Andrea died in the January of that year, so the portrait was probably painted before then, unless it was posthumous.
The identity of the two older men is a bit of a puzzle. Infrared reflectography reveals that Titian originally planned for the brother with the longer beard to lead the family to the altar in the central position, but switched them around. This would indicate that the man now holding the altar is Andrea, the senior brother and father to the seven sons portrayed, while the man in the red robe is his younger, childless brother Gabriel. The man beside the altar appears much older than the other man, though only three years separated Andrea from Gabriel. However, people age differently and it is not inconceivable that the brothers are rendered accurately. It has been suggested that older man may be the original Andrea Vendramin who was so closely identified with the relic, but that seems too fanciful an idea and unlikely for a portrait this lively.
The best parts of the painting are consistent with Titian’s work of the early 1540s, although the three boys to the left and the last two boys were perhaps painted by an assistant. There seems to have been a change of mind concerning the picture’s width while it was being painted and the canvas was cropped at left. This meant moving Lunardo, whose original position is clear from X-radiographs and infrared reflectography. He was first placed lower down and further left; the original position of his head can now be seen appearing through the paint, which has become translucent with age. The three sons in the lower left corner were added subsequently and are an uncomfortable fit.
The picture was once owned by the great seventeenth-century painter Anthony van Dyck who viewed himself as Titian’s artistic heir.
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