- Titian and Tragic Painting: Aristotle's "Poetics" and the Rise of the Modern Artist
Titian and Tragic Painting is an ambitious study that seeks to establish a new basis for our understanding of this painter's secular art, especially his treatment of [End Page 509] classical themes. Not inappropriately, Thomas Puttfarken questions the values that have guided much traditional scholarship and criticism in the interpretation of this art — whether the cultural symbolism of high iconology or the prosaic literalism of low naturalism: is that female nude goddess or pin-up, Venere or merely venereal? Puttfarken's aim is to take the discourse beyond such conventional and not particularly fruitful debate. Declaring the poetry of Titian's art — more specifically, the tragic poetry of that art — Puttfarken's approach is announced in the subtitle of his book.
The three chapters of part 1, "On the Status of Painting in the Renaissance," review a number of familiar themes that are foundational to Puttfarken's thesis: painting, poetry, and the liberal arts; imitation and the moral purpose of learned images; and the idea of tragedy. It is in the third of these chapters that Aristotle is invoked, via the comparison of painting and poetry. Drawing heavily upon standard works of modern scholarship — especially Bernard Weinberg's indispensable History of Literary Criticism in the Italian Renaissance and the survey of Italian tragedy by Marvin Herrick — Puttfarken examines mid-Cinquecento commentaries on the Poetics as well as the dramatic literature itself of the period. He concludes that "it is hard to see how an ambitious artist like Titian, who was well aware of the discussions about poetry, and who aspired to a state comparable to that of the great poets, could not have thought of Aristotle's distinction between comedy, epic, and tragedy without aspiring, in one form or another, to a kind of tragic painting as the highest manifestation of his art" (73).
That conclusion prepares part 2, "Titian and Tragedy." It is here, in a chapter on "The Four Great Sinners," that Puttfarken makes his most solid contribution to our understanding of a particular set of somber paintings: the cycle of Ovidian sinners that Titian painted for Queen Mary of Hungary, sister of Charles V, for her château at Binche. The cycle was to have included Tityus, Sisyphus, Tantalus, and Ixion — only the first two canvases are extant (in the Prado), whereas the composition of the Tantalus is known through an engraving. Puttfarken categorizes these images under the rubric of "infernal tragedy," a concept he derives from a passage in the commentary by Giason Denores (1588), who attributes to Aristotle "a species of tragedy in which were introduced actions which had happened in the infernal regions" (92). Specifically cited are the subjects of "Tantalus, Ixion, Prometheus, and others of the kind" — images of Prometheus and Tityus, both victims of avian torment, were easily confused. Denores suggests that the example of these ancient sinners "could perhaps be useful in our times in order to put terror into sinners by representing their punishments." He has in mind sinners against the true faith, namely, Martin Luther, the Jews, the Turks, "the Infidels, and all the others like them." This post-Tridentine passage allows Puttfarken to locate Titian's images with new ideological precision.
Other aspects of Puttfarken's thesis, while offering welcome alternatives to some of the more rigid and narrow interpretations of Titian's mythological narratives, are not always compelling, especially as the author himself tends to yield to his own philological certainties. Chapter 5, "Michelangelo and Titian: Terribilità [End Page 510] and Tragic Pathos," rehearses a well-worn paragone and, as its title suggests, seeks to establish a terminological balance. Pathos is surely an appropriate concept for Titian's dramatic art, but it is not at all clear that this essential quality of that art derives from the cultural authority of Aristotle. Such insistence upon the determining impact of Artistotle detracts from Puttfarken's own...