Titian’s Saint John the Baptist in the Prado
Saint John the Baptist is the only work by Titian in the Prado not to have originally been in the Spanish royal collections. Rather, it came via the Museo de la Trinidad, entering the Museum in 1872 as by an “anonymous Madrid School artist of the seventeenth century”. As such it was sent fourteen years later to the parish church of Nuestra Señora del Carmen in Cantoria in the province of Almeria.
In the catalogue of the exhibition Titian, held at the Prado in 2003, Miguel Falomir, Head of the Department of Italian and French Painting (up to 1700) at the Museum and the exhibition’s curator, proposed that the present painting could be a copy of a now lost Baptist by Titian. In the light of this suggestion in 2007 the Museum embarked on a study of the work, reaching the conclusion that it was not a copy but an original by Titian. Technical characteristics such as the preparatory layer of white lead with added calcium carbonate as well as the similarity between the landscape and those found in other works by the artist of the early 1550s allowed for its date to be established.
The painting arrived at the Museum in extremely poor physical condition. The recent, outstanding restoration by Clara Quintanilla has recovered the composition’s legibility by re-establishing the balance between the figure and its setting. Furthermore, in the less damaged areas (the sky and landscape) it is now possible to appreciate Titian’s grandeur and subtlety. The importance of this new Saint John the Baptist is not, however, aesthetic (the work is too damaged) but rather documentary. Firstly, research has shown that this was one of the artist’s most popular religious compositions in Spain, evident in the large number of copies that have been identified. The fact that the earliest are from Zaragoza and nearby suggest that the painting’s first owner lived there, who may well have been Martín de Gurrea y Aragón, 4th Duke of Villahermosa (1526-1581). Secondly, the painting constitutes an exceptionally important record of how Titian repeated his compositions (see below). Finally, it provides information on the other two versions of the subject, strengthening the arguments for the autograph status of the El Escorial painting, which has recently been questioned.
The production of replicas in Titian’s bottega
Titian generally executed a copy of each work that he painted as a record (ricordo) for possible future commissions. These copies were kept in his bottega and transformed into replicas when required. Small changes were introduced that differentiated the replica from the original, with the result that each replica became a new, original work. At that point a new copy was made in order to keep a ricordo for any future replicas required. As a result, no two works by Titian are identical.
This process can be followed in the x-radiographs of the works in the present exhibition as they reveal the initial compositions. The x-radiograph of the final version (El Escorial) shows a different composition to the one visible on the surface, with a more muscular saint wearing a camel-skin jerkin with buttons, his right hand on his breast. In other words, it repeats the composition of the work now in the Prado. Similarly, the x-radiograph of the Baptist in the Prado shows the composition of the Accademia painting, which is the earliest version. These three Baptists offer the most chronologically extended example of how Titian produced replicas, as approximately thirty-five years separate the first version (Venice, ca.1530-32) from the final one (El Escorial (ca.1565-70).