TityusCa. 1565. Oil on canvas, 253 x 217 cm.
In his Metamorphoses Ovid recounts the torments of the giant Tityus, whose punishment for having attempted to rape the goddess Leto was to have two vultures devouring his continually regenerating liver for eternity. This work is Titian´s own late repetition of the original, painted by him for Mary of Hungary as part of a series of Furies. It was conceived as a warning for those who dared to challenge imperial power during a critical moment of confrontation with Protestant princes.
At individual level, only Tityus could boast a prestigious precedent: the remarkable drawing by Michelangelo which the artist gave to Tommasso de’ Cavalieri in 1532 along with a drawing of the Rape of Ganymede (London, The Royal Collection, RCIN 912771, HM the Queen). Like other artists before him, Michelangelo believed that classical statuary provided a suitable formal repertoire for recreating ancient myths, particularly those which -like Tityus- lacked an established iconography; and art historians have pointed to several sources of inspiration for the anatomy of the giant, including the Falling Gaul (Venice, Museo Archeologico Nazionale, inv. VIII: 23) and Laocoön (Vatican City, Musei Vaticani, Museo Pio Clementino, inv. 1059), which was thence-forth to become the touchstone for any painter tackling the Furias. The drawing shows the unsullied body of Tityus before his liver is attacked by the rapacious bird, a feature that distinguishes it from later representations, especially in the seventeenth century, when artists vied to highlight the violence of the scene. This, together with the gesture of his left arm, raised as thought to drive the bird away, make the Michelangelo’s Tityus a tribute to bravery rather than to suffering, as Paul Joannides has rightly noted.
There has been much speculation regarding the influence of Michelangelo on Titian’s painting, which may explain why Titian painted an eagle pecking at Tityus’ liver, when the literary sources refer to a vulture. Michelangelo’s drawing was a huge and immediate success from the moment it arrived in Rome, and was reproduced on a range of supports, from the superb quartz crystal carved by Giovanni Bernardi da Castel Bolognese for Cardinal Ippolito de’ Medici (1511-35) (London, British Museum, Blacas Collection no. 739), to the fresco in the Hall of the Caesars at Rocca dei Rossi in San Secondo (Parma), produced by an unknown follower of Giulo Romano in the late 1530’s. But Titian may well have been more familiar with the engraving made after Michelangelo’s drawings by Nicolas Beatrizet (act. c. 1540-1566), in around 1540. Contrasting with the sketchy setting of Michelangelo’s Tityus, Beatrizet places the figure clearly in Tartarus, highlighting the River Phlegethon and including a number of features that were to reappear in Titian’s Furias: the fire which is present in the three known compositions, and the ruins of classical architecture (in this case the Forum of Nerva), a setting to which Titian returned, though with other buildings, in his Tantalus. Titian completes the underworld scene with chains and serpents -as mentioned in Virgil’s Aeneid -together with other elements drawn from Christian imagery (Hades being the mythological equivalent of the Christian Hell), such as the open-clawed monsters in Sisyphus, similar to those appearing in so many Flemish Last Judgements, or the demons in Tantalus, flying over a building resembling the Colosseum.
As noted earlier, and as highlighted by historians, echoes of Michelangelo’s drawing of Tityus are evident; but there are also significant differences. Titian’s is clearly the more dramatic of the two; here the bird is actually pecking at the giant’s wound, whereas Michelangelo captures an earlier moment, when Tityus’ body was still unsullied. However, another possible source of inspiration has been overlooked: the ekphrasis of a Prometheus by the Greek painter Euanthes, included by Achilles Tatius in Book III of his Adventures of Leucippe and Clitophon. Charles Dempsey drew attention to his Hellenistic text with reference to Ruben’s Prometheus Bound, but its influence on Titian should also be highlighted. Titian was familiar with the work of this second-century Alexandrian author, whose ekphrasis of a Rape of Europe did much to shape Titian’s famous painting of the same name produced for Philip II (Boston, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum). Titian was less visually faithful to the ekphrasis of Prometheus, but it seems clear that he drew some elements from it, such as the bird plunging its beak into the wound, the giant’s body writhing in pain, the straining toes, the eagle’s claws digging into his body, his legs stretched in opposite directions (Text drawn from Falomir, M.: Las Furias. Alegoría política y desafío artístico, Museo Nacional del Prado, 2014, pp. 164-168).