Venus and Adonis1554. Oil on canvas, 186 x 207 cm.
The first Poesie presented to Prince Philip were Danaë (1553, The Wellington Collection) and Venus and Adonis (1554), versions of other previous works, but endowed with all the prestige of the commissioning party. In turn, these works became models for numerous replicas.
Titian painted the first Venus and Adonis, which was lost but is known from the copies that were made of it, at the end of the 1520´s. After his experience in the Camerino d´Alabastro, which familiarised him with mythology, Titian felt secure enough to visualise a scene not described in Ovid or any other classical or contemporary source: the action of Adonis extracting himself from Venus´ embrace. Titian´s deviation from the canonical sources, which incurred the reproach of Raffaello Borghini in 1584, has prompted historians to seek alternative literary sources. Beroqui pointed to the Fábula de Adonis, Hipómenes y Atalanta by Diego Hurtado de Mendoza, published in Venice in 1553, at the same time that Titian was working on the painting, but written during Mendoza´s years as the Emperor´s ambassador in Venice (1539-45), when he enjoyed close relations with Titian. More recently, Hosono Kiyo put forward as possible sources two works by Ludovico Dolce, the Favola d´Adone (Venice, 1545), in which Adonis rises from Venus with arrows in his hand, and Didone (Venice, 1547), in which Dido seeks to restrain Aeneas as Venus does Adonis. However, the dating of Titian´s invenzione to the 1520s permits us to consider a new option: that both Hurtado de Mendoza and Dolce were inspired by Titian. Dolce himself, in a passage in L´Aretino, admits that a work of pictorial art need not rely on a literary source and he goes further, saying that to contemplate a painting or a sculpture can inspire a writer. Although Dolce cites a watercolor supposedly by Raphael to illustrate his reasoning, he could as well have had in mind Titian´s Venus and Adonis.
Titian took up this theme again twenty years later in various compositions, one of which served as the point pf departure for the work belonging to the Museo del Prado. In this painting, produced in 1554, Titian presents the goddess with her back to us, demonstrating, in conjunction with the works Danaë (The Wellington Collection) and Venus and Adonis, that painting can represent different points of view, in a similar manner to sculpture.
The status of the Prado Venus and Adonis rests on its quality of execution, which is greatly superior to that of any other version, rather than on its composition, which follows earlier versions of the subject. This judgment is reinforced by technical evidence. The infrared reflectogram clearly shows that Titian departed from the Moscow painting (1542-1546) for Philip´s Venus and Adonis. The two human figures and the principal elements of the composition were laid in by tracings, and those tracings coincide precisely with the surface of the Moscow painting. As usual, Titian then included some minor changes and adjustments in Philip´s painting. The X-radiograph reveals a different position of Adonis´ hunting spear, but the most notable pentimenti are visible only on the surface, and mainly in the couple, particularly the profile of Venus and the torso of Adonis. This is because the surface of the Venus and Adonis was executed with very thin layers of paint, through which, as can be seen in parts of the sky, the preparation is visible, an effect noticeable in the contemporary Gloria at the Museo del Prado which Titian developed further in the later poesie, culminating in the Rape of Europa (Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum).
As for the eroticism of the Venus and Adonis, it certainly seemed to contemporaries to be the most erotic of the poesie despite the fact that, unlike the Danaë, it does not depict a sexual act. Dolce compares the effect of contemplating it to that of observing the Cnidian Venus, and for the Spanish ambassador to Venice, it seemed an excellent painting but demasiado lascivo. A strong contributor to this effect were the buttocks of Venus, the part of the female anatomy that most excited the imagination of male contemporaries; but it is also likely that it was her scandalous behaviour, this being the only occasion in the series of poesie in which a woman takes the initiative in a movement that merges her desperate effort to restrain her lover with a seductive embrace.
Poesie is the name given to a series of works on mythological themes painted by Titian for Philip II between 1553 and 1562, comprising Danaë (The Wellington Collection, Apsley House), Venus and Adonis (Madrid, Museo del Prado), Perseus and Andromeda (London, The Wallace Collection), Diana and Actaeon and Diana and Callisto (Edinburgh, National Galleries of Scotland-London, National Gallery) and The Rape of Europa (Boston, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum). The project must have been agreed by Titian and Philip in 1551, when the painter was summoned to the Imperial court at Augsburg. The earliest recorded reference to the poesie comes in a letter written to Philip from Venice, on 23 March 1553, in which Titian informs the prince that he has dispatched a portrait of him interim che metto al ordine le Poesie, suggesting that he was by then working on a project known to both.
The poesie, therefore, should be regarded as the fruit of a common interest shared by Philip and Titian, rather than of the painter´s unchallenged will. Titian often gave his patrons works of art, but never ventured to take the initiative in a project on this large scale. Philip may well have asked Titian, in Augsburg, to produce a series of mythological paintings, leaving the painter free to choose both the themes and their treatment.
Although the poesie were intended to be hung together, in a camerino, as Titian notes in his letter of 10 September 1554, they were not painted for a specific space, as had been the case decades earlier with the Camerino d´Alabastro. This is because, until some time after his return to Spain in August 1559, Philip had no fixed residence. The fact that the series was not produced for an existing space may have had aesthetic repercussions. Titian was concerned about the lighting in the spaces where his works were to be hung, and the lack of specific references may account for the uniform lighting of the poesie, where the figures barely cast shadows. In other contemporary works such as Saint Nicholas of Bari, the Transfiguration or the Annunciation, painted for Venetian churches, the lighting is more carefully focused.
On their arrival in Spain, the poesie were probably placed in the Alcázar in Madrid, where they are recorded as hanging in the 17th century; this might account for their omission in the unfinished inventory of the Palace drawn up on the death of Philip II in 1598. Among the rooms not included were those located beside the gardens; these would be the most likely location of the poesie, to judge by contemporary views on the placing of mythological paintings both abroad and in Spain. A good example is Fontainebleau, a source of inspiration for Philip II, where Francis I of France hung his picture collection in the bains, a set of seven rooms beside the palace gardens.
We do not know when the poesie entered the Alcázar. The earliest reference to paintings in the building, dating from 1567, makes no mention of them, although the record is incomplete. They may well have been among the eight paintings by Titian that were rehoused in 1587 en los entresuelos de la galería nueva. After 1623 they were hung in the so called bóvedas or vaults of the new Summer Apartment (Cuarto Bajo de Verano), where they were seen in 1626 by Cassiano dal Pozzo. By then, Perseus and Andromeda had left the Royal Collection (it had already done so in the latter years of Philip II´s reign), and Cassiano reports that the remaining poesie were exhibited in three different areas of the vaults. Danaë and Venus and Adonis no longer hung together, thus departing from the pairing originally intended by Titian (Text drawn from Falomir, M.; Joannides, P.: "Dánae y Venus y Adonis, las primeras poesías de Tiziano para Felipe II", Boletín del Museo del Prado, 2014, pp. 7-51).