Monday, July 29, 2013

The Flaying of Marsyas by Titian / A Thing of Beauty

Titian (Tiziano Vecelli)

Born around 1490, Titian is generally considered the greatest artist of the Venetian school (other artists included Tintoretto and Veronese). Around that time, most, if not all artists worked for patrons, so many of Titian’s works are either religious works commissioned by the church or portraits commissioned by noblemen. However, Titian also painted several scenes from Greek mythology especially when he was older. Often considered one of his finest paintings, The Flaying of Marsyas was painted between 1570 and 1576. (In 1576, Queen Elizabeth was on the throne of England, the New World was slowly being colonized, and Spain was the dominant world power.) For further information see Titian.

The Story of Marsyas

The story behind the painting can be found in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Book VI. Marsyas, a satyr (or goat-man), thought he was a better musician than the god Apollo and challenged Apollo to a contest. Marsyas pitted his flute against Apollo’s lyre, and the winner could do whatever he wanted to the loser. The contest was judged by the Muses who declared Apollo the winner. As the winner, Apollo claimed the right to skin Marsyas alive, and it is this tragic scene, the flaying of Marsyas, that Titian painted.

The Flaying of Marsyas


The scene is incredibly painful, but it is also dramatic. Notice each of the poses, from the aloof bystander playing the violin on the left to the child on the right who seems to be looking out at the audience. Oil paint, unlike tempera, takes a long time to dry. This allowed Titian time to continually alter the painting as he was working on it. Up close, the brushstrokes are blatantly evident, but if you step back, the strokes do not detract but enhance the emotion of the piece.

Titian seems to have copied much of the arrangement of this work from a painting of the same title by a friend of his, Giulio Romano. There are two major differences. First, Marsyas has been turned from his side to a full frontal view which makes the scene more visceral. Second, the old man on the right, instead of being grief-stricken, his head in his hands, is quietly contemplating the scene. The old man appears to be a self-portrait of Titian, and it seems that both this story and this painting were of tremendous personal importance to the artist.


An excellent resource that I am indebted to is The Informed Eye by Bruce Cole.

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