Jonathan Keates

Object of Desire

The Rape of Europa: The Intriguing History of Titian’s Masterpiece


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The ancient story of Europa forms part of a broader mythological amalgam involving fertility, moon worship and eastern Mediterranean migrations. In classical mythology, Europa is the daughter of Agenor, king of Tyre. Zeus, falling in love with her, disguises himself as a bull among her father’s cattle grazing by the sea and swims off with her to Crete, where, for reasons not altogether clear, he assumes the shape of an eagle before ravishing her in a willow thicket. According to Robert Graves, the tale re-enacts either an early Hellenic occupation of Crete or a Greek raid on Phoenicia. Europa apparently means ‘broad face’, a synonym for the moon, and the willow rules the fertile opening weeks of May in antiquity’s sacred calendars.

By the time Ovid took up the story in the Metamorphoses, most of these deeper resonances had vanished. The result is an engaging fable in which the king of the gods enjoys yet another of his serial infidelities, captivating Europa as a cuddly little farmyard pet. As Joseph Addison’s 1717 translation puts it:

His eye-balls rowl’d, not formidably bright,
But gaz’d and languish’d with a gentle light.
His every look was peaceful, and exprest
The softness of the lover in the beast.

Ovid suppresses the willow thicket episode, seeming to imply that sex between the princess and her ravisher was consensual.

The Roman poet inspired Titian, who, during the 1550s, painted a series of six mythological canvases for King Philip II of Spain. Beginning with the magnificent Danaë and Venus and Adonis, the sequence was based on deliberate structural contrasts, highlighting the supreme virtuosity of the individual design of each canvas. Sheila Hale, Titian’s most eloquent modern biographer, neatly paraphrases the 17th-century Venetian connoisseur Marco Boschini in describing the artist in these late works as ‘the dispenser of all emotions and the plenipotentiary of the senses’.

The Rape of Europa forms perhaps the most compelling of these poesie, as Titian called them. Poetic it certainly is, in the lyrical eroticism of the scantily clad Europa, attended by tumbling putti in the sky and sea, as the bull casts a backward glance of lickerish anticipation at his lovely prey. At the same time, the painting represents a triumph of compositional originality: the foreground narrative acts as a frame to the haunting landscape prospect beyond, with its sunset pinks, streaks of white and ghostly mountains. As Charles FitzRoy, following the work’s fortunes across four centuries, points out, art historians are still undecided as to whether its mood is tragic or light-hearted. Is the heroine herself agonised or excited by her fate? Such ambiguity is Titian’s masterstroke.

FitzRoy’s The Rape of Europa is not an essay in aesthetic scholarship but rather an absorbing account of how a single, highly coveted artefact embodies the zigzags of political power, economic clout and cultural ambition through succeeding ages. The painting will probably not move, for the foreseeable future, from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, where it currently hangs (thieves in 1990 ignored it in favour of a Vermeer and three Rembrandts, still unrecovered). Its journey from Venice to America, however, has taken it via Madrid, Paris and Cobham Hall in Kent, where it joined two other superlative Titians, Venus with a Mirror and Man with a Blue Sleeve (once known as Portrait of Ariosto).

The fate of The Rape of Europa and the rest of the Spanish Habsburgs’ Titian ensemble was closely linked to the slow but inexorable decline of Spain as a world power during the 17th century. When the last Habsburg king, the grotesque, semi-lunatic Charles II, died childless in 1700, precipitating the War of the Spanish Succession, the Bourbon claimant, Philippe d’Anjou, ultimately won the crown. As a reward he gave France’s ambassador, Antoine de Gramont, three of the poesie, including The Rape of Europa, which Gramont promptly sold on to the Duke of Orléans, regent for the infant Louis XV.

Much is made nowadays of ‘the gaze’ – of who exactly looks at a painting and how or why they look. In this context, FitzRoy interestingly contrasts the role of Titian’s canvas within an exclusive royal collection in Madrid, visible only to favoured courtiers and diplomats, and its function in Paris at the sumptuously adorned Palais-Royal, where it hung in a top-lit galerie en lanterne, open to the public and designed to enhance Orléans’s dynastic status. The Rape of Europa remained on view there until 1791, when the regent’s great-grandson Philippe, strapped for cash when the National Assembly ordered the sale of his landed estates, turned to an English banking consortium as a buyer for his art collection. Fifteen crates of old masters, the prized Titian among them, were shipped from Calais to Chatham. William Hazlitt, viewing this stupendous haul for sale at a gallery in the Strand, was ‘staggered when I saw the works there collected and looked at them with wondering and longing eyes’. To come face to face with Titian, Raphael or Domenichino at their finest seemed ‘like breaking some mighty spell … almost an effect of necromancy’.

After a brief sojourn in a neoclassical Shropshire mansion, The Rape of Europa was snapped up as a bargain by Lord Darnley for his newly built gallery at Cobham Hall, though as one connoisseur observed, ‘the great warmth and power of the colouring is somewhat lost in the present neglected state of the picture’. It remained, nevertheless, sufficiently potent as an object of desire for Bernard Berenson to dangle in front of Isabella Stewart Gardner on its return to the art market in 1895. FitzRoy is drily humorous on the typically Berensonian cocktail of purple prose and sharp practice with which tricky ‘Mrs Jack’ was won round to buying the Titian.

While the idea for this book is not entirely original – Peter Watson’s Wisdom and Strength (1989), tracing the career of an allegory by Paolo Veronese, furnishes a model – the wider theme of great art works as international hostages to fortune is set out for us with notable clarity and attention to detail. There are one or two infelicities: Veronese was not Titian’s pupil and it seems jarringly anachronistic to describe the Gardners as ‘dating’ one another. Never in doubt, however, is Charles FitzRoy’s awareness that this Venetian painted poem and its eccentric American owner were in some sense destined for one another, an artistic convergence of the twain with the happiest of endings.

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