"Before the mad wandering world, afterwards Christ's beloved lover": Titian's Magdalene

Titian's Magdalene, a work preserved in Florence's Palazzo Pitti, is one of the Cadore painter's masterpieces to be read with the help of literature.

In a passage from his Lives, and specifically in the one dedicated to Titian, Giorgio Vasari lists some works admired in the wardrobe of Duke Guidobaldo II della Rovere, at the time the great historiographer visited Urbino, in 1548: among these works, Vasari mentions a “head from the middle upwards of a Saint Mary with scattered hair, which is a rare thing.” It has long been widely believed that the author of the Lives was referring to the Magdalene now in the Pitti Palace, a striking, sensual, seductive work reproduced by Titian himself and his workshop in numerous variants to satisfy a high-ranking clientele among whom it was a resounding success. A beloved work especially in the nineteenth century, so much so that it was known to have been copied countless times, and has been in Florence with certainty since the late seventeenth century, but in all likelihood since much earlier. Many conjectures have been made about the origin of the panel: the one that would seem to be the most acceptable would have it painted sometime between 1533 and 1535 for Duke Francesco Maria della Rovere, father and predecessor of the aforementioned Guidobaldo II, and according to this hypothesis thework may have arrived in Tuscany in 1631, following the marriage agreement of Vittoria della Rovere and Ferdinando II de’ Medici and the subsequent arrival in Florence of part of the Rovere collections, which formed part of the dowry of the noblewoman, then a child.

But perhaps, to the relative who finds himself in the presence of this carnal, sumptuous and disturbing image, little will be of interest in historical notations: Titian’s formidable invention, at first glance, is sufficiently eloquent. His Magdalene is portrayed in a half-length, three-quarter turn, caught in a moment of prayer, with her eyes turned directly to God, covered with a shower of blond, wavy, luminous, soft hair that looks as if it has just been washed, as if the woman had found the time and the way to find a hairdresser in the grotto, and described with the mastery of a virtuoso intent on evoking immediate textural sensations. A splendid Giovan Battista Marino, who penned a lyric For an image of Magdalene by Titian’s hand, coined the image of the “drooping locks” that act as a “golden jewel” to the alabaster-colored skin of the saint. Her hands barely hold back her coppery hair, which opens on her chest to grant the viewer’s mischievous observer a generous bosom and two rosy, stiff nipples. To the side, the ever-present ointment jar, and behind it a mountain landscape at night, with the ultramarine blue sky in flashes brightened by a moon trying to find, with undue difficulty, a way through the clouds that obscure it.

Titian paints his Magdalene with mellow brushstrokes that enhance her imposing, statuesque physicality, with warm, opulent tones that accentuate her vividness and sensuality, and with that virtuosity which, according to Rodolfo Pallucchini, already denounced “the imminent crisis of the artist,” that is, that Mannerist impulse that would cause him to close that period of his activity fully participant in the “Aristotelian ferment that had fertilized Venetian culture between the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries,” and in which Titian had considered man and nature “with ’olympic’ naturalness, in a sense that was still classical and Renaissance,” although he did not lack the opportunity to show how much his compositions were capable of opening up to drama, to tension.

Tiziano, Santa Maria Maddalena (1533-1535 circa; olio su tavola, 85,8 x 69,5 cm; Firenze, Palazzo Pitti, Galleria Palatina, inv. Palatina n. 67)
Titian, Saint Mary Magdalene (c. 1533-1535; oil on panel, 85.8 x 69.5 cm; Florence, Palazzo Pitti, Galleria Palatina, inv. Palatina no. 67)

This nude Magdalene, who experiences the open contradiction of her eroticism and her total dedication to divinity, thus represents a kind of caesura between two distinct seasons of Titian art. Critics have long wondered about the possible sources that might have inspired Titian, about the sources from which the Cadore artist might have drawn valuable inspiration for his penitent saint, and many, starting with Wilhelm Suida already in the 1930s, have been keen to point out possible relationships with some similar images by Giampietrino, a Lombard Leonardo who, a decade earlier, had painted a similar Magdalene , later variously replicated, whose attitude does not differ from that of Titian’s saint: Giampietrino’s is also portrayed half-length, assumes an identical pose, and covers her nudity with curly brown hair, which, however, succeeds better in the operation than Titian’s penitent, so that the floridity of her flesh is mostly concealed from the view of the beholder. The result is that Giampietrino’s saint turns out to be more chastened, and Titian’s, even if it were to be framed in a dependent relationship with Giovan Pietro Rizzoli’s Magdalene , would nevertheless be stronger because of the modernity of its paganising intonation, the novelty of the impetuosity of its material and its colors.

And a possible descent from an ancient model would not, however, be sufficient to account for the scope of the image that Titian conceived for his patron and, in particular, for his very private devotion. Perhaps, are to be sought in the letters the motives that led Titian to imagine his Magdalene.

It is well known that Titian was a great friend of Pietro Aretino: the two of them and Sansovino constituted that “triumvirate” whose aim was to launch their respective careers with the powerful of the time. In 2007, scholar Élise Boillet suggested a relationship worth exploring, juxtaposing Titian’s painting with one of Aretino’s religious works, theHumanity of Christ. In the scholar’s text, Magdalene’s conversion is narrated with imaginative accents that call to mind the painter’s panel: “Great is the disturbance that moves among the bystanders as she leaves the room: Ella ne lo uscir di camera parceva Citerea che uscse del suo cielo, facendo abbassare le viste che a un tratto ferì con il lume de gli occhi, e con quello de le pietre, di che splendende superississimamente: ma rialzatesi le ciglia tenzionavasi se il vermiglio de le gote de la Aurora aveva dipinto le guancie di Maddalena, o se quello de le gote di Maddalena aveva colorite le guancie de la Aurora. Others bewildered in the beauty of her hair asserted that those had given the gloss to the gold, and not the gold to those. Some were in doubt whether the sun took the light from his eyes, or whether his eyes lent it to the sun.”

TheHumanity of Christ is a work from 1535 and it is not known whether in comparison with the Palatine Gallery image it has primogeniture, but it matters little: what is of interest is to note how Aretino’s text and Titian’s painting share the same mixture of sacred and profane elements, the same contaminations between images of the Christian divine apparatus and mythological reminiscences: the result is an almost perfect overlap between Magdalene and Venus. An overlap that, in the later autograph variants, would come to an end: thealogous work now in the Capodimonte Museum, at least a fortnight later than the one in the Palazzo Pitti, depicts a Magdalene in the same pose, but clothed. A necessary concession allimperative postridentine culture. But this contradiction between erotic and sacred dimensions, between saint and pagan goddess, was perhaps not intended only for the legitimate amusement of its recipient. This ambivalence may find, in the Florentine image, its accomplished resolution in the theme of penitence and repentance, which allow the saint, who for Marino was as much first of the mad wandering world / as much afterwards of Christ the beloved lover, to show herself naked, renewed, pure, beautiful to God.

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