Titian – Bacchus And Ariadne

Here the sense of bodily movement is conveyed with a fluency which had come from several generations of technical study after Uccello. Its achievement demands not only skill in copying the appearance of the body, but the more artistic power to select and emphasize exactly those positions, contours and shadowings of limbs and muscle that will suggest most vividly the type of action intended. An actual photograph of action will rarely do this. Here the type to be expressed is the Bacchanalian procession, traditionally one of divinely intoxicated revelry. It has one pervasive rhythm of clashing cymbals and swaying limbs, but it is not a dance in unison—something between that and a disorderly rout. Every figure has a different attitude, but all are swept on-ward in a continuous flow of waving arms and leaping, marching legs, to a climax in the weightless flying god, and an ending in the shrinking figure of Ariadne. The stationary animals, trees and clouds contrast with these represented movements; but their outlines have a decorative rhythm of curves that echo the gestures and carry them lightly upward.

The representation of movement is not usually taken to be a distinctive value in Titian, but he was one of the few supreme, universal figures in art who combine almost every conceivable type of value, with such harmonious restraint that it is hard to single out any one. In his earlier work he often preserved the gentle tranquillity of Giorgione (for example, in the Christ and Magdalen, 270). Later, he tended to specialize on broad, simplified effects, anticipating the 17th century (for example, in the Deposition at Venice). Bacchus and Ariadne is one of the monumental works of his middle years, developing the early interest in movement that he had shown in the Assumption at Venice, but with all trace of the formal, symmetrical altar-piece gone. One must study the men who came before and after him to appreciate how well this picture assimilates the contributions of Raphael, Michelangelo and Giorgione, and anticipates the best in Rubens and Poussin. It is a crucial, high point in the long Greek and Renaissance effort to create an ideal of healthy, joyous and graceful humanity. The conception had ceased to be stiff, affected or monotonously and obviously rhythmic; it had been enriched by soft Venetian coloring; and it had not yet given way to Tintoretto’s specialized interest in eccentric motion (compare his St. George and the Dragon, 16) or Veronese’s in surface texture (The Family of Darius before Alexander, 294).

The coloring is now uneven in quality. The yellow and black of the leopards, and the blues of the sky and the central woman’s dress are superficial and dislocated from their contexts, in a way that often results from retouching or deterioration (especially in the case of blue). They could hardly have been left so by the man who painted the deep, rich, realistic textures of Ariadne’s head, and the cloth and vase in lower left. In an atmospheric Venetian picture, sharp-edged, superficial spots are jarring, whereas in the Uccello they are consistent with the whole. Aside from this weakness, color contributes to the total design a warm autumnal glow, and a pattern dancing with contrasts of scarlet, blue and purple against dull green and russet brown.