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Scourged Christ

Vecellio Titian

(Pieve di Cadore 1488-90 - Venice 1576)

It is not known how this painting came into the collection, where, moreover, it is already mentioned in Cardinal Scipione’s inventory, dated around 1633. The work belongs to the last stylistic phase of Titian’s career, distinguished by a highly dramatic expression, made even more intense by not only the dark tones and extremely fractured brushstrokes, but also by the actual style of the composition, reduced to a few essential elements. The imaginary ray of light that bathes the tortured body of Christ leads the eye along a diagonal that culminates in the face emerging from the half-light. In the features, it is possible to discern the expression of terrible denunciation and profound humanity.


Object details

Inventory
194
Location
Date
1568 circa
Classification
Period
Medium
oil on canvas
Dimensions
cm 87 x 62,5
Frame

Nineteenth-century frame, frieze with leaves

113.5 x 88.5 x 13 cm

Restoration 2002 (Paola Mastropasqua)

Provenance

(?) Lucrezia d’Este collection (Della Pergola 1955); (?), Rome, Cardinal Paolo Emilio Sfondrato, 1608 (Herrmann Fiore 2007); Rome, cardinal Scipione Borghese, c. 1633  (Corradini 1998); Inv. 1693, room IV, no. 5; Inventario Fidecommissario Borghese, 1833, p. 37 (Mariotti, 1892, p. 93); Piancastelli, ms, 1891, p. 470. Purchased by the Italian state, 1902.

Exhibitions
  • 2007 Belluno, Palazzo Crepadona - Pieve di Cadore, Palazzo della Magnifica Comunità
  • 2008 Atene, Museo dell’arte cicladica
Conservation and Diagnostic
  • 1917 Francesco Cochetti (cleaning)
  • 1937 Carlo Matteucci (cleaning)
  • 2002 Paola Mastropasqua
  • 2002 ICR (diagnostics)
  • 2021 Erredicci (diagnostics)
  • 2021 Ars Mensurae (diagnostics)

Commentary

The painting is first mentioned in the Borghese collection in an inventory dated 1633 (Corradini, 1998, p. 450). It was therefore part of the body of works owned by Scipione, but the events surrounding its acquisition are not known: the hypotheses of its provenance from Lucrezia d’Este’s inheritance or the collection of Paolo Emilio Sfondrato (1608) have not been confirmed. However, it is certainly not improbable that, within an early 17th-century cultural context - which saw the great success of Titian’s paintings in Rome’s most important princely collections (the Bacchanalia above all) - it was the Roman market that also brought this work to the villa outside Porta Pinciana, where it was to remain for much of the 17th century: here it is recorded in the inventory of c. 1633 (“fourth room towards the Offitii”, today room 1 - lower floor), and then Manilli (1650) (Diogenes room, today room 15 - upper floor).

In 1693, the painting was already in the city palace, where it had been moved together with most of the paintings in the collection to form the picture gallery that was visited and admired throughout the 18th century. It was still there in 1833, when it was recorded in the inventario fidecommissario as “author incognito”. Venturi (1893) saw it in the villa, and confirmed its authorship by Titian, which later critics either rejected (Wethey, among others) or more often did not address. Beyond attribution issues, the hypothesis has also been put forward over time that the painting is a study for a larger composition (De Rinaldis), and that the canvas was trimmed at an unspecified time in its history (Herrmann Fiore, 2007, pp. 385-386).

Venturi is the first to mention the state of conservation of the canvas, which was then showing “retouches and damage, as can be seen at first glance from the crust covering the right breast as a large blackish stain” (p. 120). Commenting on this text in the margin, the then Director of the Museum, Giulio Cantalamessa, a few years later (1907), confirmed not only the quality of the moulding, but also the presence of that “blackish stain”, adding that it was “replacing a detached crust of the original mestica [primer]”, but that the painting was not poorly preserved after all. The old restorations and retouches were soon removed in an intervention by Francesco Cochetti (1917) under Cantalamessa’s supervision, followed by a conservation review in 1937 and a more recent cleaning (2002) that removed oxidised varnish in particular, restoring better legibility to the painting’s pictorial texture. Painted on herringbone canvas, it is characterised by a very thin preparation of red paint that is often left exposed in order to give that “unfinished” effect so characteristic of Titian’s later works, along with an application of paint with fast and full-bodied brushstrokes. Critics unanimously attributed this work to his later period.  

In the last decades of the painter’s career, in order to meet the needs of an increasingly vast clientele, the workshop multiplied the production of paintings that were clearly in great demand. Among these were undoubtedly the devotional paintings: the series of Magdalene and Our Lady of Sorrows (significantly, in replicas, also in the Borghese collection), or the Passion of Christ, in the various versions of Ecce Homo or, Christ at the Column, so famous as to exist in various versions in 16th-17th century Italian collections. The success of this work is also confirmed by a print depicting a larger scene of the Flagellation of Christ signed in 1568 by Martino Rota, an engraver of Dalmatian origin who seems to have worked with Titian’s workshop in Venice on producing prints of the master’s most successful creations. The engraving bears a certain resemblance to the Borghese painting, precisely in the area of the half-length bust of Christ, to the extent of suggesting a derivation on a smaller scale, perhaps the only version that has come down to us from the vast number well documented by sources (Herrmann Fiore, 2007, pp. 385-386).

Apart from such a hypothesis, Titian certainly had to rethink his composition, working on a canvas that had already been used and changing an initial idea, borne out by X-ray surveys performed during the last restoration (2002) and confirmed more recently (2021). What emerged from these was an upside-down man’s face beneath the current layer of paint and at the height of Christ’s abdomen: not a generic bearded man, but, due to the peculiar inclination of the head, clearly a cross-bearing Christ, and of a type derived from the then well-known model of the School of St. Roch, but in reverse.

It is not possible to verify whether that face, later covered, was executed by another artist from the workshop. On the other hand, it seems highly likely that a work was begun to create a Passion of Christ for the private devotion of an unknown patron, and the master decided to intervene at an advanced stage, destroying and redoing the work.

Titian was always very adept at drawing on tradition and reworking his own models, giving life to a new, extraordinary invention that so closely, significantly, recalls the power of the Belvedere Torso, giving a heroic quality to this human Christ, violated by the clearly visible signs of the scourge but determined not to be humiliated, with his strong physique and terrible turning of the head, gazing upwards in open defiance of his executioners and perhaps of his own destiny: yet another clear strong denunciation of the old Titian, reflecting on life and his indomitable humanity.

Maria Giovanna Sarti




Bibliography
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  • Inventario fidecommissario Borghese, 1833, p. 37 (edito in Mariotti, 1892, p. 93).
  • G. Piancastelli, Catalogo dei quadri della Galleria Borghese, 1891, Archivio della Galleria Borghese (ms A/155), p. 470.
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