Re-claiming Titian

 

X-radiograph detail of Titian's Daniele Barbaro (1545). The principal white in historic painting is a lead compound, so modelling reads positively on x-ray plates.

In the late 1990s, some 70 years after its purchase, Canada’s only known work by Venetian painter Tiziano Vecellio, or Titian, was quietly relegated to the storage vaults at the National Gallery of Canada where it would rest, almost undisturbed, for more than a decade. The once-celebrated portrait of Daniele Barbaro, a distinguished scholar, humanist and nobleman, had been downgraded to a workshop copy — the product of a painter labouring under Titian. It was a surprising and unfortunate twist for a painting that arrived at the Gallery in 1928 with such a convincing provenance.

Painted in 1545 for Bishop Paolo Giovio to include in his extensive collection of portraits of famous people, the canvas remained in his family until the 1920s when it entered a private collection in Vienna. The work was sold to the Sackville Gallery, London, in 1928, then purchased by the Gallery in Ottawa later that year. 

While the painting had undergone a less-than-perfect restoration sometime in the 1800s, the Gallery’s then-director, Eric Brown, was keen to acquire the work for the collection. The portrait had an impressive provenance and the eminent Titian scholar Baron Detlev von Hadeln confirmed it had been executed by Titian’s hand. The painting’s authenticity was further buoyed by a letter from Titian’s close friend, the Italian writer Pietro Aretino, to Bishop Giovio in February 1545. Aretino told the Bishop he had seen the portrait of Barbaro and gushed at what a beautiful example it was of Titian’s work.

Brown could not have predicted that faith in the painting’s attribution would diminish greatly, or that a letter in 2003 from a Canadian art lover would help the portrait emerge from the shadows of storage and reclaim its rightful place among Titian’s oeuvre.

“I’d been at the Gallery for less than a year when our former chief curator David Franklin asked for assistance in responding to an enquiry,” recalls Stephen Gritt, director of conservation and technical research. “A gentleman who knew our collection well and had done his research wanted to know why Canada’s only Titian was buried in storage racks rather than on view in the galleries.”

To answer that, Gritt had to dive into the archives. At the time Brown purchased the Giovio painting, the Museo del Prado in Madrid owned another version of the work, which had been acquired by the Royal Family of Spain. The Prado canvas had long been accepted as an autograph Titian, but this claim was challenged when Giovio’s painting surfaced. It seemed to make sense: the Bishop had requested the painting himself and would surely have received Titian’s version and not a workshop copy. Given its provenance, the Ottawa version was almost certainly the original work. 

However, as time passed, doubt crept in. Study of Giovio’s collection revealed that it did indeed include copies, and while he had requested the portrait, it was just as likely that Barbaro himself paid for it, and possibly kept the original. On its own, Aretino’s letter to Giovio was not convincing evidence as he was widely known for manipulating facts if he thought he could earn a few pieces of gold.

By the time the Gallery published its 1987 catalogue, European and American Painting, Sculpture and Decorative Arts, the Ottawa portrait had been re-attributed to Titian and Workshop. When the two paintings were compared side-by-side at the National Gallery in Washington in 1991, the general consensus was that the Ottawa version was made from the Prado version, by an assistant in Titian’s studio. 

Complicating matters was the Ottawa painting’s comparatively poor condition. Sometime before it reached the Gallery, it had become wet, causing tiny fragments of paint to flake off across the surface. Previous treatment had left the background flat and featureless, and successive attempts at restoration, during which new layers of paint were applied to the damaged original, resulted in a heavy, flat look overall, that obscured all the subtlety and sophistication. The canvas was in no condition for display.

Franklin and Gritt invited the inquisitive art scholar to come and examine the portrait in the unforgiving light of the conservation studio. Standing in front of the work, he agreed that the work could not be hung in the galleries. The larger issue of attribution would take considerably more time to address, and Gritt reluctantly returned the portrait to storage.

“While the painting was out of sight, it remained very much in my mind,” says Gritt, a specialist in treating critically damaged paintings. “Even if it was just a workshop copy, it was produced in the crucible of western oil painting, and the sitter was an important figure in European history. Given the realities of buying Titian today, I knew it was likely to be the closest we would ever get to owning one.”

In 2007 Gritt and his team began a lengthy restoration of the Gallery’s critically damaged fragment of Paolo Veronese’s Petrobelli Altarpiece. As he worked on the altarpiece, Gritt’s thoughts returned to Barbaro, who himself had been an enthusiastic patron of Veronese. The noble had hired Veronese to paint the frescos in the Villa Maser, his sprawling mansion in Northern Italy. With this history in mind, Gritt retrieved the portrait from the vaults and sat it on an easel in the conservation studio. There Barbaro sat, for two years, seemingly watching over the restoration of Veronese’s work.

“While the impulse to have the portrait looking over our shoulders may not have been exactly logical, it was sensible,” explains Gritt. “It allowed us to live with the painting and discuss it with scholars of Italian art who visited to see the Petrobelli Altarpiece.”

When he completed his work on the altarpiece, Gritt turned his hand to the Barbaro portrait, re-applying the varnish so the background and drapery became more legible, and studying the technical documentation. As he compared the painting with the X-radiograph

of the canvas, he noticed the latter showed thin white lines from the transfer of a design template — the “cartoon.” These markings had previously been taken as evidence the painting was indeed a copy from the original. Gritt and assistant curator Christopher Etheridge, however, were not convinced and started comparing the X-ray image of the Barbaro portrait with X-ray images of other Titian portraits. They found the same marks in numerous confirmed autograph portraits by the master. The transfer marks, it turned out, were simply part of Titian’s practice.

This technical evidence meant little until the condition of the painting could be addressed. So in 2009, the varnishes and overpaint were removed carefully, revealing for the first time in years, the true nature of the painting. As Gritt expected, the overpaint had covered considerable damage but there were also passages of great sensitivity. For both the conservator and the curator, the quality of the painting was finally apparent. Continuing the restoration, Gritt grew increasingly convinced the portrait was an original. Convincing others, however, would require irrefutable evidence.

 

Christopher Etheridge and Stephen Gritt compare the painting of Daniele Barbaro with an x-radiograph of the portrait in the NGC conservation lab, December 2011.

“We spent a long time looking back and forth, from the painting to the X-radiograph, and at photographs of the Prado painting,” said Gritt. “I formed a theory, but needed to directly compare the X-radiographs of both paintings to prove it.” As luck would have it, Gritt had been invited to speak in Spain at the University of Valencia, and so decided to make a side trip to Madrid with the Gallery’s X-ray of the Barbaro portrait in his luggage. “I spent an afternoon in front of a light-box with the Prado’s technical documentalist,” says Gritt. “By painstakingly comparing subtle features of execution as revealed on the X-ray, we were able to demonstrate that while the paintings were painted more or less at the same time, the Ottawa canvas was the one with all the thinking in it; the one that leads the way.”

With the X-ray images side by side, Gritt saw that the Ottawa painting contained subtle, yet significant changes, called “pentimenti,” the traces of the artist’s process as he worked toward the finished painting. These revealed that Titian had made a colour change in the sitter’s clothing, adjusted the height of Barbaro’s collar and, most significantly, had wrestled with the sitter’s impressive nose to get it just right. In the Prado painting, however, the final look of the painting was arrived at more directly, because the problems had already been addressed. The conundrum was finally resolved.

Gritt and his team presented the restored Titian painting to the public this month, and the masterpiece is now on view in the 16th-century Italian art gallery C203. For Etheridge, the journey towards re-attributing the portrait has charted an important path for researchers. “Not only has the technical examination resolved the problem of the authorship of our painting, it also points the way to re-examining Titian’s practice as a portraitist, which is a contentious field among scholars,” he says. “Reversals of fortune are common in the art world; it’s great to have our Titian back.” Undoubtedly, the curious art enthusiast, who first asked why such a treasure was hidden away, would agree.

Share this article: 

About the Author