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Titian painting featured at the National Gallery of Canada

A portrait, its authenticity long questioned and in such poor condition it could not be shown, will finally reclaim its rightful place in art history and on the walls of the National Gallery of Canada. Thanks to its recent restoration, Daniele Barbaro (1545), the only painting by the Venetian painter Titian in Canada, can now be exhibited to the public.

Daniele Barbaro (1514-1570) was a well-known scholar and humanist. The Gallery’s portrait was painted for the historian and collector Paolo Giovio, Bishop of Como in Italy. Over his life-time, he assembled a huge and celebrated collection of portraits. It was an honour to have your likeness included, and when Giovio wrote to Daniele Barbaro asking for his, Barbaro agreed and commissioned Titian, the greatest painter in Venice. The result was well-documented in letters between Giovio and the notorious Pietro Aretino, a famous writer and “publicist” for Titian. Both men praised the work, and their letters guaranteed its fame. And so when the painting was rediscovered in the 1920s, the Gallery was happy to buy it.

Yet the story was not so simple. Another version of the portrait was already known, held in the Prado Museum, Madrid. The rediscovery of Giovio’s painting challenged its position. Scholars debated the relationship of the two works: sitters often commissioned multiple versions of their portraits, yet which was the original, which the copy? Were both by Titian? Opinion swung back and forth until 1991, when the two paintings were compared side-by-side at a specially arranged meeting. The conclusion seemed inescapable: the NGC version was a copy made in Titian’s workshop. Barbaro had sent a copy to Giovio, and kept the prime version for himself.

The painting was then kept in the Gallery’s vaults, largely forgotten until 2003. That year, a Canadian art lover wrote to the Gallery, asking why such a famous work was in storage. The answer was simple: it was a copy and, as well, in poor condition. There was no reason to exhibit it. Yet the letter sparked a chain of events that led to the painting’s restoration and rediscovery.

The painting had been badly damaged over the centuries, and past restorations had not solved all the problems. In fact, it was very difficult to judge its quality. Could that have effected scholars’ judgements? Stephen Gritt, Director of Conservation and Technical Research at the Gallery thought it merited a second look. This began a long process, carried off and on over several years, to examine, clean and restore the painting. The results were a surprise.

Examination revealed a damaged work, but one painted with great sensitivity and skill. It could not be a copy. When the chance came to compare the x-radiographs of both paintings, Gritt went to Madrid. “I spent an afternoon in front of a light-box with the Prado’s technical documentalist. 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,” he explains.

With the X-ray images side by side, Gritt saw that the Ottawa painting contained subtle changes indicating that Titian had altered the colour of the clothing and adjusted the collar height, and most significantly, had wrestled with the sitter’s prominent nose to get it just right. In the Prado painting, however, the final look of the painting was arrived at more directly, because these problems had already been addressed. In fact, the two works had been painted side by side – not uncommon at the time. The Gallery’s portrait was the one on which Titian worked out the placement of detail and colour, and was most likely finished with Barbaro present.

Tiziano Vecellio, called Titian (c.1488-1576) is among the greatest artists of the Renaissance. His work was celebrated by his contemporaries, and avidly collected by the Hapsburgs, rulers of much of Europe and the Americas. A portrait by Titian was a penetrating, subtle exploration of character – as well as the ultimate status symbol for its sitter. The artist was also famed for the sophistication of his mythological and religious subjects, which were seminal to development of painting in the next century. Titian created an inimitable, highly personal style that forever changed the art of painting.

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