Titian: Madonna di Ca’ Pesaro

Titian, Madonna di Ca’ Pesaro, 1519-1526, Frari, Venice, Italy Photograph source: Katherine Arens

With the Madonna di Ca’ Pesaro altarpiece, 1519-1526, which places the Virgin in an oblique position within an asymmetrical composition, Titian creates powerful, expressive portraits and again sets new standards in Venetian painting. The secular references in this painting are without precedent in altarpieces of the period and serve to make this altarpiece a combination of sacra conversazione, votive painting, and funerary painting. The soaring, massive columns present art historians with a puzzle; they are unprecedented in Renaissance painting.

The Madonna di Ca’ Pesaro represents the first oblique Madonna in Venetian painting. Titian placed her off center, creating an asymmetrical composition. “The dynamics of Titian’s composition, then, are not a deliberate assault upon aesthetic and theological tradition but represent rather a response to the challenge of a particular site.”[1] Titian adapted this composition to the peculiarities of the space much as he did in the Assumption of the Virgin. Huse, Wolters,and Jephcott point out that although there was no precedent for an oblique Madonna, Titian had valid reasons for placing the Virgin where he did in this particular composition; he also managed to clearly maintain the Madonna’s position as the focal point of the painting.[2] Placing the Virgin’s throne in an oblique position helped create a greater sense of depth within the picture plane. “By placing the corner of the stairs up to the Virgin at an angle to the picture plane, Titian makes a distinct break with the sacre conversazione tradition. When seen in situ on the left side of the nave from a distance, the composition and presentation of space make perfect sense as an extension of the church’s architecture…”[3] The Virgin was moved to the right side of the composition in order to present what, in several ways, is clearly a votive or private devotional painting depicting five male Pesaro family members. Traditionally a painting of this type would be painted on a horizontal support.[4] Because this painting is primarily an altarpiece the support is horizontal presenting Titian with the unique problem of composing the first altarpiece to coalesce three types of paintings in one. With the Madonna to the side, more room existed for the two groups of figures. Jacopo Pesaro’s position on the left, in the place of honor to the Virgin’s right, sets his figure apart from the other family members and divides not only the composition, but the attention of the Madonna and Child. This division of attention actually unites the two groups of figures and is indicative of the duality of the altarpiece by having the holy mother and child pair include all the family members in their combined glances.

The remarkable inclusion of the Pesaro family members in this altarpiece, as well as the fact that there are more Pesaros than there are holy figures, makes this painting a strong statement about the status of the Pesaro family. It is the family portraits which are given the majority of space in this composition. The fact that they are more numerous than the holy figures, and are painted with the most careful “harmony of colors.”[5] makes this altarpiece appear to be as much votive painting as it is an altarpiece. According to Goffen, Jacopo Pesaro, Bishop of Paphos, was a benefactor of the altar of the Immaculate Conception as well as the donor of the Madonna di Ca’ Pesaro. Francesco Pesaro, the first male from the left in the second group of figures in the altarpiece, was funding daily masses at the altar. The Pesaro family was devoted to the cult of Madonna.[6] Through this painting the Pesaro family wished to be remembered for both their devotion to the Madonna and loyalty and service to Venice. “In a scared image of extraordinary tenderness, the master has been able to convey simultaneously the Pesaro’s active citizenship and their piety, their civic concerns and their spirituality.”[7]

The columns, part of an indeterminate architectural element in the Madonna di Ca’ Pesaro, are unprecedented both in size and placement. This, and the fact that x-radiography indicates several different architectural elements Titian tried out before settling on the columns, leads Rosand to conclude that the columns are not Titian’s at all. According to his 1971 article, Titian in the Frari, “were evidently not part of Titian’s original composition”[8] Huse, Wolters, and Jephcott state that the columns are a mere compositional necessity, and have no other significance.[9] Cole states that “The sweeping slant and upward drive of the columns imply a vast extension of space far beyond the limits of the frame… creates new-found drama and torsion” [10]When the Madonna di Ca’ Pesaro is viewed in situ, it becomes obvious that the columns are an integral part of the painting; they correspond with existing architecture and add an intense sense of drama to the painting. As Goffen points out, in Piety and Patronage in Renaissance Venice, the columns make iconographical sense as well; they contribute much to the painting’s meaning. The massive columns appear to reference Ecclesiastes 24:4 “I dwelt in high places, and my throne is in a cloudy pillar.”[11] If so, they are a carefully chosen element of the composition. This particular passage indeed carried great significance to the theology of Immaculate Conception, and as previously noted, this is the altar of the Immaculate Conception. As Goffen indicates, they unify the painting[12] both visually and ichnographically; reading further in Ecclesiastes 24:5-6 “Alone I made a circuit of the sky and traversed the depth of the abyss. The waves of the sea, the whole earth, every people and nation were under my sway.” certainly evokes images of Venetian dominance of sea and her unique combination of land and sea.[13] The columns lead the eye heavenward, where the cross alludes to the Passion of Christ, and thus serve as a reminder that salvation is assured through Christ. As Titian accomplished in the Assumption of the Virgin, he was able to incorporate theological meaning into pictorial elements, and they merge flawlessly into the composition creating powerful religious imagery.

Vasari did not appreciate Titian’s lack of refinement or the fact that his painting was often experimental and spontaneous due in part to the absence of carefully planned cartoons; however this is in part Titian’s genius; it gave him the freedom to experiment and adapt as he worked; “he painted slowly and carefully, always adjusting his forms and paint to achieve a premeditated effect” (Cole 70). Titian’s experimentation with the new medium of oil and glazes allowed him to depict light and paint with luminosity never seen before and bring his paintings to life. His adaptation to, and incorporation of, existing architecture and his novel concept of perspective that took into account a moving viewer also contributed to his innovation. Titian was a master of High Renaissance painting because of his attention to colorito, and his ability to adapt his compositions as he worked on them. This gave him the flexibility to respond to the work as it progressed and to improve the effectiveness of the iconography within each painting. Inherent in his altarpieces is iconographic elements that support the theology of the church they were painted for. Titian had deep respect for the traditions of painting, but his ability to adapt that tradition in order to solve problems of space, theme and subject makes it hard not to believe that he was far ahead of his time. Titian “helped set the stage for the concept of the modern “artist” and… became a prototype of our notion of the artist as a personage of considerable importance in his or her own right.”[14]


[1]David Rosand, “Titian in the Frari”,The Art Bulletin 53 (June, 1971): 207.

[2] Norbert Huse, Wolfgang Wolters, Edmund Jephcott, Translated by Edmund Jephcott. The Art of Renaissance Venice. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993. 231-232.

[3] Patricia Meilman, Titian and the Altarpiece in Renaissance Venice, ( New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 16.

[4] Rona Goffen, Piety and Patronage in Renaissance Venice, (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1986), 129-131.

[5] Norbert Huse, Wolfgang Wolters, Edmund Jephcott, Translated by Edmund Jephcott. The Art of Renaissance Venice. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993,232.

[6] Rona Goffen, Piety and Patronage in Renaissance Venice, (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1986), 123-127.

[7] Rona Goffen, Piety and Patronage in Renaissance Venice, (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1986), 129.

[8] David Rosand, “Titian in the Frari.” The Art Bulletin 53 (June, 1971): 196-213.

[9] Norbert Huse, Wolfgang Wolters, Edmund Jephcott, Translated by Edmund Jephcott. The Art of Renaissance Venice. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993,232.

[10] Bruce Cole, Titian and Venetian Painting 1450-1590. (Boulder: Westview Press, 1999), 84.

[11] The Holy Bible, King James Version. (New York: American Bible Society: 1999), Ecclesiastes 24:4

[12] Rona Goffen, Piety and Patronage in Renaissance Venice, (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1986), 132.

[13] Rona Goffen, Piety and Patronage in Renaissance Venice, (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1986), 132.

[14] Bruce Cole, Titian and Venetian Painting 1450-1590. (Boulder: Westview Press, 1999), 214.

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Responses

Inadequate! What about the boy looking out of the picture. What about the activities ot the characters-veritying the words of the prophets? Forget about the columns! The boy effectively noticing me as I stood in front of the painting was very striking.

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