The Old Masters and the sea

Titian and the masterpieces of Venice

Poor Actaeon. Alone in the woods, the young hunter stumbles upon Diana, goddess of the hunt, and her coterie of nymphs, naked and bathing in a stream. Big mistake.

What Diana lacks in mercy she makes up for in imaginative cruelty. Actaeon is transformed into a stag and torn apart by his own hunting dogs.

The painter Titian interpreted this scene in one of the great masterpieces of Italian Renaissance painting, choosing to depict the moment Actaeon stumbled into the sacred grove. Titian shows Actaeon’s body fighting against its own momentum, shock plastered on his face. His fate is written in Diana’s icy glare.

Titian’s “Diana and Actaeon” and its thematic companion, “Diana and Callisto,” are the glowing centerpieces of a touring exhibition of Venetian Renaissance paintings and drawings from the National Gallery of Scotland now at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, one of three U.S. museums getting this rare visit from Europe.

The merchant republic was afloat in wealth and bubbling with intellectual activity in the early- to mid-16th century. Titian and his contemporaries enjoyed relative peace and stability isolated from the mainland in the lagoon, as well as the patronage of Venetians eager to demonstrate their prosperity.

King Phillip II of Spain commissioned the two large Titians, the best-known and most influential pieces in the group. Unusually for the time, Phillip II gave the artist free reign over subject matter — which may help to explain the abundance of sensually painted flesh, something for which Titian was famous, and something that probably would have pleased the young king.

Other Venetian painters, too, found a market for female nudes, possibly because of relatively liberal attitudes on the island or their popularity within its large population of young, unmarried men (the exhibition catalogue speculates on both). Paris Bordone, a student of Titian’s, painted a pair of the island’s thousands courtesans only partly clothed and without the gloss of mythological allegory.

The Venetian merchants decorated their palaces not only with “bella donna” (Italian for “beautiful woman”) paintings, but also portraits and paintings with religious themes. Sometimes the characteristics of two or even all three styles mingle, as in a Giovanni Cariani painting of Saint Agatha that, based on the uncanny depth of personality, might be a portrait of a real Venetian woman in the saint’s role.

The first room of the exhibition offers three takes on a the “sacra conversazione” or “sacred conversation,” a grouping of the Virgin Mary, an infant Jesus and various saints in a pastoral setting. The scenes range from Lorenzo Lotto’s relatively stiff figures and rigid composition to Titian’s more relaxed, tender depiction of the Holy Family to Paris Bordone’s version, defined by a statuesque Mary.

Jacopo Bassano’s “Adoration of the Magi” places that Biblical episode in a busy, almost urban setting crowded with animals and people — including, perhaps, the rich merchant who commissioned the painting and his two sons, based on the portrait-like detail of the three central figures. Rich in detail and shimmering color, it’s one of the most impressive paintings in the exhibit.

“Titian and the Golden Age of Venetian Painting” runs through May 1 at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, 2400 3rd Ave. S. 870-3000.


A reading series for Southwest

FULTON — After years of attending and participating in public readings around the Twin Cities, Linden Hills poet Elissa Cottle decided Southwest needed a literary reading series of its very own.

Cottle’s new series, Gwendolyn’s Room, will feature a rotating cast of emerging and established writers and poets, most with a Southwest connection, reading in one of the area’s many small art spaces. That last point was particularly important to Cottle.

“I’ve been in and attended many, many readings over the years, and one of my beefs with public readings is the coffee houses,” she said.

No voice will have to compete with the chatter of patrons or the whoosh of the espresso machine when Gwendolyn’s Room takes over Gallery 360 in February. In April, the reading series heads to nearby Galleri M. (Cottle plans about one event every other month.)

At Gallery 360, Cottle will be joined by: novelist Sheila O’Connor, author of 2004 Minnesota Book Award-winner “Where No Gods Came”; attorney and Hamline University Master of Fine Arts candidate Kelly Hansen Maher; and Nate Thomas, author of a recently published poetry chapbook “All Fishes Weep.” Also appearing will be artist Susan Solomon with the illustrations she painted for Thomas’ book.

Appetizers and beverages will be served at Gwendolyn’s Room readings. To be considered for a future event, contact Cottle at [email protected]

The next event in the Gwendolyn’s Room reading series is 2:30 p.m.­–4 p.m. Feb. 27 at Gallery 360, 3011 W. 50th St.