Shakespeare & Titian

Did Shakespeare eve visit Spain the vast hiatus that were the ‘Lost Years’ of his youth (1584-88). Sir Henry Thomas writes of the ‘Tawny Spain’ phrase as found in Love’s Labour’s Lost as, ‘so apt a description of the landscape, at least in some parts of Spain & at certain seasons of the year, that it suggest personal observation. If such it really was, the trip to Spain might be a youthful escapade, for Loves Labour’s Lost is one of the earliest plays.’ Like any good tourist, Shakespeare would have availed himself of the opportunities to wander foreign caches of culture. While visiting the Court of King Phillip II in Madrid, he would observe two paintings by the great Italian renaissance painter, Titian. Their names were The Rape of Lucrece and Venus & Adonis, & the substance of each one would be utilised by Shakespeare for two long poems printed in the early 1590. On its publication in 1593, on the title page of Venus & Adonis, Shakespeare calls this poem ‘the first heir of my invention.’

A key factor in placing Shakespeare directly in front of & staring at Titian’s painting as a young man can be observed in the poet’s rejection of Ovid’s version of events, & his following of Titian instead. Like Shakespeare’s depiction, the painting has Adonis backing away from the advances of Venus, shirking Ovid’s portrayal of the young god happily embracing his bonnie suitor. ‘Fie, lifeless picture, cold and senseless stone, Well-painted idol,‘ says Venus, who around the neck of Adonis, ‘her yoking arms she throws: She sinketh down, still hanging by his neck.‘ This is just as is pictorially described by Titian, as is Shakespeare having Adonis ‘urging release… from the twining arms.’  Shakespeare also appears to be mirroring the painting when he writes, ‘O, what a war of looks was then between them!’ 

Tizian_094.jpg
Tarquin & Lucretia

More evidence that Shakespeare saw the painting & wanted to recreate the story it told in words comes within the poem itself. Erwin Panofsky, in his, ‘Problems in Titian, Mostly Iconographical,‘ writes, ‘Shakespeare’s words, down to such details as the nocturnal setting and “love upon her backe deeply distrest,” sound like a poetic paraphrase of Titian’s composition,’ & gives stanza 136 as a good example;

With this he breaketh from the sweet embrace
Of those faire armes which bound him to her brest,
And homeward through the dark lawnd runs apace;
Leaves love upon her backe, deeply distrest.
Looke, how a bright star shooteth from the skye,
So glides he in the night from Venus’s eye.

Damian Beeson Bullen

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