TIZIANO Vecellio
(b. 1490, Pieve di Cadore, d. 1576, Venezia)

Diana and Actaeon

Oil on canvas, 185 x 202 cm
National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh

In his later career Titian, like Veronese, developed a greater seriousness and expressive intensity, not only in his religious works, but also in his pagan mythologies. The painting Diana and Actaeon was painted as part of a series of six large mythological canvases {or poesie as Titian called them) for the principal patron of his final years, King Philip II of Spain. A very general theme underlying the series is that of the loves of the Olympian gods, and of the usually tragic circumstances for any mortals who become involved with them. The principal literary source for the paintings is Ovid's Metamorphoses, the most popular work of classical literature in the Italian Renaissance. In Diana and Actaeon, the huntsman Actaeon unwittingly enters the secret glade where the goddess Diana and her nymphs are bathing by a fountain. Diana, goddess of the hunt and the moon (hence the crescent in her jewelled headdress) was also a severe guardian of chastity, and was outraged by this intrusion. As every Renaissance viewer would have known, she immediately exacted punishment by transforming Actaeon into a stag, whereupon he was chased by his own hounds and torn to pieces.

This cruel story was chosen for his patron by Titian himself, certainly in large part for the opportunities it presented for the extensive display of female nudity. In the 1550s Philip was still a young man with presumably normal sexual appetites, and the attraction of the subject was that it invited the male spectator to share Actaeon's experience by the fountain, without sharing the terrible consequences. However, the new climate of religious severity, towards which Philip actively contributed in his role as Most Catholic King, made erotic subject matter more problematic than it had been when Titian painted the Venus Anadyomene forty years earlier.