Sacred and Profane Love: the secrets behind Titian’s masterpiece
A walk to the Pincian Hill, in Rome, sets out before you one of the most celebrated vistas in the world. People like to look out over it and point to a monument, a silhouette, a cupola and say, “Oh yes, now I understand where it is”. At the back of the scenic overlook, surrounded by an expanse of holly oaks, chestnut trees, evergreens, statues and marble busts, is Villa Borghese, one of the largest parks in the country’s capital, which houses the Borghese Gallery. This was once Cardinal Scipione’s residence and today conserves priceless artistic masterpieces, including a number of works by Caravaggio and Bernini.
But today we will focus our attention elsewhere, on an equally renowned milestone in Italian art, Sacred and Profane Love by Titian.
One of the many gifts that art offers us is that of forcing us to follow the significance of the work, to puzzle over the meanings that are hidden behind a painting, the mysteries and ideas that the artist wanted to express, and why. Sometimes works such as Giorgione’s The Tempest, Botticelli’s Allegory of Spring and indeed, Sacred and Profane Love by Titian, represent an enigma that only time, documents and diligent research can unravel. Nonetheless the ambiguity behind that which the artist is trying to convey in some of these masterpieces remains, resonating, becoming part of our shared heritage, part of the pleasure we get from appreciating them and enjoying them. This dark side serves the heighten our fascination.
Titian, originally from Cadore, in the Veneto region, moved to Venice when he was young, where he went to work in the studio of Gentile Bellini, official painter of the Republic of Venice.
Titian painted Sacred and Profane Love when he was about 25 years old. The rather large canvas depicts two young women, one richly dressed and the other naked, who sit at either end of a sarcophagus. In the center, Cupid dips his hand in water inside the sarcophagus. The landscape in the background extends with various characteristics. Behind the clothed woman, it is more rugged with a turreted structure, the center is lush with trees and plants, while behind the naked woman is it more linear with a beautiful serene lake.
Starting at the end of the 1800s, the interpretations proposed for the painting were endless. What is certain is that at the time, Titian had made the acquaintance of a group of humanists led by Pietro Bembo. They were intellectuals who discussed philosophy, literature, mythology and music that referenced complex theories based on the revival of classical philosophers and writers.
Bembo is the author of Asolani, a popular work, in prose and rhyme, with love as its central them. It is likely that Titian drew inspiration from these humanistic discourses to convey that which, for all intents and purposes, seems to be the true subject matter of the painting, an allegory on marriage.
The wedding in question would have been the one between Nicolò Aurelio and Laura Bagarotto in 1514. The Aurelio family coat of arms is, in fact, depicted on the sarcophagus. But why did Nicolò commission a painting from Titian to celebrate his wedding? For this, we need to dig a bit into his past. Nicolò was part of the Council of Ten, a body that governed Venice and that had condemned the bride’s father, Bertuccio Bagarotto, to be hanged on the charge of treason, a charge that was then discovered to essentially baseless.
Hence, the intention was to heal a wound, to persuade Laura to marry him, despite what he had done to her father and to arrange a marriage that would reunite the political factions involved. It was most likely a wedding gift – a very persuasive one – that sought diplomatic and familial reconciliation.
It is no accident that the clothed woman has all the symbols of a bride of those times: gloves, belt, roses, a myrtle plant and a coffer of jewels.
In 16th century Venice, marriage had an important social value, serving to sanction alliances and assuring business partnerships that went beyond the simple union of a couple. In Venetian Renaissance paintings, the great number of canvases featuring the Roman goddess Flora, symbol of nuptial harmony and fertility and wife of Zephyr, gives evidence of this trend. In an earlier work, entitled Flora, Titian depicted the goddess very sensually and he used this model for Sacred and Profane Love.
Returning to the painting hanging in the Borghese Gallery, to the left, behind the clothed woman, or Profane Love, there is a path going upwards, representing the difficulties of virtue, which is only obtained through struggling and sacrifice. To the right, behind Sacred Love, the landscape is flat and sprawling. Don’t be shocked that Sacred Love is depicted in the nude, because tradition held that heavenly beauty had no need of adornments to be admired.
The problem of reconciling chaste and sensual love remains. It seems that Titian wanted to indicate Cupid, situated between the two females, as the perfect intermediary.
From a stylistic point of view, the painting could be defined as “chromatic classicism”, a period in the artist’s career that followed in the path of Giorgione and Bellini, but which is freed and finds a perfect abstract and formal balance through the use of color to achieve stylistic unity.
In 1899, the Rothschilds, at the time one of the wealthiest families in the world, visited Rome and admired the painting, offering 4,000,000 lire for it, despite the fact that the value of the entire Borghese Gallery and all of its contents was estimated at 3,600,000 lire.
The offer was refused and today Sacred and Profane Love is still displayed at the Borghese Gallery, having become a cornerstone of this incredible collection.
Borghese Gallery holds the copyright for the image above.