Sunday, September 04, 2011

"Shakespeare" the Venetian: Why Titian matters

Following up on the previous post -- which finds Hamlet using dialect peculiar to East Anglia, where Edward de Vere grew up -- it's worth remembering that the Shakespeare canon is also brimming with evidence that the author knew and wrote about Italy from first-hand experience. 

In a few cases, it's even possible to date when the author must have been there -- or, at least, communicated with someone who was in Italy at the time. 

The Shakespeare epic poem Venus & Adonis provides one such clincher. It contains lines that suggest the author was in Venice -- and was capable of gaining entrĂ©e to a prestigious Venetian artist's studio -- sometime before August 1576, when the artist died. 

Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, traveled in Italy using Venice as his home base from May 1575 through March 1576. When de Vere traveled to La Serenissima, the city of canals had one superstar celebrity who arguably eclipsed all other cultural figures in town: The painter Tiziano Vecellio, a.k.a. Titian (c. 1488/1490 - 26 Aug. 1576). 

When the king of France, Henri III, had visited Venice in 1573, the king insisted on meeting Titian at the master's Venice studio. The octogenarian artist, former arch-rival of Michelangelo, had met and in many cases painted most of the leading intellectual, cultural, religious and political figures of the century

An Italianate English lord -- an emissary from Queen Elizabeth's court -- visiting Venice would have almost been expected to pay homage to the city's greatest living cultural icon. To have neglected to do so could have verged on the impolitic. 

If de Vere did indeed meet Titian, for starters, he could have heard a first-hand account of the life and the grisly death of one of Titian's patrons, the Duke of Urbino. The dearly departed Oxfordian scholar Andrew Hannas long advocated that Titian's portrait of Urbino, pictured here, was arguably the pictorial inspiration for King Hamlet's ghost, cap-a-pie, as Horatio says
A figure like your father,
Armed at point exactly, cap-a-pie [head-to-toe],
Appears before them, and with solemn march
Goes slow and stately by them: ...
On the Elsinore battlements, we hear again about the ghost's armor, his pale complexion and his "countenance more in sorrow than in anger." Check, check and check. The apparition does, the soldiers say, have a grey beard. (Titian's Urbino doesn't.) Then again, aren't all ghosts supposed to look grizzled? 

Anyway, Hamlet's play The Mousetrap stages Urbino's murder. Titian's patron was poisoned by a courtly rival named Gonzago. In the ear. (Hamlet says of the murderer, "His name's Gonzago: The story is extant, and writ in choice Italian.")

Titian could have told de Vere all about the gruesome deed his patron fell prey to and the insider politics behind Hamlet's play-within-a-play. 

Titian also had in his studio at the time a masterpiece that would become a prime inspiration for the first work ever published under the name "Shakespeare," the 1593 epic poem Venus and Adonis

As described in "Shakespeare" By Another Name, Titian's painting of Venus and Adonis (pictured here) is unique in its depiction of the classical myth. 

The love between Venus and Adonis is almost universally described as a mutually-felt passion. A love story for the ages. But in Titian's portrayal, Venus claws at her reluctant young Adonis whose downcast expression at her makes him appear practically heedless to his lover's beckon. 

This odd twist on the Ovidian legend (grasping and desperate goddess, disinterested overgrown boy) also matches the way "Shakespeare" portrays the central relationship in his poem Venus and Adonis

As with many of his masterpieces, there are multiple copies of Titian's Venus and Adonis. But, as discovered by the late Oxfordian scholar Noemi Magri (another kindred soul departed from our company far too soon), only the copy sitting in Titian's studio at the time when de Vere visited Venice portrayed Adonis wearing a peculiar style of hat or "bonnet." 

Here are a few excerpts from the "Shakespeare" poem Venus and Adonis:

He sees her coming and begins to glow, 
Even as a dying coal revives with wind;
And with his bonnet [which] hides his angry brow,
Looks on the dull earth with disturbed mind,
  Taking no notice that she is so nigh
  For all askance he holds her in his eye. 


[after, er, SPOILER ALERT, Adonis's death...]

Bonnet nor veil henceforth no creature wear:
Nor sun nor wind will ever strive to kiss you...

But when Adonis liv'd, sun and sharp air
Lurk'd like two thieves to rob him of his fair [beauty].
And therefore would he put his bonnet on 
Under whose brim the gaudy sun would peep:
The wind would blow it off, and [the bonnet] being gone
Play with his locks.

So the hat on Adonis's head is significant to "Shakespeare" too. Both in his idiosyncratic sartorial and expressive characterizations of Venus and Adonis, then, Titian seems to nail exactly how "Shakespeare" sees the story of the mythical lovers. 

But Titian would die of the plague just months after de Vere's departure. In 1576, Will Shakspere of Stratford was 12 years old. 

Magri writes, in her classic study republished in the superlative essay collection Great Oxford (pictured, with close-up of Titian's painting on its cover):

    Considering de Vere's desire for learning and his love for Italian culture, he must have felt the wish to meet him and admire his collection. He may have seen V&A in Titian's house, where the artist preserved originals and autograph copies.
    In following Aristotle and the Greeks, who said that poetry and painting are two similar forms of art having the same nature and that painting is 'dumb poetry' and poetry is 'speaking painting,' Titian called his V&A and some ten paintings of mythological subject poesie, poems.
    Being aware of the Renaissance concept of painting as a form of poetry, de Vere may have been given the inspiration to write a poem based on a painting. 

(Postscript: As if two touchstones for Hamlet and a source for Venus & Adonis weren't enough, Titian also knew and had painted a celebrated portrait of Giulio Romano, the only artist mentioned by name in the "Shakespeare" canon -- in the Winter's Tale. The statue by Romano that's referenced in the play is arguably Romano's painted statuary monument in nearby Mantua to the author Baldassare Castiglione. (SBAN pp. 97-98) Castiglione, author of the essential book of Italian courtly etiquette The Courtier, was a central figure in de Vere's philosophical life. Among other things, de Vere had financed a translation of The Courtier into Latin. Crucially to the Winter's Tale, Castiglione's wife Ippolita had met an untimely death soon before her husband's, and Romano's monument (to both husband and wife) records the widower's heartrending sorrow at losing so dear a spouse.)


Michael Prescott said...

Great post, Mark. I have one nitpicking semantic correction, however.

"...he could have heard a first-hand account of the life and the grizzly death of one of Titian's patrons..."

I think you mean "grisly," not "grizzly."

Unless of course the story was fodder for Shakespeare's most famous stage direction:

"Exit, pursued by a bear."


Mark said...

Good eye, Michael. Thank you!