Sacred and Profane Love

Sacred and Profane Love

Tuesday 8 November 2011

Sacred and Profane Love. The Restoration: Harold & Alice Wethey, Giorgione, Nicolo Aurelio & Titian.

Of the many interpretations of the Sacred and Profane Love it is Erwin Panofsky's hypothesis of the Twin Venuses that has persisted as the most enduring and referenced theory of the twentieth century, but over time that theory's popularity appears to have lost some influence in favour of the paintings apparent association with an historical wedding. Several evidence based discoveries by the American historians Harold E. Wethey and his wife Alice would for a time overshadow Panofsky's intuitive guesswork.

Professor Harold E Wethey

Alice Wethey announced the existence of the Bagarotto coat~of~arms in the silver phiale sited on the ledge of the sarcophagus/fountain which seemed to confirm that the painting was most probably commissioned by Niccolo Aurelio, the Secretary to the Venetian Council of Ten to celebrate his wedding to Laura Bagarotto. But was it really so?

After the 1993-94 restoration of the Sacred and Profane Love, the Bagarotto coat~of~arms in the silver phiale apparently disappeared, a point which was later confirmed in Professor Jaynie Anderson's 1996 publication Giorgione: The painter of Poetic Brevity. Anderson states there that the restoration of the painting by Anna Marcone in 1993-94 proved Alice Wethey's claim to be fanciful:

"...the coat~of~arms had never been present..." Anderson p.231

But the more obvious coat~of~arms upon the escutcheon at the centre-front of the sarcophagus had already been confirmed (see Minerbi, Wethey) as belonging to Niccolo Aurelio, the Secretary to the Venetian Council of Ten, and this has remained the case to this day.

There had also been other discoveries announced by the Wethey's. Around the same time Harold Wethey claimed to have discerned two formerly indistinct iconographs that appeared to have been overpainted. According to Wethey these iconographs were altered or deleted:
"either during the painting's construction - or at a later date". 

Wethey describes these iconographs:

 "... a head of a dog or a cow..." [at the paintings left next to the silver/white dress of the clothed figure] and a "...fallen ivy covered pillar..." (Wethey, 1972, p.177).

After the Marcone restoration the sighted 'head of a dog or a cow' and the 'ivy covered pillar' claimed by Harold Wethey also seemed to disappear raising doubts as to whether they too had ever actually existed.

But there is a problem here. According to the sequence of the zodiacal constellations present in the constellation map of the Southern Hemisphere, it is highly likely that the head of a dog or a cow was present next to the clothed figure. In a star map of the Southern Celestial Hemisphere (with the South Celestial Pole at the centre) zodiacal sequence indicates that it was a dog intended to represent Leo as Sirius - the Dog Star. Not only this but it is also possible that the fallen ivy covered pillar might also be reinstated.

Harold Wethey claimed to have first noted the head of a dog (or cow) and the fallen ivy covered pillar after examining photographic slides that he had personally made of the painting which was then in a state of pre-restoration. As Professor Wethey originally noticed these iconographs on film they may very well exist as a part of the late Mr Wethey's body of work. Their reappearance would prove invaluable, because it was after carefully studying those slides that the Wethey's were able to claim that those iconographs could actually be confirmed with the naked eye. Locating and gaining access to those photographs would be a very significant step in judging the veracity of the Wethey claims. However these claims by the Wetheys are secondary to the strength of context and sequence announced by the geometric and zodiacal sequence outlined in this essay.

According to this analysis it appears logical that the first of Mr Wethey's observations is contextually correct. That second discovery - the fallen ivy covered pillar - is arguably a motif of Giorgione's and can be paralleled with an associated text from which the programme for the Sacred and Profane Love is sourced. Even if one of Harold Wethey's observations can be reinstated it is possible to conclude that Alice Wethey's observation may too have had merit.

It is extremely plausible to consider those escutcheon's belonging to Aurelio and Bagarotto may have been added by Titian at a later date to authenticate the painting for Aurelio, after all, it was Titian who reworked and completed several of Giorgione's works after his early death in 1510. Has Titian deleted two iconographs and added two more? 

By challenging that predetermined authority which the coat~of~arms historically implies, what can actually be said of the Sacred and Profane Love without reaching for this apparently evidential 'fact' for support? This is a very important question because the Aurelio coat~of~arms has determined the direction of all historical discourse. As an argument must participate and agree with certain aspects of previous arguments, the apparent integrity of this one glaring piece of evidence is constantly repeated and therefore seemingly endorsed when perhaps the existence of the Aurelio coat~of~arms needs to be read quite differently. The Aurelio coat~of~arms has developed all the painful thrill of an upturned garden rake that is consistently stepped on by those following a well trodden art historical path and seeking to make a sense of the Sacred and Profane Love's true history and authorship

Without access to Harold Wethey's early slides the major problem for the reinstatement of the Wethey's observations is that after 1994, the Sacred and Profane Love that had been scrutinised by the Wethey's no longer exists - at least in a condition that can now only be termed pre-restoration. The painting is now in a state of post-restoration, and the former observable condition irrevocably altered.

Were those iconographs visible prior to the paintings restoration, or were they simply figments of Harold Wethey's scholarly and up to this point - untarnished reputation? Untarnished, because Professor Wethey was now considered 'unreliable' and any work that attempted to pursue the notion of the missing or false iconographs would ostensibly be tarred by the same brush. Conceptual analysis is the only critique available to the inquirer.

The late Mr James Beck was one of a literally dying breed of scholars who had seen the Sacred and Profane Love both pre and post restoration. In an e-mail response Beck condemned the restoration of the Sacred and Profane Love ('terrible' was the descriptive) but to be fair others such as Jaynie Anderson appear to champion the Marcone restoration. Either way the restoration has removed the option of returning to the painting in the identical, unrestored physical state to which the Wethey's and Beck and Anderson were all once privy. Mr Beck's personal opinion on the quality of restoration is recorded here as a matter of interest and balance.

Still, how can something so important be found by two eminently qualified people just disappear? This analysis will suggest that Harold Wethey's observations should not be dismissed. Materially and methodologically, an oil painting is bound by certain parameters.

In defence of the Wethey's it is fair to say that oil paint can lose its opacity over long periods of time (in accordance to the materials used and the technique employed) and it is physically possible that a form of 'ghosting' may have been occurring in the Sacred and Profane Love. An excellent example of oil transparency is found in Antoine Watteau's Venetian Pleasure. (Fig 1.)

Fig 1. Antoine Watteau, Venetian Pleasure, c. 1718

In Watteau's Venetian Pleasure (Fig 1.) observe the gentleman wearing eastern theatrical garb (opposite the standing female in white dress) and in particular note the original stance of the legs where the paint has become transparent. Both legs have been altered.

Fig 2. Venetian Pleasure (Detail)

In fig 2., the transparent paint exposes the original stance of the left leg which now being clearly visible, is ghosted and bent (backward) at the knee. This is a markedly different pose. Watteau has decided to point the left leg to rest it on the ball of the foot.

While the Sacred and Profane Love and Watteau's Venetian Pleasure emerge from different times in different countries and further, that every artist has an individual approach to the laying down of oil paint, the purpose here is to show that age & oil paint  & a loosely similar technique can produce transparency. Watteau was a notoriously quick painter who worked in excessive amounts of oil, mixtures of oil & varnish, and semi-transparent glazes.

If the Sacred and Profane Love were the Night (which is the developing argument here) it was according to  Isabella's informant - 'very singular and beautiful' and so at a stage of near resolution, implying that the painting was finished and drying or dried because such an observation could not be made of a work still at a formative stage. Titian had four years after the death of Giorgione (1510) in which to rework and authenticate the Sacred and Profane Love for Nicolo Aurelio - and this is where things may have gone awry; has Titian used an oil and varnish technique similar to Watteau and thereby made the same technical mistake?

Because the paint was dry Titian may have used an oil/varnish glaze mixture to detail that which was already resolved (and so, '...beautiful...') and by increasing pigment of the glazes increase the opacity of specific areas without the need to totally repaint. This is reworking rather than repainting, and quite possibly - because of high oil and varnish glazes those deleted areas have returned to haunt Titian in the findings of the Wethey's.

The Marcone restoration - as with any restoration - has altered the surface of the paint: This is to say the surface of the painting is no longer unrestored; the paintings appearance has altered; is now restored and can never again be considered otherwise (i.e. unrestored). Let us be clear that restoration and cleaning are not necessarily compatible or even friendly terms. In Australia in 2002, the criticism of an exhibition entitled 'The Italians' by Mr Mr Benjamin Genocchio claimed that a number of paintings included in that exhibition had been questionably restored:

 “cleaned and repainted, destroying much of their original colour and brushwork” 

If memory serves correctly, the comment 'cleaned to within an inch of their lives' was in there too, and one can understand and respect the concerns of Artwatch, the organisation founded by the aforementioned - now the late - Mr James Beck (1930-2007).

There can be no doubt that Titian's masterly input has added to the complexity that is the Sacred and Profane Love, but whether he is deserving of the paintings outright poetic arrangement is the point here. Even if Giorgione were working from a programme (he was), that painters poetic sensibility wrought the 'singular' beauty which was evident and readily apparent. Again we know this was so because Isabella's letter to her merchant described the painting as 'very singular and beautiful' which could not be said of a work that was less than half baked so to speak.

Titian's deletions made the work more obscure - which was probably his intent and also, by altering it, he could (to himself at least) claim a certain authorship. If the worst scenario here is possible and Titian has conspired with Aurelio to advance his career and assure himself of attaining the much coveted sensaria (held by Giovanni Bellini which came with an annual stipend, sizeable tax breaks and enormous prestige) the behaviour could be seen as an enormous mistake by Titian - the opportunistic ambition of a precocious youth and would seem to herald a sordid beginning to Titian's relationship between art and state.

Of the relationship between Titian and Aurelio, just how much can be said of the character of both? How could Aurelio have afforded this painting and just how politically powerful was he? And if Titian can be found to have reworked the Sacred and Profane Love to further his own ends, why stop at one? Might any other of the works considered 'Giorgionesque' that are given to the oeuvre of Titian be in fact the reworked hand of Giorgione himself?

To be continued... (next post in January - Happy New Year!)


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