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Titian's Rape of Europa (1559-1562)

Titian’s Rape of Europa (1559-1562),
The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston

by Dr. Frances Van Keuren
University of Georgia
Engraving of Titian's Rape of Europa. Image is 6-3/16" high x 8-3/16" wide. From Volume 1 of Jacques Couche, Galerie du Palais Royal, gravee d'apres les tableaux des differentes ecoles qui la composent, Paris, 1786. Hargrett Rare Book and Manuscript Library, University of Georgia Libraries.

In the Gardner Museum’s web “spotlight” on Titian’s famous Rape of Europa, the painting is presented as “the greatest Renaissance painting in the United States”. This high estimation of the painting’s quality seems to me to be correct. In this essay, evidence is presented that shows why the painting deserves such a superior ranking.

The evidence consists of quotations from the ancient and Renaissance literary texts that have been considered to have inspired this poesia (which I translate as “poetic composition”), the term Titian used to refer to this and the other five paintings from the same cycle of paintings that he executed for the Spanish King Philip II. Alongside each translated text is commentary by one of the scholars who proposed the text as a source for The Rape of Europa. The consultation of textual sources is valuable not only in pointing out common thematic consistencies between the painting and multiple literary sources; but it also shows how Titian’s interpretation was true to the spirit and passion of the literary sources.


A second type of source is artistic–that is, the visual sources that inspired Titian to arrive at his design of The Rape of Europa. Several of the more convincing suggestions regarding artistic sources are presented, and brief quotations are provided from the writings of the scholars who identified these sources. I also suggest a previously unnoticed possible source, to be found in a common figural type on Roman sarcophagi. This review of the visual evidence demonstrates the likelihood that no single artistic source provided the design for the entire painting. Instead, multiple sources seem to have been utilized, and transformed, by the painter. It is also interesting that the painter went beyond previous illustrations of the Europa myth, utilizing whatever pictorial types seemed to him to be in tune with his fresh vision of how the myth should be depicted.


Another type of evidence that is presented is contemporary and 17th-century commentary on Titian’s work in general, and on the poesie in particular. This commentary explains what qualities of Titian’s mythological paintings were admired by literate men of the painter’s day. While all authorities extolled his work for its lifelike recreation of the visual world, some critics praised more subtle qualities, such as the bold brushwork and the sophisticated layering of paint, and the sensitive portrayal of the different characters’ states of mind. Understanding how Renaissance men of erudition valued Titian’s work helps us to understand how he himself intended his paintings to be appreciated. As a result, we can approach the paintings with some perception of the multiple aspects–such as technical, compositional, mimetic, narrative and emotional–that Renaissance viewers would have noticed, and enjoyed.


Titian’s friend and promoter Pietro Aretino is quoted as delivering this credo, according to which the primary purpose of painting was to give pleasure–a goal which Titian seems to seems to have so fully achieved (see Dolce, bibliography, p. 149):

Painting was invented primarily in order to give pleasure; by this token, then, if the artist fails to please, he remains unnoticed and devoid of reputation. And the pleasure in question is not, in my books, the one which gives sustenance to the eyes of the masses, nor even the one which connoisseurs experience on first encounter, but the one which increases, the more the eye of any sort of man undergoes a renewed exposure. This is what also happens in the case of good poems: the more they are read, the more they give pleasure and further increase, within one’s spirit, the desire to re-read the passages in question (from Dolce’s Dialogue on Painting, p. 33).

A further area of exploration in this essay on the Gardner’s painting of Europa is the early names that were given. Two generations after the painting was completed, in 1626, Cassiano dal Pozzo first calls it a Rape. Yet the theme and the handling of the story, in which Europa’s fright is emphasized, point to the conclusion that Cassiano accurately called the painting Rape of Europa. Yet many modern authorities, such as the Gardner Museum’s web site, call the painting simply Europa.


Another issue that is taken up is the early display of the six paintings comprising the poesie for Philip II (click here). According to our earliest testimony, that of Cassiano of 1626, the paintings were split into three pairs, that were displayed in three separate chambers. Yet the general consensus seems to be that all six paintings were originally intended for a single room. Philipp Fehl has proposed a reconstruction of the original order of the paintings within this hypothetical room (see Fehl, bibliography, p. 121). The only evidence, however, that more than one painting were to go in the same room is found in a letter that Titian wrote to his patron in 1554, when he sent him the second completed painting in the series–Venus and Adonis (translation by Fehl):

Since the Danae which I already sent your Majesty was seen entirely from the front I introduced a variation in the other poesia [Venus and Adonis] and showed the figure in a reverse view so that the camerino in which the pictures are to be placed may become more gracious to the eye. Soon I shall send your Majesty the poesia of Perseus and Andromeda which will again present a different view and, equally so, Medea and Jason (for the Italian text of the original letter, see Tiziano: Le lettere, no. 125, bibliography, p. 171).

Engraving of Titian's Diana and Callisto. Image is 6-1/16" high x 7-1/2" wide. From Volume 1 of Jacques Couche, Galerie du Palais Royal, gravee d'apres les tableaux des differentes ecoles qui la composent, Paris, 1786. Hargrett Rare Book and Manuscript Library, University of Georgia Libraries.

Engraving of Titian's Diana and Actaeon. Image is 6" high x 7-1/16" wide. From Volume 1 of Jacques Couche, Galerie du Palais Royal, gravee d'apres les tableaux des differentes ecoles qui la composent, Paris, 1786. Hargrett Rare Book and Manuscript Library, University of Georgia Libraries.

Engraving of Titian's Perseus and Andromeda. Image is 6-1/8" high x 7-15/16" wide. From Volume 1 of Jacques Couche, Galerie du Palais Royal, gravee d'apres les tableaux des differentes ecoles qui la composent, Paris, 1786. Hargrett Rare Book and Manuscript Library, University of Georgia Libraries.

This letter indicates that the Venus and Adonis was intended to form a compositional pair with the previously-sent Danae and Nursemaid. This pairing was not preserved in the dispersal of the six paintings in three rooms, as reported by Cassiano in 1626, which would seem to indicate that the two paintings were originally in a single room, and were subsequently split up. However, one of the paintings Titian mentions, Medea and Jason, was never completed. The Rape of Europa was sent in its place. Also, two additional paintings, Diana and Callisto and Diana and Actaeon, were added to the poesie, increasing their number from four to six. Thus, while it is entirely possible that all six paintings were once displayed by Philip II in a single room, it seems equally possible that they may have originally been split into pairs in three rooms, as Cassiano saw them; with the latter arrangement, the visual and sensual impact of all the nude female flesh would not have been so overwhelming.


The final part of this essay shows how part of the greatness of Titian’s poesie lies in their capability of being given a contemporary reading or interpretation, that the artist never could have anticipated. This is a feminist reading, in which the viewer assumes that the narrative is being told throughout the cycle from the standpoint of the female protagonists. Such an interpretation adds yet another possible layer of appreciation to Titian’s epic mythological cycle.



Proposed Ancient and Renaissance Textual Sources for Titian’s Rape of Europa,
and Scholars’ Comments about These Sources

Lodovico Dolce, the Renaissance humanist (click here) who described himself as Titian’s “friend and colleague”, had the following to say about the knowledge that painters should have of poetic sources for the themes in their paintings (see Dolce’s “Aretino,” bibliography, pp. 129 and 195):

The painter cannot possibly be in strong command of the elements which relate to invention–as regards both subject matter or propriety–unless he is versed in historical narrative and the tales of the poets. Hence, just as the ability to make designs is extremely useful to a man of letters in those matters which relate to the business of writing, so too in the painter’s profession a knowledge of letters can prove most beneficial. The painter may not in fact be a man of letters; but let him at least, as I say, be versed in historical narrative and poetry, and keep in close touch with poets and men of learning.

Lodovico himself certainly belonged to the company of “poets and men of learning”, for he was the scholar who translated the complete Metamorphoses, by the Latin author Ovid, into the popular Italian poetic version that was first published in 1553. Since we know that Titian commonly associated with Lodovico, we can assume that he, too, was familiar with Ovid’s accounts of Europa’s story, and probably also with the accounts by other ancient authors whose works were available to him in Italian translations.

One way of studying Titian’s Rape of Europa is to try to identify which ancient or Renaissance author’s account was most closely followed in the painting. The following English translations of the passages from ancient works that have been proposed as possible sources demonstrate, however, that modern art historians fail to agree upon a single most likely literary source.

Text no. 1:

Ovid, Metamorphoses, book 2.835-875, translated by Brookes More (for the Latin of the original text, click here):

…he [Mercury] soared
on waving wings into the opened skies:
and there his father [Jupiter] called him to his side,
and said,--with words to hide his passion;--Son,--
thou faithful minister of my commands.--
let naught delay thee--swiftly take the way,
accustomed, to the land of Sidon (which
adores thy mother's star upon the left)
when there, drive over to the sounding shore
that royal herd, which far away is fed
on mountain grass.--

he spoke, and instantly
the herd was driven from the mountain side;
then headed for the shore, as Jove [Jupiter] desired,--
to where the great king's daughter often went
in play, attended by the maids of Tyre.--
can love abide the majesty of kings?
Love cannot always dwell upon a throne.--

Jove laid aside his glorious dignity,
for he assumed the semblance of a bull
and mingled with the bullocks in the groves,
his colour white as virgin snow, untrod,
unmelted by the watery Southern Wind.

His neck was thick with muscles, dewlaps hung
between his shoulders; and his polished horns,
so small and beautifully set, appeared
the artifice of man; fashioned as fair
and more transparent than a lucent gem.
His forehead was not lowered for attack,
nor was there fury in his open eyes;
the love of peace was in his countenance.

When she beheld his beauty and mild eyes,
the daughter of Agenor was amazed;
but, daring not to touch him, stood apart
until her virgin fears were quieted;
then, near him, fragrant flowers in her hand
she offered,--tempting, to his gentle mouth:
and then the loving god in his great joy
kissed her sweet hands, and could not wait her will.

Jove then began to frisk upon the grass,
or laid his snow-white side on the smooth sand,
yellow and golden. As her courage grew
he gave his breast one moment for caress,
or bent his head for garlands newly made,
wreathed for his polished horns.

The royal maid,
unwitting what she did, at length sat down
upon the bull's broad back. Then by degrees
the god moved from the land and from the shore,
and placed his feet, that seemed but shining hoofs,
in shallow water by the sandy merge;
and not a moment resting bore her thence,
across the surface of the Middle Sea,
while she affrighted gazed upon the shore--
so fast receding. And she held his horn
with her right hand, and, steadied by the left,
held on his ample back--and in the breeze
her waving garments fluttered as they went.

Comments of Paul F. Watson, “Titian’s ‘Rape of Europa’: A Bride Stripped Bare,” Storia dell’arte, vol. 28, September-December 1976, p. 251:

Titian’s Rape of Europa owes much to Ovid’s story. The poet’s white bull is also the painter’s, and like the poet, the painter characterizes his heroine as trembling and fearful… Positive proof of Titian’s awareness of Ovid lies in a detail of the painting frequently overlooked, the bull on the shore standing beside Europa’s maidens. He is obviously a straggler from the herd driven by Mercury, which Ovid alone described.

Text no. 2 (in two parts):

Ovid, Metamorphoses, book 6.53-60, translated by Brookes More (for the Latin of the original text, click here):

And both [Minerva and Arachne], at once,
selected their positions, stretched their webs
with finest warp, and separated warp with sley.
The woof was next inserted in the web
by means of the sharp shuttles, which
their nimble fingers pushed along, so drawn
within the warp, and so the teeth notched in
the moving sley might strike them.--Both, in haste,
girded their garments to their breasts and moved
their skilful arms, beguiling their fatigue
in eager action.

Ovid, Metamorphoses, book 6.103-107, translated by Brookes More (for the Latin of the original text, click here):

Arachne, of Maeonia, wove, at first
the story of Europa, as the bull
deceived her, and so perfect was her art,
it seemed a real bull in real waves.
Europa seemed to look back towards the land
which she had left; and call in her alarm
to her companions--and as if she feared
the touch of dashing waters, to draw up
her timid feet, while she was sitting on
the bull's back.

Comments of Philipp P. Fehl, Decorum and Wit: The Poetry of Venetian Painting, Essays in the History of the Classical Tradition, Vienna, 1992, p. 91:

This picture–the triumph of the weaver’s art as represented by the poet–is the immediate source of Titian’s painting, but, of course, his purpose is not to illustrate Ovid’s story but rather to bring it to life. Not for a moment does Titian pretend that his painting is a tapestry that looks like a picture that looks like nature. Instead, his picture is the story, the whole story, concentrated into one fleeting grand scene. He paints truth itself and, guided by Ovid, dipped his brushes (to repeat a Renaissance compliment) not in painting but in the colors of nature.

Text no. 3:

Ovid, Fasti, book 5.603-618, translated by James George Frazer (see bibliography, pp. 304-306, for the Latin of the original text):

The day before the Ides marks the time when the Bull [Taurus] lifts his starry front. This constellation is explained by a familiar tale. Jupiter in the shape of a bull offered his back to the Tyrian maid [Europa] and wore horns on his false brow. She held the bull’s mane in her right hand, her drapery in her left; and her very fear lent her fresh grace. The breeze fills the robe on her bosom, it stirs her yellow hair; Sidonian damsel, thus indeed it became thee to meet the gaze of Jove [Jupiter]. Oft did she withdraw her girlish soles from the sea, and feared the contact of the dashing wave; often the god knowingly plunged his back into the billows, that she might cling the closer to his neck. On reaching the shore, Jupiter stood without any horns, and the bull was turned into the god. The bull passed into the sky: thou, Sidonian damsel, wast got with child by Jupiter, and a third part of the earth doth bear thy name.

Comments of Alastair Smart, “Titian and the Toro Farnese,Apollo, vol. 85, 1967, p. 423:

Ovid had retold the story in the Fasti, adding new touches which clearly influenced Titian’s interpretation of the subject. Here the description of Europa’s appearance gains in pictorialism, and we are informed that ‘her very fear lent her fresh grace’: et timor ipse novi causa decoris erat. Among the differences from the earlier account in the Metamorphoses the most striking lies in the attitude of Europa as she clings to the bull: Ovid no longer says that she took hold of one of the bull’s horns but rather that ‘she held the bull’s mane in her right hand, her drapery her left’. It is plain that Titian combined the two versions of the story, although transferring the drapery to Europa’s right hand.

Text no. 4:

Horace, Odes, book 3.27, lines 25 ff. And 56 ff., translated by John Conington (for the Latin of the original text, click here):

So to the bull Europa gave
Her beauteous form, and when she saw
The monstrous deep, the yawning grave,
Grew pale with awe.

That morn of meadow-flowers she thought,
Weaving a crown the nymphs to please:
That gloomy night she look'd on nought
But stars and seas.

Then, as in hundred-citied Crete
She landed,--"O my sire!" she said,
"O childly duty! passion's heat
Has struck thee dead…

Hark! 'tis my father--'Worthless one!
What, yet alive? the oak is nigh.
'Twas well you kept your maiden zone,
The noose to tie.

Or if your choice be that rude pike,
New barb'd with death, leap down and ask
The wind to bear you. Would you like
The bondmaid's task,

You, child of kings, a master's toy,
A mistress' slave?'”

Comments of Maurice L. Shapiro, “Titian’s ‘Rape of Europa’”, Gazette des Beaux-Arts, series 6, vol. 77, February 1971, pp. 111 and 113:

It is, I think to Horace’s sophisticated poem on Europa that we must go to find the distinctive elements in the program of the painting. Horace cites Europa’s misadventure as a cautionary tale to his friend, Galatea, who is about to quit Rome and to journey overseas… But more than the monsters of the deep, it is her [Europa’s] conscience that gives her no peace… “By frenzy overmastered” [here translated “passion’s heat”], victa furore: this, I think is the key. Loyal Stoic that he was, Horace was bound to find that Europa’s lamentations, her passionate outcry against the Bull and against herself–all which he lets us overhear–are unworthy an heroic soul or an enlightened mind…

The putto with the bow and arrows… carries Europa’s virgin girdle… The girdle [the “maiden zone” in the translation] is perhaps drawn from Horace’s ode on Europa where she imagines that her father [is] upbraiding her… We notice that in the painting Europa does not wear her girdle, and to emphasize that fact the artist calls our attention to her three companions left behind on the shore, all of whom have theirs.

Text no. 5:

Achilles Tatius of Alexandria, The Adventures of Leucippe and Clitophon, book 1.2-13, translated by S. Gaselee (see bibliography, pp. 2-8, for Greek of the original text):

As I was walking about the city [of Sidon], paying especial attention to the temple-offerings, I saw a picture hanging up which was a landscape and a seascape in one. The painting was of Europa: the sea depicted was the Phoenician Ocean; the land, Sidon. On the land part was a meadow and a troop of girls: on the sea a bull was swimming, and on his back sat a beautiful maiden, borne by the bull towards Crete. The meadow was thick with all kinds of flowers, and among them was planted a thicket of trees and shrubs, the trees growing so close that their foliage touched: and the branches, intertwining their leaves, thus made a kind of continuous roof over the flowers beneath. The artist had also represented the shadows thrown by the leaves, and the sun was gently breaking through, here and there, on to the meadow, where the painter had represented openings in the thick roof of foliage. The meadow was surrounded on all sides by an enclosure, and lay wholly within the embowering roof; beneath the shrubs grass-beds of flowers grew orderly–narcissus, roses, and bays; in the middle of the meadow in the picture flowed a rivulet of water, bubbling up on one side from the ground, and on the other watering the flowers and shrubs; and a gardener had been painted holding a pick, stooping over a single channel and leading a path for the water.

The painter had put the girls at one end of the meadow where the land jutted out into the sea. Their look was compounded of joy and fear: garlands were bound about their brows; their hair had been allowed to flow loose on their shoulders; their legs were bare, covered neither by their tunics above nor their sandals below, a girdle holding up their skirts as far as the knee; their faces were pale and their features distorted; their eyes were fixed wide open upon the sea, and their lips were slightly parted, as if they were about to utter a cry of fear; their hands were stretched out in the direction of the bull. They were standing on the water’s edge, so that the surge just wetted their feet: and they seemed to be anxious to run after the bull, but to be afraid of entering the water.

The sea had two different tinges of colour; towards the land it was almost red, but out towards the deep water it was dark blue: and foam, and rocks, and wave crests had been painted in it. The rocks ran out from the shore and were whitened with foam, while the waves rose into crests and were then dashed into foam by breaking upon the rocks. Far out in the ocean was painted a bull breasting the waves, while a billow rose like a mountain where his leg was bent in swimming: the maiden sat on the middle of his back, not astride but sideways, with her feet held together on the right: with her left hand she clung to his horn, like a charioteer holding the reins, and the bull inclined a little in that direction, guided by the pressure of her hand. On the upper part of her body she wore a tunic down to her groin, and then a robe covered the lower part of her body: the tunic was white, the robe purple: and her figure could be traced under the clothes–the deep-set navel, the long slight curve of the belly, the narrow waist, broadening down to the loins, the breasts gently swelling from her bosom and confined, as well as her tunic, by a girdle: and the tunic was a kind of mirror of the shape of her body. Her hands were held widely apart, the one to the bull’s horn, the other to his tail; and with both she held above her head the ends of her veil which floated down about her shoulders, bellying out through its whole length and so giving the impression of a painted breeze. Thus she was seated on the bull like a vessel under way, using the veil as a sail; about the bull dolphins gambolled, Cupids sported: they actually seemed to move in the picture. Love himself led the bull–Love, in the guise of a tiny boy, his wings stretched out, wearing his quiver, his lighted torch in his hands: he was turning towards Zeus [Jupiter] with a smile on his face, as if he were laughing at him for becoming a bull for his sake.

Comments of Donald Stone, “The Source of Titian’s Rape of Europa,Art Bulletin, vol. 54, 1972, pp. 47-48:

The first vernacular translation of Achilles Tatius was done in Italian and printed in Venice in 1546. Although it reproduces only Books V-VIII (and, therefore, not the description of Europa which opens the novel), this translation has value for us because the author proves to be none other than Lodovico Dolce–the same Venetian who in 1538 had dedicated a paraphrase of Juvenal’s Sixth Satire to Titian and who in 1557 would publish a Dialogo della pittura [“Dialogue on Painting”] which devotes several pages to Titian’s life and works. After Dolce had expended such effort with the novel, it is difficult to believe that he was indifferent to the second vernacular translation of Achilles’ novel which appeared in Venice also, in 1550, the work of Francesc’ Angelo Coccio. It contains the complete text of the novel and is the work I believe Titian read or was shown by his friend Dolce.

[Coccio’s Italian translation of Achilles’ description of the Europa painting follows.]

… Except for the transfer of Cupid’s arrows from a quiver to putti flying overhead, the disappearance of the purple “veste” [robe], a restationing of Cupid, and a reduction of the numerous dolphins to one dolphin and one fish, the scene is Titian’s: here are the women on the shore with outstretched hands, the varying colors of the sea, the cliffs rising from the land and whitened by mist, a Cupid, arrows, Europa’s billowing scarf, and her white garment, not extending beyond the “parti vergognose” [her groin], and transparent enough to reveal her navel and large thighs. Even Achilles’ careful account of her position on the back of the bull–not with a leg on each side but with her feet on the bull’s right side and her left hand on his horn–is reproduced by Titian.

Text no. 6:

Stanze cominciate per la giostra del Magnifico Giuliano de' Medici ("Stanzas Begun for the Tournament of the Magnificent Giuliano de' Medici"), book 1.105-106, translated by David Quint (for the Italian of the original text, click here):

On the other side of the door [to the temple of Venus, made by Vulcan], Jove [Jupiter], transformed for love into a handsome white bull, is seen carrying off his sweet rich treasure, and she turns her face toward the lost shore with a terrified gesture; in the contrary wind her lovely golden hair plays over her breasts; her garment waves in the wind and blows behind her, one hand grasps his back, the other his horn.

She gathers in her bare feet as if fearing lest the sea wash over her: in such a pose of fear and grief, she seems to call in vain to her dear companions; they, left behind among flowers and leaves, each mournfully cry for Europa. "Europa," the shore resounds, "Europa, come back," the bull swims on, and now and then kisses her feet.

Comments of Jean Habert, translated from the French (see bibliography, pp. 224-225):

He [Titian] seems… to follow closely the exquisite paraphrase in verse by the Florentine Angelo Ambrogini, called Poliziano or Angelo Poliziano (1454-1494), the Stanze per la Giostra [“Stanzas for the Tournament”] (I, 105-106, stanzas for Europa), published in 1494, which describe some images after Ovid–images very suggestive for a painter (according to the adage of Horace: Ut pictura poesis [“As in painting, so in poetry”]) in developing the tragedy of Europa to the manner of a scene from opera.









Proposed Artistic Sources for Titian’s Rape of Europa

A number of artistic sources, both from antiquity and from the Renaissance, have been suggested for the compositional designs of the figures in Titian’s Rape of Europa. A selection of these sources is given below, along with quotes from the scholars who have proposed them as possibilities. Studies of this type are valuable, since they demonstrate when Titian borrowed from earlier depictions of the same myth, and when he went outside of a myth’s iconographic tradition for inspiration. However, it is also important to note how the great painter transformed his sources, or to put it in Otto Brendel’s words, how he made his prototypes “come to life in a quite new and unexpected fashion” (Brendel, bibliography, p. 117):

The figure of Dirce at the base of the Farnese Bull (click here), as the source for the figure of Europa.

The Toro Farnese… had been rediscovered in the Thermae Antonianae, or Baths of Caracalla [in Rome], not long before Titian’s return to Venice in the spring of 1546… Nothing could be more skilful or ingenious than Titian’s adaptations of the Toro Farnese in the Boston picture: Europa repeats Dirce’s gesture almost exactly; the upflung right arms are virtually identical, and so are the left arms; but whereas with her left hand Dirce grasps Amphion’s leg, Europa holds one of the bull’s horns (as Ovid says she did), thus repeating the action of Amphion, who grasps the bull’s horn with his right hand (Alastair Smart, “Titian and the Toro Farnese,” Apollo, vol. 85, 1967, pp. 420 and 424-5).

The position of Europa’s head, which is twisted backwards, is derived from the Ludovisi Group of the Gaul and his Wife, in the Palazzo Altemps, Rome (click here and here).

Another such instance [where Titian borrows from classical sculpture in the round] that seems to have escaped attention can be seen in the attitude of the figure fleeing in terror in the left foreground of the Death of St. Peter Martyr (Fig. 10): this reverses the pose of the male figure in the well-known Ludovisi Group in Rome, representing a Gaul in the act of killing himself and his wife. It is a borrowing not inappropriate to a scene of martyrdom, while the striking contrapposto of the pose adds its own note of dramatic tension. A memory of the same statue may survive in the turned head of the Europa (Alastair Smart, “Titian and the Toro Farnese,Apollo, vol. 85, 1967, p. 426).

[This theory is not without problems, since there is no record of the statue group before its mention in an inventory of 1623–see Francis Haskell and Nicholas Penny, Taste and the Antique, New Haven and London, 1981, pp. 282-284.]

Sea bulls (i.e. sea monsters with a bull’s forepart and a fish’s tail) on Nereid sarcophagi, as the inspiration for Titian’s swimming bull. For a good example of such a sea bull, look at Andreas Rumpf, Die Meerwesen auf den antiken Sarkophagreliefs, Rome, 1969, pl. 8 top.

The bull is one of the sea beasts on Nereid sarcophagi (Cornelius Vermeule, European Art and the Classical Past, Cambridge, Mass., p. 90).

The airborne and seaborne Cupids in Raphael’s Galatea (click here) as the source for the three Cupids in the Rape of Europa.

The Cupids in the air and the cupid on the dolphin [in Titian’s painting]–presumably Cupid himself, who with satisfaction views the success of his plot–at home as they are in Titian’s picture, did, in fact, invade it from a painting by Raphael, the Galatea, in the Villa Farnesina in Rome (Philipp P. Fehl, Decorum and Wit: the Poetry of Venetian Painting: Essays in the History of the Classical Tradition, Vienna, 1992, p. 94).

Flying Cupids supporting a portrait of the deceased, a common motif on Roman sarcophagi (click here), as an alternate source for both Raphael’s and Titian’s seaborne Cupid:

This common figural motif on Roman sarcophagi is particularly close in arrangement to Raphael’s Cupid, and could have itself directly inspired Titian’s Cupid, without the intermediary of Raphael’s painting (my idea).

Hellenistic statuary type, of a boy carrying a large water jug on one shoulder (see Brendel, bibliography, fig. 16), as a possible source for the right airborne Cupid in Titian’s painting:

In Titian’s time a Hellenistic Cupid with water jug on his shoulders, a fountain figure surviving in a number of replicas, received the lofty title “Cupid of Pheidias.” Titian drew this marble or, more likely, a cast of it in his possession. He then turned the figure into an angel in his painting [of the Death of St. Peter Martyr, known from engravings, as Fig. 10 in Smart article, cited above], by substituting the martyr’s palm for the water jug…. The Amor at the top [of The Rape of Europa] is none other than the “Cupid of Pheidias,” painted from Titian’s cast of the marble turned and suspended upside down (Cornelius Vermeule, European Art and the Classical Past, Cambridge, Mass., pp. 87-88 and 90).

Putti on Roman sarcophagi, who support garlands (click here), as an alternate possible source for the right airborne Cupid in Titian’s painting:

One should also consider the frequent representations of children carrying fruit garlands on Roman sarcophagi (Brendel, bibliography, p. 119, note 23).

Greco-Roman landscape painting, as an inspiration for the landscape in the left part of Titian’s painting for an example:

Although the principal figures [in The Rape of Europa] have too much of Titian to be termed classical in a narrow sense, they reach a wholesome degree of exuberant Hellenism, of the type found in Pergamene painting and mosaics. Most Greco-Roman in this powerful rendering of myth is the landscape at the left and rear, where Europa’s companions gesture helplessly on the shore. These passages, especially the mountains in the background, rival the spirit of the best ancient landscapes, the series with scenes from the Odyssey coming first to mind (Cornelius Vermeule, European Art and the Classical Past, Cambridge, Mass., p. 90).









Contemporary Criticism Pertinent to Titian’s Rape of Europa

In the 1568 edition of The Lives of the Artists, Giorgio Vasari provides a useful discussion of four of the six paintings which appear to have constituted the poesie, i.e. the poetic compositions, that Titian painted for King Philip II of Spain (click here for the Italian of the passage):

He [Titian] also did a marvellous painting of Venus and Adonis, showing Venus fainting while the young Adonis is about to leave her, surrounded by some very lifelike dogs. In a panel of the same size, he painted Andromeda tied to a rock with Perseus who frees her from the sea monster, and no painting could be more charming than this one; equally lovely is another depicting Diana, who is standing in a fountain with her nymphs and transforms Actaeon into a stag. He also painted a picture of Europa, crossing the ocean upon the bull [the Italian for this passage is, un’Europa che sopra il toro passa il mare]. These paintings are in the possession of the Catholic king [Philip II], and they are held most dear because of the vitality Titian gave to his figures with colours that made them seem almost alive and very natural. But it is certainly true that his method of working in these last works is very different from the one he employed as a young man. While his early works are executed with a certain finesse and incredible care, and are made to be seen both from close up and from a distance, his last works are executed with such large and bold brush-strokes and in such broad outlines that they cannot be seen from close up but appear perfect from a distance… it is obvious that his paintings are reworked and that he has gone back over them with colours many times, making his effort evident. And this technique, carried out in this way, is full of good judgement, beautiful, and stupendous, because it makes the pictures not only seem alive but to have been executed with great skill concealing the labour (this translation is by Julia Conaway Bondanella and Peter Bondanella, and is from Vasari’s “Description of the Works of Titian of Cadore, Painter,” The Lives of the Artists, Oxford and New York, 1991, pp. 503-4).

Vasari, along with Titian’s royal patron, obviously admired the lifelike rendering that Titian achieved in the figures in these four mythological paintings, which include the Rape of Europa under consideration. This natural quality of Titian’s figures, whether they were characters from myth or religion or were portraits, is a characteristic that all Titian’s contemporaries praised.

Other qualities of the poesie for Philip II were also admired. These were their capability of projecting the feelings of the characters depicted, and their skill in provoking responses, including erotic ones, in the viewer. These two dimensions are evident in Lodovico Dolce’s description of Venus from the painting of Venus and Adonis in the series (click here for the painting, which is now in the Museo del Prado, Madrid). Lodovico is believed to have based his description on an actual viewing of the painting, which he apparently saw during a visit to Titian’s studio before the painting’s completion (see Dolce’s “Aretino”, bibliography, pp. 35 and 215-217):

The Venus has her back turned, not for want of art… but to display art in double measure. For in the turn of her face towards Adonis, as she exerts herself with both arms to hold him back and is half-seated on a firm cloth of peacock-blue, she everywhere evinces feelings which are sweet and vital and such that they are not seen except in her. With her, too, there is a marvellous piece of dexterity on the part of this divine spirit, in that one recognizes in the hindmost parts here the distension of the flesh caused by sitting. Yes indeed, one can truthfully say that every stroke of the brush belongs with those strokes that nature is in the habit of making with its hand. Similarly her look corresponds to the way one must believe that the Venus would have looked if she ever existed; there appear in it evident signs of the fear she was feeling in her heart, in view of the unhappy end to which the young man came. And if the Venus depicted by Apelles as emerging from the sea–the subject of so much talk amongst the poets and writers of antiquity–possessed half of the beauty one sees in this Venus, she was not unworthy of these eulogies. I swear to you… that there is no man so sharp of sight and discernment that he does not believe when he sees her that she is alive; no one so chilled by age or so hard in his makeup that he does not feel himself growing warm and tender, and the whole of his blood stirring in his veins. And no wonder; for if a marble statue could, with the shafts of its beauty, penetrate to the marrow of a young man so that he left his stain there, then what should this figure do which is made of flesh, which is beauty itself, which seems to breathe? (The Letter of Dolce to Alessandro Contarini)

The ancient statue that Lodovico refers to as the object of a young man’s lust is Praxiteles’ nude Aphrodite of Cnidus. The Roman author Pliny the Elder (Natural History, 36.20-21) tells the story of how a young man embraced this statue during the night, leaving on it “a stain to mark his lust”.

The intended responses that Lodovico makes explicit in the case of Titian’s Venus and Adonis also apply to his Rape of Europa. The unexpected abduction across the sea has caused Europa to reveal her physical charms more fully than does Venus; for even though Venus is nude and Europa is clothed, the goddess has her back towards the viewer, while the girl has a frontal, reclining posture in which her filmy and moistened white gown has been pulled down to reveal one breast and it clings to her full stomach and hips below. By rendering Europa’s sensual body in such a fully exposed fashion, Titian surely intended to evoke an erotic response, at least in the male viewer.

If the Renaissance viewer was supposed to easily comprehend Venus’ fear for her lover Adonis, who was shortly thereafter mortally wounded by a boar, certainly the same viewer would have been intended to quickly perceive the greater terror of Titian’s Europa. Unlike Venus, this Tyrian maiden is herself in obvious and immediate danger, being borne over the sea away from her homeland, while she precariously rolls on the back of the bull.

That Titian’s Europa was intended to look fearful is supported by a description of the painting of 1626, which was written by the Italian art patron Cassiano dal Pozzo when he visited the Alcázar in Madrid for the original Italian of this passage, see Volk, bibliography, p. 526):

Opposite that [fable of Danae] is the rape of Europa, who by hanging onto the neck of the Bull with one of her thighs bent over him makes a most beautiful foreshortening; the strangeness, and resolution of that Animal, and the ease with which he scales the waves, the fear, and the delicacy of the abducted damsel are rendered in such a lifelike manner, that one could not ask for better (with assistance in the translation from Emilia Garofalo, University of Georgia).

The foregoing testimonies, written by Titian’s Italian contemporaries and by Cassiano who viewed his poesie in their royal setting in 1626, seem to indicate that his mythological paintings were appreciated in a number of ways–for their bold style of execution; for their lifelike figures; for their sensitive portrayal of human emotion; and finally, for their erotic power. Being located in “the private rooms of the king” (Marqués, Titian and Rubens, bibliography, p. 77), the paintings were apparently not intended for the general public, and seem to have been viewed by men only (see Goldfarb, Titian and Rubens, bibliography, pp. 13 and 18).









What is the Correct Name for Titian’s Painting of Europa?

Hilliard T. Goldfarb, Chief Curator of Collections at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, provided the following statement in the 1998 exhibition catalogue, Titian and Rubens: Power, Politics, and Style (see p. 13, bibliography):

The Italian scholar and collector Cassiano dal Pozzo…, who was secretary to Cardinal Francesco Barberini, was the first to call the painting the Rape of Europa (“l’ratto [abduction] d’europa”), in a manuscript diary, now preserved in the Vatican, of his visit to Spain in the company of the cardinal that year [1626] (for a transcription of Cassiano’s text, see Volk, bibliography, p. 526).

According to Il grande dizionario Garzanti (5th ed., 1991, p. 1566), the Italian word ratto means “a crime committed by someone who, with violence, threat, or deception, carries off or in some way detains a person, in order to force this person into marriage or to endure acts of lust” (my translation from the Italian). Clearly, Jupiter’s carrying off of Europa to Crete, in order to ravish her, falls within this definition of ratto. Also, the way in which the myth is depicted by Titian, with a powerful bull and a fearful Europa supports the interpretation of the painting as an abduction by both deceit and force. Thus, it is curious that in the surviving correspondence between Titian and his patron, King Philip II of Spain, the artist never refers to the painting as being a scene of ratto.

The following list indicates the different ways in which Titian refers to the painting of Europa in his letters to the king (see Tiziano: Le lettere, bibliography, pp. 179, 193, 195, 201, 207, 213 and 269; the translations are mine):

Letter of June 19, 1559:
L’una [supply poesia] di Europa sopra il Tauro
“The one [poetic composition] of Europa on the Bull”

Letter of April 22, 1560:
La favola di Giove con Europa
“The fable of Jove with Europa”

Letter of April 2, 1561:
La poesia della Europa
“The poetic composition of Europa”

Letters of August 17, 1561, and October 22, 1561:
“The Europa”

Letter of April 26, 1562
La poesia di Europa portata dal Toro
“The poetic composition of Europa transported by the Bull”

Letter of December 22, 1574:
L’Europa portata dal Toro (1562) [year the painting was sent to Philip II]
“Europa transported by the Bull (1562)”









Early Display of Titian’s Poesie, and the Reasons for the Restrictions in their Viewing

We do not know where Titian’s poesie (i.e. poetic compositions) were first hung by the artist’s patron, King Philip II of Spain (king of Spain, 1556-98; click here). However, when Cassiano dal Pozzo saw the paintings in 1626, they were in the ground-level chambers with vaulting (called bóvedas in Spanish) in the fortress-like palace called the Alcázar in Madrid (see Volk, bibliography). These chambers were the Spanish king’s summer apartments.

Cassiano reports that in 1626, the six paintings comprising Titian’s poesie were located in three rooms of these apartments, with each of them containing a pair of the poesie. One room contained the paintings of Diana and Callisto and Diana and Actaeon. Another room had Perseus and Andromeda and Venus and Adonis. And a third room displayed Danae with Nursemaid and The Rape of Europa (see Volk, bibliography, pp. 519-520 and 526). By the time of the inventory of 1636, and probably even earlier, the six poesie all hung in a single chamber, which was in the same area of the palace (see Volk, bibliography, pp. 520 and 529).

According to Hilliard T. Goldfarb, Chief Curator at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston where the Europa painting is currently located, women were not permitted to enter these summer apartments of the king (see Titian and Rubens, bibliography, pp. 13 and 18). In his eclogue Amarilis, written about the same time as Cassiano’s visit to the Alcázar in 1626, Spanish poet Lope de Vegahere reports that Titian’s mythological paintings were restricted in an additional way, by being hidden behind curtains (translation by Manuela B. Mena Marqués):

None has seen more beautiful and rare,
From the divine brush, a human drawing,
The swift curtain removed from sight the painting
Of Titian’s celebrated Venus (for original Spanish, see Titian and Rubens, bibliography, p. 78).

Both Cassiano’s and Lope’s accounts of the display of the poesie are of interest, because they demonstrate that the erotic content of Titian’s lush assemblage of nudes in various positions was intended only for the intimate circle of the king and his close male associates. Judging from the curtains that Lope mentions, even their viewing of the paintings was restricted.

Why would such restrictions have been felt necessary? I believe that the capacity of the paintings to incite male desire would have been one of the reasons why they were hidden by curtains. The nudity of the female characters may also have been considered indecent, even by the educated elite of the Spanish court circles. A poem by the Spanish poet Bartolomé Leonardo de Argensola (1562-1631) expresses the wish that Titian had covered some of the nude female parts in his mythological paintings: “Why did he not use the brush for a timid young vine or a tentative veil to hinder our view?” (translation by Manuela B. Mena Marqués, who provides the Spanish original text, in Titian and Rubens, pp. 77-78).

I believe that women of the seventeenth century were excluded from viewing the poesie, because they too would have been offended by all the female nudes–even more so than the men, since proper women then, as now, were raised to be modest. Also, because Titian depicted the feelings of all his characters so convincingly, women viewers would have felt the female protagonists’ distress much more keenly than men, through a process of identification. This sympathy for female suffering would have limited their ability to appreciate other positive features of the paintings, such as the beauty of the ideal female forms, which was much praised by contemporary male poets.









A Modern Reading of the Poesie

As a classical archaeologist/ancient art historian who has worked for years on classical myths in post-classical art, I am most fascinated by the narrative power of Titian’s mythological paintings. David Rosand eloquently summarized Titian’s contribution of reviving and reanimating ancient myths when he concluded (see Rosand, bibliography, p. 545):

In retrospect we can appreciate Titian’s remarkable cultural position, mediating between the myths of the past and those of the future. More than any other artist of the Renaissance he breathed life into the ancient tales on every level and inserted his own art as a permanent monument in the history of the classical tradition.

Titian achieved the great power in his imagery not only by his enormous technical skill, but also by his profound human sympathy for the characters he painted. His friend and promoter Pietro Aretino, one of the speakers in Dolce Lodovico’s Dialogue on Painting, expresses what Titian clearly strove to accomplish (Dolce, bibliography, p. 157):

What is needed is that the figures [in paintings] should stir the spectators’ souls–disturbing them in some cases, cheering them in others, in others again inciting them to either compassion or disdain, depending on the character of the subject matter. Failing this, the painter should not claim to have accomplished anything. For this is what gives the flavor to all his virtues. Exactly the same thing happens with the poet, the historian and the public speaker; if their products, that is, whether written or recited, lack this power to move, they lack also spirit and life. Nor can the painter stir emotion unless he already experiences in his own being, while executing the figures, those passions–or shall we say “states of mind”–which he wishes to imprint on the mind of another (Dialogue on Painting, p. 37).

The cycle of paintings that comprise the poesie (poetic compositions) are powerful from a narrative standpoint because the emotions that the characters display are subject to reinterpretation in our time–specifically, to a feminist reinterpretation. As in the case of Arachne’s weaving of the disguises that the gods assumed in order to “have their way” with the female objects of their desire (click here for Ovid’s account), Titian’s paintings tell the stories from the female characters’ points of view.

The dramatic upheavals that Titian’s female characters are experiencing are rendered convincingly enough to cause women viewers to identify with these protagonists, and be able to tell their stories, from the woman’s point of view. In my opinion, sensitive male viewers can do the same. From the woman’s point of view, the basic narrative for the six paintings would be the following.

Nude Andromeda has been cruelly chained to a rock, and was intended to become the victim of a sea monster, were it not for Perseus’ valiant rescue-in-progress. Unsuspecting Europa is being borne away from her familiar friends and homeland on the back of a mighty bull. The nymph Callisto’s pregnancy is being revealed to the unforgiving goddess Diana, who is expelling Callisto from her virgin band; ironically, her impregnation had occurred while Jupiter was in the form of Diana. The chaste goddess Diana is herself startled and angered by the hunter Actaeon’s sudden intrusion into her private bathing grotto, and by his viewing of her uncovered body. Another goddess, Venus, clings to her mortal lover Adonis, fearful for the dangers of the hunt, which will take her favorite’s life. Finally, Danae, while not obviously frightened like the other female protagonists, is overwhelmed by and unable to resist Jupiter’s impregnating golden shower that has burst into her maiden chamber.

If you put all these situations together, the common thread in the six stories is victimization: female characters are put in compromising positions by forces beyond their control. A fear of being forced into such situations is universal among women today, as it has been throughout history, in my opinion.

Nor is victimization in Titian’s poesie limited to the “gentle sex”. Although Diana’s modesty has been injured by Actaeon’s intrusion, she turns him into a victim as well, by transforming him into a stag, which his unknowing dogs will tear asunder. Thus, we see that this painting plays on the fear shared by both genders, of being at the mercy of divine forces more powerful than any human can ever hope to be.










Achilles Tatius, with an English translation by S. Gaselee, Loeb Classical Library, rev. reprint, London and Cambridge, Mass., 1969.

Otto J. Brendel, “Borrowings from Ancient Art in Titian,” Art Bulletin, vol. 37, 1955, pp. 113-125.

Lodovico Dolce, Dolce’s “Aretino” [=Dialogue on Painting] and Venetian Art Theory of the Cinquecento (including his letters to Gasparo Ballini and Alessandro Contarini), with the original Italian and translations and commentary by Mark W. Roskill, New York, 1968.

Philipp P. Fehl, Decorum and Wit: The Poetry of Venetian Painting: Essays in the History of the Classical Tradition, Vienna, 1992.

Hilliard T. Goldfarb, David Freedberg and Manuela B. Mena Marqués, Titian and Rubens: Power, Politics, and Style, catalogue for exhibition, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston, Massachusetts, 1998.

Jean Habert, “L’enlèvement d’Europe dans la peinture vénitienne du XVIe siècle: Titien et Véronese,” in D’Europe à l’Europe ­I- Le mythe d’Europe dans l’art et la culture de l’Antiquité au XVIIIe siècle (Actes du colloque tenu à l’ENS, Paris (24-26 avril 1997), Tours, Centre de Recherches A. Piganiol, 1998, pp. 221-230.

Ovid, Fasti, with an English translation by James George Frazer, Loeb Classical Library, London and New York, 1931.

David Rosand, “Ut Pictor Poeta: Meaning in Titian’s Poesie,New Literary History: A Journal of Theory and Interpretation, vol. 3, 1972, pp. 527-546.

Tiziano: Le lettere dalla silloge di documenti tizianeschi di Celso Fabbro, Pieve di Cadore, 1977.

Mary Crawford Volk, “Rubens in Madrid and the decoration of the King’s summer apartments,” Burlington Magazine, vol. 123, no. 942, September, 1981, pp. 513-529.








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