Bacchus and Ariadne


Bacchus and Ariadne

Tiziano Vecello, know in the English speaking world as Titian, was born in Cadore which is in the Southern Alps between the years of 1487 -1490. He was born into a family of lawyers and administrators and so enjoyed a relatively privileged upbringing. The early Sixteenth Century saw a flourishing in Italian art. Indeed, set against the span of Art History it was one of the greatest periods and is known by the term “Cinquecento[1]” and The Venetian Cinquecento masters included Giorgione and Titian. Titian, as a painter, pushed the boundaries of art and its meaning and challenged the pre eminence of the sculptural art form. His paintings are characterised by their ability to capture the qualities to be found in the subject through composition, technique and use of medium.

His early influences were seminal. Around 1500, and before he was ten years old, Titian was sent to Venice. He was initially destined to be an apprentice to a mosaicist, Zuccati, but when his master saw he had the ability to draw he was sent to work in a painting school. Titian found himself under the tutorage of the elderly Giovanni Bellini, who was the leading artist in Venice. Whilst working under the Bellinis - father and then son - Titian was exposed to the new influences that were to be found in the work of the Flemish painters especially in their use of oils and varnish glazes. Bellini softened his landscapes through the use of these techniques. Titian embraced these techniques during these formative years and it soon became apparent he possessed a rare talent eventually out shining his master.

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The popular and accomplished masters in Venice heavily influenced Titian. As a teenager he worked with Giorgione and it is this influence that is evident in Titian's early paintings, such as the ‘Gipsy Madonna' in 1510. Four years after the death of Giorgione, Titian decided to start up his own workshop. His career went from strength to strength, precipitated in part by the commission of ‘The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary' in the Frari Church. By the age of thirty, Titian was established as the leading artist in Venice; this granted him celebrity status with a European clientele, which included noblemen, merchants and eventually monarchs.

Titian started to attract the attention of famous Italian Patrons, such as the Renaissance family D'Este from Ferrara. The D'Este family originally commissioned ‘The Triumph of Bacchus' to be painted by Raphael who had been paid in advance for the work but unfortunately Raphael had only completed a preliminary sketch before he died in 1520. This commission was then assumed by Titian and led to the production of five paintings that were to hang in the Camerino room, a private luxury apartment in the Ferrara Place. Titian was sought after and by an impressive list of patrons and esteemed clientele such as the Holy Roman Emperor, the Pope and Charles the 5th. Titian was now in a position to pick and choose his commissions. He was known as the “Lomazzo described him as the 'sun amidst small stars not only among the Italians but all the painters of the world”[2]. An illustration of the esteem with which he was held is quoted by Titian's early biographers “even the Emperor Charles V picked up the paint brush Titian had dropped[3]”.

Titian was as an outstanding draughtsman regarded on a par with Michelangelo's genius. A milestone in Titian's career was his appointment as a court painter. He became a member of the “Order of the Golden Spire[4]”, which gave him the rights of a courtier. Titian lived a long and prosperous life and died on the 27th of August 1576. He was laid to rest in the very church in Frari, which was home to his ‘The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary'. The very painting that marked the start of Titian's glorious carrier as one of the most influential Venetian painters in Italian history.

One of Titian's most remarkable paintings is hanging in The National Gallery in London. This is the painting of Bacchus and Ariadne, which was completed around 1520-23. This painting was commissioned by Duke Alfonso D'Este who ordered a set of five paintings for his private room in his palace at Ferrara. The series was known as one of the high points in Italian Renaissance art.

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This diagram shows the exact location in the Camerino room where the painting of Bacchus and Ariadne (No 1) would have hung. Showing that the painting was above a door in the private room. It also illustrates that the painting would experience light through the window at dusk and dawn, illuminating the painting at the start and the end of the day. This would make it the focal point in the room, hung to its best advantage so that its owner, Alfonso D'Este could enjoy his passion and indulge his love for the Greek and Roman style of paintings. The other paintings in the room also commissioned by Titian are as follows: 1) Bacchus and Ariadne; 2) The Andrians; 3) The feast of the Gods; 4) Bacchanal with Vulcan and lastly the 5) is The Worship of Venus. Three of the five paintings are dedicated to exuberant feasts and falling in love. Titian derived most of his painting from Greek and Roman literature. The story of Bacchus and Ariadne was specifically drawn from the classical writers Ovid and Catullus. In fact Titian often depicted scenes that were inspired by Classical Mythology and that feature Bacchanalian scenes.

The painting illustrates the moment in classical myth when Ariadne is stranded on a desert island. Bacchus the god of wine is riding in his chariot when he stumbles across her. The picturesque landscape with the receding sea touching the magical coastline gracefully lends itself as a fitting backdrop to this magical, chance rendezvous. The painting depicts the moment the lovers meet for the first time:

“She, then, pitifully looking out at the receding boat,/ wounded, was spinning convoluted cares in her mind./ Then came swooping from somewhere Bacchus in his prime/ his cult of Satyrs, with his mountain-born Sileni,/ seeking you, Ariadne, aflame with love for you”[5].

This poem by Catullus, describes a covering on the royal marriage bed, embroidered with scenes from the legend. The King of Crete had a daughter named Ariadne. She is one of the main characters depicted in this painting on the left. She abandoned her home to follow the Athenian Theseus, with who she was in love. Although she had helped Theseus escape Crete and the ferocious wrath of the Minotaur, Theseus abandons Ariadne on this island of Naxons. His ship is still visible in the distance as he sails off. The ship acts as a symbol to the viewer of lost love. Naxos is where the painting is set and captures the moment that a new lover in the form of Bacchus the God of Intoxication enters her life. It is clear from the expression on Ariadne's face that she is still grieving for Theseus but is also startled by the God of Inspiration and Intoxication accompanied by his Satyrs.

The story continues with Bacchus instantly falling in love with Ariadne and convincing her that if she will marry him, her wedding present will be that when she dies he will take her wedding diadem, raise it to the havens and turn it into a constellation in the sky. This symbolises their union. The stars that are visible above Ariadne's head in the painting represent this.

This painting holds all the key elements of a joyful, energetic and manic love, which takes the traditional subject matter of art mythology and revitalises it. From looking at Bacchus we can see the intensity of his passion. The most shocking, unusual and visually interesting part of this picture is the way in which Bacchus is frozen in time and that his stare is tangible. The wild party and entourage seem to be paused in their frivolities, some critics think that this parallels a brief but paused moment in Titian's own career.

Titian always manages to portray a sense of unity within his paintings even though his contemporaries at the time would have unfavourably judged his work and thought it disjointed, even going so far as to call it lopsided, a comment made about the portrait of a ‘Young Englishman'. But he managed to balance his pictures using light and colour and form and the result is he “fused beauty and harmony to marry with Greek and Roman antiquity[6]”. This fusion and unity is clear once the elements of this painting are broken down. The calm blue waters to the left of the painting balance the riotous satyrs and maenads who are carrying the symbols of Bacchus' cult. He also used complimentary colours in this painting, red, green, blue and orange as it equalises the overall impact of the piece to the viewer. The painting is given depth and perspective by the use and colour of the sea surrounding Naxos. The deep blue is heightened by the orange complementarities, which stand in stark contrast to the reds and greens. Although the art form is often thought to be merely about colour, arrangement and drawing, Titian thought about the nature of what he was trying to depict. Titian was a master of vibrant exuberant Venetian colour and this painting is a glorious celebration of ‘colour balance'. This new way of thinking signified the shift of art into a new realm. Amongst his contemporaries Titian was seen to break the traditional rules of composition. This colour experimentation is seen in the painting of Ariadne, which almost gives the illusion that the painting is lit from behind, giving the feeling of luminosity. Titians skills and techniques are quite extraordinary and he can almost turn oil paint into flesh while strongly portraying the characters' physical expressiveness.

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It is thought that the satyr struggling with the snakes which is depicted in Bacchus and Ariadne is based on a classical sculpture discovered in 1506, ‘Laocoön' in the Vatican.

There is much symbolism that can be derived from this picture in the National. There are the obvious clues that are distinctly visible to the viewer, such as the starry crown to the left of the picture and Theseus'ship. But there are also hidden meanings that can be coded from studying certain aspect of the picture. The frivolous company of maenads and stryrs that are carrying symbolic items that distinguish Bacchus' cult. For instance the satyr that is covered in grapevines is waving a bull's leg whilst the bacchante is waving a tambourine, adding to the sense of riotous joy and exothermic energetic excitement. The viewer can also see that these two members of the carnival are looking at each other, mirroring Bacchus and Ariadne. This rebellious, drunken procession is fuelled with power, aggression and a hint of violence shown by the severed calf's head. As if the company have ripped the animal part in the state of frenzy. This calf's head is being

dragged by the baby satyr who is half man and half goat. He seems to be leading the procession but give the impression that he is not involved in the commotion. The formal leader of this rabble, Bacchus's foster-father is depicted as the fat Silenus at the back. He is sleeping off his hangover whilst still rounded on his donkey. Silenus depiction injects humour into the painting, as we can see his companions trying to prevent him from falling off his donkey. These smaller figures add a sense of distance and the three bigger figures in the foreground, lead the eye backwards into the landscape as we follow the orthogonal lines resulting in a triangle of perspective and depth.

The Sixteenth Century marked a unique era in Venetian style painting, which stood in stark contrast to the traditional characteristics of design and draftmanship commonly found in Italian art. This new style, pioneered by Titan, focused on colour, light and sensuality. It was not just the new subject matter and pigments that were in this state of flux, Titian pioneered new techniques in oil painting. Venice was renowned for its damp, changeable climate and as a result the ancient practise of fresco painting was rendered almost impossible. This affected the painters' artistic creativity, which resulted in Titian and his peers favouring oil paints on canvas rather than board. But it was in the use of oil that Titian surpassed all other painters. Titian also was able to draw upon the rich literature of the Ancients and he used its subjects as sources of inspiration as in another painting ‘Europa' which was based upon the themes to be found in the Metamorphoses of Ovid extended by a contemporary of Titian's the poet Poliziano. Titian gained from studying other artists and incorporated ideas from well-known pieces of classical sculpture. His painting of Bacchus and Ariadne is a triumph of artistic skill and composition with an iconic, freeze frame pose that is instantly recognisable. Through his work Titian is considered one of the most talented painters of the Italian Renaissance and his influence is to be found on painting throughout the subsequent centuries.


E.H. Gombrich. (1995) ‘The Story Of Art': London: Phaidon.

Patrick De Rynck. ‘How to read a painting', published by Thames and Hudson (London) July 2004.

B Cole. (1984) ‘From Pisano to Titian': Boulder: Westview Press.

C.Hope, J Fletcher. J Dunkerton (2003) ‘Titian': London National Gallery

P Humfrey ‘The Age of Titian': Edinburgh: National Galleries of Scotland Visual Arts Film. (1989) 'Great Artists - Titian.

Great Artists - Titian. Available at

[1] E.H.Gombrich The Story Of Art (1995) p287,329.

[2] Giovanni Boccaccio The famous final line of Dante's Paradiso, Dante Alighieri 1308-1321,

[3] E.H.Gombrich The Story Of Art (1995) p331

[4] Great Artists-Titian, Televised Autobiography

[5] Catullus, The Wedding of Peleus and Thetis 64:249-264 trans. T.Banks.

[6] E.H.Gombrich The Story of Art (1995) p368.