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Work of master painter Titian reunited for the first time in more than 400 years


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

William Brangham: It's an exhibition many have called the art show of the year. It's a collection of master works by Titian, which have not been seen together in more than 400 years.

They are on display at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston.

Special correspondent Jared Bowen of GBH takes a look.

It's part of our arts and culture series, Canvas.

Jared Bowen: At first blush, there is so much to absorb, a master painter working at his most majestic, skin bared to carnal extremes, but also an atmosphere of terror. And then there is this, seeing these six Titian paintings reunited for the first time since the Italian Renaissance.

Nathaniel Silver, Curator, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum: It's huge. They haven't been back together since they left the royal collections in Spain over the course of several centuries.

Jared Bowen: It was Spain's young and soon-to-be-King Philip II who commissioned Titian to paint this series in 1550.

Hiring the Venetian painter was akin to landing Picasso as your interior designer, says curator Nathaniel Silver.

Nathaniel Silver: Titian was the celebrity painter of Europe. He painted for popes. He painted for princes. He was the personal painter to the holy Roman emperor, who was Philip II's father. Everybody who was anybody wanted a Titian.

Jared Bowen: Titian painted the works over 10 years.

In that time, Philip became king and the world's most powerful ruler, but the monarch gave the artist free rein.

Nathaniel Silver: Usually, it was, you ordered the work of art, you signed the check, and that was it. This is really the artist having quite a big voice.

Jared Bowen: The series depicts ancient mythological stories as written by the Roman poet Ovid, but Titian distilled the writer's epic text into jam-packed paintings teeming with symbols.

Nathaniel Silver: Titian calls these paintings the poesie. And the word literally translates as painted poetries. He is putting his own stamp of originality on them.

You could say that he's challenging the written word with the painted image. He is challenging the pen with the brush.

Jared Bowen: They reflect on and telegraph a world of violence.

In the painting Danae, the God Jupiter transforms himself into gold dust, descending on the nude princess to impregnate her. In Diana and Callisto, Jupiter is again a perpetrator, having assaulted one of the goddess Diana's nymphs.

Nathaniel Silver: Diana is pointing out her finger of judgment at Callisto, casting her out of her sacred spring.

Callisto is lying here. And if you look carefully at her eyes, you see she's crying, the other nymphs around her exposing her pregnant belly. This is no less than the shaming of a rape victim by her peers.

The whims of the Gods leave so much of the fates of mortals out of the hands of mortals themselves. It's a hard painting. It's a very hard painting.

And it's hard to reconcile the beauty of the way in which it's painted, of the fabulous palette that Titian uses, the incredible sunset behind it, with the horror of its subject.

Jared Bowen: The works are metaphors for war and conquest and a world often consumed with violence. It's Titian offering commentary, while also working at the height of his career.

Nathaniel Silver: He's a painter's painter. He's a virtuoso with the brush. He knows how to apply the minimum of paint to create a particular figure and get the most out of it pictorially.

Peggy Fogelman, Director, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum: One of the things that I love about the installation at the Gardner is how intimately they converse with each other.

Jared Bowen: Peggy Fogelman is the director of Boston's Gardner Museum, the last stop on what has been an international tour of the works, one stalled, but not derailed by a global pandemic.

Peggy Fogelman: It's not an easy undertaking and took a couple of years of negotiating, actually.

Jared Bowen: The works remained in Philip's Madrid palace only for about 20 years before being scattered throughout Europe. But this one, titled The Rape of Europa came to the U.S. 125 years ago by way of the museum's shrewd founder and collector, Isabella Stewart Gardner.

Here, Jupiter appears again as a bull this time stealing away with the princess Europa to Crete, where he impregnates her, and she ultimately gives birth to the first of European civilization. It was Gardner's prized masterpiece, if not a fraught one.

Peggy Fogelman: It made quite a splash when it came to Boston. She talks about men sort of bowing down before Europa and women averting their gaze. She was very much enamored of the emotional responses to works of art.

Jared Bowen: The purchase was so monumental, Gardner's friend the writer Henry James wondered if the pope would sell her one of the Vatican rooms next. And she loved the painting enough to give it a singular space in her museum built to resemble a Venetian palazzo.

Peggy Fogelman: The Titian Gallery. She named the whole gallery after this painting, she was so enamored of it. And everything that's arranged on the wall and the colors in that fabric is really evocative of the painting.

Jared Bowen: At the exhibition's end, Europa returns to the empty space on this wall. The other five paintings return to their European museums, but, says curator Nathaniel Silver, this once-in-a-lifetime reunion has made them more relevant than ever.

Nathaniel Silver: We see horrifying things every day, and we're forced to reckon with these forces outside of our control. And that's exactly what Titian is forcing Philip to do.

Jared Bowen: For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jared Bowen in Boston.

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