A painting by Titian is finally correctly attributed thanks to diagnostics and restoration

Feb 3, 2023

Sometimes the big international auctions present sensational works, which arrive to update and modify the knowledge of the “catalog” of the greatest painters of the past. During the Sotheby’s auction at the end of January 2023, among a Rembrandt, a Sebastiano del Piombo and a possible Self-Portrait by Pontormo (which set the record for this painter, 10 million dollars), an Ecce Homo by Titian was sold for $2.1 million (including fees). Its previous result was $206,250 at Christie’s New York in October 2019, but at that time the painting featured the attribution to Titian’s studio, a worse state of conservation, and the title Christ as Man of Sorrows.

Thanks to scientific analyses and a careful restoration, this moving Ecce Homo has instead been reattributed to the master (in the cover image you can see the painting before, left, and after the restoration, right). It becomes an important addition to Titian’s corpus. The artwork is datable to those very last years of the painter’s long life, so fascinating and problematic.

Unlike other painters, whose fame waned after their deaths, Titian’s reputation as one of the greatest painters of all time has never faded, and it is therefore unusual for a painting by him to be lost. In this specific case, the saber, fast, spotted technique of Ecce Homo seems to have played a fundamental role.

Already in the works of the second half of the fifties, Titian had increasingly adopted a fast style, especially in his larger works. Marco Boschini, artist, writer and critic in seventeenth-century Venice, reports the extraordinary eyewitness testimony of Palma il Giovane (with whom he was a collaborator) on the working method of the master from Cadore:

Titian, Self-Portrait, Prado, Madrid

“[Titian] stuck in his paintings with a mass of colour, which served as a bed or foundation for what he wished to express, and upon which he would then build. I myself have seen such a primer, vigorously applied with a loaded brush, of pure red ochre, which would then serve as a middle ground; then with a stroke of white lead, with the same brush then dipped in red, black or yellow, he created the light and dark areas of the relief effect. And so with four strokes of the brush he succeeded in suggesting a magnificent figure… Having thus established this fundamental foundation, he turned the pictures to the wall and left them there, without looking at them for several months. Then returned to them, he scrutinized them as if they were his mortal enemies, to discover any defects; and if he found anything that didn’t accord with his intentions, such as a surgeon treating a patient, he would remove a lump or excess flesh, fix an arm if the bone was out of joint, or fix a foot if it was misshapen, without the slightest pity for the victim. Thus operating and reforming these figures, he brought them to the highest degree of perfection… and then, while that painting dried, he turned to another. And little by little he covered those bare bones with living flesh, going over them again and again until there was only the breath itself… For the final touches, he blended the transitions from highlights to midtones with his fingers, mixing one hue with another, or with a stain of the finger he put a dark accent in some corner to strengthen it, or with a spot of red, like a drop of blood, he revived some surface, thus completing his animated figures. In the final stages he painted more with his fingers than with a brush.” (M. Boschini, The rich mines of Venetian painting, Venice 1674).

This is an exhilarating description to say the least, certainly transfigured by the author’s baroque rhetoric, but profoundly corresponding to Titian’s works of the last 10-15 years of activity. Titian, therefore, had eliminated any distance between himself and his works, creating a sort of continuous dialogue with them that shows affinity, in some respects, with what we know of the way of working of Michelangelo’s last years. In his eyes those paintings were not unfinished, but grew by successive layers, each self-sufficient in itself, but in reality susceptible to evolution. It has been observed that the very execution of these works, the way in which they grow, excludes, as happens with certain late inventions of Michelangelo in the drawings, that a greater degree of completeness could be reached. They are complete as they appear.

Vasari himself is impressed by the greatness of these paintings, which are
conducted with strokes, pulled away roughly and with manner spots that cannot be seen from close up, and from afar appear perfect”, while before Titian, as a young man, painted “with a certain finesse and incredible diligence”. He warns against mistaking their apparent ease of execution “because it is known that they have been redone, and that the colors have been returned to them so many times that the effort is evident. And this way done in this way is judicious, beautiful and stupendous, because it makes the paintings seem alive and done with great art, hiding the efforts”.
Although in some other passages the appreciation is more tepid, the Tuscan also well understands the value of this manner in the history of the master.

Titian, Punishment of Marsyas

Even more so in his last years Titian adopts an even more cursory and impressionistic style, and among the many works it is worth mentioning at least the dramatic and very cruel Punishment of Marsyas (Prague, Národní Galerie). Such original and unexpected ways aroused incomprehension and suspicions of non-authority, which were easily confirmed by the advanced age of the master. We ask to guarantee the autography of the master’s works, doubts are raised about his real ability to paint, rumors spread that he no longer sees and his hands are shaking (the famous episode of the Annunciation for San Salvador in Venice where, to answer precisely these doubts of the patrons, Titian signed the work with a double FECIT).
All this is also revealed in this Ecce Homo. The figure of Christ and the soldier on the right are almost completely resolved. To the left of Christ is a passage of ethereal and abstract light in the night sky, which has variously been interpreted as the beginning of a third figure or an unresolved foreboding of a torch. This painting so surprising, violent, materially rich and poor at the same time, certainly appeals to our contemporary sensibility, also due to the unfinished appearance of the painting. But precisely these factors have not always been appreciated, also given the discussion and the doubts with which these works were received even by Titian’s contemporaries, as we have said.

And that is probably precisely why when this painting appeared at auction in 2019, it was largely repainted, making any study and attribution of Titian’s authorship impossible. The changes to the work were most likely made around the mid-17th century or even later, and evidently aimed at “finishing” the loose and abstract brushstroke of the last and most evocative sentence of Titian’s career. The changes included not only covering up the sketchy left-hand passage, but also involving touching up skin tones and other details.
The diagnostic investigations and the recent cleaning of the artwork have revealed all the autography of the old Titian, his brushstrokes which, “although unresolved, are full of promise”. It has been proposed that this is a composition probably left incomplete at the time of Titian’s death in 1576 precisely following the words we have quoted from Boschini.

xray image
X-rays image

The scientific imaging performed on the work reveals the creative gestation of the canvas. Just as Palma il Giovane had told Boschini, and as can be seen for example in an X-rays image, Titian modified and then remodified the position of Christ’s rod, first changing its orientation and then modifying its angle, and also the position of Christ’s right arm was changed several times. Not only evident in radiographic images, but also visible to the naked eye, these constant revisions of shape and contour infuse the figure of Christ with a dramatic liveliness.

Filippo Melli