Decoding Titian’s Poesie Series

Titian is a famous Renaissance artist, well known for his Biblical and mythological scenes. One of his most iconic series is called Poesie.

Apr 17, 2024By Miles McMorrow, BA Art History

titian poesie seiries decoding


Titian is considered to be one of the famous masters of the Renaissance, alongside artists like Leonardo, Michelangelo, and Raphael. Working in the Venetian style of painting, Titian is known for his rich use of color and dynamic figures. While many of his famous works are Biblical in subject, some of his paintings include mythological scenes. His Poesie series is a cycle of stories of the Roman poet Ovid.


Who was Titian?

titian venus urbino
Venus of Urbino, Titian, 1534. Source: Uffizi Gallery, Florence.


The famous Tiziano Vecelli (c. 1488-1576), anglicized as Titian, was born in the Republic of Venice, and, as a child, was quickly thrown into the thrusts of the art world. He studied under the artist Gentile Bellini before turning to his brother, Giovanni Bellini. Titian also worked closely with his contemporary Giorgione. This relationship has created scholarly controversy regarding the ownership of paintings as many of their early works are similar in style and composition. As Titian developed his career, his works became more flexible and stylized than those of his teachers.


titian pastoral concert
The Pastoral Concert, Titian (previously attributed to Giorgione), 1590-10. Source: Louvre Museum, Paris.


After the death of the Bellini brothers, Titian remained the unrivaled champion of Venetian painting. Establishing himself as a worthy painter early in his career, Titian caught the eye of many high-ranking patrons, including dukes, church officials, and kings. His relationship with the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, granted him immense fame and worth. During his maturity as a painter, the artist created many scenes of both Christian and pagan origin. This convention was not uncommon. Despite the vast power the Church held over Europe, the Renaissance is largely defined by its connection to antiquity.


What was Titian’s Poesie Series?

titian sacred profane love
Sacred and Profane Love, Titian, 1514. Source: Borghese Gallery and Museum, Rome.

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The works that are featured in the Poesie series represent the importance of mythology within the context of the Renaissance. This cycle is made up of six artworks that were created over about ten years. Each painting depicts a scene from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Largely considered the poet’s magnum opus, this narrative collection details the history of the world, beginning from creation to the fall of Julius Caesar. The Poesie series takes inspiration from scenes focusing on seduction, power, and the dichotomy of gods versus humans


titian bacchus ariadne
Bacchus and Ariadne, Titian, 1520-23. Source: The National Gallery, London.


The series was created for Philip II of Spain, during the 1550s. One of the themes that connects these works is the prominence of the female nude. This cycle was meant for a prince who had a deep passion for stories concerning love and hunting. Philip would be able to display these paintings for an audience, showing off his knowledge of myth and history, while enrapturing them with superficial representations of sexuality and game. Understanding the story and prominence of each of the six artworks that make up the Poesie will reveal the importance of Titian as an artist from the Renaissance period.


1. Danaë

titian danae philip
Danaë, Titian, 1549-50. Source: Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston.


The first work sent to Philip was the Danaë painting. Danaë was the daughter of King Acrisius of Argos, a ruler jaded with the prospect of having no son for an heir. He went to the Oracle of Delphi for a prophecy that revealed that his daughter would bear him a male heir and the king would be killed by this grandson. Fearful, Acrisius locked Danaë in a tower to prevent this tale from unfolding. Danaë caught the attention of Jupiter, who impregnated her with a son through a shower of gold. Thereafter, her child, the hero Perseus, was born.


titian danae shower gold prado
Danaë and the Shower of Gold, Titian, 1560-65. Source: Museo del Prado, Madrid.


Titian depicted this scene relatively faithfully. The central female subject reclines on a white bed naked. Jupiter appears as golden light from the top of the canvas, radiating down onto Danaë’s supple form. The old maidservant works to contrast against Danaë’s youthful appearance, highlighting her pale skin. This scene has many different replicas created by Titian. The Prado version, which was originally thought to be the one sent to Philip, puts more emphasis on the radiating golden light. A lack of the cloth across Danaë’s form exposes more of her nudity, an attribute that would have made it more likely to be the Philip version.


caraglio annunciation titian print
The Annunciation, Giovanni Jacopo Caraglio, after Titian, 1537. Source: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.


Renaissance-era parallels have been drawn between this story of Danaë and Jupiter and scenes of the Annunciation. The archangel Gabriel calls upon Mary to tell her she will bear Christ the savior. Similarly, Jupiter showers down on Danaë in order to impregnate her with Perseus, a mythological hero. While pagan mythology seems intuitively at odds with Christian belief, Renaissance thinkers and artists have connected similarities from stories from Greco-Roman history, emphasizing the ideology of the rebirth of antiquity.


2. Venus and Adonis

titian venus adonis
Venus and Adonis, Titian, 1554. Source: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.


Titian’s Poesie series was formed by pendant works, meaning two artworks were meant to be connected to one another. The pendant to Danaë was his second work sent to Philip—a depiction of Venus and Adonis. This scene, as Titian created it, represents the contradictory love between a goddess and a mortal. Venus sits, curving her body in a dramatic pose, to maintain her grip on her lover, the hunter Adonis. The extreme form of contrapposto here creates a visually interesting dynamic that gives the audience a sense of urgency.


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Bed of Polyclitus, 15th-16th century (Renaissance copy). Source: The Warburg Institute, London.


A connection has been made by several scholars regarding Titian’s influences on Venus and Adonis. The most apparent inspiration comes from the Bed of Polyclitus, an ancient relief representing a scene of Cupid and Psyche. Psyche’s turned body mimics that of Venus closely—the twisting of their spines is quite forceful and almost unnatural. Venus grasps Adonis in a desperate attempt to keep him from leaving, as she has seen his fate and knows that he will die on his hunt. Adonis hardly struggles against his lover, his face portraying indifference.


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Venus and Adonis, Peter Paul Rubens, 1630s. Source: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.


As a pendant piece, this painting depicts a sort of opposite sense of love from Danaë. Here, Titian is showing the audience an idea of love that was denied, as Adonis departs from Venus despite her pleas not to. On the other hand, Danaë represents love that was fulfilled, as she is impregnated with the child of Jupiter. Titian plays around with the original source material in order to create this dichotomy. Ovid’s story of Venus and Adonis portrayed the hunter as desiring Venus and her embrace—instead, Titian represents him as unconcerned with the goddess’s advances. This juxtaposition of human emotion, coupled with the inspiration from the motif of Cupid and Psyche, successfully exemplifies the Renaissance interest in humanism and antiquity.


3. Diana and Actaeon & Diana and Callisto

titian diana actaeon
Diana and Actaeon, Titian, 1556-59. Source: The National Gallery, London.


The next two works in the Poesie series are pendant pieces depicting the goddess of the hunt, Diana. Both Diana and Actaeon and Diana and Callisto represent the power and wrath of the deity. They relate to Diana’s status as a virgin goddess—Actaeon intrudes on her while she bathes, whereas her nymph, Callisto, reveals a pregnancy. These stories emphasize the relationship of humans versus gods, portraying the constant battle between morality and mortality.


Diana and Actaeon tell the tale of Actaeon, a hunter, who seems to stumble upon Diana while she’s bathing. Diana, offended and outraged, curses Actaeon and turns him into a deer. This act leads to his death once he is torn apart by his hunting dogs. There is a juxtaposition of blame in this story: was Actaeon not at fault for accidentally wandering into the forest, or was he aware of where he was going? As a hunter, it seems he would be well acquainted with the woods, which creates a sense of doubt for the reader.


titian diana callisto
Diana and Callisto, Titian, 1556-59. Source: National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh.


Blame is not so obvious in the pendant work of Diana and Callisto. During a period of rest, Callisto is intruded upon by Jupiter and henceforth impregnated. The purpose here is less heroic than the god’s intrusion in Danaë since Callisto was raped. Titian’s painting depicts the moment that Diana finds out about Callisto’s pregnancy, casting the nymph out due to her betrayal of her vow of virginity. This scene shows a fight between two gods themselves. The story ends with Callisto being turned into a bear by Jupiter’s wife, Juno.


corot diana actaeon surprised bath
Diana and Actaeon (Diana Surprised in Her Bath), Camille Corot, 1836. Source: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.


Titian was very conscious of choosing which moment of these stories to portray. There is an element of surprise in these works. Both Actaeon and Callisto are caught by Diana in states that will lead to their eventual ruin, while the goddess is shown in the condition of startling ire. These humane emotions overwhelm the canvases. Diana’s contorted body in the Actaeon piece is not unlike the extreme twisting of Venus in the Adonis painting, while Callisto and Actaeon are designed with theatrical dynamics that attract the viewer’s eyes. While these humanistic tales focus on morality and virtue, these ideas are not what engaged the patron. Instead, Philip would have been interested in the scenes relating to the thoughts of hunting and sexual desire.


4. Perseus and Andromeda & The Rape of Europa

titian perseus andromeda
Perseus and Andromeda, Titian, 1554-56. Source: The Wallace Collection, London.


Sexuality remains the foremost intriguing aspect of these Poesie works. It is particularly present in the last two pendant pieces of Perseus and Andromeda and The Rape of Europa. Perseus and Andromeda shows the budding relationship between the two. This scene is a stereotypical representation of the hero saving a damsel in distress. Perseus is shown fighting off a sea monster to rescue the chained Andromeda. The love here is faithful and true, juxtaposed against the drama of Venus and Adonis. The act of metamorphosis here is less clear, but the central theme of the female nude within the Poesie series is quite plain, as Andromeda’s form takes up the entire left half of the canvas.


titian rape europa
The Rape of Europa, Titian, 1560-62. Source: Wikipedia


The nudity of Europa in The Rape of Europa is less central, and that is perhaps due to the morbidity of the Ovidian tale. Jupiter, once again, creates a facade in order to woo the young maiden. He turns himself into a bull and feigns coyness and allure, garnering Europa’s trust before he steals her and drags her off to Crete. The sexuality depicted here is more implied and violent. Europa does not seem to be a willing participant, unlike the desire seen in Danaë. Still, this intense subject matter would have negated the patron’s pleasure in these depictions of sexual undertones. There is an ambiguity in Europa’s complicity—her breast is exposed, her hand wraps around Jupiter’s horn in a phallic manner, and a putto figure in the bottom left directs the viewer’s eye towards her genitals.


vouet rape europa
The Rape of Europa, Simon Vouet, 1640. Source: Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, Madrid.


These two works are less apparent as pendant pieces. Perhaps their meaning lies in the juxtaposition of their sexual nature, in showing willingness versus forcefulness. While these six paintings were created to be matched with one another, their overall formation as a group of works was meant to be flexible. Titian did not have an intended arrangement of display for these canvases in mind. Their harmony lies in their central themes of ancient stories representing humanism, focusing on the patron’s interest in Arcadian desires of hunting and sexuality.


Missing Stories: The Death of Actaeon and Jason and Medea

titian death actaeon
The Death of Actaeon, Titian, 1559-75. Source: The National Gallery, London.


Two more works were intended to be a part of the Poesie series. One of the unsent works is The Death of Actaeon, which depicts the fate implied in the Diana and Actaeon painting. Here, the viewer sees the hunter during his metamorphosis into a deer, being ravaged by his hunting dogs. Diana stands before him with her bow drawn and her face stoic. This painting was finished but it was never sent to Philip.


waterhouse jason medea
Jason and Medea, John William Waterhouse. Source: World History Encyclopedia.


The second missing story is that of Jason and Medea, which was mentioned by Titian in letters, but never created. This work was most likely intended to be the pendant piece of Perseus and Andromeda, as their tales are quite similar. In a representation by the Pre-Raphaelite painter John William Waterhouse, Medea helps Jason get the Golden Fleece. Juxtaposed against the completed Perseus and Andromeda, the female is the one that helps the hero, instead of the other way around. This dichotomy could have been the reason why Titian never completed this scene for Philip, as maybe the strong, willful woman went against the patron’s desires.


Titian’s Legacy 

titian bacchanal andrians
The Bacchanal of the Andrians, Titian, 1523-26. Source: Museo del Prado, Madrid.


The famous Titian remains one of the most important Renaissance artists. His Poesie series portrays the forerunning ideologies of the period. Emotional, dramatic scenes of mortals and gods exemplify the 16th-century philosophies of humanism and antiquity. This collection of works garners a visual interest through the use of dynamic poses and rich colors—formal qualities that Titian was expertly known for. As a member of the High Renaissance, Titian represents the intense artistic qualities of the era, marking it as one of the most interesting periods in the art historical canon.

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By Miles McMorrowBA Art HistoryMiles holds a Bachelor of Arts in Art History from Juniata College. They specialize in Modernism, primarily in Expressionist and Dadaist works. As a recent college graduate, they are exploring the fascinating work force within the art world, with a particular interest in writing and criticism. While history is their greatest passion, Miles also enjoys reading classic literature, listening to a wide array of music, and trying out new meals to cook.