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Early modern

‘Concertare’: On dating Titian’s Viennese Adulteress through Sixteenth-century Venetian Culture

Barbara Czwik shares an extract of her research on Titian’s and Pordenone’s Adultress in the context of sixteenth-century Venice, offering a new perspective on its agonistic ‘culture of rivalry’.

In contrast to its ambiguous dating, the semi-figured wide format painting depicting Christ and the Adulteress which hangs in Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum, is unequivocally attributed to Titian (c. 1490 Pieve di Cadore – 1576 Venice). This article offers new approaches to help resolve current doubts as to the painting’s date.

Designating a painting’s date, or datation, generally results from a process of comparing how standardised criteria are applied to a historical theme, such as devotional paintings, as well as to technical norms for, in this case, a painting on canvas. These methods, however, raise questions about a historical era’s deeper influence on the production of a work. Furthermore, such attempts risk ranking artistic “merit” simply by a work’s theme while neglecting its structural importance.

The question of dating Titian’s Viennese Adulteress in view of the painter’s cultural-historical environment, however, asks us to concentrate on its structure, and to compare it to other paintings by juxtaposing their common themes.  For example, a lost Adulteress which survived as a copied engraving originally in the Orleans Collection – of great importance in the 18th century[1] – and which was listed as a Pordenone (Albertina Vienna).[2] Comparing the two works shows that Titian produced his Adulteress around 1525. That the “unfinished” work, or a “non finite”, was started earlier remains a possibility.

Giovanni Antonio de’ Sacchis known as Pordenone, Christ and the Adultress, 18th century, engraving.

A comparison between certain patterns in Pordenone’s and Titian’s Adulteress points to the latter’s final version. In both works, Christ is moved from the center while the adulteress stands to the side. This unusual position emphasises her prominence beyond the centered half-figure pictures from the 1510s. On the left side of Pordenone’s painting, a rear figure is turning back and in Titian’s, this rear figure is reversed. Pordenone’s composition is braced midway by an advancing accuser. Opposite the back figure at the edge of the painting, he clings to the larger group surrounding the adulteress. This bracket pattern also appears in Titian’s rendition, but reversed: the bearded man almost has the adulteress on his arm. These resemblances suggest that a dialogue between the two artists resulted in individually composed patterns. For both Titian and Pordenone, this increased sensitivity to ancient patterns of movement was, in all probability, prompted by an exhibit of ancient bronze and marble statues from the collection of Cardinal Domenico Grimani (1461 Venice – 1523 Rome) in the Palazzo Ducale. In 1523 Domenico Grimani bequeathed this collection to Venice.[3]

Art historian Patricia Meilman’s has posited that Titian’s 1525 Petrus Martyr altarpiece may have been commissioned by the Scuola di San Pietro Martire for the Domincan church Santi Giovanni e Paolo, in Venice, in competition with Giovanni Antonio Pordenone.[4] Meilman, however, does not dwell on the competitive nature of the commission. Since this competion was not mentioned until Carlo Ridolfi’s comment in 1648, the chance of finding verifiable references is slim. Instead, Meilman looks at the broader culture of competition specific to early sixteenth-century Italy. If the creation of the Viennese Adulteress is placed within the agonistic “culture of rilvalry” of 1520s Venice, then the “agon” between Titian and Pordenone leads us to date the painting in the same period.

Other cultural trends support this argument. In music, for example, the sixteenth-century term “concertare” means “to compete.” “Concertare” implied competition between vocal soloists and instrumental music, vocal and instrumental methods or even opposing positions of sound groups.[5] The musician and music theorist Vincenzo Galilei (1520 Santa Maria del Monte – 1591 Florence) spoke of “a concert of violas” (un concerto di viole), whereby competing string groups stood in the service of “the voice alone” (a voce sola). The “concertante style” in music develops, when “[q]uasi conversations are conducted between voices, as both concurrent phenomenon and aftereffects of ‘dialoghi’ from similar temporal and stylistic forms.”  

If the cultural style of the 16th century was marked by this “concertare principle,” so too was the rivalry between Titian and Pordenone. The related principle of the “non finite,” which may have influenced how Titian’s “unfinished” work engages the viewer in the process of perception,[6] also suggests a dialogic relationship along the lines of cultural theories.[7] Other sixteenth-century principles of “dialoghi” were inspired by ancient texts like Plato’s Theaitetos, first published in Venice in 1513 by M. Musoros.[8] Just as “astonishment” ignites all cognition and philosophy, and inspires our search for missing knowledge, so the observer of Titian’s Viennese Adulteress does not stand before a finished work, but rather is bound in a process of communication with it – the sense of “non finite.”

The alleged rivalry between Titian and Pordenone may reflect a conversion of ancient dynamics into individual artistic language, arguably comparable to the “miracles” of ancient music associated with Lomazzo’s art of painting, in which the perception of movement kindles specific emotional responses.[9] For his Viennese Adulteress then, Titian seems to have found a “concertare” partner in Pordenone.


[1] Nicholas Penny, The Sixteenth Century Italian Paintings, Vol. 2, Venice 1540 – 1600 (London: National Gallery Company 2008), 462 – 463.

[2] Published in: Clara Garas, ‘Giorgione et Giorgionismes au XVIIe siecle,’ Bulletin du Musée Hongrois des Beaux-Arts 27 (1965): 41.

[3] Patricia Meilman, Titian and the Altarpiece in Renaissance Venice (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 101.

[4] Meilman, Titian and the Altarpiece, 90 – 108.

[5] Guido Adler, Der Stil in der Musik, I. Buch, Prinzipien und Arten des musikalischen Stils (Leipzig: Breitkopf & Härtel, 1911), 262.

[6] Philippe Junod, ‘Vom Componimento inculto Leonardos zum oeil sauvage von André Breton,’ in Die Unvermeidlichkeit der Bilder, ed. Gaerhart von Graevenitz, Stefan Rieger andFelix Thürlemann (Tübingen: G. Narr, 2001), 132 – 138.

[7] Leon Battista Alberti, Das Standbild, Die Malkunst, Grundlagen der Malerei, ed. Oskar Bätschmannund Christoph Schäublin (Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 2000), 143 – 144. Leonardo da Vinci, Tratatto della Pittura (Codex Urbinans Latinus 1270), Parte Seconda, 63.

[8] Platon, Theaitetos, trans. Friedrich Schleiermacher, ed. Karl-Maria Guth (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2017), 2.

[9] Giovanni Paolo Lomazzo, Trattato Dell’Arte De La Pittura, Libro Secondo (Mailand 1584), 105.

Further Readings:

  • Adler, Guido. Der Stil in der Musik, I. Buch, Prinzipien und Arten des musikalischen Stils. Leipzig: Breitkopf & Härtel, 1911.
  • Meilman, Patricia. Titian and the Altarpiece in Renaissance Venice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Dr. Barbara Czwik is a free lance art historian based in Vienna.