Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Handle with Care: Titian's Masterpiece Finally Returns to I Gesuiti

After an absence of two years, Titian's masterpiece The Martyrdom of St Lawrence was reinstalled in the church of Santa Maria Assunta (aka I Gesuiti) in Cannaregio yesterday morning. It underwent an extensive year-long restoration in Piemonte and then, after returning for a short stint at the Accademia here in Venice, spent last spring in Rome as part of a big Titian show at Scuderie del Quirinale.

The restoration was funded by the Bank of Alba and according to an article in last May's Telegraph, was done just in time: "saving it," according to one of the restorers, from falling into "an irretrievable state." In the course of the restoration, experts also believe they discovered a hitherto unnoticed self-portrait by the artist, long-obscured by the accumulated grime of passing time and perhaps also by a sloppy attempt at restoration by the French 200 years ago after Napoleon looted it from Venice and took it to Paris:

In other words, even if you've seen the painting before, you've probably never seen the painting as it appears now.

The restoration was performed by Nicola Restauri in Aramengo, in the province of Asti, and the workshop's website is informative, nicely put together, and worth a look if you're at all interested in restoration. It's also in both Italian and English:

I'd been waiting to see this painting, widely considered to be one of Titian's greatest, for over a year; ever since someone affiliated with the church had told me one day last fall that it was due to return in a couple of weeks. I've been checking in at the church periodically ever since. This past Monday I stopped in, with very low expectations, and found a pulley rigged up at the top of the tall niche in the first chapel on the left and a few workers cleaning up the space. "Tornerà il Tiziano?" I asked one of them, expecting to be disappointed. "," he replied, "domani mattina."

Which is how I happened to be in the church for the re-installation.

It was, at least for me, a fascinating and admirable process to watch: the care and the skill and the coordination of it all. And perhaps I admired the workers and their expertise and calmness and sure hands even more because I've had to do some fine art handling myself in the past.

For a time I worked for a magazine in New York whose quality (it published Nobel Prize winners such as Nadine Gordimer and Naguib Mahfouz, along with pieces by other folks like Michael Cunningham and photos by the likes of Nan Goldin) was equaled by its unconventionality. Its office was in an apartment building on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, just a short way down the hall from where its founder/publisher/art director lived. He was one of the most unique people I've ever met--while making no effort to be so--and a man of remarkable humility and kindness. But sometimes the stress of publishing a magazine could get even to him, and the more stressed he got the more anxious I (who acted as his assistant) became.

Not because he would, as was and is only too common for someone in his position, fly into rages and start abusing his staff. He never bore any resemblance to a devil in Prada (which he didn't wear).

No, when his stress had finally reached an absolutely unbearable level he--and how I dreaded this!--he started re-decorating his apartment.

It was hell.

Not because he was a bad decorator. No, he was extraordinarily, famously gifted in that regard. The problem is that he'd inherited a collection of major modern art works from his parents, who'd been collectors, and I would be called upon to help him move them about his cramped apartment.

Now, the Matisse bronze--one of only three copies in the world, if I remember correctly--he could move with no help from me, along with the small de Kooning canvas. The massive Rothko, of the type that was easily going for between 8 and 10 million dollars at that time, luckily required more wall space than the apartment offered in any place other than where it already was. But the large major canvases by Joan Miró and Jean Dubuffet...!  

The last thing I wanted to do was touch them, much less have to carry one end of either of them through an obstacle course of couches, a pair of vivid blue leather club chairs from the Paris flea market, a fiendishly low amoeba-shaped one-of-a-kind artwork coffee table which seemed to be especially designed to trip people up....

There are professional art handlers in New York who do this kind of thing for a living: people with the steady nerves of surgeons and a comparable amount of insurance coverage. I had neither.

So I watched the re-installation of the great Titian yesterday with a certain amount of awe, inspired not simply by the painting itself, but by the people who handled that truly irreplaceable 15-foot-high canvas. Hugely happy to finally be seeing the painting in person for the first time--and equally happy not to be any way involved in putting it up.


  1. Just I few days ago I've bought the new Titian's biography - a really huge hardcover.

    Not my favorite Venetian painter (I prefer Bellinis, Carpaccio, even Mansuetti and Vivarinis) but there must be some interesting details, some traces of the epoque.

    1. Just a few days ago, of course. Typos happen to me all the time.

    2. Well, Sasha, he lived a long time so I guess a fat bio is unavoidable; I'll be interested to find out if you like it. Do you like the work of Marco Basaiti? He has Gio Bellini-esque piece in San Pietro di Castello that no one seems to pay much attention to, as far as I've seen.

    3. Basaiti's painting in San Pietro di Castello (St Peter Enthroned and Four Saints) is obviously a work of a minor master, and the more unkind phrasing comes to mind: second rate. The lower and upper halves are unbalanced, and the compositional imperfection is not of the endearing kind. I feel such paintings main merit is in providing a background of mediocrity against which a greater art looks even more astonishing.

      "Titian" reads fine, if you'd like to leaf trough the book it's electronic version is here: - maybe you'll want this tome for your library.

      I've started a Venetian blog just couple days ago. Lots of pictures and photos but the texts are mostly in Russian.

    4. I'll have to re-visit Basaiti's painting, Sasha, and really look. I've never spent much time in San Pietro for some reason, though it's not far from where I live. What is the address of your blog?


      I'm still trying to master it's interface in order to add the links to the friendly blogs, etc. To make the first page more full.

    6. I haven't tried out any translation program on your blog posts yet--I'm a little dubious about how worthwhile that would be (to just get a garbled version of what you wrote)--but I like the pics so far, and the "New Arrivals" one in particular has given me some things to check out.

    7. There are dozens of photos in almost every post - accessible by clicking Дальше... I'm not sure it's evident to the foreign visitors.Also I doubt there are any visitors. I've started this blog as a storage for my Venice-themed posts from LiveJournal.

      I plan to write a book in Russian - because mostly we have just the translations of books about Venice that are originally in English (not in Italian, only Tiziano Scarpa is translated from Italian). Of course there is a question does anyone need the 100 001st book about Venice in any language, but it's my private project, a kind of legacy.

    8. I'll have to go back and click to see more pics, as I'd like to.

      There's no doubt in my mind that given the dearth of books written in Russian on Venice your project makes a lot of sense and is far from superfluous. And one might argue that the best books always tend to be "private projects"--rather than the much more common "commercial pitches" of today.

  2. As it is common when you live surrounded by incredible art pieces and stop noticing them, I don't remember seeing this painting before. Now, thanks to you, I will have to go and admire it. Since moving away from Venice I have developed tourist eyes and learned to appreciate the beauty like never before. Titian is always a pleasure to admire, and I can't wait to look at his self portrait.

    Your former boss should have benefited from some sort of meditation or other forms or relaxation, I wonder what the stress did to his body. Or maybe that was his way of getting the tension out, hard to imagine though to ask regular folks to handle his art pieces, I am surprised you didn't decline for fear of damaging them, or maybe you didn't have a choice.

    1. Having re-visited the painting yesterday, Laura, it was easy to see how Titian's self-portrait could have been overlooked; it's wedged into such an odd small dark position in the painting that it wouldn't take much to obscure it entirely.

      As for handling those paintings, I suppose I could have declined, but yet along with the anxiety there was a certain excitement in handling such paintings: the Dubuffet was the best of his I've ever seen (not that I've seen so many of his, nor that I'm an expert, but it was pretty great).

  3. I am looking forward to seeing this painting, happily re-installed in it's intended spot. How fantastic that you were able to witness this!

    1. I felt quite lucky, Susie. I stopped in the other day and got to appreciate it in its fully installed state. For some reason I imagined there would be people looking at it, but even the few people who came into the church seemed to blow past it without paying any attention.

    2. Thank you for these nice photos. I remember having seen this painting some years ago. It was really very dark, with only some visible colored patches (red/yellow for the fire, yellow/white for the Saint's body) on an entire brown/black background with confused shapes and figures. However the composition looked clearly expressive and tragic. The restoration seems to be a wonderful success, and it’s a new painting we shall see. Certainly one of the greatest by Titian becoming older.
      Sig. Nonloso, have you some photos of the beginning of the maneuver, when the painting left its travel package and begun to be raised. It was certainly impressive. Your first photo shows only the end of this raising maneuver, but how did the team do before? And what did the rope used to raise it become - the man on the left holds this rope I suppose? Was it hidden behind the painting or somewhere else?
      I Gesuiti is a church out of the classical tours and a bit far from the Piazza San Marco and Rialto. So it is not unforeseen not to see a lot of people visiting it and admiring the Titian’s painting. Furthermore, its green and white marble decoration is for some people wonderful, but for others gives an impression of heaviness which can discourage them to visit it. My twenty year old son would say “too much” in english at the first glance and will not enter. For me, this decoration tends to smother everything around, may be also a masterpiece if one is not an attentive visitor. It looks probably very strange, a bit “too much”, besides this Titian’s tragic painting.

    3. I have to admit, Auvraisien, that I am also not a big fan of the green and white marble interior of that church. It certainly qualifies as a curiosity, and perhaps something to see, but I don't find it appealing. Perhaps fortunately for those who really dislike the church's interior, the Titian is located right inside the front door, and the rest of the church could, if one wanted, be easily avoided. (Though I am fond of one life-sized marble bearded figure high on a wall to the right of the main altar who lies on his side on his tomb, his head propped upon one hand, as if just awakened--or just being lulled into sleep by a television not visible to us. For me at least it somehow lacks the gravitas of this traditional tomb motif, which makes it all the more likeable.)

      I envy the fact that you'll be able to compare, from 1st-hand experience, the Tititan painting as you saw it and remember it before to how it is now!

    4. But, in answer to your questions: I arrived too late to see the painting unboxed. The first view I had of the procedure was the image at the top of this post, with one man holding the rope and others positioning it in its niche. Though I did not specifically notice them doing this, I believe the pulley at the top of the niche (along with its rope) was removed once they'd placed the painting upon the blocks of wood (you can see in the second photo) just in front of, and a little below, the niche itself.