“Titian: Women, Myth and Power,” which just opened at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, is an extreme lesson in the value of showing up. Four centuries spent Ping-Ponging through a half-dozen countries, floodwaters, winter storms, at least one planeload of Olympic horses, and, oh yes, a global pandemic, have led, finally, to this moment: six towering Renaissance masterworks, installed in the round as though in close conversation.
I know Boston parking is once again no picnic, but think of what they’ve done to get here. A few trips around the block is a small price to pay to indulge a once-in-several-lifetimes opportunity. When something this rare and remarkable — really, this big — dodges all manner of calamity to get to your town, the calculus is simple: You go.
The paintings betray no trace of the years of hard labor that attends them: The one room they occupy, small by museum standards, allows a deep, intimate communion beneath an expanse of overhead glass, the light of day filtered through a pale scrim. The effect is of being unstuck in time: You’re seeing the epic tableaux of Titian’s “poesie” series — gods and monsters, myths and legends — not just under the controlled conditions of a 21st-century museum, but as the artist in his studio might have seen it, nearly 500 years ago. It is, I’m fine saying, the Renaissance painting event of the year, and maybe a few more besides.
If you could see it, the Gardner’s sweat equity investment would all but drip from the walls. The series was made in the 16th century for King Philip II of Spain and spent almost 20 years at his Royal Alcázar palace in Seville, but the paintings have been separated from each other for more than 400 years. Reuniting them is the culmination of six years’ work. Even without recent complications, that would have been a heavy lift.
To make it happen, the Gardner, small in stature but deep in holdings, worked alongside museums across Europe. Two of them, the National Gallery in London and the Prado in Madrid, are national museums in world capitals — and the only two institutions besides the Gardner that would host the show. The Gardner’s seat at the table was secured by owning “The Rape of Europa,” the last of the cycle and, some say, its key work (its founder, Mrs. Gardner, bought the painting at auction exactly 125 years ago this month, making the opening somewhat serendipitous). This is the last stop; that means Boston is the only place in North America where you’ll see these six together, maybe ever again.
When “Titian: Love, Desire, Death” opened in London in March 2020 — same paintings; different title, different take — no one could have guessed what would happen next. Gardner staff attended a preview in London on March 11, the day the Trump White House announced a UK travel ban under a surging COVID-19 threat; they would steal home on March 13, arriving to a shuttered nation with “Europa” far away on a London wall.
The paintings endured COVID lockdowns in London and Madrid, through virus surges and winter storms. Then, just last month, shipping delays brought on by rampant flooding and cargo demands for the Tokyo Olympics — horses for equestrian events bumped the paintings at least once, Gardner registrar Amanda Venezia recently told me — stalled them further before they arrived here safe and sound, miraculously only six months later than planned.
So, please: Savor the moment. I saw the show on a bright, overcast morning, with pale light drifting down through high cloud cover and into the gallery, its walls painted deep blue-gray. The “poesie” surround you with earthly appetites. “Diana and Actaeon” and “Diana and Callisto,” hung side by side and suggesting a panorama, are a symphony of flesh — and an otherworldly menace. Sex and violence intertwine; Gods and mortals entangle to dire consequence.
The works are, to put it bluntly, a big deal — a generator of influence, the foundation of western painting from the Renaissance on through today, some say. The list of artists from all over Europe who came to them over centuries, seeking the old master’s insights — Peter Paul Rubens and Diego Velazquez, to name a couple — backs that up. There is Titian, and then there is everyone else.
Titian was well into his 50s and at the height of his renown among the Venetian school of Renaissance painters when he met the twentysomething King Philip II. It was the 1540s, and for years Titian had been painting devotional scenes and portraits of nobles on commission — some of them Philip’s Habsburg kin. But even within those conventions, he set himself apart from the rigid verisimilitude of his peers. In the early 16th century, with the Italian Renaissance in bloom, he was painting classical myth, his imagination taking hold.
As the story goes, the old master found a kindred soul in the young king, whose patronage would be all but unconditional. A pre-“poesie” portrait of Philip (who was then still prince) that Titian made around 1549-50, included here, is dark and moody, peculiarly soft-edged; it was odd enough for its time, Nathaniel Silver, the Gardner’s curator of the collection told me, that on delivery to his betrothed, Queen Mary I of England, the king’s aunt instructed her to view it only from a distance.
Philip’s supreme confidence in the artist’s vision would give Titian a free hand to paint his life’s ambition: a cycle of six paintings centered on classical stories around life and death, the earthly and the divine. The series would become a pivotal point in both Renaissance painting and the history of art more broadly: Until then, painting was largely decorative or devotional, made to glorify God and patrons. For Titian, it had potential to be lyrical, allegorical, narrative — to not only equal poetry, the highest art form of his day, but transcend it. For him, painting could fire the imagination in a new way.
To create the series, Titian would dive deeply into Ovid’s “Metamorphoses” — loosely, the source text for Roman civilization’s mythological history of the world. He had taken from it before, but never with such scope and unwavering support. Even with decades of work behind him, Titian would evolve dramatically as a painter over the years he took to complete the works. This is the kind of thing you can only grasp up close: The first, “Danaë,” made around 1551, captures the moment when Jupiter, king of the Roman gods, descends in a shower of gold to impregnate the King of Argus’s daughter, who gives birth to the hero Perseus. (Perseus, fulfilling a prophesy, in turn kills the king.) It is the smallest of the series — a simple scene, just two figures. It feels controlled and tight, a painterly throat-clearing for what’s to come.
Titian had already established himself as formally experimental, reaching beyond the very conventions he helped to establish. In the “poesie,” he ruptures reality itself. In “Venus and Adonis,” from 1554, the smitten, naked goddess begs her young lover not to venture into the woods, where she knows he’ll be gored by a bull. Here, the artist collapses time, a radical pictorial experiment: Beyond the lovers’ clench, a shaft of light — Venus’s own chariot — is poised to arrive too late at his bloodied body prone in the far woods.
Beside it, the pairing of “Diana and Actaeon” and “Diana and Callisto” captures Actaeon stumbling upon the bathing nymphs of Diana, the hunter. A smorgasbord of temptation destined to end badly for our hero (Diana turns him into a stag; he’s torn to pieces by his own dogs), the two works, made in parallel from 1556 to 1559, are a lyrical, virtuoso performance in rendering body and emotion in every pose and expression.
“Perseus and Andromeda,” placed second to last here, is in rough shape, with the fronded boughs of the tree from which Perseus tumbles headlong toward a sea monster rubbed dull and raw over the years, likely by inexpert conservators. Still, the scene is kinetic, with none of the mannered stiffness of the day, or even of “Venus and Adonis,” just across the room.
Is it too much to call “The Rape of Europa,” delivered in 1562, the grand finale? Hardly. The title falls hard on contemporary ears, as it should: The Renaissance trope of sexual violence begetting modern civilization is tough to take. To its credit, the Gardner addresses the issue at length in the mostly smartphone-based interpretive program that pads the gallery presentation.
It is nevertheless a bonafide masterwork. Its epic sweep, fine detail and radiant color are Titian at his apex — showing a passionate command of varying styles and techniques. Whole books have been written about “Europa,” so let’s not kid ourselves here. The broad strokes: Jupiter has arrived in the guise of a bull to take Europa against her will. She will bear him children who will go on to establish European civilization. Epic though it may be, the painting captures the visceral terror of the moment: Europa’s attendants, trapped onshore, calling in vain as she flails to cherubs overhead, powerless against the wild-eyed bull churning the dark sea a frothy aquamarine as he makes his escape.
This is a painting you can get lost in — the delicate reflections of the attendants on the water, the exacting fold and drape of Europa’s cloak, the loose, joyful brushwork on a spiny fish that falls apart up close as just so many dots and slashes, the very real panic trembling her body.
“Titian: Women, Myth and Power” is the simplest thing: six glorious paintings in a room open to the sky. It’s also a masterclass in how people paint, and why — and, maybe, who made it so.
TITIAN: WOMEN, MYTH AND POWER
At the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, 25 Evans Way. Aug. 12-Jan. 2. 617-566-1401, www.gardnermuseum.org