Pope Paul III and his Grandsons
Pope Paul III and his Grandsons (Italian: Paolo III e i nipoti Alessandro e Ottavio Farnese) is an oil on canvas painting by the Italian artist Titian. It was commissioned by the Farnese family and executed during Titian's autumn 1545 to June 1546 visit to Rome. The painting shows Alessandro Farnese, better known as Pope Paul III, with two of his grandsons, Ottavio and Alessandro (who shared the same name as his grandfather). Ottavio kneels to his left; Alessandro, wearing a cardinal's dress, stands behind him to his right. It is housed in the Museo di Capodimonte, Naples, home to many artworks collected by the Farnese family.
The painting seems to examine themes of ageing, succession, and the realities, aggressiveness and pettiness of high politics. Paul was in his late seventies when he sat for the painting. He had appointed Alessandro as cardinal against accusations of nepotism. Towards the end of its completion, for reasons that are still unclear, Titian broke his contract and returned home to Venice without being paid for his work. For over 100 years the painting was left unframed in a Farnese cellar. This does not seem to be attributable to a falling out between client and patrons, as is sometimes assumed, due to the more psychological revealing aspects of the portrait. More likely it was as a result of a changing political climate. Paul III was not a religious man, and saw the papacy as a route to consolidate his family's influence and position. He fathered a number of illegitimate children by a number of mistresses and spent large sums of the church's money building his collection of art and antiquities. Around 1545 the reforming Charles V of Spain gained advantage, and the Italian hold on the papacy became less certain.
It ranks with Velázquez's Portrait of Innocent X as one of grand and most penetrating portraits of a pope. Although unfinished and less technically accomplished than the same artist's Portrait of Pope Paul III of a few years earlier, it is renowned for its rich colourisation, including the deep red of the tablecloth and the almost spectral whites of Paul's gown. The panel contains subtle indications of the contradictions of the astute and able pope, and especially for the manner in which it captures the complex psychological relationships between the three men.
Alessandro Farnese (1468 – 1549) was the last of the popes appointed by the powerful ruling Medici family of Florence. He took the papacy in 1534, and aware of his age and that time was against him, immediately set about appointing members of his family to key positions. He anointed his grandson Alessandro cardinal at the age of 14, marking a break in the Farnese habit of positioning the first-born in marriage so as to carry on the family name. It was considered necessary as the next oldest grandson was then just 10 years old and a cardinal so young would not have been politically acceptable, but Paul's age meant that the family could not afford to wait until the younger Alessandro grew of age. Instead he was given the title of Cardinal Deacon, which did not necessitate the taking of major orders, but compelled him to celibacy and forgoing the rights of primogeniture, which instead went to Ottavio. Both of these obligations Alessandro was to bitterly regret.
Paul appointed Ottavio as Duke of Camerino in 1538, and that year married him to Charles V's daughter, Margaret, later Margaret of Parma. The burden of chastity lay heavy on Alessandro, and he entertained fantasies that he would marry a princess. He seems to have resented that his younger brother found marriage; during the wedding ceremony he "became more deathly pale than death itself, and, so they say, is unable to bear this thing, that he, the first-born, should see himself deprived of such splendid status and of the daughter of an Emperor."
In 1546, Pier Luigi was given the duchy of Parma and Piacenza and Ottavio was posted to the North of Italy to support Charles V. Ottavio excelled in his role as military commander and was awarded the Golden Fleece by Charles. While Ottavio's position had been given as a means to strengthen the family position, the piosition came with strings. His military success later bred resentment as he began to see himself as a commander unaccountable to family ties in Rome.
Alessandro did not wish to stay a cardinal, but Paul persuaded him to remain, hinting that he would succeed as pope – an aspiration that was ultimately frustrated.
After Paul's death pressure from reforming monarchs in France and Spain, and a general shift of influence towards France, ended the Farnese hold on the papacy. Paul had been a careerist, a socially ambitious and not particularly pious individual. He kept a concubine, fathered four children, and to him the throne was an opportunity to enrich his coffers and place his relatives in high position. Yet he was a talented and cunning political player, precisely the sort of man the Florentines needed at that time to defend against the French and Spanish threats. Titian had strong ties to and was a personal friend of Charles, and some see the portrait as a signal from Paul to the emperor that he was in control on the papacy and had a firm and guiding hand on his potential successors.
In its colourisation and dynamics, the work has often been compared to Raphael's Pope Leo X with Cardinals of 1518–19 and the 1511–2 portrait of Julius II. Titian had earlier made a copy of the Leo panel, but had made subtle tonal changes which flattered the pope. Here Titian broadly follows the older master's example by emphasising the pope's age and showing him in a naturalistic rather than purely historical, reverential, setting. Yet Titian goes further: while Raphael's portraits show the popes absorbed in high-minded introspection, he presents a figure glaring outwards and caught in a moment of calculation as he is approached by a possibly aggressive grandson cardinal.
The lower left-hand two thirds of the painting are dominated by heavy red and white pigments, with brown hues and whites prominent in the upper right-hand section. The division between these two broad colour schemes is de-marked by a diagonal reaching from the upper edge of the curtain in the upper left to the leggings of Ottavio in the right mid-ground. There are echoes between the colour choices and the patterns; most noticeably the red of Paul's robes rhymes with the velvet of his chair and the overhanging curtain. This dramatic colourisation and luminosity can be in part attributed to this design, but is also attributable to the manner in which Titian reversed the usual painterly technique in building tone: he began with a dark background, then layered the lighter toned passages, and after the darker tones. The effect of this approach has been described as a "tour de force of symphonic colourism", and a high point of his blending of red and ochre pigments. Titian uses a variety of brush strokes to achieve this effect. While the pope's robes are painted with very broad brush strokes, his cape (mozzetta), hair, aging face and visible hand are rendered in minute detail, with his hairs rendered to the level of individual strands.
The triple portrait aims to reflect the petty tensions of court politics. The deep background, red colourisation and heavy brushstrokes all serve to create an anxious atmosphere. A casual glance from a viewer unaware of the relationship and dynamics between the older figure and the two suitors would see a patriarch besieged by an arrogant, callous and entitled relation to the left, and a deceitful, sleight-of-hand family member to the right. The pope, ill and tired-looking, glares at Ottavio in an accusatory manner. Titian depicts Paul III as old and visibly frail. His hat (camauro) cloaks his baldness, but the telltale signs of age are still evidenced by his long nose, dark beady eyes, stooped shoulders and long uneven beard. Yet he is still given the manner of a powerful and alert patriarch. The painting is set at a curious angle, so that although Paul is positioned low in the pictorial space, the viewer still looks upwards towards him. His status is further denoted by his wide fur-lined sleeves (a typical Venetian device), while his cape is laid across his upper body so as to suggest a perhaps undeserved physical presence. He is dressed in full pomp. His piercing glare is described by art historian Jill Dunkerton as having captured Paul's "small bright eyes, but... missed his genius". Paul is noticeably older than in the second Naples portrait. This is reinforced by the clock placed on the table beside him, which serves both as a memento mori and a reminder that time is running out on him. Given this, the presence of his grandsons indicates that the commission was prompted by thoughts of succession.
Ottavio is depicted as tall and muscular, about to kneel and kiss the Pope's feet. This action was then the formal way of greeting a pope: the guest would make three short bows followed by the kissing of the papal feet. Titian indicates the next move in the ceremony by showing Paul's shoe, which is decorated with a cross, poking out from underneath his gown. Ottavio's head is bowed in deference, but his stern facial expression indicates that this a formality rather than a mark of diffidence or respect, perhaps reflecting his recent dispute with his grandfather.
Alessandro is dressed in cardinal's pomp and wears a distracted, reflective expression. He holds the knob of Paul's backrest, in an echo of Raphael's portrait where Clement VII holds the chair of Leo X in the same manner. Thus the painting can be viewed as primarily concerned with succession. Alessandro seems better placed politically, standing as he is to Paul's right in a position and pose that recall traditional depictions of Paul the Apostle. His hand is raised as if caught in the act of blessing. The two grandsons are depicted in very different styles: Alessandro is portrayed in a formal manner, and wears clothes of similar colours and tones to Paul. Ottavio, by contrast, wears the same browns seen in the upper right-hand sector, cutting him off from the pope. Yet despite his awkward and difficult to interpret pose, he is shown in a more naturalistic manner than his brother. In reality Ottavio was the more able man; however, neither ascended to the papacy after Paul's death, as Charles V gained influence and weakened the Medici hold on the office.
The work was left unfinished. A number of elements, most noticeably the pope's right hand, are missing. Areas of canvas are bland and uniform, with some of the key passages still blocked in with the broad brush strokes of the visible underdrawing. Many of Titian's characteristic finishing touches are missing; Paul's fur-lined sleeves do not contain the same short white strokes seen in the 1543 portrait, and the gazes have not been applied. There may be a practical reason why it was left unfinished: Titian began the painting during his 1545–46 visit to Rome to gain a benefice for his son Pomponio. Once that had been attained, he may have departed the city leaving behind an incomplete portrait. There is no record that the artist was ever paid for the portrait. This suggests a dating of 1546; although Paul wears winter dress, he would have probably have worn these garments until around April.
The painting was commissioned in 1546 following a number of individual portraits of Paul. Titian had already depicted Paul's son Pier Luigi and his children Vittoria, Alessandro and Ranuccio. Pier was indebted to Paul, having been granted duchies the year before. This was a highly political move by Paul: in doing so he gave titles and wealth to Pier, while at the same time appointing a lord that could be nothing but indebted and subservient. Paul anointed Ottavio, 22 years old at the time of the triple portrait  and had been appointed cardinal in 1538. That year Ottavio was married off to the powerful Margaret of Austria. Both of these advancements were widely criticised as evidence of Paul's tendency towards nepotism. Yet Ottavio was already an accomplished and distinguished individual in his own right. After his father's assassination in 1547 he claimed the dukedom of Parma and Piacenza, against the express wishes of his father and Paul III. Ottavio commissioned the original Naples panel in Titian's Danaë series, and was perhaps again portrayed by him in 1552.
Titian was requested a number of times in the early 1540s to visit Rome. The invitations came separately from Cardinal Pietro Bembo and the Farnese family, but the artist disliked travelling and refused the offers. In 1543, Paul III travelled to northern Italy for negotiations with Charles, during which time he first met Titian, and sat for Portrait of Paul III without a Cap. Around this time, Titian's son Pomponio decided to enter the clergy, and the painter sought to use his contacts with the papacy to gain a church and lands for him. Working through his contacts with Cardinal Alessandro, he asked that Pomponio would be granted the abbey of San Pietro in Colle Umberto in return for the Farnese portraits. The abbey was set in grounds that bordered his own lands in Ceneda. Titian had influence with Charles, and thus had clout in negotiating with the Farnese. On receiving their offers of a commission and invitation to Rome, he made it clear that he would only undertake the patronage in return for the acceptance of the benefice. On 20 September 1544 he seemed certain enough to send a message to Cardinal Alessandro that he would visit to "paint Your Honor's illustrious household down to the last cat". However, he yet held out, and did not leave for Rome until October of the following year. When he did arrive, he was treated as the most important guest and given an apartment at the Belvedere. The triple portrait is one of three Farnese portraits undertaken during Titian's stay, but was not completed. The reason why has not been firmly established, but it is considered probable that once the benefice was granted, Titian felt no reason to stay in Rome and left the composition as it was.
By the mid 1540s Titian was the preferred portraitist of the Farnese family. Following a number of earlier portraits of Pier Luigi and Paul III in his youth, they commissioned a further set of paintings to mark their ascendancy after Paul's papacy, all of which were – given their political awareness and ambition – clearly intended to issue public statements on their new social elevation. Paul was a cunning and politically astute man, and knowing of Titian's influence in Venice, after achieving his papacy in 1538, would only allow Titian to portray him, and personally commissioned the panels.
Although the work is often interpreted as an unflattering and cold look at an aging pope besieged by cunning and opportunistic relatives, the reality is more subtle and complex. It is certainly a very unguarded portrait of one of the most powerful men of his day, and in stark contrast to Titian's two earlier portraits of Paul, both of which were deferential. It is widely accepted as one of the most politically difficult portrait commissions in art history, requiring an ubnderstanding of the interplay of relationships with a dept "worthy of Shakespeare", in the opinion of art historians Rodolfo Pallucchini and Harold Wethey. However, it was one Titian seems to have resolved, in that while the complexity of the relationships is all there on the canvas, it is presumed as an indicator to Charles, Paul retains his position as the dominant patriarch – old and frail but still a man of vitality, and in control of his squabbling descendants.
Moreover, working under commission from the Farnese family, Titian would not have sought to portray the sitters in an obviously unsympathetic manner. While Paul is shown as old and frail, he is given a broad chest and cunning eyes that indicate his intelligence and "shrewdness" . Ottavio is presented as cold and impervious, but this was likely a device to show his strength of character and conviction. Alessandro is shown closest to the Pope; x-ray reveals he had originally stood to the right hand side, but was moved, probably on request so that his hand could be rendered resting on the papal throne, probably to indicate his future claim on the papacy.
- The Italian title is sometimes incorrectly translated as Pope Paul III and his Nephews; the term nipote can mean both "nephew" and "grandchild".
- Dunkerton, 138
- Kaminski, 86
- Zapperi, 159
- Goldsmith Phillips & Raggio, 233
- Zapperi, 160
- Goldsmith Phillips & Raggio, 240
- Kaminski, 89
- Phillips-Court, 128
- Phillips-Court, 129
- Kennedy, 67
- Phillips-Court, 126
- Goldsmith Phillips & Raggio, 234
- Phillips-Court, 127
- Dunkerton et al, 55
- While the 1552 portrait is most likely of Ottavio, its attribution to Titian is less certain.
- Kaminski, 83
- Paul appointed Guglielmo della Porta as the sole sculptor allowed to depict him. Phillips-Court, 126
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- Zapperi, Roberto. "Alessandro Farnese, Giovanni della Casa and Titian's Danae in Naples". Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, Volume 54, 1991. 159-171