Punishment of Marsyas

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Punishment of Marsyas
TItian - The Flaying of Marsyas.jpg
Artist Titian
Year c. 1570–1576
Type Oil on canvas
Dimensions 212 cm × 207 cm (83 in × 81 in)
Location National Museum, Kroměříž

Background Titians work habits and technique have always been unsystematic but towards the end of his career it becomes increasingly difficult to decide at what point in the painterly build up he considered the work to be complete. We can assume it was not complete because it was still in his workshop at the day of his death. However in comparison to his late work Death of Acteon the figures are more complete and intricate features such as Apollo’s laurel crown and Marsyas’s diadem are finished in detail. This may be a great example of the evolution of Titians style where he choose to leave many parts of the painting rough with evident strokes of the thumb or brush as he gave more importance to the emotional response rather than naturalistic accuracy, explaining the choice of such a vivid subject.

Subject Matter This is another Ovidian subject where we can see a mortal being punished by a god, in a violent and gruesome manner. Marsyas discovered a set of reed pipes left by Minerva and became so skilled in in use of the instrument that he challenged the god Apollo to a musical contest. The winner could inflict any punishment on the loser. Apollo won and got the satyr Marsyas tied to a tree and flayed alive. Ovid does not describe the contest in detail but goes on to tell a lot about the flaying process. All the satyrs and nymphs of the forest wept for Marsyas and their tears turned on to the clearest river in Phrygia. The choice of subject sparks debate, as we do not know who the patron was. We are further confused by such a grand scale of the work and its purpose of being an altarpiece. Peter Humfrey suggests that because in the times of the Counter Reformation the subjects of martyrdoms were becoming increasingly important in altarpiece paintings, this may be a pagan variation on the adaptation of the Martyrdom of St. Bartholomew who was flayed and of St.Peter who was crucified upside down. Another reason could be simply because he owned a sketch by Giulio Romano and wanted to imitate it.

Visual Analysis The composition is closely modeled on the fresco made by Giulio Romano in the Palazzo del Te, Mantua more probably on the preparatory drawing for it as he has not been to Mantua in 30 years. The distinctive characteristics like the choice of depicting Marsyas upside down, the faun carrying the bucket and the inclusion of King Midas (borrowing from another musical contest story of Apollo and Pan). The principal change introduced by Titian is the turn of Marsyas from a profile to a frontal view which allows for the facial features and the process of flaying be imagined more vividly and gives it more importance making the composition grander and more imposing. The fact that Apollo’s hand is lit up shows its importance. The central placement of the upside down figure show that Titian is interested in the exact process which Ovid also chooses to concentrate on. The little dog in the foreground standing in a pool of blood and the violin player juxtaposed by the fluted instruments on the tree stands behind the kneeling Apollo acting as guidance to the emotional response as they evoke a sense of sadness and poignancy. Midas is shown in deep thought kneeling with his arms raised to hold his face up. It invites the viewer to ponder upon the themes of guilt and suffering which are so vividly represented in the main scene. Although Marsyas is undergoing excruciating pain, his pose seems to be dignified and the human features of his face are more prominent in comparison to Romano’s. A sign of hope is seen in the breaking of the brown sky with the glimpse of white in a suggestion that the river of tears has already started flowing and Marsyas foolish act will bring some good. “As always with Titian the pictorial handling is integral to the works communicative power”. – Peter Humfrey The figures are engaged to their surrounding by a continuous texture of vibrant brushstrokes and repeated smudges of a limited color palette (red, black, ochre and white). As described by Palma Giovanne. Titian seems to have used his preferred red-brown background color which would have been first applied on a thin layer of gesso it creates the overall brown tone of the painting which he choose not to enhance with a very limited color palette only showing gradating of brown and black. Smudges are made by his finger to fade the transitions between the lines of the figures and the space they are in.


The painting is part of a series of canvases with mythological themes which Titian executed in his late years. It portrays the flaying of Marsyas, a silenus who dared to defy the God Apollo. The choice of such a crude scene was perhaps inspired by the death of Marcantonio Bragadin, a Venetian commander who was flayed by the Ottomans in that period.[1]

Midas, the thoughtful character on the right, is likely the artist's self-portrait.[2]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Giovanni Mariotti, "La fine di Marsia secondo Tiziano", Il Corriere della Sera, 17 August 2003
  2. ^ Augusto Gentili, Tiziano, pag. 47


  • Gentili, Augusto (1994). Tiziano (in Italian). Edizioni Studio Tesi.