How to read a Renaissance painting

Published 1 April 2016

Renaissance painters combined technical innovation with a richly symbolic visual language. But what did it all mean? The RA’s Lucy Chiswell zooms in on an example from our exhibition In the Age of Giorgione.

    • Identify the patron

      Working out who commissioned a Renaissance painting – the patron or donor – often unlocks the key to its meaning, especially if they make a cameo appearance in the work itself.

      This painting was probably painted by Titian (c.1488 – 1576) when he was in his early twenties. It was commissioned by Jacopo Pesaro, Bishop of Paphos on the island of Cyprus, which was then part of the Venetian Republic. Pesaro was not just a religious figure. He was appointed by militaristic Pope Alexander VI of the Borgia family to lead the papal fleet against the Turks.

      Despite the threat of war, an elite class of patrons continued to commission works from important artists working in Venice, and Titian was repeatedly returned to by Jacopo, who commissioned the Pesaro Altarpiece in the church of the Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari around a decade later.

      Titian, Jacopo Pesaro Being Presented by Pope Alexander VI to Saint Peter

      Titian, Jacopo Pesaro Being Presented by Pope Alexander VI to Saint Peter, 1508–11.

      Oil on canvas. 147.8 x 188.7 cm. Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Antwerp Photo © Royal Museum for Fine Arts Antwerp / - Art in Flanders vzw. Photography: Hugo Maertens.

    • Look out for background clues

      Details in a Renaissance painting are rarely accidental. Here, the boats in the background provide valuable clues to unlocking its meaning and placing it geographically.

      This painting commemorates Pesaro leading the Venetians to their naval victory over the Turks at the battle of Santa Maura. The young donor is depicted in the centre, flanked by Pope Alexander to the right and Saint Peter to the left.

      The boats we see in the background are galleys, the type of vessel used in maritime battles throughout the lengthy Ottoman-Venetian wars that included the Battle of Lepanto in 1571.

      Titian, Jacopo Pesaro Being Presented by Pope Alexander VI to Saint Peter (detail)
    • Note the illusion of space

      Renaissance painters harnessed the power of perspective to trick the eye into believing the pictorial space was real.

      Compositional harmony is central to painting during the Renaissance. Here, Titian uses chequered paving stones to create linear perspective, giving an illusion of spatial depth. The parallel lines recede into the distance and converge at what is known as a “vanishing point”.

      The much older Giovanni Bellini (c. 1430 – 1516), in whose workshop Titian may have trained, uses this technique in his Virgin and Child with Saint Peter and Saint Mark and a Donor (‘Cornbury Park Altarpiece’), which is also in our exhibition. In both instances, a distant landscape further enhances the spatial depth of the scene. At the time Titian painted the Pesaro work, landscape was starting to play an important role for artists in Venice, adding atmosphere and a poetic quality to the paintings. The buildings on the right - presumably Venetian - exemplify this, Titian handling the paint more loosely as they move further into the distance.

      Titian, Jacopo Pesaro Being Presented by Pope Alexander VI to Saint Peter (detail)
    • Look out for hidden geometries

      Lines within the painting subtly direct the viewer’s attention.

      Titian pulls the focus of the painting towards the most important figure: Saint Peter. Strongly aligned parallel lines formed by the backs of the two figures on the right, combined with the slanted standard held by Pesaro and his forward-leaning stance and angled head, draw our gaze to the Saint.

      Despite this, stability is maintained by the aligned faces of the two figures, forming the corresponding side of a balanced triangle. Titian also uses the composition of this scene to show the hierarchy of the figures: St. Peter is positioned highest and aligned with the heavens, while Pope Alexander VI acts as a physical and metaphorical intermediary, bridging the gap between the Saint and the donor, the latter of whom is very much grounded here on Earth. The variation of the frontal position of Saint Peter, the angled stance of the Pope and Jacopo Pesaro in profile adds rhythm to the scene.

      Titian, Jacopo Pesaro Being Presented by Pope Alexander VI to Saint Peter
    • Spot the iconography

      They may seem like random objects, but symbols and icons play an important role in telling the story.

      Saints are most commonly identified by their attributes in Renaissance painting. Often these are symbols of their martyrdom, as can be seen in Giovanni Cariani’s St. Agatha, who holds her severed breasts on a platter. Saint Peter, however, is commonly shown in his role as custodian of the gates of Heaven, represented by the keys given to him by Christ. Here, the keys are seen resting precariously on the edge of the antique pedestal. Titian paints one key in gold and one in silver, corresponding both in colour and design to the papal insignia on the standard held by Pesaro.

      The study of classical prototypes was central to artistic training during the Renaissance, and ancient Greek and Roman motifs were often quoted in paintings. Titian’s loosely executed antique frieze anticipates the simulation of classical sculpture in his celebrated Sacred and Profane Love in the Galleria Borghese, Rome, a few years later. The iconography of the frieze here is perhaps a comment on the themes of the painting: the central figure of Cupid turns his back on a group of figures representing worldly pleasures, which must be relinquished to make way for success.

      Titian, Jacopo Pesaro Being Presented by Pope Alexander VI to Saint Peter (detail)
    • Take a close look at the clothes

      Depicting the shapes and textures of clothing in paint was one of the areas in which Renaissance painters demonstrated their mastery.

      Titian is celebrated for his skilled handling of texture. Later works illustrate this, for example the Vendramin Family in London’s National Gallery. Yet early paintings by Titian, such as this work, already show him experimenting with rich and varied materials.

      It is interesting to compare the textured sleeves of Pesaro’s under-garment with the smooth nature of his black habit – which in itself displays a wide range of black shades. Similarly, Saint Peter’s rich red drapery provides a dynamic contrast to the dull brown overlay, while the intricate gold pattern on the Pope’s cape is evidence of Titian’s attention to detail. The strong light source coming from the left of the painting emphasises the texture, volume and colour of the monumental costumes worn by all three figures. Sixteenth-century biographer Giorgio Vasari famously associates Venetian painters with honouring colour above all else, aligning disegno – or drawing – with the central Italian schools of Florence and Rome.

      Titian, Jacopo Pesaro Being Presented by Pope Alexander VI to Saint Peter (detail)
  • In the Age of Giorgione is in the Sackler Galleries until 5 June 2016.

    Lucy Chiswell is a curatorial assistant in the RA Exhibitions department.