The great Titian show in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, which will move on to the Accademia in Venice next year, is close to being the best of both worlds. It is based on substantial new research, particularly of technical nature, and it unites a large number of the great masterpieces of the last 25 or so years of Titian’s career for the joy and edification of the visitor. It furthermore presents the entirety of the museum’s own substantial collection of earlier works by the master and his assistants, along with select borrowings that shed light on the development of Titian and his workshop’s art and craft.

Unlike the concurrent exhibition on late Titian in Belluno — which it must have been a rather thankless task to assemble in competition with Vienna — the focus is here very much on Titian’s creative genius, rather than his role as capobottega of an enterprising but entirely subservient workshop. While it does illuminate aspects of his workshop practice, it first and foremost invites the visitor to contemplate Titian’s great synthetic genius as a painter — his grand attempt at a negation through art of the dichotomy of sacred and profane.

To start with the former, the exhibition presents what is surely the most concerted and substantial contribution yet to the topic du jour in Titian studies, namely the many repetitions of individual works produced in the Titian studio throughout his career. As part of the preparation of the exhibition, funding was obtained for a special research project whose aim it was to conduct technical analyses of all the Titians in the collection of the Museum. The examinations of these works using x-ray and infrared reflectography provide fascinating insights into his working methods, not the least when it comes to his production of replicas and the chronology of several individual sequences.

It is thus clearly established that the Vienna Sacra Conversazione (or Madonna and Child with Saints Steven, Jerome and Mauritius), presumably of the late 1510s, not only precedes the very similar version in the Louvre — with a copy in Chiswick House (not exhibited) preserving an intermediate stage — but is itself painted on top of a composition very close to that of the Madonna and Child with Saint Catherine, Dominic and a Donor in Parma of c. 1513-14 (not exhibited). Similarly, the geneaology of the feminine paragon La Bella (1536) is established, with x-rays demonstrating how its lineage runs through the Vienna Woman in a Fur to the Saint Petersburg Woman with a Feathered Hat. One provides the template for the next.

This prompts the still unanswered question of what technique was used to make these replicas. Judging from the new evidence, it seems clear that at least La Bella and her progeny are the result of prototype and replica having been on the easel simultaneously, the latter initially preserving the basic elements of the former and finished with variations later. This seems to have been the procedure behind a number of Titian’s replicas, where one often finds one version on canvas and the other on panel, either one preceding the other. The example closest to hand is the above-mentioned Sacre Conversazione; the Vienna picture is on panel and the Louvre one on canvas (where the lost picture preserved in the Chiswick House picture fits in is, naturally, hard to say).

The catalogue — which contains a good deal of fascinating information but suffers from a multitude of contributors and generally seems rather rushed — tends to assume that cartoons were used, but I have not, for example, found confirmation that the technical examinations of these pictures have revealed traces of spolveri, i.e. traces of charcoal or other powdery substance pounced through holes in the cartoon to the final support. This of course does not preclude the use of cartoons in some or even most cases, especially in Titian’s career from the 1540s onwards, when the number of replicas produced in the workshop rose considerably.

The famous Danaë belongs to this period and was frequently replicated — depending on one’s attributional generosity, up to 9 versions are extant today. The examination conducted on the Vienna version, which is clearly from the studio and may contain some work by the master, concludes that it was based on the version now in the Prado, usually dated to c. 1551-53, but probably painted later, around 1560, and also exhibited. This picture itself derives from the original version, painted for Cardinal Alessandro Farnese in 1545-6, is now in Naples and is unfortunately not exhibited. Other versions take off either the Naples or Prado versions, making the use of cartoons in their creation likely.

In two of the exhibited pictures — the Vienna Diana and Callisto (late 1560s), based on the famous picture in Edinburgh, and the Thyssen St. Jerome (c. 1570-76), based on a painting now in Milan — the outlines transferred from the originals have bled through to the back of the canvas (this, of course, is not visible in the exhibition). While not proof that cartoons were used, this at least indicates that some kind of transfer was carried out, rather than the canvases having been worked-up in the studio alongside the originals.

Also present is the newly cleaned Escorial Crucifixion, which is not a replica but directly related to the bigger altarpiece of the same subject in the church of San Domenico in Ancona, painted 1556-58. Not having seen the latter in the flesh, I am unable to say whether the Escorial picture, which is undocumented, precedes or follows it, but it must be a picture of around the same time, the late 1550s. The flash of lightning cutting across the evening sky surely marks the moment of Christ’s expiration and the rending of the veil at the temple. Where the Ancona version concentrates our empathy with the grievers at the foot of the cross, Christ here dies alone. A scene of high pathos.

In the lightning, to be sure, but also in its very painterly ambition, the painting recalls Giorgione’s iconic Tempesta (c. 1508). Where that picture captures intense swathes of sunlight cutting through the darkening sky preceding a storm, Titian’s Crucifixion evokes the eerie radiance of a sky on which a sunset lingers past moonrise. He achieves this on the basis of a light ground on top of which everything else is laid down in fragmented, dry strokes, lending the entire surface an uncanny internal glow. I cannot recall having seen this particular effect employed in any other painting by Titian, which is not atypical; many techniques and approaches recur throughout his oeuvre, but others stand more or less isolated, as roads not taken. And in a way, great moments such as this one stand even stronger for having been left by the wayside, testament to a the vagaries of a great creative mind.

In terms of replicas, the greatest treat of the show is the presentation of all three known versions of Tarquin and Lucretia; the Fitzwilliam masterpiece delivered to Philip II in 1571 as well as the replica of it now in Bordeaux (1568-71) and the reduced version of the subject from the Vienna Akademie (c. 1570-76).

The Bordeaux canvas would probably be a distinct disappointment to anyone familiar with the Fitzwilliam picture, having none of the subtle psychological insight or painterly richness of that picture. The original frighteningly — and movingly — conveys Lucretia’s acute fear and desperate attempt to talk her assailant out of his aggression, while simultaneously showing the latter frightened by his own passion, but unable to help it. In the replica, on the other hand, the characters seem to be play-acting; ‘Lucretia’ is posing with her head turned, pretending to scream, while ‘Tarquin’ seems absent-mindedly to remember that he is supposed to look mad with lust and pulls out an appropriate grimace in the last minute. Though the picture does seem to contain some work by the master, it was probably largely executed by an assistant while Titian himself was working on the original.

The Vienna picture, however, is a wonderfully rich display of the impastoed, at times almost abstract quality of Titian’s pittura a macchia (‘patchy painting’) in the late years. This is simply regal painting, built up from a deep, dark red, the figures coming alive in a glorious combustion of colour. Why certain scholars continue to doubt its authenticity is beyond me.

This approach to colour as clay, to painting as an act of continuous creation where the process is highlighted through visible brushwork and individual areas brought to varying states of finish, is ultimately ontological in nature. A natural consequence of Titian’s organic, partly improvisatory working method — creating his compositions as he went along — it is the result of a lifetime of painting as exploration. The very material from which he called out his forms, the physical colour itself, becomes the essential constituent of his interpretation of nature. In these pictures, everything appears as created from one matter. No longer is colour used for illusionistic purposes, to represent reality, but appears rather as a replacement of it — art, literally.

For Titian, this ‘new nature’ becomes a means of bringing together the sacred and the profane — or, alternately, the ideal and real. A metaphor for the central dichotomy of Christianity, and of Western culture. The San Salvador Annunciation (1559-66), here extracted from the dark Venetian church where it normally resides and presented well-lit and accessible for up-close inspection, is an extraordinarily potent example of this. Commissioned for an altar dedicated to the incarnation of Christ, the picture depicts the moment of transubstantiation. Having conveyed his message, the angel crosses his arms in reverence while Mary lifts her veil and receives the Word. The Holy Spirit streaks through a breach in the fabric of earthly reality in an orgasmic flash, as the divine light emerging from this opening gradually coalesces to form an angelic choir. Colour itself as incarnation.

The Annunciation is hung next to the St. Petersburg St. Sebastian, surely painted in the 1570s and left unfinished in the studio on Titian’s death in 1576. This picture gives us Titian at his most abstractly suggestive, having the classic, statuesque figure melt into an almost entirely dissolute landscape. The picture is clearly incomplete; the breastplate, shed by the saint to embrace martyrdom, and the lower part of his left leg, were probably left awaiting further embellishment. It is, however, hard to imagine it tightened up in a way that would eliminate its sense of immersion in a deeply spiritual pictorial world.

Sebastian being a plague saint, the picture has been associated with the great plague that descended on Venice and took away almost a third of its inhabitants, including Titian and his son Orazio, in 1576. A particularly poetic interpretation, by Daniela Bohde, even describes the surrounding bleed of colour as a kind of ‘miasmic’ suggestion of the epidemic. Given the rather slow gestation period of most of Titian’s autograph pictures at this time and how weakened he by all accounts was when the plague hit, this is however highly unlikely. It may, however, just be possible that he undertook it in the winter of 1575, when the city was experiencing a smaller outbreak, and these connotations are in any case applicable to all depictions of the saint.

It may be entirely fortuitous, but the figure’s sources seem serendipitously appropriate to the context, while at the same time embodying Titian’s integration of the highly sacred with the most, literally, carnally profane. First and foremost, it reconfigures of an earlier version of the saint, placed into, but subsequently cancelled from, the Saint Nicholas altarpiece, painted in the mid- to late 1530s and now in the Vatican. This version is preserved in a woodcut of the same time. That being said, the basic model is obviously antique — the Apollo Belvedere is the archetypical example — and supplies the figure with its basic, ideal form. The heavenward gaze and tear-glazed eyes is a signature device that stretches back to the 1520s and the first of the Penitent Magdalens that would later become one of Titian’s most reliable bread-and-butter subjects, but may in this case simultaneously derive from a very different source. As one of my students pointed out to me last year, the St. Sebastian resembles one of the plates charting the muscles of the human body that Titian and his studio designed in the early 1540s for the surgeon Andreas Vesalius, for his controversial and groundbreaking anatomical atlas De humani coporis fabrica of 1543.

Though classicised in their final form, these anatomical plates surely originate in firsthand studies of real, flayed bodies. As another of the plates demonstrates, the upwards tilt of the head seen in several of them is the natural consequence of the initial studies having been drawn from bodies suspended from a pole by their neck. As mentioned, this may all be completely coincidental, but it does not seem unlikely that these detailed first-hand anatomical studies would — consciously or unconsciously — feed into Titian’s design of figures such as the St. Sebastian. And even if they did not, the connection is entirely in step with Titian’s consistent insistence on the physical as constituent of the ideal, not to mention appropriate to the medical connotation of the picture.

That the spiritual sense of immersion so acutely conveyed by the St. Sebastian is in no sense diminished in the non-religious work of the late years is clear in the museum’s own so-called Nymph and Shepherd. Emerging from half a decade in what looks to me quite sensitive restoration, it naturally forms one of the centrepieces of the exhibition. While intensely retrospective, referring to prototypes of more than 60 years earlier by Giulio Campagnola and Sebastiano del Piombo, it is emphatically a painting of Titian’s last phase.

Like the Sebastian, the figures seem to emerge from their surroundings, with the woman attaining the clearest definition. The ultimate iteration of a subject Titian had painted more than any other, she is clearly the picture’s centre. Whether she is the princess-made-goddess Ariadne or the nymph Oienone (and the man Bacchus or Paris) — the two most convincing suggestions made by scholars as to the subject matter — she embodies the ethos of the image. Perhaps speaking in favour of her being a nymph, she lies there looking out at us with a dark, gleaming animal eye, reminding us that we are inextricable parts of nature, God’s creation.

The smouldering facture of these late pictures, the way their much-discussed sense of incompleteness calls attention to the creative process, is a both touching and sobering reminder of how nothing ever reaches an end-point, a perfect state; how nature is cyclical, in a state of continuous creation. It seems fitting that this, one of the last pictures Titian worked on, has such an acute sense of retrospection and melancholy, as if he were surveying his life’s work reminding himself, and us, of its imperfection.

“Der späte Tizian und die Sinnlichkeit der Malerei” in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, runs until January 6, and after that travels to the Accademia in Venice. More information here.