Pope Paul III with his Grandsons by Titian
Interpretation of Renaissance Papal Portrait

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Pope Paul III with his Grandsons by Titian
Pope Paul III with his Grandsons
(Cardinals Alessandro, Ottavio
Farnese). By Titian.
Regarded as one of the
Greatest Paintings Ever.

Pope Paul III with his Grandsons (1546)


Interpretation of Pope Paul III with his Grandsons
Other Famous Portrait Paintings by Titian


Artist: Titian (Tiziano Vecellio) (1488-1576)
Medium: Oil painting on canvas
Genre: Portrait art
Movement: Renaissance in Venice
Location: Capodimonte Museum, Naples.

Art Interpretation
To analyze works of
Venetian Painting by
artists like Titian, see
our educational articles:
Art Evaluation and
How to Appreciate Paintings.

Religious Paintings
For analysis of one of
Titian's top altarpieces, see:
Assumption of the Virgin
(1518) S. Maria Gloriosa
dei Frari, Venice.

For more about Titian's art:
Titian and Venetian Painting.

Interpretation of Pope Paul III with his Grandsons

This work by Titian, one of the most famous Renaissance portraits and, perhaps, one of the greatest Renaissance paintings ever, languished in the Farnese family cellars in Rome for more than a century before it was hung on a wall. Now it can be seen in the Museo Nazionale di Capodimonte in Naples, as is regarded by scholars as a perfect example of cinquecento portrait art - a masterpiece of characterization, body language and colour. Commissioned by the Farnese family in 1546, like many papal portraits it was intended as a public statement of Farnese power. In the work, the 77-year old Pope Paul III (born 1468, reigned 1534-49) is shown seated, accompanied by his Grandsons, the Cardinals Alessandro and Ottavio Farnese. Aside from the colouristic magic that Titian creates with his rich, warm Renaissance colour palette, the work perfectly complements the earlier group portrait by Raphael (1483-1520) - Pope Leo X with Cardinals (Giulio de'Medici and Luigi de'Rossi) (1513-18, Palazzo Pitti, Florence) - which is another masterful representation of Papal power and character. Like many popes, Pope Paul III manages to have it both ways: he commissions a portrait of himself and his grandsons, while at the same time as he launches a worldwide propaganda campaign of devout Catholic Counter-Reformation Art to showcase a less corrupt Church.



In the 16th century, in order to avoid being steamrollered on political and religious issues by Spain or France, the head of the Catholic Church needed money, military resources and a cunning, resourceful mind. In this wonderful example of Venetian Portrait Painting, Titian represents his subject accordingly. It was well known that Pope Paul III applied few if any religious rules to his own conduct. To him, and to many of his predecessors, a religious career was merely an opportunity for self-enrichment. He had his own concubine, with whom he had fathered four children; he made both his grandsons Cardinals; and he amassed a huge personal fortune from church taxes and other benefits. With Emperor Charles V, King of Spain, angling for both financial support (against rebellious Protestants in the Low Countries) and reform of the Catholic Church, and the King of France at loggerheads with Charles, Pope Paul had to tread a devious path between the two monarchs. Titian thus presents him as a man whose body is turned one way, but whose head faces another. His face is shrunken, his beard is unkempt, yet he seems full of dynamic energy - almost as if he is ready to pounce. His eyes are bright and twinkling, but they possess a sort of peasant watchfulness. In short: a wealthy, slightly devious old man.

Alessandro and Ottavio are the two eldest sons of Paul's son Pier Luigi. They symbolize the continuity of the Farnese Papal line. Raphael's Medici Family Pope, Leo X, had in time been succeeded by his nephew Cardinal Giulio de'Medici as Pope Clement VII (1523-34), so Paul naturally wanted a successor of his own. Of course Cardinal Alessandro was no more religious than his grandfather. In fact, apart from several mistresses, he diverted huge sums from the Church into his collection of rare antiquities and Renaissance art at the Palazzo Farnese in Rome. X-rays of the canvas show that he was originally positioned further to the left. In all likelihood he convinced Titian to move him closer to the Pope - even to the extent of grasping the top of Paul's chair with his right hand - as a sign of his claim to the Papacy. The ambivalent expression that Titian gives him is no more than he deserves. Not least because it was Alessandro who invited Titian to Rome with the promise of a living for his son, in place of a fee. In the end Titian's son was paid off with a small parish worth a fraction of the original offer - an insulting reward for his father's time and effort.

Paul's younger son, the 21-year old Ottavio (married to a daughter of Charles V), is shown leaning towards the Pope, about to bow and kiss the papal foot as prescribed. The body language is unmistakeable - here is a person who is not 'upright'! Moreover, his serious face alludes to a major dispute between himself and his grandfather over the Duchy of Parma, which initially had been promised to him, but was now going to a relative of the King of France.

The Missing Hand

The Pope's hand, strictly speaking, should be visible on the far side of the table. But for reasons that remain unclear, Titian did not paint it. Other areas of the painting were also left unfinished. After detailed study, the Italian art historian Roberto Zapperi has concluded that the most likely explanation was the shift in papal political allegiances (away from Spain, towards France) that took place as the picture was being completed. Being an expensive-looking large format work, as well as something of a political statement, the painting was deemed to be no longer appropriate in the new political climate, and was therefore consigned to the darkness of the Farnese cellars. Please see also: Legacy of Venetian Painting on European art

Titian - The Supreme Colourist

Titian was the first painter for whom colour in painting was more important than any other aesthetic or painterly element. Not only are there very few examples of drawing by him, but also he uses colour to establish the setting, create atmosphere, and represent all the varying reflections of his subjects situations and personalities. In his oil painting, visible brush strokes and strongly textured surfaces replace the "smooth finish" required by the traditions of the High Renaissance. (Michelangelo, for instance, criticized the lack of disegno in Titian's work, and its subordination to colorito, but complimented the Venetian's colouring.) Titian became the acknowledged leader of Renaissance art in Venice, forming in the process a notoriously self-serving 'triumvirate', along with the sculptor/architect Jacopo Sansovino (1486-1570) and the scurrilous writer Pietro Aretino, who became his publicity agent.



Other Famous Portrait Paintings by Titian

Here is a short list of some of Titian's best portraiture.

Portrait of a Man (Man with Quilted Sleeve) (1512) National Gallery, London.
Federico II Gonzaga (1523-29) Museo del Prado, Madrid, Spain.
Man With a Glove (1525) Louvre, Paris.
Ippolito de' Medici (1533) Palazzo Pitti, Florence.
Venus of Urbino (1538) Uffizi Gallery, Florence.
Portrait of Francis I (1539) Louvre, Paris.
Pope Paul III without Cap (1543) Museo Nazionale di Capodimonte.
Doge Andrea Gritti (1545) National Gallery of Art, Washington DC.
Portrait of The Young Englishman (1540-45) Palazzo Pitti, Florence.
Portrait of Pietro Aretino (c.1545) Palazzo Pitti, Florence.
Equestrian Portrait of Emperor Charles V (1548) Prado, Madrid.
Doge Marcantonio Trevisani (1553) Szepmuveseti Muzeum, Budapest.

• For the meaning of other important pictures, see: Famous Paintings Analyzed.
• For more about Venetian painting, see our main index: Homepage.

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