As part of the exhibition ‘Metamorphosis: Titian 2012’ at the National Gallery, London (11 July – 23 September 2012), fourteen leading poets responded to three masterpieces by the Renaissance painter, Titian:Diana and Callisto, Diana and Actaeon and The Death of Actaeon. The National Gallery have launched the poetry collection as an ebook, with high res images of Titian’s paintings and video and audio of the poetry, read aloud by their authors: Patience Agbabi, Simon Armitage, Wendy Cope, Lavinia Greenlaw, Tony Harrison, Seamus Heaney, Frances Leviston, Sinéad Morrissey, Don Paterson, Christopher Reid, Jo Shapcott, George Szirtes and Hugo Williams. We invited artist and writer Pete Hindle to try it out.
The National Gallery’s recent show, “Metamorphosis: Titian 2012” was a big deal in the world of classical art; it’s rare for the paintings of the Italian master to be displayed together – they tend to be divided up between heavyweight collections, in different countries. In part, the show was a continued celebration of the acquisition of Titian’s “Diana and Callisto”, brought to keep it in the country after the previous owner mysteriously decided to sell this fifty million pound painting. But it was also to celebrate the London Olympics – hence ‘2012’ in the title, and the bold declaration that the show was a “multi-faceted experience celebrating British creativity across the arts”.
As part of that multi-faceting, the National Gallery commissioned some poetry to respond to paintings. This isn’t as crazy as it sounds; up until very recently, poetry and painting were intrinsically linked, with even Turner finding the time to write poetry in his sketchbooks. Like Turner’s erotic drawings, his poetry has been mostly forgotten – not out of prudery, but because Turner’s poetry is usually regarded as awful. Titian’s great source of inspiration for all three paintings are Ovid’s retelling of the Greco-roman myths, which the Roman poet ended by dedicating to the then-emperor Julius Caesar. Even Ovid had to mention the sponsors.
Thankfully, the poems featured in the ebook (launched to accompany the exhibition) manage to avoid shoe-horning in any mention of sponsors. They are also presented in audio and video formats, but the meaty essay at the start of the book (by the head of National Gallery, and well-regarded cultural critic Nicholas Penny) remains in traditional textual mode. This is a shame, as his dense, info-heavy essay doesn’t make a good case for why we should care about Ovid’s epic, instead educating us about Titian’s choice of words to describe these paintings (‘poesie’) and noting that Ovid’s work suddenly became a lot less popular at the end of the
eighteenth century. There could have been some background information as to why readerships turned away from Ovid.
Enlightenment, however, eludes the casual reader. This is a book made for classicist poetry fans who love paintings and happen to own an iPad. The beautifully laid out pages don’t let you tweak text size, probably as the layout is taken from the sold-out physical edition, but the ability to zoom into the details of Titian’s paintings might be just the sort of bonus that fans of this period will love.