Titian's Heroes: A Forensic Analysis Detail of Titian drawing under normal light

This post was created by Margaret Holben Ellis, Director of the Thaw Conservation Center and Eliza Spaulding, graduate student at the Conservation Center, Institute of Fine Arts, New York University.

Detail of Titian drawing under normal light Detail of Titian drawing under infrared light Detail of Titian painting Detail of Titian painting under inrared light

Two young heroes—St. Theodore and Actaeon—stride forward with one arm raised. One approaches a fallen dragon, the other a bathing goddess. One holds a lance; the other holds nothing. But their poses are strikingly similar. What is the link between the two? Is Titian's pen-and-ink drawing of St. Theodore related to the oil rendering of Actaeon in his celebrated painting Diana and Actaeon? Conservators in the Thaw Conservation Center partnered with international colleagues to analyze these two sixteenth-century Venetian works using imaging techniques much like those employed by forensic investigators. Use this guide to explore the issues and analyze the evidence.

St. Theodore

Image of Titian drawing About the drawing (left). The drawing depicts a popular legend: St. Theodore's domination of a menacing dragon. Here he is dressed as a Roman soldier wielding a tall lance, the dragon lying before him in abject surrender. The scene is dominated by a landscape—one of the few that Titian produced—featuring a castle upon a hill, reminiscent of the town of Pieve di Cadore, the artist's birthplace in the Veneto.

Titian. Landscape with St. Theodore Overcoming the Dragon. Mid-16th century. Pen and brown ink over traces of black chalk, on paper. 19.8 x 29.6 cm. The Morgan Library & Museum; gift of Janos Scholz, accession no. 1977.46.

The figure of Theodore (below left). A close look at the figure of St. Theodore suggests that the original drawing (in fine brown ink) has been reinforced crudely in another hand with a denser, darker ink. Who drew over the figure? When? Why? Did someone other than the masterful Titian—perhaps an artist in his workshop or a later restorer—draw over the figure?

Infrared image of Theodore (below right). Conservators made a series of images of the figure using reflected infrared digital photography with a series of filters. As more and more light in the visible spectrum was filtered out, some lines (such as the background composition and Theodore's armband and hanging scabbard) gradually disappeared. But other lines (the bulk of Theodore's body) remained strong. What do these results tell us? First, they confirm that there are two inks present, and that they most likely have different chemical compositions because they respond differently to infrared illumination. Second, they show clearly which lines were made with the first layer of ink (those that disappear) and which were gone over later in a different hand (those that remain strong). But because both types of ink were available in Titian's day and for a long time afterwards, these results alone do not tell us when, or by whom, the second layer of lines was drawn.

Detail of Titian drawing under normal light Detail of Titian drawing under infrared light

Image of Titian painting About the painting (left). Titian depicts a mythological scene from the Roman poet Ovid's Metamorphoses: after a day of hunting, young Actaeon loses his way and makes the mistake of stumbling upon Diana, the chaste goddess of the hunt, and her voluptuous cohorts, as they bathe. This is one of six large paintings that Titian produced for King Philip II of Spain during the mid-sixteenth century.

Titian. Diana and Actaeon. Ca. 1556-59. Oil on canvas. 184.5 x 202.2 cm. Collection of the National Gallery, London, and National Galleries of Scotland. View the painting in high resolution on Google Art Project and learn more about it here.

The figure of Actaeon (below right). Both St. Theodore (in the drawing) and Actaeon (in the painting) stand with one foot forward, one arm bent, and the other arm raised. Though their outfits differ in some respects, they wear similar boots, crisscross chest straps, and flowing skirts. One key difference: Theodore holds a tall lance, but Actaeon holds nothing—he simply raises his hand in surprise as he stumbles upon the bathers. Could forensic imaging reveal more about Titian's process of drawing Actaeon?

Infrared image of Actaeon (below left). Infrared imaging of oil paintings will sometimes reveal images invisible to the naked eye—preparatory drawings sketched directly onto the canvas before the paint was applied. When conservators applied this technique to Titian's Diana and Actaeon, a striking discovery was made: behind the figure of Actaeon is an underdrawing of what appears to be a long javelin held in his raised left hand. Actaeon's javelin, invisible to the naked eye because Titian chose to paint over it, closely resembles the lance that St. Theodore wields.

Detail of Titian painting under inrared light Detail of Titian painting

What does it all mean?

When we combine this scientific evidence with what we know of artistic practice in Renaissance Venice, can we draw any conclusions? We know that Titian, like many artists of his day, occasionally reused certain figure types and poses, and we can already see a resemblance between St. Theodore and Actaeon with the naked eye. Forensic imaging of the painting strengthened this connection by revealing a hidden element—Actaeon's javelin—that corresponds to Theodore's lance. Is it likely that the motif of a striding man caught in surprise (while wielding a long stick) originated in the workshop of Titian? Could the second layer of ink have been added to the figure of St. Theodore by someone in Titian's workshop in order to transfer the composition to another work for refinement or re-use? Forensic imaging doesn't answer these questions outright, but gives us new information to consider.

About the imaging process

Photo of imaging set up Infrared analysis can be used to detect erased or abraded inscriptions in graphite pencil, to distinguish among different formulations of writing inks (an application of great interest to forensic document examiners studying altered checks and fraudulent wills), and to detect drawings under layers of oil paint.

Infrared analysis is carried out by allowing only one narrow band of the "light" (more accurately called radiant energy because we cannot see the infrared portion of the spectrum) used to illuminate the drawing to reach the camera. The full spectrum of light is broken down into three distinct bands, of which only one narrow portion (400–700 nm) is visible to humans. The ultraviolet region (UV) has the shortest wavelengths (<400 nm) and is invisible to the human eye; the infrared region (IR) has the longest wavelengths (>700 nm) and is also invisible to the human eye.

The equipment used to photograph the Titian drawing was a Fuji IS Pro digital camera having a CCD (charge-coupled device) that can detect and convert into electrons energy ranging from the ultraviolet region (380 nm) to the near infrared region (1000nm) and a range of Peca filters (87A, 87B and 87C). The results allowed conservators to distinguish between two types of ink used in the drawing.

In the examination of oil paintings, infrared imaging is most often used to reveal underdrawings—preparatory drawings sketched directly onto the ground layer of the panel or canvas support. In order to be successfully imaged, the medium of the underdrawing must be a dark carbon-containing substance, such as black chalk or charcoal that absorbs radiation in the infrared region of the spectrum. In a traditional oil painting, the infrared radiation penetrates the paint layers to reveal the underdrawing on a white ground.

In the Titian painting, infrared imaging revealed an underdrawing of what appears to be a long javelin held in Actaeon's raised left hand. The complete underdrawing is not visible due to areas of the painting that were reworked in opaque pigments.

This web feature is presented in conjunction with the exhibition Renaissance Venice: Drawings from the Morgan, organized by Rhoda Eitel-Porter.

Major funding for this exhibition is provided by the Alex Gordon Fund for Exhibitions.

Generous support is provided by The Gladys Krieble Delmas Foundation and by Robert B. Loper, with additional assistance from members of the Visiting Committee to the Department of Drawings and Prints.

The authors of this research, Margaret Holben Ellis and Eliza Spaulding, gratefully acknowledge the assistance of Silvia Centeno, Vincent Ducourau, Rhoda Eitel-Porter, Nica Rieppi, Marco Leona, Charles Noble, Mary Oey, Justine Pokoik, Gianluca Poldi, Reba Snyder, Lesley Stevenson, Frank Trujillo, Peter Tytell, Nancy Yocco and the Mariposa Foundation.

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Thaw Conservation Center

The Thaw Conservation Center at The Morgan Library & Museum, a world-class laboratory for the conservation of works on paper and parchment—drawings, prints, photographs, illuminated manuscripts, rare books, fine bindings, and literary, historical, and music manuscripts—as well as a place for conservation studies, opened in February 2002.
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