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Oi – There’s a Titian in the Basement

January 9, 2013
Titian portrait just been rediscovered in the basement of the National Gallery. Photograph: The National Gallery

Titian portrait just been rediscovered in the basement of the National Gallery. Photograph: The National Gallery

The National Gallery in London has recently determined that a 16th century painting in its basement is actually a portrait of Girolamo Fracastoro, the doctor who named syphilis, according to an article in The Guardian.  The gallery has owned the painting since 1924, though as the article notes, “for years in a remote lower room, forgotten.”

The anonymity of the misattributed painting grows with age. “When a painting is regarded as not by anyone famous and put in a museum’s dark corners, [National Gallery Director Nicholas] Penny suggests, a self-fulfilling process starts: curators are less likely to examine it, or clean it, or even properly frame it. But in this case fresh eyes, including those of the art historian Paul Joannides, were cast on a forgotten painting and it was taken to the lab to be restored. Discoveries there about the canvas and technique blaze the name Titian.”  The discovery, Guardian writer Jonathan Jones, concludes means, “the National Gallery now has the finest collection of Titians in the world.”

According to The Guardian:

Girolamo Fracastoro analysed the pox in an epic poem in which he coins its modern medical name. The searing infection that he was one of the first to study probably came to Europe from the Americas soon after Christopher Columbus “discovered” the New World in 1492. Italians also called it the French disease, because French soldiers carried it into Italy in 1494. It ravaged faces and bodies, and another painting of a doctor in the National Gallery was done by the artist Lorenzo Costa as a thank you for curing his dose.

Is it just possible that Titian paid for a syphilis cure with a portrait? If so, it would not be the only astonishing thing about this painting …

Fracostoro worked in Verona, in the empire of the Venetian republic. As well as naming syphilis, he came up with a modern theory of contagion, saying diseases were transmitted by tiny “spores”. This was a big advance on the orthodoxy of the time that sicknesses such as plague were caused by bad air.

Fracastoro’s portrait has been damaged over the centuries, although the new cleaning by the National Gallery has revealed a very characterful face. The background is more problematic and Penny admits its clumsy architecture remains a puzzle.

But Titian’s genius flares in one fantastic detail that makes this painting – warts and all – truly captivating. “It’s not the head that is so amazing in this picture”, as Penny puts it, “but the fur.”

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