Titian and The Flaying of Marsyas
Enter into my breast; within me breathe
very power you made manifest
you drew Marsyas out from his limbs’ sheath.
La Divina Commedia: Paradiso
Dante, writing in the early 14th century, addressed the god Apollo in a
poet’s plea that he, Dante, might also be lent some of the divine
inspiration which allowed the god to defeat the satyr Marsyas in their
contest of musical skill. It is not a stretch to say that Titian,
painting his masterpiece of the contest’s brutal outcome some two
hundred years later, also breathed that divine power and that his
fingers, by then nearly a century old, moved too with the grace of
The story of Marsyas and Apollo is superficially simple: Athena, having
invented the flute, realizes how she distorts her face in playing it.
Cursing the instrument, she throws it away, whereupon it is picked up by
Marsyas, who either doesn’t hear the curse or prefers to ignore it.
(Note, it is unlikely to have been a flute as we think of one: one
version specifically states plural - flutes - before going on to
say “they were generally played in pairs anyway,”
which is supported by the term “double flute” used elsewhere.
Ovid simply says the “reeds of Pallas,”
while Xenophon implies the instrument was the aulos, “a woodwind
instrument believed of Phrygian origin.”)
Marsyas becomes a skilled player, so much so that he challenges Apollo
to a contest.
The god wins, of course, though it is interesting to note that it is not
always through honest means. Nearly all accounts indicate Apollo, rather
than match Marsyas with instrument, plays upon his lyre; when it becomes
apparent that Marsyas may, in fact, win, Apollo turns his lyre upside
down and continues. Marsyas, with a flute, cannot.
Whether through trickery or divine skill, what follows is defeat. As the
terms of the contest clearly stated winner could do to the loser
whatever he liked, Apollo flays Marsyas alive.
“Why do you strip myself from me?” he cried.
I give in, I lose, forgive me now,
hollow shin-bone’s worth this punishment.”
as he cried the skin cracked from his body
one wound, blood streaming over muscles,
stripped naked, pulse beating; entrails could be
as they moved; even the heart shone red
The tale ends with Marsyas becoming the river of the same name: either
through the tears of the contest’s spectators (woodland deities,
mostly), or by his own blood as it left him.
There is no denying that Apollo, in exacting his victory, is - even by
Greek standards - unspeakably cruel. Several suggestions have been made
to explain this, all of which indicate that, contemporarily, the flaying
was meant as far more than simple punishing of hubris. As an example:
Between the late sixth century B.C. and the early fifth (that is, around
half a century before any mention of the Marsyas tale),
the mathematician Pythagoras and his followers developed a musical scale
by which “the seven tones of the octave, represented by the seven
strings of the Apollonian lyre, became associated with the seven planets
that were ruled by Apollo-Helios.”
Plato, and after him Cicero, supported this with the belief that the
right sort of music (i.e., the lyre),
was akin, possibly even intrinsic, to a well-governed city.
So it was not just foolish arrogance Marsyas was guilty of, but of
literally threatening the sacred and harmonious order of the
universe. Of course he had to be punished - and brutally. Marsyas had
become, in effect, an enemy of the state, a chaotic element which it
became necessary, for the survival of the whole, to destroy. (This is
especially important to note for the myth’s popularity during the
Renaissance as a means of political propaganda.)
A final note: Marsyas, post-flaying, was transformed into a river known
as the “clearest stream in ancient Phrygia.”
Symbolically, water “carries off, but it does more: it purifies.”
In other words, through these means Marsyas was cleansed of his
subversiveness and reborn as something new. This has already been
suggested by the flaying itself: Plato, in his Symposium, has the
drunken Alcibiades not only liken Marsyas to Socrates, but go on to
“Is he not like a Silenus in this? To be sure he is: his outer mask is
the carved head of the Silenus; but O my companions in drink, when he is
opened, what temperance there is residing within!”
In other words, much like the famously ugly Socrates, in whose crude
speech lay great beauty, so Marsyas once he was rid of his outer skin.
It should also be said that in his own land, Marsyas was always
considered a hero, to the end that during the war between the Phrygians
and the Gauls, the former claimed the satyr brought aid of music and
Titian, called Tiziano Vecellio during his own time, was born in the
small town Cadore sometime between 1470 and 1490. (Several theories
exist for the twenty year gap, but the strongest evidence for
specificity comes from the contemporary writer Vasari, by whom,
contradictions not withstanding,
it is pinned closer to the late 1480’s.)
By century’s end it is probable Titian was already a full-time resident
of Venice and working as an apprentice in Giovanni Bellini’s workshop.
Here he met Giorgio Barbarelli da Castelfranco, known to us as Giorgione,
a relationship which cannot be overstated: contemporary sources indicate
that what would become Titian’s characteristic style was in fact adapted
to the end that “[Titian’s early] pictures at times were mistaken for
works by [the latter].”
By 1508 the part-friendship, part-collaboration was over,
although Titian continued to work with Bellini on occasion (Duke Alfonso
of Ferrera’s chambers, for example, in 1514).
In the early 1520’s Titian met the “perpetual gadfly”
Pietro Aretino - blackmailer, pornographer, gossip, and literary genius
besides. But for all the bad said of Aretino, he would prove to be both
one of Titian’s greatest friends and his greatest advertiser. Through
his tireless efforts, Titian became known to some of his most important
patrons - the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V
(his son, Philip II, by extension) and Queen Mary of Hungary among them.
Together with the sculptor/architect Jacopo Sansovino, who joined them
soon after, these three formed an artistic triumvirate
that would end only at the eventual death of its members. It was a
highly influential relationship, both within their own specific sphere
and life in general. For example, in 1529 the roof of the library
Sansovino was working on collapsed under a combination of ice and snow
and Sansovino was thrown into prison under order of execution. Aretino
and Titian not only managed to get him out, “but within about year had
him restored to his former post as city achitect.”
Titian was, by now, already well known; when Charles V appointed him
court painter in 1533 his fame only grew.
It was an interesting situation best described thus,
on the one hand, according to the power structures of his native and
beloved Venice, he was a humble depentore, belonging to a
politically impotent guild. Yet on the other hand, according to all
accounts, he lived the life of a wealthy gentleman, a nobleman even, and
was treated as their equal by the princes of Italy, and with unusual
respect by the Emperor, the King of Spain and the Queen of Hungary.
In 1545 Titian went to Rome for a year, which marks one of the very few
times he ever left Venice for a patron (in this case at the behest of
grandson of Pope Paul III).
Here he met Michelangelo, probably for the second time.
This meeting is interesting for several reasons, the least of which is
Michelangelo’s own admittance that had Titian only been taught design,
no one could be better.
It is also likely that Titian’s sense of tragic, that which makes the
Marsyas so harrowing, became more intense following this meeting.
For the next thirty years Titian worked diligently for his
painting some of his most intensely psychological portraits (Pope
Paul III with His Grandsons Alessandro and Ottavio Farnese, done
while still in Rome, for example) as well as subjects of his own
choosing. In this Titian was unique - having never gone to live at
court, he became something of a courtier,
generally painting themes which interested him with no patron in mind.
On August 27, 1576, likely of the same plague that would kill his son
Orazio only a few days later, Titian died. He was by then close to one
hundred years old
and had long outlived both Aretino and Sansovino, to say nothing of
Michelangelo, da Vinci, and the like. His oeuvre stood at nearly three
hundred pieces, the final two works being The Flaying of Marsyas
and the unfinished Pietà meant for his own tomb.
Before proceeding, some mention of Titian’s distinctive style should be
made as it figures so importantly in both the Marsyas and his
work overall. Titian primarily painted with oils, the medium
Michelangelo so famously dismissed as being “for women and for leisurely
and idle people like Fra Sebastiano [del Piombo],”
and it’s fortunate they were available to him, given his proclivity for
painting with his fingers.
In 1550 Queen Mary of Hungary sent Titian’s portrait of Philip II to
“Bloody Mary” Tudor in England; a letter accompanying the piece
amusingly instructed, “Titian’s pictures [do] not [bear] to be looked at
Vasari, in the second edition of his lives (that is, 1568), goes a step
further: he indicates that while the method may look easy, the works are
“painted over and over” in a way that “conceals the labour.” More
importantly, he remarks, “from near little can be seen, but from a
distance [the paintings] appear perfect.”
In modern times Titian’s style has been eloquently described thusly:
His way of painting, his colorito, his lack of definition and
outline, prevent one from isolating the object of one’s immediate
interest; the beholder is constantly aware of looking at a larger scene,
an overall composition, not just at individual figures (however exciting
they may be).
The Flaying of Marsyas
It is unknown when Titian began work on The Flaying of Marsyas;
following his death, it was found still in his workshop,
which gave rise to theories that it was unfinished. The main body of
evidence for this comes from comparing the Marsyas to Tarquin
and Lucretia, which was shipped to Philip II in 1571, and thus
would’ve been worked on during the same period.
The latter painting is characterized by a very high finish and intense
colouring: the former, “although accepted as the most stunning example
of the famously loose brushwork that Titian developed in his later
is largely a monochromatic work. On the other hand, it is signed, which
indicates that perhaps Titian, at least, was finished with it.
Similarly, there is no evidence
that Titian painted the Marsyas for a specific patron; indeed,
based on Titian’s relationships with his patrons, especially in these
last years, it’s very likely the subject was chosen by and for himself.
In 1620 the painting, bought by the Countess of Arundel, was brought to
London from Venice; it spent the next fifty-odd years passing through
several hands before being acquired by Karl von Liechtenstein, the
Bishop of Olmütz, in 1673. At some point following it was transfered to
the Archbishop’s Palace in Kroměříž, in modern day Czech Republic, and
in that town it remains.
Regarding inspiration, Titian needn’t have looked far: in 1517,
following the surrender of Famagusta, a port city on Cyprus, to the
Turks, the “Venetian commander Marcantonio Bragadin was incarcerated,
tortured, and finally publicly flayed.”
There was also his now-dead friend Aretino, who had likened himself to a
and was, by century’s end, “well and truly flayed”
by way of desperate demythologization: through a process of prohibition,
name-blacking, and fabrication, all that remained of Aretino was a
sordid reputation as a two-bit pornographer. Finally, as mentioned
before, the myth of Marsyas itself was hardly obscure during the
Renaissance and there are numerous instances of paintings, woodcuts,
intaglios, and sculptures depicting the story, many of them indicating a
connection between Christ and Apollo (i.e., Apollo as purifier allowing
the redemption of Marsyas).
Concerning the unique physical style of the work, it’s been suggested
that Titian, over the course of his very long and successful career,
changed his manner of painting profoundly, but his “intimacy with paint”
- that is, his genius with color, which he manipulated “as though it
were a physical entity” - never.
Whether or not this is the case, and convincing arguments have been made
in the opposite (i.e., the notion of a ‘late style’ as false), the
Marsyas shows a very natural progression. Its figures are caught not
in the hard clarity of Michelangelo’s terribilità, nor the
delicate sfumato of Leonardo da Vinci, but blurred in a manner
consummately Titian, a manner which suggests motion, and thus life:
[T]he very nature of Titian’s allusive painting process, which reveals
and veils alternately, [hints] at successive layers of meaning. In the
fluidity, not to say elusiveness of the forms, the brush strokes
incarnate possibilities of meanings that take form and then disintegrate
before our mind’s eye.
the agitated brushwork of the figure of Marsyas is obviously meant to
evoke the sense of his pulsating flesh as it is exposed, by Apollo’s and
his helper’s knives, in all its rawness and excruciating pain.
The painting itself is a huge work, measuring just under seven feet in
height and just over six and half in width. In the middle hangs inverted
Marsyas with goat legs,
his arms bowed around his head and lashed together. Below him is a pool
of blood at which a tiny dog laps; immediately to the left kneels
Apollo, his face serene but intent, caught in graceful mid-action with a
knife in his right hand while his left pulls at Marsyas’ skin. Directly
above him is a Phrygian, likewise with a knife, the V of his arm echoing
Apollo’s and otherwise so dark in execution he can barely be made out;
further to the left is an odd grace note: a lira da braccio (much
like a violin) player set against a bright sky. His mouth is open,
indicating he might soon sing;
the symbolism of the number seven, previously mentioned and as found in
the lira’s clearly defined pegs, cannot be ignored.
The painting’s right side contains as follows: An approaching satyr,
bringing with him a pail of water. Much as with the seven pegs, the
water is an interesting detail referring both to the river Marsyas will
become (indeed, given the way the satyr gestures enthusiastically with
his arm, another echo of Apollo’s, it’s likely he’s already referring to
the new river, “whose floods are shimmering here and there in the wooded
and to the process of purification. Below him and seated with his head
heavy in his hand is Titian himself in the guise of King Midas,
recognizable by his donkey ears.
Further below him is a satyr child holding a second dog, much larger
than the silly creature drinking blood, his arm like parentheses to
invite the viewer in.
The Marsyas provides several interesting allusions, each a
combination of the mythological, psychological, and philosophical. For
example, on one hand the two canines recall the story of Actaeon and
also, incidentally, painted by Titian. On the other, they work as foils
for each other: The elder being restrained and faithful, clearly wishing
to act on his animal impulses but obedient; the younger reduced to a
pure, beastly state. They are the satyr split, itself an emblem of the
and further push the painting as a deliberation on humanity’s “extremes
[...] - from disastrous failure and barbarous cruelty to transcendent
A final note. As modern viewers we have a tendency to sympathize with
Marsyas; Apollo’s cruelty seems unnaturally blatant and obscene. During
the Renaissance, however, when the Greek origins of the story were much
more familiar to the public, Marsyas was still seen as a subversive
element which it was necessary to destroy. In this way the story began
to be used as propaganda (i.e., those who would throw chaos into the
harmony of the Church’s order would be punished) and Apollo, as has
already been mentioned, began to take on Christ-like attributes. He is
seen as Marsyas’ saviour; through his action, whereby he removes the
satyr’s sinful outer skin, the latter is reborn into something clean and
pure. Titian’s awareness of this can be seen throughout the work, not
least in the tranquil expression upon golden Apollo’s face, placed
millimeters from curling, bleeding flesh. Paradoxically, it is
Titian-Midas who seems troubled, his body weighed down by the brutality
of what he is witnessing. To wit, “in him [Titian] portrayed his own
despondent meditation on the mystery of suffering and death.”
Ut pictura poesis
goes Horace’s famous line - as a painting, so a poem. He was, of course,
referring to the old argument of versus: which is better, and why. But
it is not hard to simply say that as a poem, so the Marsyas: a beautiful
and terrible contemplation of life and death. It is a culmination of
Titian’s lush style - the idea that a painting should look perfect from
a distance, the outlines of its figures blurred with life, marked by
Titian’s own specific “ability to envisage scenes of suffering, cruelty,
fear and horror at the height of their dramatic effect.”
It is a painting which combines the deep symbolism of its myth with the
sharp intelligence of its creator coming to the end of his days during
the Renaissance, a time which, “at its most distinctive[,] was the
intangible, unworldly life of the mind.”
And so it goes.
Dante Alighieri, La Divina Commedia: Paradiso. Translated by
Allen Mandelbaum (Berkeley: 1982) canto 1, lines 19-21.
H.J. Rose, A Handbook of Greek Mythology (New York: E. P. Dutton
& Co., 1959) 111.
Edward Tripp, The Meridian Handbook of Classical Mythology (New
York: New American Library, 1974) 357.
Ovid, The Metamorphoses. Translated by Horace Gregory (New York:
Signet, 1960) 174.
Edith Wyss, The Myth of Apollo and Marsyas in the Art of the Italian
Renaissance (University of Delaware Press, 1996) 19.
Michael Foucault, Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in
the Age of Reason. Translated by Richard Howard (New York: Vintage,
Plato, Symposium. Translated by Benjamin Jowett (Boston: Branden
Books, 1996). Available from World Wide Web: (http://etext.library.adelaide.edu.au/p/plato/p71sy/index.html)
Wyss, 62-63: By ‘Silenus’, Alcibiades references several things: a) the
sileni, traditionally followers of Dionysus; b) Silenus, singular, the
teacher/companion to Dionysus, known for being continually drunk; and c)
little clay statues of sileni available to buy which could be opened
down the middle to reveal likenesses of the gods.
Giorgio Vasari, Lives of the Painters, Sculptors and Architects.
Translated by Gaston De Vere (London: Everyman’s Library, 1996) 780-798:
Vasari’s account of Titian is based mostly on his own encounter with him
in the year 1566, at which time Vasari puts Titian’s age at seventy-six;
this is impossible if, as Vasari says in the beginning, Titian was born
in 1480. Either Titian was born in 1480, then, and was eighty-six at the
time of the meeting, or he was born in 1490 and was indeed seventy-six.
Filippo Pedrocco, Titian (New York: Rizzoli International
Publications, 2001) 19-20.
Rona Goffen, Renaissance Rivals: Michelangelo, Leonardo, Raphael,
Titian (New Haven: Yale UP, 2004) 265.
Carlo Ridolfi et al., The Life of Titian (Penn State UP, 1996)
61; Vasari, 781.
Ridolfi et al., 43; Vasari, 783: Both artists worked on the facade of
the Fondaco dei Tedeschi; when Titian’s work was mistaken for
Giorgione’s and the latter highly praised, he became so bitter he
refused to further associate with Titian. Ridolfi claims those
congratulating Giorgione were Titian’s friends, and knew full-well who
had painted the fresco - their congratulations becoming malevolent
goading rather than a simple mistake. Whatever the truth, the outcome
was the same: Giorgione became a recluse and died soon after.
Ingrid Rowland, From Heaven to Arcadia: The Sacred and the Profane in
the Renaissance (New York Review Book Collections, 2005) 58.
Ridolfi et al., 82.
Raymond B. Waddington, Aretino’s Satyr: Sexuality, Satire and
Self-Projection in Sixteenth-Century Literature and Art (University
of Toronto Press, 2004) xxii.
Arthur Stanley Riggs, Titian the Magnificent and the Venice of His
Day (New York: Bobbs-Merrill Co., 1946) 169.
Ridolfi et al., 72: Titian and Charles V had a very interesting
relationship; it’s quite possible, given the evidence, that they truly
Thomas Puttfarken, Titian and Tragic Painting: Aristotle’s “Poetics”
and the Rise of the Modern Artist (New Haven and London: Yale UP,
Goffen, 267: Michelangelo, following the fall of the Florentine
Republic, was in Venice in 1529.
Vasari, 791: Michelangelo’s dismissal alludes to the paragone between
colorito and disegno then holding sway. In very general terms, it can be
described as the competition between Venice and Florence, respectively,
and each city’s distinct artistic style. Both Michelangelo and Vasari
are highly biased Florentines; for them the idea of colour as priority,
seen in Titian, is absurd. Futhermore, Vasari never bothers to hide his
personal preference for Michelangelo - in the first edition of his Lives
(1550) it’s plain that the human body, as expressed in Michelangelo’s
work, is the definition of art. In the second (1568), he acquiesces
slightly to indicate that other elements (landscape, non-nudes, etc.),
as done by Raphael, might also be important. It should be noted that in
the first edition Vasari doesn’t even include Titian; in the second,
while variously complimenting him, he never completely manages to lose
Pedrocco, 19: A death certificate states Titian was 103; this would put
his birth in 1973, seventeen years prior to Vasari’s version. It’s
difficult to know for certain.
Puttfarken, 180: Although Puttfarken is speaking of the mythological
cycle Titian painted for Philip II (which includes The Rape of Europa
and Venus and Adonis), it’s an illusion which can be applied to many of
Titian’s pieces, not only those specifically.
Wyss, 94-95: “The concept of Marsyas as goat-legged satyr was slow to
catch on; both types coexisted throughout the sixteenth century. [...]
However, the new casting of Marsyas as satyr had another consequence: he
became visually indistinguishable from Pan and thus the ancient
difficulty of keeping the two musical contests of Apollo separate was
Rose, 145; Tripp, 378: Pan challenged Apollo with King Tmolus sitting as
judge; Midas, king of Phrygia and follower of both Dionysus and Pan,
objected to Tmolus’ ruling that Apollo was the better player and
received, for his rashness, the ears seen. It’s been suggested that his
objection came during the contest with Apollo; both versions are
Tripp, 10-11: The hunter Actaeon spied the goddess as she was bathing
with her nymphs; as punishment, Artemis transformed him into a stag,
whereupon he was killed by his own hounds.
Horace, Ars Poetica, line 361: Available from World Wide Web: (http://www.thelatinlibrary.com/horace/arspoet.shtml)
Edith. Mythology. New York: Warner Books, 1999
Goffen, Rona. Renaissance Rivals: Michelangelo, Leonardo, Raphael,
Titian. New Haven: Yale UP, 2004
Ovid. The Metamorphoses. Translated by Horace Gregory. New York:
Pedrocco, Filippo. Titian. New York: Rizzoli International
Plato. Symposium. Translated by Benjamin Jowett. Boston: Branden
Books, 1996. Available from the World Wide Web: (http://etext.library.adelaide.edu.au/p/plato/p71sy/index.html)
Puttfarken, Thomas. Titian and Tragic Painting: Aristotle’s “Poetics”
and the Rise of the Modern Artist. New Haven and London: Yale UP,
Ridolfi, Carlo, Bruce Cole, Julia Conway Bondanella, Jody Robin Shiffman
and Peter Bondanella. The Life of Titian. Penn State UP, 1996
Riggs, Arthur Stanley. Titian the Magnificent and the Venice of His
Day. New York: Bobbs-Merrill Co., 1946
Rose, H. J.. A Handbook of Greek Mythology. New York: E. P.
Dutton & Co., 1959
Rowland, Ingrid. From Heaven to Arcadia: The Sacred and the Profane
in the Renaissance. New York Review Book Collections, 2005
Tripp, Edward. The Meridian Handbook of Classical Mythology. New
York: New American Library, 1974
Vasari, Giorgio. Lives of the Painters, Sculptors and Architects.
Translated by Gaston De Vere. London: Everyman’s Library, 1996
Waddington, Raymond B.. Aretino’s Satyr: Sexuality, Satire and
Self-Projection in Sixteenth-Century Literature and Art. University
of Toronto Press, 2004
Wyss, Edith. The Myth of Apollo and Marsyas in the Art of the Italian
Renaissance. University of Delaware Press, 1996