Perspective | There’s a lot going on behind the curtain in this portrait by Titian

Have you ever seen a Renaissance portrait quite like this one by Titian? It’s a portrait of Filippo Archinto, a powerful Catholic cleric and diplomat, and it’s one of two versions. The other, in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, portrays Archinto conventionally. Only this version, at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, shows him half-obscured by a gauzy white curtain.

There’s a convincing explanation. But explanations, for all their interest, can detract from the spooky action that paintings generate on their own. So let’s linger in oblivion for a minute.

A lot of this portrait’s charge comes from Titian’s brushwork. He was at the height of his powers in the late 1550s, when this work was painted. He brought loose, overlapping strokes of paint to life with transparent, tinted glazes.

Archinto’s reddish-brown cape is so thinly painted you can see the weave of the canvas through it. The paint used for the flesh of his neck and cheek is thicker, more opaque. For the snaking edge of the sitter’s white shirt, Titian used a dry and broken impasto (thicker paint that sticks out from the surface), and he used the same impasto technique for the vertical seam of the curtain.

Painting something see-through isn’t easy. Titian’s approach was to make the part of the cape that’s behind the curtain darker than the part that isn’t. He then used broken dabs of white paint for the pattern of the veil’s weave. Both techniques work together to suggest, by implication, something so thin it’s transparent.

Of course, even without the curtain, the portrait is penetrating. It has that special alloy of nobility and tender presence that had made Titian Europe’s most in-demand portraitist.

People project a lot onto portraiture. They think a great portrait tells you things about the sitter’s personality, mental state, even destiny. But I’m not sure it really works like that. Portraits are not psychological novels. Painters are not seers.

Titian was, however, uncommonly alive to the softly pulsing, mortal emanations of other people. His special ability was to suggest all the unknowns of his sitters’ characters. Like Rembrandt after him, he managed to fuse our curiosity (who was this person?) with an almost tangible sense of the sitter’s mortal befuddlement (who am I, really?).

This portrait is understated, but it trembles with the pregnant power of everything Archinto, a powerful man, holds in reserve: his opinion of you, his power to do things to you, his power to confer or withhold. But also, his vulnerability.

Titian had already painted emperors, kings, doges and popes. But none of those other portraits semi-obscure the sitter with a translucent curtain. Since the device is artificially imposed (surely Archinto didn’t pose with an actual curtain?), its effect is to break the fourth wall, inviting more symbolic or poetic interpretations.

To me, it makes Archinto look haunted, almost as if he is being stalked — perhaps by death. I’m reminded, too, of Francis Bacon’s Velázquez-inspired pictures of screaming popes, sometimes behind veils. Archinto’s left hand, fingers spread to hold open a page, is made streaky and indeterminate by the veil. With its one eyelike ring, it resembles a ghostly human skull.

The museum dates this version “circa 1558.” By that time, Archinto was stuck in an extended limbo. He had had a long and illustrious career, serving both the Emperor Charles V and Pope Paul III, attending the Council of Trent, delivering the funeral oration for Charles V’s wife, Isabella, and championing St. Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Jesuits.

Between 1554 and 1556, Archinto represented Pope Julius III in Venice, which is probably where Titian first painted him. Yet another pope, Paul IV, made him archbishop of Milan at the end of 1556.

But the appointment, approved by Spain’s King Phillip II, was thwarted by Juan de Fonseca, the Spanish governor of Milan. The governor’s objection was rooted in obscure political power plays. But it prevented Archinto from coming into the city. So he tarried in nearby Bergamo, as de Fonseca awaited instructions from the Spanish king. This is probably when Titian painted this second version.

The curtain was Titian’s way to suggest the thwarting of Archinto’s prestigious appointment. By leaving the episcopal ring on Archinto’s finger outside the curtain, Titian emphasizes his right to the position.

The Spanish king’s confirmation of the pope’s appointment of Archinto eventually arrived, and de Fonseca relented. But the archbishop died in Bergamo before he could take up his position.

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