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The Sinister Side: Titian’s Diana and Actaeon

James Hall was an art critic for The Guardian, and is now a freelance art historian and writer. His latest book is The Sinister Side: How Left-Right Symbolism Shaped Western Art. In the piece below he considers Titian’s painting Diana and Actaeon, which has been in the British news recently thanks to a campaign to raise enough money to keep the picture in the UK and stop it being sold on the open market. Here James examines right and left in the painting.

£50 million for Titian’s Diana and Actaeon? That’s the amount the National Galleries in London and Edinburgh have to raise by December 31st to prevent the picture being sold on the open market.

The painting has been owned by the Dukes of Sutherland for two hundred years, and has been on public view in Edinburgh since 1945, together with its companion piece, Diana and Callisto, which will be sold next year unless another £50 million is raised. Both were painted in 1556-9 for the Spanish King Philip II, part of a series of six mythological paintings based on stories from Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

The art establishment is in no doubt that Diana and Actaeon must be ‘saved for the nation’, and sixty artists, including Lucien Freud, Antony Gormley, Tracy Emin and David Hockney, have signed a petition that was handed in at 10 Downing Street. I too believe this large, nearly square picture (184.5 x 202.2 cm) is of the utmost importance and £50 million is a fraction of the price it might fetch at auction: it is nothing less than one of the greatest mythological paintings of the Renaissance.

I said as much on the BBC World Service cultural programme The Forum when I was there to discuss my new book on left-right symbolism. At the start of the programme I and the two other participants (the historian Niall Ferguson and the novelist M. G. Vassanji) were asked to say what was our favourite painting: I opted for Titian’s Diana and Actaeon.

Even before I became interested in left-right symbolism, I was enthralled by this painting, and my love of the city of Edinburgh was partly predicated on being able to see this and the other Sutherland pictures that were on loan to the National Galleries of Scotland. But looking at Titian’s Diana and Actaeon in terms of left-right symbolism does help deepen our engagement with it, and helps explain some of the anatomical distortions and emphases given to Diana’s naked body. One newspaper columnist, Tom Sutcliffe, has been bemused by her “unconvincing anatomy”, and “came away crestfallen” from his encounter. His article was bathetically headlined: “The Titian that was no turn-on”.

So what’s going on? The handsome youth Actaeon has been out hunting, but after losing his companions, accidently – and fatally – wanders into the secret lair of Diana, chaste goddess of the hunt. Diana and her virgin nymphs are all naked, bathing in the cool waters of a shady grotto. The lovely nymphs exhibit various degrees of alarm, curiosity and even insouciance about the handsome intruder. The seated goddess Diana is a far more complex figure, both anatomically and psychologically. She appears to be both voluptuous and demonic, brazen and awesome: a divine femme fatale.

In theatrical terms, Actaeon approaches from ‘stage right’, and he peers across at Diana who is positioned at ‘stage left’ – the traditional location of bad things: in pantomime, the Demon King entered from stage left. Titian placed a clothed black servant girl just behind Diana’s left shoulder, and her presence there is surely meant to enhance Diana’s ‘sinister’ qualities. In the Renaissance, the devil was often depicted as a dark-skinned creature, who might well whisper into their intended victim’s left ear, and the servant-girl certainly certainly has a conspiratorial air. It has been recently argued that the figure of Diana may have influenced Picasso when he painted the monstrous, crouching figure positioned at ‘stage left’ in the Desmoiselles d’Avignon, and there is a comparable feeling of malevolence. Diana’s symbol was the moon, but Titian’s Diana wears a gold crescent moon on her head like a pair of deadly pointed horns. Her diminutive head nestles behind her raised left arm like a snake’s, primed to strike.

During the Renaissance, a woman’s left side was regarded as her most beautiful side. Not only was this the ‘heart’ side, and thus the side of feeling, but it was also less used (by right-handers) and so likely to be less worn or marked. In one of his love lyrics the poet Tasso called it “the soft side”, while the Venetian courtesan and poet Veronica Franco, in a verse letter to her favourite lover, says that her own beauty will be dedicated to making him happy, and she will make him taste the delights of love, “when he is close to her left side”. Titian gives us an extraordinary uninterrupted profile view of the whole of Diana’s left side and raised left arm, and there is no doubt that this is the best view: the goddess’ right leg, which is being rubbed down by one of the nymphs, is crude and ungainly in comparison to the elegantly turned left leg. It is also less brightly lit.

Now that he has feasted his eyes on Diana’s beautiful left side, Actaeon must die. The National Gallery already owns Titian’s Death of Actaeon, and here he is turning into a stag, and is set upon by his own dogs. We see him from the left, and in a tragic reprise of Diana’s earlier pose, he raises his left arm to fend off his own hunting dogs and Diana’s arrow, aimed directly at his all too human heart.

Recent Comments

  1. […] The UK will be having a general election this Spring, and the campaigns for (re)election are hotting up on all sides. Recently, both the Labour and Conservative parties began unveiling major poster campaigns, and in the piece below James Hall, author of The Sinister Side: How Left-Right Symbolism Shaped Western Art, takes a closer look at a Labour poster attacking Conservative leader David Cameron and discusses what the left-right symbolism is telling us in it. A version of this article originally appeared in The Guardian print edition in February, and you can also read more from James Hall on OUPblog here. […]

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