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Attributed to Titian (c. 1488-Venice 1576)

The Lovers c. 1510

Oil on canvas | 74.5 x 65.2 x 1.8 cm (support, canvas/panel/str external) | RCIN 403928

King's Dressing Room, Windsor Castle

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  • The composition and enigmatic subject matter of this painting suggest the early interests of Titian when he was influenced by Giorgione. The woman has either fainted and is held by a man feeling her heart (in the nineteenth century the painting was called ‘a sick Lady, her Husband and a physician’), or she is resting against her lover in ecstasy. It is probably a scene from Renaissance literature.

    The attribution and subject of this painting have been much debated. This arrangement of figures in art often depicts a courtesan or faithless wife in the arms of a young lover, with her duped, elderly and rich husband (or protector) in the background. The woman here does not wear the elaborate clothes or jewellery of a courtesan and there is no sense of treachery in the scene. A print by Zoan Andrea called The Lovers of c.1510-19, shows a couple in a similar arrangement and has been linked to this painting.

    This is probably a scene from Classical or Renaissance literature, but there is no obvious way of telling which, as Titian generally avoided giving figures period dress. Another version of the same composition in the Casa Buonarroti, Florence, was known as the Death of Lucretia, but there is no sword or wound to support this identification. Carlo Ridolfi, writing in 1648, mentions a Titian half-length of Cornelia fainting in the arms of Pompey, which has been connected with this composition. The story comes from Lucan’s Pharsalia (Book v) of the first century AD: before his final battle with Caesar, Pompey orders his wife Cornelia to be taken to the safety of the island of Lesbos; at their parting, she faints into the arms of her attendants, who bear her away. However, this subject is rarely represented in art and the man who holds the woman in this painting seems to be too important to be an attendant. The more usual subject in art is Pompey’s previous wife, Julia, fainting from the shock of seeing his blood-stained gown, which again does not match this painting.

    Another possible source comes from Italian Renaissance literature and was first proposed by Crowe and Cavalcaselle: the collection of novellas by Matteo Bandello (1485-1561) contain two stories which could fit this scene. One is probably also the source for Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and tells how a young woman secretly marries a boy, who is sent abroad by his father, leaving her obliged to marry another. She falls into a swoon, apparently dead, and is buried in the family vault; she is revived by her true husband on his return, who feels for the beat of her heart. If this subject is intended here, the age of the third figure would suggest that he is the second husband rather than the father. In another story the niece of the Duke of Burgundy secretly marries and eventually dies in the arms of a young man, Carlo Valdreo, who subsequently kills himself. The heroine’s death is witnessed by a servant, which would better account for the third man in the painting. The problem with this explanation is that this painting can be dated to c.1510 and Bandello cannot have started working on his Novelle until the 1530s (they were not published until 1554. Another possibility is that the subject derives from a similar type of story (or perhaps a different telling of the same story) which cannot be identified today.

    X-radiography revealed that the woman was originally more decorous, with more of her breasts covered by drapery, and the man’s hand may have been in a different position. The man’s hat was altered and the third man’s hand on the woman’s shoulder was painted almost as an after-thought. The most surprising revelation is the long, sweeping lines working out the woman’s drapery in style and direction completely different from those finally painted. She may have worn a white chemise gathered at her shoulder comparable to that worn by Titian’s Lucretia (Gemäldegalerie, Vienna). The energy of the strokes and the radical difference between underpainting and final version are typical of Titian.

    Various suggestions have been made as to the author of this painting over the years: Giorgione, Titian and artists influenced by him - Paris Bordone, Sebastiano del Piombo, and Cariani. The pentiments discovered by x-radiography analysis in this picture suggest that it should be regarded as the prime version and that the Buonarroti painting was made after it, by means of tracing.

    It is believed that The Lovers was painted by Titian, though this attribution must remain tentative in view of the damaged upper half of the painting. The least damaged areas, such as the man’s satin sleeve, have the dynamic brushwork and vibrant colour typical of Titian. In handling of paint and features it can be related to other half-lengths: A Portrait of a Man with a Quilted Sleeve (National Gallery, London) and the Salome or Judith with the Head of Holofernes (Doria Pamphili Collection, Rome). The comparison, this time of costume and length of hair, with the National Gallery Man with a Quilted Sleeve also provides a date of c.1510 for this painting. The composition and enigmatic subject matter fit the early preoccupations of Titian when he and his patrons were much influenced by the achievements of Giorgione.

    Catalogue entry adapted from The Art of Italy in the Royal Collection: Renaissance and Baroque, London, 2007

    Acquired by Charles I; recorded in the Second Privy Lodging Room at Whitehall in 1639 (no 17); recovered at the Restoration it appears in the King's Closet at Whitehall in 1666 (no 306)

  • Medium and techniques

    Oil on canvas


    74.5 x 65.2 x 1.8 cm (support, canvas/panel/str external)

    93.7 x 82.2 x 10.0 cm (frame, external)

  • Alternative title(s)

    'A sick Lady, her Husband and her physician'