Lady of desire

14th February 2003 at 00:00
The Venetian artist Titian is still irresistible five centuries on, says Ghislaine Kenyon

Serious queueing is predicted around the National Gallery this week when it hosts the first major exhibition in Britain devoted to the work of the 16th-century artist Titian. Titian's revolutionary handling of surface and colour transformed the language of painting, and this show features some of his most famous works, including the National Gallery's "Bacchus and Ariadne".

As a teacher, you may wonder whether there is a place in the classroom or art room for a picture such as this, with its rarefied subject from ancient Greek mythology painted for an elite and erudite audience. It's perhaps not an obvious choice. However, experience has shown that students and teachers find it an exciting image which has given rise to projects that would surely have pleased Titian and his patron.

"Bacchus and Ariadne" was commissioned by Alfonso d'Este, Duke of Ferrara, as part of a decorative scheme for his Camerino d'Alabastro - one of a series of private rooms he created for his castle at Ferrara. Alfonso wanted works by the best artists in Italy to hang together there, recreating an ancient picture gallery, as described in a late-antique Greek text. The first picture, "The Feast of the Gods", was completed by the aged Giovanni Bellini in about 1524. However, two of the other commissioned artists, Raphael and Fra Bartolomeo, died before finishing their works and Titian ended up painting three pictures (the other two, "The Worship of Venus" and "The Andrians", are in Museo National del Prado in Madrid and will also travel to London for the show). The exhibition will reunite Titian's paintings for the camerino for the first time since 1598.

"Bacchus and Ariadne" illustrates two mythological texts by the Latin poets Ovid and Catullus, which Titian would have read. In the story, Princess Ariadne, daughter of King Minos of Crete, is in love with Theseus and helps him defeat the Minotaur at Knossos. Theseus then abandons her on the island of Naxos. Distraught, Ariadne wanders along the shore searching for her lover's ship, when she is surprised by the wine god Bacchus leaping from his chariot towards her. Bacchus has fallen in love with her; he asks her to marry him and, as a wedding gift, he offers her the sky, in which one day she will become a constellation.

A significant and dramatic moment is depicted: Bacchus falls in love with Ariadne at first sight; Ariadne is still lamenting her fate when she is startled by Bacchus's noisy followers. She looks up at him with a mixture of shock and fear, but also interest.

Most of the detail comes from the text. Bacchus and his group are described by Catullus as "youthful Bacchus wandering with the rout of satyrs and the sileni... looking for you Ariadne... some tossing about the limbs of a mangled steer, some girding themselves with serpents... others beating timbrels with raised hands or clashing with round brass cymbals". Ovid describes Ariadne's appearance as "clad in an ungirt tunic, barefoot, golden hair unbound as if she had just risen from sleep, calling for Theseus across the deep water, her cheeks bedewed with tears".

Titian also adds his own elements. Lying on a prominent lemon-yellow cloth is a bronze vase with the artist's signature engraved on it (ticianvs f.

(ecit), which is Latin for "Titian made this"). A little dog with a collar - perhaps belonging to the "human" rather than the godly side of the picture - barks at a dreamy little satyr child who drags a calf's head behind him. The flower in front of him is a caper flower, which was a symbol of love.

The two cheetahs pulling the chariot may also be personal references.

Bacchus's chariot is normally drawn by tigers or panthers, but Alfonso d'Este is known to have had a menagerie at the palace in which he is said to have kept cheetahs.

Introducing the image

Whether your students are aged four or 17, it is the opportunity for them to actively explore the picture - rather than be fed information about it - that will engage minds and, with luck, hearts too. Asking them to figure out who the characters are, using the clues Titian has provided, is more likely to lead to their absorbing and retaining these facts than if they are simply presented with them. The clues for Bacchus, god of wine, are the vine leaves around his head. His state of undress also tells us he's a god.

His prominence in the composition - well-lit, high up, at the apex of a triangle and with plenty of space around him - also makes him a significant character.

Ariadne is singled out by the strong colours of her dress, by the space around her, and by the fact that she's looking at Bacchus. Her gesture is partly self-protective, but it also indicates the ship on the horizon, thus pointing to the narrative's recent past. The stars above her head remind us of the future. Bacchus's offer is clearly irresistible.

Education department Tel: 020 7747 2424Recorded information Tel: 020 7747

Ghislaine Kenyon is deputy head of education at The National Gallery

Tiziano Vecellio c1485-1576

Titian, as he is known in English, trained in Venice with Giovanni Bellini and worked with Giorgione. Most famous of the 16th-century Venetian painters, his innovative work was commissioned by emperors, churches and governments. He painted altarpieces, portraits and mythological subjects.

Lesson ideas


At key stages 1, 2 and 3, use Titian's painting as a basis for texts for literacy work. Word, sentence and text-level work can be based on "Bacchus and Ariadne", including a reading of Titian's source texts, Catullus's Carmina LXIV and Ovid's Ars Amatoria.

With its richly emotional subject matter, the painting can also be the stimulus for writing poems and letters. Students can describe the scene from different viewpoints. How does Ariadne feel, after being dumped by Theseus and now confronted by a leaping god and his fantastic retinue? What is Bacchus's reaction and what are those cheetahs muttering about?


At KS2, it can be used to demonstrate the legacy of ancient Greek culture.

Titian used a Greek sculpture that had recently been dug up in Rome as the model for the snake-wrestling satyr. The "Bacchus and Ariadne" episode can be used as a follow-up to the better known prequel, "Theseus and the Minotaur".


At all key stages, you are encouraged to show children the work of artists as part of the breadth of study in knowledge, skills and understanding, which feeds into investigating and making. The work can, for example, be used in schemes of work , focusing on topics such as movement, people in action, journeys, and portraying relationships in history.

Performing arts

For dance and music, realise the wild dance music being performed by Bacchus's followers. The "conversation" between Bacchus and Ariadne could also be expressed through music, perhaps using recorders or two different tuned instruments.

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