In the early fifteenth century the Venetian artist Tiziano Vecellio (Titian) created a perplexing oil on wood painting known as Sacred and Profane Love. The piece was commissioned by Noccolo Aurelio, a secretary to the Venetian Council of Ten who wished to give a gift to his young new bride, Laura Bagarotto.
Tiziano’s painting (1514) resembles the engraving by the German artist Albrecht Durer (1498) which was labeled Hercules at the Crossroads (Xenophon) by art historian Erwin Panofsky. Durer had visited Italy twice and they were aware of each other’s success. It wouldn’t have been unlikely that Tiziano had seen Durer’s engraving and been inspired.
If the painting were created for a wedding event, the theme, more than likely would be relevant. If the title from the 16th century, Sacred and Profane Love is similar to the original title one must imagine that the painting depicts such. Which would be the two ladies. One dressed in an elegant manner for the time period, and the other almost in the nude.
When Heracles was passing from boyhood to youth’s estate, wherein the young, now becoming their own masters, show whether they will approach life by the path of virtue or the path of vice, he went out into a quiet place, and sat pondering which road to take. And there appeared two women of great stature making towards him. (21/22)
Behind the lady wearing the elegant clothing is a large castle, a rider, and two rabbits sitting in harmony.
The one was fair to see and of high bearing; and her limbs were adorned with purity, her eyes with modesty; sober was her figure, and her robe was white. (22)
The lady in the white robe offered the harder road.
Therefore I hope that, if you take the road that leads to me, you will turn out a right good doer of high and noble deeds, and I shall be yet more highly honoured and more illustrious for the blessings I bestow. But I will not deceive you by a pleasant prelude: I will rather tell you truly the things that are, as the gods have ordained them. (27)
But implies that one must work for that renown. HOWEVER, this description shifts to the other side of the painting.
For of all things good and fair, the gods give nothing to man without toil and effort. If you want the favour of the gods, you must worship the gods: if you desire the love of friends, you must do good to your friends: if you covet honour from a city, you must aid that city: if you are fain to win the admiration of all Hellas for virtue, you must strive to do good to Hellas: if you want land to yield you fruits in abundance, you must cultivate that land: if you are resolved to get wealth from flocks, you must care for those flocks: if you essay to grow great through war and want power to liberate your friends and subdue your foes, you must learn the arts of war from those who know them and must practise their right use: and if you want your body to be strong, you must accustom your body to be the servant of your mind, and train it with toil and sweat.’ (28)
Behind the lady in the nude is a landscape of a small village in front of a lake, a rabbit being pursued, and two riders with shepherds and their flock.
The other was plump and soft, with high feeding. Her face was made up to heighten its natural white and pink, her figure to exaggerate her height. Open-eyed was she; and dressed so as to disclose all her charms. Now she eyed herself; anon looked whether any noticed her; and often stole a glance at her own shadow. (22) “Now when Heracles heard this, he asked, ‘Lady, pray what is your name?’
“‘My friends call me Happiness,’ she said, ‘but among those that hate me I am nicknamed Vice.’ (26)
The lady in the nude promised the easier path. HOWEVER, once again, this description belongs on the other side of the painting to Virtue’s path.
I will lead you along the pleasantest and easiest road. You shall taste all the sweets of life; and hardship you shall never know. (23) First, of wars and worries you shall not think, but shall ever be considering what choice food or drink you can find, what sight or sound will delight you, what touch or perfume; what tender love can give you most joy, what bed the softest slumbers; and how to come by all these pleasures with least trouble.
The engraving of Durer and the painting by Tiziano have similar landscapes…the tree that divides the two, the small Cupid, and the two ladies.
Behind both ladies two scenic landscapes seem to mirror themselves, but both have their differences. Tiziano switches the two mythological goddesses and the roads they represent. Where in the story the goddess Virtue offers the upward and difficult road where as Vice offers the flat easy road. The opposite is presented in the painting.
The representation is different but the theme the same. Durer’s engraving is more straightforward in suggesting the viewer should not be tempted by the easier road. While Tiziano’s relies on the landscape and the imagery on the sarcophagus turned fountain.
On the Tiziano painting there are two scenes on the fountain divided by a small plant. One of a merry scene with people frolicking around a horse, and the other side with a family crest and a human whipping another. Similar to the Durer engraving where the satyr is seducing the goddess Vice and Hercules holding back Virtue with his staff.
Signifying the easier path and the harder path, and the choice one must make in life.
Tiziano uses a fountain as a reference to crossroads. If one travels Italy, (especially in Pompeii) they will stumble upon ancient public fountains placed at crossroads or intersections. By the time of Tiziano they were out of use, but viewers would have recognized such symbols of crossroads and this choice represented such a theme in the painting.
If the painting was commissioned as a wedding gift for Noccolo Aurelio he may have asked Tiziano to put a twist on the story of Hercules at the Crossroads because of his marriage to Laura Bagarotto. Laura had already been married before, having lost her father and past husband in the War of the League of Cambrai. Why the older and established Bagarotta would have risked his reputation by marrying the wife of a past traitor is yet to be discovered. Regardless of the reason, the wedding took place. The twist on the painting may have been exactly about their marriage. What is the easy road? When choosing the path of life there is no easy choice and Noccolo Aurelio would have been in the position of Hercules. Even Hercules believed both paths were a personal choice. When looking at the painting, the viewer is left with the decision of choosing which path to take when passing the fountain at the crossroad.
GAUS, NADIA. “Tiziano Vecellio” (in Italian).
LAURENCE, RAY. “Space and Society”, (Routledge Publishing. Abingdon Oxon, 2007)
XENOPHON. (TRANS). MERCHANT, E.C. ed. “Memorabilia” (Harvard University Press, Cambridge Mass, 1965)