Posted by: glue | December 12, 2008


Titian’s “Prudence” provides a template to guide our updating of the time-virtue, prudence.

The painting is composed as an “emblem,” consisting of a picture and a motto, whose relationship poses a certain enigma.  The picture shows the heads of three men, each posed in alignment with the heads of three animals directly below them.  The motto reads, “From the [experience of the] past, the present acts prudently, lest it spoil future action.”



“The elements of this inscription are so arranged as to facilitate the interpretation of the parts as well as the whole: the  words praeterito, praesens and futura serve as labels,  so  to  speak, for the three human  faces in the  upper zone, viz., the profile of a very old man turned to the left, the full-face portrait of a middle-aged man in the center, and the profile of a beardless youth turned to the right; whereas the clause praesens prudenter agit gives the impression of summarizing the total content after the  fashion of a “headline.”  We are given to understand, then, that the three faces, in addition to typifying three states of human life (youth, maturity, old age), are meant to symbolize the three modes or forms of time in general:  past, present, and future.  And we are further asked to connect these three modes or forms of time with the idea of prudence or, more specifically, with the three psychological faculties in the combined exercise of which  this virtue consists: memory, which remembers, and learns from, the past; intelligence, which judges of, and acts in, the present; and foresight, which anticipates, and provides for or against, the future” (Panofsky, 149).

An important aspect of Titian’s “Prudence” is the concetto or personalizing of the iconography.  The role of epigram in an emblem is to resolve the enigma (in this case) of the busts (humans and animals) juxtaposed with the motto invoking prudence.  That role is played here by the fact that the three men are Titian and his family:  the old man is a self-portrait; the mature man is Titian’s younger son; the youth is an adopted grandson.  The painting celebrates an historical occasion, a prudent action – the successful completion of a legal action in which Titian changed his will so that his inheritance would pass not to the oldest (no good) son, but to the younger son (who is shown as the lion) (166).

The three animal heads are derived from several iconographic traditions, as Panofsky explains.  The tricephalous monster was a companion of Serapis (Pluto), god of the underworld.  The arrangement associates the old man with the wolf (the past devours time); the mature man with the lion (action in the present); the youth with the dog (always trying to please, in hopes of a good outcome).  The three heads in the convention are joined by a serpent’s body –- the serpent being an allusion to the snake swallowing its own tail.  Titian’s design reflects the Renaissance fascination with the hieroglyphic signs popularized by the Neoplatonists.

Instructions:  use the template to analyze a moment of decision in your life.  What was at stake?   Who were the dramatis personae?  What props could be used to evoke the experience of time relative to this moment?

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