ON THE east wall of my Oxford college chapel hangs a Crucifixion by “Tintoretto” (1518-94) which was presented in 1779 by a former Fellow Commoner. John Skippe (1741-1812) graduated from Merton in 1760 and undertook three Grand Tours over 11 years from 1766.
Although he reached the Levant, his travels centred on Venice. There he acquired the Merton Tintoretto and in 1775 he reported buying “A most capital and well-preserved picture by Titian. His name and date are upon it. This picture was commissioned by one of the suppressed convents in the Venetian States.” When he sailed to Alexandria, he consigned the “Titian” to an agent in Rome, hoping to sell it for a substantial markup (700 per cent).
Skippe was an artist, and a pupil of Claude Joseph Vernet, but not much of an art connoisseur. The painting, originally more than four metres wide, which he had acquired from the Da Mula family, remained unsold and was shipped to Herefordshire. Passed down through his family, it was presented to Ledbury St Michael in 1909, and there it has languished ever since. Early last century, a London auction house valued it at a staggering £25,000.
If this is not a misprint, the PCC was foolish turning down such monies for an indifferent and ruinous canvas of uncertain authorship; when, in 1914, Lord Brownlow offered Titian’s spectacular poesie, The Death of Actaeon, to the National Gallery for £5000, the Trustees refused the expense.
Ronald Moore has restored the work for the parish and has written a fascinating book about it. What emerges is that it is not by Titian, as the subtitle warns, despite a partial surviving signature (News, 5 March). Moore presumes that at least four or five hands worked up what may have been Titian’s original design.
Without the benefit of an X-ray, it is not possible to see if the master’s hand is in any under-drawing. Seemingly, it was worked on over a lengthy period in the 1560s and was still unfinished when Titian died of the plague in 1576.
Taking Skippe’s assertion at face value, the authors assume that this was painted for a conventual house or, they concede, for a member of the Da Mula family. This does not explain the inclusion of so many supposed Titian family portraits among the Apostles and servitors. But they seem not to have considered a possible commission from Cardinal Marco Antonio da Mula (1506-72).
Da Mula was a Venetian colonial administrator in Dalmatia and Zara before becoming ambassador to the Augsburg court of Charles V (1552-54), Philip II in Ghent (1559), and then the papal court (1561), where he was ordained priest and then bishop. He was made a cardinal and Prefect of the Vatican Library in 1562.
As a lawyer and writer, he corresponded with Pietro Bembo and Pietro Aretino, close associates of Titian’s literary circle. His will established an orphanage at Padua (in the Venetian States) for the Compagnia del Gran Nome del Dio, and his death might have delayed the work’s completion.
The authors query the presence of a non-edible citron on the tablecloth. Párga was the only toehold that Venice held on the west coast of Greece. Over four centuries, until the collapse of the Republic, the Jewish community traded citrons for liturgical use in the West from Epirus through the Dalmatian territories to Venice as expensive commonplaces in the Lagoon City.
The authors demonstrate that the painting may be by any number of individuals, but neither its handling nor its composition is as accomplished as Titian’s workshop Last Supper (1557-64) at El Escorial.
Maddeningly, the authors’ own photos of close-up details are unreliable for assessing the plausibility of the suggested artists beyond Girolamo Dente, who also signed it. They include Emanuel Amburger, Polidoro da Lanciano and members of Titian’s extended family as lesser-known artists from his celebrated workshop.
Canon Nicholas Cranfield is the Vicar of All Saints’, Blackheath, in south London.
Titian’s Lost Last Supper: A new workshop discovery
Ronald Moore with Patricia Kenny
Church Times Bookshop £18