The men who rule the world get to own the Titians

When we were making the add-on episode of Civilisations(‘Civilisations on Your Doorstep’), we tried to capture the pressures that moved works of art around the globe, in a way that went beyond the crude (if sometimes true) stories of plunder and expropriation. We looked briefly at some of the Bridgewater paintings in Edinburgh, which had followed the new money in Europe from France to Britain — including some luscious Titians. Reflecting, in a slightly backhanded way, on the modern direction of travel of art from Europe to the Gulf States, we joked that ‘the men who rule the world get to own the Titians’.
Now I turn out to be working on an earlier version of that phenomenon, as you may have guessed from my last post. One short section of my new book looks at the paintings of 11 Roman emperors that Titian made for Duke Federico II of Mantua in the 1530s — and at what happened to them over the next 200 years. It is a perfect example of the principle I was talking about in the tv programme (though I don’t think that the Gonzaga of Mantua ever quite counted as world leaders).
Less than 100 years after these paintings had been installed in the Ducal Palace, the Gonzaga dynasty was on its uppers, and these emperors, along with a load of other ‘Mantua peeces’ were acquired for Charles I and came to London. (‘Acquired’ is actually a euphemism for the double dealing and intrigue that went on.) Just 20 years later, after the execution of Charles I, they were bought (indirectly and circuitously) for Philip IV of Spain and ended up in the Alcazar in Madrid. It was there in 1734 that they were destroyed in a fire; they were hung so high that rescue was impossible.
For me, they are a wonderful example of changing images of emperors. The fact is that from the 1530s to the 1730s they were the most familiar images of all to capture ‘the look’ of the early Roman emperors. And indeed we can now get a sense of them precisely because they were so familiar and so frequently copied. The picture at the top is one later version, and here I talk about a much cheaper facsimile I picked up myself for a few quid a couple of years ago.
Quite how far the surviving copies are from the Titian originals is a moot point.  But what is striking is how closely they sometimes overlap with our own stereotyped images of these Roman rulers (which partly go back to original Roman coins and sculptures) — and yet how different they are in other cases. The Julius Caesar, top left, is easily recognisable. But how about the Caligula underneath him? Or how about this Claudius, as shown in a print made around 1600? A long way from ‘our’ view of that emperor . . .
It’s those changing images that my book is trying to explore, and in part explain.
Wish me luck.