'Arguably the most audacious print ever made.'
(Dr Suzanne Boorsch, Grand Scale: Monumental Prints in the Age of Dürer and Titian, ed. L. Silver and E. Wyckoff, Dallas Museum and Cultural Center, Wellesley College, 2008.)
Inspired by central Italian battle designs, especially the equestrian conflict of Leonardo's Battle of Anghiari, Titian's Submersion of Pharaoh's Army in the Red Sea, with its great sweep of figures around a central void, powerfully develops aspects of the Venetian tradition. In the woodcut the sea itself, in a very real sense the major protagonist, appropriately dominates the center of the design; for all its figural dynamics, the Red Sea is in effect a monumental stormy seascape - a pictorial theme of obvious interest in Venice.
The Red Sea reveals in its monumental conception and in every detail as well the imagination of the master in full and searching control. Titian took the Biblical text, Exodus 14, and gave full pictorial realization to its dramatic narrative. The divisions between the individual blocks have been used as coordinates against which to plot the narrative action. The drowning army of Pharaoh and the distant city, representing Egypt, are contained within the left half of the composition; horizontally extended across that field, their rhythms are measured by the vertical accents of the towers and spires, and their agitation is further commented on by the great cloud moving over the sky - the divine presence that had protected the Israelites who, safely landed and turning back in relieved celebration, are confined to a single vertical strip of blocks at the extreme right. Between the opposing figural groups lies the sea, and the third vertical strip of blocks is reserved almost exclusively for those waters, here in transition from destructive turbulence at the left to their gentle lapping at the shore on their right.
At the bottom of this zone only a few, very select details intrude. Most significantly, the arm of Moses thrusts out over the waters; his hand, holding its rod and set in calculated isolation against the sea, performs the crucial act of the drama: 'And the Lord said unto Moses, Stretch out thine hand over the sea, that the waters may come again upon the Egyptians, upon the chariots and upon their horsemen.' [Exodus 14:26]. Below the outstretched arm of the Hebrew leader is a defecting dog, a motif probably without precedent in Italian Renaissance art, startling in its crudity as well as in its central placement and apparently violating, to say the least, any sense of classical ideality or decorum. Yet it can hardly be merely a whimsical joke for it is set in such pointed juxtaposition to the divinely inspired gesture of Moses. Indeed, it can only be interpreted as a complimentary sign of disdain towards the Egyptians. It may comprise, moreover, a contemporary reference. When Titan was designing the woodcut, Venice was barely surviving one of the most terrible crises of its history, the war with the League of Cambrai. One anecdote tells of the retreat of imperial troops through the mountains of the Valsugana: to show their scorn for the foreign invaders the inhabitants were said to have bared their buttocks to the fleeing German soldiers. Thus it might be that the Egyptians in the Red Sea, dressed in contemporary armor, were intended to recall the invading mercenaries from the north and that the subject was read in allusion to the recent survival of the of the Venetian's themselves against overwhelming odds.
The fundamental distinctions of separate areas within the design notwithstanding, Titan's Red Sea impresses above all by its remarkable unity; while appreciating the special qualities and meanings of the various details, we are always aware of the totality of the image. And that large unity is essentially a function of Titian's drawing. The giant sweep of the forms across the several blocks, especially the 'rolling pillar of the cloud' and the sea itself, establish the narrative impulse of the composition, and as the darkness of the left yields to brightness, that movement culminates at the extreme right, in the solid gravity of the magnificent cliff that overhangs the shore. As one would expect of Titian, light and dark patterns provide the basic organizational element, on a large scale in the sky and on a more minutely differentiated level below. Titian's drawing, inventing new formal combinations for diverse mimetic functions, creates truly impressive effects of tidal movement in the waters, of tonal distance in the architecture, of granite mass in the rock; and the whole space is filled with wind-swept atmosphere.
Although always keenly aware of Dürer's example, Titan forged for himself a new kind of graphic vocabulary. He seems to have drawn across the entire surface himself, either in a full-size cartoon or, more probably, on the block itself, this is most clearly suggested by the great pen strokes of which the cloud is constructed. His use of cross-hatching, literally fluid in in its effects in the rendering of rippling waves, achieves an extraordinarily abstract richness in the synthetic structures of the great rock.
We are extremely grateful to Professor David Rosand for his assistance in cataloguing this lot, and for permission to quote extensively from Titian and the Venetian Woodcut, International Exhibitions Foundation, Washington, D.C., 1976, co-authored with Michelangelo Muraro.