Friday, 20 May 2005
Titian, Allegory of Prudence
A motto or inscription over their heads (difficult to see in this reproduction) reads: Ex praeterito/ praesens prudenter agit/ ni futura(m) actione(m) deturpet. "From the [experience of the] past, the present acts prudently, lest it spoil future action." This found popular medieval expression, typified in Petrus Berchorius' Repertorium morale: 'Prudence consists of the memory of the past, the ordering of the present, the contemplation of the future', coordinating the three modes or forms of time with the faculties of memory, intelligence and foresight.
The three-headed creature has a long and varied history, from the Egyptian Serapis' companion, a three-headed monster: the head of a dog, a wolf, and a lion, all encircled by a serpent. Another famous variation might be Cerberus, the three-headed dog. When we get to Macrobius' Saturnalia, this tricephalous monster becomes associated with Time, and Serapis is associated with the Sun. When Petrarch describes him in Book III of the Africa (ll. 156 ff.) he is associated with Apollo. But in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries the image mutated somewhat into a serpent with three heads (distinct from a three-headed creature with a serpent coiled around its neck) becoming an image of what Panofsky calls a 'time serpent'. It was only in a Cinquecento 'reintegration of classical form with classical subject matter' that the canine body returns. But this transformation may also be linked to Egytomania in the fifteenth and sixteenth century, with texts like the Hypnerotomachia Polyphili, and, particularly relevant for Titian, Valeriano's Hierglyphica (1556).
Those who wish to read more about this should go to Panofsky and Saxl, 'A Late -Antique Religious Symbol in Works by Holbein and Titian', Burlington Magazine, XLIX (1926), 177-181, and Panofsky, 'Titian's Allegory of Prudence: A Postcript', in his Meaning in the Visual Arts, (London: Peregrine, 1970), pp. 181-205.