A brand new workshop discovery from Ronald Moore with Patricia Kenny

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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 focused on Venice. There he acquired the Merton Tintoretto and reported in 1775 that he had “bought an extremely capital and well-preserved painting by Titian. His name and date are on it. This image was commissioned by one of the oppressed monasteries in the Venetian states. “When he sailed for Alexandria, he turned the“ Titian ”over to an agent in Rome, hoping to sell it for a substantial premium (700 percent).

Skippe was artist and student of Claude Joseph Vernet, but not a great art connoisseur. The painting, originally more than four meters wide, which he had acquired from the Da Mula family, remained unsold and was shipped to Herefordshire. Passed on through his family, it was presented to Ledbury St. Michael in 1909 and has been weakened there ever since. At the beginning of the last century, a London auction house valued it at an incredible £ 25,000.

If this is not a misprint, the PCC has been foolish to refuse such funds for an indifferent and ruinous canvas of uncertain authorship. When Lord Brownlow offered Titian's spectacular poetry The Death of Actaeon to the National Gallery in 1914 for £ 5,000, the trustees declined the cost.

Ronald Moore restored the work for the community and wrote a fascinating book about it. What it turns out is that despite a partially surviving signature, it didn't come from Titian, as the subtitle warns (News, March 5). Moore believes that at least four or five hands worked out Titian's original design.

Without the benefit of an X-ray, it is impossible to see if the master's hand is in a signature. Apparently it was worked on over an extended period of time in the 1560s and was still unfinished when Titian died of the plague in 1576.

The authors take Skippe's claim at face value and assume that this was painted for a monastery house or, as they admit, a member of the Da Mula family. This does not explain the inclusion of so many alleged Titian family portraits among the apostles and servants. However, they do not seem 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 he became ambassador to the Augsburg court of Charles V (1552-54), Philip II in Ghent (1559) and then at the papal court (1561), where he became a priest and Ordained priest was then bishop. He was made cardinal and prefect of the Vatican Library in 1562.

As a lawyer and writer, he corresponded with Pietro Bembo and Pietro Aretino, close collaborators in Titian's literary circle. His will set up an orphanage in Padua (in the Venetian states) for the Compagnia del Gran Nome del Dio, and his death may have delayed the completion of the work.

The authors ask about the presence of an inedible lemon on the tablecloth. Párga was the only household that Venice owned on the west coast of Greece. Over four centuries until the collapse of the republic, the Jewish community exchanged lemons for liturgical purposes in the west of Epirus via the Dalmatian areas to Venice as expensive places in the lagoon city.

The authors show that the painting could have been by any number of people, but neither its handling nor its composition is as good as Titian's Last Supper (1557-64) workshop in El Escorial.

Amazingly, the authors' own close-up photos are unreliable for assessing the plausibility of the proposed artists beyond Girolamo Dente, who also signed them. These include Emanuel Amburger, Polidoro da Lanciano and members of the Tizian's extended family as lesser-known artists from his famous workshop.

Canon Nicholas Cranfield is the Vicar of All Saints at Blackheath in south London.

Titian's Lost Last Supper: A New Workshop Discovery
Ronald Moore with Patricia Kenny
Unicorn £ 20
(978-1-91-3491-43-7)
Church Times Bookstore £ 18

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