I have a fondness for words with repeated soft aspirants that make them satisfying to pronounce (favourite is ‘aspidistra’). ‘Titian’s Sisyphus’ is not only wonderful to say, it’s incredibly wonderful to look at, which, as an art historian, makes me doubly happy.
The Sisyphus was painted as part of a series of four works, depicting the labours of the damned (sometimes called the Furies) made for Mary of Hungary, regent of the Netherlands and sister to Emperor Charles V. The works were intended as a warning to those who tried to defy the Emperor in his struggles against the Protestants. Sisyphus hung in the company of similarly Herculean images of Tityus, Tantalus, and Ixion, and is the only one of the series to survive the Alcazar fire of 1734.
Sisyphus was a king of Corinth but because he was a trickster and deceiver of the gods he was condemned by Pluto to spend eternity pushing a boulder uphill. The point was that he would be kept occupied and unable to escape his fate, and that his task would never be completed.
It is this last point that makes Sisyphus so poignantly appropriate to artistic striving. Like Durer’s Melancholic angel (a symbol I keep circling), Sisyphus engages in an struggle to complete an impossible task. I wonder if that’s why Titian’s rendering of his taut gigantism is so lovingly precise and yet so achingly beautiful in its range of fleshly tone and flickering brushwork. In his deathless struggle Sisyphus is as alive as Titian’s art could make him – a metaphor, in Titian’s troubled times, for what art might accomplish. In it’s Counter-Reformation idealization, the figure of Sisyphus ranks among the saints of Michelangelo’s Last Judgement – all of them made of a solid but uncertain beauty, trapped in eternities of doubt –
The Sisyphus is now in the Prado –