Although El Greco could not have seen the original painting by Titian when he was in Italy, he could have known it through the engraving by Jacopo Caraglio (fig. 1). Titian’s picture had been intended for the high altar of the convent church of Santa Maria degli Angeli in Murano, but the donor thought the price of the finished work was too high and refused it. At the recommendation of Pietro Aretino, Titian offered it as a gift to Isabella of Portugal, Holy Roman Empress and Queen of Spain. He had it sent to her in 1537, but before it left Venice, the printmaker Jacopo Caraglio made an engraving of it, incorporating in the upper corners two banners with the motto PLUS ULTRA, the Emperor Charles V’s emblem. It was installed in the Royal Palace of Aranjuez, near Madrid, so El Greco might, in fact, have had the opportunity to see it after he had arrived in Spain.
El Greco does not include the banners here, but in most ways the painting closely follows the print. We see that not only in the poses of the main figures, but even in such details as the carving on the prie-dieu. He does, however, deviate from the engraving in reducing the number of attendant angels in the clouds and, perhaps most interestingly, changing the composition from an upright format, that would have fitted an altarpiece, to an oblong. In reducing the upper portion of the composition, he focuses more on the connection between the angel Gabriel and the Virgin, while at the same time preserving the sense of the space in which they interact. It is his only treatment of the subject in this format.
In his publication about The Annunciation (see Literature), Enrico Maria Dal Pozzolo dates it to around 1568-70, a view supported by other scholars as well. However, the details of El Greco’s early career are uncertain and the dating of his works from this period complicated and somewhat controversial. He is documented in his native Crete until December 1566 and is recorded as being in Venice by August 1568. Although we are not certain he worked in Titian’s studio, it is generally accepted that he had visited it and knew the older artist. By late 1570 he had arrived in Rome, having traveled through Verona, Parma and Florence along the way. Although his stay in Venice was relatively brief, Venetian art had a profound effect on El Greco’s style, an influence we see increasing throughout the 1570s.
An apt comparison to the present work is The Annunciation from the Modena triptych in the Galleria Estense, Modena. The Modena Annunciation is a much smaller panel (28 by 18 cm.) datable to circa 1568-69 (fig. 2), and we see that the panel here is far more accomplished, both in the representation of the figures and the construction of a perspective space, thus suggesting a slightly later date for it. Dal Pozzolo likens our panel to The Purification of the Temple, a work of similar size (65.4 by 83.2 cm.) in the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., which has been dated variously between 1567 and 1570 and 1570-71.1 The overall design is his own, but El Greco adds various motifs from Italian and classical art without entirely integrating them into the composition; these include the woman and child at the right, who are derived from Raphael’s tapestry of The Healing of the Blind Man; the recumbent woman, who is based on an antique statue of Ariadne or a maenad in the Vatican; and the man standing over her is taken from an engraving after Michaelangelo’s Conversion of St. Paul. The Annunciation is a more coherent composition, not solely because it is simpler.
In both the present panel and the Washington Purification of the Temple, El Greco uses a similar technique that derives from Venetian painting, applying the paint in short strokes, with very little blending of the colors. This gives the hues greater intensity and enlivens the surface of the panel as a whole. However here, more than in the Purification of the Temple, the figures are wrapped in agitated twisting drapery — the angel’s still fluttering from the speed of his entrance into the Virgin’s chamber. The scene above, with the divine light bursting through the windows and pushing the clouds aside is masterful. The transparent beams of light just visible below the window suggest the hand of a far more experienced artist. El Greco has translated Caraglio’s system of lines into pure color and light, and he uses the skills he has learned here throughout his career.
1. Dal Pozzolo, op. cit.p. 129 and G. Finaldi in D. Davies et al., El Greco, exhibition catalogue, New York and London 2003, p. 88.
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