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Muscarelle's Titian wows Paris

Titian exhibitA painting from William and Mary’s Muscarelle Museum is making quite a stir in Paris this fall, due to the hard work and research skills of Aaron De Groft (’88), director of the College’s Muscarelle Museum. The portrait of Federico II, Duke of Mantua, which De Groft has labored to prove is a genuine Titian, is now hanging at an exhibition of the Venetian painter’s works in the French capital’s Musée du Luxembourg.

“It needs to be seen in the context of other Titian works,” said De Groft some months ago when asked what the decisive factor in proving his case would be. Just as the Muscarelle director expected, most of those who attend the exhibition, where the painting is surrounded by more than 30 other Titian canvases, will know that the work belongs in the Titian canon.

A recent visitor to the elegant museum on the grounds of Paris’ famed Luxembourg Palace observed that the similarities of the Federico portrait to the other paintings were striking: “Look at the way the duke’s head is turned at a 30-degree angle. The heads of most of the paintings in this room are turned precisely the same. Just as in the other paintings, the head appears somewhat small for the body. And the eyes and eyebrows of the subject are eerily similar to those of the other Titians.”

Indeed, most of those who see the painting in the context of the other Titians will come away convinced of the authenticity of the work. The painting is remarkably like those that surround it.

It hangs against the brown velvet-lined walls of the third gallery of the Titian exhibition, among a collection of a dozen or so portraits of Renaissance leaders. The subdued lights and the thick carpet foster silence, but one can hear the amazed whispers when viewers spy the nameplate citing the Muscarelle Museum at the College of William and Mary.

Titian blurb“William and Mary is an excellent college,” said one superbly tailored Parisian grand dame. “It is an excellent college. I have been there. They must be very proud.”

The exhibition is the talk of the French capital. Titian posters appear on fences, buildings and kiosks. A special supplement on the show has been published by the famed Paris Match magazine, which has devoted a full page to the painting from the Muscarelle. Widespread publicity has made the show so popular that the small museum has been forced to limit the number of visitors who can be admitted each hour. Lines of elegantly dressed Parisians are often forced to stand under tents until their admission time arrives.

The painting has been the object of De Groft’s scrutiny since its owner, Thomas Dossett, showed it to the art historian a few years ago. The painting for a long time had been considered authentic, but a century or so ago, a German art historian cast doubt on the work by citing a document that purported to show that the painting had been commissioned only 11 days before the Duke of Mantua died. De Groft’s research demonstrated that the German scholar had misread the date of Titian’s commission, which actually was written a year earlier than had been thought. That research opened the door for reconsideration of the painting.

The show, “Titian: In Face of Power,” will hang through Jan. 21, 2007. The Luxembourg Museum is on Paris’ Left Bank, on the once-royal estate that now is the home of the French National Senate.