In a letter dated December 1, 1520, Jacopo Tebaldi, Ferrara’s ambassador to Venice, revealed that Titian described his “Polittico Averoldi” as the best painting he had ever done.
Tebaldi had no reason to lie in his letter. And looking at the figures depicted in the polyptych preserved in Brescia, Italy, at the Collegiata Dei Santi Nazaro e Celso church, we have no reason not to believe him.
Disputed by ambassadors, bishops, and dukes, the story behind this masterpiece is curious and studded with intrigue. Everyone was so impressed by this painting that they wanted to own it.
The work was commissioned to Titian around 1519 by Altobello Averoldi from Brescia, bishop of Pula and papal legate in Venice, to position it on the high altar of the church of Saints Nazaro and Celso.
After a long initial phase, substantiated by several preparatory drawings and numerous repentances still visible today, the painting found its ultimate home in the church in Brescia on May 31, 1522.
The Resurrection of Christ stands out in the central panel. A victorious Jesus, with his vibrating body in motion, holds in his right hand the crusader banner, symbolizing triumph over death.
The upper register depicts the episode of the Annunciation divided into two separate panels. In the one on the left, against a dark background, the elegant and luminous figure of the Archangel Gabriel unfurls a phylactery with the inscription “Ave Gratia Plena.” In the one on the right, the Virgin Mary, with her head slightly bowed, brings her right hand to her breast, accepting her fate.
The left panel of the lower register, on the other hand, depicts the patron saints Nazaro and Celso in armor, in the company of the patron Altobello Averoldi caught in prayer with folded hands. The panel on the right is entirely devoted to the superb figure of Saint Sebastian, with his exhausted body supported by ropes tied to a tree.
Critics believe this ingenious idea probably came to Titian from looking at Michelangelo’s two ‘Prisons,’ or ‘Slaves,’ now in the Louvre museum in Paris, known as ‘The Dying Slave,’ and ‘The Rebel Slave,’ originally sculpted for the tomb of Pope Julius II.
On the occasion of the fifth centenary of the arrival of the polyptych in Brescia, a suspended structure has been specially set up in the church to allow the public to go seven meters above the floor and get an unprecedented and exciting peek of this masterpiece.
“As an art historian, I have nurtured since I was a boy the dream of being able to admire at close range the Averoldi Polyptych, one of the absolute masterpieces of the Italian Renaissance,” said Davide Dotti, an art historian who orchestrated the event.
Whether experts or enthusiasts, visitors will have a rare opportunity to see up close Titian’s work. Everyone will be able to “fully appreciate the extraordinary pictorial quality of the Averoldi Polyptych, its dense and vigorous chromaticism and the powerful plastic construction of the figures, a clear tribute to Michelangelo and the sculptural group of the ‘Laocoon,’” added Mr. Dotti. By admiring the polyptych up close, everyone “will be able to understand the sublime genius of the great Venetian master.”
— Until 3 July 2022, La Collegiata dei Santi Nazaro e Celso, Corso Giacomo Matteotti 31, Brescia.