Art Historian and Author, Liana Cheney Returns to Beacon Hill Seminars

Special to the Times

Author and professor Liana De Girolami Cheney, a long-time resident of Beacon Hill, taught more than a dozen popular art history courses for Beacon Hill Seminars (BHS) before retiring to Florida in 2020.  BHS members thought they had lost this esteemed teacher.  But not long after, in response to the pandemic, BHS moved its seminars online.  One unexpected benefit has been that Dr. Cheney is able to continue to share her passion and expertise from her home in Florida by leading her interactive art history courses via Zoom.

Dr. Cheney recently completed a six-session course titled “Titian’s Allegorical and Mythological Paintings: Venetian Poesie” and BHS members eagerly joined her virtual classroom.  This seminar examined the life and works of the Renaissance painter, Tiziano Vencellio (referred to commonly as Titian).  The course focused on Titian’s famous collection of six monumental poesies, painted scenes of the mythological stories in Metamorphoses written by the ancient Roman poet, Ovid.  While the literal translation of poesie is “poetry,” Dr. Cheney explained, “when related to art, it refers to an artistic representation of a poem.”  These paintings, commissioned by King Philip II of Spain, were completed between 1551 and 1562. 

While Titian’s birth year is speculated to be around 1490, it is known that he died due to the plague in 1576. “His longevity was advantageous,” Cheney noted, “which gave him time to complete many paintings that influenced his contemporaries, including Michelangelo.”  He also had an enormous impact on painters in eras that followed, such as the impressionist Edouard Manet. According to Cheney, Titian’s most notable technical innovations at the time were dramatic diagonal compositions, and new and unique blue hues which he created from expensive stones.

Dr. Cheney’s final class focused on Titian’s masterpiece, The Rape of Europa, which Isabella Stewart Gardner acquired and brought to Boston in 1896. It depicts the moment in which Zeus/Jupiter, transformed as a white bull, puts Europa, a Phoenician woman, on his back and swifts her away to Crete.  BHS members were surprised to learn that Titian never actually named his masterpiece. He told King Philip II that it was about Europa’s “ratto” (referring to rapid abduction), which was reinterpreted over the years and turned into the translated title the world knows it by today.

Europa recently underwent major restoration at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum to improve its visuals, and in the process, was also carefully examined by x-ray to uncover new insights into how Titian had worked on it. It revealed pentimenti – layers of drawings underneath showing an artist’s change of mind – that showed, for instance, that the bull’s tail was redone many times, and that earlier versions depicted putti (naked children), instead of angels. Dr. Cheney encouraged members to visit the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum to view the newly restored piece, and also to see the Titian works at the Museum of Fine Art.

While many members look forward to seeing each other again in person at future seminars, BHS’s virtual interactive classes such as the one taught by Dr. Cheney have proven to be an excellent avenue for life-long learning. To learn more about BHS and the various courses offered, visit beaconhillseminars.org.

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