It is a fabulously horrific depiction of the flaying of Marsyas as told in ancient times by the poet Ovid and painted late in the life of the Renaissance painter Titian. Recent novelists such as Iris Murdoch and Evelyn Waugh have often mentioned the importance of this painting with regard to their own writing. And, the painter Tom Phillips even included it in his official portrait of Murdoch, now hanging in the National Portrait Gallery in London.
Titian may have kept this painting in his studio longer than usual, psychological reflections of an old man on his life, while employing those plastic and gestural movements, which keep a painting alive, even after years of work, over and over, on the same surface. Titian painted “The Flaying of Marsyas” between 1570 and 1576. Its patron is unknown.
Although in his “Lives of the Artists” Vasari does not mention this painting in particular, he does write about the working method that Titian used around this time. He writes: “…and these last works are executed with bold strokes and dashed off with a broad and even coarse sweep of the brush, insomuch that from near little can be seen, but from a distance they appear perfect….Although many believe that they are done without effort, in truth it is not so…for it is known that they are painted over and over again, and that he returned to them with his colours so many times, that the labour may be perceived. And this method, so used, is judicious, beautiful, and astonishing, because it makes pictures appear alive and painted with great art….”[i]
In the original telling of this ancient story, it was Marsyas the satyr, in his arrogance, who had challenged Apollo to a piping contest. It was agreed that it would take place in the woods with an audience of those from both the woodlands and Olympus. Afterwards all agreed that Apollo had easily won and that was it. However, Apollo had been offended, and in his wrath, ordered the flaying of Marsyas. This is how Ovid described it:
“After the Theban had told this story about the demise of the Lycian
peasants, another recalled the horrible punishment
dealt to the Satyr who’d challenged Latona’s son to a piping
contest and lost. ‘Don’t rip me away from myself!’ he entreated;
‘I’m sorry!’ he shouted between his shrieks, ‘Don’t flay me for piping!’
In spite of his cries, the skin was peeled from his flesh, and his body
was turned into one great wound; the blood was pouring all over him,
muscles were fully exposed, his uncovered veins convulsively
quivered; the palpitating intestines could well be counted,
and so could organs glistening through the wall of his chest.
The piper was mourned by the rustic fauns who watch over the woodlands,
his brother satyrs, the nymphs and Olympus, the pupil he loved
by all who tended their flocks or herds on the Lycian mountains.
Their tears dropped down and saturated the fertile earth,
who absorbed them deep in her veins and discharged them back into the air
in the form of a spring. This found its way to the sea through a channel,
which took the name Marsyas, clearest of Phrygian rivers.”[ii]
In a more contemporary rendition of this story, the poet Robin Robertson includes an extended description of this ancient and mythical event. Below are several selections from this larger ekphrastic piece: a lyrical description of the scene on that day, specific instructions from the butcher to his two apprentices, illusions of bad tattoos as if lifted from the skin, and an allusion of a dismantled man, not unlike the anatomy of a painting and its skin, as a “disappointing pentimento.”
THE FLAYING OF MARSYAS after Ovid
“A bright clearing. Sun among the leaves,
Sifting down to dapple the soft ground, and rest
a gilded bar against the muted flanks of trees.
In the flittering green light the glade
listens in and breathes.
A wooden pail; some pegs, a coil of wire;
A bundle of steel flensing knives.
Spreadeagled between two pines,
Hooked at each hoof to the higher branches,
tied to the root by the hands, flagged
as his own white cross,
the satyr Marsyas hangs.
Three stand as honour guard:
two apprentices, one butcher.”
“Let’s have a look at you, then.
Bit scrawny for a satyr,
all skin and whipcord, is it?
Soon find out.
So, think you can turn up with your stag-bones and outplay Lord Apollo?
This’ll learn you. Fleece the fucker.
Now. One of you on each side.
Blade along the bone, find the tendon,
nick it and peel, nice and slow.
A bit of shirt-lifting, now, to purge him,
pull his wool over his eyes
and show him Lord Apollo’s rapture;
pelt on one tree, him on another:
the inner man revealed.”
“Red Marsyas. Marsyas ecorche,
splayed, shucked of his skin
in a tug and rift of tissue;
his birthday suit sloughed
the way a sodden overcoat is eased
off the shoulders and dumped.
All memories of a carnal life
lifted like a bad tattoo,
live bark from the vascular tree:
raw Marsyas unsheathed.
Or this: the shambles of Marsyas.
The dark chest meat marbled with yellow fat,
his heart like an animal breathing in its milky envelope,
the viscera a well-packed suitcase
of chitterlings, a palpitating tripe.
A man dismantled, a tatterdemalion
torn to steak and rind,
a disappointing pentimento
or the toy that can’t be re-assembled
by the boy Apollo, a raptor, vivisector.
The sail of stretched skin thrills and snaps
in the same breeze that makes his nerves
fire, his bare lungs scream.
Stripped of himself and from his twin:
the stiffening scab and the sticky wound.
Marsyas the martyr, a god’s fetish,
hangs from the tree like bad fruit.”[iii]
As a footnote to this subject: the novelist Iris Murdoch was especially fond of this painting. References to it are included in several of her novels, and when the artist Tom Phillips was commissioned to do her portrait for inclusion in the National Portrait Gallery in London, Murdoch suggested that a portion of the Titian painting be included in the background of her portrait. And it was.
[i] Vasari, Giorgio; Lives of the Painters, Sculptors and Architects; Everyman’s Library and Alfred A. Knopf; New York and Toronto; 1996; p. 794.
[ii] Ovid; Metamorphoses: Book 6 (Translated by David Raeburn); Penguin Classics; London, England; 2004; pp. 228-229, lines 382-400.
[iii] Robertson, Robin; A Painted Field; Harcourt Brace & Company; San Diego, New York, London; 1997; pp. 10-12.