3: The ages of men according to Venetian painters

During the Renaissance the allegorical theme of the three ages of man became increasingly popular within cultured and sophisticated élites, most notably in Venice. Indeed, the subject first emerged in a painting by Venetian painter Giorgione which shows a boy holding a sheet of music, a mature man to the left of the boy possibly instructing him, and a much older man gazing out of the picture. It has been assumed that it is the same man depicted across the different stages of his life: childhood, maturity, and old age. This iconographical subject clearly responds to pedagogic purposes, inspiring philosophical musings on the passing of time.

Similar reflections are inspired by Titian who, about a decade later, also translated the theme of the three ages of man, although in a quite different way. The two sleeping babies on the right, protected by Cupid, symbolize childhood, the young lovers in the left foreground maturity, and a white-haired man in the background meditating on two skulls old age. By placing these figurative groups on three different levels of space, Titian seems to recreate the circularity of time.

A few years after Titian, in the nearby Ferrara, Dosso Dossi, made its own version of the subject. Again, two boys, here peeping behind a bush, represent childhood, two lovers on the left manhood, and two old men in the right background old age. Yet, the allegorical meaning of the painting is in some way diminished by the smaller scale of the figures, immersed in an overwhelming landscape.

As one contemplates such metaphorical passage of time, please consider donating to IAS to encourage both its growth and longevity. Given IAS’ impending thirtieth anniversary, IAS is asking members to consider donations in permutations of 3 and/or 30.  Whether that means a donation of $3 or $300, be certain that any donation goes far in supporting IAS’s mission, programs, fellowships, charitable activities, and publications.

In addition, it is a great time to join or renew your IAS membership (all current memberships expire on 31 December of this year). Please encourage non-members (colleagues, friends, aficionados) working on or appreciative of Italian art, architecture, and visual culture across all media, periods, and career paths to join the IAS.  

Giorgione, The Three ages of Man, c. 1500, oil on canvas, Galleria Palatina, Palazzo Pitti, Florence.

Titian, The Three ages of Man, c. 1512, oil on canvas, National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh.

Dosso Dossi, The Three Ages of Man, c. 1515, oil on canvas, MET, New York.

Posted by Martina Bollini

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