Tiziano Vecellio Adoration of the Magi


Veneranda Biblioteca Ambrosiana


1500 - 1549


2220 x 1200 mm



historical period


Exhibit Artwork

Artwork Details

The painting depicts the procession of the Magi who left the east heading to Bethlehem to find Jesus, king of the Jews, born a few days before. The scene is divided into two parts by the column of the hut. On the left, inside the wooden shelter, you can see Mary holding the Child in her arm next to Joseph. King Gaspar, dressed in red as in tradition, is kneeling before Mary and he has just laid down his gift, incense, kept in a small but precious urn, while King Melchior, who is wearing a blue cape, offers to Joseph a golden box including precious material. King Baldassarre, man of color on the right, who is wearing a red headpiece, offers the myrrh, a precious resin used for medicinal ointments and collected in a golden cup. Gaspare’s gold represents the regal status of Christ, the king of kings, while the incense symbolizes his divine character and the myrrh, which is a combination of oils, represents Jesus, also called the Lord’ Anointed One. Whereas on the right side of the picture, a group of horsemen is approaching the scene. There are two white horses in the foreground and between them appear the dark colors of the figures and the landscape. There are many naturalistic details in the painting which are intended to give more realism to the scene; the landscape, dominated by brown tones throughout the canvas, and especially the little dog in the foreground that is peeing on the column just behind Baldassare. This particular detail was considered less respectful to catholic morality and culture of the Counter-Reformation and it was covered in the 17th century, probably at the request of Milanese Cardinal Federico Borromeo, the owner of the painting, and it re-emerged only after a modern restoration. On the painting’s frame there are initials that suggest Titian painted the canvas to Cardinal Ippolito d’Este, who gave it to the king of France Henry II. The sovereign would then donate the work to his lover Diane de Poitiers. The artist realized the work with his assistants between 1559 and 1560, a period in which his workshop made some variations of this subject, now preserved in Museo del Prado in Madrid, Paris and the Cleveland Museum of Art. In 1618 the work belonged to cardinal Federico Borromeo, who donated it the same year to the institution of Ambrosiana and described it in his Musaeum, the first description of the Pinacoteca Ambrosiana of Milan. The cardinal appreciated the painting especially for its “multiple things” and saw the Venetian master’s work as an “example for painters because they could learn many things, like from the horn of Amaltea”. During the lifetime of Cardinal Borromeo the work was kept in the hall G of Pinacoteca, close to the other paintings of the Venetian school, such as Rest During the Flight Into Egypt by Jacopo Bassano, to be displayed with works and artists of the same cultural background and harmonizing the appearance of the environment.

Artist Details

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Titian was born in Pieve di Cadore, Veneto, in 1488 or 1490.

He studied in Gentile Bellini’s workshop and then with his brother Giovanni Bellini, who influenced his artistic style significantly.

He was also inspired by the works of Giorgione, Albrecht Dürer, also known for engravings, Raphael and Michelangelo, whose works he studied profoundly. In this period he painted The Concert (Palatina Gallery, Florence), Christ Carrying the Cross (Scuola di San Rocco, Venice) and in 1508-1509 the frescoes of the Fondaco dei Tedeschi, where also Giorgione was working at the time. Titian showed the typical features of his juvenile phase with monumental setting of the space and characters with sweeping gestures, illuminated by bright colors.

Between 1516 and 1518 he worked for the famous Assunta for the church of Santa Maria dei Frari and the Pesaro altarpiece and in 1520 the altarpiece of Averoldi (Brescia, Church of SS. Nazaro e Celso).

These and other commissions for private clients were often full of symbols and complex meanings, often for moral choices of human nature, such as Three Ages of Man (1512-1513, Edinburgh, National Gallery of Scotland) Sacred and Profane Love (1514-1515, Rome, Galleria Borghese) which guaranteed Titian a great success.

He became very popular in Italian and European courts, which ordered many works from him. Alfonso d’Este commissioned him the mythological canvases with The Worship of Venus (1518-1519, Prado), Bacchus and Ariadne (1522-1523, National Gallery of London) and The Andri (1523-1524, Prado). Guidobaldo della Rovere commissioned him the Venus of Urbino and Charles V and Isabella d’Este various portraits (1536, Kunsthistorisches Museum of Vienna).

Between 1545 and 1546 he stayed in Rome and began a new phase of painting, influenced by the central Italian Mannerism, with strong contrasts of light and shadow, more plastic and dynamic shapes, darker tones, as seen in the portrait of Paul III and his nephews (1546, Museo di Capodimonte of Naples) the Crowning with Thorns (1542-1544, Louvre) and Danae (Museo di Capodimonte of Naples).

Between 1540 and 1550 he went to Augusta and became closer to Carlo V and his son Philip II, sovereigns of Spain. He made a portrait of Charles V On Horseback, The Glory, The Deposition and St.Margaret, all in the Museo del Prado in Madrid. For Philip II he painted mythological subjects with the stories of Diana.

Titian’s later works are characterized by his philosophical thoughts about man and his destiny, which is reflected in his dense paintings. He used thick layers of colors that he sometimes added on canvas with his hands, like in The Crowning with Thorns (Alte Pinakothek of Munich) and The Punishment of Marsyas (Kromeriz Castle) both made in 1570.

In his last years he also painted Pietà for his own tomb, but the work remained unfinished (Galleria dell’Accademia, Venice).

Titian died in Venice in 1576.

Collection Details

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Pinacoteca Ambrosiana was established in 1618 by cardinal Federico Borromeo, when he donated his art collection to the Ambrosiana library, which was founded by him as well in 1607. The building was named after the patron saint of Milan, St. Ambrose.

It was the first museum in the world to be open to the public. The history of the Pinacoteca and the library goes hand in hand, as this was also the first library to be open to the public. The book collection includes prestigious volumes, among them Petrarch’s Virgil with illuminated manuscript by Simone Martini and Da Vinci’s Codex Atlanticus, donated in 1637 by Galeazzo Arconati.

In fact, cardinal’s plan was to display art with its symbology and evocative power to serve Christian values reaffirmed by the Council of Trent (1545-1563), which were threatened by the diffusion of the Protestant reformation.

The academy was added in 1637 and transferred to Brera in 1776. It was supposed to be an artistic school of painting, sculpture and architecture which would allow the students to learn from the great models of the history.

The building was designed by architect Fabio Mangone (1587-1629) and it is located in the city center. The space is expanded over 1500 square meters and divided into twenty-two rooms. The cardinal illustrated the works and the objects himself in his book in Latin, Museum (1625), which still today represents the main nucleus of the Pinacoteca.

Through commissions and purchases Federico Borromeo’s collection grew with the paintings of Lombard and Tuscan schools, among them works by Raphael, Correggio and Bernardino Luini and casts from Leone Leoni’s workshop, arriving to a total of 3000 artworks of which 300 are exhibited.

There are great masterpieces such as the Portrait of a Musician by Leonardo Da Vinci (1480), Madonna del Padiglione by Botticelli (1495), the cartoon for the School of Athens by Raphael (before 1510), the Holy Family with St. Anne and Young St. John by Bernardino Luini (1530) and the Rest on the Flight into Egypt by Jacopo Bassano (1547).

A great part of the collection is dedicated to landscape and to still life, because the Cardinal saw the nature as an important tool raising the human mind into the Divine. For this reason, Federico collected Caravaggio’s Basket of Fruit and the miniature paintings by Jan Brueghel and Paul Brill.

After the cardinal’s death the collection was enriched with the donations of the artworks from 15th and 16th centuries, such as the frescoes by Bramantino and Antonio Canova and Bertel Thorvaldsen’s marble self-portraits. Museo Settala, one of the first museums in Italy, founded by canonical Manfredo Settala (1600-1680), was joined to Pinacoteca Ambrosiana in 1751. The museum is a sort of science history museum with a variety of curiosities of all time.

During the period of growth, the museum required some structural and architectural changes as well, including the expansion of the exhibition halls between 1928 and 1931, which were decorated with 13th century miniature motifs of Ambrosian codes, and between 1932 and 1938 a new series of restorations was implemented under the guidance of Ambrogio Annoni. The renowned readjustment in 1963 was curated by architect Luigi Caccia Dominioni and the museum excursus was concluded with the current reorganization between 1990 and 1997.