I was attracted to it not only because of the beauty of the loose brushwork and glowing color, but I was also captivated by the strangeness of the subject: why is a little boy (I assume the child is a boy) alone with the dogs? The white dog seems protective of the boy and the nursing dog and pups. Why? The boy has his arm around the dog -- is he blind? He seems about to cry. What is he holding in his skirt? What’s with the burning city in the background? Why is the area around the nursing pups glowing? The nursing dog seems to be looking at us suspiciously. And look at the play of paws and feet: the white dog’s back right paw is touching the back right paw of the nursing dog, and the child's feet look like paws.
So what’s all this about? The only attempt at an interpretation I was able to find is that the boy represents Bacchus because there are grapes behind him, and he may be holding grapes in his apron. I think that explanation is pretty lame because it doesn’t explain the prominence or meaning of the dogs, the burning city in the background or why the boy is alone with the dogs. Also, Renaissance symbolism wasn’t so simple-minded.
In the Middle Ages, symbolism was very literal (e.g. a lily = purity, grapes = Bacchus), but in the Renaissance, symbols took on a more expressive and visceral quality. As a result, dogs became a more common subject in Renaissance painting because of their expressive possibilities. They could express a wide variety of things, some of them contradictory: a dog could be protective, faithful and loyal, or evil, promiscuous and unclean. The meaning is determined by the expressive manner in which it’s depicted: the posture of the dog, its facial expression, what it’s doing, etc. In the case of this painting the dogs express, in a very visceral way, protectiveness and nurturing.
So what’s this painting about? I haven’t found anything in Classical literature that might explain it, but I am far from an expert. Any suggestions out there? Jonah?
If the subject is from the Bible, the Apocryphal story of Tobias from The Book of Tobit is a possibility. Dogs are mentioned more than 40 times in the Bible, almost always negatively -- the Tobias story being a rare exception. Also, there may have been a personal reason for Titian’s interest in this subject. There are contemporary reports of Titian’s eyesight dimming at this time, probably from cataracts. A story about cured blindness might hold great appeal to him. And finally, because of its appeal to merchant families whose sons were often sent to do business in distant cities, Tobias and the Angel was a popular theme in fifteenth-century Florence and sixteenth-century Venice.
In any case it’s an entertaining story and worth considering. Here’s the story in summary: The righteous Israelite, Tobit, exiled to Nineveh after the destruction of Jerusalem, blind and nearing death, sends his son Tobias to collect money held for him in the far-away city of Media. Tobias is accompanied by a dog and a man who offers to aid and protect him on his journey who turns out to be the angel, Raphael (handy). Meanwhile, in Media, the beautiful Sarah is in despair because the demon of lust, Asmodeus, kills every man she marries on their wedding night, before the marriage can be consummated (seven in all -- she must have been REALLY beautiful). Along the way Tobias and Raphael are attacked by a large fish (honest -- I’m not making this up). Raphael instructs Tobias to keep parts of it. On arriving in Media Raphael tells Tobias he should marry the beautiful Sarah, and he instructs Tobias to burn the fish’s liver and heart to drive away the murderous demon. After Tobias and Sarah marry (and successfully consummate it with no fatalities) they return to Ninevah where Raphael instructs Tobias how to use the fish’s gall to cure Tobias’s father, Tobit, of his blindness. Tobit, cured, sings a hymn of praise and then tells everyone to get out before God destroys Nineveh as prophesied. Tobias and Sarah return to Media where they live happily ever after. In the Renaissance, the story was usually depicted showing an adolescent boy with the Angel Raphael and a little dog at their feet:
Verrocchio, Tobias and the Angel, c. 1470-80. (There is speculation Leonardo was Verrocchio’s model for Tobias, and that Leonardo may have painted the fish and the dog)There were, however, many depictions of Tobias as a boy, such as the above: Veronese’s Holy Family with the Child Baptist and Tobias and the Angel, c.1527. Still, none were as young as the boy in this Titian. It’s possible then that Titian is depicting, not the destruction of Nineveh, but the destruction and exile from Jerusalem, in which case Tobias would be very young indeed; and the large white dog would represent the boy’s protector, the Angel Raphael.
But so far I haven’t accounted for the nursing pups, and especially the strange glow emanating from the nursing dog’s teats. I think, as we saw with the Veronese above, it’s possible there are multiple subjects and sources in this painting, which together form the ultimate meaning of the work. In one of his first major paintings, Titian combined the Tobias subject with a radiant Saint John The Baptist. I was not able to find a good image of this work, but it was described by Giorgio Vasari, a Renaissance painter and architect who wrote biographies of the famous artists of his time. From Vasari's Lives of the Artists: Then in the year 1507, while the Emperor Maximilian was making war on the Venetians, Tiziano [i. e. Titian], according to his own account, painted an Angel Raphael with Tobias and a dog in the Church of S. Marziliano, with a distant landscape, where, in a little wood, S. John the Baptist is praying on his knees to Heaven, whence comes a radiance that illumines him... .
There’s something holy about the radiant glow around the nursing pups that recalled for me, and I don’t mean to be offensive, paintings of the Nativity. There’s a sense of leaving the burning city and the child going back to nature; and that it’s scary but nature (the dogs and grapes) will provide. I think it’s possible to read this painting as symbolizing, in a more visceral way than usual, the transition from the Old Testament -- the destruction of Jerusalem -- to a rebirth of sorts -- the New Testament.