The art of love: Titian

Seduction on a grand scale
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Titian: 'Bacchus and Ariadne', 1520-3, National Gallery, London

For most of us, the mating game is a private affair. It happens in closed rooms, secluded corners, in sealed bubbles of intimacy. It doesn't, at least in its early stages, normally take the form of a carnival procession, a public triumph. But in the courtships of gods and goddesses, they order things differently. Personal desires are played out on the stage of the wide world.

Titian's Bacchus and Ariadne gives us a chat-up on a grand scale. The Cretan princess has been abandoned on the island of Naxos. As she wanders the coast, lost in misery, the god of wine suddenly rolls up on his leopard-drawn chariot. He's brought with him his full retinue of wild maenads and satyrs, clashing cymbals, dismembering animals, snake wrestling and deep in drink. The whole right half of the scene is a packed orgy of flesh, fur, silks and foliage. Then on the left side the picture opens out, to a wide blue sky, for the big encounter.

The princess turns. The god is caught mid-leap. He holds a split-second, cloak fluttering, foot-in-the-air pose. Here is a man hurling himself at a woman. And as his body plunges, open-mouthed, his eyes meet hers. It's that moment of absolute risk, surrender and presumption. Here I am! Me and my whole life!