Apollo and Marsyas represents one of two Titian originals to be found at the present time within the Czech Republic (the other is the Toilet of a Young Woman in the Picture Gallery of Prague Castle). There are various hypotheses about the original purpose of the painting, which originated in the final period of the Master's life (in the years 1550-1576). According to older opinions this is the Master's private creed, a "spiritual bequest", in which the ageing Titian expressed through a complicated mythological-allegorical composition, with the use of Neo-Platonic categories, his philosophical view of the world and of the role of artistic creativity in it. Other interpretations link the Kroměříž work with a cycle of paintings on Ovidian themes, which the artist created around the middle of the 16th century for Mary of Hungary (the sister of Emperor Charles V and widow of the Bohemian and Hungarian King Ludwig Jagellon). Apollo and Marsyas became the property of the Bishop of Olomouc, the important collector Karel of Liechtenstein-Castelcorn, in 1673. Before this it belonged to another famous art-lover, Thomas Howard, Earl of Arundel, who was also a patron of Anthony Van Dyck and Václav Hollar.
The theme depicted is based on the tale recorded by Ovid in Book VI of the Metamorphoses. The Satyr Marsyas, proud of his mastery in the playing of the pipe, challenged the god Apollo to a musical duel. Apollo with his lyre won and had Marsyas flayed. Already the ancient authors intertwined this tale with the narration of another contest, in which Apollo competed with Pan and the Phrygian King Midas, as a biased judge, acquired the ears of an ass on this occasion (Metamorphoses XI). In the preparation of this composition with its many figures Titian was inspired by, among other things, the work of Rafael's pupil Giulio Romano on the same theme. He also made use of the results of his study of ancient sarcophagi, where scenes with Apollo and Marsyas appear relatively frequently. The technological investigation of the Kroměříž painting showed that the painter changed the positions and the attributes of the figures depicted several times in the course of the work so that, for instance, the musician on the left received, instead of the ancient lyre, a "modern" musical instrument, the lira da braccio. In the pensive and melancholic figure of King Midas some interpreters even saw Titian's self-portrait. It is considered that the ancient theme of the fateful punishment was brought up to date by some contemporary happenings. Most frequently quoted is the drastic death of Marcantonio Bragadino, the Venetian commander of the fortress of Famagusta on Cyprus, who was skinned alive after the town was taken by the Turks in 1571. The Christian interpretation of the painting then talks of the concept of Apollo as the new Christ, who by the (symbolic?) removal of the skin – the corporal casing – opens the path to eternal bliss for the soul
Even if the interpretation of the picture is still the subject of often opposing considerations, there is no dispute at all about its artistic quality. This work, which formed the piece de resistance of the Titian exhibitions in London (1983/84), Washington (1986, 1990/91), Venice (1990) and Paris (1993), today represents one of the most valuable of all the memorials of old European art in the Czech Republic.
The Venetian Master Tiziano Vecellio (1488/90 Pieve di Cadore – 1576 Venice) worked in his youth with Giovanni Bellini and with Giorgione, after whose death he became the most sought-after artist in Venice. Portraits, mythology and altar canvases were ordered in his workshop both by important patricians and church dignitaries and also by monastic orders, religious and professional fraternities or representatives of municipal and state administration. Titian's fame soon spread beyond the boundaries of the Republic of Venice. The painter worked for the monarchs of the Habsburg family (Charles V, Philip II), for the ducal families of Gonzago in Mantua and Este in Ferrara or for Pope Paul III, at whose invitation he stayed in Rome in the years 1545 and 1546. Through his works and his pupils Titian strongly influenced the further direction of Venetian painting and he was also often cited by transalpine artists of the 17th century.