Titian’s ‘Allegory of Prudence’ operates on a number of levels. The first is an inscription that reads: EX PRAETERITO/PRAESENS PRUDENTER AGIT/NE FUTURA ACTIONẼ DETURPET (“From the experience of the past, the present acts prudently, lest it spoil future actions”). Below each clause corresponds a man’s profile depicting ‘The Three Ages: youth, maturity, old age’. The directions they face play are crucial in extending the metaphor as they represent the wider concept of Time having a ‘past’ (praeterito), ‘present’ (praesens), and ‘future’ (futura).
The lower two levels are the sets of heads – bestial and human – bound at the nape of the neck and facing different directions. Titian adheres the ancient tradition of animals as embodying time. In fact, the significance of a wolf, lion, and dog can be traced to Hellenistic Egyptian tradition. The god Serapis, according to the Saturnalia of Macrobe, was indeed the embodiment of Time and was often depicted alongside the same Cerberus here: A wolf ravenously devouring memory of all things past; A lion looking to the present with a stoic force; A dog bounding forth into an unknown future.
The composition itself is not characteristic of Titian. Indeed, the epigrammatic portrait looks more like a heraldic shield than a painting. This suggests it is a “timpano,” or a painted cover meant to protect a more important painting from deteriorating, and something Titian was known to make. The painting has other practical uses in who it depicts. The three faces represent (from oldest to youngest) Titian, his son Orazio, and Orazio’s younger cousin Marco Vecellio. Both of these young men worked in Titian’s Venetian workshop and so, the painting could be associated with the inheritance of Titin’s property to succeeding generations. The image itself thus acts as a visual guidance to all generations, advising them to act prudently in the administration of inheritance.