- Titian: His Life
- Harper, 832 pp.
No biographer of the great Renaissance painter Titian can resist retelling the story of his encounter with the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V. Titian, so legend has it, was painting one day when Charles visited his studio. Seeing a paint brush on the floor, the emperor reached down to retrieve it and presented it to the painter. Had Charles bestowed a golden scepter upon Titian, the honor would have been no greater. Artists were still viewed as artisans by most of the nobility of Europe. In sullying his royal hands with a tool of Titian’s trade, Charles paid him the ultimate compliment.
Did this event actually occur? In her new biography of Titian, Sheila Hale leaves room for doubt. But happen or not, this story speaks to a deep level of truth about the man who in many ways was the prototype of the modern painter.
Hale’s new biography of Titian is a spirited account of self-invention. The painter known in the English-speaking world as Titian was an “outlander” like William Shakespeare. Born around 1488 in the Dolomite Alps far from the centers of Renaissance civilization like Florence and Rome, Tiziano Vecellio achieved fame as the “Prince of Painters.” He raised the artistic profile of his adopted city, Venice, and, along with Michelangelo, created the ideal of the artist as a hero of culture.
Titian’s place in Renaissance history, however, has never figured “center stage” like the dramatic careers of Michelangelo, Raphael or Leonardo da Vinci. Titian is so identified with Venice and Venetian art that he often seems to inhabit a separate chapter in the story of Europe’s cultural awakening during the 1500’s. To a large extent, this isolation stems from the unique position of the Republic of Venice, an independent realm of merchants and seafarers surrounded by envious, aggressive empires. To grasp the significance of Titian as an artist, you have to understand Venice.
To widen the focus of Titian’s life story to include a profile of Venice means making a long story even longer. Hale’s decision to do so, necessary in many respects, presents some real challenges in comprehending Titian’s achievement.
Several other factors complicate Titian’s story. First, he lived an exceptionally long life, dying in 1576. But he seldom travelled far from Venice, despite entreaties from Charles V to come to his court in Spain. He did not even visit Rome to view the ancient monuments or newly-discovered statues like Laocoön, which he studied only in sketches or prints by other artists, Not until 1544, did Titian venture to the Eternal City and then only for business reasons.
Nor was Titian’s personal life particularly dramatic. He came from a modest family of lumber merchants in the mountain district of Cadore which owed allegiance to Venice. He began his artistic apprenticeship in Venice around 1500, the art scene being dominated by the Bellini brothers, Gentile and Giovanni. Titian worked under both these masters and later had a competitive rivalry with the tragically short-lived Giorgione. Compared with the spectacular early career of Michelangelo in Florence, Titian’s rise was steady, self-assured and unremarkable.
Titian’s straight-laced personality set the seal to a rather conventional story of hard work, self-restraint and clever dealing. Titian’s letters show a man obsessed with gaining preferment for his eldest son, whom he forced into the Catholic clergy. Ever courteous, Titian was a thorough professional. He might have been slow in delivering a promised painting, owing to the overwhelming demands on his time and talent. But he knew when to bend a knee to a noble patron – while retaining his self-respect.
There was, however, one improbable entry on Titian’s resume. Titian’s life and career track were transformed when, in 1527, he befriended the greatest wit, the most cunning, scheming rogue, master propagandist and skillful professional blackmailer of Renaissance Italy: Pietro Aretino.
The “Divine Aretino” is little known in the English-speaking world because he wrote no major literary work like Rabelais or Cervantes. The pamphlet was his chosen weapon, making him the first recognizable journalist in history. His command of the Tuscan dialect insured that this variant of the Italian language became the standard written form for the entire country, divided for centuries into innumerable city-states and provinces, most under French, Spanish or Papal control.
Aretino was a self-made man like Titian. As is often the case with cynical opportunists, Aretino nurtured a social-conscience and a streak of idealism that were often very-well camouflaged. Awed by Titian’s talent, Aretino began writing enthusiastically about his paintings. First Italy and then much of Europe became aware of Titian’s gifts. A more vigorous and naturalistic painter than either of the Bellini brothers, Titian soon had a reputation as a Venetian artist who could match the Florentines skill-for-skill, especially in the use of oil paint, still something of a novelty among Italian artists.
Titian soon had more orders for portraits and devotional works than he could handle. The portrait he painted of the grandson of Pope Paul III, Ranuccio Farnese, is a representative example of his uncanny ability at reaching into the minds and souls of his subjects.
Here, Titian shows a twelve year-old boy who is wearing the cloak of the Knights of Malta, the military order who protected Italy from Muslim pirates. At the age of four, Ranuccio Farnese had been invested as prior of a religious property owned by the Knights of Malta, a first step in his career in the Catholic Church. This was to climax with his being raised to the rank of Cardinal, before dying at the age of thirty-five. With this portrait, Titian is celebrating an act of sheer nepotism, one of the forms of ecclesiastical corruption that sparked the Protestant Reformation. It was also the kind of favoritism that Titian sought for his own son. But the painting itself is a powerful and poignant evocation of a young boy on the cusp of manhood.
One of the people most impressed with Titian’s extraordinary talent was the Emperor Charles V. King of Spain, Holy Roman Emperor and defender of Christendom, Charles was the most formidable ruler in the world during the 1500’s. Hale delves into his character and career with the same insight that she devotes to Venice and Pietro Aretino. Her aim is the same: to enable the reader to understand the assent of Titian into the rarefied world of power and privilege. Unfortunately, Titian frequently disappears from the narrative for disturbingly long stretches of time as Hale relates the efforts of Charles V to thwart the unholy alliance of France and the Ottoman Turks. What should be a “life and times” of Titian comes close on occasion to being an account of Titian’s “times and life.”
When Hale keeps Titian’s career curve in close juxtaposition with political or social events, she is on firmer ground. A fine example of this can be seen in the way Hale balances commentary on the religious reforms of the Council of Trent with an analysis of Titian’s erotic masterpiece, Venus with a Mirror, painted around 1560. This complex painting was an astonishing demonstration of artistic technique. It was also a direct challenge to the puritanical zeal of the Catholic Church, now deeply engaged in an attempt to thwart the Protestant Reformation.
With Titian safely living in Venice, which initially resisted the censorship imposed by the Catholic Church, he could paint a sensational nude like the Venus with a Mirror and not fear the Inquisition. Hale writes:
Titian, unaffected by the repressive strictures, continued to turn his brushes simultaneously to pagan myths intended to arouse the senses and flatter erudition and to deeply pious images of the sufferings of Christ and the saints as required by the dictates of the Counter-Reformation and his own deepening faith… He had every reason to anticipate the popularity of this stunning tour de force, a more sophisticated and ‘modern’ departure from the Venuses with mirrors that he and Giovanni Bellini had painted early in the century, and more glamorous and compositionally interesting than contemporary paintings of naked women with mirrors by Tintoretto and Veronese, which look vulgar and contrived by comparison.
Brilliant expositions like this testify to Hale’s profound knowledge of the Renaissance and its cultural legacy. Yet, Hale’s determination to assess Titian’s life in the context of the power politics of 16th century Europe deflects her attention from his pivotal role in leading Italian art out of the dead-end of Mannerism. This in fact was one of his greatest achievements.
Beginning around 1520, just as Titian was hitting his stride in Venice, a new school of art arose, mainly in Florence. A young generation of artists tried to assert their technical virtuosity with dazzling displays of “special effects.” Painters like Jacopo Pontormo with his Entombment (1525-28) and Agnolo Bronzino and his Venus Disarming Cupid (c.1524) produced works filled with writhing bodies, contorted limbs, unusual colors and reality-defying perspective schemes. Opinion on the value of these paintings is often fiercely contested. But the one element of Mannerism that is beyond dispute is that it left no room for further development, save for entwining Venus and Cupid in even more exaggerated embraces than in Bronzino’s bizarre painting.
Titian took these same spiritual and mythological themes and made them believable. In his depictions of Christ being placed in his tomb, we see the corpse of a martyred man, not a sleeping one as in Pontormo’s utterly unconvincing Entombment. Titian’s last painting reworks the unforgettable image of Michelangelo’s Pietà, with Christ’s mother Mary holding her crucified son in her arms. It is one of the most moving paintings in the Western world.
Titian, painting almost to his dying day, led the way for Western art to escape the trap of Mannerism. He set the stage for all of the great Baroque painters from Caravaggio to Rembrandt, with Rubens and Van Dyck particularly in his debt. Even if much of the work on his later paintings were handled by studio assistants, Titian’s indelible stamp was on every one.
Incredibly, Titian’s style continued to evolve and in the last years of his life he created a revolutionary technique which the art writer Giorgio Vasari termed “painting with splotches” —pittura della macchia. Three centuries before the first Impressionist Exhibition in 1874, Titian was painting in a recognizable Impressionist style.
Hale’s gifts as a writer and historian keep this vast, overly-ambitious book from succumbing to internal flaws. However, one cannot help but remember when tightly focused biographies like Cecil Woodham Smith’s Florence Nightingale were more of a norm in publishing. A mere slip of a book at 615 pages, this 1950 biography revived interest in the “Lady with the Lamp” and revitalized the way that the Victorian age was viewed. Florence Nightingale succeeded as both a “life” and a “times.”
This might well have been the case for Hale’s Titian. Hale’s grasp of her subject and her literary ability are certainly up to the task of creating a classic work. A revised edition, with more insight into Titian’s art and less emphasis on the political background, might well achieve for this book the status it otherwise deserves: the definitive biography of the “Prince of Painters.”