Titian is often thought of as the “Grand Old Man of Italian Art”, mainly because of the legend that he was carried off by the plague at the age of 99. However, as with so many such legends, the truth is not quite as it might appear.
Titian’s date of birth has never been established conclusively, although the most likely year is around 1489. This was the year given by Vasari in his “Lives of the Artists”; although Vasari’s facts cannot always be trusted, he was a contemporary of Titian’s and the two artists did meet. Vasari would therefore have had a good idea of the age of the artist he was talking to.
The idea that Titian was much older derives from a begging letter that Titian wrote to King Philip of Spain in which it would have been to his advantage to claim to be much older than he was. It was from his claim to have been born in 1477 that the legend of the 99-year-old plague victim arises. However, there is little doubt that the bit about the plague is true.
Titian (real name Tiziano Vecellio) is regarded as the greatest of the early Venetian artists, but, as with most members of the “School of Venice”, he was not born there. His birthplace and childhood home was Pieve di Cadore, an Alpine village some 70 miles north of Venice. He therefore grew up surrounded by mountains, forests and rushing streams, enjoying excellent health and becoming strong and muscular. This was therefore a very different background to the city life of Venice, with calm, flat water and serene architecture being its dominant features.
Titian arrived in Venice at the age of about 11, to live with an uncle and be apprenticed to a painter. At that time the most prominent artists in the city were Giovanni and Gentile Bellini, who had dominated the artistic life of the city for many years, and it was to them that the young Titian was apprenticed.
A fellow apprentice of the Bellinis, although somewhat older than Titian, had been Giorgione (Giorgio Barbarelli), and it was in the latter’s studio that Titian first worked as an assistant. The two artists worked together on a number of projects, and the older artist clearly had a huge influence on his protégé.
However, Giorgione died in 1510 at the age of 40, and the Bellinis died in 1507 and 1516, which left Titian without a rival in terms of Venetian art. On Giovanni Bellini’s death, Titian was elected to succeed him as the official painter of Venice, after which his career was assured. He acquired considerable wealth as an artist, lived in a palace of a house, and became a figure of great influence in the life of Venice, being visited by anyone of note, including royalty, who came to Venice.
Titian’s art, especially in his earlier years, was notable mainly for its use of colour and the drama that it conveyed. An excellent example is his “Bacchus and Ariadne” (painted about 1520) that is now in London’s National Gallery. Here we see Bacchus, the God of Wine, leaping from his chariot (pulled by two leopards) to console Ariadne, the maiden who had been abandoned by her false lover Theseus. The whole sense of this painting is one of movement, with Bacchus caught in mid-leap, his robes flowing behind him, and the surprised Ariadne clutching her dress with one hand as she is undecided between fleeing or staying put. What is also remarkable about this painting is the richness of the colours, which have fortunately remained vibrant down the centuries. The amber, ruby and sapphire of the draperies seem to sparkle and quiver, adding to the overall drama of the whole. There is much more to this painting, including a whole crew of figures who accompany Bacchus, all of them frozen during actions of their own.
The inspiration for “Bacchus and Ariadne” clearly came from Titian’s memories of his boyhood in the mountains, with the river and the wind in constant movement. Titian was familiar with the awe-inspiring, dramatic elements of Nature, and these were expressed through his art.
Widely accepted as one of Titian’s greatest masterpieces is his altarpiece of the “Assumption of the Virgin” (dating from 1518), in the Church of the Frari in Venice. This is a huge canvas, more than 22 feet high and 11 feet across, and is the largest altarpiece in Venice. The colouring is magnificent, being dominated by the golden light of Heaven at the top of the canvas and the rich reds and oranges of the robes of the figures, including that of Mary herself. The painting is all the more impressive in its context, being a dramatic contrast to the grey stonework of the church, but with natural light falling on it from the windows on either side.
Titian’s sense of drama and movement is very much to the fore, with the eye being drawn upwards from the apostles at the base, whose arms and gazes stretch up towards the clouds on which Mary is surrounded by a host of “putti”, these being the naked children with wings which featured regularly in the religious art of the period. Mary herself looks upwards, with arms raised, to the highest level where God looks down and another “putto” holds the crown which Mary is about to receive.
Another masterpiece from his earlier years is usually known as “Sacred and Profane Love” (now in the Borghese Gallery, Rome), but this title is a later interpretation based on a misunderstanding of its intention. Two women sit at a well, one is dressed in a splendid Venetian gown, the other is nearly nude. The former looks out at the viewer, the latter across at the former. That the painting is allegorical there is little doubt, but the meaning of the allegory is less certain. Modern scholarship holds that this was painted to celebrate a marriage, and the two figures represent two aspects of happiness, the fleeting earthly version, represented by the clothed figure holding a vase full of jewels, and the eternal heavenly happiness symbolised by the near-naked figure for whom earthly trappings have no purpose.
Titian’s senses of colour and movement, as mentioned earlier, are very much to the fore here, especially in the fiery orange-red of the naked woman’s robe as it blows away from her arm.
However, also of note is Titian’s mastery of portraying the female face and form. He rarely used models for the figures in his non-portrait paintings, but these still come across as real women, who could step out of the canvas and get on with life. For one thing they are usually women with some maturity, in their thirties rather than their teens or twenties. They are also not the small, black-eyed women that he would have seen in Venice but fair-haired and fair-skinned, as he would have remembered from his childhood in the mountains. It may well be that, in his mind’s eye, it was his mother and her circle of friends and relations who became the models for his madonnas and goddesses.
Titian had a child (a son, Pomponio) with a woman named Cecilia whom he married in 1525. Two more children were born, the first being Orazio who was to become Titian’s assistant, but Cecilia died while giving birth to a daughter (Lavinia) in 1830. Titian invited his sister to move into the household to look after the children.
During his maturity as an artist, Titian became increasingly popular as a portrait painter, always managing to portray something of the sitter’s character as well as their physical features, which is a skill that many later portraitists have failed to master. One of his regular sitters was the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, the most celebrated of the portraits being a huge (11 feet by 9 feet) equestrian portrait of 1548 to celebrate the Emperor’s victory at the Battle of Muhlberg. It has to be said that the portrait is somewhat flattering, given that Charles was too afflicted by gout to ride a warhorse into battle, and the victory consisted mostly of one side turning up and the other running away, but when a powerful monarch demands to be immortalised on canvas, in full armour and carrying a spear into battle, and is willing to pay good money for it, what is an artist to do?
It would appear that Titian rather got his own back with this portrait, given that he seems to have paid far more attention to the horse than to its rider. Whereas Charles, whose face occupies only a tiny proportion of the canvas, stares forwards impassively, the magnificent black charger is pawing the ground, clearly ready to charge forward into battle. It is to the horse, with its power and movement, that the eye is directed, and that can hardly have been accidental on Titian’s part.
Charles, who was also King of Spain, was succeeded in the latter role by his son, Philip II, who was a far more dynamic character than his father and who also wanted to be portrayed at his best, which meant using the services of Titian, who was happy to oblige with portraits on several occasions. Philip also commissioned Titian to produce a series of canvases on mythological themes, and this work occupied much of Titian’s attention during his later years.
One of these pictures is “The Death of Actaeon” (1562) which is now in the National Gallery, London. It is a violent scene, of the unfortunate Actaeon, who had surprised the goddess Diana while bathing, being torn to pieces by his own hounds. A comparison between this work and his earlier mythological canvases shows a remarkable development into much softer outlines and shapes, but still with the same emphasis on movement. The figures seem almost to melt into the background, giving a sense of mystery that was absent from the earlier work.
Philip’s tastes in art were clearly very different from those of Titian’s earlier patrons, with many of the subjects tending not only to the violent but also to the erotic, many of the mythological characters being nude or semi-nude.
In his later years Titian became much more of a perfectionist who was rarely satisfied that he had done enough to a canvas. He might keep a painting in his studio for up to ten years, making subtle changes from time to time.
Titian continued to paint to the end of his long life, before the plague finally claimed him in 1576. He was held in such high esteem that the rule was waived whereby victims of the plague could not be buried within church walls. He was therefore laid to rest in Venice’s Church of the Frari, where his own magnificent altarpiece can be seen to this day.