By MARK ARCHER
Titian is one of the most celebrated painters of all time, and his influence has been among the most far-reaching in the history of art. He freed painting from drawing and made paint's physicality—the brush stroke and the finger mark on the canvas—a language of expression in its own right. Every artist from Rubens to Rothko whose work depends on the painterliness of paint has owed a debt to Titian. Yet while his work is world-famous, Titian's personality has remained one of the most elusive among Renaissance artists. There is no lack of information about his day-to-day existence, his family and friends or his business affairs, but any claims about the vision that informed his art have been largely conjectural.
Sheila Hale's "Titian" is the first fully documented biography of the artist since 1877. Her approach is to try to understand the times in which he lived, and she succeeds brilliantly in capturing the pulse of 16th-century Venice, where the artist spent his working life. Tiziano Vecellio—to give him his full name—was born around 1490 in Pieve di Cadore in the mountainous region of the Dolomites (he recalled its blue hills and forests in many landscapes), close to the border between Venice's mainland empire and the German-speaking territories of the Holy Roman Empire. He came to Venice to train as a painter around age 9.
Titian: His Life
By Sheila Hale
Harper, 832 pages, $39.99
Venice was the richest and most cosmopolitan city in the world. Ms. Hale tells us that its long-haul trade, exploiting its position at the hub of the Spice Route to China, delivered a 40% return on investment. Its merchants imported everything from cinnamon and nutmeg to slaves and exotic animals. Using imported ingredients, Venice's vendecolori, specialist color-sellers, offered artists an unrivaled variety of pigments and paint mixtures, including the brilliant blue produced from lapis lazuli mined in present-day Afghanistan. Thanks to trade with Flanders and the influence of Flemish painters, Venetian artists were also the first in Italy to use oil-based paint rather than egg-based tempera. These included the painters Giovanni Bellini and Giorgione, with whom Titian trained. Oil paint allowed light to penetrate the surface of a painting, creating depth and tonal perspectives based on color rather than line, a distinction described by contemporaries as the difference between colore ("color") and disegno ("drawing").
Ms. Hale recounts a story about the Florentine Michelangelo, who used only tempera, commenting that it was a pity Titian had learned to paint in Venice, where artists were not taught how to draw. What she doesn't add is that Titian sparred visually with Michelangelo in return, cheekily quoting in his 1549 "Danae" the pose of Michelangelo's heavily muscular sculpture of "Night" but softening it into one of the most frankly erotic of all his nudes. For Titian had not only exciting flesh-colored pigments and smoky glazes to work with; he also used live female models, many of whom were recruited from the brothels that had been legal in Venice since the 14th century. "Titian was not the first artist to paint naked women," Ms. Hale writes, "but he was the first to use live models, and to paint them lying down." The result was "an overt sexuality that had never been seen before in painting." She adds that Titian himself seems to have been restrained relative to the sexual libertinism of the day, denying to one contemporary that he slept with his models (though he did father children by four different wives and partners).
Titian's first major commission, to depict the Assumption of the Virgin for the church of Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, caused a sensation when it was unveiled in 1518. Eschewing the traditional landscape background, Titian painted the event as if it were occurring in the church itself, with the Virgin spiraling upward as if propelled by her own momentum above a life-size crowd of awe-struck and gesticulating apostles who looked just like the Frari's congregation. The painting is a triumph of color and spatial drama. Ms. Hale says that "it changed the direction of European art in a way that was not repeated until Picasso reinvented the art of painting four centuries later." Like Picasso, Titian seems to have been aware that he was breaking with tradition in painting up to that point. Asked why he didn't paint with the delicacy of his famous contemporaries, he replied:
I am not confident of achieving the delicacy and beauty of the brushwork of Michelangelo, Raphael, Correggio and Parmigianino; and if I did, I would be judged with them, or else considered to be an imitator. But ambition, which is as natural in my art as in any other, urges me to choose a new path to make myself famous, much as the others acquired their own fame from the way which they followed.
The wealth of Venice's traders meant that Titian, in time, became the first modern artist to earn his living as much from private patronage as from civic or religious commissions. Indeed, his talent for painting salacious nudes gained him an enthusiastic following. Ms. Hale explains that the model for the famous "Venus of Urbino" was Angela Zaffetta, the "second-highest-priced courtesan" in Venice, and that the picture was intended for Cardinal Ippolito de' Medici as a souvenir of his night with her. But as a sign of Titian's commercial canniness, at least six different variations of the painting were produced for different patrons. He put clothes on her for the Duke of Urbino; for Cardinal Alessandro Farnese he offered to swap her head for that of another Angela, the cardinal's mistress.
Titian had his own public-relations machine in his friend, the diarist Pietro Aretino, whose bullish reviews of Titian were printed across Europe, and a factory of assistants to meet the demand for his work, to the inevitable detriment of quality. Some 70 to 100 paintings, about a third of his extant works, are portraits, a genre Titian revolutionized with his realism and composition. Over the course of his long career, he become the painter of choice for the European elite. Ms. Hale quotes one contemporary who said that Titian could throw off a portrait "as quickly as another could scratch the ornament on a chest," but she also recounts a more famous anecdote that demonstrates the widespread respect for his talents. While painting the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, Titian dropped a brush, which the emperor picked up. Bowing low, Titian declared: "Sire, one of your servants does not deserve such an honor." To this Charles replied: "Titian deserves to be served by Caesar."
Titian painted some of his finest works for Charles's son, Philip II of Spain, in particular a series of mythological narratives drawn from Ovid's "Metamorphoses" that are arguably his greatest achievement. Titian appears to have had total freedom in the choice of subject, making these virtuoso paintings among his most personal statements. In the "Rape of Europa," for instance (now in the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston), Europa lies across the bull's back in a pose of astonishing awkwardness and vulnerability as they are about to disappear off the edge of the painting. The drama of the moment is caught in details such as Europa's windswept gown and the bull's sea-drenched fur, both of which seem textured into the surface of the painting. The idyllic world she has left behind is evoked in the serene, indifferent and sumptuously colored landscape that takes up most of the rest of the painting. We barely notice Europa's despairing companions, who are now only tiny and insignificant figures on the shore.
When Titian died in 1576—not of the plague, according to Ms. Hale, as has been traditionally thought, but of a fever brought on by old age—he was the most famous artist not only in Italy but throughout Europe. In a career lasting over 70 years, his patrons had included a pope, three successive Holy Roman Emperors and the King of Spain. In terms of prestige and worldly success, it was an achievement unmatched by any painter before his time and, among later artists, equaled only by Rubens.
Ms. Hale's book is not a work of original scholarship—and includes lamentably few reproductions of the paintings themselves—but it is a useful synthesis of much of the recent scholarship published on Titian. The result is highly readable, if occasionally marred by novelistic license. ("Titian was close to eighty . . . and on some days, when the Venetian winter crept into his bones or the humidity of high summer caused the brushes to slip in his arthritic fingers, he felt even older.") But it doesn't tell us anything about Titian that we didn't know before—that he could be stubborn, that he worried about money and fretted over his wayward son, Pomponio, and that his good manners charmed his clients—and it doesn't make the painter any less elusive.
In her acknowledgments, Ms. Hale admits a great debt to the Titian scholar Charles Hope, whom she thanks for sharing his unpublished and published research, his conversational insights, and his translations of key documents in Titian's life. Indeed, his beautifully illustrated short book on Titian (1980 and often reprinted) can be recommended to anyone interested in the artist. Mr. Hope agrees that Titian's personality will always remain elusive, but he concludes: "Only one facet of his character emerges with real clarity, his single-minded and total involvement in his work. This in itself probably constitutes his most important contribution to European painting."—Mr. Archer is a writer living in London.