Titian, the greatest 16th-century Venetian
painter and the shaper of the Venetian coloristic and painterly tradition.
He is one of the key figures in the history of Western art.
Titian, whose name in Italian is Tiziano Vecellio,
was born in Pieve di Cadore, north of Venice, by his own account in
1477; many modern scholars prefer to advance the date to about 1487.
In Venice, he studied with Gentile Bellini and then with Giovanni Bellini,
but only the latter left a lasting imprint on his style.
Influence of Giorgione
The first documented reference to Titian dates from 1508, when he was
commissioned to paint frescoes, with the Venetian painter Giorgione,
on the exterior of the Fondaco dei Tedeschi (the German Exchange). Unfortunately,
the frescoes survive only in ruined fragments. Scholars disagree as
to which paintings dating from the first decade of the 16th century
were actually painted by Titian. Among the most important of the disputed
works are the Allendale Nativity (n.d., National Gallery, Washington,
D.C.), still assigned to Giorgione by most writers, and the world-famous
Concert Champêtre (circa 1510, Louvre, Paris), once universally considered
Giorgione's but now increasingly thought to be by Titian or a work of
collaboration between the two. Scholars unanimously ascribe the so-called
Gypsy Madonna (circa 1510, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna) to Titian.
This painting is an adaptation of a composition of Giovanni Bellini's,
but the Virgin is an earthier type, and the colors and textures have
a discreet opulence that foreshadows Titian's later work.
Early Independent Work
In Padua (Padova), in 1511, Titian executed frescoes of three Miracles
of St. Anthony for the Scuola del Santo. These narratives demonstrate
his power to imbue his ample figures with a convincing sense of anguished,
impulsive life, as he set realistically conceived events within vividly
and rather impressionistically realized landscapes. In later paintings
of this decade Titian progressively enriched Giorgione's idyllic style.
Bodies and fabrics took on an increasingly sensuous density and splendor,
landscape settings became more resonant, colors deep and intense but
harmonious—as in The Three Ages of Man (circa 1513, National Gallery
of Scotland, Edinburgh) and Sacred and Profane Love (circa 1515, Galleria
Borghese, Rome). The progression culminated in three bacchanals that
Titian painted for a room in Duke Alfonso d'Este's palace in Ferrara
between 1518 and 1522 (Worship of Venus and Bacchanal of the Andrians,
both now in the Prado, Madrid; and Bacchus and Ariadne, now in the National
Gallery, London). These, among the most famous and influential paintings
of the Renaissance, transformed the Giorgionesque Arcadian idyll into
Dionysiac celebrations. They are based on Roman literature and adapt
figures from ancient sculpture and from Michelangelo, but render these
vividly sensuous and contemporary, uniting them with an equally powerful
and beautiful natural world.
The dynamic vibrancy of these works is paralleled in
Titian's religious paintings of the same period. First among these is
the mighty Assumption of the Virgin (1516-18) over the high altar of
Santa Maria dei Frari in Venice. Its strong colors, golden light, and
massive, gesticulating figures, designed to be seen from afar, nevertheless
remain plausible in terms of ordinary human experience. Its unveiling
in 1518 provoked a sensation. In another painting for this church, the
Madonna of the House of Pesaro (1519-26), Titian effected a crucial
change in Renaissance sacre conversazioni (paintings of the Virgin enthroned
among saints) by placing the Virgin, traditionally at the composition's
center, halfway up its right side, and by painting behind her in diagonal
recession two giant columns that soar out of the picture's space. This
new scheme was widely adopted by later artists, such as Paolo Veronese
and the Carracci family, and, with its evocation of movement and infinity,
it opened the way to the baroque style. The most dynamic of all Titian's
paintings of this period was the huge Death of St. Peter Martyr (1530,
now destroyed), in which the violent action was echoed in the convulsion
of trees and sky.
These paintings, both secular and religious, give evidence
of Titian's awareness of contemporary High Renaissance achievements
in Rome and Florence. Known to him only through prints and drawings
(before his visit to Rome in 1545-46), they served as a stimulus and
an aid in creating a Venetian counterpart: a High Renaissance style
equally complex, monumental, and dynamic, but one which made full use
of the traditional Venetian resources of color, free brushwork, and
Work of the Middle Period
Titian's paintings of the 1530s are marked by relative quiet, pictorial
subtlety, and coloristic refinement, as exemplified by the Venus of
Urbino (1538, Uffizi, Florence), a revision of Giorgione's Sleeping
Venus (circa 1510, Gemäldegalerie, Dresden). A new surge of energy is
seen in the turbulent Battle of Cadore (circa 1540, once in the Doge's
Palace (Palazzo Ducale), Venice; now known through copies) and in three
grandiose ceiling paintings (1543-44, Santa Maria della Salute, Venice),
in which drastic foreshortenings and titanic figures bespeak Titian's
knowledge of the Mannerist style.
Titian's most important innovations in the years from 1530 to 1550 were
made in portraiture. In 1516 he had been named official painter to the
Venetian state; thereafter he worked at the courts of Ferrara and Mantua
(Mantova). In the 1530s and '40s he traveled to Bologna to paint the
Emperor Charles V and Pope Paul III, and at the pope's behest he visited
Rome and met Michelangelo. He joined the court of Charles V at Augsburg,
Germany, in 1548 and 1550. As a result of this connection, he obtained
a multitude of portrait commissions.
Titian's portraits, initially like Giorgione's, soon
took on a greater expansiveness and more overt authority to become compellingly
beautiful images of idealized masculinity (Man with a Glove, c. 1520,
Louvre) or femininity (Flora, c. 1515, Uffizi). In the 1520s and '30s,
however, they changed.
Aristocratic impersonality and restrained opulence,
as in the portrait of Federigo Gonzaga (circa 1526, Prado), became the
dominant tone. The neutral atmospheric backgrounds of the earlier portraits
might be replaced by cannily disposed elements of setting, such as a
column, a curtain, or a view into landscape. These elements, and the
patterns in which Titian arranged them, remained staples of formal portraiture
into the 20th century. In general, these court portraits are images
of command rather than explorations of personality. In some portraits
of the 1540s, however, such as Pietro Aretino (Frick Collection, New
York) or Pope Paul III (1543, Capodimonte Museum, Naples), Titian used
his unsurpassed skills as a visual dramatist to compel the viewer's
participation in the sitter's inner life.
These works are paralleled by a sequence of impassioned
religious paintings in which the same progressive dissolution of form
into color and light takes place. Often nocturnal in setting, they include
the stupendous Annunciation (1560-65, San Salvatore, Venice) and Crowning
with Thorns (circa 1570, Alte Pinakothek, Munich). In such paintings Titian
used this dematerializing style to convey a state of being that transcends
the physical. This late style, an astounding phenomenon in the context
of Renaissance art, had its final manifestation in the Pietà intended
for Titian's own tomb chapel; the work was left unfinished at his death
and is now in the Accademia in Venice.
After 1550, when Titian had returned to Venice, his style again changed.
In a series of superb mythological paintings for Philip II of Spain,
beginning with the Danaë (circa 1553, Prado) and including the Rape
of Europa (circa 1559-62, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston),
forms gradually lose their solidity, partially dissolving into hazy
paint textures and vibrant brushstrokes, while color becomes more intense,
so that a universe seems to be on the verge of disintegrating into flame.
A climax is reached in the ferocious Death of Actaeon (circa 1561, National
Gallery, London) with its bronzy tonality and phosphorescent textures.
Still more profound are the Flaying of Marsyas (circa 1570-76, Kromeríz,
Czech Republic) and the Nymph and Shepherd (circa 1574, Kunsthistorisches
Museum). Here colors are more subdued, but the turbulence of the brushwork,
hardly matched again until 20th-century painting, almost submerges the
form entirely. These late mythological paintings, which Titian called
poesie (poems), stand among the most formidable statements ever made
of the irresistible, elemental powers of nature.
Titian died in Venice on August 27, 1576. His work,
which permanently affected the course of European painting, provided
an alternative, of equal power and attractiveness, to the linear and
sculptural Florentine tradition championed by Michelangelo and Raphael;
this alternative, eagerly taken up by Peter Paul Rubens, Diego Velázquez,
Rembrandt, Eugène Delacroix, and the impressionists, is still vital
today. In its own right, moreover, Titian's work often attains the very
highest reach of human achievement in the visual arts.