The artist and biographer Giorgio Vasari visited Tiziano Vecellio, alias Titian, in his studio in Venice in 1562. Deeply moved but also, it seems, slightly disconcerted by the wildness of the painter’s style in his later years, Vasari concluded that he had invented a new form of art, “made up of bold strokes and blobs … beautiful and astonishing, because it makes paintings seem alive.” Titian spent a lifetime creating pictures that seem alive, and in the process transformed more or less every type of painting known in his time: the portrait, the nude, the landscape, the altarpiece, the mythological scene. During the course of four centuries many of his works have been lost or destroyed, while those that do survive are dispersed widely across the globe. The museums which own them regard them as precious treasures and lend them to other institutions only with great reluctance. Despite that, the National Gallery has managed to beg and borrow an extraordinary number of outstanding pictures by the Venetian master for its forthcoming exhibition of his work (19 February to 18 May), which will surely be the show of the year. Drawing together more than forty of his finest paintings, this is an ambitious attempt to show the full range of Titian’s work and thus demonstrate something, at least, of his infinite variety.
Born into minor aristocracy in Pieve di Cadore, in the lush and hilly mainland territories of the Veneto, Titian was sent to Venice at the age of nine and apprenticed to the city’s greatest fifteenth-century painter, Giovanni Bellini. He became one of the first celebrity artists as well as the greatest Venetian painter of his day, with a genius for self-promotion to match his artistic talents. By the end of his long life he was working almost exclusively for wealthy foreign clients, who were prepared to pay a small fortune for anything by his hand, but he originally made his mark in his native city with a series of great religious altarpieces, the most famous of which is his soaring Assumption of the Virgin in the great Franciscan Church of the Frari. He proved equally adept at satisfying the other, equally urgent but less pious yearnings of the men and women of his time. He was a portraitist of unrivalled gifts and considerable personal charm, painter by appointment to the powerful Farnese dynasty, immortaliser of Popes, Kings and Emperors (the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, is said to have become so fond of Titian’s company that the affairs of state ground to a halt when he was having his portrait painted); and no other painter explored as colourfully and imaginatively as Titian the thrilling, sexy, violent world of classical myth and legend that fascinated – and liberated – the Renaissance imagination. Every great painter to have come after him has been shaped in some sense by his example, even the abstract painters of the modern movement, since it was also part of his legacy – perhaps the profoundest part of all – to show that oil paint, freely and expressively handled, could in and of itself be used to suggest fathomless depths of feeling or illimitable heights of spiritual aspiration.
Titian was among so much else the principal inventor (and purveyor) of Renaissance erotic art. One of his titillating specialities was the bespoke nude, artfully endowed with the features of whichever courtesan might happen to have taken his patron’s fancy. It was thought acceptable, even advisable, for prominent citizens to hang such works in their bedrooms, to stir the passions and so stimulate procreation. The classic example of the genre is The Venus of Urbino, the world’s most famous painting of a naked woman, which (unsurprisingly) the Uffizi Gallery in Florence has declined to lend to the London show. But the absence of that celebrated picture is made good by the presence (borrowed from the Capodimonte Museum in Naples) of Danae – which demonstrates just as vividly why it makes perfect sense to think of Titian as the forefather of, among so much else, the Playboy centrefold.
Titian had an innately erotic gift as a painter, which is not to say that his work was always sexually motivated, but throughout his life he had the rare ability to create pictures which seem possessed, themselves, by a seductive vibrancy and life. The feelings expressed in his art are worked out, sensually, in the texture and application ofpaint itself – which according to Palma il Giovane, who himself worked in Titian’s studio, was very often applied with hands and fingertips. Palma also tells us that Titian would turn recalcitrant pictures to the wall for months at a time, and wrestle with them like a man in combat with his “mortal enemies”. His was a physical and energetic art. There was something inherently, urgently tactile about the nature of his imagination, even when he contemplated the transcendent mysteries of the Christian faith.
His instinct and talent was always to make palpable, to embody, so it is appropriate that the vivid colour red should course like blood through his work. The particular red that he used had to come from Venice, so that on his few trips away from his home city he sent back expressly for Venetian red lake: “so burning and so splendid,” as he put it. More than any other it is Titian’s own colour, standing for vitality, for living presence, which he conjured so often and so brilliantly, not only in his religious pictures and his mythologies, but also in his portraits. But perhaps his most surprising pictures of all are a group of startlingly unconventional late works, paintings characterised in equal measure by humility, morbidity and thespirit of renunciation. Their colours are muted and sere, the painter’s handling so loose and fluid and broken, that they seem like meditations on his own, impending dissolution. It will be fascinating to see the National Gallery’s own poignant Diana and Actaeon next to The Flaying of Marsyas, on loan from the Archbishop’s Palace in Kromeriz, Czechoslovakia [check please]. Both paintings tell of the punishments meted out by the gods on presumptuous mortals and perhaps dramatise the ageing Titian’s sense that his own moment of judgement was drawing near.
Battle still rages over the precise status of these creations, which seem to have remained in the artist’s studio until his death, and the controversy continues within the pages of the catalogue to the National Gallery show. There, the leadingTitian scholarCharles Hope argues that they are simply unfinished. But his opinion is countered by the conclusions of Jill Dunkerton, who has studied x-rays of a number of smoother and indubitably “finished” late Titians. Looking under the surface of such paintings to sketchier levels of execution, as x-rays allow her to do, she finds no trace of the hectic, agitated brushwork that forms the Diana and Actaeon and the Marsyas. This is important, because if Titian did not sketch in the style of those pictures then (as Dunkerton says) “it would be wrong to assume that such paint handling was intended to be refined in the later stages of execution.” This suggests that Titian’s late pictures look the way they do not because they were unfinished but because they were created for deeply personal and perhaps even penitential reasons.