Problems in Titian, Mostly Iconographic
The Religious Paintings
“Venice in the sixteenth century was not less celebrated for refined culture than Rome or Florence. In Venice—as in Tuscany—painting came to perfection after the heroic period; and the arts have been truly described as the gilded bark which covered the cankered trunk of a luxuriant tree.” The Life and Times of Titian with some account of his family by J. A. Crowe and G. B. Cavalcaselle was first published in 1877 and it remains one of the few nineteenth-century monographs on a Renaissance painter which is still fundamental to the study of its subject. For all its great value it is understandable that no one has had much to say in favor of Crowe and Cavalcaselle as literary artists, yet that first sentence must surely induce some nostalgia in anyone who sets out on an art historical biography today.
As in some authorized Life and Letters of the period, or even more perhaps, as in a solid Victorian novel, the leisurely opening holds out promise of immense readability, and indeed in the fashion of a cunningly plotted work of fiction the hero himself does not appear for several pages: characteristically we are first introduced to him through a glimpse of his birthplace from the top of the campanile of St. Mark, whence “the Venetian Alps soar, ghost-like and half clad in mist above the waters of the lagoon.” It is not only the pace that now seems so remote and so attractive, but also the moral certainties: Ruskin had no use for Crowe and Cavalcaselle, nor they for him, but that “cankered trunk” carries us straight back to The Stones of Venice and reminds us also of Cavalcaselle’s passionate involvement in the cause of the Risorgimento.
It would be pure self-indulgence to dwell at length on these aspects of the pioneering art history of the nineteenth century were it not for the fact that even after a hundred years—and several hundred books and articles (though surprisingly little new information)—Crowe and Cavalcaselle have not yet been supplanted in other respects also. It is to them that we still have to turn if we want to find many of the basic sources from which Titian’s life has to be reconstructed and to understand something of the atmosphere in which he lived.
Many of the more recent books are useful and valuable, but it has for long been notorious that there is no decent monograph that takes into account all the relevant information and is at the same time sensitive, convincing, and readable—nothing on Titian to compare, for instance, with those books, such as Kenneth Clark’s Leonardo or Jakob Rosenberg’s Rembrandt, in which a great scholar has distilled his experience of a major artist into a form which is both serious and accessible. There is no monograph at all on Veronese, so perhaps students of Titian should count themselves lucky: nonetheless, surely there is something wrong with the state of art history today …
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