National Gallery/Yale University Press, 192 pp., $39.95
Madrid: Museo National del Prado, 443 pp., $35.00 (paper)
In 1935, the Fascist year XIII, the city of Venice displayed one hundred paintings by Titian in Ca’ Pesaro, the ruggedly majestic palazzo that had once belonged to his patron Jacopo Pesaro. The catalog for the largest show ever devoted to this great painter was designed as a treasure in its own right, bound in soft royal-blue kid with a blue silk bookmark; a contemporary issue of the magazine Le Tre Venezie picks up the same color scheme amid advertisements for sleek Fiat automobiles, ocean liners, and a gasoline pump that casts a shadow shaped like the fasces: the bundle of rods and axe that symbolized ancient Roman authority and gave the Fascists their name.
Despite the bravado and the streamlined Futurist elegance of the show’s presentation, times were hard—it was the Depression, after all. Ca’ Pesaro’s monumental homage to Titian provided a kind of timeless counterpoint to the driving rhythms of the Thirties, both to the clockwork rush of the machine age and to Fascism’s headlong march into empire, with Mussolini’s invasion of Abyssinia launched a month before the show closed in November. Venice, a fallen empire in its own right, provided a more measured view of time, power, and survival; the serenity of this erstwhile Most Serene Republic had once been guaranteed by an incomparable navy, but by 1935 Venetian serenity, and survival, depended on the no less incomparable beauty of its canals, its buildings, and its works of art. Like the city where he lived most of his very long life, Tiziano Vecellio had made beauty his means of survival in a world just as full of strife and terror as the world of the 1930s.
Almost seventy years later, two other faded empires have turned to Titian at the beginning of another new political experiment: Britain and Spain, as members of the European Union, have collaborated to mount the largest show of Titian’s paintings since 1935, first at London’s National Gallery and then at the Prado in Madrid. This combination of venues is hardly fortuitous: Britain and Spain are the two places apart from Venice where Titian’s paintings are most plentiful, for good historical reasons; in fact, an appreciation of the Venetian painter Tiziano Vecellio has been so fundamental to shaping British culture that his name was long ago Anglicized by Grand Tourists, an honor he shares with only two other painters, “Raphael” Sanzio and “Michael Angelo” Buonarroti.
Paintings by Titian began arriving in England with the engagement of “Bloody Mary” Tudor to Philip II of Spain; they were perhaps the happiest outcome of that grim alliance between two unattractive, embattled Catholic monarchs. Philip sent Mary a portrait of himself by the great Venetian master, who, unable to make the dour, scrawny king into a dashing knight, chose instead to give him an aura of pallid sanctity, emphasizing his high forehead and full red lips while downplaying the outthrust Habsburg jaw that proved his pedigree. Mary apparently fell in love with the image and, eventually, the subject himself; no more could be asked of an engagement portrait than this. More works by Titian accordingly followed upon their marriage, for the Venetian had become Philip’s court painter—a feat he accomplished, remarkably, without ever setting foot in Madrid or leaving Venice for more than a short time.
The reasons for Titian’s appeal have not really changed over the centuries. Sixteenth-century critics may have singled out his figures’ vivacity, declaring that they seemed to be alive, whereas contemporary critics may prize more his daring manipulation of paint, but these two qualities have always been integral to Titian’s art. With his facility at rendering landscapes, animals, and the human figure came ceaseless experimentation with oil paint as a thing in itself, contrasting its real textures with the textures it suggested through color. The experimentalist in him always wrestled with a decorous restraint, so that even in the case of his most luxuriant female nudes, he painted real people with real dignity—indeed, some of the customers for these nudes were notably chaste women like Vittoria Colonna and Isabella d’Este, although, like Raphael and all the other professional painters of his day, he also provided portraits for some of the courtesans who engaged great society painters to advertise (and commemorate) their wares.
Titian was his own harshest critic. He turned paintings he disliked to the wall until he could decide how to rework them. He willingly sacrificed the works he regarded as unsuccessful to new projects, painting them over rather than stretching a new canvas (and also, therefore, destroying the evidence of his failures). Unlike his colleagues in Florence and Rome, he usually worked directly in paint rather than from preparatory drawings; a mid-career trip to Rome in 1545 provides the only substantial body of drawings that can be identified with him, presumably his response to the Roman practice of drawing among the city’s ruins and collections. But Titian never fully shared the Romans’ obsession with antiquity; he made an engraving of the famous ancient statue group of Laocoön and his sons being devoured by snakes in which the priest and the boys are shown as apes.
And unlike many artists in Rome and Florence, Leo-nardo, Raphael, and Michelangelo among them, Titian always worked exclusively as a painter, aside from some drawings and engravings. More specifically, aside from a few frescoes, he spent his whole life perfecting his skill as a painter in oil. He did not become a designer or an architect, let alone a sculptor, and he trained the artists in his workshop to become oil painters like himself. He developed his remarkable versatility as an artist within the confines of this single me-dium, equally renowned in his own day for his portraiture, mythologies, histories, religious paintings, and paintings of beautiful women. Like his contemporaries, he could not envision a painting without figures; these he often set in ravishing landscapes, although he never painted landscape as an end in itself, nor did he explore still life, a brand-new genre in his day. Titian’s painted world was a world of people, whether those people lived in his own real sphere, the realm of myth, or the realm of Heaven.
Titian observed his surroundings with a penetrating intelligence that also gave him the means to picture, convincingly, the deepest reaches of Heaven or the fields of Arcadia. Born sometime between 1485 and 1490, he grew up in the mountains of Cadore in northeast Italy before moving down to the lagoon of Venice, and he would always retain those early visions of grand natural architecture in stone and cloud; in their colorful way, his skies, from the beginning of his career to its very end, are as active, variegated, and monumental as those in Piranesi’s etchings of Rome, but unlike Piranesi, Titian inevitably reserved his primary attention for human beings, with whom he is said to have interacted with wit and grace. He was certainly a good friend and a solicitous father, although he seems to have had scant patience with his priggish eldest son, Pomponio, who became a priest.
His fame as a portraitist derived from his technical skill, but also from the charm he used to get at the essence of his sitters. Courtiers of the Habsburg Emperor Charles V were horrified at the extent to which Titian, a manual worker, entered into the great lord’s confidence, but it is easy for us to see what might have connected painter and monarch so closely—they both saw human nature with uncommon clarity, but at the same time retained a transcendent imagination. Titian painted Charles at various points in the emperor’s career, and the high intelligence and energy of this remarkably ugly man prevails in Titian’s images. When Charles abdicated his throne for contemplative seclusion in the monastery of San Yuste, Titian made him a set of small, elegant paintings to guide his devotions: two images of the suffering Christ and one of the mourning Virgin. For Charles, art, especially the art of Titian, was anything but a matter of vanity.
However diplomatic he may have been as a painter of portraits, Titian could never quite restrain his observant eye. Sometimes that eye is indulgent, as with his portraits of children. Two-year-old Clarissa Strozzi, daughter of a Florentine exile in Venice, poses with her dog, convinced, as Miguel Falomir notes in the wall text to the Prado show, that the pet, not she, is the real focus of the painter’s interest. A bas-relief of tumbling cupids gives us another glimpse into Clarissa’s temperament, although we can also see the force of her character from the resolute set of her jaw. Twelve-year-old Ranuccio Farnese, dressed up as a Knight of Malta, reveals a thoughtful intelligence that would be borne out in his later life.
With adults, Titian could be far less indulgent. Even his close friend Pietro Aretino comes across—accurately—as a portly blusterer; Aretino complained about this portrait’s rough brushwork and missed its subtle exposure of his character. A portrait of Pope Paul III draws on Raphael’s image of Paul’s predecessor Julius II, exchanging Raphael’s minute brushstrokes on a wooden panel for broad sweeps across rough canvas—and yet capturing the fine hairs of the Pope’s beard just as surely as Raphael did. Raphael shows Julius rapt in contemplation, his terrible visionary’s eyes focused on an inward target, whereas Titian shows the worldly Paul looking directly at the viewer and clutching his purse. An unfinished portrait of this same pontiff and his two grandsons in Naples shows the ancient Pope cringing like a cornered animal as one of the two young men, Ottavio Farnese, bends forward in an unctuous bow to his grandfather. Unexpectedly, we can find the same expression of an almost animal fear in his painting of a dying Jesus handing over his Cross to Simon of Cyrene, a Christ so scourged and bruised that he can no longer quite respond to, let alone believe in, Simon’s act of kindness.
The gestures in Titian’s portraits are not fortuitous; they are clues to character: an elaborate portrait of Fede-rico Gonzaga, Duke of Mantua, hangs in the Prado exhibition next to a beautiful little Sacra Conversazione in which the figure of a shepherd has often been identified with Federico as well; the likeness is unmistakable, not only for the physical resemblance, but for a shared action. The official Federico is a dandy, hair and beard perfectly coiffed, his sleek figure clad in a damask jacket over a lace-cuffed shirt, brocaded hose, and brocaded codpiece, dainty rings on the delicate fingers that caress a curly-coated dog. The shepherd Federico reclines in rustic clothing, but, ever the aristocrat, he also sports a laurel crown. Once again, Titian shows the Duke of Mantua caressing an animal, this time a black sheep. In the painting’s foreground, meanwhile, the Virgin Mary pets a little white rabbit which absorbs all the attention of an eagerly wriggling Christ child; the delighted baby barely notices the devoted Saint Catherine who holds him so carefully.