Milan: Silvana, 287 pp., €34.00 (paper)
Writing an artist’s biography has never been easy, for one of the most significant elements of any artistic life, the passage of an idea from eye to hand, is virtually indescribable. Furthermore, the pioneer of the form, the sixteenth-century Tuscan painter and architect Giorgio Vasari, struck such a brilliant balance between professional insight and juicy anecdote in his Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects (first published in 1550, revised and reissued in 1568) that writing an artistic biography after him can seem like trying to write epic after Homer. Vasari took egregious liberties with his Lives, offering up generous helpings of moral advice, tricks of the trade (normally “draw, draw, draw”), outpourings of Tuscan patriotism, and disarming hero-worship of Michelangelo. In good sixteenth-century style, Vasari also felt free to make up the occasional story when he needed one to drive home his moral point, and if need be, to fabricate the story of a nonexistent painter.
Modern biographers, on the other hand, are expected to stick to the facts. Aside from writing with gossipy verve, Vasari was a thoroughly respectable painter and a superb architect; he knew what he was talking about when he talked about art, and he expressed himself with firsthand expertise as well as pungent wit. Only Vasari, perhaps, could have acknowledged so openly that one of the most important things to happen in the life of the painter Tiziano Vecellio—Titian to his English-speaking admirers—was not so much an event as a long-drawn-out development, a change in the way the artist handled paint itself:
The truth is, that the way he worked in these later pictures is very different from the way he worked as a young man. The first paintings are executed with a certain fineness and incredible diligence, and are made to be seen both up close and from a distance, but these last are created out of brushstrokes laid down coarsely, and with spots of paint, in such a way that up close they cannot be seen at all and from a distance they appear to be perfect…and this way of working is judicious, beautiful, and stupendous, because it makes the paintings look alive and created with great artistry, disguising all the labor involved.
Without that change in Titian’s working method, without those abstract blobs that resolve themselves at a distance into images of startling precision, we would never have had Velázquez and Rubens, diplomats as well as painters.
Their diplomacy outlives them: at the same moment that Europe, the United States, and Russia have been rattling sabers over how to deal with the civil war in Syria, a peaceable exchange of Titian’s paintings has been taking place between Italy, Britain, and St. Petersburg, creating quiet but powerful links between people and nations, links built and maintained in order to cherish fragile objects of extraordinary beauty. Everywhere that Titian’s paintings travel …