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The Local, Universal Master


an exhibition at the Scuderie del Quirinale, Rome, March 5–June 16, 2013
Catalog of the exhibition edited by Giovanni Carlo Federico Villa
Milan: Silvana, 287 pp., €34.00 (paper)
State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg
Titian: The Flight into Egypt, circa 1506–1507

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, thousands of people flock to see them, and that same exchange of art and love of art has been taking place ever since the very young Titian descended from his rugged Alpine birthplace to study painting in Venice.

It is hard to think of a painter more rooted in his environment and yet more universal in his appeal. It was an appeal he worked tirelessly to refine, for Titian was a pioneer not only in the way he painted, but also in the way that he presented his talents to an international clientele. He was a formidable, pathbreaking businessman in a century, the sixteenth, when doing business first attained a truly global scope. And like so many successful businessmen, he was a fierce patriarch, close with his money and ruthless in the ambitions he harbored for himself and his children. Titian was renowned for his impeccable manners and charming character (and he served as an unofficial diplomat on occasion), but for all that exterior charm, he kept his real feelings and his private life strictly to himself. He knew his place in his hierarchical society, even when he was subtly changing the nature of what that place might be.

Titian’s afterlife is every bit as interesting as his life; his reputation, though consistently stellar, has not always been entirely wholesome. An inveterate experimentalist, he courted controversy virtually from the moment he began to assert his own artistic personality, and some of the subjects he painted have shocked later generations. In 1856, for example, the king of Naples, hoping to shore up his tottering throne, locked one of Titian’s paintings away in a “Pornographic Cabinet” together with a hoard of phallic wind chimes, explicit statues, and sexy frescoes from the royal excavations in Pompeii and Herculaneum.

The eroticism of that locked-away painting, Titian’s Danaë, is a good deal more discreet than that of those other frankly sexual objects: imprisoned in her chambers, she reclines on her bed as Jupiter appears to her in a shower of gold, pouring into her lap from heaven. To the Catholic king of Naples, as he faced attack by the rebel forces of Giuseppe Garibaldi, Danaë seemed to be enjoying her unusual experience a little too much; and the result of that golden rain was, of course, a baby: the future hero Perseus. And so Titian’s Danaë, the lascivious ancient artifacts, and three images of Venus, by Paolo Veronese, Annibale Carracci, and Michelangelo, were consigned to a narrow room carefully chosen for its darkness and dampness, behind a door with three separate locks, their keys distributed to three different offices, and then, for good measure, the whole entrance to the Pornographic Cabinet was bricked up.

Fortunately for Danaë, this pious move failed to sway the forces of history. On September 11, 1860, exactly four days after entering Naples as its new Dictator (with a capital “D”; that was his official title), Garibaldi ordered that the Pornographic Cabinet of the royal collection be opened to the public. With this symbolic attack on every kind of censorship, Garibaldi announced his intent “to save the works of art from inevitable ruin.” When a scramble to find the three keys to the cabinet failed, he ordered his men simply to break down the door, proclaiming, “Our revolution must be truly Italian, that is, worthy of the homeland of art and learning, and must embrace as one our glorious ancient and modern memories, fostering them all.”

Danaë may have languished under lock and key (just as the heroine herself did in the ancient myth), but the other Titians in Naples’s royal collection, a pair of portraits of Pope Paul III, retained their pride of place throughout the throes of national unification. An old pope in velvet robes evidently posed a less urgent challenge to public morals in the mid-nineteenth century than a languid young woman reclining nude on a bed. In the sixteenth century, however, when these portraits were fresh from Titian’s workshop, they had been sizzling properties in their own right. According to one story (not Vasari’s), Pope Paul disliked them, and it is easy to see why: Titian’s ruthless brush seems to have reached deep down into the pontiff’s soul, finding attitudes, fears, and sensations that Paul surely preferred to keep to himself. Danaë may be lolling on a bed as Jupiter rains down his favor, but because Titian shows her looking off into the distance rather than meeting our eye (or his), her thoughts remain her own.

Museo di Capodimonte, Naples
Titian: Paul III with His Grandsons, 1545–1546

Pope Paul, on the other hand, meets us swathed in ravishing velvet robes, but Titian has laid him bare, in a portrait of the old man hunched on his throne, and even more so in a triple portrait that shows him with his two appalling grandsons, Cardinal Alessandro and Duke Ottavio Farnese. As suave, smooth Cardinal Alessandro looks out to the viewer from behind the pope, Ottavio, clad in white tights, white lace, and satin, doubles over in an elaborate bow, the perfect image of an oily courtier. Their ancient grandfather, with his stooped spine and shrewd old eyes, recoils with a visible shudder, his iron will trapped in a failing body and his future wrapped up all too inevitably in this unctuous rogue. We can imagine why Ottavio’s bride, “Madama” Margaret of Austria, wore mourning dress on her wedding day.

Another young Farnese scion, Ranuccio, was just a boy when Titian painted him, with the special attention this artist always reserved for the very young. His images of two-year-old Clarissa Strozzi and twelve-year-old Ranuccio Farnese are as attentive to their individual personalities as his adult portraits, and Titian’s painting of the tiny Virgin Mary climbing the steps to the Temple of Jerusalem with fierce independence (Presentation of the Virgin, Galleria dell’Accademia, Venice) is a marvel of insight into the way children act (she may well have been modeled, body and stubborn soul, on his own daughter Lavinia).

Titian, as Vasari noted over and over again in his Life, was a painter of astonishing versatility, a master of landscape, of portraiture, of sacred painting, historical painting, mythology, a magician who could turn a dab of pigment into a flame, a pleat, a thunderbolt, a twinkle in the eye, a Cupid’s wing. One of his last two self-portraits (Madrid, Museo del Prado, 1562) focuses on only two elements, his right hand and his face, as if to say that the essence of this phenomenally successful man depended on the mysterious partnership of that hand, those eyes, and that brain. Titian’s eyes in this late portrait are like the old mirror in the poem by Cavafy “that had seen and seen”; they are clearly an old man’s eyes, faded, straining, fixed somewhere off in the distance, but they are also sharp as a drill under their beetling black brows. Tiziano Vecellio lived a long and largely fortunate life, but it was also a difficult life, and in this elegant, dignified picture he lets the pain of it show on his face, as clearly as he shows his own mastery of pain.

Sheila Hale’s new biography of Titian captures the same sense of the man as this portrait: his piercing insight, his dignity, and his inaccessible reserve. In many respects, despite the painter’s long, well-documented career, we know almost nothing about him, including such basic information as the number of his wives or the date of his birth. With remarkable success for so public a personage, Titian kept his domestic sphere strictly to himself. He lived in the part of Venice known as Cannaregio, near the docks and the Jewish Ghetto, in a house that he seems to have designed himself, ranged around a large garden. We can forget, in the face of all the state portraits, voluptuous goddesses, and history paintings he created over decades of activity, that Titian was also an unusually perceptive observer of nature, of trees and flowers and animals he painted from life. For a man of such enormous productivity, it is hard to imagine him simply sitting and thinking in his garden, but he clearly paid relentless attention to his surroundings, physical, spiritual, and social, and made sure that his own home provided a refuge from the metropolis in which he lived, and from his perpetually interesting times. He was a person sufficient in himself.

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