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.
This is the same Federico who commissioned Giulio Romano to paint life-sized portraits of his favorite horses in a hall of his Mantuan pleasure palace, the Palazzo del Té, amid the Twelve Labors of Hercules; eventually patron and painter must have known that spectators would realize that one of the labors is missing. That missing task is shoveling out the filthy Augean Stables; but standing beneath Federico’s painted horses, the guests themselves are set to play Hercules and clean up whatever virtual manure drops in their direction. The duke must have had an acute sensitivity to animals; one wonders whether he preferred them, on the whole, to people. Titian’s two paintings for Federico certainly show a kindly side of this appealing dandy.
Federico’s uncle, Alfonso d’Este, had made his own version of a pleasure palace by commissioning a series of mythological paintings from the most famous artists of his day to hang in his study, or camerino. When Raphael and Fra Bartolommeo died before completing their assignments, the commissions fell to Titian, who was therefore able to make Duke Alfonso’s study a truly harmonious space. The National Gallery in London aimed to recreate the “original” arrangement of this camerino in one of the underground caverns to which it unhappily relegated Titian and his show; the paintings were hung together much more effectively in the natural light and lofty spaces of the Prado. London’s one advantage was the inclusion of the splendid, although partially damaged Bacchus and Ariadne in addition to The Bacchanal of the Andrians (i.e., on the Greek island of Andros), The Worship of Venus, and Giovanni Bellini’s Feast of the Gods, whose landscape was reworked by Titian to bring it into closer consistency with the works around it. The early sixteenth century in Italy was an era given to pastoral dreams, perhaps because the real countryside was ravaged so regularly by invading armies and their companions, plague and disease. Alfonso himself could contemplate those real calamities in the small painted panels by Dosso Dossi that hung above his Titians, showing scenes of fire, plague, tornado, and war, ostensibly drawn from Virgil’s Aeneid but just as certainly traced from real experience.
Two of Titian’s works for the camerino—The Worship of Venus and The Bacchanal of the Andrians—recreate ancient paintings from descriptions provided by the Greek writer Philostratos; this kind of recondite exercise allowed fifteenth- and sixteenth-century artists to measure their work against what they knew of antiquity and allowed patrons like Alfonso at least a pretense of erudition. Sometimes these ancient idylls held a Christian meaning in which Venus might foreshadow the Virgin Mary or Apollo prefigure Christ. Titian’s little panel called Il Bravo may well be one of these doubly significant images, showing the arrest of Bacchus in Euripides’ tragedy The Bacchae, a play that was newly available to Titian’s contemporaries in Latin translation and could be read by a good many Venetians in its original Greek. The ancient play’s violent action paralleled the life of Jesus so suggestively that an early Christian writer had rearranged Euripides’ lines to narrate Christ’s passion; so, too, Titian’s tense painting depicts the arrest of a golden god on the citadel of ancient Thebes as if it were also the arrest of the Son of Man outside the Garden of Gethsemane.
But the paintings of Alfonso d’Este’s camerino suggest something rather different, that Titian, Alfonso, and their contemporaries were intoxicated by the very idea of antiquity. Titian’s teacher, Giovanni Bellini, depicted a Feast of the Gods in which everyone is beautiful, majestic, tipsy, and sexy all at once; Titian added to the painting incomparably tactile landscapes to complete his mentor’s picture of pleasure understood as religious duty. The most powerful of his own works for Alfonso shows the moment when the wine god Bacchus, returning triumphant from his conquest of India in a leopard-drawn chariot, comes across the Greek heroine Ariadne, abandoned on the island of Naxos by her faithless lover, Theseus, and falls instantly, eternally in love. Their marriage grants the suffering maiden immortality and once again suggested overtones of Christian redemption for sixteenth-century Italians. Titian’s Ariadne is still gesturing after Theseus’ departing ship as the impassioned Bacchus leaps down to her from his chariot; both are dramatically poised in mid-air as their lives change in an instant, surrounded by a deep blue sky and seascape, lush vegetation, and gamboling companions.
Immortality never looked so tempting. The Worship of Venus, on the other hand, provides Titian with an excuse to show an explosion of cupids in every kind of tumbling pose; in the hands of this great painter of children, every single baby face in the multitude has its twinkling eye and its own intent expression as it worships Venus with striking precocity—Freud was not the only person to understand children’s sexuality. Sadly, the single area of damage to this otherwise finely preserved painting is the face of Venus, ravaged long ago and repainted with singular ineptitude—if only the restorer had been Velázquez instead!
If Bellini’s Feast of the Gods gives drunkenness a certain decorum, Titian’s Bacchanal of the Andrians has given way to pure delectation, from the decorously posed nude nymph in the right foreground to the indecorously urinating baby next to her. Titian would turn the painting of voluptuous nudes into a genre of its own: some, like this nymph, evocations of ancient pleasure; some, like the nude in his Sacred and Profane Love, images of contemporary marriage; some, like the Venus of Urbino who epitomizes them all, a wonderfully ambiguous combination of real lust and ideal beauty. A patron like Philip II of Spain could collect an entire roomful of mythological heroines from Titian’s brush and use them both to brighten his siestas and to improve his relations with his four successive wives; they were at once sexy and sacred, and, in the case of works like the Rape of Europa or the Rape of Lucretia, more than a little disturbing, as disturbing as Philip himself in Titian’s terrifying portrait.
We are told that Titian reserved his best work for this Spanish monarch. But the paintings themselves seem to tell us that Philip was a long way from Venice. The works that Titian himself had to live with, to confront day after day in all their glory and their imperfection, were the ones he created for his Venetian neighbors, in their Ducal Palace, their houses, and, most publicly, their churches. These were the paintings that he could tailor to every particularity of their settings: their lighting, their frames, their surrounding colors. However marvelous his works for Philip, they were always produced independently of the place in which they would be hung. His most effective surviving paintings are those that are still able to benefit from their setting: the vertiginous thrust of Mary’s flight to heaven in his Assumption of the Virgin requires the cavernous apse of Venice’s Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari where the golden hue of Titian’s highest heaven echoes the light of the afternoon’s fading sun.
The question of Titian’s use of color takes on a different significance when we know that he painted for a particular frame in a particular place in a particular Venetian church, as in his Transfiguration for San Salvador, with its palette drawn from the gray and white marble of the church’s spacious nave and the ruddy jasper of its high altar. Here the burst of white-hot light around the transfigured (and nearly transparent) Christ mimics the effect of the sun bursting through the windows of the dome. The perspective lines of the church itself harmonize with the placement of the figures in the painting; Christ transfigured anchors the composition by occupying its vanishing point. Exaggerated discrepancies in size create a startling projection of this strange revelation forward into the worshipers’ space, but at the same time the agitation of Titian’s painting is countered by the calm sculpted image of Christ the Redeemer that tops the high altar, carved and installed in 1523, almost forty years before Titian undertook his painting in 1560 as a cover for the Greek icon that acts as San Salvador’s real altarpiece. Only the subdued light of a church interior brings full life to the dramatic silver highlights and glowing brazier on which Saint Lawrence is tortured in the Venetian version of The Martyrdom of Saint Lawrence. Under the Prado’s skylights, its copy for Philip II’s Escorial looks slightly coarse, the scarlets too stridently red, the flames under the grill too intensely yellow. Titian painted this huge altarpiece for an interior, that of San Lorenzo al Escorial, but one that he had never seen in person. The grand plan for the monastery was said to represent the grill on which the saint was martyred.
Sometimes Titian’s work for Philip is conspicuously bad. It is hard to believe, for example, that this sensitive painter of infants and children could ever have produced the horrid newborn Infante Don Ferdinando whom Philip holds aloft in the Triumph of Lepanto, no matter what facial malformations the infante’s Habsburg heredity might have inflicted upon him. The figure of Religion in Religion Saved by Spain is a far cry from the painted beauties who delighted Philip’s siestas. But even these erotic paintings are often copies of earlier works first produced for exacting Italian patrons. The Danaë that Titian created for Cardinal Alessandro Farnese has a far more polished finish than the version sent to Philip II; the Spanish version may show the pearly teeth of the open-mouthed heroine as Jupiter showers his golden bounty into her lap, and put her left hand unambiguously between her legs, but these touches only make the painting’s eroticism as raw as its execution.
Titian may have worked much of his life as a court painter, but he lived, ultimately by choice, in a republic. His portraits pay as evident a respect to the soberly practical Venetian oligarchs as to anyone else on earth. He captures the indomitable dignity of the sick old Doge Francesco Venier as clearly as the unnaturally flushed cheeks and pained eyes that betray Venier’s failing physical—but not spiritual—health. He presents the young scholar Daniele Barbaro dressed in austere black, which helps to define him along with the book in his hand and the intense concentration of his face. These spare hints are enough to indicate the stature of a man whose scholarly achievements would eventually make him famous. The plump matron known as “La Schiavona” looks out with a frank openness that is reinforced by her motherly shape; like her fellow citizens, she combines rich materials with a certain sobriety of dress, a restraint that was imposed by law to foster harmony among Venetian citizens. As for the artist himself, his self-portraits show the same combination of richness and austerity. This most voluptuous of painters reserves none of that luxurious quality for his own images, which are stark, aquiline, and so thinly painted as to be almost evanescent.
The most evocative self-image of all may be the enigmatic painting in London known as the Allegory of Prudence; three faces above three animal heads, representing vision into the past, the present, and the future. Titian himself is the old man who has seen it all—he would live into his late eighties—and it is clear from his last paintings that eventually the harshness of life must have affected him, expressed in the violent bloodshed of his Flaying of Marsyas, the fat perfidious figure of Pontius Pilate in two versions of Ecce Homo, the short, daubed brushstrokes, the muddy colors. It is as if Titian’s very paints are returning to the earth of which they are made. His brush, in its long career, conveyed not only great beauty, but great wisdom.
The two versions of the Titian show in London and Madrid overlap only partially; the same is true of their catalogs. The National Gallery relegated its forty-two paintings to a basement of the modern concrete Sainsbury Wing, and managed the exhibition in classic blockbuster style: long lines for timed tickets, audio guides, gifts galore. Paintings hung in corners where crowded conditions made viewing in either direction impossible, especially when much of the crowd wanders in a state of audio-guide hypnosis. Artificial light brought out every flaw in paintings whose surfaces are often ravaged, and yet the same pictures, in the natural sunlight of the Prado’s spacious central hall, took on entirely different colors and seemed to live again.
The Prado, furthermore, opened vistas from the Titian show into its other galleries, where it was possible to see how profoundly he would influence Rubens and Velázquez (from one vantage point, the curator, Miguel Falomir, made it possible for a viewer to see equestrian portraits by all three painters). In order to make the same kind of comparison between Titian’s Paul III and Raphael’s Julius II in the National Gallery, a viewer was compelled to traipse into another building altogether, after facing the supercilious manner that the National Gallery’s personnel tend to reserve for a colonial accent. By contrast, the Prado staff’s response to a visitor’s Mexican Spanish was simply and unfailingly polite. In short, one show stifled, one breathed gloriously free. Titian, one feels sure, would have preferred the latter.
August 14, 2003