Titian (Tiziano Vecelli; 1488/1490–1576)

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TITIAN (Tiziano Vecelli; 1488/14901576)

TITIAN (Tiziano Vecelli; 1488/14901576), Italian painter. Born in the Dolomite village of Cadore about 1490, Titian was trained in the Venetian workshops of Gentile and Giovanni Bellini in the early years of the sixteenth century. It was, however, the younger and more progressive Giorgione who had the greatest influence on his development. Titian's early paintings (for example, Three Ages of Man, c. 15121513, National Gallery, Edinburgh) are often set in lush pastoral landscapes and have a brownish Giorgionesque tonality. Titian also adopted Giorgione's improvising approach to painting, exploiting the special translucency of oil paint in building up forms and colors. Titian did, on occasion, make drawings, but typically preferred to work out his compositions in color on the picture surface.

Despite the similarities, Titian's early paintings are increasingly distinct from Giorgione's in their muscularity of form, clear placement of figures in space, and typically precise definition of surface texture. In the great altarpiece showing the Assumption of the Virgin (15161518, Sta. Maria dei Frari, Venice), the bulky forms of the protagonists recall the idealized figure types of Michelangelo and Raphael. But the intense vibrancy of Titian's color, based on subtle modulations of red, gold, and silvery gray, nonetheless controls our apprehension of form. Titian went on to revolutionize the Venetian altarpiece in a sequence of outstanding paintings, culminating in the lost St. Peter Martyr altarpiece (15261530, destroyed 1867; formerly SS. Giovanni e Paolo, Venice). In the Pesaro altarpiece (15191526, SS. Giovanni e Paolo), he subverted the standard Venetian type of the sacra conversazione (sacred conversation) by making the donor family central to the iconography and spatial organization.

Between 1518 and 1524 he completed three so-called Bacchanals (The Worship of Venus, The Andrians, both Museo del Prado, Madrid; Bacchus and Ariadne, National Gallery, London) for Alfonso I d'Este, duke of Ferrara. The paintings were conceived as re-creations (ekphrases) of classical works of art described in literary texts by Philostratus, Catullus, and Ovid, and feature complex nude or seminude figures that insistently recall classical friezes and relief sculptures. The antique world is here imagined as a place of sensual delight, the lighthearted tone owing little to the learned allegorical approach to mythological painting championed by earlier masters such as Sandro Botticelli or Andrea Mantegna.

It was Titian's brilliant transformation of the field of portraiture, however, that made his name with the aristocratic and royal houses of Europe. In portraits such as Federico II Gonzaga, Duke of Mantua (1529, Prado) Titian depicted his high-ranking sitter with an unprecedented degree of intimacy, showing him gently caressing a favored pet dog. Pendant portraits such as Duke Francesco Maria della Rovere, Duke of Urbino and his wife, Eleonora Gonzaga (both 1536, Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence) were more formal. But the duke's son Guidobaldo also acquired a mysterious erotic painting known as The Venus of Urbino (1538, Uffizi). Titian here referred directly to Giorgione's Sleeping Venus, a painting he himself had completed about 1510. But in the Urbino painting, the reclining woman is relocated to a contemporary bedroom, her knowing glance at the viewer and the bravura painting of her exposed flesh combining to generate an image of unprecedented erotic immediacy.

The painting is typical of the confident originality that characterizes Titian's mature work. In paintings such as The Vendramin Family (15451547, National Gallery, London) and The Martyrdom of Saint Lawrence (15471556, Gesuiti, Venice), Titian refers to existing visual and iconographic types in Venetian painting. But these are transformed by the master's brilliant awareness of the expressive possibilities of oil paint, and the sensual and emotive power of color. In the same period, Titian also worked for the Holy Roman emperor, Charles V (as in Charles V at the Battle of Mühlberg, 1548, Prado), and the patronage of the Habsburg family increasingly came to dominate his career. In 1551 Charles's son (the future king of Spain, Philip II) commissioned Titian to paint a series of mythologies (known as the poesie) based on Ovid's Metamorphoses. The resulting paintings are among the masterworks of sixteenth-century painting. But their relation to one another and their more precise meaning remain unclear. It appears that Titian enjoyed an unusual degree of autonomy in fulfilling Philip's commission, and this may have encouraged him to take an open-ended approach in which the free "poetic" association of ideas is preferred to more traditional iconography.

The paintings are loosely conceived in pairs, showing contrasting views of female nudes. But rather than being simply erotic, the poesie draw attention to the pain and suffering associated with sexual desire and love. This is the case, for example, in the extraordinary Venus and Adonis (15511554, Prado), in which the traditionally supine goddess of love turns puce-faced in restraining her mortal lover from his doom. As in many of the other poesie, her figure is modeled directly on a classical relief, yet the translation of the form into paint yields a new expressive intensity to her straining posture. Titian's abandonment of the Renaissance sense of the classical world as a place of innocent sensual delight is also evident in the Diana and Acteon and Diana and Callisto (both 15561559, National Gallery, Edinburgh). Here the dire consequences of crossing (even inadvertently) the goddess of chastity are made apparent. And yet these paintings possess an existential force that takes them beyond the redemptive schema offered by orthodox Christianity.

The two Diana paintings, along with subsequent poesie such as The Rape of Europa (15591562, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston) and The Death of Acteon (c. 15601562, National Gallery, London) are painted in a remarkable summary manner that threatens to dissolve form into a myriad dabs of broken color. The mosaiclike effect provides a kind of technical analogue to the process of cataclysmic physical and emotional change described in the paintings. But Titian also used the technique in his religious imagery and portraiture from about 1560 onward (for example, Portrait of Jacopo Strada, 15671568, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna; Pietà, 15751576, Accademia, Venice). Despite doubts about the status, or even the very existence, of Titian's "late style," it seems clear that it is best taken as a kind of intensification of the colorito (coloring) he had long practiced. The style developed organically as a result of his deepening response to the subject matter of his paintings.

Titian, who died in 1576, was easily the most successful painter in sixteenth-century Venice. The international scope of his patronage meant that his influence was quickly transmitted across Europe, and his work had a major impact on painters as different as Peter Paul Rubens, Nicolas Poussin, Diego Velázquez, Rembrandt van Rijn, François Boucher, and Sir Joshua Reynolds. In the age of modernism, Titian's popularity has hardly diminished, the sensuous and emotional naturalism of his style, along with his experimentalism in matters of technique, assuring that his paintings continue to speak to a very wide audience.

See also Giorgione ; Painting ; Poussin, Nicolas ; Rembrandt van Rijn ; Rubens, Peter Paul ; Velázquez, Diego ; Venice, Art in .


Crowe, J. A., and G. B. Cavalcaselle. The Life and Times of Titian. London, 1877.

Hope, Charles. Titian. London, 1980.

Joannides, Paul. Titian to 1518: The Assumption of Genius. New Haven and London, 2001.

Wethey, Harold E. The Paintings of Titian: Complete Edition. 3 vols. London, 19691975.

Tom Nichols