Titian ca. 1488–1576 Italian Painter

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ca. 1488–1576
Italian painter

Tiziano Vecellio, called Titian, was the leading Venetian painter of the 1500s. He achieved great fame and success in his lifetime, serving as the official painter of Venice and accepting commissions from powerful patrons* throughout Italy and Europe. Titian also transformed the art of oil painting with new techniques that changed the way that Renaissance artists used paints.

Artistic Training. Much of what is known about Titian's life comes from Lodovico Dolce's Dialogue on Painting (1557). According to Dolce, Titian was born into a prominent family in a small town in northern Italy and moved to Venice at the age of nine. The boy served as apprentice* to a local artist, who recognized Titian's extraordinary talent and sent him to the workshop of Gentile Bellini. After studying briefly with Gentile's brother, Giovanni, Titian became an assistant to Giorgione, a Venetian artist known for experimenting with techniques.

From Giorgione, Titian learned a new method of handling oil paints. Venetian artists had begun to work on canvas because the high humidity of the island city damaged fresco* paintings. Accordingly, Giorgione developed his technique to suit the canvas surface. Before, oil paints had been applied in the form of glazes that allowed the underlying layers to show through. This technique created a luminous effect. Giorgione, however, began mixing additional pigment into his paints, making them more densely colored. Artists who used this technique could cover earlier work or scrape off paint. Painting became looser and less pol ished—but more vibrant and personal.

In 1508 Titian assisted Giorgione on a major assignment, decorating a warehouse in Venice's commercial center. Dolce wrote that the young Titian received more praise than the master painter for this project. Titian's rise to fame had begun.

Early Career. In 1510 Titan moved to the Italian city of Padua, perhaps to escape an outbreak of plague*. There he produced his first large-scale designs, three murals representing the life and works of St. Anthony, the city's patron saint. Returning to Venice, Titian offered to paint one of the halls in the ducal palace. Through this work he hoped to be chosen to succeed Giovanni Bellini as the official state painter. In 1516 Bellini died, and Titian won the position.

Meanwhile, Titian painted a number of significant landscapes, continuing a Venetian tradition of depicting outdoor scenes. In these works he often used forms from nature in a symbolic manner. In Sacred and Profane Love (1514), for example, a hilly, wooded landscape on one side of the picture (representing earthly concerns) is contrasted with a spacious, open scene on the other (representing the spiritual world). Titian also created altarpieces*, including the massive Assumption of the Virgin (1518) in the church of Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari in Venice. More than 22 feet high, it fills the space above the high altar. Another remarkable altarpiece, The Martyrdom of St. Peter Martyr (completed 1530, destroyed by fire 1867), showed angels descending in a blaze of glory to the murdered saint, while a terrified companion flees.

Having achieved fame in Venice, Titian went on to establish a reputation in the rest of Italy. At the courts of various ruling families, such as the Este in Ferrara and the Gonzaga in Mantua, he produced portraits of princes with their wives and mistresses. Painted in a naturalistic* style, the works make elements such as flesh, fur, cloth, and armor seem real.

Like many Renaissance artists, Titian became interested in classical* culture and sought to revive it. Often, he tried to recreate works from antiquity* by following descriptions in ancient texts. Like other artists of the time, he also sought to surpass the accomplishments of the great Greek and Roman artists. Titian painted a series of mythological scenes, including Bacchus and Ariadne (1523), for Alfonso d'Este.

Later Works. In the 1530s Titian began to work for prominent patrons outside Italy. He painted several portraits of the Holy Roman Emperor* Charles V, receiving in return substantial sums of money as well as the title "Count Palatine and Knight of the Golden Spur." In one portrait Titian showed the emperor after an important victory, recording every detail of the triumphant leader's armor and horse. Painted in the style of certain classical portraits, the picture became a model for later artists.

Titian also worked for Charles's son, Philip II, king of Spain and ruler of the Netherlands. He painted a portrait of Philip around 1550. Then he sent Philip a series of paintings that he called poesie, celebrations of the nude female body in mythological scenes. Titian expanded Philip's understanding of Renaissance art and benefited from the king's patronage.

With his titles, privileges, and wealth, Titian enjoyed very high status for an artist. He continued to run a family workshop in Venice with his son Orazio, but as time passed he distanced himself from the world in which most artists moved. He purchased a grand house on the northern edge of Venice and took for his motto the Latin phrase Natura Potentior Ars ("art more powerful than nature").

By the mid-1500s critics considered Titian and Michelangelo to represent the two main styles of Italian art. Titian and the Venetian school emphasized color and created natural appearances through broad and open brushwork. Michelangelo and the central Italian painters emphasized form, precise drawing, and clear outlines. According to Giorgio Vasari, who wrote biographies of many Renaissance artists, Michelangelo visited Titian's studio and declared that, although no one was better than Titian at imitating nature through coloring, it was a pity that Venetian artists never learned to draw. For centuries, art critics continued to discuss the characteristics of these two styles of painting.

In the 1540s Titian visited Rome. The trip exposed him to many examples of ancient art and allowed him to study the works of painters such as Michelangelo and Raphael. At the time, Titian was moving toward larger and more complex arrangements of figures in his own work. The influence of the Roman painters and ancient pieces is clear in his later works.

Meanwhile Titian continued to develop his skill as a portrait artist. In Rome he painted Pope Paul III, showing the aged pope with his two grandsons. Although unfinished, the moving scene fully exhibits Titian's ability to portray the personalities of his subjects.

Some of Titian's late works, including The Flaying of Marsyas, reveal the touch of the painter's hand. In his final years the artist sometimes abandoned the brush and applied paint to the canvas with his fingers. Critics remarked on the development of a new quality in his work. In 1566 Vasari noted that Titian's later pieces "are carried out in bold strokes … in such a manner that they cannot be looked at closely but from a distance appear perfect."

Shortly before his death, Titian painted a pietà* that he intended for his own tomb. Within the painting is a smaller picture of two kneeling figures—Titian and his son Orazio. Although the cause of Titian's death is unknown, he died during a plague that later claimed Orazio. But Titian's influence remained strong on the young artists of his own day and on the great masters of the next century—Rembrandt, Rubens, and Velázquez.

(See alsoArt in Italy. )

* patron

sponsor or financial supporter of an artist or writer

* apprentice

person bound by legal agreement to work for another for a specified period of time in return for instruction in a trade or craft

* fresco

mural painted on a plaster wall

* plague

highly contagious and often fatal disease that wiped out much of Europe's population in the mid-1300s and reappeared periodically over the next three centuries; also known as the Black Death

* altarpiece

work of art that decorates the altar of a church

* naturalistic

realistic, showing the world as it is without idealization

* classical

in the tradition of ancient Greece and Rome

* antiquity

era of the ancient Mediterranean cultures of Greece and Rome, ending around a.d. 400

* Holy Roman Emperor

ruler of the Holy Roman Empire, a political body in central Europe that was composed of several states that existed until 1806

see color plate 7, vol. 1

A New Way of Seeing the World

One of Titian's friends and admirers was the Italian writer Pietro Aretino, whose published letters contain accounts of gatherings at the painter's home. In a 1544 letter, Aretino relates how Renaissance painters were teaching people to view the world around them with the eyes of an artist. Describing a sunset over Venice's Grand Canal, Aretino says, "Oh with what beautiful strokes of nature's brush was the atmosphere pushed back, clearing it away from the palaces, just as Titian does in painting landscapes!"

* pietà

image of the Virgin Mary holding the lifeless body of Christ