Titian: His Life, by Sheila Hale, Harper Press, RRP£30, 832 pages
About suffering they were never wrong, the Old Masters – especially Titian who, aged 88 in plague-ridden Venice, chose as his final mythological subject the flaying of Marsyas, the satyr killed for challenging with his pan pipes the lyre of the god Apollo. In a harrowing picture of slow torture on an airy summer night, the faun is strung up like a butchered animal, hind legs strapped to a tree with gaudy pink bows, amid a claustrophobic clutter of persecutors and witnesses. These include King Midas, depicted with Titian’s own features, and a spaniel lapping up Marsyas’s blood.
Why did Titian choose this terrifying story? “Did he want to discover what lay beneath the living flesh that his contemporaries said he painted not with pigments but as though with real trembling skin?” asks Sheila Hale towards the end of her engrossing new biography. “Was he, as his own aged flesh thinned and decayed, sitting in judgment, in the guise of the foolish, greedy Midas, on his own hubris and love of gold?”
The painting’s demonic elation suggests “an element of the wild satyr in the creative genius of this suave gentleman who knew so well how to flatter his social superiors and had scarcely ever written a letter that was not about money”. Perhaps Titian even “knew he was breaking the mould of High Renaissance decorum in anticipation of the course his art would take centuries after his death … when he would be recognised as the ur-father of modern painting”.
Titian is a magnificent, perplexing, near-impossible biographical subject. This is the first Life since 1877, and uses unpublished material amassed over decades by Titian scholar Charles Hope. But even with these fresh sources, and using her own background as a historian of Venice, Hale struggles against the odds. Almost nothing is recorded of Titian’s personal life – we don’t know the name of his second wife, or the date when a beloved daughter predeceased him. The only certain self-portraits depict a thin-faced old man with a white beard, in opulent black, wearing a gold chain – every inch the establishment figure.
Yet Titian’s radically expressive, vigorous, direct works, delivering what Hale calls “the shock of recognition that we are looking at a kind of truth that few other painters have communicated”, urge psychological speculation. And he lived so long, and changed his style so remarkably – from the radiant, minutely realised early masterpieces such as the Villa Borghese’s “Sacred and Profane Love” and the National Gallery’s “Bacchus and Ariadne”, to the tonally rich, freely painted mature oeuvre (“Danaë”, “Diana and Actaeon”), then the final tragic visions – that it is hard for a viewer today not to read in those transformations resistance to the status quo and inner turmoil.
Hale opens with a quotation from Edward Said that an artwork, “for all its irreducible individuality, is nevertheless a part – or, paradoxically, not a part – of the era in which it was produced”. Her approach is to embed Titian in the tremendous times of 16th-century Venice, when the city was the most powerful, cosmopolitan and liberal in the world, yet assailed on all sides by political and ideological enemies, from the Ottoman Empire to counter-Reformation forces. From eyewitness accounts, Hale builds a compelling picture of a wealthy trading port and “Renaissance emporium of all things” – silks, diamonds, spices, wax, exotic animals, slaves and pornographic novels featuring nuns with dildos fashioned from Murano glass. Parallels with embattled 21st-century cities, especially New York, another global economic hub and creative haven compressed into an island, ring out.
Titian came to Venice, aged about 10, from Cadore, a village in the Alpine Veneto – he recalled its blue hills and forests in many landscapes. His father ran a corn store, his uncles were notaries; their local status gave him social confidence when he joined Giovanni Bellini’s studio as an apprentice, then became an assistant to Giorgione. He rapidly outgrew the Byzantine hieratic style, and religious sensibility, of the former and as quickly rivalled the delicate naturalism of the latter with a more material sensuality. The deaths of both Giorgione and Bellini in the 1510s left him unrivalled as Venice’s pre-eminent painter for state and church.
His initial commission was the Frari’s “Assumption” (1516-18), a sensation for its heroic character, dramatic colour and movement, with the Virgin twisting up into space above gesturing apostles placed at the level of the congregation, pulling us into the picture. The Frari’s “Madonna with Saints and Members of the Pesaro Family” (1519-26) followed: unprecedentedly Titian moved the Madonna out of the centre, breaking every compositional rule only to restore unity by colour harmonies and brilliant lighting effects.
Through the next decades, Hale recounts, “Titian invented a way of painting pervaded by a sense of excitement and daring that reflects the dynamism of [16th-century] Venice”. He was the first artist to employ living female models; the overt sexuality of “Venus of Urbino”, for example, responds to the decadent, erotically charged Venetian atmosphere. Doges, kings, popes and emperors soon queued for portraits whose animation seemed to promise immortality. Believing they were seeing the actual Pontiff, passers-by donned hats to the likeness of wily Paul III when it was left to dry in the sun. And the Holy Roman Emperor, depicted in “Charles V on Horseback” as haunted, gloomy, but also an emblem of contained power controlling a huge black steed, responded to his portrait with a poignant commission for another: of his wife Isabella, dead years ago, for whom he remained in life-long mourning.
Although acknowledging contemporary accounts of Titian as “the most obstinate man in Venice”, penny-pinching and overbearing to his two weak-willed sons, Hale’s tone is reverential to the point of hagiography. She corrects some of history’s impertinences – Titian died of fever, not the plague; though grasping, he was a loyal, generous friend – and adds nothing provocative of her own. The result is a portrait of Titian in his time rather than for ours: a sober, probing account, resistant to fashion, which should endure as the standard Life for the next century.
Jackie Wullschlager is the FT’s art critic