Not very good at drawing

Nicholas Penny

  • Titian: His Life by Sheila Hale
    Harper, 832 pp, £30.00, July 2012, ISBN 978 0 00 717582 6

Titian: His Life is – not surprisingly, considering its great length – really about Titian’s ‘life and times’, and often seems to be more about the latter than the former. Even when we meet with a fact about the artist (and there are a good many new ones here) – it may be about the family timber business, about the artist’s investments in land, about his endless pursuit of benefices for his unworthy son Pomponio or of emoluments for himself – we seem to be considering commonplace behaviour rather than anything exceptional, anything that might explain his greatness as an artist, his powers of sympathy and imagination. On the other hand, the portraits presented here of Titian’s friend and public-relations manager, Pietro Aretino, and his greatest patron, King Philip of Spain, are rich in revealing detail and seem, by contrast, fully rounded.

No reliable record survives of the way Titian conducted himself in the company of friends, let alone in private. The Ferrarese ambassador in 1522 claims that the artist is exhausting himself in sexual relations with his models rather than applying himself to completing Bacchus and Ariadne, for which his duke has waited so long, but this is not the testimony of someone who knew Titian well or had any understanding of his art. Many years later, Aretino in a letter written in early 1553 to Jacopo Sansovino tells him that their mutual friend is playful and gallant in the company of women but not inclined to philandering. The inveterate boaster perhaps implies that the old artist is less virile than he is. Sheila Hale concludes somewhat redundantly that ‘although Titian’s women leave us in no doubt that he loved them, blonde or brunette, slim or buxom, whores, courtesans or high-ranking girlfriends of his patrons, we are forced to respect his reticence about his private life.’ Elsewhere, returning to the topic, she writes that ‘it could even be that he was satisfied by monogamous relationships.’

About his origins there is more to be discovered, and Hale is an able guide to the family background and circumstances in Pieve di Cadore, the small town at the northern border of Venice’s ‘terraferma’, its mainland provinces. It was the site, in 1508, of a considerable victory for the Venetians against the invading army of Emperor Maximilian I – a battle in which Titian’s father played a part. The years afterwards, though, were ‘the most testing and psychologically shocking period in the history of the republic’. Maximilian combined with the other great European powers to grab its mainland dominions, cut off much of its food supply, and damage its trade and credit. Hale describes this crisis vividly, but, as she concedes, there is no hint of it in Titian’s art. ‘His terraferma – which was in reality devastated by warring armies, its farmhouses, fields and vineyards plundered by unpaid Venetian mercenaries as well as by enemy troops – remains a fertile Arcadia.’ Nor do his portraits of these years reveal worries or anxieties. The Man with a Quilted Sleeve (recently identified conclusively as a member of the Barbarigo family) and the Schiavona appear supremely calm and confident, more so indeed than any other sitters among the many portraits in the National Gallery.

How Titian came to paint such portraits as these, in which the sitters seem to occupy our space and respond to our presence, remains a mystery. But Vasari provides a clue to what may have stimulated him into realising the pictorial opportunities presented by his native mountains and forests. He associated this with Titian’s knowledge of German painters, some of whom, it was rumoured, he had surreptitiously employed. That the young artist should have had assistants of this kind seems unlikely (and probably reflects stories put about by envious rivals), but it is likely that he was influenced by views of Alpine scenery and studies of animals made by Dürer and other German artists who crossed the mountain passes a few years before Maximilian’s army and were very well received in Venice. An examination of what must have been Titian’s first major commission, the landscape with ‘Our Lady going into Egypt’, neglected by most modern accounts of Titian (it emerged from a long process of restoration in the Hermitage and was exhibited at the National Gallery shortly before this book was printed), makes the argument all the more plausible.

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