A Wonder and a Scandal

Peter Campbell

If you are willing to define what you mean by it, the idea of progress in the arts is useful. Take Titian’s portraits. Whether or not those who first saw them understood that a new way of recording likeness was evolving, that way would define the technical ambitions of European portrait painting until photography put an end to them. In portraiture, as Titian proved, accurate drawing and minute detail are not a sure way to naturalness, and may even preclude the transition from seeing patches of paint to having an impression of a living face. Compare Holbein’s portraits – true, I am willing to guess, in contour and complete to every whisker of stubble – with Titian’s most persuasive ones, or just with the three single heads now in the National Gallery (all quite early work). There is the woman in a purple-red dress meeting your eye full on (least typecast of all his painted ladies); the handsomely bearded man who looks at you over his blue-sleeved right shoulder, as though quietly challenging you to make the first move; and the young man, almost in profile, holding a glove and showing a bit of red sleeve, the face angular and rather bony, capable, you might guess, of contained amusement. All seem oddly alive: information about the face has not been gathered as chin and nose and eye-information; these are pictures of expressions, of passing configurations of the flesh, not maps of its permanent geography. They are the kinds of picture which persuade people that they have been made aware of a personality. The image creates the illusion that you can read a soul.

There is also, of course, style: not of the painting but of the person painted – a personal service within the painter’s gift. Titian offered his male subjects a new authority and presence: he could show a man relaxed, but potentially energetic and expressive. Some men, of course, are relaxed and energetic and some of his portraits extend what we know about people from other sources. The 1545 portrait of his friend Aretino – poet, publicist, pornographer, and the intermediary for a number of Titian’s sales and commissions – is a case in point. It shows a bull of a man whose mobile, red lower lip – pushed forward above an abundant, well combed beard – suggests that he has been caught mid-word. His complaint in a letter to Cosimo de’ Medici – to whom the portrait was being sent as a present – that the treatment of his red coat would have been less sketchy had the painter been paid more could, coming from this face, be the kind of joke Mafia godfathers make in the movies before the sudden roar of laughter which takes the underling off the hook. Or maybe Aretino really would have liked a little more attention paid to his finery – including the gold chain he had from the King of France. Or then again, as a note here suggests, he may have been taking care of his ‘delicate relationship’ with Cosimo by distancing himself from Titian, who owed Cosimo a portrait. (Aretino made his money lampooning and flattering princes. Titian was at that time much engaged on work for the Farnese family.) Whichever way, Titian’s picture matches stories about the man.

Even if truth could have been supplied on tap, it would not have been what kings wanted. It is hard now to imagine the relationship between a painter made independent by great men competing for his services, and a ruler entranced by the artist’s ability to give substance to the notion of embodied power – in images, moreover, which are from the same hand as those which show Mary assumed into the vault of heaven and the adventures of mythical heroes. Whatever the reality of these relationships, the fact that the painter had something of great value in his gift makes sense of anecdotes in which king and painter treat each other as equals – the one a real ruler, the other a ruler in the kingdom of representation. This elevation can have its downside – a courtier-painter is also a court painter. Titian was exceptional in that, at the end of his life when most of his work – in particular, the ‘poesies’ like Venus and Adonis, The Death of Actaeon and The Rape of Europa – was being done for Philip II, patronage and independence seem to have rubbed along pretty well; the only problem was getting paid. In Venice other stars were rising – including that of Tintoretto, who had worked in his studio. Titian was an old man. The Spanish connection freed him from having to elbow for his place at home.

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