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.

Titian’s work is to an unusual degree a hostage to time. Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling may or may not have been ill-served by cleaning, and Leonardo’s Last Supper has been so damaged for so long that it is almost as much a holy relic as a work of art. Yet in neither case are we in danger of losing the power of the ideas the works embody. They were developed in studies and drawings; the history of their generation guarantees them some independent life. Titian did his thinking on the canvas; his work depends much more on the look of fresh paint. The evidence from pictures cleaned or transferred from panel to canvas is that he did no preparatory drawing and made bold first moves. It is not surprising that the pictures do not easily survive translation into engravings, which are most convincing when the printed line can cling to the drawn structure. The Death of St Peter Martyr of 1530, which Vasari believed to be the best thing Titian had done up to that time, was destroyed in a fire. There is a copy of it, and a handsome woodcut. If the latter was our only record Vasari’s enthusiasm would be mysterious in a way that admiration for Raphael’s lost drawing of the Judgment of Paris, for example, which we only know from Marcantonio’s engraving, is not. Titian employed engravers – in particular Cornelis Cort, who learnt to match the light and shade of his paintings in graduated lines and hatchings – but until mezzotint was fully exploited in the 18th century, much of the effect of paintings which depend on the value of tone against tone was lost in translation. Titian could work in line – the huge woodcut of Pharaoh’s army drowning is a tour de force – but in his greatest paintings you often search in vain for a contour a line could follow. The physical vulnerability of Titian’s pictures mirrors the vulnerability of the human body; they find an analogue in the objects they depict.

Bare bodies in his work – much more than in that of most other painters who show them in similar numbers, Boucher for example – get to us at the same primitive level as baby pictures and pin-ups. Of course his nudes and putti do more than just engage us in that way, and they do not do it with the repetitiveness of glamour pictures, but the sources of photographic poses and lighting are easier to trace back to his holy children and the Venus of Urbino than to classical sculpture, say, or to Rubens (too real, too dimpled) or Rembrandt (too serious, too human, too tender). Not that all Titian’s nudes work in the same way. The Venus of Urbino is painted in the smooth, depilated mode which is indeed emulated by retouched photographs. An early version of Danaë, completed in Rome in 1545, according to the Papal Legate in Venice, made the Venus of Urbino ‘look like a Theatine nun’. (It was after seeing this painting and praising it in Titian’s presence that Michelangelo remarked to Vasari that it was a pity the Venetians did not learn to draw.) The pose is a version of those taken up by Michelangelo’s Dawn and Night on the Medici tomb, but Michelangelo’s women are almost flexing their muscles, whereas Danaë is blissfully and ecstatically relaxed as she is impregnated by Zeus’s shower of gold. In the Prado version of Danaë, painted around 1550 (when he would have been about sixty), the paint has begun to assert its own life: you are allowed to see, stroke by stroke, how his hand has shaped the body.

This image of the gratification of desire stands in contrast to the image of a naked woman he repeated most often. Five versions survive: they show her lying down, facing you, her arm propped on a pillow. She is nearly always in the company of an organist or a lute player who looks over his shoulder at her – or rather at her body. A little dog and a cupid are usually in attendance. The figure of Venus (if that is who she is: some argue that they are pictures of courtesans or illustrations of Neoplatonic tropes about the power of music) is almost identical in every case. The flesh seems softer and the layer of fat below the skin thicker than on the Urbino Venus – this is more a woman and less a girl. She is smaller-breasted, plumper, thicker-waisted, wider-hipped than is now the norm in erotic imagery, and has no come-hither look; that was a later invention. Crimson drapes behind her partly obscure a landscape with an avenue of trees or distant mountains. In the only version of the composition in which she clearly makes eye contact it is with the little dog; she never looks at the young man and looks past rather than at the cupid who peers over her shoulder. They are not joyous pictures; the woman’s body seems a burden: a treasure which others will desire and possess and that she carries but does not own.

Watching Titian’s manner change, seeing him start within sight of the decorous processional solemnity of Giovanni Bellini and become the master of agitated crowds; seeing him stretch, transform and in the end put aside his achieved and perfected skill in poetic, gesturally modest tonal painting in favour of rough sketchiness and blurred suggestion, making pictures which stand in a more God-like relation to the world, as though the end he worked to was to create his own world rather than represent ours – all of that is at once exhilarating and ominous. One can acknowledge his stature and still remain open to regret for a propriety which was, in the end, lost to art entirely. When some 19th-century painters tried to start again from older Italian art their journey showed that lost innocence is as unrecoverable in art as anywhere else. The anxiety his first moves created is documented. It is reported that when he was working on The Assumption of 1517, an altar piece almost seven metres high, the friars of the convent for which it had been commissioned complained about the size of the figures of the Apostles, and that when it was installed the public were uneasy. Among the reasons suggested were that the Virgin looks too splendidly human, and, more plausibly, that the energetic tangle of upward reaching and pointing figures on the ground and of scrambling, piping and tambourine-banging cherubs mixing with the cloud she rises on, had none of the ineloquence which goes with the more touching, respectful seriousness of, say, Bellini’s Madonnas.

The difference in finish which separates the Louvre Entombment painted in the mid-1520s and the Prado one of 1559 is the same as that which separates the Danaës. In both Entombments, the weight of a dead body and the weight of grief are told in attitudes proved true to us by desperate photographs, from wars and earthquakes, which show mourning women and men hauling corpses from rubble. That in the Prado version the sumptuous colour and gestures have become even more expressive is in great measure due to the character of the marks which describe them.

The difference between young Titian and old Titian – between the painter of Bacchus and Ariadne and of The Death of Actaeon (two paintings which you can encompass in a single glance in the National Gallery), the one with details of plants of exquisite botanical accuracy, the other with foliage so smeared and generalised that you would be hard put to distinguish any particular species, between Ariadne as well formed and considered as a piece of classical sculpture and Diana realised by a hand uninterested in playing with dramatic foreshortenings and shifts of balance, between brilliant blue and red and clear flesh colours and a general brownishness – is also the difference between the painter who is a craftsman as well as a genius and the painter whose genius has become the point of the picture. On the one hand, things are shown as you know them, but as you could never show them yourself: on the other, things are shown as only the painter knows them. In this particular case some of the differences may be due to the Bacchus and Ariadne being influenced in some way by the modello Raphael had presented for a never-painted Triumph of Bacchus in India intended for the same room in Ferrara, and to The Death of Actaeon being unfinished (like Turner, Titian was in the habit of making the first moves in a painting and then keeping it by him and working it up years later). But the comparison, colour apart, would still hold if the Boston Rape of Europa, which, like The Death of Actaeon, is mentioned in a letter Titian wrote to Philip II in 1559, were to be put in its place.

The late style was a wonder and a scandal. Effects which only kick in at a certain distance from a picture were the final confirmation of the premise of tonal painting: that it is what the eye can be persuaded to believe, not the weight of detail a picture carries, that counts. Anyone can add detail to detail: making confused marks suddenly take on meaning is magical. It puts space between painters who think and invent and artisans who merely toil. Quality could never again be classified in terms of palpable effort. Vasari, whose loyalties were to an art of painting which constructs a world, rather than one which creates the illusion of one, reports people saying that Titian should keep his old-man paintings, with their evidence of a shaking hand and failing craft, out of circulation. One sees why. Modern taste finds The Flaying of Marsyas, paint dabbed at with brush and fingers, masterly: it seems, among other things, to point to what painting will achieve after the academic machine, to which Titian’s work had made such a large contribution, has broken down. But it is unsettling, too, to see someone gobble up four hundred years of the future of painting in one lifetime.

When picture-making came of age in the art of the High Renaissance the springs of pictorial science which sustained it almost immediately began to show signs of exhaustion. It must have seemed that the science of painting was complete – as the science of the cosmos seemed to be after Newton. So much would be done in the future, and so much of it would be wonderful, that to speak of ‘exhaustion’ seems absurd. But in one sense it is right to do so. The high adventure of representation was over. The tools had been forged: perspective and tonal painting were available; all the configurations of the human body made possible by the emancipation of drawing from memory had been mastered. There was no new device of equal magnitude waiting to be invented, no new way of playing with the geometry, psychology and physiology of vision to be discovered. The art of painting would flourish but the science of painting would mark time. None of this was a disaster, but a period of exploration was over and one map of what was possible complete.

The portraits of Goya and Géricault would represent kinds of people and emotion new to art; those of van Dyck would show how ease of gesture and demeanour can be represented without infringing dignity or precluding hauteur; Ingres would rediscover the immaculate enamelled gradations of Holbein; and David invent poses and discover expressions which would give concrete form to abstract notions about new men in a new society. When the idea that mystery and natural authority attach to privilege became absurd, Sargent would still be able to give it a certain swagger. But none of this was an advance, in terms of life-likeness, on what Titian achieved in the first decades of the 16th century.

William Rossetti compared Titian to Shakespeare – both were universal geniuses, both loyal to their home towns. A deeper resemblance is the impossibility in either case of identifying a coherent character, a voice in the work. Titian makes you think about what he shows you: the Virgin and her baby; Venus and her young man; Apollo’s indifference to the agonies of flayed Marsyas; the character of his friend Aretino. But nothing like the generalised humanity which one finds in Rembrandt, the pervasive melancholy of Watteau, the drive to a poetry of rationality in Poussin, emerges. The difference in finish and emotional tone between one group of pictures and another means that a search for a single personality in Titian’s art is unrewarding, except in so far as it underlines the scope of his achievement.

The events in Titian’s early life – even the date of his birth – are a matter of argument. But he certainly came to Venice as a boy, worked in the studio of Giovanni Bellini, and came to know and to work alongside Giorgione. Around 1510 it begins to be possible to identify pictures as his, although not always easily: there was too much emulation and imitation between him and Giorgione, for example. After Giorgione’s death Titian was responsible for completing some of his unfinished pictures and the attribution of other significant paintings has changed – the Concert Champêtre in the Louvre, now more often attributed to Titian than to Giorgione, is one instance. As he gets older, there are more documents, but not, judging by the number of times the same quotations turn up, new descriptions of his working methods or even of the contemporary reception of pictures. The materials to work on have not expanded as fast as the number of workers.

Filippo Pedrocco and Maria Agnese Chiari Moreto Weil’s Titian is an awkward volume; awkward in its format and layout, and awkward to use: it has no general index so if you wish to find references to lost works mentioned in the text, to other painters or patrons you must trust to luck or memory. A new catalogue raisonné is a snapshot of the current state of knowledge and opinion about attribution and chronology. Non-specialists, who turn to it as a picture book with captions, are more interested in the conclusions of arguments than in their detail – although we have learned to accept that conclusions are likely to be inconclusive. But in essence our needs are not very different from those of experts. Anyone must be grateful for suggestions which make sense of the way a picture looks. That the National Gallery Death of Actaeon might be both unfinished and have been touched up a little after the painter’s death to make it sellable offers a way of looking at it which is relevant to the whole question of Titian’s way of working and his late style.

Titian’s paintings, praised from the first for the splendour of their colour and truth to nature, are particularly vulnerable to the mendacity of colour reproduction. They are compromised by inaccuracies which the work of some other painters can sustain without losing integrity. Monochrome reproduction is kinder than colour. It even has advantages: as long as the tonal relationships have remained more or less true, a reproduction in black and white can give one something to work on which, although crucially incomplete, is not actually false.

This book, which shows all the paintings attributed to Titian, and virtually all in colour, has doubtless pre-empted the possibility of one in black and white. So I hove the volume down to the National Gallery to see if I was being silly in distrusting it. In fact, the reproductions, far from being appallingly bad, are quite up to the industry standard – which is to say that colour values are only, at worst, about 10 per cent off true, although when that 10 per cent shows up in near-neutral flesh tones it can be very destructive. The transformation of a colour transparency into print also masks surface qualities, which matter and are often a function of scale, something taken little account of here: whether a painting is reproduced large or small often seems to depend more on the number of words that have to be fitted around it than on its dimensions or even its beauty. Titian is a difficult case, in which the contest between an image before you on the page and your memory of an original is particularly likely to put you off balance. Although not more off balance, perhaps, than when, after turning the pages of this book, one tries to focus on what kind of man Titian was.