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.

Hale’s account of political events is supplemented by a survey of what Venetians would have taken for granted in the government of the city and the organisation of the family. At times such background material is excessively colourful: ‘Unmarried girls, who were on the shelf by 25 at most, were often placed in convents, some of which had reputations as high-class bordellos.’ This claim is followed by a salacious account of an orgy – which is then revealed as a pornographic fantasy. No doubt rape was ‘a frequent occurrence’ and was not always taken seriously by the courts (‘which were of course entirely male’), but this is hardly reflected in the deep preoccupation among the educated with the story of Lucretia, which takes the subject of rape very seriously, even if not in a way that is agreeable to modern ideas. Whatever the attitude of Venetian magistrates to allegations of rape, it is surely insensitive to Titian’s achievement as an artist to claim that, when he ‘was an old man, in three legendary rapes he painted for the delectation of the king of Spain, the Rape of Europa, the Rape of Lucretia and Danaë, the voluptuous victims do not look as displeased by their situation as they should have done’. There is no good reason why Danaë should be displeased by the marvellous golden rain falling on her, but the expressions of panic and outraged terror on the faces of Europa and Lucretia are hard to mistake – and quite without precedent in painting. Later in the book Hale devotes a long paragraph to the bizarre idea that Lucretia looks as if she is not unhappy to be attacked and describes Europa as ‘ecstatic’, which, even if we ignore her expression, is surely incompatible with the menace in the sea and sky, all that is tragic in the painting.

And then there is sodomy. Hale notes that the diarist Girolamo Priuli was obsessed by its supposed prevalence in Venice, that the Council of Ten investigated allegations concerning it, and that those found guilty were left to die in cages hung from the campanile of San Marco. She then turns to Titian’s portraits and records the ‘suggestion’ that some of them ‘have homoerotic overtones’. The ‘suggestion’, in the case of great male portraits such as Man with a Glove, Tommaso Mosti or The Young Englishman, turns out to be a passage in Rona Goffen’s Titian’s Women (1997) claiming that these portraits ‘represent sexual accessibility, as though these men were available for (male or female) delectation’. Hale is uncertain. ‘There is no way of proving or disproving the idea,’ she ponders, ‘but given Titian’s sensitivity to the personalities of his subjects it is not impossible.’ However, given Titian’s sensitivity to their social position, it is not likely that he would have exhibited even the slightest hint that they might be guilty of a capital offence.

Whether or not we need to know about rape or sodomy in 16th-century Venice, it is right that Titian’s biographer should mention the achievements of the Aldine Press and the availability of classical texts to many of Titian’s patrons. Titian was working at a time when prestige was attached to reconstructing the exact words of ancient authors, as also to the careful study of available fragments of Greek or Roman sculpture, and this certainly helps us to understand how his Bacchus and Ariadne, which is based on texts by both Ovid and Catullus, reconstructs a painting known to have been celebrated in the ancient world, and does so with reference to surviving carvings of nymphs and satyrs. However, the suggestion that Pythagorean and Platonic ideas concerning musical and spatial proportions influenced not only Renaissance architecture but also ‘the compelling intervals and rhythms of some of Titian’s paintings’ is a surprise, since it would presuppose a type of methodical planning that is contradicted by everything we know about Titian’s practice as a painter (which Hale herself describes well elsewhere in the book) and is impossible to reconcile with his limited educational attainments – something Hale is very keen to emphasise.

‘No Renaissance artist, with the exception of Andrea Mantegna, was able to read or write Latin.’ This is a bold claim, considering how little we know about most artists of that period, and not hard to challenge (Alberti wrote a treatise in Latin), but, if slightly qualified, the assertion would be salutary. The same applies to a claim about painting from the living model: ‘a practice that was much less common in central Italy, where artists were supposed to learn how the body works by study and dissection and how it should ideally look from classical examples’. This is followed by the statement that ‘Raphael, for example, never used human models for his bodies.’ In fact, Raphael at every stage of his career drew his figures from living models, and in the last few years of his life used female models as well as male. Whether or when he painted from models in front of him is an interesting question: it is hard to believe he did not paint the portrait of Castiglione (in the Louvre) or the Donna Velata (in Palazzo Pitti) from life, whereas it is likely that the earlier portraits made in Florence were based on drawings.

This is a topic of fundamental importance for Titian, who was, in his lifetime, considered as a successor to Raphael by his admirers and disparaged by others because he lacked the training in drawing which would have been expected in Florence. The justice of the latter claim is easily confirmed by a visit to the National Gallery. Joseph’s head is too large for his body in the centre of the very early Holy Family with a Shepherd; the relationship between the left knee and the left foot of Saint Catharine in the Aldobrandini Madonna of twenty years later is no less puzzling; and thirty years after that there is the awkward collision of Christ’s arm with that of the Pharisee in the late Tribute Money painted for the king of Spain. The movement and eloquence, the dynamic grace, of Christ in the Noli me tangere and of Ariadne in Bacchus and Ariadne, which are worthy of Raphael and perhaps inspired by him, were achieved with difficulty, after much revision. The same applies to the nude figures in Diana and Actaeon and Diana and Callisto, where both contrast and continuation of movement and emotion is achieved in groups of great complexity. Some of the figures in this pair of Ovidian paintings are distorted. Diana confronting Actaeon is both twisted and elongated in a manner that owes more to Parmigianino or Michelangelo than to Raphael. Hale memorably likens her small fierce head to a viper’s.

Such was Titian’s preference as a portrait painter for working with the sitter in front of him that he did not succeed in disguising his occasional dependence on another portraitist. This is not always possible to prove, but the ‘impassive expression’ of Georges d’Armagnac, bishop of Rodez, in the double portrait with his secretary, Guillaume Philandrier, of the late 1530s, now at Alnwick Castle, which Hale rightly sees as reminiscent of French portraiture, is surely best explained by the French ambassador’s enjoining Titian to copy a likeness that had been made previously in France. The failure to give convincing vitality to the bishop’s face is especially noticeable because of the narrative dimension that Titian has added by showing Philandrier eagerly taking dictation.

‘Pope Paul III and His Grandsons’ (1546).
‘Pope Paul III and His Grandsons’ (1546).

Titian’s genius as a narrative painter is more apparent in his two great group portraits of the 1540s, the Vendramin Family venerating a Relic of the True Cross and Pope Paul III and His Grandsons, in the National Gallery and at the Capodimonte in Naples, respectively. It would be surprising, incidentally, if these paintings had been made directly from life. Titian must have invented an appropriate composition and then used his own portrait studies as a reference, animating them in expression and activating them in pose. Neither work was finished by him (it is to be regretted that most of the children in the former were completed by another hand) and no really great portrait was made by him afterwards.

Harold Wethey wrote in his catalogue of the artist’s portraits, published in 1971, that the group in Naples was ‘perhaps the greatest psychological portrait of all time’. In it

the dissensions rife between Paul III and his overambitious grandson Ottavio are clearly revealed. The elderly pope, bent with age, turns quickly and looks suspiciously at the obsequious Ottavio, who at that very time was scheming with the old man’s opponents. It would be impossible to imagine a posture more revealing of feigned reverence than that of the bowing Ottavio or a face more Machiavellian, with all that the word implies. Cardinal Alessandro … standing quietly and impassively at the left, provides a foil to the explosive situation before him. Various writers have concluded with good reason that Titian had been witness to a violent scene between Paul III and Ottavio, and that for that reason the picture may have displeased the pope.

Charles Hope, in his Titian of 1980, rightly dismissed this sort of interpretation as anachronistic, adding that Titian was the ‘last person to indulge in such criticism of his sitters, least of all when he was trying to obtain favour from them’.

Hale provides a lucid and vivid explication of the favours Titian was pursuing and how they were inseparable from the trading of favours by the greatest of his patrons. What a duke or a cardinal or indeed the pope hoped to obtain from an emperor may have depended on something only Titian could supply. The great triple Farnese portrait was not a piece of daring reportage but a fictional construction embodying the aged pope’s hopes and plans, and Hale persuasively argues that a message to the emperor was intended: ‘The message was that Alessandro should succeed his grandfather as pope and Ottavio follow his father Pier Luigi as duke of Parma and Piacenza.’ Ottavio’s posture she correctly interprets as preliminary to the ritual abasement of kissing the papal slipper. The only anachronistic lapse is her suggestion that Paul gives Ottavio a ‘quick, irritable glance’. He seems to me to be as delighted as is possible in one so shrewd.

The persistent belief that Titian was here reporting the truth, whether recalling a family row or recording an old man’s irritability, is of course a striking testimony to the power of the painting. But even today few portrait painters would adopt such an attitude. The first European portrait designed to reveal the tensions within a family may be the early painting by Degas of his relatives, the Bellelli, now in the Musée d’Orsay, but this was not a commissioned work. Titian’s great triple portrait will perhaps always look odd to us because foot-kissing has been replaced by less physical forms of homage. (Had the convention survived, the late Leo Steinberg might have been less successful in persuading so many of his fellow scholars that the eldest of the magi, who kneels to kiss Christ’s foot in Renaissance paintings, is actually trying to examine Christ’s genitalia.)

Hale often provides more than a page of description and analysis of an important painting; for example, of Titian’s Schiavona in the National Gallery she explains that it is ‘glazed with costly madder lake’; has been thought to represent Queen Caterina Cornaro (nonsense that she should have refuted); is ‘one of the earliest three-quarter-length portraits in Italian painting’; and that, before the artist painted the woman’s head in relief on the parapet by her side, X-rays show that he toyed with the idea of representing a skull and foreshortened dish (it is not in fact at all certain what these objects are). Hale covers all his greatest works, not neglecting those which have not survived (notably, the great altarpiece of the Death of St Peter Martyr in Santi Giovanni e Paolo), and does so with genuine and infectious enthusiasm.

Perhaps because her book includes some entirely new information communicated to her by Charles Hope, who has devoted decades to archival research on the artist, references are supplied in footnotes. These, however, are not only maddeningly hard to find but often highly capricious. Thus for the double portrait at Alnwick Castle there is no reference to the fundamental article by Michael Jaffé; even more oddly, no reference to publications on the Schiavona is supplied for anyone who wishes to find out what the X-ray looks like or more about the lake employed. There is only one note here, thanking a friend for the idea of likening the woman in the portrait to Gertrude Stein.

Hale reminds the reader of the numerous controversies concerning attribution and workshop participation, but does not feel qualified, or is not usually inclined, to take sides. Titian did not have numerous gifted assistants. He seems to have been jealous of young talent and to have been a poor studio manager. There are very few occasions when the contribution of an accomplished associate may have been seamlessly integrated with his own (the classical architecture in his Presentation of the Virgin in the Accademia in Venice, which was surely painted by Lambert Sustris, is the best example). The high quality of one part of a painting can understandably blind people to feebleness elsewhere, as in both the Vendramin Family and the Allegory of Prudence in the National Gallery. Judgment of some paintings is also impaired by the sentimental view of an artist’s ‘late style’, which licenses admiration for anything loose or fuzzy. Workshop paintings by Titian are promoted as originals on a regular basis, sometimes by the international loan exhibitions of his work which now take place so frequently. In her introduction Hale rightly refers to the better understanding of Titian’s paintings which has been made possible by academic art history and scientific investigation, but it is not certain that there are more experts today whose opinion concerning their authenticity carries conviction than there were a hundred years ago.