Titian: His Life, Sheila Hale (Harper Press)
If you only read one biography of Titian this year it will almost certainly be by Sheila Hale. There is, after all, virtually no choice: the last serious biography of this High Renaissance master appeared, somewhat unbelievably, in 1877. While scholarly analyses of Titian’s profoundly influential, gorgeously radiant paintings continue to proliferate, little substantial recent writing on his life is available. But despite the limited field, there is another good reason to opt for Hale. Her new study is so comprehensive in its account of Titian’s world, so exhaustive in its research into the extant records of his life, that it seems not much more could possibly said — and said any better — on the subject.
Titian Vecellio lived a long life, in extraordinary times. He was born close to the end of the fifteenth century (the exact date is unknown) and lived through most of the convulsive sixteenth, rising from relatively humble beginnings as the son of timber tradesman in the remote northern Italian mountain town of Cadore, to become a revered Venetian nobleman who painted Popes, Kings and Emperors.
One story told of his early promise — treated as apocryphal by Hale — tells of how as a young child Titian had astonished the townspeople of Cadore by “painting an image of the Madonna on a wall using as his colours the nectar of flowers.” Whether true or not, Titian had somehow displayed sufficient precocious proficiency to be rewarded with the opportunity of studying painting in Venice — eventually taking his apprenticeship under Giovanni Bellini, at that time thought to be the city’s greatest painter. From the innocent age of nine or ten, Titian thus found himself in one of the most startling, stimulating places in the world: a city of ornate beauty, enlightened learning, lavish wealth, wild decadence and, on occasion, shocking brutality. He would, understandably perhaps, stay there for the rest of his life
Hale’s writing on Renaissance Venice is wonderful. If Venice is often viewed as a bustling tourist mecca today, its current state of hectic trade is nothing compared to the packed and frenzied city of feverish sex and shopping depicted in Hale’s eloquent, engrossing account. (It is worth noting that she is also the author of an acclaimed guidebook to the city). Venice was a place of high fashion, of culinary delicacies (such as caged exotic birds, which could be heard singing through the city markets) and of diverse, sometimes lurid spectacle. According to Erasmus it was “the most splendid theatre in all Italy.” Venice also offered unparalleled sexual temptation — there were more prostitutes there than in any other European city — and Hale takes evident delight in detailing some of the wonderfully salacious aspects of the city’s edgier lifestyles.
The emphasis on sexuality does more than offer background colour to this expansive picture of Titian’s life and art. Hale notes how Titian was the first artist to use live nude models for his classical subjects, no doubt lending an unprecedented sexual frisson to paintings such as his seductively vivid Venus of Urbino — justly the most famous of all his works. And indeed such ‘colour’ in Hale’s storytelling is related to the literal relevance of colour itself to the distinct significance of Titian’s paintings. If Michelango, as the most successful representative of the Florentine approach to Renaissance art, was the acknowledged master of drawing, Titian’s art would triumphantly advance the Venetian preference for intensity of colour. (The next-generation Venice painter Tintoretto was said to have a note in his study reminding him at all times to consider ‘the disegno of Michelangelo and the colorito of Titian’). Titian’s paintings, as with the city they were formed in, press themselves forcefully on the human senses. Their jolting reality is of a ravishing rather than an intellectually rigorous kind. As Hale suggests, Titian could be criticized for “his lack of interest in deep space and linear perspective,” but his paintings have a sensory impact that is powerfully mysterious.
The other sense of mystery which persists, however, surrounds the actual character of Titian himself. Hale’s biography of the artist is a monumental achievement of fact-finding and tale-telling, but there are times when chapters develop as bustling crowd scenes in which Titian is curiously absent. Often, supporting players such as the “bisexual libertine” Pietro Aretino provide the best entertainment. Aretino was, as Hale says “an avaricious, unscrupulous and highly sexed powerbroker”. He was Titian’s closest friend and yet, in this double act, Titian was undoubtedly the straight man.. Despite the innumerable temptations encountered while in Aretino’s company, Titian is said to have remained at all times faithful to each of his wives. He seems to have been concerned most of all throughout these indulgent times for the next step in his career. And as a solid, steady-minded businessman, what lasts of him, Hale shows, are mainly the records of his dealings. Should we seek insights into the ‘mind of a great artist’ in this otherwise magnificent portrayal of Titian’s life, we might well struggle. Instead what we find is a gloriously elaborate story of a great Renaissance master of colour, whose true personality and unique artistic motivations seem destined to remain in the historical shadows.