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Refined painter and great entrepreneur of himself, Titian and his works give Renaissance art a new approach, different from the dominant Florentine one. Born in Pieve di Cadore, in Veneto, on an unspecified date between 1485 and 1490, he will have one of the longest and most prosperous life and career in the history of art.
An anticipated success: childhood in Pieve and Venetian education
Scion of an ancient and rich family of notables, notaries and jurisconsults of Pieve, since he was a child he shows that he has a predisposition for painting. Legend has it that, at the age of about ten, he was surprised by family members decorating a wall using color squeezed from herbs and flowers found around the house. His father Gregorio, absolutely in favor of a future as an artist for his son, decided to send him to Venice to his uncle Antonio, so as to receive excellent training in the capital of the Serenissima. In fact, Titian’s family had already produced numerous painters – at least nine since 1200 according to the chronicles – so it should come as no surprise the extraordinary openness that relatives have towards his young talent.
After an initial encounter with art and letters with the mosaicist Sebastiano Zuccato, Titian moved to the workshop of the famous brothers Gentile and Giovanni Bellini, official painters of the Republic and fathers of the pictorial technique known today as Tonalism. This approach to the construction of subjects through the application of color, and not through the rigor of the preparatory drawing typical of Florentine art, will not only mark the works of many artists in the area but will be of vital importance in the formation of Titian himself. Venice in those years was one of the main cultural centers of Europe: the very rich merchant families, the substantial independence from the Pope, and the republican regime had made it a safe haven for artists and intellectuals from all over the continent, as well as the Italian capital of the press and therefore of books, literature and scientific dissemination. This is the air that the young painter breathes and feeds on: a refined humanist culture centered on Neoplatonism in a city where wealth and opulence are the masters.
As proof of Titian’s great talent, but also of the difficulty in knowing his true age, we have works that even date back to the first half of the 1510s, when the artist was probably still a teenager. The Jacopo Pesaro altarpiece presented in St. Peter’s by Pope Alexander VI was in fact commissioned from him in 1503, when the artist was between 13 and 18 years old. Also during these youthful years, he comes into contact with another great painter of the area and who will be of great inspiration for him: Giorgione. Together, in 1508, they created the external decorations of the Venetian palace known as the Fondaco dei Tedeschi, now lost. Many early works by Titian clearly recall Giorgione’s style, as we can see in the Concerto, now exhibited in the Uffizi, which for centuries has been attributed precisely to the master of Castelfranco Veneto. A few years later, he moved to Padua for a couple of years where he frescoed three scenes from the life of St. Anthony for the Scuola del Santo. Thanks to this pictorial cycle, his compositional skills, his mastery in the use of color and the evident study of ancient art, as well as the works of Leonardo and Michelangelo, are recognized by everyone in the region and consecrate him as the greatest new promise of the Venetian Republic.
A disruptive fame: the birth of the Vecellio workshop
The major clients of the city, obviously including the government of the Serenissima, began to hire him. Tiziano, still very young, began to build his famous workshop around him, which over the decades will increasingly become a real company, with an efficient division of tasks and therefore able to manage a large number of commissions simultaneously. Precisely in this period there were more and more requests from private clients, especially for portraits and half-length female figures. Of this period is, for example, Flora, now exhibited in the Uffizi Gallery and painted between 1515 and 1517. This splendid painting depicts a young woman with auburn-blonde hair, the typical color of the girls depicted by Titian, and is part of the broader trend artistic said of the “Belle“. Many painters of the Venetian lagoon, in fact, in those years were trying to depict the universal ideal of female beauty. The women of the Cadorino painter became so famous that even today we call Rosso Tiziano the particular color of the hair of his ladies.
His success was so rapid and intense that in 1516 he was appointed official painter of the Republic of Venice, thus following in the footsteps of the two Bellini masters. His fame reaches such levels that his portraits become a real status symbol. Venetian ladies are not satisfied with being portrayed by him, they want to be one of his masterpieces. They even go so far as to invent a method for obtaining hair like those in Vecellio’s works: having wet their hair in mixtures of chamomile, ash, but also caustic soda and ammonia, they spent the hottest hours of the day motionless in the sun with their hair lying on a headdress called Solana, a hat with a very wide and bottomless brim. From 1518 is one of his most famous altarpieces, the Assumption. Made for the Venetian basilica of Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Friari, it is the first of the many altarpieces created by Titian and his workshop in the many decades of their activity. Shining representations of the glory of the church, these sacred scenes are not pious and collected, rather powerful and spectacular, of an indescribable force.
An entrepreneur artist
Thanks to the generous remuneration and exemption from taxes, which came from his appointment as official painter of the Republic, a position he was able to hold for about sixty years, he began to invest his money with extreme care, above all in the fundamental timber trade for the Venetian naval industry. His natural propensity for business, the careful management of finances, public relations and his workshop-company, allow him to accumulate an increasingly large wealth, so much so that he is today considered one of the richest artists in history. He worked more and more often for the most illustrious Italian courts: for the Este in Ferrara, the Gonzaga in Mantua and the new dynasty of the Duchy of Urbino, the Della Rovere. The difficulty in dating his birth perhaps derives from his relationship with the patrons. In fact, it seems that Vecellio had the habit of changing his age to pity his creditors.
International fame and commissions for Charles V
By now Titian is a full-fledged member of the Venetian elite: he frequents the most prominent literary and cultural circles of the city, is on excellent terms with all his clients, private, religious and institutional, as well as having woven relationships with the richest local patrician families. A close friend of the Tuscan writer Pietro Aretino, through the latter he was able to get in touch even with the court of the emperor Charles V and for the latter he created numerous portraits since 1530. Thanks to these new international acquaintances, Titian consecrated himself as one one of the very first artists to be able to truly define themselves as of European level. Up until now, in fact, the vast majority of his colleagues had worked and made themselves known in well-defined geographical areas. Not everyone remains tied to their hometown, this is true, but the fame of an artist hardly exceeded the borders of the peninsula, except perhaps Leonardo thanks to his relationship with the king of France. The commissioning relationship with the imperial court became so intense that Charles V ended up awarding Vecellio with numerous titles and positions, such as those of Palatine Count, Knight of the Golden Spur and Count of the Lateran Palace. Soon new commissions arrive from nobles, monarchs and states from all over Europe, precisely by virtue of the publicity made by the Spanish court.
The 1930s were one of the most flourishing moments in the Cadore painter’s artistic production. From 1538 are two of his most splendid works: the Venus of Urbino and the Portrait of a Gentildonna, kept respectively one in the Uffizi and the other in Palazzo Pitti at the Palatine Gallery. The first is undeniably one of the artist’s best-known works. The young protagonist is a girl who is preparing for the wedding, naked and lying on a bed with soft sheets. The background offers us an intimate look inside a typical noble residence of the Venice of the time.
The Roman years
In 1545 he took a new and important step forward: he left for Rome and the court of Pope Paul III Farnese. Here he comes into contact with the artist who was most active in the city, namely Michelangelo. Despite the strong differences, Buonarroti, as a good Florentine, would never have created a work without first having drawn it, there is no shortage of mutual praise. From certain points of view, the visceral approach to art unites them: during the last decades of his activity, in fact, Titian even went so far as to paint with his hands, spreading the color with his fingers and shaping it as if it were clay. His relationship with color becomes central and his works become the triumph of this approach. Contemporaries describe his work as a constant superimposition of color spots, which slowly give shape to the figures. Initially visible only from great distances, at the end of his continuous rearrangements the subjects of his works are perfect. From the Roman period are many paintings of a religious nature, but above all the Portrait of Paul III with his nephews Alessandro and Ottavio Farnese, now preserved in Naples.
During his very long career, Titian managed to make his own the Venetian tonal painting of the masters, Giovanni Bellini and Giorgione, reinterpreting and developing it to the point of being able to promote Venetian art as never before, especially considering the total Florentine supremacy of the 1400s and from the first half of the 1500s. His painting is opulent, dramatic and expressive. Color rendering is undoubtedly his main feature and his tonalism gives depth and intensity to his subjects. Titian therefore develops his chromaticism starting from the experiences of his predecessors, mediating everything through the care, attention to detail and sharpness typical of the Flemings.
Titian died in 1576, probably due to the plague epidemic that had struck Venice. Although his date of birth is not certain, he is thought to have been in his nineties.
Cover photo: Self-portrait, circa 1562, Titian, Staatliche Museen, Gemäldegalerie, Berlin
The supremacy of color and the Renaissance in Venice
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