Tiziano Vecelli or Tiziano
Vecellio (c. 1488/1490 – 27 August 1576), known in English as Titian,
was an Italian painter, the most important member of the 16th-century
Venetian school. He was born in Pieve di Cadore, near Belluno (in
Veneto, Republic of Venice). During his lifetime he was often called da
Cadore, taken from the place of his birth.
Recognized by his contemporaries as "The Sun Amidst Small Stars" (recalling the
famous final line of Dante's Paradiso), Titian was one of the most versatile of
Italian painters, equally adept with portraits, landscape backgrounds, and
mythological and religious subjects. His painting methods, particularly in the
application and use of color, would exercise a profound influence not only on
painters of the Italian Renaissance, but on future generations of Western art.
During the course of his long life, Titian's artistic manner changed drastically
but he retained a lifelong interest in color. Although his mature works may not
contain the vivid, luminous tints of his early pieces, their loose brushwork and
subtlety of tone are without precedent in the history of Western painting. He was
noted for his mastery of colour.
At the age of about ten to twelve he and his brother Francesco (who perhaps
followed later) were sent to an uncle in Venice to find an apprenticeship with a
painter. The minor painter Sebastian Zuccato, whose sons became well-known
mosaicists, and who may have been a family friend, arranged for the brothers to
enter the studio of the elderly Gentile Bellini, from which they later transferred
to that of his brother Giovanni Bellini. At that time the Bellinis, especially
Giovanni, were the leading artists in the city. There Titian found a group of young
men about his own age, among them Giovanni Palma da Serinalta, Lorenzo Lotto,
Sebastiano Luciani, and Giorgio da Castelfranco, nicknamed Giorgione. Francesco
Vecellio, his older brother, later became a painter of some note in Venice.
A fresco of Hercules on the Morosini Palace is said to have been one of Titian's
earliest works. Others were the Bellini-esque so-called Gypsy Madonna in Vienna,
and the Visitation of Mary and Elizabeth (from the convent of S. Andrea), now in
the Accademia, Venice.
A Man with a Quilted Sleeve is an early portrait, painted around 1509
and described by Giorgio Vasari in 1568. Scholars long believed it depicted
Ludovico Ariosto, but now think it is of Gerolamo Barbarigo. Rembrandt borrowed the
composition for his self-portraits.
Titian joined Giorgione as an assistant, but many contemporary critics already
found his work more impressive - for example in exterior frescoes (now almost
totally destroyed) that they did for the Fondaco dei Tedeschi (state-warehouse for
the German merchants). Their relationship evidently contained a significant element
of rivalry. Distinguishing between their work at this period remains a subject of
scholarly controversy. A substantial number of attributions have moved from
Giorgione to Titian in the 20th century, with little traffic the other way. One of
the earliest known Titian works, Christ Carrying the Cross in the Scuola
Grande di San Rocco, depicting the Ecce Homo scene, was long regarded as by
The two young masters were likewise recognized as the leaders of their new
school of arte moderna, which is characterized by paintings made more flexible,
freed from symmetry and the remnants of hieratic conventions still found in the
works of Giovanni Bellini.
During this period (1516–1530), which may be called the period of his mastery
and maturity, the artist moved on from his early Giorgionesque style, undertook
larger, more complex subjects and for the first time attempted a monumental style.
Giorgione died in 1510 and Giovanni Bellini in 1516, leaving Titian unrivaled in
the Venetian School. For sixty years he was the undisputed master of Venetian
painting. In 1516, he completed for the high altar of the Basilica di Santa Maria
Gloriosa dei Frari, his famous masterpiece, the Assumption of the Virgin,
still in situ. This extraordinary piece of colorism, executed on a grand scale
rarely before seen in Italy, created a sensation. The Signoria took note, and
observed that Titian was neglecting his work in the hall of the great council, but
in 1516 he succeeded his master Giovanni Bellini in receiving a pension from the
The pictorial structure of the Assumption - that of uniting in the same
composition two or three scenes superimposed on different levels, earth and heaven,
the temporal and the infinite - was continued in a series of works such as the
retable of San Domenico at Ancona (1520), the retable of Brescia (1522), and the
retable of San Niccolò (1523), in the Vatican Museums), each time attaining to a
higher and more perfect conception, finally reaching a classic formula in the
Pesaro Madonna, (better known as the Madonna di Ca' Pesaro) (c. 1519–1526), also
for the Frari church. This perhaps is his most studied work, whose patiently
developed plan is set forth with supreme display of order and freedom, originality
and style. Here Titian gave a new conception of the traditional groups of donors
and holy persons moving in aerial space, the plans and different degrees set in an
Titian was now at the height of his fame, and towards 1521, following the
production of a figure of St. Sebastian for the papal legate in Brescia (of which
there are numerous replicas), purchasers pressed for his work.
To this period belongs a more extraordinary work, The Death of St. Peter
Martyr (1530), formerly in the Dominican Church of San Zanipolo, and destroyed
by an Austrian shell in 1867. Only copies and engravings of this proto-Baroque
picture remain; it combined extreme violence and a landscape, mostly consisting of
a great tree, that pressed into the scene and seems to accentuate the drama in a
way that looks forward to the Baroque.
The artist simultaneously continued a series of small Madonnas, which he placed
amid beautiful landscapes, in the manner of genre pictures or poetic pastorals. The
Virgin with the Rabbit, in The Louvre, is the finished type of these pictures.
Another work of the same period, also in the Louvre, is the Entombment.
This was also the period of the three large and famous mythological scenes for the
camerino of Alfonso d'Este in Ferrara, The Andrians and the Worship of Venus in the
Museo del Prado, and the Bacchus and Ariadne (1520–23) in London, "perhaps the most
brilliant productions of the neo-pagan culture or "Alexandrianism" of the
Renaissance, many times imitated but never surpassed even by Rubens himself."
Finally this was the period when the artist composed the half-length figures and
busts of young women, probably courtesans, such as Flora of the Uffizi, or
Woman with a Mirror in the Louvre (the scientific images of this painting
are available, with explanations, on the website of the French Center for Research
and Restoration of the Museums of France).
Titian's unmatched handling of color is exemplified by his Danaë, one
of several mythological paintings, or "poesie" ("poems") as the painter called
them. This painting was done for Alessandro Farnese but a later variant was
produced for Philip II, for whom Titian painted many of his most important
mythological paintings. Although Michelangelo adjudged this piece deficient from
the point of view of drawing, Titian and his studio produced several versions for
Another famous painting is Bacchus and Ariadne, depicting Theseus,
whose ship is shown in the distance, has just left Ariadne and Naxos, when Bacchus
arrives, jumping from his chariot, drawn by two cheetahs falling immediately in
love with Ariadne. Bacchus raised her to heaven. Her constellation is shown in the
sky. The painting belongs to a series commissioned from Bellini, Titian and Dosso
Dossi, for the Camerino d'Alabastro, (Alabaster Room) in the Ducal Palace, Ferrara,
by Alfonso I d'Este, Duke of Ferrara, who in 1510 even tried to commission
Michelangelo and Raphael.
During the next period (1530–1550), Titian developed the style introduced by his
dramatic Death of St. Peter Martyr. In 1538, the Venetian government,
dissatisfied with Titian's neglect of his work for the ducal palace, ordered him to
refund the money he had received, and Pordenone, his rival of recent years, was
installed in his place. However, at the end of a year Pordenone died, and Titian,
who meanwhile applied himself diligently to painting in the hall the Battle of
Cadore, was reinstated.
This major battle scene was lost—with many other major works by Venetian artists
- in the 1577 fire that destroyed all the old pictures in the great chambers of the
Doge's Palace. It depicted in life-size the moment when the Venetian general,
d'Alviano attacked the enemy, with horses and men crashing down into a stream. It
was the Titian's most important attempt at a tumultuous and heroic scene of
movement to rival Raphael's Battle of Constantine, Michelangelo's equally
ill-fated Battle of Cascina, and Leonardo da Vinci's The Battle of
Anghiari (these last two unfinished). There remains only a poor, incomplete
copy at the Uffizi, and a mediocre engraving by Fontana.
The Speech of the Marquis del Vasto (Madrid, 1541) was also partly destroyed by
fire. But this period of the master's work is still represented by the Presentation
of the Blessed Virgin (Venice, 1539), one of his most popular canvasses, and by the
Ecce Homo (Vienna, 1541). Despite its loss, the painting had a great influence on
Bolognese art and Rubens, both in the handling of details and the general effect of
horses, soldiers, lictors, powerful stirrings of crowds at the foot of a stairway,
lit by torches with the flapping of banners against the sky.
Less successful were the pendentives of the cupola at Santa Maria della Salute
(Death of Abel, Sacrifice of Abraham, David and Goliath). These violent
scenes viewed in perspective from below were by their very nature in unfavorable
situations. They were nevertheless much admired and imitated, Rubens among others
applying this system to his forty ceilings (the sketches only remain) of the Jesuit
church at Antwerp.
At this time also, during his visit to Rome, the artist began a series of
reclining Venuses: The Venus of Urbino of the Uffizi, Venus and
Love at the same museum, Venus - and the Organ-Player, Madrid, which
shows the influence of contact with ancient sculpture. Giorgione had already dealt
with the subject in his Dresden picture, finished by Titian, but here a purple
drapery substituted for a landscape background changed, by its harmonious coloring,
the whole meaning of the scene.
From the beginning of his career Titian was a masterful portrait-painter, in
works like La Bella (Eleanora de Gonzaga, Duchess of Urbino, at the Pitti Palace).
He painted the likenesses of princes, or Doges, cardinals or monks, and artists or
writers. "...no other painter was so successful in extracting from each physiognomy
so many traits at once characteristic and beautiful". Among portrait-painters
Titian is compared to Rembrandt and Velázquez, with the interior life of the
former, and the clearness, certainty, and obviousness of the latter.
The last-named qualities show in the Portrait of Pope Paul III of
Naples, or the sketch of the same Pope Paul III and his Grandsons, the
Portrait of Pietro Aretino of the Pitti Palace, the Portrait of
Isabella of Portugal (Madrid), and the series of Emperor Charles V of the same
museum, the Charles V with a Greyhound (1533), and especially the
Equestrian Portrait of Charles V (1548), an equestrian picture in a
symphony of purples. This state portrait of Charles V (1548) at the Battle of
Mühlberg established a new genre, that of the grand equestrian portrait. The
composition is steeped both in the Roman tradition of equestrian sculpture and in
the medieval representations of an ideal Christian knight, but the weary figure and
face have a subtlety few such representations attempt. In 1532, after painting a
portrait of the emperor Charles V in Bologna he was made a Count Palatine and
knight of the Golden Spur. His children were also made nobles of the Empire, which
for a painter was an exceptional honor.
As a matter of professional and worldly success his position from about this
time is regarded as equal only to that of Raphael, Michelangelo and, at a later
date, Rubens. In 1540 he received a pension from d'Avalos, marquis del Vasto, and
an annuity of 200 crowns (which was afterwards doubled) from Charles V from the
treasury of Milan. Another source of profit, for he was always aware of money, was
a contract obtained in 1542 for supplying grain to Cadore, where he visited almost
every year and where he was both generous and influential.
Titian had a favorite villa on the neighboring Manza Hill (in front of the
church of Castello Roganzuolo) from which (it may be inferred) he made his chief
observations of landscape form and effect. The so-called Titian's mill, constantly
discernible in his studies, is at Collontola, near Belluno.
He visited Rome in 1546, and obtained the freedom of the city - his immediate
predecessor in that honor having been Michelangelo in 1537. He could at the same
time have succeeded the painter Sebastiano del Piombo in his lucrative office as
holder of the piombo or Papal seal, and he was prepared to take Holy Orders for the
purpose; but the project lapsed through his being summoned away from Venice in 1547
to paint Charles V and others in Augsburg. He was there again in 1550, and executed
the portrait of Philip II, which was sent to England and was useful in Philip's
suit for the hand of Queen Mary.
During the last twenty-six years of his life (1550–1576), Titian worked mainly
for Philip II and as a portrait-painter. He became more self-critical, an
insatiable perfectionist, keeping some pictures in his studio for ten years -
returning to them and retouching them, constantly adding new expressions at once
more refined, concise, and subtle. He also finished many copies that his pupils
made of his earlier works. This caused problems of attribution and priority among
versions of his works - which were also widely copied and faked outside his studio
during his lifetime and afterwards.
For Philip II, he painted a series of large mythological paintings known as the
"poesie", mostly from Ovid, which scholars regard as among his greatest works.
Thanks to the prudishness of Philip's successors, these were later mostly given as
gifts, and only two remain in the Prado. Titian was producing religious works for
Philip at the same time. The "poesie" series contained the following works:
Venus and Adonis, of which the original is in the Prado, but several
Danaë, both sent to Philip in 1553.
Diana and Actaeon
Diana and Callisto, were despatched in 1559
Perseus and Andromeda (Wallace Collection, now damaged)
The Rape of Europa (Boston, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum), delivered in
The Death of Actaeon, begun in 1559 but worked on for many years and never
completed or delivered.
Contemporary estimates attribute around 400 works to Titian, of which about 300
survive. Two of Titian's works in private hands have been up for sale after 2008.
One of these works, Diana and Actaeon, was purchased by London's National
Gallery and the National Galleries of Scotland on 2 February 2009 for ₤50 million
($71 million). The galleries had until 31 December 2008 to make the purchase before
the work would be offered to private collectors, but the deadline was extended. The
other painting, Diana and Callisto, will be up for sale for the same amount until
2012 before it is offered to private collectors.
The Scottish government offered ₤12.5 million and ₤10 million came from the
National Heritage Memorial Fund. The rest of the money came from the National
Galleries in London and from private donations.
In 2011, Madonna and Child with Saints Luke and Catherine of
Alexandria, was put for an auction at Sotheby's, and it was sold on 28,
January 2011 for $16.9 million.