The Italian painter Titian (c. 1488-1576) was a great master of religious art, a portraitist in demand all over Europe, and the creator of mythological compositions which for inventiveness and decorative beauty have never been surpassed.
Tiziano Vecellio, known in English as Titian, was born at Pieve di Cadore in the Alps north of Venice. Regarding the year of his birth, modern criticism tends to reject the traditional date of 1477. Although the evidence is conflicting, the statements of contemporaries such as Lodovico Dolce and Giorgio Vasari, plus the fact that Titian's earliest works date from 1508, make the birth date of about 1488/1490 more reasonable.
At the age of 9 Titian set out with his brother Francesco for Venice to enter the workshop of the mosaicist Sebastiano Zuccati. Not long thereafter Titian began to study painting with Giovanni Bellini. Soon Titian met Bellini's other pupil, Giorgione, with whom he collaborated on his first certain work (1507-1508), the frescoes on the exterior of the German Merchants' Exchange (Fondaco dei Tedeschi) in Venice, works now known only in 18th-century prints and a few fragments. The two young painters collaborated so closely at this time that their styles are virtually indistinguishable.
Titian's first major independent commission was the three large frescoes in the Confraternity of St. Anthony (Scuola del Santo) in Padua. His early portraits in half length placed behind a horizontal parapet are very closely related to those of Giorgione, for example, two canvases signed with Titian's initials, T. V., the Gentleman in Blue and La Schiavona (London). The triple portrait, the Concert (Florence), is now assigned to Titian with the possibility that Giorgione began the figure at the left. Titian's early religious pictures, such as the Gypsy Madonna and the Madonna of the Cherries (Vienna), maintain similarities to Giovanni Bellini and are notable for their beauty of color and the detached reflective mood which is often characterized as Giorgionesque.
Soon came Titian's first great mythological works: Flora (Florence) and Sacred and Profane Love (ca. 1515; Rome). The complexity of the iconography in the latter painting may be summarized as contrasting the nude Celestial Venus with the clothed Terrestrial Venus. The beauty of the landscape setting and the classical allusions are notable here. Another work from this period is the famous Christ and the Tribute Money (ca. 1516; Dresden).
Titian's fame as an interpreter of classical mythology was firmly established by his three canvases (1518-1523) for the castle of Alfonso d'Este in Ferrara. The literary sources for these compositions are Philostratus's Imagines, Catullus's Carmina, and Ovid's Fastii and Ars amatoria. In the three paintings—the Andrians, the Worship of Venus (Madrid), and Bacchus and Ariadne (London)—Titian recreated the gaiety and abandon of classical legends, devising compositions of unprecedented beauty of color and design and establishing new canons of physical beauty.
An epoch-making work of Titian's early period is the Assumption of the Virgin (1516-1518; Venice). It marked the triumph of the High Renaissance in Venetian painting by virtue of the monumentality of the composition and the grandiose conception of the Virgin soaring with arms outstretched to heaven.
During the 1520s Titian produced masterpieces: the Madonna and Child with Saints Francis and Aloysius (1520; Ancona), the Resurrection altar (1522; Brescia), and the Pesaro Madonna (1519-1526; Venice). The diagonal composition of the last, set against a great portico with giant columns, and the luminosity of color, light, and atmosphere established a new formula for Venetian altars which continued into the following century. During this period the artist created the tragic Entombment (ca. 1526-1532; Paris).
The Martyrdom of St. Peter Martyr (ca. 1526-1530; destroyed 1867), once regarded as Titian's greatest masterpiece, involved a new feeling for heroic and dramatic action which is explained by Titian's acquaintance with the art of Michelangelo and the central Italians. Jacopo Sansovino and Sebastiano del Piombo came to Venice in 1527 after the sack of Rome, bringing to the Venetian more direct knowledge of artistic developments in the papal city.
Titian had formed a liaison with Cecilia, a young woman from Cadore with whom he had two sons, Pomponio in 1524 and Orazio in 1525. During her severe illness in 1525 the artist married her, and she lived another 5 years. They had two daughters, one of whom, Lavinia, survived. Titian was so prosperous that in 1531 he rented a luxurious palace, known as the Casa Grande, where he lived for the rest of his life.
An event of great importance in Titian's career was his trip to Bologna to attend the coronation of Charles V as Holy Roman emperor on Feb. 24, 1530. At this time the artist painted his first portrait of the Emperor in armor. The earliest surviving portrait, however, is Charles V with a Hound (Madrid), painted in February 1533 on Charles's second visit to Bologna. In May Charles V showed his appreciation of the artist's genius by making him a knight of the Golden Spur and Count Palatine.
At the same period Titian found time to provide a variety of works for several of his princely patrons: the Madonna and Child with St. Catherine for Ferrara (London), the Madonna with the Rabbit for the Gonzagas (Paris), and 11 portraits of Roman emperors (destroyed) for the Gonzagas. For the Duke of Urbino he painted the portraits Duke Francesco Maria I della Rovere and Duchess Eleanora and the famous Venus of Urbino (1538-1539; Florence). In Venice he supplied the large processional composition of the Presentation of the Virgin (1534-1538) with its array of portraits of contemporaries.
The next decade carried Titian even farther afield geographically and artistically. His Christ before Pilate (1543; Vienna) involves a new complexity of design in which the flight of steps rises obliquely and the figures in their variety of gestures and poses create a stir and excitement, denoting a change in style, charged with drama, which goes beyond Renaissance balance and repose toward the excitement of mannerist art. The Old Testament series of ceiling paintings (1543-1544) in S. Maria della Salute, Venice, planned to be seen from below, reflects Titian's interest in spatial illusionism introduced by Giulio Romano in his decorative works in the Palazzo del Te, Mantua.
A great event in Titian's life at this time was his sojourn in Rome from September 1545 until June 1546, at the invitation of Pope Paul III. For the first time Titian saw the glories of ancient Rome as well as the Renaissance masterpieces of Raphael and Michelangelo. He himself produced masterpieces during this stay in Rome: Paul III and His Grandsons (Naples), a presentation of a dramatic encounter between the aged pope and his scheming grandsons, one of the most psychologically revealing works in the history of portraiture; and the official state portrait, Paul III without Berretta (Naples).
Back in Venice, Titian painted the Christ Crowned with Thorns (ca. 1545-1550; Paris), an interpretation in which the violent action and muscular physiques seem to reflect his familiarity with Hellenistic sculpture and Michelangelo's paintings, which he had seen in Rome. Titian's Martyrdom of St. Lawrence (1548-1557; Venice) was also in the new heroic vein, but even more epoch-making in the originality of its new diagonal structure of composition and the mood-evoking atmosphere.
In January 1548 Titian set forth for Augsburg, called there by Charles V. In his celebrated equestrian portrait, Charles V at Mühlberg (Madrid), which commemorates the victory over the German Protestants, Titian established a type of equestrian state portrait that presents the ruler as a symbol of power. Charles V Seated (Munich) is an intimate record of the sickly monarch. In October 1548 Titian returned to Venice, but Charles V recalled him to Augsburg in October 1550. Of the several portraits he executed of members of the Emperor's court, the most important is that of the youthful Prince Philip (later Philip II) in armor, a work which set a standard for state portraits. During the 1550s the Hapsburgs continued to be Titian's most important patrons. For Charles V he painted three superb devotional panels: two of the Mater Dolorosa and the Trinity (generally known as La Gloria; Madrid).
Philip II soon ordered religious pictures from Titian for the monastery of the Escorial: the magnificent Crucifixion (ca. 1555), the Entombment (1559; now Madrid), and the Adoration of the Kings (1559). Philip II's numerous commissions for the Escorial in the 1560s included two versions of the Agony in the Garden, two of Christ Carrying the Cross (now in Madrid), and the Last Supper (1557-1564). During the same period Titian also executed mythological works for Philip II that are among the supreme products of his genius in the pathbreaking methods of design and sheer beauty of form and color: Diana and Callisto, Diana and Actaeon (both Edinburgh), Perseus and Andromeda (London, Wallace Collection), and the Rape of Europa (Boston, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum).
Titian's late style is notable for new developments in the oblique organization of compositions which point the way to later baroque designs. His brushwork is free and illusionistic, suggesting the forms rather than precisely describing them, and the tones are fused, often blended with the fingers rather than the brush. This style can be seen in the late pictures already cited, as well as in single figures of saints: the St. Margaret (Madrid) with its superb landscape, St. Sebastian, the Magdalen (Leningrad), and St. Jerome (Escorial).
To the end Titian continued to plumb the depths of human character in masterpieces of portraiture, such as Jacopo Strada (1567-1568; Vienna), his self-portraits (ca. 1550, Berlin; ca. 1570, Madrid), and the triple portrait with Orazio and Marco (ca. 1570; London). Titian's late religious pictures convey a mood of universal tragedy, as in the majestic Annunciation (ca. 1565; Venice), the very late Christ Crowned with Thorns (Munich), and the Pietà (Venice), unfinished at his death and intended for his own sepulchral chapel.
On Aug. 27, 1576, Titian died in his spacious palace in Venice, universally recognized as one of the greatest masters of all time. He was interred in the church of S. Maria Gloriosa dei Frari.
The first major work on Titian, and the first attempt to separate the artist's originals from copies, was Joseph A. Crowe and Giovanni B. Cavalcaselle, Life and Times of Titian (1877). Hans Tietze, Tizian (2 vols., 1936; published in an abbreviated volume in English in two editions, 1937 and 1950), includes only a selection of major works. After a dearth of monographs for more than 3 decades, several important books have appeared: Erwin Panofsky, Problems in Titian, Mostly Iconographic (1970), dealing with thematic material; and Harold E. Wethey's comprehensive catalogue raisonné, Titian, vol. 1: The Religious Paintings (1969), vol. 2: Titian's Portraits (1971), and vol. 3: Titian's Mythological and Historical Paintings (1973). □
Learn more about Titian