Dibyajyoti Lahiri, UG III, Roll No.:02
Near the end of the 15th century, when the High Renaissance was at its peak with its centers at Florence and Rome, a new movement in art was taking shape in the picturesque city of Venice. It was a style of painting that drew the focus away from the well-defined lines and contours that had thus far defined the Renaissance, and made paint the defining element in oil-painting instead. Its luminescent hues symbolized ‘the triumph of colour and light over the Renaissance notions of sculptural form’.[i]
As a school of painting that was born in Venice, it was also born out of Venice in the sense that it emblematized Venice’s unique nature. Its lavish colours and free-flowing paint embodied the city’s wealth, the fertility of its life and art, its perpetually changing features, and the fluidity of its canals.
It was during the nascent stage of this focal shift in Italy that Tiziano Vecelli, commonly known as Titian, was born in Pieve di Cadore, a town in the Veneto region of the erstwhile Republic of Venice. Over the years, Venetian art and Titian would grow up hand in hand, with the different phases of their lives intermingling with one another. It would be a period of mutual growth that would culminate in Titian being regarded in history as the face of the Venetian school of painting.
This essay seeks to provide an overview of Titian’s illustrious career by discussing some of his most important works spanning across its considerable length, with a twofold purpose in mind. The first is to highlight the key facets of Venetian painting. Secondly, by dissecting works from different stages of his career, it attempts to trace the changes in Titian’s style that is reflective of both his growth as an artist, and the development of his psychology.
Titian was sent to the city of Venice at roughly the age of eleven to work as an apprentice at the workshop of Giovanni Bellini, the man who is credited as the creator of the Venetian style of painting through his thematic use of colour and landscape.
Later, he went on to work with Giorgione, who had until very recently been under Bellini’s apprenticeship himself. Giorgione was particularly known for his ability to establish mood through his landscapes. The few paintings that survive today that can definitely be attributed to Giorgione stand out for their poetic quality.
Both Bellini and Giorgione had a significant amount of influence on Titian, particularly on his early work. Young Titian’s early endeavours in oil painting were hybridizations of the styles of his two mentors. He replicated Bellini’s exquisite colours and luxurious shades to depict human figures, contrasted with relatively softer, Giorgione-esque landscapes, and strived towards fusing the two together in a harmonious manner. At the same time, he worked on developing his own modus operandi by experimenting extensively with the idea of portraying movement in his pictures. At this early stage, he achieved that mostly with objects within the painting. The reason that is noteworthy is because as he gradually matured, his preferred mode for depicting movement became the paint itself: the fluidity of its application.
Catching the Eye:
Titian’s early works primarily depicted Biblical episodes, like the one below. Little is known about its history, except the fact that it was completed around 1512-14. Titled Noli Me Tangere, it depicts an episode from the Gospel of St. John (20: 17), where Mary Magdalene witnesses the sight of a resurrected Christ in front of her and in her boundless delight attempts to touch his robes. Christ does not allow this, as he is yet to ascend to his Father. The title of the painting literally means “Touch me not”, which is what Christ tells her as he moves away.
The first thing about the piece that catches the eye is the interaction between the central figures and a landscape painted in a style that is very much in keeping with that of Titian’s mentors’. The figures of Christ and Mary Magdalene in the foreground seem to fuse with the slope of the mountains and the bark of the tree in the background respectively, forming an ‘X’ that consists of an upper ‘v’ made of inanimate elements, and a lower inverted ‘v’ made from animate elements.
On closer inspection, we notice another level of interaction between the arcadic landscape and the dynamic forces of nature, such as the rising sun and the steady wind. The building and the sheep in the background do not merely make up the scenery; the light falling on them are indicative of an early morning sun that is conspicuously absent. Similarly, the swaying grass at the feet of Christ, painted with quick brush-strokes, allows one to sense an invisible but strong breeze blowing across. These interactions makes the painting come alive with the sense of quick movement, which makes up the very theme of a narrative that is about Mary Magdalene’s anxious movement towards Christ, and Christ’s nimble movement away from her. Titian thus unites the human figures with the landscape not just structurally, but also thematically.
Notice too how the use of colour is not merely sensuous, as colour in Renaissance painting ought to be, but also strongly thematic to the point where it brings out the invisible subtleties merely implied in the narrative it is derived from. The two distinct shades of white for the clothing of Christ and Mary Magdalene are a case in point. The ascetic white of Christ’s robes are in contrast to the material white of Mary Magdalene’s clothes, which is emphasized further by the intense shade of crimson beside it.
The face of Christ, forgiving and detached, evokes a sense of divinity, which is juxtaposed against Magdalene’s earthly curiosity.
Of course, no discussion of an early Titian painting, or any Titian painting for that matter, can be complete without a mention of its most exceptional feature. A feature most prominently visible in the short, restless strokes constituting the moving grass, and the generous dollops of white paint that make up the fleece of the grazing sheep. Up until this point, the hallmark of a good oil-painting was the skillful concealment of the stroke of the brush. In introducing the visible brush-stroke, Titian brought about a novelty in technique that would become synonymous with Venetian painting.[ii] Like he would carry on doing at different stages of his life, Titian had turned long-established tradition on its head.
Scaling the Heights:
About four years later, Titian was commissioned to paint a large panel that would serve as the altarpiece at the Basilica di Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, a Venetian church dedicated to the Assumption of the Virgin Mary into heaven. Allotting a task of such great significance to a young, upcoming artist caused a mild uproar among the clergy, while Titian himself took on the challenge because of the prestige it would bring him. As it so happened, the Assumption of the Virgin established Titian’s status as a Venetian master, and served as a perfect launch pad for his later career.
The massive oil-on-fresco piece is dividable into two halves: the upper divine half, and the lower earthly half. The halves are distinguishable as much by the figures in them, as they are by their differing colour schemes. The upper half is significantly more illuminated than the lower half. It almost seems as if they are two paintings sewed together in the middle. The extended leg of a cherub serves as a fragile yet necessary connection between the two halves.The desperate attempts of the apostles below to reach upwards is contrasted with the serenity of the Virgin Mary’s expression, which evokes the same sense of detached divinity as Christ does in the previous painting. There is an aura of untouchability about her. The focus is entirely on the central figure, as the apostles below are either silhouettes against the lurking darkness, or turned towards the other side.
Once again, the piece successfully conveys the idea of movement, in this case upward ascension, that is central to the narrative. The faceless figures of the apostles are intentionally drawn in order to represent the chaotic frenzy down below. More importantly, the reaching hands of the apostles at the bottom layer, the upholding hands of the cherubs in the middle, the upraised hands and face of the Virgin Mary, and the receptive figure of God looking down from heaven combine to form an overall upward momentum.
‘A Cut Through the Rush’:
By the next decade, Titian’s fame had spread across the country, which resulted in him being handed a lucrative contract to paint a series of classical scenes for Alfonso d’Este, the Duke of Ferrera.
It marked a crossover from religion to mythology as the more common subject for his paintings. It also marked the next level in his artistic development.
Art historians are largely in agreement to the fact that the crown jewel of the series was Bacchus and Ariadne, completed between 1522-23.
The subject is based on a text by Ovid: Ariadne is deserted on the shore of Naxos by her lover, Theseus, and is spotted by Bacchus, who is out on a round of frenzied revelry with his troops of Bacchanals.
Like the Assumption of the Virgin, this piece is made up of two distinct halves representing the mortal and the immortal. However, there are several marked departures from his earlier compositional principles on display here.
The most important of these departures is that in this instance it is the mortal plane on the left that is illuminated and visually stimulating in its vibrancy, while the immortal half on the right gives off a sense of lifelessness and stagnancy. By contrasting the dark realm of the immortals against the open earthly landscape in a striking reversal of perspective, Titian extolls the virtues of mortality and chastity over a life of material indulgence. This is of great significance on two counts. Firstly, it represents the beginning of a paradigm shift in Titian’s own mentality. On a broader scale, such a move stands in rebellion against one of the most basic motifs of Renaissance art – the celebration of power and luxury.
Another stand-out feature is the figure of Bacchus invading the mortal realm. This invasion is mirrored by intermixing of colours in a smaller scale, as exemplified by the presence of blue flowers on the dark green earth on the right.
According to the Ovid’s narrative, Bacchus elevates Ariadne into the skies and turns her into a constellation, a fact which is indicated in the piece by the stars in the background. However, the narrative of the painting turns the same instant into one where a sensually indulgent god is ennobled at the sight of a mortal woman. This is important in the context of Titian’s mythological paintings because not only does it show his mastery at telling a story through, but it also proves that his works do not rely on the pre-established narrative to stand out as a work of art. Their value is derived from Titian’s personal impressions and the expression of his developing psyche.
In the Flesh:
Apart from the being Titian’s most popular work from the following decade (ie. 1530-39), the Venus of Urbino (c.1538) is an iconic painting in the context of the Western tradition of the nude in painting.
Commissioned by Guidobaldo II della Rovere, the Duke of Urbino, it is a prototype specimen that ushered in a new way of portraying flesh in nude figures. Previously, the figure of the nude was painted in one of two distinct styles: a) It was presented as an object to be devoured by the viewer’s gaze, or, b) In religious art, it was necessarily subjected to expectations of evoking a sense of sanctity first and foremost. Titian’s nudes, on the other hand, were unabashed in their sensuousness while avoiding objectification of the subject. They did not put on any pretence of holiness either.
Venus of Urbino is a perfect case in point that serves to establish either argument based on our interpretation of the work. There is debate over the question of whether or not Titian originally intended the figure to represent Venus. If we are to assume he didn’t, then the figure comes off as anything but a passive subject in its return of a potential gaze with a confident gaze of her own. This is in stark contrast to the lowered eyes of the figure in Giorgione’s Sleeping Venus (c.1510), whose eroticism is visibly reticent in comparison. Alternately, if we do believe that it was the artist’s intention for the figure to represent Venus, it then stands out for the domestic setting it is placed in, which is once again in contrast to Sleeping Venus, where Titian himself, Giorgione’s understudy at the time, had painted the natural landscape that made up the background. In the Venus of Urbino, he uses symbolism in the indoor setting to add a deeper layer of meaning to the sensuous aura around the nude figure. The soundly asleep dog present at her feet could well stand for faithfulness, while the cassone in the background were traditional presents given to the bride in marriage. The purpose of the symbolism is, of course, supported by the fact that the duke had been recently married at that point in time.
To sum up, the sensuousness of the flesh in Titian’s paintings is not derived from the intrinsic nature of flesh, but from Titian’s mastery over paint and its application. Further in the course of this essay, we shall find out how Titian’s perception of flesh undergoes a remarkable change as he advances in age.
In August Company:
In discussing Titian’s contribution to landscape painting, it is easy to forget the fact that he revolutionized the portrait as well. His ability to induce movement through paint brought an entirely new dimension to the still world of portraits. And indeed, after a number of early portraits of relatively unknown subjects established his reputation, he received patronage from the most influential figures in Europe, under whom he worked as personal portrait-painter. Among them are Charles V, Phillip II of Spain, and Pope Paul III. His association with men of administrative and religious power brought him great prestige in the public eye, and just as importantly enabled him to be the first to break out of the traditional perception of Venetian artists as local gems fiercely guarded against prying eyes of the world. He had successfully turned himself into an international figure.
Titian spent a good part of the year 1548 at Charles V’s imperial court at Augsburg, where he painted the Equestrian Portrait of Charles V for arguably the most powerful man in Europe at the time, and in doing so pioneered the equestrian portrait genre.
Painted with long and bold brushstrokes, it strikes a perfect balance between the trademark symbols of equestrian art and a personal touch derived from the artist’s personal proximity to the emperor. On the one hand, the figure of the horse is brimming with restless potential energy so typical in equestrian sculpture. But at the same time, the introspective features of the emperor coupled with a landscape devoid of any sign of war portrays a sober heroism. The background is one of Titian’s most unforgettable – “flaming and shadowed, with gold light fighting with blue, deathly clouds. This landscape suggests the immensities of space that Charles dominates and the brooding, inner landscape of the soul.”[iii]
The Eyes Have it:
Beginning in 1556, Titian began working on a series of seven mythological scenes from Ovid’s Metamorphoses on the request of Phillip II of Spain. Collectively referred to as ‘The Poesie’, this project reunited Titian with his most preferred source of inspiration in Ovid. Carol Plazzotta, Senior Research Curator at the National Gallery, London, remarks on the Venetian master’s body of adaptations from the Roman poet: “I think of Ovid as one of the most painterly of all poets […] in reading Ovid you always get an idea of place. He is so visual, and he makes you think visually with his descriptiveness and the adjectives he uses […] it’s all so evocative. Titian is almost the reverse of that, he’s the most poetic of painters. So in many, many ways, it’s an ideal meeting of minds between these two very gifted men.”[iv]
The subject of Diana and Actaeon, completed between 1556 and 1559, is an episode from Metamorphoses where the hunter Actaeon unwittingly walks into the secret grotto of Diana, the goddess of the hunt. More than anything else, what allowed Titian’s paintings to extend beyond visual art into the realm of poetry was his flair for bringing out essential human qualities in the figures he depicted. In his early works, this quality was restricted to his human figures. At this stage, however, they extended to his depictions of the divine as well. This is something that is put magnificently on show in this particular work. Not only does the expression on the face of each figure add to the overarching narrative, they also tell distinct individual stories of their own.
The painting seems to capture the very moment when Actaeon’s sense of awe at the sight of the goddess and her wondrous nymphs has faded into the horrific realization of the consequences of his trespassing — he shall not live to tell the tale. These expressions are mirrored on the other side of the canvas by Diana’s shocked, wrath-consumed face. The goddess is also intentionally drawn in an ungainly posture to underline the awkward indignity of the situation. Even if we choose to completely ignore the several obvious hints that point towards what happens next, the expressions of the two central characters reveal all. The hints peppered throughout the painting simply serve to underline Titian’s brilliance as a story-teller.
Titian’s expertise at creating independent narrative through his paintings has already been discussed, and apart from using facial expressions to that end, he manages to achieve that here in a rather unique fashion. The piece is full of symbols that hint at events that follow, pointing heavily towards a sequel. These include the presence of an animal skull and several animal hides that presumably serve as trophies for the goddess, and more importantly the figure of a woman chasing a stag up the hill in the distance, against a background that is reminiscent of Titian’s old teacher, Bellini.
It is this fluently assembled combination of the personal and the human with a strong narrative to act as a framework that lends a poetic feel to Titian’s paintings.
The portrayal of flesh is as wholesome and sensuous as ever, and so is the use of colour. But all that is about to change drastically as Titian enters the final phase of his career.
If one is inclined to study or analyse Titian’s transition into the last lap of his life as an artist, The Death of Actaeon serves as the best point of reference. Titian began work on it in 1559, and did not stop making changes to it till his death two decades later. Because of this reason, this particular work serves as a relic that traces his mental and artistic development into the late stage of his life and career respectively.
This period of his life was marked by an acute sense of self-consciousness and self-scrutiny, which is reflected in the amount of time he took to complete several of his paintings at the time. He would leave a work-in-progress unattended for months, even years at times, after which he would scan them thoroughly and make changes before putting them away again. We find ample evidence of this in The Death of Actaeon. X-ray images reveal a vast number of changes, particularly in the number of hounds –the initial draft had many more that were consequently removed, while a couple or so were late additions.
Also evident in the painting is the change in his thought-process reflected in his use of colour and his application of paint. Although it must be categorized as an uncompleted work, it is in no way incomplete as a standalone work of art.
In portraying Actaeon’s transformation into a stag and his ultimate demise, The Death of Actaeon takes up the narrative from the place where Diana and Actaeon left it, but on all other counts it could not be any more different from its predecessor. The narrative is surprisingly minimal by Titian’s lofty standards. The colours are no longer luxurious, but gloomy like the governing mood of the painting. The paint is evocative, rather than descriptive. The flesh is not nearly as sensuously portrayed as his previous works, as the ruthless figure of Diana ceases to be a visually stimulating nude.
The most important change comes in the manner of the application of paint. While the sense of fluidity remains intact, it is kept intact with the help of vastly different measures than before. Titian’s brushstrokes are no longer subtle and quick, but bold and broad to the point where historians have been led to believe that he used his fingers to apply the paint in many places. The brushstroke is no more merely visible, it becomes the key feature of the painting, causing the foreground and background to become nigh-indistinguishable for the first time. The black hound about to attack Actaeon dissolves into the whiteness of the stream behind it. Titian no longer feels the need to differentiate space with the help of colour and connect it thematically using homogeneous structures. He begins to focus on creating a singular, unified surface in order to evoke the mood necessary. In the case of this painting, the mood of violence and tragedy is aptly portrayed by the tumultuous landscape that the figures seem to blend into.
Although the mood takes precedence over the narrative in this piece, we once again find Titian taking artistic liberty to mould the narrative to serve his purpose. In Ovid’s text, Actaeon is completely transformed into a stag, his death is interpreted in terms of divine justice and restoration of order. Titian, however, allows the hunter to retain his human form from head downwards, and in doing so allows the work to retain the human element that set his later works apart from his early works. Rather than reduce Actaeon to a mere beast, Titian instead presents Diana in a dispassionate light in a move that is in line with the shift in perspective from god to mortal that defined his later psychology. Empathy had replaced detachment.
In many ways, the significant transformation of Titian’s mind and brush could find no better representation than in these scenes he painted from The Metamorphoses, a text whose subject matter itself revolves around the idea of change and transformation.
The remarkable aspect of the melancholic inversion of late Titian’s mind, mirrored in his style, was that it did not stem from the idleness that accompanies old age and unemployment. On the contrary, it occurred during the most affluent period of his life, both professionally and financially. He had amassed vast quantities of wealth not just from his paintings, but through highly successful business ventures as well. He had his hands full with projects commissioned by the church and Phillip II, among other patrons. It was hardly the kind of life that allowed one to stand and stare. And yet, he did exactly that.
In the words of British art critic Matthew Collings, “The late Titian goes on a journey of his inner darkness. He becomes a restless disturber of luxury, choosing to question it rather than celebrate it. His powers are at its height, but his colours are diseased.”[v]
The specific work that Collings was referring to in his description was Punishment of Marsyas, completed between 1570-76. Looking at the painting, it is easy to see what he was talking about.
The inspiration was, once again, Ovid. This time a scene from the Metamorphoses wherein the satyr Marsyas loses a contest to Apollo, and is made to pay a gruesome forfeit by being skinned alive.
Fluidity of colour is at its most extreme here, causing the background and foreground to melt into one composite. The patches of blue from the sky in the background spill over into the foreground, where they find reflection in the clothing of Apollo’s men. The majority of the surface is governed by an uninspiring brown – the bland colour of the flesh perfectly blending into the coppery clouds and landscape. It is almost as if all other colours present in the painting exist in a layer beneath a cover of dull brown that is peeling off in places to reveal them. Like the poor satyr whose plight it depicts, the painting itself seems to be in the process of being skinned.
Titian paints himself into the scene, posing as the old King Midas with a golden crown on his head. In doing this, he displays an awareness of his own power and wealth. A pensive portrayal of himself indicates that this awareness is not pushing towards the boastful, but steeped in self-consciousness. He seems to be questioning the nature of things. As Collings puts it, “…the mood of the painting suggests that the questioning is of a despairing kind.”
Before we discuss Titian’s last ever painting, the Pietà, it is imperative that we see it in the context of the year it was painted in. The year of its completion coincided with the Venetian Plague of 1576 that wiped out nearly half of the city’s population. It was then that he was asked to paint this piece for the Frari, with whom he struck a deal to have it on display at his tomb after his demise. A sense of impending doom in the face of the deadly epidemic is perhaps the key reason as to why we see Titian return to religious spirituality as a theme.
Not only do we find a painting within the painting where we find Titian and his Orazio are praying to a mini-depiction of the Pieta, Titian also uses himself as the model for the figure of Nicodemus. Indeed, this personal attachment to the painting is the reason why it is widely believed to be an ex-voto piece.
However, that is not the only reason why this works so well as an autobiographical piece.
The old master fills his final masterpiece with self-referential and meta-referential elements that look back upon his life and career. The figures of Nicodemus, Mary holding Christ, and Mary Magdalene form an ideal triangle, in a throwback to his early zeal for structural unity. The arch at the back harks back to Bellini’s style and the golden arch in his own Assumption of the Virgin, which he had painted for the same church sixty years ago. The colour and flesh is brought to life once again by a brilliant luminescence, perhaps in tribute to the school of Venetian painting that was born out of light and colour.
Nursing his rapidly dying flame, Titian burns bright with youthful majesty one last time before surrendering himself to a life of prayer and recollection. The brilliance of the painting lies in its ability to evoke both moods at once.
Later that same year, on the 27th of August, Titian fell to the plague at a very advanced age estimated to be close to a hundred. He was interred at the Frari, in fulfilment of his wish to rest at the place that had set him on course for the stars six decades ago.
In light of the distinctiveness of his works and his sheer resilience in the face of the changes around him, it is easy to argue that Titian was a brand in his own right.
His phenomenally large and diverse oeuvre consisted of hundreds of paintings peppered over nearly 70 years. An extremely versatile artist, he was equally at home with both religious and mythological subjects, and painted landscapes and portraits with the same amount of proficiency.
He remained an enduring figure who held his own through distinct periods and movements in art in the 16th century. Born at the height of the High Renaissance, he submerged himself in the practice of an upcoming style that promised to change the way oil-paintings were made and appreciated, which it eventually did with great success. If Venetian painting to be regarded as Bellini’s child, then Titian is the godfather who made a man out of the child. He shaped and moulded its essential features and took it out into the world. It is largely owing to his efforts that it was able to stand firm against the Mannerist movement that began setting in in the rest of Italy, fresh out of the grip of the High Renaissance.
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, Titian’s contribution to the art of oil-painting did not remain enclosed by space and time. His influence is evident in the works of artists across Europe – Rembrandt, van Dyck, Rubens and Velazquez to name only a handful. His relevance extends far beyond the furthest reaches of the last of Europe’s renaissances, finding reflection in the works of 19th century artists such as Manet and Klimt. His portraits were just as big an influence on Velazquez in the 17th century, as they were on the defining characteristics of portraiture as late as the 20th century.
In conclusion, it can be stated as a matter of fact that the profound influence of Titian’s timeless art was not just restricted to the Renaissance, but extended to the body of Western art as a whole.
[i] Tiziano Vecellio: Biography. <http://www.wga.hu/framese.html?/html/t/tiziano/07_1570s/10pieta.html > Web. 1 November, 2015
[ii] The credit for the invention of the visible brush-stroke is sometimes given to Giorgione. However, owing to the fact that he collaborated with Titian on several paintings in the course of their fairly long partnership, and that very few surviving paintings today can be completely attributed to Giorgione, such a claim cannot be made with a great deal of certainty.
[iii] “Jonathan Jones”, “Charles V on Horseback, Titian (c1548)” The Guardian. Web. 8 November, 2003. <http://www.theguardian.com/culture/2003/nov/08/art > Web. 15 November, 2015.
[v] “Titian: Flesh”. Matt’s Old Masters. Channel 4. 23 November, 2003. Television.
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Jones, Jonathan. Charles V on Horseback, Titian (c1548). The Guardian. Web. 8 November, 2003. <http://www.theguardian.com/culture/2003/nov/08/art > Web. 15 November, 2015.
“Titian: Flesh”. Matt’s Old Masters. Channel 4. 23 November, 2003. Television.
The National Gallery. “Poetry on canvas | Metamorphoses: Titian 2012| The National Gallery, London.” Online video clip. YouTube. Posted 23 August, 2012. Web. 17 November, 2015.
The National Gallery. “Titian and technique | Paintings | The National Gallery, London.” Online video clip. YouTube. Posted 13 July, 2010. Web. 17 November, 2015.
openuniversiteit. “Titian three paintings in the National Gallery” Online video clip. YouTube. Posted 28 April, 2011. Web. 11 November, 2015.