The Italian Renaissance painter known as Titian was born Tiziano Vecellio, between 1488 and 1490 in the village of Pieve di Cadore in the Italian Alps.
The Vecellio family can be traced back to the year 958 through Guecello di Tommaso da Pozzale, who was descended from the first da Camino Count of Cadore, Guecello da Camino. The da Caminos ruled Cadore from 1135 to 1335. Guecello di Tommaso da Pozzale’s grandson was Antonio Vecellio, who fathered seven children. One of these sons, Conti (Comes) Vecellio fathered Gregoria Vecellio, who became Titian’s father.
Gregoria Vecellio followed in his father’s military footsteps; Conti Vecellio was an official in the garrison at Pieve where Gregoria became a captain, before becoming a mine supervisor at Cadore.
Around age ten, Titian was sent to Venice to live with his older brother Francesco. He was apprenticed to the mosaic artist Sebastiano Zuccato, who on recognising Titian’s talent, sent him to study under Gentile Bellini. Titian’s artistic life would have begun with him cleaning his master’s brushes and palettes, before being promoted to grinding paint colours and preparing surfaces. Eventually, he would have been allowed to paint small areas himself.
Gentile Bellini did not have a high opinion of his apprentice’s work. He thought Titian was impatient and would never amount to anything as an artist. Titian did not like Gentile’s teaching methods either, and he left to work under his brother Giovanni Bellini. At this time, Titian met Giorgione, another apprentice of Bellini’s, and who had a major influence on Titian’s work.
Titian’s and Giorgione’s work is difficult to distinguish; both lived with Bellini and worked together on the series of frescoes of the Fondaco dei Tedeschi along the Grand Canal in Venice, which were unveiled in 1508. It is accepted that Titian completed some of Giorgione’s work after the latter died of plague aged about 32.
Giovanni was at that time, the end of the 15th century, the master Venetian painter. He was a leading landscape artist, as well as being known for his renditions of Madonna, which were usually half-length forms against a curtain and showing a suggestion of landscape.
Titian commenced his career as an independent artist in Venice in 1510. His oil on panel The Gypsy Madonna, currently held in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, closely follows the model of Giovanni’s Madonna paintings.
Titian was the first artist to utilise the paintbrush as a means of expression in itself. Canvasses at that time tended to be coarse, resulting in texture when the brush was dragged across it. Florentine artists then preferred linear expression, while Titian and other Venetian artists introduced layers of light and colour. Titian used colour pigments that were both readily available and much rarer; common pigments included ultramarine, vermillion, ochres and azurite (a soft copper carbonate stone ground into pigment). Lead-tin yellow was widely used but was highly poisonous, comprising either a mixture of lead and tin oxides that were ground into a powder that was heated to about 9000C or a second type that also incorporated quartz. Titian is known to have used lead-tin yellow in one of his most iconic works, Bacchus and Ariadne. He also used lesser-known pigments such as realgar and orpiment, which were often used together. Realgar, or ruby of arsenic, is an orange-red mineral that melts at 3200C and releases arsenic and sulphur fumes when burnt. Orpiment, a deep yellow-gold colour, is a by-product of realgar and thus also extremely toxic, known to have been used as a poison on arrow tips. However, it could not be used with azurite due to the incompatibility of their chemical compounds.
Titian would use the pigments undiluted and emphasise contrasting colours using light. It is thought that he used his fingers, as well as a brush, to blend and apply the medium, thus creating illusions of movement and chiaroscuro effects (a contrast of light and shadow).
Later in 1510, Titian went to Padua, probably to avoid the plague that had claimed Giorgione’s life. Between April and December 1511, he painted the frescoes in the Scuola of St. Anthony, comprising The Miracle of the Newborn, The Miracle of the Healed Foot and The Miracle of the Jealous Husband.
He returned to Venice in 1515 where he established an atelier on the Grand Canal and which his brother Francesco managed. Titian offered to repaint a damaged 14th-century fresco in return for being granted senseria, the post of official state painter. Giovanni Bellini was the incumbent, and on his death, Titian was duly appointed. This caused some controversy amongst other artists, but Titian was confirmed in the post in 1516. He was paid an annual wage of one hundred ducats for which he also received a tax exemption. He became very wealthy through his investments in the lumber trade in Cadore; he was rumoured to have been the richest living artist of the times.
He began his masterpiece the Assumption of the Virgin, also known as the Frari Assumption, that year and completed it in 1518. It remains where it was designed to be placed, on the high altar of the Basilica di Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari in Venice. It measures a massive 6.9m × 3.60m (22.5ft × 11.6ft).
Two other major works followed, the Pesaro Madonna, better known as the Madonna di Ca’ Pesaro. The huge piece, 4.88m × 2.69m (16.0 ft × 8.8 ft) was commissioned by Jacopo Pesaro, the Bishop of Paphos, now Cyprus, as the altarpiece for the same church. The second definitive work was Death of St Peter Martyr, which no longer exists.
In 1525, Titian married his housekeeper Cecilia Soldani, mother of his two sons Pomponio and Orazio. The latter went on to work for his father as an assistant. Cecilia and Titian had conducted an affair for about five years but when Cecilia became gravely ill, Titian legitimised the relationship for their sons’ sake. Cecila recovered to bear two other daughters; one died in infancy and Lavinia, who died in 1560 while giving birth. Cecilia herself died in 1530. Titian also fathered another daughter, Emilia, conceivably the result of an affair with his housekeeper.
In Venice, Titian met and befriended Jacopo Sansovino, a sculptor and architect of the High Renaissance period, and poet and writer Pietro Aretino. Both were advocates of what came to be known as the Mannerist movement and Titian’s work began to take on that style, but which he adapted and enhanced to make his own.
Mannerism, or Late Renaissance, was prevalent in Italy from about 1520 to the end of that century. Where the previous High Renaissance style had accentuated proportion, balance and idealised beauty. Mannerism amplified these qualities and compositions subsequently became asymmetrical or overly, artificially elegant.
As a master artist, Titian painted eminent persons of the day, from relatively minor royal and state personages to King Charles V as Holy Roman Emperor, then also king of Spain and the Netherlands. Charles bestowed the title of Count Palatine (defined as “a high official of the Holy Roman Empire with royal authority within his domain”) on Titian in 1533 and the two men, unusually for the times, became firm friends. Other eminent subjects included Pope Paul III (born Alessandro Farnese), Charles V’s son Philip II of Spain, and King Henry III of France. He was well patronised by the Dukes of Ferrara, Mantua and Urbino.
Prior to his contraction of Titian’s ‘poesie’ series, the Duke of Ferarra, Alfonso I d’Este, had commissioned The Bacchanal of the Andrians, depicting Bacchus and Venus, the gods of wine and love. Titian completed the work between 1523-1526. It is now held in the Museo Nacional del Prado in Madrid. Titian also painted Bacchus and Ariadne for the Duke, now housed in the National Gallery, London. The Duke was apparently not impressed by the three years it took Titian to complete the painting; he is quoted as saying “We thought, that Titian, the painter, would someday finish our picture; but he seems to take no account of us whatever. We, therefore, instruct you to tell him instantly, that we are surprised that he should not have finished our picture; that he must finish it under all circumstances or incur our great displeasure; and he may be made to feel that he is doing an ill turn to one who can resent it. We are determined that he shall complete the work he promised; if he does not, we shall see to his doing it, and you are to advise us instantly of his resolution.” [The Life and Times of Titian, Crowe, Joseph A; Cavalcaselle, Giovanni Battista]
In 1529, Titian was commissioned by Alfonso’s nephew Federico II Gonzaga, first Duke of Mantua (1500-1540) and son of Alfonso’s sister Isabella d’Este, to complete his portrait. Titian painted a second portrait of Federico in 1530, this time, showing him in armour.
The Duke of Urbino, Francesco Maria della Rovere commissioned Titian in 1532. Guidobaldo II, who succeeded Francesco, also employed the artist.
Titian was then employed by the Duke of Ferarra to create the ‘camerino d’alabastro’ or alabaster chamber which re-created classic poems into mythological tableaux, which he called ‘poesie’, or visual equivalents of poetry. The series of six works completed between 1551-1562 comprised Danaë Receiving the Golden Rain, Venus and Adonis, Perseus and Andromeda, The Rape of Europa, Diana and Callisto and Diana and Actaeon. A seventh painting and the third of the Actaeon series called The Death of Actaeon was never completed and remained in Titian’s studio until his death.
The Actaeon series was based on the Roman poet Ovid’s (43 BC – 17/18 AD) Metamorphoses, which tells the tales of Diana, the Roman goddess of hunting, and the hunter Actaeon. Diana and Actaeon depicts the goddess bathing in a spring when Actaeon unknowingly chances onto the scene. A furious Diana splashes the hunter with water, and he is transformed into a deer, later to be killed by his own hounds when they cannot recognise him.
Diana and Callisto, painted between 1556-1559, depicts Diana’s favourite nymph, the virgin Callisto, who became pregnant by the king of the Roman gods, Jupiter, ruler of the sky and thunder.
The Duke of Sutherland in the United Kingdom owned Diana and Acteaon and Diana and Callisto, which had been in his family for 220 years. Since 1945, they had been on permanent loan to the National Galleries of Scotland. In 2009, the Duke decided to sell the two masterpieces, by which he would avoid paying inheritance and capital gains tax. At the time, the required fifty million pounds for Diana and Acteaon was raised jointly by public money, the National Gallery, London, the National Heritage Memorial Fund, the Art Fund and the Scottish Executive.
Diana and Callisto was sold in 2012 for the lesser price of £45 million, the funds being raised mainly from the charitable reserves of the National Galleries, with the balance of £20 million raised variously from donations and grants, the Heritage Lottery Fund and the Art Fund.
The price of both paintings was significantly lower than could have been raised on open auction; the works are jointly estimated at being worth £300 million. Both paintings are held jointly by the National Gallery, London and the National Galleries of Scotland. The National Gallery had previously purchased The Death of Actaeon in 1972 with government and public funding.
The Rape of Europa was controversially sold in 1896 to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, Massachusetts in the United States, where it remains today. The painting depicts Europa being abducted on the back of a bull, the assumed form of the Roman god Jupiter.
Perseus and Andromeda is held by The Wallace Collection at Hertford House in London. There were numerous versions of Danaë Receiving the Golden Rain, also called Danaë and the Shower of Gold. The second is generally accepted to be of the ‘poesie’ series and was meant to be shown alongside Venus and Adonis. Both works are held by the Museo Nacional del Prado in Madrid.
Titian became a Roman citizen when he visited the city in 1545-46, where he stayed in the Vatican’s Belvedere Palace. It was also in the Eternal City that he met Michelangelo.
Titian was elected to the Florentine Academy in 1556, a further accolade to his already prestigious career, which spanned some seventy years, from 1506 to 1576. He is thought to have created approximately 400 works, about three hundred of which are still in existence.
Titian returned to Venice in 1551, where he continued to work prolifically for the next twenty-five years. He arranged that his favourite son Orazio would inherit his position of senseria and the pension that accompanied it. Titian offered to paint the Pietà for the church of Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, in exchange for a burial place in the chapel. Titian died on 27 August 1576 before he could complete the work, later finished by Palma Giovane, possibly one of Titian’s pupils. The painting hangs in the Gallerie dell’Accademia in Venice.
The Guild of Venetian Painters had planned a resplendent funeral for the master painter but were prevented from doing so by the plague that ravished the city and that had taken Titian’s life. Titian was buried as he wished, in the Frari chapel, site of his first masterpiece.