Titian was one of a family of four and son of Gregorio Vecelli, a distinguished councilor and soldier, and of his wife Lucia.
At the age of ten Titian was brought to Venice and placed by his brother with the celebrated mosaicist, Sebastian Zuccato , but at the end of four or five years he entered the studio of the aged painter Giovanni Bellini, at that time the most noted artist in the city. There he 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.
A fresco of Hercules on the Morosini Palace is said to have been one of his earliest works; others were the Virgin and Child, in the Vienna Belvedere, and the Visitation of Mary and Elizabeth (from the convent of S. Andrea), now in the Venetian Academy.
Titian entered into partnership with Giorgione, and it is difficult to distinguish their early works. The earliest known work of Titian, the little "Ecce Homo" of the Scuola di San Rocco, was long regarded as the work of Giorgione. And the same confusion or uncertainty is connected with more than one of the "Sacred Conversations".
The two young masters were likewise recognized as the two leaders of their new school of Arte moderna, that is of painting made more flexible, freed from symmetry and the remnants of hieratic conventions still to be found in the works of Giovanni Bellini.
In 1507–1508 Giorgione was commissioned by the state to execute frescoes on the re-erected Fondaco de Tedeschi. Titian and Morto da Feltre worked along with him, and some fragments of Titian's paintings remain. Some of their work is known to us in part through the engraving of Fontana.
An idea of Titian's talent in fresco may be gained from those he painted, in 1511, at Padua in the Carmelite church and in the Scuola del Santo, some of which have been preserved, among them the "Meeting at the Golden Gate", and three scenes from the life of St. Anthony of Padua, the "Murder of a Young Woman by Her Husband", "A Child Testifying to Its Mother's Innocence", and "The Saint Healing the Young Man with a Broken Limb."
Among the religious paintings of this period may be mentioned that of Antwerp, "The Doge Pesaro presented to St. Peter by Alexander VI" (1508), and the beautiful "St. Mark surrounded by Sts. Cosmas and Damian, Sebastian and Rocco" (Venice, S. Maria della Salute, c. 1511).
Already the young master was in possession of his type of Virgins with powerful shoulders and somewhat rounded countenances, and in particular he had elaborated an extremely refined type of Christ, the most beautiful example of which is the wonderful Christ of "The Tribute Money", at Dresden, a face whose delicacy, spirituality, and moral charm have never been surpassed by any other School. From the same period seems to date the "Triumph of Faith", a subject borrowed from Savonarola's famous treatise, "The Triumph of the Cross", and treated with a magnificent fire in the spirit of Mantegna's cartoons and Dürer's prints of the "Triumph of Maximilian" (cf. Male, L'art réligieux en France à la fin du moyen âge, 1908, 296 sqq.).
But what may be called the most enduring works of Titian's youth are the secular and indeterminately allegorical ones. An example is the charming picture of the "Three Ages", in the Ellesmere Gallery; such especially is the masterpiece in the Cassino Borghese, "Profane and Sacred Love", whose meaning has never been successfully penetrated.
From Padua Titian in 1512 returned to Venice; and in 1513 he obtained a broker's patent in the Fondaco de Tedeschi (state-warehouse for the German merchants), termed La Sanseria or Senseria (a privilege much coveted by rising or risen artists), and became superintendent of the government works, being especially charged to complete the paintings left unfinished by Giovanni Bellini in the hall of the great council in the ducal palace. He set up an atelier on the Grand Canal at S. Samuele, the precise site being now unknown. It was not until 1516, upon the death of Bellini, that he came into actual enjoyment of his patent. At the same date an arrangement for painting was entered into with Titian alone, to the exclusion of other artists who had heretofore been associated with him. The patent yielded him a good annuity of 20 crowns and exempted him from certain taxes he being bound in return to paint likenesses of the successive doges of his time at the fixed price of eight crowns each. The actual number which he executed was five.
Giorgione died in 1511 and the aged Bellini in 1515, leaving Titian after the production of such masterpieces without a rival in the Venetian School. For sixty years he was to be the absolute and undisputed head, the official master, and as it were the painter laureate of the Republic Serenissime. As early as 1516 he succeeded his old master Bellini as the pensioner of the Senate.
During this period (1516–30) which may be called the period of his bloom and maturity, the artist freed himself from the traditions of his youth, undertook a class of more complex subjects and for the first time attempted the monumental style.
In 1518 he produced, for the high altar of the church of the Frari, one of his most world-renowned masterpieces, the Assumption of the Madonna, now in the Venetian Academy. It excited a vast sensation, being indeed the most extraordinary piece of colourist execution on a great scale which Italy had yet seen. The signoria took note of the facts and did not fail to observe that Titian was neglecting his work in the hall of the great council.
The theme 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 Niccolo (1523, at the Vatican), each time attaining to a higher and more perfect conception, finally reaching an unsurpassable formula in the Pesaro retable, (1526), in the Church of the Frari at Venice. This perhaps is his most perfect and most studied work, whose patiently developed plan is set forth with supreme display of order and freedom, of 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 architectural framework.
Vecelli 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 (a work of which there are numerous replicas), purchasers became extremely urgent for his productions.
To this period belongs a still more extraordinary work, "The Death of St. Peter of Verona" (1530), formerly in the Dominican Church of San Zanipolo, and destroyed by an Austrian shell in 1867. There now exist only copies of this sublime picture (there is an excellent one at Paris in the Ecole des Beaux Arts). The association of the landscape with a scene of murder—a rapidly brutal scene of slaying, a cry rising above the old oak-trees, a Dominican escaping the ambush, and over all the shudder and stir of the dark branches—this is all, but never perhaps has tragedy more swift, startling, and pathetic been depicted even by Tintoretto or Delacroix.
The artist continued simultaneously his series of small Madonnas which he treated more and more amid beautiful landscapes in the manner of genre pictures or poetic pastorals, the "Virgin with the Rabbit" in the Louvre being the finished type of these pictures. Another marvelous work of the same period, also in the Louvre, is the "Entombment", surpassing all that has been done on the same subject. This was likewise the period of the exquisite mythological scenes, such as the famous "Bacchanals" of Madrid, and the "Bacchus and Ariadne" of 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 of perfect mastery when the artist composed the half-length figures and busts of young women, such as "Flora" of the Uffizi, or "The Young Woman at Her Toilet" in the Louvre (also called, without reason, "Laura de Dianti" or "The Mistress of Titian"), and which will always remain the ideal image of harmonious beauty and the grace of life at one of the periods which best knew the happiness of existence.
In 1525, after some irregular living and a consequent fever, he married a lady of whom only the Christian name, Cecilia, has come down to us; he hereby legitimized their first child, Pornponio, and two (or perhaps three) others followed. Towards 1526 he became acquainted, and soon exceedingly intimate, with Pietro Aretino, the literary bravo, of influence and audacity hitherto unexampled, who figures so strangely in the chronicles of the time. Titian sent a portrait of him to Gonzaga, duke of Mantua. A great affliction befell him in August 1530 in the death of his wife. He then, with his three children one of them being the infant Lavinia, whose birth had been fatal to the mother removed to a new home and got his sister Orsa to come from Cadore and take charge of the household. The mansion, difficult now to find, is in the Bin Grande, then a fashionable suburb, being in the extreme end of Venice, on the sea, with beautiful gardens and a look-out towards Murano.
During the next period (1530-50), as was foreshadowed by his "Martyrdom of St. Peter", Titian devoted himself more and more to the dramatic style. From this time date his historical scenes, of which unhappily it is difficult to judge, the most characteristic having been much injured or destroyed; thus, the "Battle of Cadore", the artist's greatest effort to master movement and to express even tumult, his most violent attempt to go out of himself and achieve the heroic, wherein he rivals the "War of Pisa", "The Battle of Anghiari", and the "Battle of Constantine", perished in 1577, the year of Titian's death, in the fire which destroyed all the old pictures adorning the Doge's Palace. There is extant only a poor, incomplete copy at the Uffizi, and a mediocre engraving by Fontana. In like manner the "Speech of the Marquis del Vasto" (Madrid, 1541) was partly destroyed by fire. But this portion of the master's work is adequately represented by the "Presentation of the Blessed Virgin" (Venice, 1539), one of his most popular canvasses, and by the great Ecce Homo (Vienna, 1541), one of the most pathetic and life-like of masterpieces.
The School of Bologna and Rubens (Miracles of St. Benedict, St. Francis, etc.) many times borrowed the distinguished and magisterial mise-en-scène, the grand and stirring effect, and these horses, soldiers, lictors, these powerful stirrings of crowds at the foot of a stairway, while over all are the light of torches and the flapping of banners against the sky, have been often repeated.
Less successful were the pendentives of the cupola at Sta. Maria della Salute ("Death of Abel", "Sacrifice of Abraham", "David and Goliath"). These violent scenes viewed in perspective from below -- like the famous pendentives of the Sistine Chapel -- 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, the time of his visit to Rome, the artist began his series of reclining Venuses (the "Venus" of the Uffizi, "Venus and Love" at the same museum, "Venus and the Organ-Player", Madrid), in which must be recognized the effect or the direct reflection of the impression produced on the master by contact with ancient sculpture. Giorgione had already dealt with the subject in the splendid Dresden picture, but here a purple drapery substituted for its background of verdure was sufficient to change by its harmonious coloring the whole meaning of the scene.
Furthermore Titian had from the beginning of his career shown himself to be an incomparable portrait-painter, in works like "La Bella" (Eleanora de Gonzaga, Duchess of Urbino, at the Pitti Palace). It is impossible to enumerate, even briefly, Titian's splendid gallery of portraits; princes, or doges, cardinals or monks, 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 comparable only to the greatest, a Rembrandt or a Velásquez, with the interior life of the former, and the clearness, certainty, and obviousness of the latter. The last-named qualities are sufficiently manifested in the Paul III of Naples, or the sketch of the same pope and his two nephews, the "Aretino" of the Pitti Palace, the "Eleanora of Portugal" (Madrid), and the series of Charles Fifths of the same museum, the "Charles V with a Greyhound" (1533), and especially the "Charles V at Mühlenberg" (1548), an equestrian picture which as a symphony of purples is perhaps the ne plus ultra of the art of painting.
In 1532, after painting in Bologna a portrait of the emperor Charles V, he was created a count palatine and knight of the Golden Spur. His children were also made nobles of the empire, which for a painter was a highly exceptional honor.
The Venetian government, dissatisfied at Titian's neglect of the work for the ducal palace, ordered him in 1538 to refund the money which he had received for time unemployed; and Pordenone, his formidable rival of recent years, was installed in his place. At the end of a year, however, Pordenone died; and Titian, who had meanwhile applied himself diligently to painting in the hall the battle of Cadore, was reinstated. This great picture, which was burned with several others in 1577?, represented in life-size the moment at which the Venetian captain, D'Alviano, fronted the enemy, with horses and men crashing down into the stream. Fontanas engraving, and a sketch by Titian himself in the gallery of the Uffizi in Florence, record the energetic composition.
As a matter of professional and worldly success, his position from about this time may be regarded as higher than that of any other painter known. to history, except 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 on the treasury of Milan.
Another source of profit for he was always sufficiently keen after money was a contract, obtained in 1542, for supplying grain to Cadore, which he visited with regularity almost every year, and where he was both generous and influential.
Titian had a favorite villa on the neighboring Manza Hill, 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 (see R. F. Heaths Life of Titian, p. 5).
A visit was paid to Rome in 1546, when he obtained the freedom of the city, his immediate predecessor in that honour having been Michelangelo in 1537. He could at the same time have succeeded the painter Fra Sebastiano in his lucrative office of the piombo, and he made no scruple of becoming a friar for the purpose; but this 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 proved a potent auxiliary in the suit of the prince for the hand of Queen Mary.
During the last twenty-five years of his life (1550-76) the artist, more and more absorbed in his work as a portrait-painter and also more self-critical, an insatiable perfectionist, finished only a few great works.
Some of his pictures he kept for ten years in his studio, never wearying of returning to them and retouching them, constantly adding new expressions at once more refined, concise, and subtle.
For each of the problems which he successively undertook he furnished a new and more perfect formula. He never again equaled the emotion and tragedy of the Crowning with Thorns (Louvre), in the expression of the mysterious and the divine he never equaled the poetry of the "Pilgrims of Emmaus", while in superb and heroic brilliancy he never again executed anything more grand than "The Doge Grimani adoring Faith" (Venice, Doge's Palace), or the "Trinity", of Madrid.
On the other hand from the standpoint of flesh tints, his most moving pictures are those of his old age, the "Dan" of Naples and of Madrid, the "Antiope" of the Louvre, the "Rape of Europa" (Boston, Gardner collection), etc. He even attempted problems of chiaroscuro in fantastic night effects ("Martyrdom of St. Laurence", Church of the Jesuits, Venice; "St. Jerome", Louvre). In the domain of the real he always remained equally strong, sure, and master of himself; his portraits of Philip II (Madrid), those of his daughter, Lavinia, and those of himself are numbered among his masterpieces.
Vecelli had affianced his daughter Lavinia, the beautiful girl whom he loved deeply and painted various times, to Cornelio Sarcinelli of Serravalle; she had succeeded her aunt Orsa, now deceased, as the manager of the household, which, with the lordly income that Titian made by this time, was placed on a corresponding footing. The marriage took place in 1554. She died in childbirth in 1560.
He was at the Council of Trent towards 1555, of which his admirable picture or finished sketch in the Louvre bears record.
Titian's friend Aretino died suddenly in 1556, and another close intimate, the sculptor and architect Jacopo Sansovino, in 1570.
In September 1565 Titian went to Cadore and designed the decorations for the church at Pieve, partly executed by his pupils. One of these is a Transfiguration, another an Annunciation (now in S. Salvatore, Venice), inscribed Titianus fecit, by way of protest (it is said) against the disparagement of some persons who cavilled at the veteran's failing handicraft.
He continued to accept commissions to the last. He had selected as the place for his burial the chapel of the Crucifix in the church of the Fran; and, in return for a grave, he offered the Franciscans a picture of the Pietà, representing himself and his son Orazio before the Saviour, another figure in the composition being a sibyl. This work he nearly finished; but some differences arose regarding it, and he then settled to be interred in his native Pieve.
Titian was ninety-nine years of age (more or less) when the plague, which was then raging in Venice, seized him, and carried him off on the 27th of August 1576. He was the only victim of that plague outbreak to be given a church burial and was interred in the Frari (Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari), as at first intended, and his Pietà was finished by Palma Giovane . He lies near his own famous painting, the Madonna di Ca' Pesaro. No memorial marked his grave, until by Austrian command Canova executed the monument so well known to sightseers.
Immediately after Titian's own death, his son and pictorial assistant Orazio died, of the same epidemic. His sumptuous mansion was plundered during the plague by thieves.
Ever since Titian rose into celebrity the general verdict has been that he is the greatest of painters, considered technically. In the first place neither the method of fresco painting nor work of the colossal scale to which fresco painting ministers is here in question.
Titian's province is that of oil painting, and of painting on a scale which, though often large and grand, is not colossal either in dimension or in inspiration. Titian may properly be regarded as the greatest manipulator of paint in relation to colour, tone, luminosity, richness, texture, surface and harmony, and with a view to-the production of a pictorial whole conveying to the eye a true, dignified and beautiful impression of its general subject matter and of the objects of sense which form its constituent parts. In this sense Titian has never been deposed from his sovereignty in painting, nor can one forecast the time in which he will be deposed. For the complex of qualities which we sum up in the words colour, handling and general force and harmony of effect, he stands unmatched, although in particular items of forcible or impressive execution-not to speak of creative invention-some painters, one in one respect and another in another, may indisputably be preferred to him.
He carried to its acme that great colourist conception of the Venetian school of which the first masterpieces are due to the two Bellini, to Canpaccio, and, with more fully developed suavity of manner, to Giorgione. Pre-eminent inventive power or sublimity of intellect he never evinced. Even in energy of action and more especially in majesty or affluence of composition the palm is not his; it is (so far as concerns the Venetian school) assignable to Tintoretto.
Titian is a painter who by wondrous magic of genius and of art satisfies the eye, and through the eye the feelings, sometimes the mind.
Titian's pictures abound with memories of his home country and of the region which led from the hill-summits of Cadore to the queen-city of the Adriatic. He was almost the first painter to exhibit an appreciation of mountains, mainly those of a turreted type, exemplified in the Dolomites. Indeed he gave to landscape generally a new and original vitality, expressing the quality of the objects of nature and their control over the sentiments and imagination with a force that had never before been approached. The earliest Italian picture expressly designated as landscape was one which Vecelli sent in 1552 to Philip II.
His productive faculty was immense, even when we allow for the abnormal length of his professional career. In Italy, England and elsewhere more than a thousand pictures figure as Titian's; of these about 250 may be regarded as dubious or spurious. There are, for instance, 6 pictures in the National Gallery, London, 18 in the Louvre, 16 in the Pitti, 18 in the Uffizi, 7 in the Naples Museum, 8 in the Venetian Academy (besides the series in the private meeting-hall) and 41 in the Madrid Museum. In the National Gallery 3 other works used to be assigned to Titian, but are now regarded rather as examples of his school.
Several other artists of the Vecelli family followed in the wake of Titian. Francesco Vecelli, his elder brother, was introduced to painting by Titian (it is said at the age of twelve, but chronology will hardly admit of this), and painted in the church of S. Vito in Cadore a picture of the titular saint armed. This was a noteworthy performance, of which Titian (the usual story) became jealous; so Francesco was diverted from painting to soldiering, and afterwards to mercantile life.
Marco Vecelli, called Marco di Tiziano, Titian's nephew, born in 1545, was constantly with the master in his old age, and, learned his methods of work. He has left some able productions in the ducal palace, the Meeting of Charles V. and Clement VII. in 1529 ; in S. Giacomo di Rialto, an Annunciation ; in SS. Giovani e Paolo, Christ Fulminant. A son of Marco, named Tiziano (or Tizianello), painted early in the 17th century.
From a different branch of the family came Fabrizio di Ettore, a painter who died in 1580. His brother Cesare, who also left some pictures, is well known by his book of engraved costumes, Abiti antichi e moderni. Tommaso Vecelli, also a painter, died in 1620. There was another relative, Girolamo Dante, who, being a scholar and assistant of Titian, was called Girolamo di Tiziano. Various pictures of his were touched up by the master, and are difficult to distinguish from originals.
Apart from members of his family, the scholars of Titian were not numerous; Paris Bordone and Bonifazio were the two of superior excellence. El Greco (or Domenico Theotocopuli) was employed by the master to engrave from his works. It is said that Titian himself engraved on copper and on wood, but this may well be questioned.