He may not have a Ninja Turtle named after him, but Tiziano Vecellio of Venice — Titian, to English speakers — has a claim to being the most enduringly influential painter of the Renaissance, even more than his Roman contemporaries Michelangelo and Raphael. Something about him drives his fans to excess. Peter Paul Rubens painted nearly two-dozen copies of Titian’s work; Anthony van Dyck bought 19 Titians for his own collection. Velazquez and Rembrandt worshipped him. Oscar Wilde called Titian’s Assumption of the Virgin “certainly the best picture in Italy.” And just a few years ago, then-British Prime Minister Gordon Brown set off a bizarre media uproar after he praised Titian’s late work and his political opponents vandalized the painter’s Wikipedia entry.
Titian’s paintings have been the subject of countless exhibitions and art historical studies, but Sheila Hale’s new biography is the first full-length life of the Venetian master since 1877. And it doesn’t take long to see why. Although he lived an uncommonly long life, into his mid 80s, it wasn’t a very exciting one. He almost never left Venice, where he had no real rivals for artistic supremacy; Tintoretto and Veronese were much younger. His working practice remains unclear, since, as Hale writes, “16th-century writers on art thought it inappropriate to describe the physical act of painting.” He was faithful to his first wife, and although he remarried after her death, we don’t even know the name of his second spouse. His letters concern mostly dry matters of accounting — “I do not see how I can hope ever to obtain those moneys kindly assigned to me,” that sort of thing — and many of those were actually written by secretaries.
Titian’s canvases can be sweeping, like The Rape of Europa, or hair-raising, like his late masterpiece The Flaying of Marsyas. His life, however, was the opposite; he was business-minded, stern and deeply identified with the establishment. And at over 800 pages, this biography groans under the weight of Hale’s research. Even specialists may not really care just how many ducats Titian received for this or that portrait, or how he got his cousin appointed as a notary at court.
The book perks up when Titian fades into the background and Hale turns her attention to his friends and clients. We follow Philip II, the enterprising Spanish king, for whom Titian paints his disturbingly sexy Danae; Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor who died gazing at Titian’s Adoration of the Trinity; Ippolito de Medici, “a swaggering, spoiled, restless young hell-raiser” who, despite his sexual appetite, becomes a cardinal in Rome; and a whole collection of dukes and doges.
Best of all is her study of Pietro Aretino, one of Titian’s best friends, an “avaricious, unscrupulous and highly sexed powerbroker” who is most famous today for his pornographic sonnets. (Titian painted three portraits of him, one of which hangs at the Frick Collection in New York.) A much more natural subject for a biography than Titian, Aretino recurs in this book as the consummate Renaissance operator, hustling from the Vatican — where he kisses the feet of Pope Julius III — to the brothels of the Grand Canal. In one letter he praises a famous courtesan for “putting a mask of decency on the face of lust.” Not long after that, she was in Titian’s studio, where she became the model for his Venus of Urbino, now at the Uffizi in Florence.
Venice in the 16th century was a rollicking boomtown: Intellectually and religiously progressive, it served as a mixing point for immigrants from east and west and was the capital of an expanding empire. A few decades later, Venice’s glory days were gone. Hale does an admirable job recapturing the sights and smells of the Most Serene Republic, its traders and patricians, and of showing how the city nurtured one of the greatest painters of Western art history. But the subject of her biography remains beyond her grasp, which is just as well: As she would surely acknowledge, the brilliance of Titian rests not on his correspondence or bank ledgers but on his paintings.