Tiziano Vecelli or Vecellio was an Italian painter during the Renaissance, considered the most important member of the 16th-century Venetian school. He was born in Pieve di Cadore, near Belluno, (then in the Republic of Venice). During his lifetime he was often called da Cadore, ‘from Cadore’, taken from his native region.
Recognized by his contemporaries as “The Sun Amidst Small Stars” (recalling the final line of Dante’s Paradiso), Titian was one of the most versatile of Italian painters, equally adept with portraits, landscape backgrounds, and mythological and religious subjects. His painting methods, particularly in the application and use of colour, exercised a profound influence not only on painters of the late Italian Renaissance, but on future generations of Western art.
His career was successful from the start, and he became sought after by patrons, initially from Venice and its possessions, then joined by the north Italian princes, and finally the Habsburgs and papacy. Along with Giorgione, he is considered a founder of the Venetian School of Italian Renaissance painting.
During the course of his long life, Titian’s artistic manner changed drastically, but he retained a lifelong interest in colour. Although his mature works may not contain the vivid, luminous tints of his early pieces, their loose brushwork and subtlety of tone were without precedent in the history of Western painting.
The exact time or date of Titian’s birth is uncertain. When he was an old man he claimed in a letter to Philip II, King of Spain, to have been born in 1474, but this seems most unlikely. Other writers contemporary to his old age give figures that would equate to birthdates between 1473 and after 1482. Most modern scholars believe a date between 1488 and 1490 is more likely, though his age at death being 99 had been accepted into the 20th century.
He was the son of Gregorio Vecellio and his wife Lucia, of whom little is known. Gregorio was superintendent of the castle of Pieve di Cadore and managed local mines for their owners. Gregorio was also a distinguished councilor and soldier. Many relatives, including Titian’s grandfather, were notaries, and the family were well-established in the area, which was ruled by Venice.
At the age of about ten to twelve he and his brother Francesco (who perhaps followed later) were sent to an uncle in Venice to find an apprenticeship with a painter. The minor painter Sebastian Zuccato, whose sons became well-known mosaicists, and who may have been a family friend, arranged for the brothers to enter the studio of the elderly Gentile Bellini, from which they later transferred to that of his brother Giovanni Bellini. At that time the Bellinis, especially Giovanni, were the leading artists in the city. There Titian 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. Francesco Vecellio, Titian’s older brother, later became a painter of some note in Venice.
A fresco of Hercules on the Morosini Palace is said to have been one of Titian’s earliest works. Others were the Bellini-esque so-called Gypsy Madonna in Vienna, and the Visitation of Mary and Elizabeth (from the convent of S. Andrea), now in the Accademia, Venice.
A Man with a Quilted Sleeve is an early portrait, painted around 1509 and described by Giorgio Vasari in 1568. Scholars long believed it depicted Ludovico Ariosto, but now think it is of Gerolamo Barbarigo. Rembrandt borrowed the composition for his self-portraits.
Titian joined Giorgione as an assistant, but many contemporary critics already found his work more impressive—for example in exterior frescoes (now almost totally destroyed) that they did for the Fondaco dei Tedeschi (state-warehouse for the German merchants). Their relationship evidently contained a significant element of rivalry. Distinguishing between their work at this period remains a subject of scholarly controversy. A substantial number of attributions have moved from Giorgione to Titian in the 20th century, with little traffic the other way. One of the earliest known Titian works, Christ Carrying the Cross in the Scuola Grande di San Rocco, depicting the Ecce Homo scene, was long regarded as by Giorgione.
The two young masters were likewise recognized as the leaders of their new school of arte moderna, which is characterized by paintings made more flexible, freed from symmetry and the remnants of hieratic conventions still found in the works of Giovanni Bellini.
In 1507–1508 Giorgione was commissioned by the state to create frescoes on the re-erected Fondaco dei Tedeschi. Titian and Morto da Feltre worked along with him, and some fragments of paintings remain, probably by Giorgione. Some of their work is known, in part, through the engravings of Fontana. After Giorgione’s early death in 1510, Titian continued to paint Giorgionesque subjects for some time, though his style developed its own features, including bold and expressive brushwork.
Titian’s talent in fresco is shown in 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 (Miracoli di sant’Antonio) from the life of St. Anthony of Padua, The Miracle of the Jealous Husband, which depicts 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.
In 1512 Titian returned to Venice from Padua; in 1513 he obtained a broker’s patent, termed La Sanseria or Senseria (a privilege much coveted by rising or risen artists), in the Fondaco dei Tedeschi. He became superintendent of the government works, especially charged with completing 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, after the death of Giovanni Bellini, that he came into actual enjoyment of his patent. At the same time he entered an exclusive arrangement for painting. The patent yielded him a good annuity of 20 crowns and exempted him from certain taxes. In return he was bound to paint likenesses of the successive Doges of his time at the fixed price of eight crowns each. The actual number he painted was five.
During the last twenty-six years of his life (1550–1576), Titian worked mainly for Philip II and as a portrait-painter. He became more self-critical, an insatiable perfectionist, keeping some pictures in his studio for ten years—returning to them and retouching them, constantly adding new expressions at once more refined, concise, and subtle. He also finished many copies that his pupils made of his earlier works. This caused problems of attribution and priority among versions of his works—which were also widely copied and faked outside his studio during his lifetime and afterwards.
For Philip II, he painted a series of large mythological paintings known as the “poesie”, mostly from Ovid, which scholars regard as among his greatest works. Thanks to the prudishness of Philip’s successors, these were later mostly given as gifts, and only two remain in the Prado. Titian was producing religious works for Philip at the same time, some of which—the ones inside Ribeira Palace—are known to have been destroyed during the 1755 Lisbon Earthquake. The “poesie” series contained the following works:
- Danaë, sent to Philip in 1553, now Wellington Collection, with earlier and later versions
- Venus and Adonis, of which the earliest surviving version, delivered in 1554, is in the Prado, but several versions exist
- Perseus and Andromeda (Wallace Collection, now damaged)
- Diana and Actaeon, owned jointly by London’s National Gallery and the National Gallery of Scotland in Edinburgh
- Diana and Callisto, were dispatched in 1559, owned jointly by London’s National Gallery and the National Gallery of Scotland in Edinburgh
- The Rape of Europa (Boston, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum), delivered in 1562
- The Death of Actaeon, begun in 1559 but worked on for many years and never completed or delivered