Pinky Says: Titian
What marks the late works of great High Renaissance artists? That is an easy question to answer. It is that they can depict abject human suffering better than young artists. And that stands to reason because with age there is generally pain and anguish. About suffering they were never wrong. Titian was 88 when he chose his final mythological subject, the flaying of Marsyas, the satyr killed for challenging with his pan pipes the lyre of the god Apollo. In a harrowing picture of slow torture on an airy summer night, the faun is strung up like a butchered animal, his hind legs strapped to a tree with gaudy pink bows and surrounded by persecutors and witnesses. It probably did not alleviate any pain that the picture was painted in plague ridden Venice, and it includes a depiction of King Midas with Titian’s own features and with a spaniel lapping up Marsyas’s blood. It is the twilight hour not only of Titian but also the twilight of Venice. This wealthy city gained its riches by being the last stop on the way to the Holy Land to seize it from the evil Muslims. Crusade after crusade had been outfitted for this conquest by the merchants of Venice, but now the last martyrs had completed their journey to free the land of non-Christians and the great painter of Venice chose this terrifying story. Perhaps he hoped to discover what lay beneath living flesh. His contemporaries said that he painted not with pigments but as though depicting real trembling skin The painting’s demonic creation suggests the terror of the wild satyr. Titian, on the other hand, knew well how to flatter his social superiors by this time and it was not with torture. Is it possible that he sensed the breaking of the mould of the High Renaissance as he looked into the future? Centuries in the future he would be often recognized as the ur-father of modern painting. But he was a painter of his time and this picture depicts him as the foolish, greedy Midas whose singular passion was the love of gold.
The last biography of Titian before the current one was published in 1877 and little has been discovered since that time. We see what little we can discern of him through his own paintings; physically he was a thin faced man with a white beard, dressed in black with a gold chain, very much a well established man of his time. His whole life seemed to have been predicated on his ability to produce what was expected of him by his patrons. But this man was radically expressive, vigorously creating himself, and we are looking at a kind of truth that few other painters have communicated. He used the sexual pecadillos of Ovid’s Metamorphosis to delight the senses of his patrons. Works like Diana and Actaeon show the gallant hunter stumble across Diana, nude, bathing at a ruined temple and in that instant his destiny is fixed. Diana’s eyes flash fury at this violation of her modesty; Actaeon raises his hand in shock, but there is pleasure in the glance he exchanges with a nymph. In the next painting the hunter becomes the hunted. Diana transforms Actaeon into a stag and he is torn to death by his own hounds. The painting is tonally rich and freely painted and mature. Titian lived so long and changed his style so remarkably that he almost demands exploration in the present. Sacred and Profane Love addresses the philosophic concept that was a principle of the Renaissance in that it defined the differences between the profane sexual and the sacred religious aspects of love. Almost 500 paintings were created by Titian in between this testimony to the difference between the sacred and the profane and the flaying of Marsyas.
Titian came to Venice to apprentice in the studio of Giovanni Bellini and then became an assistant to Georgioni where he adopted the master’s delicate naturalism. Both of his mentors died in the 1510s and thus Titian became the unrivaled preeminent painter to both church and state. One of his earliest commissions for the church was the Assumption. The Virgin spirals toward heaven above the astounded apostles and seems to pull the viewer up with her. Titian was able to create excitement and daring that reflected the dynamic qualities of Venice. Breaking every compositional rule of the High Renaissance he was able to unite the canvas and restore order with his use of color harmony and brilliant lighting effects. There is also daring in his work that reflects the erotic decadence of the city itself. Titian was the first artist to employ living female models and overt sexuality in his nude works. (Michelangelo’s Sistine ceiling provides male backs and shoulders for his female portraits.) Titian’s Sacred and Profane Love literally defined the Venetian era and its philosophic underpinnings and so the doges, kings, and popes responded by almost standing in line to have their portraits executed by him. His works had such lifelike vigor that they seemed to promise immortality to the sitters.
Yet Titian’s long career had other remarkable qualities. He lived through plagues, pestilence, and wars. The amazing thing about him was that he could change so completely from luscious nudes to austere portraits to terrifying stories of mutilation and back again. A recent biography suggests that Titian was involved in demonic elation and thought of himself as a suave gentleman who knew how to flatter his social superiors with these gross torturous works and perfectly refined representations of themselves and their families. What he leaves for his audience is a clean slate biographically; there is no detail of his life that can be discovered much less that might explain his ability to reflect his emotions in his works. We know that he was a grasping penny pinching man but could he know that he was breaking the mould of High Renaissance decorum? Michelangelo carries the image of tortured genius that provides the biographer with romantic material to relate. Titian rubbed shoulders with kings and popes but left no personal passion for us to integrate with his work. Applying paint with his fingers, layering color for atmospheric effect and employing a palette so warm you can almost feel its heat, he stood apart from the more controlled and design conscious Florentine artists. One of his final works is a portrait of himself in which he stares not at the viewer but to the distance. He is dressed in a simple but expensive black doublet, topped with a white linen collar. His gold chain reflects how high he has climbed from modest origins in the rural Veneto, but he disdains an audience. His gaze is set in a determined stare with none of the self doubts that fill other painters. He seems aware that death may come at any moment, but he is a man who is sure of himself and certainly not an easy man to know. The portrait renders a man who was a step ahead of both patrons and public, who made his art available to the highest bidder, sure of himself but most certainly difficult to know. But then the paintings speak for themselves without the intervention of a personal history of the painter. Today we are in an epoch dominated by contemporary art. But mind the works of Titian in which he conveys in paint the uncontrollable force of sexual passion, how it governs our lives and changes our fate, how it sings its lusty song.