HarperPress, £30

Book of the Week: Titian: His Life, by Sheila Hale

A great artist still hides in the shadows, but this portrait of his city and his age shines

By about the 80th page, you begin to wonder whether this isn't the biographical equivalent of Where's Wally? For amid the cast of characters fleshing out the first four chapters of Sheila Hale's weighty, reverential account of the life and times of Titian, the great Venetian artist has been given neither a speaking part nor barely a spear-carrying – or paintbrush-wielding – one. The artist appears as the shadowy companion to the thing that really seems to fascinate this biographer, Venice itself.

Hale is the author of an acclaimed travel guide to Venice, and it shows. Here the depth of her research is both impressive and astonishing. But though the research is indeed enriched by vivid anecdotes and gossipy snippets of the lives of others – among whom we find Titian's close friend, the satirist and literary pornographer Pietro Aretino – by the time we get to a detailed breakdown of the administration of the state, we might be forgiven for thinking that Hale is running somewhat off course.

Still, it all makes for compelling reading. Like the enchanted tourist, we delight in veering off through narrow, crepuscular alleyways and finding ourselves diverted in unexpected labyrinths, particularly when we lose ourselves to the bawdy pageantry of the city. And just as we might get lost in the city's physical geography, it's easy to lose oneself in this absorbing portrait of La Serenissima. Hale quotes Edward Said to remind us that, when recounting a life's work, paramount is its relationship to place, framed by historical context: "the aesthetic work, for all its irreducible individuality, is nevertheless a part – or, paradoxically, not a part – of the era in which it was produced and appeared."

As with any artist of genius, Titian's style – his luminous, meticulously rendered early works as much as the loosely painted, almost violently expressive late masterpieces – owes as much to influence, training and local sensibility as it does to any unique greatness. Any discussion of the art of the Italian High Renaissance involves an understanding of the essential difference between Venetian and Florentine painting. Hale is good here, too. The primacy of disegno (both drawing and design) in the Florentine masters – Michelangelo, Leonardo and Raphael being the godly triumvirate – is set against the primacy of Venetian colorito (colouring), of which Titian is the unsurpassed master.

This division is memorably expressed by Vasari, the great chronicler of artists' lives. He claimed Michelangelo, upon seeing a painting by Titian, had said that it was a pity that the younger artist had learned to paint in Venice where artists were not taught to draw. Vasari was himself a native Tuscan, so was sympathetic to such sentiments. The 16th-century biographer recounts a story of Tintoretto, a fellow-Venetian. Tintoretto had, apparently, posted a note in his studio as a reminder to marry "the disegno of Michelangelo and the colorito of Titian".

Titian had arrived in Venice from Pieve di Cadore a mountainous region some 110 kilometres north, aged just 10 or 12. His precise birth date is unknown but now accepted as being between 1488 and 1490. Thereafter he rarely left the city, except for visits home. He was apprenticed to Sebastiano Zucatto, a minor painter whom Titian soon outgrew. Zucatto placed the boy in the studio of Gentile Bellini, though a restless Titian took himself off to the workshop of the elderly Giovanni, brother to Gentile and far the greater artist. Under his tutelage Titian thrived, and met fellow-pupil and soon-to-be rival, Giorgione.

Giorgione died during the plague of 1510, aged around 30, but up to then the two artists' work was so stylistically similar that attribution continues to be problematic. After Giorgione's death, however, Titian was to adopt an earthy sensuality that surpassed all before him. It was a decisive break from the dreamy romanticism practised by his former rival.

Comparing Titian's "Venus of Urbino" (1538) with Giorgione's "Sleeping Venus", on which it's based, one is struck by its sheer, naked eroticism. Here is a Venus stripped of all mythological trappings – indeed, she looks more like a courtesan. As for her prized flesh, no one could paint youthful, luminous flesh as Titian did. Against the paleness of her body her face is flushed pink, her mouth a bright scarlet. Venus, it seems, has just had sex (the two maids look as if they're preparing to dress her). Titian was the first artist to employ a live female model, and so perhaps she had.

With the death of Giorgione, followed by the death of his tutor in 1516, Titian soon rose to pre-eminence as the artist of the Republic – the only painter to have painted a pope (Paul III), an emperor (Charles V) and a king (Philip II of Spain). But so little is actually known of his life, apart from the fact that he lived a very long one. His death, in 1576, was originally recorded at aged 106; we now believe it to be a more realistic 86. So any biography would struggle to put flesh on such dry bones. We don't even know the name of Titian's second wife, the mother of a daughter who predeceased him, though we do know he had difficulties with his two sons. One of them he packed off to train for the priesthood, against the son's wishes; the other became an assistant in his studio and a minor painter.

However, paper trails strongly suggest that Titian didn't embody the Renaissance ideal of the artistic genius, for what emerges is a hard-headed businessman, forever chasing money and flattering his social betters. Apart from contemporary accounts, which praise his gentlemanly manners, the last biography was in 1877. Of the work, Hale can add very little, except to heap devotional praise. She is best when describing the hustle and bustle of the city, its riches and its febrile sexual atmosphere (nuns with dildos fashioned from Murano glass), though she's very good on how the paintings came into being, and the adjustments made to comply with sitters' wishes. What finally emerges is an unsurprisingly thin portrait of the artist, but a wonderful portrait of La Serenissima.

Order at a discount from the Independent Online Shop

Arts and Entertainment
Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard in the TV adaptation of 'Fargo'

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson stars in Hercules

Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'

Arts and Entertainment
<p>Troubled actor Robert Downey Jr cements his comeback from drug problems by bagging the lead role in Iron Man. Two further films follow</p>

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Tycoons' text: Warren Buffett and Bill Gates both cite John Brookes' 'Business Adventures' as their favourite book

Arts and Entertainment
Panic! In The Disco's Brendon Urie performs on stage

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Radio 4's Today programme host Evan Davis has been announced as the new face of Newsnight

Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams performing on the Main Stage at the Wireless Festival in Finsbury Park, north London

Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Mathison returns to the field in the fourth season of Showtime's Homeland

Arts and Entertainment
Crowds soak up the atmosphere at Latitude Festival

Arts and Entertainment
Meyne Wyatt and Caren Pistorus arrive for the AACTA Aawrds in Sydney, Australia

Arts and Entertainment
Rick Astley's original music video for 'Never Gonna Give You Up' has been removed from YouTube

Arts and Entertainment
Quentin Blake's 'Artists on the beach'

Artists unveils new exhibition inspired by Hastings beach

Arts and Entertainment
MusicFans were left disappointed after technical issues
Arts and Entertainment
'Girl with a Pearl Earring' by Johannes Vermeer, c. 1665
artWhat is it about the period that so enthrals novelists?
Arts and Entertainment
Into the woods: The Merry Wives of Windsor at Petersfield
theatreOpen-air productions are the cue for better box-office receipts, new audiences, more interesting artistic challenges – and a picnic
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

    Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

    The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

    Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

    Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
    German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

    Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

    Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
    BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

    BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

    The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
    Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

    Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

    Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
    How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

    Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

    Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
    Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

    Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

    Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
    10 best reed diffusers

    Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

    Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

    Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

    There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
    Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

    Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

    It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little
    Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

    Screwing your way to the top?

    Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
    Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

    Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

    Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

    The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

    Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
    US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

    Meet the US Army's shooting star

    Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform