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.

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