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Paperback review: Titian - His Life and the Golden Age of Venice, By Sheila Hale


Can we understand Titian without also understanding the city that was his home, how it functioned and who was important to it? Hale makes a splendid case here for the artist and his context intertwined, displaying a backdrop every bit as flashy and colourful as his most celebrated paintings.

Titian worked through and beyond the corrupt Borgia popes in his homeland, and murderous English kings abroad, surviving scourges and routs, plagues and earthquakes: what kind of artist did it make him?

Pretty savvy, is the answer. Like Turner, Titian is the antithesis of the penniless artist cliché, successful as he was all his life, well known, and feted by the rich. Hale suggests that the myth of his beginnings as an “untutored child artist” may not quite be true, but timing is everything, and Titian had “arrived in a Venice that was enjoying what has been called its first Renaissance”.

Not only did he have an extraordinary talent, he was able to work with masters such as Giorgione, who helped hone his style at an early age. Patrons such as Lucrezia Borgia’s husband Alfonso made him rich. Hale is especially good on the patronage system, showing how crucial it was to Italian society.

Titian was also a good businessman, and while slow, was still better at deadlines than, for example, Michelangelo. This also flies in the face of the hapless artist cliché, unable to manage money. He was, like his friend and sometime business manager Aretino, a “self-made man”. Did this also make him controlling and cold, damaging his sons, especially the eldest, whom he pushed towards the Church? After his first wife Cecilia died when her children were small, he seems to have remarried, but we know very little about the woman who took Cecilia’s place.

His admiration of the female body is clear in his work which both glorifies and naturalises it, but he was hard-headed enough to know that “a sexy nude” might remind a benefactor of a night of passion and work in his favour. Hale’s clear-eyed approach to her subject serves her particularly well in these instances, which illuminate both the man and his art.