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His contemporaries called him “the sun amidst small stars”, the princes’ painter, the people’s painter, the prince of painters. In the 1500s, Tiziano Vecellio, also known as Titian, was the undisputed master of the Venetian Renaissance. At times, he didn’t sign his works because no one else painted like he did – the canvases spoke for him, “This is a Titian!”
As the chosen portraitist of two emperors, a pope, and their families, Titian was one of the first and few who made a profitable living as an independent artist. Velázquez, Rubens, and Rembrandt, three of the most influential post-Renaissance painters, devotedly studied his style. Cézanne, who shaped the foundations of Modern Art, said that Titian’s paintings were like a page out of Shakespeare. Titian once dropped a brush in the presence of Charles V – the Emperor of Rome, the King of Spain, and ruler of the Hapsburg Netherlands – and Charles insisted on picking up the brush in deference.
For decades, Titian produced one glorious work after another.
Before he was thirty, Titian (c. 1488-1576) had tamed complex subjects and portrayed them on a scale that had rarely been seen before in Italy. For example, up to this time, the figures in altarpieces were often static and statue-like.
The figures in Titian’s altarpieces emit light, energy, power, and drama.
Altarpiece depicting Assumption of the Virgin, 1516-18; Basilica di Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, Venice
In a single composition that is over 22 feet (6.7 meters) tall, Titian compositionally unites the twisting, stretching, kneeling figures in the shadows of the earthly realm with Mary, Jesus’s mother, who ascends in a swirl of drapery, clouds, light, and angels to see the face of God. His welcoming open arms extend in radiance across the infinite heavens.
Brush-loads of rich, sensuous colors unite movement, space, time, and the timeless. For example, note how the red cloaks of the two disciples on earth form a pyramid with Mary’s and draw the eye up to the red robe of God.
Within a year, the mid-air feature and upward motion were emulated by Raphael. Titian’s international reputation was established; he had just turned thirty.
The Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian (detail from Averoldi Altarpiece), 1520–1522; the basilica church of Santi Nazaro e Celso in Brescia, Italy
Compressed, contorted, and (evoking Jesus’s crucifixion) tied to a column, Titian encapsulates the suffering of many in a single figure. The arrow piercing the saint’s chest symbolizes the bubonic plague, which was believed to spread through the air and kill victims without warning. The setting sun and darkening blue sky suggest death is near. Titian signed the work on the column under the figure’s right foot, declaring that his paintings triumphed over sculpture.
Poesie, as Titian called them, were paintings of sumptuous eroticism that he considered to be the visual equivalent of poetry: mythological figures in the throes of love, temptation, punishment, shameful discoveries, and hasty abductions set among opulent fabrics, reflecting water, and enchanted landscapes.
The Venus of Urbino, 1538; Uffizi, Florence
Soft, sensuous skin and sex
Portraits of Individuals
Conventional portraits depicted the sitter’s head and shoulders, and then, Titian advanced the art of portraiture. He experimented with new poses with half-length and full-length figures from the front, side, or looking over the shoulder. He added items to suggest the sitter’s interests or importance. This posed a problem – what to do with the sitter’s hands – and so, subjects began holding gloves, books, the hilt of a sword, or petted a dog.
Portraits of Charles V: left, from 1532 by Jakob Seisenegger (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna) and right: from 1533, by Titian (Prado Museum, Madrid)
Charles V asked Titian to paint a new version of a portrait of him that had just been completed by Austrian painter, Jakob Seisenegger. Using similar but warmer colors, Titian adjusted elements of the emperor’s clothing and dog so that they were less distracting from what was most important – Charles. By raising Charles’s eyes, lowering the horizon, and uncluttering the surrounding space, his figure becomes a commanding presence who fills the canvas with elegance and warmth. Charles was so delighted that he knighted Titian and proclaimed that Titian’s children were nobles of the Empire, an exceptional honor for a painter.
Portraits of Powerful Families
Pope Paul III and His Grandsons, 1545–46; Museo di Capodimonte, Naples
As Pope Paul III, Alessandro Farnese, who was placed in office by the Medici family, fathered five children, accumulated great wealth, appointed relatives to powerful positions, and summoned Titian to Rome to create a family portrait. The purpose of the portrait was to advocate for grandson Alessandro’s (the cardinal on the left who is grasping the papal seat) selection as the next Pope after Paul died. Titian disliked traveling and refused the offer. After Alessandro sweetened the deal by offering Titian’s son, who was a priest, a select post in place of a fee, Titian sent a message that he’d “paint Your Honor’s illustrious household down to the last cat”.
While working on the painting, the Pope’s alliance shifted away from Charles V, one of Titian’s most important clients, and Titian left the work unfinished. In the end, Titian’s son received an insultingly minor post and the canvas sat unframed in a Farnese cellar for over one-hundred years.
Portraits with Shakespearean-Like Drama
A friend of Titian’s wrote of “the sense of things in his brush”, that Titian could penetrate the character of the sitter by the folds in a shirt, the angle of the eyes, or how the figure occupied the space and presented themselves to the viewer. In the later part of his career, Titian moved away from the vivid, luminous colors of his early works to a looser style and painted some of his greatest portraits. These include two of Archbishop Filippo Archinto.
Left: mid-1550s, Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC; Right: 1558, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Cat. 204
Archinto is positioned in a pose favored by Titian for ecclesiastical dignitaries: seated in three-quarter view and turned at an angle toward the viewer. Having just paused from reading to look directly at us, his rich vestments, gleaming fingernails, jeweled rings, and facial expression create a presence that fills the canvas. The pose may suggest that he is offering the ring on his right hand, a symbol of his authority, for the faithful to kiss as an act of obedience.
Paths of lines move our eyes around the canvas. For example, follow the red line that begins at left from the sleeve of his mozetta, over his right arm, around the wrist, across his abdomen, around his left wrist, and down to the cover and ribbon ties on the book. The V-shape created by the opened book counters the inverted V-shape at the bottom of his mozetta that points up.
From there, the red edges on the front of his mozetta lead up through the buttoned fastenings that pull slightly across his chest to the center of his beard, mouth, nose, eyes, and brow.
The highlights of his surplice (a white, loose-fitting, long-sleeved tunic worn by the clergy) are painted with thin strokes over a dark ground (first layer of paint) and strokes of grey indicate shadows beside the folds. This effect creates the roundness of his arm, the pull of the garment at the seat, and a lap upon which book can rest.
About two years later, in 1558, Titian painted the second portrait.
The veil is a technical wonder. Beneath its surface, the image is blurred, therefore, the addition of veil was planned from the beginning. Light appears to pass through and highlight the horizontal beaded pattern within the folds of the translucent white cloth.
Late in his career, Titian’s brushwork changed, and, to some, the paintings looked unfinished. He rubbed the edges of brushstrokes with his fingers to blend colors and tried new methods of layering and applying paint. Edges became less precise, shapes opened. He manipulated the amount of oil in his paint and types of brushstrokes to interact with the weave of the canvas. By dragging a fairly dry brush across the canvas, a trail of broken, beaded color, like a gossamer film, was left in its wake. Called colpi (“stabs”), similar brushwork would become associated with the Impressionists three-hundred years later.
Below left, detail of Archinto’s surplice; right, Claude Monet, Marine near Étretat, 1883; Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1961-48-1
Scholars wondered for years about the presence of the veil; Archinto’s biography may offer an explanation. Filippo Archinto (1500-1558), who was born in Milan, was a Catholic theologian and lawyer. Impressed with his talents as a diplomat, Pope Paul III named him to a number high-ranking positions, including to preside in his name at the Council of Trent (a council that convened in Trent, Italy, in response to the Protestant Reformation; it issued definitions and condemnations of heresies and clarifications of doctrine). A zealous supporter of the Inquisition (the institution of the Catholic Church that combated heresy), Archinto served as papal nuncio (representative) in Venice from 1553-1556. It was then, when Archinto was at the height of his authority, that Titian painted the first portrait.
Trouble surfaced in 1556 after Archinto improperly bestowed a benefice, or right to receive revenue for spiritual services. He was removed by the Pope as nuncio but, to everyone’s surprise, was made Archbishop of Milan. There, he ran into more political trouble was ordered to live in exile in Bergamo, where he died in 1558.
It’s unknown if the second portrait, from 1558, was painted posthumously.
Note what the veil covers and what is left uncovered.
Does Archinto appear psychologically withdrawn, or is he daring us to pull the veil away?
Is he being silenced, or is he choosing not to speak?
Does the veil conceal or protect?
Is he listening to the confessions of penitents, or does he have something to confess?
Viewers have also wondered why the mozetta appears red on one side of the painting and mostly purple on the other. Conservators at the Philadelphia Museum of Art explained why.
Conservation Lab at the Philadelphia Museum of Art; photos by David Swanson, Philadelphia Inquirer
Analysis of tiny paint samples showed that the mozetta was originally painted a deep purple, a color that signified Archinto’s appointment as Archbishop of Milan. The purple paint was made by mixing a red colorant with smalt, a blue pigment that Titian used as a less expensive alternative to ultramarine on the second portrait.
Smalt is a blue glass that’s been ground into a powder to use as a pigment. Under a microscope, smalt particles look like tiny shards of broken glass. The blue color comes from cobalt.
Smalt also contains potassium, which was added to lower the melting temperature when making the glass. Potassium stabilizes the molecular structure but is leached out over time. As the amount of potassium declines, the cobalt ions rearrange; as smalt’s molecular structure changes, it becomes less blue. At the same time, the leached potassium reacts with the fatty acids in the oil that bind the pigments together and the binder becomes more yellow. The once-purple paint turns a brownish-red-grey.
A cross-section of a painted layer cut thin enough for light to pass through makes it possible to see that some smalt particles are still blue, while others have become very pale.
On the side where the mozetta is not covered by the veil, the blue smalt has deteriorated and it now looks reddish brown. Titian used lead white paint to create the veil. Lead limits smalt degradation and therefore, under the veil, the mozetta retained more of the purple color.
Both paintings were kept within the Archinto family in Milan until 1863, when they were sold separately.
Titian continued to accept commissions until the end of his life. Becoming increasingly self-critical, he kept some paintings in his studio for years, constantly retouching them until he thought they were perfect.
His last painting was a pietà (“pity” in Italian), a scene where Mary laments the death of her son. Living in Venice and now in his eighties or nineties (Titian changed the year of his birth so many times to make himself older that his age is uncertain), he worked on the painting while an outbreak of the plague was devastating the city. The sensuous color palette for which he was known has been quieted. Other than the glow of a domed mosaic overhead, light has left the world. Titian paints himself onto the canvas as an old, bearded man who is touching the hand of the dead Christ. The painted tablet at the bottom pleads that he and his son, the standing figure at left, will be spared death from the plague.
Titian offered the painting to the Basilica di Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, the church that commissioned the altarpiece depicting the Assumption of the Virgin, in exchange for a burial site. Titian and his son both died of the plague a few months later; his age was recorded as 103. A mob immediately looted his house and studio. The church did not want the Pietà and returned it to Titian’s assistant; it was later completed by Palma the Younger.
Titian was interred in the Frari, his grave marked by a simple floor tile. In a marble monument that was erected three-hundred years later, the enthroned patriarch of Venetian Renaissance painting, the “sun amidst small stars”, frowns gravely at passers-by.
Monument to Titian, 1838-52; Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, Venice
– Meighan Maley
Betts, Richard J. “Titian’s Portrait of Filippo Archinto in the Johnson Collection.” The Art Bulletin, vol. 49, no. 1, 1967, pp. 59–61. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/3048430.
Britannica: Titian https://www.britannica.com/biography/Titian
Miles Hall; ‘Where System’ Seeing and the Venetian School. https://www.mileshall.org/where-system-seeing-and-the-venetian-school
Old Master’s Academy: Supports Titian Used for his Paintings, Titian’s Canvases. https://oldmasters.academy/old-masters-academy-art-lessons/supports-titian-used-for-his-paintings-titians-canvases
Philadelphia Museum of Arts – Curator’s Lecture
Philadelphia Museum of Art: Filippo Archinto https://www.philamuseum.org/collections/permanent/101951.html?mulR=1838493647|2
Pigments Through the Ages: Smalt. http://www.webexhibits.org/pigments/indiv/overview/smalt.html
The Guardian, January 2003; Jonathan Jones: Behind the Mask. https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2003/jan/04/artsfeatures
The Metropolitan Museum of Art: Filippo Archinto. https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/works-of-art/14.40.650/
The National Gallery: 16th-Century Renaissance Pigments and Painting Techniques. https://www.nga.gov/conservation/science/16th-century-pigments.html
The National Gallery: Aspects of manufacture, trade and history of the blue pigment, smalt, and the relationship between its use in painting and other branches of the arts. https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/research/research-partnerships/aspects-of-manufacture-trade-and-history-of-the-blue-pigment-smalt-and-the-relationship-between-its-use-in-painting-and-other-branches-of-the-arts
The National Gallery: Rembrandt: The Late Works – A Resource for Science Teachers. https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/rembrandt-resource-for-science-teachers?viewPage=2
The National Gallery Technical Bulletin: Titian’s Painting Technique before 1540. https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/upload/pdf/vol-34-essay-1-2013.pdf and https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/media/24098/vol36-introessay.pdf
The National Gallery: Titian’s ‘poesie’ paintings. https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/learn-about-art/titians-poesie-paintings?viewPage=2
Wikipedia: Lead Paint. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lead_paint
Wikipedia: Pope Paul III and His Grandsons. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pope_Paul_III_and_His_Grandsons
Wikipedia: Titian. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Titian
Winsor & Newton: Choosing a White in Oil Colour. http://www.winsornewton.com/na/discover/tips-and-techniques/oil-colour/choosing-a-white-in-oil-colour-us