on 3 August 2013
The author clearly faced obstacles in writing Titian's life due to the gaps in the records. We have a great idea of his working life, but due to his seemingly self-controlled, private personality and lack of personal correspondence (his letters are nearly always to patrons, flattering for commissions or nagging for payment, and rarely in his own unschooled handwriting), it's impossible at this distance to know much about the man himself. Remarkably, no one is even aware of his second wife's name. He seems to have managed to be the most famous artist of his times without ever showing much of his inner self except through his work.
That doesn't, of course, prevent Sheila Hale from giving an extremely thorough account of his career and artistic development. It's always difficult to be exhaustive without being exhausting, especially when charting a career which lasted more than half a century, and there are sections where the casual reader can be tempted to skip ahead, but patient reading rewards those who want to better understand the paintings and their subjects. If you've ever stood spellbound before his penetrating portraits or gorgeous classical scenes bursting with lively colour, then reading about how they came to be, and how the artist achieved his remarkable effects, is fascinating, and adds rather than subtracts from the magic of the paintings themselves. Hale structures the book into lengthy Parts covering phases in Titian's career, further organised into shorter chapters which delve into a particular aspect of either his work, the history of the times, or the story of particular people (patrons, family members, and artists) whose paths crossed with Titian. Most of the time, the chapters are attached to one or a group of works, and will include an explanation of the background to their creation, the techniques used, and, often, the reaction of patrons and contemporaries. This means it is fairly straightforward to follow in a linear fashion, but certainly possible to navigate to the section on a particular work if you are so inclined.
An inevitable consequence of the lack of gossip and scandal attached to Titian (compared to Caravaggio or Michelangelo's reputations) is that Hale broadens her focus and gives us an enormous amount of information about contemporaries, and about the Venice and Northern Italy of the time. Titian's close friend the poet Pietro Aretino is a character who leaps from the page, being talented, funny, irreverent, and arrogant to the point of hubris. Various ambassadors and aristocrats describe the city, the man, and the era. Angry satires, pleas for payment, rude curses, subtle diplomatic letters, and vulgar gossip fly back and forth. Aretino, Titian, and the architect Sansovino, who were close friends, come to life through this trail of written material, and Hale is an expert guide, always able to contextualise and explain what's happening in their careers and in Europe as a whole at the time. One of the book's great strengths is that you could probably skip everything about Titian himself and still find it interesting and informative on the politics, art, and daily life of Venetians in the 16th Century.
A great if lengthy read. I felt like I learned a lot about Titian's work , but also a lot about how artists worked in the period, and the crossovers between art, religion, politics, and commerce in the period, which can be bafflingly complex. Despite the difficulties, something of his personality seems to shine through, too: charming, hard-working but wilful, loyal to his friends but sometimes a tyrant to his family, and a bit of a wheeler-dealer, who also happened to paint stunningly beautiful pictures and never quite gave a patron exactly what they expected. Fascinating.