Titian ‘The Italian Renaissance’

paolo veronese(1528-88), the rape of europa

Titian (c.1485-1576)

The greatest painter of the Venetian School, Titian dominated art in the city during its most glorious period. He is thought to have trained in the studio of Giovanni Bellini, the leading painter of the previous generation, and when Bellini died in 1516, Titian was left without a serious rival in Venice - a position he maintained until his death 60 years later. Europe's royalty and aristocracy also eagerly sought his work.

Unlike many of the other giants of Renaissance art, who spread their talents widely, Titian was purely a painter. He left a huge body of work and excelled in virtually every subject - his masterpieces include erotic mythologies, profoundly moving religious works and some of the finest portraits ever painted. When he died, aged about 90, he was a rich man and the most famous artist in Europe.

titian self portrait


Venice's Supreme Painter

Titian dominated Venetian art for 60 years. His superlative skill and ability to charm won him patronage and friendship from princes, the pope, and the powerful Holy Roman Emperor, King Charles V.

Tiziano Vecellio was born in Pieve di Cadore, a small town in the Italian Alps that had become part of the Republic of Venice in 1421. His father Gregorio di Conte Vecellio was a respected town official, whose wife Lucia bore him three more children, Francesco, Orsola, and Caterina.

The date of Titian's birth has always been a matter of speculation. Towards the end of his career, he himself tended to exaggerate his age to enlist the sympathy of his patrons - a letter to King Philip II of Spain implied that he had been born in 1476 or 1477. Yet some of his admirers and biographers, including Giorgio Vasari, the Florentine artist, and critic, suggested a much later date of c.1490, probably in order to surround his early career with an aura of precocity. The truth is probably somewhere between these two extremes - a date around 1485 appears far more likely in the light of Titian's career.

picture of titian's birthplace

Titian's birthplace:
Titian was born in the small town of Pieve di Cadore in the Italian Alps, about 70 miles from Venice. His family home is now open to the public.


The young Titian and his brother Francesco were duly sent to Venice to stay with their uncle and to learn a trade. Here he studied with the mosaicist Sebastiano Zuccati, and then with the painter Gentile Bellini, but finding him too old-fashioned, Titian transferred to the workshop of Gentile's brother, Giovanni.

He could not have made a better choice. His new master was one of the outstanding painters of Italy. He had developed the recently imported technique of oil painting to supreme perfection, and by the time Titian joined him, Giovanni Bellini was famous for his coloring and for the glowing effects of light and atmosphere in his altarpieces and smaller devotional images.

Venice around 1500 was at the height of its power, one of the richest and biggest cities in Europe. It dominated a vast empire from Cyprus in the eastern Mediterranean to the Italian mainland. An independent republic with an unequalled history of internal peace, justice and freedom, it was the envy of the rest of Italy.

The city attracted merchants from all over the world, and perhaps the largest group among these foreign traders were of the Germans. Their huge warehouse, the Fondaco dei Tedeschi, stood on the Grand Canal next to the old bridge of the Rialto. Here the young Titian, an independent master in 1508, joined with the Venetian painter Giorgione to decorate the facades with allegorical frescoes. According to Vasari, many people mistook Titian's work for Giorgione's and complimented Giorgione on his improved style. Giorgione was so upset that 'until Titian had completely finished and his share in the work had become general knowledge, he would hardly show himself out of doors.'

These frescoes have since crumbled in the damp climate of the lagoon, but the cooperation between the two painters extended far beyond this one commission. With the older Giorgione taking the leading role, the two artists explored new techniques of oil painting, applying the heavy, undiluted medium directly to a coarse canvas.

In 1513 Titian received an invitation from Pope Leo X to visit Rome. This was a unique chance to work alongside Raphael and Michelangelo, yet Titian - who was deeply attached to his Venetian roots and who remained, throughout his life, highly reluctant to travel - turned it down. He continued to work for his local patrons - religious institutions and members of the patrician class such as Niccolò Aurelio, the Great Chancellor of the Republic, a humanist, and collector, who commissioned Sacred and Profane Love.

The call to Rome, however, clearly enhanced Titian's reputation, and after Giovanni Bellini's I death in 1516 he succeeded his old master as the official painter of the Republic. His first major public commission was the altarpiece of the Assumption of the Virgin, painted for the high altar of Sta Maria dei Frari, one of the major churches in Venice.

picture of venice

Colorful Venice:
Titian first moved to Venice as a young boy and remained based there for the rest of his long life. The city's waterways create an intensity of light and color which is reflected in Titian's painting.

the jealous husband(1511) painting by titian

An early work:
The Jealous Husband (1511) was one of three frescoes on the theme of the miracles of St Anthony which Titian painted for the Scuola di Sant'Antonio in Padua. These are the artist's only surviving frescoes.

portrait of duke alfonso d'este by titian

First princely patron:
In 1517 Duke Alfonso d'Este commissioned Titian to contribute to a series of mythological paintings for the lavish study which adjoined his castle in Ferrara.

In the same year, he received an invitation from Alfonso d'Este, Duke of Ferrara, who was to t become one of Titian's most important patrons. Through Alfonso, Titian also came into contact with the princely rulers of Mantua and Urbino, whose courts prided themselves on their sophisticated culture and humanist learning.

Over the next two decades, Titian established relationships of friendship and mutual respect with this new group of patrons. Although he continued to work for the Venetian churches, he was much more interested in princely patronage. Quite apart from the status this brought him, he could command far higher fees.

After Titian's first visit to Ferrara, the artist gan a series of mythological paintings for the new study, the Camerino d'Alabastro. These included Bacchus and Ariadne and The Andrians. Titian's notoriously slow progress and his dismissive and casual responses to the threats and commands issued via the Duke's agent in Venice, provoked the prince to outbursts of fury. Yet after the death of Leonardo in 1519 and that of Raphael in 1520, and with Michelangelo devoting his time almost exclusively to sculpture and architecture, there was no one to challenge Titian's role as the leading painter in Italy. If the Duke wanted to keep the painter's services, he had to be as patient as any other patron.

picture of church of santa maria dei frari, venice

Original setting:
Titian's huge altarpiece, the Assumption of the Virgin (1516) is still in its original setting in the church of Santa Maria dei Frari, Venice

portrait of federico gonzaga

An elegant patron:
This striking portrait of Federico Gonzaga, Duke of Mantua was probably painted in 1529. An elegant and highly cultivated man, Federico was both Titian's friend and patron and was responsible for introducing the artist to Emperor Charles V.

The Legend of Giorgione

In 1508 Titian worked alongside Giorgione on murals for the Fondaco Dei Tedeschi, a warehouse on Venice's Grand Canal. At this point, their painting styles were so close that their works have often been confused. Attributions are particularly difficult since the life of Giorgione is shrouded in mystery: only a handful of works are accepted as his.

Vasari described Giorgione as a romantic and musical young man and considered him to be one of the founders of 'modern' painting. He mainly produced small oil paintings for private collectors, noted for their obscure subject matter and poetic mood.

picture of giorgione statue

Giorgione (c.1478-1510):
Giorgione was born in Castelfranco in Veneto, where this statue stands.

the tempest painting by giorgione

The Tempest:
This is one of Giorgione's few surviving documented works. His use of landscape and mood as the main 'subject' was revolutionary and had a profound influence on Titian's art.


It was not just his professional success that helped Titian to bridge the social gap which existed between painter and prince. He was by all accounts a man of grace and charm, attractive and interesting in conversation. In 1532, Alfonso's nephew, Duke Federico II Gonzaga wrote to his friend Titian begging him to come and stay with him in Mantua, and when the master finally undertook the journey to Rome in 1545, he stopped briefly in Pesaro where he was received by Duke Guidobaldo Della Rovere of Urbino with royal honors and provided with an escort for the rest of his journey.

By that time the princes were flattered to be associated with the great master. Not only was he on his way to Rome as the guest of Pope Paul III Farnese, but he was also a court painter to Charles V, Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire and King of Spain, the most powerful man of the century. It was no secret that Titian was on friendly, even intimate terms with Charles.

Their first meeting, arranged by Federico 0 Gonzaga after Charles' coronation in Bologna in 1529, had been less than successful. The Emperor was rumored to have paid Titian only one ducat for his portrait, and Gonzaga had to contribute the e remaining 149 ducats of the agreed price.

Yet, after another meeting in Bologna three years later, when Titian painted further portraits of the Emperor, Charles' attitude toward him changed dramatically. He issued a patent appointing Titian as his exclusive portrait painter, praising his exquisite talents, likening him to Apelles who had painted Alexander the Great, and elevating him - in an unprecedented fashion for a painter - to the rank of Count Palatine and Knight of the Golden Spur, with all the privileges of knighthood and nobility, including the right of the entrance to Court.

To serve the Emperor, Titian had to overcome his aversion to travel. In 1548 he even had to cross the Alps in mid-winter to spend the busiest nine months of his life in Germany, hectically painting portraits of Charles, his family, the princes of Germany, and the members of the Imperial Court, all of whom had gathered for a session of the Reichstag in Augsburg.

When Charles abdicated and withdrew to a monastery, he took with him a number of paintings by Titian. His son and successor on the Spanish throne, Philip II, also succeeded his father as Titian's loyal patron.

The correspondence between Titian and the King shows the painter in the least attractive light. He was constantly asking for money, claiming, often correctly, that he had not been paid for previous work, that the annual pension of 200 scudi, bestowed upon him for life by Charles in 1548, had been withheld by the King's agents, and that in his old age (which he exaggerated deliberately) he had to live in misery and poverty.

Surprisingly little is known about Titian's private life. Yet the image he presents of himself, as an impoverished artist working solely for the love of his patron, is clearly wrong. Not only had he reached the unprecedented social status of a nobleman, but he was also a rich man.

It is obvious from his letters that Titian felt the urgent need to provide for the future of his children. His wife Cornelia had died in 1530, leaving him with two sons and one daughter (another daughter having died in infancy). The children were brought up by his sister Orsola who looked after his household until her death in 1550. The eldest son, Pomponio, was to become a clergyman, but as he led the careless and dissipated life of a well-to-do young gentleman, he more than once incurred his father's displeasure. Orazio, on the other hand, followed his father's footsteps and joined his workshop.

From 1531, Titian lived and worked in a large house in Biri Grande, on the eastern edge of Venice, opposite the islands of San Michele and Murano. This was then an almost rural part of Venice, with gardens overlooking the lagoon. In his house and garden Titian entertained his friends and visitors with lavish hospitality which was quite at odds with his notorious greed and his self-proclaimed poverty.

pope paul iii painting by titian

Pope Paul III:
Titian traveled to Rome in 1545 at the invitation of Pope Paul, and with the expectation of obtaining a church income for his son Pomponio. There he painted this (unfinished) portrait of the frail, ageing Pope flanked by his grandsons Cardinal Alessandro and Ottavio Farnese.

death of St peter martyr(1530) by titian

A lost masterpiece:
This engraving is a copy of Titian's Death of St Peter Martyr (1530) which was destroyed by fire in 1867. Vasari described the original altarpiece as the most celebrated, the greatest work . . . that Titian in all his life had ever done.

portrait of lavinia with a tray of fruit by titian

Titian's model daughter:
Titian often used his daughter Lavinia as a model. In a variant of this work, she appears in the same pose, but as Salome - carrying the Baptist's head on a platter.


Titian's own education as a young boy cannot have been very substantial. Yet throughout his life he attracted the friendship and admiration of some of the most learned men of his time. His first invitation to Rome in 1513 was instigated by the eminent humanist Cardinal Pietro Bembo, and it was said that the great poet Andrea Navagero persuaded him to turn it down.

When in 1527 Spanish and German troops sacked Rome, many artists, poets and humanists fled to Venice, which was famous for its republican freedom and its safety in the lagoon. Two of the arrivals were the poet Pietro Aretino and the sculptor and architect Jacopo Sansovino. Their close friendship with Titian was such that the Venetians referred to it as the triumvirate, with Titian and Aretino, in particular, exploiting their influence with their respective patrons to further each other's interests.

Very little is known about Titian's last years. His eyesight was failing and his hand began to lose its control over the brush. The large workshop, led by Titian's talented son Orazio, was now mainly responsible for carrying out most of the work, with the master adding some final touches to paintings which were then passed off as by his own hand. King Philip remained the major recipient of these pictures, and there were no complaints about obvious workshop productions. As one Spanish nobleman told another in 1575: 'I believe that a blotch by Titian will be better than anything by another artist.'

In Venice, new generations of painters had emerged, including Tintoretto and Veronese, with whom Titian and his workshop had to compete for local commissions. Yet none of them could aspire to his universal reputation, and when he died on 27 August 1576, during another outbreak of the plague, the painters of Venice planned to emulate the elaborate festivities with which the Florentines had buried Michelangelo in 1564. Yet the plague prohibited similarly lavish obsequies in honor of Titian, and he was quietly but ceremoniously interred in the church of Sta Maria Dei Frari the day after he had died.

christ and the moneylenders(detail) by jacopo bassano

A caricature of Titian?:
Titian had frequent financial battles and was notoriously money-minded. Contemporary artist Jacopo Bassano may have caricatured him as this moneylender.

titian's pieta 1575

Painting for a tomb:
Titian began this magnificent Pietà in about 1575 with the intention that it should be placed above his own tomb. It was completed after his death by one of his many assistants.

Titian's Notorious Friend

Poet, playwright, and scandalmonger, Pietro Aretino (1492-1556) was Titian's closest friend. The two men first met in Venice in 1527: two years previously, Aretino had been forced to leave Rome after writing a series of pornographic sonnets. Though these poems gained him notoriety, his lasting fame rests mainly on six volumes of letters - many of which were written to Titian.

Aretino delighted in gossip, satire, abuse, and even blackmail - a fact which earned him the nickname 'the scourge of princes'. But in Titian's case, he put his pen to a worthier cause - publicizing his friend's genius, and playing a crucial role in spreading his name and reputation throughout Europe.

pietro aretino sexually explicit poem book

Erotic poetry book:
In 1524 Aretino wrote a series of sexually explicit poems, accompanied by equally explicit engravings by Marcantonio Raimondi. They caused a storm of controversy in Rome, and the poet was forced to leave the Holy City.

pietro aretino self portrait

Pietro Aretino (1545):
Although he was one of Titian's most ardent admirers, Aretino criticized this portrait of himself for its lack of finish.


Living Paint

In his long career, Titian was unsurpassed in his field. He brought to new heights the traditional Venetian love of sensuous colour and evolved a revolutionary style of expressive brushwork.

'It is easy to see the haste with which it has been painted, and if there had been more time I would have had him do it over again.' This was Philip II's immediate comment on his Portrait in Armour of 1550/51. Dissatisfied, he gave it to his aunt, Mary of Hungary. It took time for him to get used to, and admire Titian's open brushwork, and his loose handling of forms and colors. His aunt was more perceptive. When lending this portrait to Queen Mary of England, who was about to marry Philip, she wrote that the picture, like all others by Titian, had to be viewed from a distance.


Giorgio Vasari, having visited the artist in 1566. commented similarly on Titian's technique. His early works, Vasari said, had been executed with fineness and unbelievable diligence, while "these last pictures are executed with broad and bold strokes and smudges so that from nearby nothing can be seen whereas from a distance they seem perfect.'

Vasari, himself an accomplished artist, realized that this technique which gave Titian's painting an appearance of spontaneous facility and ease, involved long and hard work: 'It is known that these works are much revised and that he went over them so many times with his colours that one can appreciate how much labour is involved.'

Palma Giovane, one of Titian's last assistants, has left us with a vivid description of his master's working methods. Titian used to sketch his pictures with large masses of colour which formed the foundation of the composition. He would then turn them to the wall and leave them there, sometimes for several months, without looking at them. Returning to his picture, over long intervals, he would then build up his figures, correct and revise them and make any changes he felt necessary. Finally, he would retouch the work, moderate the highlights by rubbing them with his fingers and harmonize the colours and tones; or he would, again with his fingers, add dark strokes or bright red spots to liven up the composition. According to Palma, in these last stages, Titian painted more with his fingers than his brushes.

Somewhat grudgingly, Vasari admitted that this technique produced 'judicious, beautiful and stupendous' results. As a Florentine, he believed that the proper way to go about painting was to start with sketches on paper, to work out every detail of composition in carefully studied drawings. The final drawing could then be transferred almost mechanically to the panel or canvas and coloured in. This was the method by which the masterpieces of Florentine art, by Leonardo, Raphael and, above all, Michelangelo had been achieved. While Vasari admired the colours of the Venetian painters, he deplored their neglect of drawing - for him the most fundamental part of the painting.

In Rome in 1545, Vasari introduced Michelangelo to Titian who was working on a picture of Danaë. The visitors praised Titian's work, as only polite, yet after they had left him Michelangelo told Vasari 'that Titian's colouring and his style much pleased him, but that it was a pity that in Venice men did not learn to draw well from the beginning and that those painters did not pursue a better method in their studies.'

portrait of ranuccio farnese(1542), titian

Ranuccio Farnese (1542):
Titian painted superb portraits throughout his career for a string of aristocratic patrons.

the andrians(1523-1525) by titian

The Andrians (1523-5):
This is one of several large mythologies commissioned by Alfonso d'Este for his new study, Titian was anxious to better the work of his old master, Giovanni Bellini, who had also contributed to the scheme.

st mary magdalen(c.1535) by titian

St Mary Magdalen(c.1535):
Popular inventions, like this incredibly sensual interpretaion of a devotional theme, were copied and churned out by Titian's busy studio.

This was not simply a matter of professional jealousy or competition between Michelangelo and Titian, although that was also part of the argument. The two masters pursued almost totally different aims in their painting. Michelangelo concentrated on the nude male figure as a heroic ideal with expressive and dramatic movements. Titian's paintings, according to his friend Ludovico Dolce, depicted the whole visual world with all its various aspects and different effects. The delicacy of the female form, the softness of flesh, the moisture in the eyes of St Mary Magdalen or Lucretia- these were qualities that Michelangelo with all his mastery of drawing could not capture in his works. Watching the sun set beyond the Grand Canal, Aretino was reminded of Titian's art and exclaimed 'Oh Titian, where are you now?'; no drawing could convey the effects of light he conjured up in his paintings.

Since his early days, when he had been working with Giorgione, Titian had tried to convey in his pictures an overall sense of mood, of the atmosphere: the tranquillity of pastoral landscapes, or the buoyancy of drinking and dancing in The Andrians, the heavenly glow of The Assumption or the murderous drama of St Peter Martyr. These are all effects that depend on an overall impression, not on the detailed study of particular features. Titian's late style, often and anachronistically described as 'impressionistic' by modern critics, enforces the overall effect he is aiming at: the spectator has to stand back and take in the whole of the composition. If he gets too close to the painted surface, the picture will dissolve in blots and smudges.

A late work like the Pietà which was completed after Titian's death, shows all the means that the artist employed to achieve such an overall effect, in this case, that of a tragic, gloomy night scene: broad strokes with a heavily loaded brush mark out the individual figures which seem to vibrate in the flickering torchlight.

the entombment(1559) by titian

The Entombment(1559):
The vivid, saturated colours of this religious work with its glowing reds, blues and gold are a feature of Titian's late style.

tarquin and lucretia(c.1571) by titian
tarquin and lucretia(c.1571), (detail) by titian

Tarquin and Lucretia (c.1571):
This late masterpiece shows the astonishing energy of Titian's style even when he was in his 80s. It depicts a scene from the legendary early history of Rome – the virtuous Tarquin, son of a tyrant, in anguish killed herself the following day. Tarquin was later exiled and slain. Titian conveys the drama of the tragic story with breathtaking vigor, the bold brushwork helping to suggest the violent movement. Lucretia's expression evokes her terror and despair.


Titian's technique of painting had one further advantage which must have appealed to his economical mind. The intermediate stages of execution, between the initial, inventive sketch and the final retouching, could often be left to assistants. From the 1540s, Titian seems to have employed a large workshop (although probably not as large as Raphael's earlier in the century, or Rubens' in the next one). At least 30 of his assistants are recorded by name. Very few of them, perhaps only Tintoretto and El Greco, went on to become great artists in their own right. Most of them, like Titian's son Orazio, his cousin Marco, or Girolamo Dente (who stayed with Titian for 30 years) became totally absorbed in the workshop.

To commission a work by Titian could often mean paying for a workshop production. This was an old Venetian tradition. The earlier workshops of the Bellinis and Vivarinis had operated in much the same way. Yet Titian's own technique seems to have undermined the old system: patrons and critics expected to find his genius expressed in every single brushstroke, and they were often not happy with the way in which assistants did the major work for him 'which he then finishes with two strokes of his brush and sells as his own work.' As Palma Giovane confirms, true lovers of art had caught on to the new notion of the individual 'divine genius', whose work, even if unfinished and sketchy, was more valuable than the polished product of an anonymous workshop.


The Loves of Jupiter

The works of the Roman poet Ovid were extremely popular during the Renaissance and provided a rich fund of inspiration for artists of all kinds. Indeed, his Metamorphoses, which recounted stories depicting the transformations that abounded in ancient legend, did more than any other work of literature to transmit to posterity the imaginative beauties of Greek mythology. Jupiter - the supreme god of the Romans - figures prominently in the Metamorphoses, as he often disguised himself in various forms in the course of his amorous adventures. Paintings of such subjects appealed greatly to the sophisticated private collectors who began to rival the church as patrons in the 16th century.

paolo veronese(1528-88), the rape of europa

Paolo Veronese (1528-88):
The Rape of Europa Veronese was one of the leading Venetian artists in the generation after Titian's death. His painting makes a splendid pageant of the theme, whereas Titian emphasized its dramatic energy.

correggio(c.1494-1534), jupiter and io

Correggio (c.14941534)Jupiter and lo:
Jupiter changed himself into a cloud to visit the beautiful lo, trying to hide his infidelity from his wife, Juno. Correggio's erotic masterpiece was painted for Federico Gonzaga, Duke of Mantua, and was later owned by Charles V.


Sacred and Profane Love

In c.1514 Niccolò Aurelio, one of Venice's most senior civil servants, commissioned the so-called Sacred and Profane Love. As far as its subject matter is concerned, this beautiful picture remains an enigma. Various interpretations have been put forward, of which the most popular maintains that the painting is an allegory of earthly and spiritual love, showing the terrestrial and celestial Venuses. However, there could be a much less esoteric explanation: Niccolò Aurelio married in 1514 and may have commissioned this picture to celebrate the event. The woman dressed in white may be his bride, who is being gently initiated into the mysteries of love by the naked goddess Venus. Cupid, her companion, stirs the waters of the fountain, aiding his mistress in her amorous designs.

sacred and profane love by titian
sacred and profane love (detailed) by titian

Bridal dress:
The woman clothed in white, the traditional colour of Venetian bridal gowns, wears myrtle in her hair - a plant which is sacred to Venus and symbolizes marriage.

sacred and profane love (detail) by titian

Idyllic setting:
The lovely landscape in the background conjures up the beauty of the Veneto region where Titian was born.

picture of bronze horses of san marco in venice

Classical sources:
Titian based the horse in the fountain frieze (below) on the famous bronze horses of San Marco in Venice.


Flora (c.1520):
This portrait represents the same ideal of beauty as the two women in Sacred and Profane Love.

sacred and profane love by titian

Obscure symbolism:
The meaning of the mysterious frieze on the fountain is still unclear. One theory suggests that it shows the taming of animal passion - symbolized by the restraining of an unbridled horse. On the other hand, the relief may have some private significance of an erotic nature for the patron.


noli me tangere(c.1508) by titian

Noli Me Tangere c. 1508:
Gallery, London This early painting tells the story of Christ's
appearance to the Magdalen, after the Resurrection. According to the gospel of St John, the Magdalen, who was weeping over the empty tomb, at first mistook him for a gardener. When she recognized Christ she reached out to touch him, but he gently bade her 'touch me not' ('noli me tangere'). Titian shows the graceful figure of Christ holding a gardener's hoe and drawing his robes back from the outstretched hand of the kneeling Magdalen.

charles v on horseback(1548) by titian

Charles V on Horseback 1548:
This splendid portrait, which celebrates Charles V's famous victory at the Battle of Mühlberg, shows the Emperor in an equestrian pose that dates back to the antique equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius in Rome. The marvellous landscape, bathed in the glow of sunset, reveals why Titian was renowned for his ability to paint natural effects.

the rape of europa(1559-62) by titian

The Rape of Europa 1559-62:
In this, the last of the 'poesie', Titian shows the rape of Europa by the insatiable Jupiter, now in the guise of a bull. A winged infant ('putto') cheekily pursues the couple on the back of a dolphin, while Europa's companions watch helplessly from the shore. The vivid coloring and bold brushwork are typical of Titian's late style.

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