So equally matched were the four greatest painters of the High Renaissance that neither their contemporaries nor posterity have been able to separate them for long. Each has had his adherents and each his periods of supremacy but in the end they are best defined by their distinctive gifts: if Leonardo’s work represents the age’s spirit of enquiry, then Michelangelo’s personifies its terribilita — its frightening power, Raphael’s its physical perfection and Titian’s its humanity.
Of the four it is Titian who has always stood slightly apart. As a Venetian he was not only geographically separate but had different artistic roots and a different sensibility from the others, who shared a Florentine training. In the contemporary debate about the primacy of disegno (design) or colorito (coloring) it is three against one, with Titian the sole exemplar of color over line. Yet while Michelangelo and Raphael were tagged “divine” and Leonardo universally held as sui generis it was Titian who the great art historian Bernard Berenson claimed had portrayed “nearly all of the Renaissance that could be expressed in painting.”
Although she does not explicitly say so, Berenson’s opinion is shared by Sheila Hale, the author of a huge and exceptional new study of the painter, Titian: His Life (HarperPress) — remarkably this is the first full biography since 1877. It also finds sympathy with the panjandrums of London’s National Gallery and Royal Ballet, whose institutions are collaborating, as part of the London 2012 festival, with Metamorphosis, which involves specially commissioned pictures and ballets inspired by Titian’s paintings after Ovid’s stories. If the turn of the year belonged to Leonardo with the unprecedented exhibition at the National Gallery this part of 2012 is Titian’s.
Lucian Freud described the three pictures at the heart of this painting/dance cooperation — Diana and Actaeon, Diana and Callisto and The Death of Actaeon — as “quite simply the most beautiful pictures in the world”. Titian’s ability to beguile and inspire comes not just from his mythological works though: his religious paintings were celebrated for their extraordinary emotive force (when Titian’s patron, the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, died in 1558 he was looking at the painter’s Adoration of the Trinity), while WB Yeats found in his portraits “the personality of the whole man, blood, imagination, intellect running together”.
Titian’s fame in his own lifetime meant that there are several contemporary accounts of his life and works — not least by Vasari, the father of art history, in his second edition of The Lives of the Artists. Hale’s book, however, traces in unprecedented detail not just Titian’s long career (he lived apocryphally to 100, although 86 is now his commonly accepted age) but the Venice in which he spent almost all his life — at once intellectually avant-garde, beautiful and bloody. Because Titian was the only artist to paint a pope (Paul III), an emperor (Charles V), a sultan (Suleiman the Magnificent) and a king (Philip II/Francis I), Hale’s is also a book about great men, among whom the artist could number himself.
The man who emerges does not easily fit the template of genius. Written accounts suggest that throughout his life, art was primarily a business. The bulk of his surviving correspondence deals with money matters, not least the endless trouble he had in getting paid for his paintings. He left no comment about art’s higher calling, the creative process or about religion or politics. His health was good, he stayed within easy reach of Venice and traveled as far as Rome only once and outside the Italian peninsular just twice (across the Alps to Augsburg). His was a life largely without incident. Leonardo and Michelangelo are thickly encrusted with stories but Titian is defined by a single well-known anecdote that suggests his stature: when he was painting Charles V he dropped his brush which the emperor stooped to pick up; “Titian protested, saying ‘Sire, I am not worthy of such a servant.’ To which the emperor replied: ‘Titian is worthy to be served by Caesar.’”