In 1530, at Bologna, Aretino introduced Titian to Charles V. The Emperor, absorbed in reorganizing Italy, sat impatiently for a portrait, and paid the astonished artist a single ducat ($12.50). Federigo of Mantua, calling Titian “the best painter now living,” added out of his own pocket a princely 150 ducats to the fee. Gradually the Duke brought Charles to his own point of view. In 1532 artist and Emperor met again. During the next sixteen years Titian painted a dazzling sequence of Imperial portraits: Charles in full armor (1532, now lost); Charles in brocaded coat, embroidered doublet, white breeches, stockings and shoes, and black cap with an inappropriate white feather (1533?); Charles with the Empress Isabella (1538); Charles in shining armor on a prancing steed at the battle of Mühlberg (1548)—a glory of color and pride; Charles in somber black, seated meditative on a balcony (1548). It is a credit to painter and King that these portraits make no attempt to idealize their subject, except in costume; they show Charles’s unprepossessing features, his bad skin, his gloomy spirit, and a certain capacity for cruelty; and yet they reveal the Emperor, a man of burdens and authority, a cold, hard mind that had brought half of western Europe under its rule. He could be kind nevertheless, and atone handsomely for his initial miserliness. In 1533 he sent Titian a patent making him a count palatine, and a Knight of the Golden Spur; and from that year Titian was officially court painter to the most powerful monarch in Christendom.
Meanwhile, presumably through Federigo, Titian had entered into correspondence with Francesco Maria della Rovere, Duke of Urbino, who had married Eleonora Gonzaga, Federigo’s sister and Isabella’s daughter. Since Francesco was now commander in chief of the Venetian armies, he and his Duchess were frequently in Venice. There Titian painted their portraits: a man nine tenths mail (for Titian liked its sheen), a woman pale and resigned after many illnesses. For them Titian painted on wood a Magdalen attractive only for the remarkable variations of light and hue that the artist gave to her auburn hair; and again for them a lovely portrait, in green and brown, known only as La Bella, and now in the Pitti Gallery. For Federigo’s successor, Duke Guidobaldo II, Titian made one of art’s most perfect nudes, the Venus of Urbino (c. 1538). Titian, we are told, had put some finishing touches on Giorgione’s Sleeping Venus; now he imitated that masterpiece in all but the accompaniments and the features. Here the face lacks the guileless peace of Giorgione’s version; and instead of a quiet landscape we see a rich interior of green curtain, brown drape, and red couch, while two maids search for robes gorgeous enough to fitly clothe the lady’s golden flesh.
From Duke and Emperor Titian passed on to paint the Pope. Paul III was also imperial: a man of virile character and subtle craft, with a face that recorded two generations of history; here was a better opportunity for Titian than he had found in the uncommunicative Emperor. At Bologna in 1535 Paul faced bravely the realism of Titian’s portraiture. Aged sixty-seven, tired but indomitable, he sat in his flowing papal robes, the long head and large beard bent over a once powerful frame, the ring of authority conspicuous on his aristocratic hand; this and Raphael’s Julius II contest the distinction of being the finest, deepest portrait of the Italian Renaissance. In 1545 the Pope invited Titian, himself now sixty-eight, to Rome. The artist was lodged in the Belvedere, and received all the honors of the city; Vasari acted as his cicerone in showing him the wonders of classic and Renaissance Rome; even Michelangelo welcomed him, and, in a moment of courtesy, concealed from him an opinion expressed to friends, that Titian would have been a greater painter had he learned to draw.22 There Titian painted Paul again, older, more bent, more harassed than before, between two obsequious grandsons who were soon to rebel against the Pope; this, too, is among Titian’s profoundest works. For one of these grandsons, Ottavio Farnese, he painted the voluptuous Danaë of the Naples Museum. After eight months in Rome he traveled slowly back via Florence to Venice (1546), hoping to spend his remaining days there in rest and peace.
But a year later the Emperor urgently called him over the Alps to Augsburg. There he stayed nine months, making two of the imperial portraits listed above, and immortalizing slim Spanish grandees and mountainous Teutons like the Elector Johann Friedrich of Saxony. On a second visit to Augsburg (1550) Titian met the future Philip II of Spain, and made several pictures of him; one of these, in the Prado, is among the master portraits of the Renaissance. Lovelier still is the likeness that he painted of Charles’s Portuguese wife, the Empress Isabella. She had died in 1539, but the Emperor, four years later, gave Titian a middling representation of her by an obscure artist, and asked him to change it into a work of finished art. The result may not resemble the Empress, but even as an imaginary portrait this Isabella of Portugal must rank high among Titian’s pictures: a refined and melancholy face, a most royal costume, a book of prayers to console her premonition of an early death, a distant landscape providing overtones of green and brown and blue. Titian many times over earned his noble rank.
After his return from Augsburg (1552) Titian felt that he had traveled enough. He was seventy-five, and doubtless thought that he had not much longer to live. Perhaps his busyness made for his longevity; absorbed in painting after painting, he forgot to die. In a long succession of religious pictures (1522–70) he gave his own colorful and dramatic rendering of the Christian creed and story from Adam to Christ.* He commemorated with powerful images the Apostles and the saints. The best and most unpleasant of these isThe Martyrdom of St. Lawrence (1558, I Gesuiti, Venice): the saint is being roasted on a gridiron by Roman soldiers and slaves, who add to his discomfort with hot irons and flagellation. These religious pictures do not move us as deeply as the similar works of the Florentines; they excel in anatomy, but give no sense of piety; one look at the athletic figures of Christ and the Apostles makes it clear that Titian’s interest was purely technical, that he was thinking of splendid bodies, not of ascetic saints. In the interval between the Bellini and Titian Christianity, while still proposing topics, had lost its spiritual hold on Venetian art.23
That sensual element which is one requisite of pictorial or plastic art remained strong in Titian for almost a century. He repeated his Farnese Danaë in several variations, and made many a Venus for defenders of the faith. Philip II of Spain was his best customer for these “mythologies”; the royal apartments in Madrid were adorned with a Danaë, Venus and Adonis, Perseus and Andromeda, Jason and Medea, Actaeon and Diana, The Rape of Europa, Tarquin and Lucretia, Diana and Callisto, and Jupiter and Antiope(also known as The Venus of Pardo); and all but the last of these were painted by Titian after 1553, when he was seventy-six or more. It is encouraging to find the Master’s imagination creating in his eighties female nudes as perfect as those that he had portrayed in his prime. The Dianas, with their upswept auburn hair, are of the type that Veronese was using—blonde Venuses almost lovelier than any Aphrodite of the Greeks. Perhaps the same lady, grown ampler, appears in Venus with the Mirror (c. 1555, Washington); she is again the Venus who clings to Adonis in the Prado picture, struggling to woo him from his dogs. Not even in Correggio is there so frankly sensual a riot of feminine flesh. And there are still other Venuses scattered in the galleries, but once peopling Titian’s brain: the Venus Anadyomene (c. 1520) of Bridgewater House, standing in the bath, and modestly concealed below the knees; the Venus and Cupid (c. 1545) of the Uffizi—a Germanic blonde with impeccable hands; the clothed Venus of The Education of Cupid (c. 1565) in the Borghese Gallery; the Prado Venus with the Organ Player (c. 1545), who cannot keep his mind on his music; and a Venus with the Lute Player (1560) in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It must be said, however, that the women in these pictures are but part of their charm; Titian is interested in nature as well as women, and paints on several of these canvases splendid landscapes that are sometimes as lovely as the goddess herself.
Greater and deeper than these mythological pictures are the portraits. If the Venuses display a sense of form that never grew dull, the portraits reveal in Titian an ability to seize and convey human character with a force of art unequaled, in their total gallery, by the combined portraits of any other hand. What could be finer than the anonymous Man with the Glove (c. 1520, Louvre)?—whose gloved left hand and delicate white ruff about the neck harmonize so well with the sensitive spirit mirrored in the eyes. Cardinal Ippolito de’ Medici (1533, Pitti) is a less searching portrayal, and yet in the face are the subtlety, the artistic sense, the love of power, that marked the Medici. The Francis I (c. 1538, Louvre) made the French King’s features famous, sending over the world, in a hundred thousand reproductions, the feathered hat and jolly eye and rapier nose and handsome beard and scarlet shirt of the man who lost Italy but won Leonardo and Cellini and a hundred women. Titian’s official post required him to paint portraits of various doges; nearly all these portraits are lost; three masterly figures remain: Niccolò Marcello (who died before Titan’s birth)—an ugly face and a gorgeous robe; Antonio Grimant (in the picture of Faith in the Doges’ Palace)—an ascetic face and a gorgeous robe; andAndrea Gritti—aless gorgeous robe, but a powerful face concentrating in itself all the resolute majesty of Venice. In an opposite vein is the delicate Clarice Strozzi, which Aretino praised too fully. The portraits of Aretino, in the Pitti Gallery at Florence and in the Frick Collection in New York, are merciless evocations of a fascinating scoundrel by his dearest friend. Tenderer is Titian’s commemoration of Bembo, the poet lover by this time (1542) become a cardinal. Among the greatest portraits in Titian’s gallery isThe Jurist Ippolito Riminaldi(1542), once known as The Duke of Norfolk—disheveled brown hair, high forehead, scanty mustache and beard, firm lips, fine nose, piercing glance; we begin to understand Italy and Venice better when we see that they had such men, in whom fine bodies and fine clothes were but the outward form of strong wills ready for any challenge, and penetrating minds alert to every facet of experience and art.
Titian’s most interesting portraits were of himself. He pictured himself several times, finally at eighty-nine. Standing before this autoritratto in the Prado, we see a face lined and yet cleaned by the flow of countless days; a skullcap not quite enclosing the white hair; a red beard almost covering the face; a large nose breathing power; blue eyes a little somber, seeing death closer than it really was; the hand grasping a brush—the great artistic passion not yet spent. This—not the doges, not the senators, not the merchants—was the lord of Venice for half a century, giving immortality to transient aristocrats and kings, and raising his adopted city to a place beside Florence and Rome in the history of the Renaissance.
He was a rich man now, though the memory of early insecurity made him acquisitive to the end. Venice exempted him from certain taxes, “out of regard for his rare excellence.”24 He wore elegant clothing, and lived in a comfortable home with a spacious garden that overlooked the lagoon; we picture him there entertaining poets, artists, blue bloods, cardinals, and kings. The mistress whom he had married in 1525, after having two sons by her, died in 1530, and he resumed the baccalaureate liberty that he had enjoyed for almost half a century before. His daughter Lavinia was a joy and pride, and he made fond portraits of her, even in her matronly amplitude; but she too died a few years after his marriage. One son, Pomponio, became a worthless wastrel, saddening the old man’s heart; the other, Orazio, painted some lost pictures, and probably shared in the works ascribed to his father’s final years. Perhaps another of Titian’s pupils—Domenico Theotocopoulos, “El Greco”—helped him then, though there is no sign of it in Titian’s buxom figures and joyous scenes.
Far into old age he painted almost every day, and found in his art his only secure happiness. There he knew that he was master, that all the world acclaimed him, and that his hand had not lost its cunning, nor his eye its keenness; even his intellect, as well as his imagination, seemed to keep its power to the end. Some purchasers complained that these final paintings were sent to them unfinished; even so, they were miracles. Probably no other painter—excepting Raphael—ever possessed such technical facility, such control of color and texture, such wizardry of variegated light. His faults were those of rapid execution, sometimes of careless drawing; most of his preliminary designs were tentative; yet, when he cared to take the time, he could produce such a marvel as the pen drawing of Medoro and Angelica in the Musée Bonnat at Bayonne. In portraiture he had to work rapidly, for his subjects were too impatient and occupied to give him long or frequent sittings; therefore he made a quick sketch and painted from that, perhaps putting more into the subject’s face and head than was really there. In paintings other than portraits he gave too much prominence to physical features, and seldom caught the spiritual essence; in depth of insight and feeling he could not match Leonardo or Michelangelo. But how healthy his art is compared with theirs! No abnormal introverted broodings, no volcanic grumblings at the nature of the world and man; Titian took the world as he found it, took men as he found them, took women when he found them, and enjoyed them all. He was a frank pagan, who contemplated the architecture of woman with delight through ninety years; even his Virgins are healthy, happy, and nubile. The poverty, grief, and insecurity of life found little room in Titian’s art; except for a few martyrdoms and crucifixions, all is beauty and joy.
He grew old while painting, and lived a quarter century after the normal span of life. In his eighty-eighth year he traveled to Brescia, and accepted an arduous commission to paint a ceiling in the palace of the commune. Vasari, visiting him in his ninetieth year, found him at work, brush in hand. At ninety-one he painted a portrait of Iacopo da Strada (Vienna), brilliant with color, strong with character. But now at last his hand began to tremble, his eyes grew weak, and he felt that the time had come for piety. In 1576, aged ninety-nine, he agreed to paint a Burial of Christ for the church of the Frari, in exchange for a burial place there, where already two of his greatest works were hung. He did not finish it, and he fell a year short of living out a century. In that year plague broke out in Venice; on each day two hundred died; a fourth of the population succumbed to the pestilence. Titian himself died during the plague, probably not of it but from old age (August 26, 1576). The government set aside its prohibition of public gatherings in order to give him a state funeral. He was buried in Santa Maria Gloriosa de’ Frari, as he had wished. It was the end of a magnificent life, and a wondrous age.