Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

The Godfather of Modern Painting; as Titian Is Celebrated in a Major Exhibition at the National Gallery, in the First of Two Parts on the Venetian Master, Our Art Critic Surveys His Lasting Influence

Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

The Godfather of Modern Painting; as Titian Is Celebrated in a Major Exhibition at the National Gallery, in the First of Two Parts on the Venetian Master, Our Art Critic Surveys His Lasting Influence

Article excerpt

Byline: BRIAN SEWELL

TIZIANO Vecellio is one of the small group of Italian High Renaissance artists so universally esteemed that their names have been translated into other languages. In France he is known as Titien, Tizian in Germany, Titian in England, here to be pronounced in a wilful English way as Tishn; he occasionally signed his pictures with the bold capitals T and V, and occasionally in the Latin form Titianus, the pronunciation of which must be left to the delicacy of schoolmasters if they are not to reduce their pupils to helpless adolescent giggling.

Born in Cadore, a village in the mountains near Cortina, 80 miles north of Venice on the borders of Carinthia, he was the pupil of that grand old man of later-15th century Venetian painting, Giovanni Bellini, but we do not know quite when.

The date of his birth is a matter of conjecture and controversy. Those attracted by the notion of his being a centenarian when he died in the great plague of 1576 - for which there is documentary support in one of his letters to Philip II of Spain - willingly accept a birthday in 1476.

Those who, looking at his early work, prefer to see him as precocious and not, like Rubens, sluggish in developmentnow suggest in the catalogue-that "A date of birth in or just before 1490 would fit with the known facts of his early life ..." But the "known facts" in this thesis seem to be inferences from Vasari's observations on Titian's relationship with Giorgione, his predecessor as a pupil of Bellini, and Vasari, father of art history, was far from infallible in many details of his biographies of artists and his "known facts" must not be accepted without the support of other evidence.

Let us accept that Titian was born more than a generation later than Leonardo (b 1452), half a generation after Michelangelo (b 1475), a boyhood younger than Raphael (b 1483) and that he was heir to all their achievements, but differed from them in that he was exclusively a painter and felt no temptation to try his hand at sculpture, architecture or invention, and rarely even drew. A few drawings survive, and they are masterly, but Michelangelo criticised him fiercely for his failure to draw more, sensing in his paintings fine style and colour, but no study, no analysis.

This attitude to drawing establishes the dividing line between the Florentine Renaissance with its traditions of pale fresco, delicate tempera on panel and fine transparent glazes, and the robust Venetian development of oil paint heavily applied to rough canvas with a tooth that gave it texture; Florence was past her zenith, Venice the rising sun.

Titian was heir, too, to powerful new Venetian influences, to the poetic reveries of old Giovanni Bellini and young Giorgione, the brilliant pupil perhaps a decade his senior in the Bellini workshop.

He took their mood of mystery and melancholy, their range of thunderous light and serene sunset, just as he took Michelangelo's heroic sculptured nudes and, with Pietro Aretino, a skilled pornographer, at his elbow, converted them from concepts of nobility, gravity and virtue into telling sensuality.

He took the pagan sculptures of antiquity and refashioned both their form and their emotional expressiveness to new Christian purposes.

He took the proportions of architecture and applied them to his paintings, making his altarpieces harmonise with the structure of the churches for which they were commissioned, enlisting the fall of light from real windows in their pictorial illusions, and in his late mythologies using figures as though they were giant Corinthian columns lending order to an architectural faade.

And in all these he constantly toyed with colour, raising it to new heights of daring, brilliance and contrast, exploiting its emotional force until, in his last years, his eyes grown rheumy, the rich reds, greens and orpiments of his young manhood were reduced to tone, the joyful ribald mood to melancholy. …

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