Titian: life and works

Titian: life and works

On 18 July 2013, approximately 50 Dante members enjoyed a presentation by Gordon Bull of the ANU School of Art on the great Italian Renaissance painter, Titian.

Gordon Bull during his presentation on Tiziano

Titian (Tiziano Vecellio) was born in the small town of Pieve di Cadore in the Veneto region, in about 1485, but he lived most of his life in Venice. He reached a remarkable age for a man of his time, dying at about 90 in 1576. Along with Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael and Michelangelo, Titian was one of the four major painters of the High Renaissance. He differed from them in his approach to painting, however, being on the opposite side of the Renaissance debate as to whether ‘disegno’ or ‘colore’ was superior.

Disegno (Italian for ‘drawing’ or ‘design’) referred to an approach that was considered to be cerebral. It involved planning and the use of scientific principles, such as the precise study of anatomy and the rules of perspective. It was particularly favoured in Florence. Giorgio Vasari, a contemporary Florentine artist and writer and a devotee of Michelangelo, described disegno as “the animating principle of all creative processes.” Leonardo, Raphael and Michelangelo were prodigious producers of drawings, but we have almost no drawings by Titian. It is said that Michelangelo met Titian only once, when he and Vasari visited Titian’s studio where Titian was working on Danae (1553-54). According to Vasari, Michelangelo remarked later that it was a pity they didn’t teach drawing in Venice.

The ‘colore’ approach, in which light, colour and atmosphere were predominant, was espoused by the Venetian School. Mr Bull described a theory that this can be explained by the environment of Venice itself – sunlight reflected off the water, Venetian glass, and the luminous gold mosaics of San Marco, combined with the general feeling of movement, instability and undulation.

Venice favoured artistic developments in other ways, too. Although it was beginning to decline in Titian’s time, Venice was wealthy and its palazzi and churches provided support for the arts. Religious orders – particularly the Domenicans and Franciscans – competed to commission the greatest art works. Venice’s role as a major trading port also assisted. Among other things, its shipbuilding industry produced huge quantities of canvas for sails, at a time when artists were beginning to paint on canvas, rather than on wooden boards. This innovation came from the Netherlands and Germany, as did the use of oil paint instead of tempera. Artists in Venice, a cosmopolitan city in the north of Italy, were among the first to be exposed to and adopt these new techniques.

Rather than developing his ideas through painstaking preliminary drawing, Titian worked directly on canvas, slowly developing his composition on the canvas. He achieved luminous, sensual colours by the application of successive very thin layers of paint (glazes). He was less concerned with precise anatomical accuracy or geometric design.

Mr Bull described how Titian’s art derived from what had gone before, but also had a profound influence on later artists up to the modern day. His first teacher was Giovanni Bellini (1430-1516), and he was perhaps taught later by Giorgione (1477-1510). He worked on paintings together with both Bellini and Giorgione. Titian’s work is characterised by the use of landscape, developed by Bellini.

Titian introduced innovative approaches to composition. For example, in the Pesaro Madonna (1519 -26), he cast aside the tradition of the symmetrical altarpiece and displaced the Madonna from the centre. In this way, he ensured that, from the painting’s position at the side of the Frari in Venice (where the painting still remains in situ), the painting makes sense to the spectator approaching it down the aisle of the church. The use of asymmetry, as well as taking account of the work’s specific location, foreshadow the future, and would become a feature of the Baroque style.

It is in Titian’s reinterpretation of iconography that we see changes so radical that centuries later they were still causing controversy. The traditional ‘Venus pudica’ pose, in which a naked woman’s cupped hand conceals, but also draw attention to, her genitals, had been copied from classical Greek and Roman sculpture by Renaisssance artists, including by Giorgione in his Sleeping Venus (1510). In his Venus of Urbino (1538), commissioned by the Duke of Urbino possibly to celebrate his 1534 marriage, Titian took this mythical figure from the classics and brought her to life. He moved her into the reality of a genre setting (ie a scene of everyday life) and humanised the goddess by opening her eyes and engaging them with the viewer, thus achieving quite an erotic effect. In fact, Mark Twain in his 1880 travelogue, A Tramp Abroad, called the Venus of Urbino “the foulest, the vilest, the obscenest picture the world possesses”. [*see footnote] Over 3 centuries later, in 1863, Edouard Manet paid homage to the Venus of Urbino by using it as the model for his painting of a courtesan, Olympia. Olympia created a major scandal when it was exhibited at the Paris Salon, being described by critics as immoral and vulgar.


In his later years, Titian worked mostly for the court of Phillip II of Spain, and there are now more of his works in the Prado than in Venice. His technique continued to change, his handling of paint becoming looser and looser. Looking close-up at his final painting, Pieta (1573-1576), one can see only skeins of paint. It is only by stepping back that the spectator can recognise what is represented. The freedom in Titian’s use of paint was greatly admired by later painters, especially Velazquez, Rembrandt, and Manet, and he can be considered a precursor of the Impressionists. Titian was, as Gordon Bull described him, truly a painter’s painter.

Footnote from Heather Ahern:

Some in the art world claim that the Venus D’Urbino was in fact so erotic that she is considered the precursor to the pin up. If you would like to spend more time in the company of the courtesan who is thought to have posed for the Venus D’Urbino then I suggest you read the book In the Company of the Courtesan by Sarah Dunant. Her latest novel Blood and Beauty has as its subject Lucretia Borgia who you will remember from our viewing of the painting Feast of the Gods by Titian, another of the paintings in Gordon Bull’s selection. It is thought that Lucretia Borgia features as a guest in this feast along with her third husband, Alfonzo D’Este. Dunant gives us wonderful opportunities to explore the world of Titian.

VenusHeather Ahern and Susan Reye