Author Q&A with Sheila Hale

  • February 14, 2013

We interviewed Sheila Hale, whose rich biography of Tiziano Vecellio is the first since 1877 to examine all contemporary accounts of Titian’s life and work.

Born in the mountains above Venice in the late fifteenth century, Tiziano Vecellio – or Titian – was the greatest painter of the Venetian High Renaissance.  A poetic visionary and a technical master of oils, he painted everything, from frescoes and grand altarpieces to mythological stories and portraits – works described by his contemporaries as “mirrors of nature.”

Sheila Hale’s rich biography is the first since 1877 to examine all contemporary accounts of Titian’s life and work as well as recent art historical scholarship, some of it previously unpublished.  Her book charts the extraordinary transformation of Titian’s style: from the radiant, minutely realized masterpieces of his youth, to the more freely painted work of his middle years, to the dark, tragic, sometimes terrifying visions of his old age.

Clearly, you have done an extraordinary amount of work. One of the things that readers notice about biography is that authors do so much research and yet remain reluctant to speak in their own voices. When does the researcher/biographer become the expert?

Some biographers do in fact write in the first person describing their quest for their subject, their visit to the home town, their discovery of documents, etc. I preferred to shine a light on Titian rather than myself. I think it is more interesting to see him as far as possible through the eyes of his contemporaries who inhabited a world that was very different from our own. However, having said that I should add that any writer about any subject is speaking in his or her own voice by making what are inevitably subjective choices of what to include and what to exclude or imply, by the way the material is arranged, by expressing opinions, and not least by the tone of the authorial voice. My objectives were to tell the story of Titian’s life in the context of a world in which he was the most internationally celebrated painter, and to make a clear distinction between documented facts and speculations. A different writer, even one who had started with the same plan, would have produced a different book.

I don’t think there is any hard or fast rule about which expert should or should not be quoted. In the case of Titian it seemed important to quote from contemporaries who wrote to and about him. I have also quoted a number of authorities who have written about Titian across the centuries because they seem to me to have made revealing observations, or to be typical representatives of the taste of their own times, (or in some cases, made comments that have subsequently been proven by documentary evidence to be untrue).

“Sacred and Profane Love” is the title of Titian’s 1514 work, the subtitle of Andrew Graham-Dixon’s book on the life of Caravaggio and indeed the fundamental conundrum of being a painter in the 16th century? How would allegiance to either one or the other influence painting, painters and their subjects or is it just history’s after effect?  Did Titian have any trouble selecting or depicting his subjects?

The title of the picture you mention was given to it in the 18th century, and it has nothing to do with Christianity. The question is which of the two female figures is Venus (a pagan goddess) and which represents a pure bride. There have been a number of interpretations of what the painting means, and of which of the women is Venus and which profane, in the sense of being an earthly woman (see my pp. 150 – 156). I don’t know why Andrew Graham Dixon chose the phrase for his subtitle, except that most believing Christian painters until quite recently owed what I suppose you mean by “allegiance” to their Church and assumed that their audience shared their faith and knew the Christian story. Most, like Titian, painted both secular and religious subjects usually depending on the request of a patron or destination of the painting, i.e., for a church or chapel, or in the case of sexy women for a man’s bedroom. Early in the 16th century, before the dictates of the Counter Reformation took hold, Titian’s religious paintings looked very much like his secular ones. It was only as patrons and painters were more and more affected by the demands of the Church reformers that the emphasis was more on man’s redemption through the suffering of Christ and the saints.

Yes, Titian often had trouble selecting and depicting his subjects. We know this because scientific investigations of his pictures often show that they are painted over entirely different subjects, which he had evidently discarded. There are also far more pentimenti, changes of mind, beneath his finished paintings than is the case with pictures by other painters. One case in point about the sort of difficulties he had in completing paintings to his satisfaction is The Death of Actaeon in the London National Gallery, which he promised to Philip II in 1559 but did not actually paint until the end of his life.

Giorgio Vasari coined the term “Renaissance.” Was its 16th century meaning different than the way we use the word now?  Without his Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects, where would one begin?  He left Titian out of his first version; does it make you wonder if there were other artists that were not favored by Vasari?

Yes, the meaning of Renaissance was different in the 16th century. Vasari was the first writer to popularize the idea that art was reborn in central Italy shortly after 1300. It was not, however, until1855, with the publication of Jules Michelet’s La Renaissance that the word “renaissance” was applied not only to art but to an entire historic period. Five years later Jacob Burckhardt applied the term to the spirit of Italian history from 1300-1550.

Where indeed would we be without Vasari! But there is always the caveat that he got a lot wrong. He left Titian out of the first edition because that edition was, with the single exception of Michelangelo who was by then very old, about dead painters.

Titian was the first to use live models and make them live through paint, moving them, draping them, giving them an “overt sexuality.”  Was it partly in the contrapposto?  At the same time, he kept the women in his own life secret, even from close friends.  Was he protecting them from the paparazzi of his day?  Yet he painted his young daughters and perhaps one of his own lovers which would have made them recognizable.

Was Titian’s depiction of women the result of a sort of natural evolution or owed solely to his genius?

Titian was not the first or last artist to paint female nudes in contrapposto. He was, however, the first to paint them lying down, which is obviously more suggestive than having them standing. What makes them so sexy is the realistic treatment of their flesh and hair, and their inviting expressions. In the two Danae, they are actually engaged in the act of love. I doubt very much that he was trying to protect his models, many of whom were probably prostitutes or courtesans, and were private commissions for patrons who would have hung them in their bedrooms. They were not, in other words, available to the public gaze. I speculate that the model of the Flora might have been his first wife, but since wives in Venice kept a very low profile it is unlikely that anyone would have identified her. He sent a portrait of his daughter Emilia to Philip II, but, again that is hardly the same thing as splashing her over the front pages. As for his own love life I’m afraid we just have to accept that he was a very discreet man.

Many Venetian painters met the demand for pictures of alluring young women. Titian was simply the best in this genre as in others, partly because he knew how to use oil paint to create the illusion of reality.

Did the “Vendecolori,” paint shops, exist only in Venice?  Were they profitable?  Venice was known for red yet the monopoly was on lapis lazuli. Titian was known as a colorist.  Would this have still been true, if he lived in, say, Rome, Milan?

The answer to your first question is on p. 46: Yes, they existed only in Venice; in other cities pigments were sold by apothecaries. The vendecolori must have been profitable because they proliferated, doubtless because they sold in large quantities to the textile, glass and ceramics industries as well as to painters. Venice was also known for yellow and white lead. There is no contradiction between that and its near monopoly on lapis lazuli, which it re-exported to painters in the rest of Europe.

I believe that the existence of the vendecolori, where pigments were cheaper than elsewhere in Italy and which sold colours previously used for other purposes such as dyeing, did encourage Venetian painters to experiment with different colour mixtures and combinations and glazes. So I doubt if he or his contemporaries would have relied as much on colour if they had lived in other cities.

Titian apprenticed in Giorgione’s studio and Giorgione was known to have “under drawings.”  You say that Titian did not draw and that Michelangelo supposedly comments that the Venetians should have learned to draw and goes on to say that “had Titian been assisted by art and design no one could achieve more work or better.”

Later in the book, you mention that Titian’s “vivid” preparatory sketch of the “bridge over the Boite below the slopes of Monte Antelao” still exists though the painting does not.  Please clarify the difference between drawing, sketching, and under drawing?  What was Titian’s preparation?  Did it change over time?

I hope I never said that Titian did not draw. He was a superb draughtsman. Vasari told the story about Michelangelo in order to demonstrate his, Vasari’s, preference for the central Italian reliance on drawn outlines in paintings.

Drawing is a complete and considered representation often in chalk, pencil or ink. A sketch is an informal or unfinished drawing. An underdrawing is a preparatory drawing or sketch made on the support of a painting as the guideline for the finished composition. Titian was the first to paint directly on the support with only minimal underdrawings.

Titian’s methods of preparation were conventional. It was his free way of painting that was new.

In one passage, you say that Titian, and other Venetian painters who ran their studios like family organizations, had no arch rival? You also say that after Titian “quotes” Michelangelo, he becomes his artistic opposite and principal rival.  Please clarify.

There seems to be no plagiarism in painting, more a competition in “interpreting the same passages.”  Was there no penalty for “quoting” Michelangelo?  No praise or glory in being the first to interpret something new?

Unlike most Venetian painters Titian did not run his studio primarily as a family business, although he did occasionally employ members of his family for short periods. After the deaths of Giovanni Bellini and Giorgione and the departure of Sebastiano he had no arch rival in Venice. That, I believe, is why he refused an invitation to Rome. Michelangelo was not Venetian. Titian’s quotations from Michelangelo and other painters including Raphael and Dürer would have been intended and taken as compliments. (Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.) See the epigraph from Richard Wollheimon p 133. It is not plagiarism to quote in painting, writing or music a passage from another person as long as one does not pretend it is one’s own.

It’s difficult to imagine that Michelangelo wouldn’t have been curious to meet Titian in Venice after reacting with stupefaction to seeing his work in Ferrara?

There is no evidence that they met in Venice. You are welcome to imagine that they did, but bear in mind that Michelangelo, who was about fifteen years older than Titian, was already recognized as one of the greatest central Italian artists and Titian was not yet the celebrity he would become in the 1530s after he was knighted by the emperor.

Titian is referred to as “the most painterly of painters.” What does this mean?

It means that he used paint rather than outlined figures and perspective, as in central Italian paintings, to achieve his effects. As he grew older he allowed the act of painting – the brush strokes, the modeling with his fingers –to become more and more visible.

Titian is compared to Apelles who, today, has no surviving work.  Could Titian have seen any of his work in the 16th century?

Many Renaissance painters were compared to Apelles who was regarded as the exemplar of poetic painting and whose lost works were described in detail, mostly by Pliny the Elder. The epithet was applied to Titian more than to any other artist especially after he became painter to the emperor Charles V, just as Apelles had been painter to Alexander the Great.

The “Death of St. Peter” in the church of Santi Giovanni e Paolo at the end of April 1530 is a “pilgrimage painting – most copied, most admired, most described masterpiece in all Europe before it was destroyed.”  And yet, his “Triumph of Christ” was an international bestseller in 1517.  The events seem totally unrelated, why?  Wouldn’t one triumph create the expectation of the other?  Even in different mediums?

A single painting and a woodcut, which is printed in multiples, are two entirely different things, and I disagree with your assumption that a mastery of one implies that of the other. On the contrary. Furthermore, you can buy a print and put it on your wall without moving. To see a painting you have to visit the church or gallery where it hangs. They are different experiences, not least because Titian’s woodcuts (and later engravings of his paintings) were in black and white, and one of the outstanding qualities of his paintings, as we have discussed above, was colour.

How is it possible that Titian was not sanctioned for giving Mary Magdalen a sexual self but Michelangelo’s nude figures in the Sistine Chapel wore fig leafs until 1990?

Mary Magdalen, who is never showed entirely nude, was accepted by the Church as a saint and a suitable subject for cabinet paintings, because she repented. Paintings of her were not shown in churches until much later. The Last Judgment is in a chapel and the fig leaves were applied during the height of the Counter Reformation.

Titian’s portraits were “scattered nearly around the world.”  What about the woodcuts?  You also mention that the “First Entombment” painted for Phillip the II, “went astray.”  Is this euphemistic for ‘in some other person’s collection?’ Is there a catalogue of vanished paintings?  How many paintings have been “lost”?

The answer to the first question is, as above: portraits are individual paintings, which are now scattered throughout the picture galleries of the world;  woodcuts, as I have said, are always intended as multiples. In other words, a painted portrait is unique (although there may be a few studio or later copies of it); a printed woodcut is not.

We have no idea how the first Entombment for Philip was lost. If it had been stolen, as you suggest, I’m sure it would have been discovered by now. About half of Titian’s works, about 250-300 have been lost over time, some in fires or during wars. Of course dealers and galleries are always trying to find the lost paintings, or to attribute to Titian paintings that have been given to other painters; and occasionally they succeed.

If Titian had surrendered to becoming a court painter how would it have changed his entire oeuvre?

Yes, because he would have been more beholden to the requirements of the prince and courtiers.

As on old man – he had a burning desire coupled with a lack of strength.  Like any artist, maybe things were revealed to him as he worked, things that can’t easily be put into words.  In the book, you don’t say how you would characterize the later work.  Do you believe the late work was more a product of old age or changing technique?  Why?

I think I do say, and at some length, how I characterize the late work, and if you look at the late paintings, or read the description of Titian at work by Palma Giovane, you may agree with me that there was no loss of artistic strength. I also say that the late work is a product of both old age and changing technique – as is the case with any great artist who lives long enough. The difference is that Titian was more protean than any painter until perhaps Picasso, and his last paintings look nothing at all like his early ones.

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