The Artist Titian

The greatest Renaissance painter was born in Pieve di Cadore (Venice) around 1490. Tiziano Vecelli, known now as Titian, dominated the Venetian High Renaissance, a separate movement from the communities of artists in Rome and Florence. Titian has been described in many ways—by art scholars as the father of modern painting who established oil painting’s predominance in the West and by his own peers as “The Sun Amidst Small Stars.” Before striking out on his own, Titian studied under Giovanni Bellini, who painted serene, devotional paintings. Titian was also a contemporary of Giorgioni and was influenced by his work.

Young Titian’s first significant commission was the Assumption of the Virgin (1516-1518) for the high altar at Saint Maria dei Frairi (Venice). Honour and Fleming describe the work as “Titian’s uncompromising departure from Venetian conventions.” Assumption “is said to have dismayed the friars of the church when they first saw it.” The Assumption of the Virgin is a vibrant painting of contrasting light and darks. It stands at 22 feet high. The Virgin Mary rises into the heavens ringed by a crowd of beautiful cherubim. From the ground, the hands of the disciples reach up to her as if they don’t want her to leave. At the top, God the Father waits for Mary with two angels.

Altar pieces continued to occupy Titian’s time, but he also championed secular projects. After 1532, he painted Emperor Charles V. He was also courted by Pope Paul III to complete a portrait in Rome as a resident of the household, but he later painted the Pope in 1548. In its permanent home at The Hermitage (St. Petersburg), Pope Paul III shows Titian’s adoption of the Raphael trademark, a three-quarter length person with a three-quarter head position. Titian also exhibits careful attention to naturalism, a characteristic of Renaissance and Classical art. The velvet of his scarlet mozzetto and the plush red chair reflect texture and volume, true marks of his genius.

Titian painted many subjects like his peers, but he was also a revolutionary. In Venus of Urbino (1538), Titian paints a mythological Venus, a creamy-skinned woman sprawled in nude splendor on a bed. In The Rape of Europa (1559-1562), Titian paints for Phillip II a sexually-charged portrayal of Jupiter’s ecstasy as he rapes Europa in the form of a ram.

In 2009, James Hall reported for The Guardian that Titan’s painting of beautiful women and nude figures was customary in the Renaissance because powerful men often commissioned portraits of their friends’ wives. For Renaissance men, Hall writes, “Gazing rapturously at such images was not considered a quasi-adulterous transgression; it was a noble civic duty.”

The great Titian left many works of art for Renaissance lovers. He died in 1576.