By Artists Info Artist & Acclaimed Writer ALEX CONNOR
What is the truth about Titian? That great Venetian painter who lived from 1485 – 1576. Ah, we have to stop there. Because his death date isn’t certain. You see, Titian lied about his age. As he got older and wanted sympathy – and a way to wrench money from his tight fisted patrons – he made himself older. How could you cheat a man of seventy? Or eighty? Or ninety?
Clever, but then Titian was always smart. Not only a brilliant painter, he was an astute businessman, never more so than when hiring Pietro Aretino as his agent. Aretino left home after – rumour has it – he assaulted his mother. He left for Venice, to that melting pot of lushness which attracted the most beautiful women, the cleverest men, and the slickest thieves. For a mountebank like Aretino, it was Eden.
There is no doubt that Titian and Aretino were close friends, but its surprising as they had little in common apart from ambition. Aretino was fat, heaving with lust, the first eloquent pornographer. He outraged people with his depravity and his wit. He also had a vicious tongue. Kings and Princes flattered Aretino to keep his pen pointed away from them. He was articulate, sly and decadent. And Titian’s best friend. So when he acted as an Ambassador for the painter, he was relentless.
But not necessarily complimentary.
When referring to his portrait sent to Gonzaga, Duke of Mantua, Aretino said it ‘was excellent, but not finished.’ He continued to be blunt about most things:
If you want to annoy your neighbours, tell the truth about them.
I love you, and because I love you, I would sooner have you hate me for telling you the truth than adore me for telling you lies.
I keep my friends as misers do their treasure, because, of all the things granted us by wisdom, none is greater or better than friendship.
I am, indeed, a king, because I know how to rule myself.
If I had as many thanks as this bird had feathers…….
(This masterly sarcasm was in response to someone sending him a turkey as a present.)
Aretino’s beginnings were bumpy. He rejected the family name of cobbler father and preferred to be known as Pietro 'of Arezzo' (his birthplace) Thanks to his mother’s aristocratic 'protector', Aretino was adopted by cultivated men. He blossomed and his biting wit earned him the patronage of Cardinal Giulio de' Medici. But his rise hit a hiccup when he was prosecuted from obscenity and Bishop Giovanni Giberti sent someone to kill him. Perhaps wisely, Aretino left for Venice.
On arrival, his scathing attacks on political and personal matters of the day ensured that he was venerated and loathed in equal measure. Gifts victims sent to placate him served as Aretino’s salary, coming with the damning soubriquet which remained with him until the end of his life: The Scourge of Princes. Even King Francis I sent him a placatory golden chain.
A master of literary pornography, Aretino was highly sexed.
…. I am so fond of brothels, that the large amount
of time I don’t spend in them almost kills me…
Highly inventive. And highly dangerous. But, for all of that – or maybe because of all of that – Titian took him as his closest friend.
In fact, it’s Aretino who tells us interesting titbits about the painter.
What really makes me marvel is that ..(Titian)… fondles them, makes a to-do of kissing them, and entertains with a thousand juvenile pranks. Yet he never takes it further….
But why should this surprise us? Is it because we associate Titian with Venice, and orgies and courtesans? Because that is the common presumption of the painter who created such sumptuous, sexy masterpieces? The truth, however, is very different. Titian, known as The Sun Amidst Small Stars for his genius, married the love of his life, Cecilia, thereby legitimising their first child, Pomponio. (More of him later.)
Cecilia was, in those immortal words of a popular red top tabloid, ‘a stunner’. In fact, Cecilia was supposed to have been the models for many of Titian’s opulent women. That he loved her is not in question. They had three, possibly four, children together and were genuinely happy as Titian’s talent and fame earned him great wealth. But tragically Cecilia died giving birth to their daughter, Lavinia. Titian – together with his three children – moved house, getting his sister Orsa to leave her home in Cadore to look after him and his children.
In this fabulous mansion – in the Bin Grande – Titian raised his family and also had his studio. To all accounts the house was sumptuous, the gardens spectacular, leading down to the sea with a view of the island of Murano. Yet despite the orgies and sexual freedom of 16th Century Venice, despite the overflow of beautiful models, and his intense friendship with Pietro Aretino, Titian never remarried. It seems that he admired female beauty but never found a replacement for Cecilia.
But if Titian had no desire to find a replacement wife, he might well have wanted a replacement for his first born son, Pomponio. Pressed into religious orders, Pomponio was feckless and weak, Titian favouring his other son, Octavio, who became his assistant in the studio. As for his daughter; Lavinia appears to have been a dutiful daughter and a sometime model for her father. But Pomponio caused Titian much grief. Hardly fit for the church, Pomponio was restless and envious of his favoured sibling and when Titian died he squandered his inheritance within months.
Yet it is always difficult to get a handle on Titian’s real character. He seems approachable, but aloof. Open, but secretive, sensual but cool. Perhaps the artist came be best described by others.
… Titian seemed to us a most reasonable person, pleasant
and obliging … if you should acknowledge his talents
and labours by the promotion of his son….
(Gian Francesco Leoni wrote to Alessandro Farnese)
Hippolyte Taine commented:
‘There is nothing strained or repulsive in his character…. Letters to princes and ministers concerning pictures and pensions contain that degree of humility…. He takes men well and he take life well; that is to say that he enjoys life like other men, without either excess or baseness…. Appreciative of music… and the society of pleasure seeking women. He is not violent, nor tormented…. He paints incessantly without turmoil of the brain and without passion all his life…..’
Titian himself did not leave behind a diary or many personal letters, but there are a few quotes which sum up his thoughts on art:
‘Painting done under pressure by artists without the necessary talent can only give rise to formlessness, as painting is a profession that requires peace of mind. The painter must always seek the essence of things, always represent the essential characteristics and emotions of the person he is painting...’
Or, more succinctly:
He who improvises can never make a perfect line of poetry…..
But I like the words of the artist and historian, Vasari, best. He knew Titian well and had this to say about the Venetian genius:
‘Titian, having adorned Venice, or rather all Italy and other parts of the world, with excellent paintings, well merits to be loved and respected by artists, and is in many things to be admired and imitated also, as one who has produced, and is producing, works of infinite merit; nay, such as must endure while the memory of illustrious men shall remain….’.
But does that tell us about Titian the man? Or Titian the painter? Or maybe the two are indivisible. Without art, there was no man. Without the man, there was no art. What is certain about Titian is that he was a man of his time. In the right city, ready to make a killing in a flourishing arena of wealth, lust, and plenty. He lived through political upheaval, the loss of his wife, the strained relationship with his son, and he survived the plague – no mean feat in itself. He lived a long life and straddled Europe with his genius, whilst giving away very little of himself.
Who was the real man? Who knows. But I like to think of Titian as that wily old painter who was worldly wise enough to lie about his age to garner sympathy and make his patrons cough up. I like to think of him painting lust, whilst grieving for his lost wife; attending parties whilst remaining the outsider; dealing with dignitaries and politicians and keeping his honour. Brilliant, reserved, enigmatic.
The sly old fox of the Adriatic.