In 1994 there appeared one of the great cultural and intellectual histories of our time, “The Civilization of Europe in the Renaissance.” Because its author, Sir John Hale, had suffered a stroke just after completing the manuscript, the book’s final revisions and polishing were undertaken by his wife, Sheila Hale. Now almost 20 years later, Sheila Hale has brought out her own magnum opus, this magnificent account of the incomparable Venetian artist Titian and the world he lived in.
“Titian: His Life” is, in fact, just the book for the bleak winter months ahead. Not a universal genius like Leonardo or Michelangelo, Titian was instead strictly a painter, a master colorist, whose canvases are vibrantly alive with movement and warmth. Certainly there can be few more sensuous paintings in the history of art than his depictions of classical subjects: “Bacchus and Ariadne,” “The Three Ages of Man,” “Sacred and Profane Love,” “The Rape of Europa,” and “Diana and Actaeon,” to mention just a few, although one wouldn’t want to overlook his several masterpieces of overtly erotic portraiture, such as “Danae,” in which a beautiful woman languorously opens her nude body to Zeus in the shape of a shower of gold. Titian, Hale informs us, was the first artist to paint live female models who were lying down.
But the Venetian master could readily switch from producing classical pinups for a duke’s love-nest to painting religious scenes of the deepest conviction: His harrowing “Entombment of Christ” shows Jesus’s body in shadowy darkness, Mary utterly bereft. In his “Pieta,” Jesus’s lifeless body has turned all the world into a leached-out, monochromatic gray. By contrast, Titian’s “Presentation of the Virgin” transforms a standard history painting into a touching and very human Kodak moment: At first, one sees just a crowded group of people, milling about a vaguely antique city — until the eye is drawn to a little girl dressed in blue, ever so delicately raising up the hem of her dress, as she ascends the marble steps of the temple. And of course Titian angels are still frequently used on Christmas cards.
A memory: When I was 22, I spent four days in Venice, living in a youth hostel and looking at art. Of all the wonderful paintings I saw then, the one that has stayed with me most is Titian’s “The Assumption of the Virgin,” said to be the largest altarpiece ever painted in Venice. The centerpiece of a Franciscan church, it depicts Mary, struck with wonder and perhaps a tinge of fear, being raised up to heaven by putti-like angels. While her dress this time is an eye-catching (and uncharacteristic) tomato red, her cloak is her usual rich dark blue, and it swirls and flutters as she lifts her arms toward God the Father (who peers down from a golden cloud), even as an astonished crowd of very realistic apostles stares up in consternation, shock and confusion. The 19th-century sculptor Canova called the “Assunta” the greatest painting in the world. As Hale writes, “There cannot be many other works of art that combine such architectonic solidity with such dynamism, or which are in such perfect harmony with the buildings for which they were created.”
In the course of a long life, Titian — who was born Tiziano Vecellio between 1488 and 1490 and lived until 1576 — came to dominate 16th-century art, working at various times for the Medici, the Este, the Farnese and the Gonzaga families, painting portraits of Emperor Charles V, Philip II of Spain, Francis I of France, Pope Paul III and successive doges of Venice. His elegant “Man with a Glove” — no one knows the identity of the sitter — depicts a young man so calmly handsome and self-possessed that George Eliot modeled the eponymous hero of her novel “Daniel Deronda” after him.
Ultimately, though, as with Shakespeare, we don’t know very much about Titian’s personal life. He was devoted to his family (which was in the lumber business), visited his native Cadore on the Venetian mainland with some regularity, and lived well as Europe’s leading painter. In the studio, he tended to work directly on his canvas without preliminary drawings, revised his design as he went along and was usually slow to finish anything, sometimes starting a painting, then putting it aside for weeks, months, even years. Hale suggests that the reticent painter could nonetheless be wryly humorous and convivial enough to win the regard of noblemen such as Federico Gonzaga and the close friendship of that audacious literary bravo and “scourge of princes,” Pietro Aretino, known today as a high-class pornographer.
Given the lack of letters and personal documents, Hale could have produced a very slender biography. But, happily for readers, she instead enriches her book with numerous vignettes, facts, pen portraits and anecdotes. Today, we sometimes forget that Renaissance Italy was a bloody battleground, as emperors, kings, popes, dukes and doges laid siege to cities and fought ruthlessly for power. Venice, in particular, “was the wealthiest, most glamorous, most sophisticated, most cosmopolitan, most admired — and most hated — metropolis in Europe.” It was also the most theatrical, a quality reflected in its greatest artist’s work.
During Titian’s lifetime the plague regularly broke out, Rome was brutally sacked, the Vatican gutted (by German and Spanish soldiers), and women, no matter how beautiful or beloved, often died in childbirth. Hale offers fascinating accounts of Titian’s friends and supporters — Aretino, cultural maven Pietro Bembo, sculptor and architect Jacopo Sansovino, the urbane Duke of Ferrara (who married Lucrezia Borgia). She discusses book publishing, the influence of classical sculpture, artists’ materials, painting techniques (Titian liked to use his fingers), Renaissance music, the widespread practice of sodomy, many battles, and Venice’s oligarchic system of government. And much, much else.
She also frequently reminds us of how much art we have lost. Titian’s “St. Peter Martyr” — not the Apostle Peter — was “the most admired, most copied, most described single masterpiece in Europe,” and it was destroyed by a fire in 1867. She notes that no Renaissance artist, “with the exception of Andrea Mantegna, was able to read or write Latin” and that Giulio Romano is the only one mentioned by Shakespeare.
Best of all, Hale writes an elegant, even worldly prose: The young Pietro Bembo spent his youth “gallivanting in the princely courts of Italy where he had numerous affairs, some no doubt platonic.” One obese cardinal of the church owned “more than one hundred carnival disguises.” Hale’s book is thus delicious as well as authoritative. One might wish for more than just two suites of color illustrations, but that’s about the only reservation to be made about “Titian: His Life.” For me, it’s the biography of the year.
Dirda reviews books every Thursday for The Washington Post.
By Sheila Hale
Harper. 832 pp. $39.99