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Titian

(c. 1485—1576) Italian painter


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(b Pieve di Cadore, c.1480/5; d Venice, 27 Aug. 1576).

The greatest painter of the Venetian School and one of the supreme figures of world art. In the course of a very long and highly prolific career he dominated Venice's art during its golden age and also worked for many illustrious patrons outside the city; his paintings have had a profound and enduring influence on European art. Most of his career is well documented, but his early years are somewhat obscure and his date of birth has long been a subject of scholarly debate, for the evidence concerning it is contradictory; certainly he was very old when he died, although perhaps not quite as old as some accounts suggest (traditionally he lived to be 99). He was probably a pupil of Giovanni Bellini, and in his early work he came under the spell of Giorgione, with whom he had a close relationship. In 1508 (the first secure point in his career) they collaborated on the external fresco decoration (destroyed) of the Fondaco dei Tedeschi (German warehouse) in Venice, and after Giorgione's early death in 1510 Titian is said to have completed a number of paintings that his friend left unfinished. The authorship of certain works (some of them famous) is still disputed between them. Titian's first surviving works that can be precisely dated are three frescos on the life of St Antony of Padua in the Scuola del Santo, Padua (1511), noble and dignified paintings with an almost central Italian firmness and monumentality. Although they show impressive skill in handling fresco, he hardly ever used the medium again, working almost exclusively in oils. In the same year that these murals were painted, Sebastiano del Piombo left Venice for Rome, and with him gone and Giorgione dead, only the aged Bellini stood between Titian and supremacy. After Bellini died in 1516, he was virtually unchallenged as the leading painter in Venice until his own death 60 years later, although in his final decades he worked mainly for foreign patrons, allowing younger artists such as Tintoretto and Veronese to flourish in the domestic arena.

In the second decade of the century Titian moved away from Giorgione's dreamily romantic style and developed a much more robust manner of his own. There is still a good deal of Giorgione's enigmatic poetry in the allegorical Sacred and Profane Love (c.1514, Borghese Gal., Rome), but it is tempered by worldliness, and Titian's style soon became much more dynamic. This is seen particularly clearly in the work that more than any other stamped his authority in Venice—the huge altarpiece of the Assumption of the Virgin (1516–18, S. Maria dei Frari, Venice). It is one of the largest pictures he ever painted and one of the greatest, matching the achievements of his most illustrious contemporaries in Rome in grandeur of form and surpassing them in splendour of colour. The soaring movement of the Virgin, rising from the closely packed group of Apostles towards the hovering figure of God the Father, looks forward to the Baroque. Similar qualities are seen in Titian's two most famous altarpieces of the 1520s: the Virgin and Child with Saints and Members of the Pesaro Family (the Pesaro Altarpiece) (1519–26, S. Maria dei Frari), a bold diagonal composition of great magnificence, and the Death of St Peter Martyr (completed 1530), which he painted for the church of SS. Giovanni e Paolo, Venice, having defeated Palma Vecchio and Pordenone in competition for the commission. The painting was destroyed by fire in 1867, but it is known through copies and engravings: trees and figures together form a violent centrifugal composition appropriate to the action, and Vasari described it as ‘the most celebrated, the greatest work…that Titian has ever done’. The young Titian had important secular as well as ecclesiastical commissions, notably a set of three mythological pictures (1518–23) for Alfonso d' Este, his first princely patron—the Worship of Venus, the Bacchanal (both in the Prado, Madrid), and Bacchus and Ariadne (NG, London). He was also busy as a portraitist. Many of his early portraits are of unknown sitters, as with the exquisite Man with a Glove (c.1520, Louvre, Paris), but later he painted some of the most famous personalities of the day.

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