Titian: The Last Days

A master's life and death in Venice.

Titian: The Last Days By Mark Hudson Walker & Co. 320 pp., $27.00

What happened to Titian? History reports that the Renaissance master painter perished in the plague that ravaged Venice in 1576 and that many of his final paintings disappeared in the days following, as looters picked clean the abandoned dwellings of the newly deceased.

But is that the true story? In Titian: The Last Days, author Mark Hudson attempts to crack open a case that’s been ice-cold for a half millennium, filling in some of the many gaps in what we do not know about one of the world’s most celebrated painters. Hudson never fully succeeds, but in the process he does allow readers to buckle up and ride shotgun through some pretty fascinating territory – including the cobbled streets and ancient places of Venice, the splendid dwellings of kings and popes, and the rolling foothills of Titian’s native Dolomite Mountains.

Hudson’s book also offers a lively portrait of the robust Venetian art scene and the heated atmosphere that turned a painter of portraits into a celebrity of such intense magnitude.

Tiziano Vecellio – known to the world as Titian – was not only Venice’s greatest painter: He was its first rock star – Elvis with a paintbrush. Any Venetian soirée worth attending had his name atop the guest list. No mansion, royal palace, or church was complete without a Titian on its walls. Hudson writes that Titian and his superstar running buddies, Aretino and Sansovino, formed an inseparable triumvirate – “Venice’s most famous writer, her most influential architect and her greatest painter – a nexus of artistic and social influence around which many other important figures converged.”

“Celebrity art” was alive and kicking in 16th- century Venice. The city’s most beautiful and notorious women climbed over one another to be immortalized by Titian. Emperor Charles V and King Phillip II patiently sat for their portraits. To the painter’s adoring legion of admirers, “having a Titian” was the absolute pinnacle of renaissance cool. In 1516, Titian was anointed Official Painter of the Republic of Italy. No complaints were heard.

A number of Titian’s portraits were painted as “favors,” a savvy form of networking meant to further his connections and gain more and better commissions, higher and higher up the social and political ladder. But Titian’s iconic fame came via his religious and mythological works such as “Assumption of the Virgin,” “Pietà,” and the titillating “Venus of Urbino.” (Three centuries after it was painted, while viewing the guileless sexuality of “The Venus” at Florence’s Uffizi gallery, a red-faced Mark Twain proclaimed it “the foulest, the vilest, the obscenest picture the world possesses.”)

For Titian, the work merely amplified his celebrity, raised his already hefty fees, and garnered him many more naked-lady commissions. Images that would have been scandalous or even illegal drawn by any lesser mortal had now made Venice’s favorite son an even bigger star. From 1516 until his death in 1576, Titian was the “Divine One.”

But who was Tiziano Vecellio, the man? Against long odds, Hudson attempts to tell us. His dogged efforts to get inside Titian’s final Venice residence for a look around are repeatedly thwarted by its present-day tenants. Mining Venetian scholars and dusty bookshops for fresh insights into the man, he comes up with a bucketful of unconnected anecdotes or ubiquitous facts instead. As Hudson’s quest hits one brick wall or locked door after another, you can feel the air seeping out of the promising concept of this book. In the end, the clues lead us back to where we started – was it the great plague or simply old age that took him? We’re still not sure.

And the last paintings – who knows? There are canvasses scattered through homes and galleries in Italy and Spain that somewhat fit the description, but there is no confirmation that they were the ones leaning against his studio walls in Titian’s last days. Another dusty mystery undisturbed.

But along our 320-page journey with Hudson we learn a great deal about the workings of the Venetian art world and Titian’s place in it. Titian’s indulgent compulsion to surpass his teachers’ old compositions takes full measure of this cool customer’s blood temperature. Hudson’s book takes us places we could never go on our own – into sacred vaults and galleries, monasteries and legendary crypts – in search of the soul of one of art’s awe-inspiring practitioners. He never finds the holy grail he was seeking, but there is much to be enjoyed in the hunt.

John Kehe is the Monitor’s design director.

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