Titian, the greatest painter of the Venetian Renaissance, was born about 1488 in Pieve di Cadoro, in the foothills of the Dolomites. He came down to Venice at the age of nine and was apprenticed to the workshops of Gentile and Giovanni Bellini. He wrote letters to his noble patrons, some of them explaining the delay in delivering his work (“It would have reached Spain several months ago had it not been for the tardiness, indisposition, and eventually the death of your secretary”). But very little is known about his personal life.

Giorgio Vasari knew Titian personally and described him as “a most healthy and fortunate man, who has received nothing but favours from heaven. In addition to his genius he possesses the most courtly manners.” He was robust, energetic, and immensely productive; devoted to his family; patriotically attached to Venice; reluctant to travel, though he went south to Rome and north to Augsburg; proud of his honors and fame; at ease with the great potentates of his age. He became official painter to the Venetian state as well as to the Emperor Charles V and to his son, Philip II of Spain. In his epic poem Orlando Furioso, Ariosto wrote that “Titian is honored / Not only in Cadore, but also in Venice and Urbino.” Like Verdi and Picasso, he produced a series of masterpieces into advanced old age. During the plague of 1576, he died of a fever.

This book is handsomely designed and sumptuously illustrated. Pedrocco has mastered the enormous —and often contradictory—scholarship, producing a dry but valuable introduction and commentary on all of Titian’s 270 paintings. He relies on attribution, provenance, and date to establish the authoritative canon, but also considers iconography, content, and meaning. Titian completed many pictures begun by Giorgione; in these cases, it is difficult to determine the precise attributions. Bernard Berenson helped clarify the issue when he said that Titian’s pictures seem “done by an older Giorgione, with better possession of himself, and a larger and firmer hold on the world.” In his greatest art, Titian combines the chromatic voluptuosity of Giorgione with the sinuous draftsmanship of Dürer. He is masterful at painting the subtle textures of linen, velvet, and silk, brocade, damask, and fur; of light glinting off gold, jewels, and armor. Toward the end of his long life, as his hand began to lose its cunning, he painted with his fingers as well as with his brush.

Pedrocco observes that Titian’s magnificent portraits, “enlivened by the strong and luminous colors and the majestic monumentality of the forms,” combine “psychological introspection with an extraordinary sense of physical presence.” Titian first painted Charles V—the greatest monarch of his time—both seated in an armchair and standing with a dog. (Titian’s charming dogs, especially the heavy white Labrador that appears in two paintings, humanize the often forbidding figures.) Charles V at Mühlberg (1548) commemorates the battle of April 24, 1547, in which the Protestants, led by Johann Friedrich, elector of Saxony, were beaten on the banks of the Elbe. Charles—mounted, with lance in hand and dressed in the armor he actually wore into combat—is portrayed at the summit of his power. The battle is now over, and the emperor, in heroic isolation as the armed and triumphant victor, claims the curiously peaceful field. Integrity, strength of will, and sense of duty shine forth from this Catholic knight and defender of the faith. Titian’s painting influenced the equestrian portraits of Rubens and Velázquez, just as his lusciously sensual Venus of Urbino led directly to Goya’s Naked Maja and Ingres’s Odalisque.

Titian’s portrait of Charles’ defeated enemy, Johann Friedrich, also foreshadows Goya’s satiric paintings of the Spanish royal family. His small head, with sloping forehead, is rammed into a monstrously swollen body (all Wurst and beer), without the benefit of a neck. His sausage-like fingers, florid complexion, and wary expression reveal the character of a man who’s just narrowly escaped the sentence of death.

Titian portrayed Philip II (enemy of Elizabeth I) with pale face, heavy-lidded eyes, thick lips, and wispy beard. His rigid sheath of lavishly embossed armor opens to a defiant codpiece, puffed and slashed breeches, ivory hose, and soft white slippers. His hand rests on a plumed helmet, while the thick, scaly fingers of his gauntlet (resting on a red velvet cloth) suggest the warrior’s menace.

Titian also did two superb Self-Portraits. In 1562, he is seated with one splay-fingered hand on a table, the other on his knee. Wearing a black cap, fur-trimmed jacket, shimmering white shirt, and Order of the Golden Spur (conferred by Charles V), the grey-bearded septuagenarian sage gazes dreamily into the distance. Six years later and noticeably aged, with sharpened nose and lined face, he is more soberly dressed in black, with a slash of white collar, and holds a brush to signify the dignity of his profession.

One of Titian’s greatest religious paintings is The Martyrdom of St. Lawrence. “The scene of the martyrdom,” Pedrocco writes of the third-century Roman, barbecued on a grill,

is set in the deep obscurity of night, pierced by shafts of artificial light from the torches, by the illuminated temple in the background, and by the glow of embers under the gridiron on which the saint is stretched out; the light is reflected on Lawrence’s body and those of his tormentors, and gleams on the armor of the soldiers. The saint turns toward the heavens as the clouds open to release a flood of divine light.

Titian’s penultimate painting, the rarely seen Flaying of Marsyas in Kromeriz, Czech Republic, is even more cruel than St. Lawrence—and lacks the theme of a sure and certain hope of salvation. The tale from Ovid describes the Phrygian satyr and flautist who dared challenge Apollo to a musical contest. To punish his presumptuous pride, he is hung upside down by his hairy animal legs and skinned alive by two painstaking vivisectionists. The unspeakable brutality—a symbol for human suffering transcended by the power of great art—is intensified by two indifferent observers: a graceful violinist (Apollo or Orpheus) and a reflective King Midas, who judged the ill-fated competition.

A final masterpiece of sublime cruelty is The Death of Actaeon in London. In another Ovidian horror story, Actaeon, after seeing Diana bathing naked, is turned into a stag and torn apart by his own hounds. Iris Murdoch’s pulsating and poetic description in Henry and Cato surpasses anything in Pedrocco’s book:

The immortal goddess, with curving apple cheek, her bow uplifted, bounds with graceful ruthless indifference across the foreground, while further back, in an underworld of brooding light, the doll-like figure of Actaeon falls stiffly to the onslaught of the dogs. A stream flashes. A distant horseman passes. The woods, the air, are of a russet brown so intense and so frightening as to persuade one that the tragedy is taking place in total silence.


[Titian, by Filippo Pedrocco, translated by Corrado Federici (New York: Rizzoli Press) 336 pp., $100.00]