Titian grasped the physical world – by seeking the mysteries underneath

Self-portrait (c 1567), by Titian

Titian’s Touch
By Maria H Loh
Reaktion, 288pp, £15.95/$22.50

Titian is the Shakespeare of Venetian painting, the giant who encompasses the whole world into his art.

John Ruskin, the most capricious and tyrannical of art critics (as well as one of the greatest), much preferred Tintoretto, and Henry James agreed with him on that matter, the two of them separately singing Tintoretto’s glories in magnificent prose. Nevertheless, Titian remains tops among High Renaissance painters, the subject every few years of a major exhibition in London, Paris or New York.

Though a great deal has been written on Titian over the centuries, the monograph of Joseph Archer Crowe and Giovanni Battista Cavalcaselle’s biography (1877) still holds the field. Now this new book, dense in knowledge and slim in size, has appeared, the work of Maria H Loh, an expert in Titian who presently teaches at Hunter College, New York (and formerly at University College, London).

Professor Loh avoids what we know about the Venetian painter’s life. Much of it is to be found in the chapter on him in the monumental Lives of the Artists by Titian’s contemporary, Giorgio Vasari, himself a painter and master of the anecdotal. Vasari, a Tuscan, praised Titian in a way he rarely did artists from areas outside of Florence. As so often with Renaissance artists, including the greatest, most of what is known of Titian’s life is closer to the approximate than to the exact. We know that he died, at a great age, of the Plague, but not whether he was over 100 at the time, as it has been claimed, or merely in his 80s or 90s. In a black skullcap over his bald head, freckled with age, and his long grey beard, he looks like Father Time in his self-portrait painted in 1646, 30 years before his death. Whatever his exact age, he was still working right to the end.

His genius was to bring worlds to life with his hands, with “Titian’s touch”, made all the more sumptuous by his magnificent use of colour. Colour was what Venetian art was also about, as opposed to Florentine which emphasised line, in the previous age of Carpaccio and the Bellinis, no less than in Titian.

One could wish for more connection in this book between Titian and his immediate predecessors. Loh discusses and illustrates Titian’s brilliance in painting dogs and quotes Sir Joshua Reynold’s observation that Titian “invested” his canine subjects “with grandeur and importance”.

She mentions that he studied in the Bellinis’ workshop with Giorgione. But little more is known about that enigmatic figure, whose partnership with Titian may have declined into rivalry by the time of Giorgione’s early death.

Giorgione’s star has faded since Walter Pater featured him in his The School of Giorgione, that Bible of the Renaissance for late 19th-century English aesthetes, which inspired the Beardsley-Wilde generation to “burn with a hard gemlike flame” as Pater prescribed. Since then, masterpieces of an enigmatic tone, formerly considered the mark of Giorgione, have been reassigned to Titian, who may have absorbed Giorgione’s style and then moved on.

Professor Loh discusses the mysterious The Interrupted Concert (c1510) as the obvious example of Titian’s use of Renaissance unity of time, music and touch, without at least considering that it might be the work of Giorgione’s as was once assumed. It does have the inward-looking, mysterious faces considered characteristic of Giorgione.

What Professor Loh does is to explain how Titian, a master of capturing the physical world, did so the more skilfully because of his exploration of the mysteries lying beneath. She tells us that Renaissance figures – whether poets, musicians and painters or doctors, philosophers and divines – saw physical experiences as linked to a cosmic

order by a universal harmony, “an astral magical rhythm that influenced everything from the rotation of the planet down to the ‘musicality of the pulse’”. In his self-portrait, Titian does indeed look like a Renaissance alchemist, “at once, painter, philosopher and sorcerer”, to quote Professor Loh. Venice, that “circulatory world” of “luxury commodities … translations of ancient beliefs”, that aristocracy masquerading as a Republic, was a perfect place for him.

No painter so well mixed the Sacred and Profane, the subject of a 1515 masterpiece featuring two women of fair beauty, which Italian Renaissance painters preferred, perhaps because blondes were rare and exotic to them. Richly sensuous Venuses, naked and inviting sometimes with musicians next to their beds, and Madonnas ascending to the sky in a way that foreshadows the next century’s Baroque were equally natural to his “touch”.

The High Renaissance’s models tended to be fleshier than those of the previous century, not too far removed from the Gothic, and even Titian’s Christs are muscular athletes. Loh is less interested in that and more in less obvious elements such as the way the “vegetation” in Noli Me Tangere “burgeons round Christ as if to fertilise His blood”.

Titian’s best friend, the roguish Pietro Aretino, poet and pornographer, wrote that Mary Magdalene’s sorrow was such that it made the grass and plants weep. And so they do in this magnificent painting, a mixture of art, genius and magic indeed. This short book reminds us of Titian’s achievement, something we may be too much inclined to take for granted.