Titian: The Wheeler Dealer who Created the Goddess





Titian’s 'Venus of Urbino’ is among the world’s sexiest paintings. Who was the man behind the masterpiece?

There she lies, sprawled on a bed that fills the breadth of the picture, her teenage flesh sheathed in a creamy, golden glow, wearing nothing but a ring, a bracelet and a faint smile which seems simply to be saying, “Here I am – what are you going to do about it?”

This is Titian’s Venus of Urbino, one of the sexiest paintings ever created, one of the masterpieces of Western art – an image that lurks in your consciousness whether you’re aware of it or not. It’s a painting that has been endlessly revisited by other artists through the centuries (not least Velasquez, Goya and Manet) in works that play with the tension between the nude as Platonic symbol – of love, beauty, bodily perfection – and the irresistible gawp-factor of a naked woman on a bed.
But what makes Titian’s painting unique, and uniquely erotic, is the unreadable expression in the subject’s slanting, slightly smoky eyes. On the one hand Venus is exhibiting herself to us in a practised, professional way. On the other there’s something trusting, almost innocent in the frankness of her gaze.

Titian was nearly 50, old by the standards of his time, when he painted this, the ultimate young man’s picture. Of all the debates this work has inspired over the centuries – whether the subject is indeed the goddess Venus or just some young strumpet; whether it was designed to celebrate an aristocratic marriage or simply as a piece of deluxe erotica; on the significance of the hand lolling between Venus’s legs – little of any worth has been said about what the painting meant to the artist himself. Titian, the “painter’s painter”, seems absent from his own work. But then, as I discovered during the four years I spent researching and writing a book about him, a sense of the impersonal – a frustrating discrepancy between the man and the work – is an aspect of what makes this artist truly great...

... If Titian, the historical figure revealed in the letters and documents, feels locked in a distant era – a cantankerous entrepreneur who sometimes seems more interested in timber-dealing and property speculating than he does in painting – the Titian revealed by the paintings feels in essence still alive. Looking at the Venus of Urbino, standing just inches from the canvas Titian himself touched, you are in a position of almost indecent intimacy with the past, following the movements of Titian’s hand and eye as his brush describes the contours of Venus’s flesh.

The implications of these marks on canvas are endlessly complex and enigmatic. Titian did work on occasion for female patrons, but in this painting he puts us inescapably into the role of the male viewer. There is a whole culture of romantic speculation concerning Titian’s relationships with his models. Yet as you stare at the Venus of Urbino, it dawns on you that Titian, the consummate craftsman, was more concerned with the viewer’s desires than he was with his own as he touched the sweetest girl in the world into being.

Indeed, if the Venus of Urbino involved a specific model who appears in several of Titian’s other paintings – as is generally assumed – how come her pose and proportions correspond almost exactly to those of the so-called Dresden Venus, painted nearly 30 years earlier by Titian’s late rival and sometime friend Giorgione?

In attempting to close the gap between the ruthless opportunist revealed by the documents and the sensual humanist who lives on in the paintings, my aim wasn’t to tidy up the complexities opened up by just about every painting, but to make them real for the reader in an emotional sense.

That’s how I came to find myself spending long periods crouching in a Venetian alley, peering through a kind of antique entry phone device into a private garden on the other side of which stood the gaunt, shuttered façade of Titian’s house. From the upper windows of the house, Titian could look out across the lagoon towards the peaks of his homeland – Cadore in the Dolomites. While in his day his garden is said to have stretched down to the marshy water’s edge, a whole block of later buildings now separates his house from the bustling embankment of the Fondamente Nuove. The basic volume of the house remains as it was, but the interior has been so drastically remodelled over the centuries – it is now flats – that it has been pretty much ignored by art historians. Yet the idea of that building, which may have been looted of important paintings after Titian’s death during the plague epidemic of 1576, provided the central motif in my book.

If I stared at that building long enough, I sometimes felt, I would understand Titian’s raw, mysterious final paintings. I would know whether they represented a late, radical painterly departure or were simply a pile of unfinished canvases. I would comprehend the difficult relationship between the artist and his eldest son, the priest Pomponio. I would understand Titian himself.


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