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One of the most successful artists of the Italian Renaissance, Titian was the master of the sixteenth-century Venetian school and admired by his royal patrons and fellow artists alike. Several of his contemporaries, including the authors and art theorists Giorgio Vasari, Francesco Priscianese, Pietro Aretino, and Ludovico Dolce, wrote accounts of Titian’s life and work.

In this episode, Getty assistant curator of paintings Laura Llewellyn discusses what these “lives” teach us about Titian and the artistic debates and rivalries of his time. All of these biographies are gathered together in Lives of Titian, recently published by the Getty as part of our Lives of the Artists series.

Painting of Titian as an old man, with a grey beard, looking to the right. This is a book cover with text "Lives of Titian" and author names below.

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Lives of Titian publication


JAMES CUNO: Hello, I’m Jim Cuno, president of the J. Paul Getty Trust. Welcome to Art and Ideas, a podcast in which I speak to artists, conservators, authors, and scholars about their work.
LAURA LLEWELLYN: This, today, is commonplace, this idea that the natural world could have the appearance of a painting. But in the figure of Pietro Aretino and his contemporaries, it’s startlingly novel. And I think with it, the suggestion is that through his painting, Titian has taught the world how to see.
CUNO: In this episode, I speak with Getty Museum curator Laura Llewelyn about the life of the 16th century painter, Tiziano Vecellio, better known as Titian.
Titian was born around 1488 and died in Venice in 1576. He was almost an exact contemporary of Michelangelo, and was patronized by the greatest and most powerful collectors of his time: Alfonso d’Este, Duke of Ferrara; Federico Gonzaga of Mantua; and especially the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V. He was not only one of the greatest artists of his time, but one of the greatest artists of all time.
In this episode, we look at five lives or biographical writings about Titian, all of which were written during his life time. These five essays were recently published by Getty Publications in its Lives of the Artists series. I spoke about these accounts of the life of Titian with Getty assistant curator of paintings Laura Llewelyn.
Welcome, Laura, and thanks for joining me on this podcast.
LAURA LLEWELLYN: Thanks for having me.
CUNO: Now, the first life in this volume was written by the great painter and biographer Giorgio Vasari in 1568, and published in the second edition of Vasari’s Lives of the Artists. Which is to say that Titian wasn’t given a full biographical treatment in the first edition of the Lives, which came out in 1550. Why was that?
LLEWELLYN: There’s actually a fairly straightforward explanation as to why Titian doesn’t receive full biographical treatment in Vasari’s Lives. And that is simply that the first edition only includes the biography of one artist who is still alive. And that, of course, is Michelangelo. The first edition of Vasari’s Lives is conceived as a means by which to chart the triumph of Florentine art, a kind of narrative of progression, in which each major milestone is reached by a Florentine.
So you know, Giotto through to Donatello, Brunelleschi, and ultimately, Michelangelo. The idea of writing a biography of an artist who is still alive is entirely new. And with it, Vasari is paying a very calculated homage to Michelangelo. So Titian doesn’t appear in the first edition by simple virtue of the fact that he is still alive.
But it is worth noting that more generally, the Venetians do receive pretty cursory treatment in Vasari’s first edition. He states himself, with the publication of that first edition in 1550, that he considers it to be a draft, in some way, and that he hopes in the future it will be built upon. And the extraordinary success of the Lives means that he undertakes this task himself. In the second edition, which is published eighteen years later, in 1568, Vasari triples the scope of the lives. It’s three times longer. He covers many more schools of art, and he also includes many more living artists, among them, of course, Titian.
During the time between the publication of the two editions, he’s in Venice once again. And he gathers information when he’s there in a much more systematic way. And he seems to have visited the studio of Titian at this point, and received much of his information directly from the artist himself.
CUNO: Does this mean there was a reevaluation on Vasari’s part, on the importance of Titian? Or just that he was not inclined to be interested in Venetian painters? In other words, were there other Venetian painters included in the first edition of the Lives?
LLEWELLYN: There were. None that were alive, though. Titian does get mentioned in the first edition. His name appears in the lives of other Venetian artists who are already dead. I think Titian’s inclusion in the second edition is a combination of a kind of new acknowledgement of the status of Titian. But it’s also a reflection of the way in which the Lives itself changes quite significantly between the first and the second edition.
In the first edition, it’s conceived in quite a tight structure, a kind of life cycle which tells the story of the development of the arts. Whereas the second edition is much more of a compendium, more encyclopedic in scope.
CUNO: Mm-hm. Now, Vasari writes that Titian and his Venetian contemporaries didn’t have access to antiquities, as the Florentines and Romans did, and so they were left to drawing and painting from the live figure, which gave their paintings a natural softness. Was it just that simple, that they didn’t have access to these antiquities, and therefore that the way they painted was different, different in effect as well in purpose?
LLEWELLYN: I think the short answer is no, it wasn’t that simple. There was a real interest in collecting antiquities among the Venetian patrician elite at this moment. Antique sculpture is arriving in Venice, from Greece, particularly. Most famously, in the 1520s, Cardinal Domenico Grimani bequeaths the entirety of his collection of antiquities to the city of Venice.
CUNO: And Titian would’ve seen them?
LLEWELLYN: Titian would’ve seen them. It is fair to say that the Venetians certainly didn’t have the kind of access to the ancient world that their Roman peers did. You know, in Rome, you can quite literally pull antique sculptures out of the ground. And in Venice, of course, the experience is different.
But I think this notion that Venetians weren’t looking at the Classical world is kind of done away with if you look at the sculpture of the slightly older artists Tullio and Antonio Lombardo, contemporary Venetian sculptors, whose style is undoubtedly classicizing, perhaps more classicizing than you find down in Rome. So you can’t explain away what’s happening in Venetian painting with this simple notion that Venetian painters aren’t looking at the antique.
CUNO: Now, we know that Vasari was predisposed to Florentine painters—he himself, of course, was one—and their emphasis on the clarity of design, as opposed to the softness of contours and the richness of color that marked Venetian painting. Tell us about the debates at the time between Florentine disegno, design, and Venetian colore, color. And did Titian himself engage in those debates and differences?
LLEWELLYN: Today when we translate the word disegno into English, we tend to go one of two ways, depending on context. Either we use the word design, to refer to an intellectual process resulting from a process of study, or we use the word drawing, to refer to the process of making that design physical, onto a sheet of paper, for example. For Vasari, the notion of disegno is singular. It’s not one word that can have two different meanings depending on the context, but it’s a single concept. Both the idea of developing a notion and also the idea of putting that notion into physical form.
The notion of disegno underpins Vasari’s Lives. In the first prologue, he addresses the contemporary debates around the paragone. That is, the debate about the relative merits of painting or sculpture. This is a debate that’s been going on for a number of decades, but has been reignited by Benedetto Varchi in the Florentine academy.
Vasari puts the question of the paragone to bed, so to speak, with his suggestion that both painting and sculpture must be understood as equally valuable. For him, painting, sculpture, but also architecture, are three sisters who deserve equal levels of appreciation, because they are united by a single father, and that is disegno. Colore—and by colore, we mean the application of pigment as a means by which to create form, for example, rather than the use of really bright colors. Colore, for Vasari, is crucial, an absolutely crucial stage in the painting process, but inferior to disegno and it comes after.
CUNO: Wasn’t it also the case that disegno referred to a kind of conceptualization of the painting itself? In other words, the emphasis upon the idea of the painting, as much as the…
CUNO: …effect of the painting?
LLEWELLYN: Vasari himself doesn’t suggest that the two are diametrically opposing. But he does set up contrary imagery. So he suggests, for example, that colore is seductive, while disegno is intellectual. And there’s this stress, as you say, on the intellectual level of disegno, whereas colore responds to a more sensual feeling.
CUNO: Did the Venetian painters engage in these debates? Did Titian himself? Any evidence that he is even aware of these debates?
LLEWELLYN: He must’ve been aware of them, because of the ways in which Venetian commentators quickly respond to the debates, especially after the publication of Vasari’s Lives. I would actually say that it’s the Venetians who crystalize the real binary of disegno and colore. For them, colore is the sort of reigning champion, the great pride of the Venetian school. In particular, Paolo Pino, in the 1540s, suggests that if you could take the disegno of Michelangelo and the colore of Titian and put them together in one man, you would have the god of painting.
CUNO: Well, tell us about Titian’s upbringing and his training, and how important it was for him to have any kind of access to Florentine painters or the other side of the arguments, as it were, the disegno side of the argument.
LLEWELLYN: We know a remarkable amount about the life of Titian, but perhaps unsurprisingly, because at this point he’s just not famous, very little about his earliest years. We know that he’s born in Pieve di Cadore, which is a town in the mountainous region of the Dolomites, in the sort of furthest reaches of the Venetian mainland territories.
He is probably born in around 1490, perhaps a couple of years earlier. We don’t actually know his birth date. And he arrives in Venice in around 1500, so perhaps between the age of ten and twelve. And he is apprenticed to Gentile Bellini, but not for long. He quickly transfers into the workshop of Giovanni Bellini, who’s [the] much more successful brother of Gentile. Giovanni Bellini is well into his sixties at this point, but still the preeminent painter of Venice. And unsurprisingly, Titian’s early works really reflect the influence of Bellini.
CUNO: What would Titian have done as an intern? He was ten and twelve years old. And so then at some point, he’s maybe sixteen years old. What was his job in the workshop?
LLEWELLYN: It’s a good question. We don’t know exactly what his early works were. There’s been some speculation that he could’ve been painting furniture panels. But he would’ve received the traditional education of an apprentice, which is learning to draw and also acting as a kind of dogsbody around the workshop, where he would be grinding pigments and running errands and learning the ways of the workshop.
In the workshop at the same time as him is Giorgione, who by about 1506, Titian has well and truly kind of felt the influence of. And you only have to look at a very early work to Titian—take, for example, The Gypsy Madonna in Vienna, where you can see this kind of fusion of the influence of his two early masters. Giovanni Bellini, his actual master, and Giorgione, his kind of figurative master. Having said that, he also has very much his own painterly language from the get-go.
Because a lot of his early paintings are for private patrons and for private settings, we don’t have documents relating to them. We do know that by 1508, he’d made enough of a name for himself that when Giorgione is awarded a commission by the community of German merchants in Venice, to paint frescoes on the façade of their warehouse, Titian is given the side façade.
Frescoes don’t do so well in Venice, and we don’t really know now what they looked like. But it is really interesting that from Vasari onwards, every commentator remarks upon the fact that Titian’s contribution outdid that of Giorgione. And Vasari tells this anecdote, that the Venetians generally, when the frescoes were unveiled, didn’t know about Titian’s contribution, and they kept approaching Giorgione in the street and congratulating him on the side façade, where he had infinitely outdone himself, compared to the main façade. And Giorgione was so dismayed by this that he cuts Titian out of his life.
CUNO: Can I ask you this question about Titian and fresco painting? Because one always thinks of Titian as someone who responds so well to canvas and his application of paint is so lively and fresh and vigorous; whereas the task of painting a fresco is so deliberate in the process that one wouldn’t think it would be the kind of medium that would benefit from his particular talents and his particular interest in the kind of liveliness of the brushstroke.
LLEWELLYN: He doesn’t paint much fresco throughout the course of his life. It’s interesting that for an artist, as you say, so intimately associated with oil on canvas, some of his most important early works are in fresco. But I think you have to remember that he’s a young artist trying to make a name for himself, so he’s not going to turn commissions down at this point. But I think you’re right that when he gets to a position where he can absolutely pick and choose, fresco falls quickly by the wayside.
CUNO: Now, Vasari gives this rather eccentric image of Titian. He says that when Titian was invited to Rome, where he could’ve met Pope Leo X and the painter Raphael, and he could’ve seen the greatness of the ancient city, he delayed his trip so long that the pope and Raphael had died before Titian could even get there, so Titian ended up not going at all. That would’ve seemed to be a strange thing for a young painter, who would want to be receiving commissions from the pope, one of the greatest patrons that one could ever imagine, and that he delayed his trip, that the people he could’ve met, who could’ve changed the course of his career, died.
LLEWELLYN: I think it’s funny how Vasari seems to suggest that Titian never gets to Rome because he kind of just can’t get his act together. Instead, the period that he’s talking about, the late fifteen-teens, or the second half of the fifteen-teens, the last years of Leo’s pontificate and the final years of Raphael’s life, are pivotal years in Titian’s career. After this initial success with more smaller-scale private commissions, the commission for the Frari, the Assumption of the Virgin, for Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, brings him to the attention of a number of important patrons, especially Alfonso d’Este, Duke of Ferrara.
At that moment, he is invited to Ferrara to contribute to Alfonso’s very ambitious camerino, a project of mythological paintings to decorate his kind of study-like space within his palace, for which he had commissioned many of the greatest artists of the day—Giovani Bellini, Fra Bartolomeo, Raphael, Dosso Dossi.
Venice doesn’t really offer Titian the opportunity to paint these more eroticizing mythological types of paintings. So with the commission from Alfonso d’Este, he not only gains a very important new patron, but he has the opportunity to expand his oeuvre.
CUNO: So his not going to Rome might be more that he was just busy with commissions that he had to paint.
LLEWELLYN: [over Cuno] Absolutely. Vasari’s suggestion that it’s this woeful procrastination on Titian’s part is misplaced. The main reason, as you initially pointed out, to go to Rome would be to launch your career. But by the time he’s finished in Ferarra with Alfonso d’Este, his career is well and truly launched.
CUNO: Yeah. Now, Vasari tells us that decades later, in 1546, Titian did go to Rome, at the invitation of Cardinal Farnese. Tell us about Titian’s response when he finally did get to Rome.
LLEWELLYN: Yes, one of the most famous anecdotes of Titian in Rome is when Vasari and Michelangelo visit Titian. And he shows them a painting that he has done of Danae. It’s the painting that’s now in Naples. And Vasari says that the two men, Michelangelo and himself, say all the right things when they’re there in front of Titian, say how marvelous it is. But as they walk away, Michelangelo says to Vasari that it’s such a shame that Venetian painters don’t learn to draw.
He says that even though Titian’s coloring is admirable, his failure to learn the basics of disegno means that he cannot take his art beyond nature, to the perfection that only the artist can achieve.
CUNO: And how did Titian respond to that?
LLEWELLYN: I think that’s an interesting question, because the Danae is widely accepted today to be a response to Michelangelo. Her pose is very much lifted from Michelangelo, particularly the Leda. And Titian, rather than quoting Michelangelo, he seems to be challenging him, because he’s taken the typically muscular forms of Michelangelo and softened them with this very sensuous kind of feminine skin.
In Rome, Titian certainly has the opportunity to visit many of the ancient sites. And he certainly acquires a whole mine of new Classical sources. But really, his main priority for being in Rome is not to advance his learning, or even to secure new patrons, but actually to secure ecclesiastical benefices for his son, Pomponio. And the Farnese family, with the Pope Paul III in power—are his means to doing that.
And so during this time, he really devotes himself to portraiture. He brings to completion a series of portraits that he had begun three years earlier, of the various members of the powerful Farnese clan, culminating in the portrait of Pope Paul III with his grandsons, also in Naples. It’s a painting that is unfinished, but widely accepted to be one of the most impressive portraits in the history of Western painting.
CUNO: Yeah. Now, when I introduced the podcast, I mentioned an extent to which he was patronized by the greatest collectors of his age. And one of them was Emperor Charles V. And it’s said that Charles V so loved his portraits by Titian that he wouldn’t be portrayed by any other artist. Tell us about the relationship between Titian and the emperor.
LLEWELLYN: Charles was the Holy Roman Emperor, the King of Spain, the Archduke of Austria. He was said to reign over a dominion that was so great that the sun never set upon it. And Titian first comes into contact with Charles in 1530, in Bologna, and he paints his portrait then. It doesn’t seem to have made much of an impression.
There’s been some speculation that Charles was used to the crisper style of the artists of the courts north of the Alps, and he didn’t really understand Titian’s brushwork. But in the intervening years, the next two years, Charles visits Mantua, where he probably has the chance to see a number of Titian’s portraits. And two years later, when Titian paints his portrait one more time, Charles is so impressed that Titian goes on to paint many, many, many portraits for him.
Titian is very careful to keep up his relationship with Charles. And the following decade, actually only about eighteen months after his return from Rome, he is summoned by Charles to Augsburg, where he travels. And apparently, he carries with him a gift for Charles. He arrives and he presents Charles with a painting of naked Venus. It doesn’t survive. But it’s interesting that Charles seems to have been very little interested in it. He didn’t keep it for long; he passed it on to his son.
And for me, this is very telling, because it suggests that for Charles, Titian is not a painter of erotic mythologies, but instead, a portraitist. And for Charles, art is not meant to be a kind of a sexy luxury; but instead, painting was a means by which to record his own greatness for posterity.
CUNO: I have a sense, a memory of a story, which might be false, that Charles so wanted Titian to paint his portrait at some point in time that he invited him, urged him to come to Augsburg or someone to paint his portrait. Titian refused, or he demurred, said he didn’t have time, whatever it was, and Charles went to him instead?
LLEWELLYN: That’s not one that I know. But the really famous one comes later, with Ridolfi, in the following century, where he talks about the moment when Titian is painting Charles’ portrait and he drops his brush. And Charles kneels down and hands it to him. And Titian says, you know, “That’s not your job, sire.” And he says, “But for as great a man as you, it certainly is,” sort of thing. And that is almost certainly apocryphal, but certainly gives a really good sense in the way in which the relationship went well beyond what had traditionally existed between the artist and the patron.
In Augsburg, we have a number of accounts from courtiers and various others about Titian and Charles’ relationship. He apparently visits the royal apartments a lot. It seems that during the course of their sittings, as well, the two men really have a chance to converse. We know that Charles spoke very good Italian. And there develops a real friendship, it would seem.
And to me, Titian’s understanding of his sitter as an individual, as well as a man of the office is very, very clear in the portraits of Charles V.
CUNO: Vasari notes a difference between Titian’s early and late works. And he describes the late works as—and these are the words of Vasari—“dashed off in bold strokes, in great patches, that they cannot be looked at closely, but from a distance, appear perfect.” Can you describe the change in Titian’s work over the course of his career at this time? And was Vasari being critical Titian or was he praising him by that description?
LLEWELLYN: I think the major change in Titian’s style is that he no longer attempts any precise definition of form. Contours are not— are no longer explicitly described, but rather suggested with this very loose, feathery brushwork.
It’s a technique that Titian has experimented with in earlier paintings, in places. The portrait of Pietro Aretino in the Pitti is a good example. But from the 1550s onwards, he starts to apply this technique all across the surface of the painting. And the great examples are the poesie, the great mythological canvases that Titian paints for Philip II of Spain, the son of Charles V, who very much follows in his father’s footsteps, in terms of his great patronage of Titian.
I actually don’t think Vasari is being critical in the passage that you quoted. He goes on to say in that same section that other artists, younger artists in Venice who try to mimic Titian’s late style, create clumsy pictures. The reason for this is that even though Titian’s late works have the appearance of being full of vitality and very fresh and, you know, dashed off, as Vasari says, they’re actually the result of a very laborious, very painstaking technique.
One of the things that Vasari values most highly, above almost anything else, is this notion of prestezza. It’s really for him, the quality in painting that underpins the so-called maniera moderna. And it refers to this appearance of a very bold rapidity of execution. But perhaps counterintuitively, the only way in which this is actually achieved, according to Vasari, is by a very diligent, painstaking, painterly approach.
CUNO: Hm. So do we come to understand that Vasari has a— has a high regard for Titian at the end of his life and Titian’s own life?
LLEWELLYN: I think it’s an interesting exercise if you compare the first paragraph of Titian’s life in Vasari to those of the other great painters of the day—Leonardo, Raphael, Michelangelo, for example. So for example, in Raphael, he talks about how just every now and then, God bestows an artist with such talents, and He is charged with kind of coming down to Earth to bring them to his fellow man. And Michelangelo, of course, even more famously, it’s not just that his talents are God-given, but he himself is divine.
And then you flip to Titian and it says Titian was born in Cadore, Titian went to Venice, Titian, you know, studied as hard as he could, did as well as he could; considering he’s a Venetian, didn’t do a bad job. And yet as the pages go on in Titian’s life, it’s as if Vasari can’t actually help himself. His admiration just grows, and you feel him really warming up. And so that by the final pages, you really end on this commendation of Titian and everything that he’s achieved.
CUNO: But in those final pages, Vasari writes of Titian—these are his words—he says, “He has had, in Venice, some competitors, but not of much worth, so that he has surpassed them easily with the excellence of his art and his ability to entertain and making himself dear to noblemen.”
LLEWELLYN: Yeah, I think it comes across as quite catty, that remark. It’s as if he’s saying that, you know, he got where he got from being kind of a schmoozer. But I actually think it’s a reasonable enough remark from Vasari. The point that he makes, that he didn’t really have competitors, is true. It’s only really with the next generations—specifically Tintoretto—that Titian’s position is in any way challenged.
CUNO: So Titian holds his standing as the greatest painter in Venice, or one of the greatest painters of his age, even into the next generation?
LLEWELLYN: I think unlike the previous generation, where Bellini really feels the arrival of these two great new talents, Giorgione and Titian, at the end of his life, Titian isn’t necessarily threatened by Tintoretto. Tintoretto very naturally succeeds him, but there isn’t necessarily any kind of crisis in Titian’s art.
CUNO: So the second life of Titian in the book we’re talking about is an account of a dinner conversation in Titian’s house, recorded in 1540 by Francesco Priscianese. Tell us about Priscianese, who he was and about that conversation.
LLEWELLYN: Priscianese, like Vasari actually, is born in, or at least very near to, Arezzo. He’s a very near contemporary of Titian. And he is a scholar and a tutor of Latin. He starts off in Florence, but some time after the fall of the republic, transfers to Rome, where he becomes a key member of the kind of intellectual circles there under the pontificate of Pope Paul III. In particular, he’s a champion of the Tuscan vernacular, and he believes that it’s a suitable language for literary genres. And he’s in Venice in 1540 to oversee the publication of two of his books, one of which, On the First Principles of the Roman Language, this passage is taken from.
CUNO: What was the purpose of quoting that passage? Was it a literary exercise or was it meant to be an actual account of an event that might be of interest to people?
LLEWELLYN: The passage is very evocative. He describes an evening in the company of what he describes as Venice’s most rare intellects, Titian, Pietro Aretino, and Jacopo Sansovino, who are the three great men of Venice at the time. And also Jacopo Nardi, the great Florentine historian, who is living in Venice in exile from Florence because of his anti-Medicean sentiment.
And Priscianese describes the view across the lagoon and how the sun begins to set, the Venetians come out onto the waters with their boats, and their singing and music-making accompanies the men’s dinner.
At this moment, Priscianese notes that the garden, in all its beauty, reminds him of a garden in Rome. Specifically, that of his patron, Cardinal Niccolo Ridolfi. And so he just felt that he had to write to two of his scholarly friends in Rome and tell them about the experience and how close it was to his experiences in Rome.
When he mentions to Titian and company that it reminds him of Ridolfi’s garden, each man around the table takes it in turns to praise Ridolfi’s name, to talk at length about his great intellect and his great deeds. So what it really is, this passage, is a kind of veiled or not so veiled, homage to the author’s patron, and a means by which to compliment him.During the course of dinner, a letter arrives for Priscianese. And it’s from the two gentlemen that he’s writing to, Lodovico Becci and Luigi del Riccio.
And it’s interesting that this particular piece of correspondence happens between these men, because just a few years later, within the same circle, the famous event with Michelangelo will happen, when Michelangelo and Luigi del Riccio are discussing Dante. And he said to Michelangelo, “Come home for dinner at Priscianese’s house and continue the discussions.” And Michelangelo says, “No, certainly not. For me, society is a burden.”
So I think that this image of Titian, this great host who sits with his friends and companions, you know, deep into the night, discussing intellectual subjects provides this perfect foil for the reclusive Michelangelo.
CUNO: Mm-hm. Does that mean that Titian was a learned mand and in the company of learned men?
LLEWELLYN: Yes. All the contemporary sources and documents and his various friends always refer to his great intellect and the fact that he’s a very learned man.
CUNO: How was he learned? He had access to books, I suppose, and he had access to friends, who themselves were learned, and so he was in learned company. But does that mean he was learned in the sense of having read significant texts that then are the subject of conversation with his friends?
LLEWELLYN: I don’t know about whether or not Titian read Latin well, but he certainly seems to have been very well versed in many of the debates that were circulating in literary circles at that time. We don’t have any sort of direct quotations from him about the various questions around painting—the disegno/colore, or the paragone—but we can get a sense of Titian’s understanding from the reflections of his close associates and friends.
Titian’s house is famously a locus for these kinds of gatherings of the kind of great and the good of Venice, who come together to engage in scholarly debate.
CUNO: And some of his early works that we’ve already talked about, which evoked a literary subject, would be some indication of his learnedness and his learned understanding of the context of painting and the role that painting plays in the grammatical and rhetorical context of literary life.
LLEWELLYN: Yes, and I think also the fact that he is very comfortable in the company of very learned men. You know, he seems to have very personal relationships with the great rulers of Europe at this time, so he can clearly hold his own in some very erudite company.
CUNO: Now, we’re talking about the lives of Titian as written by these various authors. And in some cases, these lives are simply letters. And we have access to the circumstances in which Titian lived and worked, by virtue of letters exchanged. But they aren’t really written as a literary, stylistic pursuit.
The next life comes from letters about Titian, written by Pietro Aretino to various distinguished people. Tell us about Aretino, who he was and what his relationship was to Titian.
LLEWELLYN: Aretino’s actually the third man in our story who comes from Arezzo. And that’s why he has the name Aretino, the man from Arezzo. Again, a near contemporary of Titian, who first begins his career in Rome. He goes there by way of Perugia during the pontificate of Leo X.
He receives the protection of the Medici in Florence, and also in Rome. He travels to Mantua, where he is under the protection of the Gonzaga. But his fairly wicked satire makes him many enemies. And in 1527, he arrives in Venice, where he never leaves.
Venice, with is republic, offers Aretino a kind of terrestrial paradise, an escape from the courts, which he believed so strongly to be corrupt. Remember that pretty much every other major city at the Italian peninsula at this moment is dominated by a court. And in one of his plays, Pietro Aretino describes the court as the hospital of hope, or the wet nurse of hatred. And he himself is a self-declared scourge of princes.
In Venice, Aretino develops his own kind of court. But instead of kings and princes, it consists in writers, talented artists, literati, and among them, Titian, who becomes a life-long companion. Aretino will go on to act tirelessly as Titian’s agent and publicist for the duration of this life.
CUNO: So one thing I don’t understand about Aretino’s letters is what their purpose was, whether they were literary exercises on his part or whether someone would read them. But they were also published?
LLEWELLYN: All of Aretino’s letters are literary exercises, to some extent. I think it’s very important to remember that they’re not letters in our modern understanding of the word, necessarily. He intends to publish them from the beginning, so often they are unsolicited correspondences, rather that actually exchanges between two individuals.
In the first letter, he describes the now lost altarpiece by Titian, of the death of Saint Peter Martyr. With it, he really engages with the Classical tradition of ekphrasis.
CUNO: Well, describe that for us.
LLEWELLYN: The word comes from the Greek. And it simply refers to the process of describing a work of art. So putting into words, a visual experience. Even though the letter masquerades as praise for Titian, which it certainly is, Aretino is also using it as a way to show off his own ability in the descriptive process.
CUNO: So we’re painting a picture, if we can paint the picture, of Titian as being in a circle of learned people who are actively engaged in writing lives or writing about lives of people, including lives of Titian.
The next letter was written to Veronica Garbara, Lady of Correggio. And it includes a sonnet. In it, Aretino writes a poetic description of Titian’s portrait of Francesco Maria della Rovere, which he praises as the equal of nature. So this is an example of where he uses a device—that is, a poetic description in the form of a sonnet—to give us a sense of a picture by Titian.
LLEWELLYN: Yes, and this idea of being equal to nature is really powerful. He says in the opening of the letter that the moment he saw the portrait of the duke, he summoned nature, so that she could come and bear witness that she has been transformed into art.
The sonnet itself is a description of both the portrait of the duke, but also that of his consort, Eleonora Gonzaga. And the sonnet is the more traditional vehicle by which to describe a portrait. It goes back to Petrarch and the famous lost portrait of Laura by Simone Martini. And such sonnets are usually conceived as an accompaniment to viewing the painting. So it would be read aloud while you were looking at the painting.
And Aretino’s sonnet for the portraits of the duke and duchess really conforms to this convention by and large. He uses the requisite trope of Titian being like Apelles, and then lists how the portraits reflect the various virtues of the respective sitters. But I think he also displays some remarkable perceptiveness, especially in terms of Titian’s ability to make visible the invisible. And in this case, he’s particularly referring to psychological states.
But actually for me, even more interesting than the sonnet is the letter, which precedes the sonnet. In this, he just talks about the portrait of the duke. And it’s the first time that Aretino seems to be talking about a portrait as a work of art, rather than just as a historical document for the sitter. So he celebrates the object in its own terms, at this point. He certainly does talk about the duke and his achievements, but he also uses the portrait as a vehicle to praise Titian’s brushwork, and especially his use of color.
CUNO: So many of Aretino’s last letters were written to Titian himself. And in one of them, he praises Titian’s portrait of Pope Paul III, as alive and true to the sitter and his appearance. Could you describe the portrait to us? And how was it that we have letters written to Titian that survive?
LLEWELLYN: Even though Aretino doesn’t describe the portrait in this letter, we can be fairly confident from the date of the letter that he’s referring to the 1543 portrait of Pope Paul III, which is today in Naples. Interestingly enough, it seems that Aretino is discussing a portrait that he’s never seen. And I think his aim in doing this is to celebrate Titian’s new status as a painter of popes. You know, portraitist for the popes. The reason we have letters to Titian that survive is because an example like this, written by Aretino, as I mentioned before, he was planning to publish, even when he was writing it to Titian. So he would’ve made copies and had it for publication practically before he sent it out to Titian.
Other types of correspondences come to us in different ways. Titian’s so famous by the end of his life that a lot is published very early on, which is one of the reasons that now, his life is so well documented, compared to many other artists.
The portrait of Pope Paul III is an absolutely remarkable thing. Titian relies very heavily on the prototype of Raphael, the famous portrait of Julius II, with the pope seated in his throne, three-quarter length, turned in a three-quarter view, wearing the kind of traditional garb, the white alb and the kind of crimson, fur-lined cape. But he also departs from the prototype really significantly. Most importantly, he turns Pope Paul’s gaze upon the viewer, with these really piercing eyes. To me, it is an astonishing portrait of advancing age. He shows the very slender fingers and this kind of bony skull and lean features.
Even though he’s clearly a man who is aging, commentators through time have always commented on the kind of energy that he gives off as a sitter. One is struck by this very powerful presence, a very alert intelligence, and the forceful vigor of his personality.
CUNO: So Aretino, in this description, captures it so evocatively and carefully. He also, at another time, in another letter, or later in that same letter, describes Venice and the Grand Canal as if he were painting that, or as if Titian might’ve painted that. And you’ve mentioned that he published these letters almost immediately after writing them. What was the public for reading letters, and what was the means by which one published these letters?
LLEWELLYN: In crafting these letters, Aretino has a very specific scholarly circle of readers in mind. And for this reason, the letters touch upon the many debates that are circulating within these kind of circles. Not necessarily just in Venice, but also in the courts across the Italian peninsula at the moment.
Venice boasts one of the largest printing presses in Europe at this date. So in terms of access to publishers, there’s no problem there. And Pietro Aretino’s status in Venice as a great intellect and scholar would’ve meant that his writings would’ve been kind of seized upon by very willing readers.
CUNO: Mm-hm. The final letter that’s included in the Getty book, it’s written to Titian’s eldest son, Pomponio Vicellio, whom Aretino scolds for neglecting his studies and worrying his father. What does the letter tell us about Titian, and what about the relationship Aretino has with Titian?
LLEWELLYN: I think that as far as we can tell, Pomponio, Titian’s son, his eldest son, suffered from that great affliction that has been around since time immemorial, the father who casts too long a shadow. You know, the father of great fame and talent, whose children struggle to get out from underneath his reputation.
We know that Pomponio was a great source of concern for Titian, for a large part of his life. He is forever trying to instill a sense of responsibility into the boy, for whom he’s trying to secure a career in the priesthood.
Pomponio does eventually take minor orders in 1544. But it’s not for another twenty years that he enters the priesthood. His relationship with his father is frayed, to say the least. At this date, it seems as if Aretino is trying to kind of build bridges between the two. He encourages Pomponio to mend his ways, get back on the straight and narrow. And if he can do that, then Aretino will go to Titian on his behalf and plead with him to let him back in his life.
It seems from the letter that Titian has kind of denounced Pomponio at this point and has cut him out of his life. So I think that there’s a kind of godfather-type figure here in Pietro Aretino. Aretino says, “I know you’re father can be stubborn and I’ll do my best.” But all of this we know ultimately is to no avail. In the last twenty years of Titian’s life, the two have almost no communication. And in the last ten years of his life, they communicate only through lawyers.
CUNO: So these letters by the different authors, together with Vasari, give us a sense of the life of the painter, Titian. They’re very different kinds. One with a kind of intimacy of the letter and the description of paintings by the letter writer. And Vasari is much more distantly giving us an account of the artist’s life.
But let’s skip to the final life of Titian in the publication. It’s written by Ludovico Dolce, in the form of a dialog on painting. First, tell us about Dolce. Who was he and why did he write in the form of a dialog between Aretino and Fabrini? And who was Fabrini?
LLEWELLYN: Ludovico Dolce was a scholar, editor, publisher, kind of man of letters. And with the publication of L’Aretino, the Dialogo, he became a kind of art theorist. He was about twenty years Titian’s junior, and he formed part of Venice’s wider intellectual circle in the mid-sixteenth century. It’s not entirely clear whether he really belonged to the inner circle of Pietro Aretino and Titian, whether he, for example, was invited to these intimate dinners in which scholarly themes were discussed at the house of Titian. But he certainly knew them. We have correspondence between him and Aretino, and we think that he visited the studio of Titian.
Dolce’s Aretino is so called because the dialog takes place between Pietro Aretino and Gian Francesco Fabrini, who’s essentially a great scholar from Florence, whose intellect is fairly renown. The idea of the dialog is to present a riposte to Vasari’s Lives, which has been printed in its first edition some years earlier.
Vasari’s cursory treatment of the Venetian school had not gone unnoticed by Venetian commentators. And the text takes the form of a dialog between Pietro Aretino and Fabrini, in which Aretino sets out to persuade this visitor to Venice that more painters than just Michelangelo, specifically Raphael and of course, Titian had achieved the absolute pinnacle of greatness in art in the modern age. The decision to present the text as a dialog between two personalities is not hugely surprising. It’s a fairly kind of common way of doing things in Venice at this date. Paolo Pino’s Dialogo takes a similar form, and early writings by Dolce also are presented as dialog. I think that Dolce is also keenly aware of the Classical precedents, particularly of Cicero and his dialogs.
He chooses his two particular protagonists, I think, also, very carefully. Given Pietro Aretino’s status as the city’s leading interlocutor on the subject of art and his famous letters, Pietro Aretino must’ve seemed like a natural choice. And I think that Fabrini is chosen because he’s known to be this very great intellect. And so the fact that Aretino successfully persuades him—he’s both Florentine and clever, and comes out at the end and says, “You know what? You’re right. These three artists are all pretty good”—means that Aretino has kind of made his point against the toughest of audiences, as it were.
CUNO: Well, thank you, Laura, for taking us through these many lives of Titian. Is there anything I didn’t ask that might be helpful to our listeners?
LLEWELLYN: I think something that comes out of this new little volume of lives is not only the life of Titian, but also a moment in the history of art when the language of art criticism and art appreciation is really developing. You mentioned briefly that moment when Pietro Aretino looks out of his window and compares what he sees to a painting. And this, today, is commonplace, this idea that the natural world could have the appearance of a painting.
It’s almost trite. You know, we have the word picturesque. But in the figure of Pietro Aretino and his contemporaries, it’s startlingly novel. And I think with it, the suggestion is that through his painting, Titian has taught the world how to see.
CUNO: Yeah, I think that’s very beautifully put, Laura. So thank you very much for that, and thank you for participation in this podcast. It’s a very complicated thing to try to get together these lives and knit them together into a single life a great painter like Titian. So you did a fantastic job, so thank you very much.
LLEWELLYN: Well, thank you for having me. It’s been a pleasure.
CUNO: Our theme music comes from “The Dharma at Big Sur,” composed by John Adams for the opening of the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles in 2003. It is licensed with permission from Hendon Music. Look for new episodes of Art and Ideas every other Wednesday. Subscribe on Apple Podcasts or Google Play Music. For photos, transcripts, and other resources, visit Thanks for listening.

JAMES CUNO: Hello, I’m Jim Cuno, president of the J. Paul Getty Trust. Welcome to Art and Ideas, a podcast in which I speak to artists, conservators, authors, and scholars about their work.
LAURA LLEWELLYN: This, today, is commonplace, this idea that the natural world could have the appea...

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This post is part of Art + Ideas, a podcast in which Getty president Jim Cuno talks with artists, writers, curators, and scholars about their work.
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