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Titian in Love | Visual arts reviews, news & interviews

Titian in Love

What exactly was the painter's relationship with those Madonnas and Dianas?

In 1522, Jacopo Tebaldi, agent of Titian’s great patron Alfonso d’Este, paid a visit to the artist who had claimed to be too ill to work. "I have been to see Titian," he wrote to Alfonso, "who has no fever at all. He looks well, if somewhat exhausted, and I suspect that the girls whom he paints in different poses arouse his desires, which he then satisfies more than his limited strength permits. Though he denies it."

The nature of Titian’s relationships with his models has exercised the imaginations of critics and historians from his day to this. For centuries it was simply assumed that Titian availed himself of the women he painted in the kind of seigneurial, half-casual way that any great artist surrounded by half-naked floozies inevitably would – and which Tebaldi, a frequent visitor to his studio, clearly believes he did. The reality was on the one hand probably more prosaic and - from the modern point of view - far odder than anything cooked up by the romantic historians of the past.

Portraits of real women were rare in Venice, a society where respectable ladies remained hidden in the home. But there was a taste among the elite for paintings of anonymous young beauties; images that were lent a veneer of respectability by including often very nominal mythological attributes, as in Venus with a Mirror. The models and exemplars for these images – of which Titian and his sometime friend and rival Palma Vecchio were the masters – were provided by a class of Venetian women who were famous all over Europe: the courtesans.

Were these the kind of women Titian spent himself with? The most expensive women in the world? Hardly. He knew them, of course. How could he not, invited as he was to the sort of exclusive all-male dinner parties where the presence of at least one such woman was obligatory? They undoubtedly posed for him on occasion. But he wasn’t at a social level where he felt obliged to compete for them. He was essentially in the same line of business: a purveyor of fantasy trying to get the highest price for what he had to sell, and from essentially the same customers.

And can you imagine Titian wanting to shell out that sort of money for sex? Why would he need to when he could summon very inexpensive girls at the drop of a hat? Sluts, wantons and jades of every order of prettiness, sweetness, kindness, outright beauty, outright nastiness, venality and criminality – these were girls who stood in for him as nymphs and goddesses, as saints, Magdalenes and as Our Lady herself. From among them he chose at his leisure. He’d handle them as he shifted them into the required positions: the supplicatory posture that would turn them into the Virgin of the Annunciation, sprawled out on a bed as the naked Venus, kneeling imploring as the Magdalene in the Garden of Gethsemane. As his eye and brush moved over his models’ bodies, describing not only the contours of their soft curves, but their warmth and plasticity, the tautness, the faint, barely perceptible downiness of teenage flesh, the voluptuous, almost gelatinous pliability of older bodies, did he find his hand moving in sympathy over real, warm, living flesh? Or was that saved for afterwards? Titian was paying these women. Was a little of what they did best implicitly part of the deal? Or was that broached entirely separately? Was there a clearly negotiated fee or would Titian just throw in a few extra coppers as a kind of tip?

In fact, the only model specifically referred to in the documents is the daughter of a neighbour who sat for him as Mary Magdalene, and was made to hold the pose for so long that she burst into tears. Titian was so pleased with the effect that he kept her there several hours more, missing his dinner in the process.

At the time of his work for Alfonso d’Este, Titian was living in a rented apartment belonging to the Tron family in the San Polo area behind the Frari. In 1519 a young woman moved into his quarters: Cecilia, daughter of Master Giacomo, a barber of Perarolo. She came from the village next to his own home town of Pieve di Cadore in the Dolomites, and had come to Venice expressly to act as Titian’s housekeeper. If Titian was to be looked after, who better to do it than a woman who understood the ways of his own region, who could cook the dishes he knew from childhood, whose family would have some long-standing relationship with his – who was, in effect, already bound to him? At what point did it become apparent that they would sleep together? Was it taken for granted that he would use her in this way – a natural outcome of the master–servant relationship? Or was it a question of familiarity developing over a long period, so that intimacy occurred of its own accord? Was she a simple village girl who could easily be exploited? Or did she have her own ambitions, with this position her means to social advancement?

Either way, nothing was rushed. It was nearly five years before they had their first child together.

Extracted from Mark Hudson's 'Titian: The Last Days', published by Bloomsbury

Now look at Titian masterpieces in theartsdesk.com Gallery, and read Mark Hudson's previous extract Titian's Bacchus and Ariadne

The exhibition "Titian, Tintoretto, Veronese: Rivals in Renaissance Venice" is at the Musée du Louvre, Paris, until 4 January 2010. Information here



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