by Roderick Conway Morris

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Teylers Museum
Haarlem (inset); Uffizi, Florence.

Titian: The Last Works

By Roderick Conway Morris
BELLUNO, Italy 28 September 2007


The last years of Tiziano Vecellio, known as Titian, are often as shrouded in uncertainties as the towering peaks surrounding his birthplace, Pieve di Cadore, are obscured by mountain mists. Some of these ambiguities were nurtured by the painter himself. When he died in August 1576, he was probably nearly 90, but nobody knew for sure, since he was in the habit of varying his date of birth.

A number of legends grew up soon afterward and have proved persistent. According to tradition, although Titian had supposedly succumbed to the plague that then gripped Venice (one of the worst in the city's history), against regulations he was given a magnificent funeral and buried in the Frari. In fact, the documents give the cause of death as 'fever,' not plague. If plague had been diagnosed, even this grand old man of Venetian art would more than likely have ended up in a plague pit along with other victims.

Clarifying the man and his art during his last two decades is the aim of 'Titian: The Last Act,' curated by Lionello Puppi. And he and an international team of scholars succeed in casting a great deal of light on the subject in this enjoyable and enlightening exhibition of more than 150 paintings, drawings, engravings, artifacts and documents. The venues are the warren-like Palazzo Crepadona in Belluno (the interior of which has been extensively remodeled by the architect Mario Botta, but which remains a far-from-ideal space to show large pictures), and, some 40 kilometers (about 25 miles) to the north, the town hall of Pieve di Cadore. Both shows continue until Jan. 6.

The painter maintained close links with his home village. From his last and most famous atelier-residence on the northern shore of the city, the peaks around Pieve on clear days were sharply visible more than 100 kilometers away. Titian assiduously kept up the family timber business (he had his own lumberyard in Venice to receive the wood) and also had interests in the wine trade.

Almost all his activities involved Vecellio family members, even when it came to staffing his studios. Of Titian's two sons, only Orazio, the youngest, trained as a painter (Pomponio being destined from childhood for the church). Orazio was competent, to judge by the examples on show here and in churches in the region, but uninspired. His only major work in Venice, in the Doge's Palace, was destroyed by fire in 1577. Moreover, Orazio was obliged to spend a large part of his time acting as his father's business and studio manager, which included overseeing the family's wood and wine concerns.

The Vecellios had a reputation for being obsessed with money. The emissary of one of Titian's aristocratic customers who had to deal with Orazio informed his master that 'when it comes to avarice, he is certainly in no way inferior to his father.'

This was the background against which Titian and his assistants operated from the mid-1550s until the mid-1570s - and the contents of the exhibition are as authentically uneven as the output of the Vecellio studio during these years. There are some fine pictures and drawings from collections in Europe and the United States by Titian himself or mainly by him (with some studio assistance, as was typical of the times). There is also a telling selection of 'Titian and studio' pieces, which are patently of a lower standard. Others, such as the Uffizi's 'Venus,' are still the subject of debate as to the extent of the master's hand in them.

By the 1550s Titian had more orders than he could meet and was already notorious for delivering late - although if he played the principal role in executing the piece, it was still well worth waiting for. The cream of both the religious and classical mythological pictures was going to the Spanish court. At home Titian was facing competition from the studios of Bassano, Tintoretto, and Veronese, but the Titian name was a valuable one, and clients were prepared to pay for a lesser version of the product so long as the master signed it off himself. The painter's preference for employing even distant relatives limited the pool of talent he could draw upon. His helpers were evidently encouraged to copy without fully mastering the techniques and spirit of his style. Consequently, no true 'school' of Titian ever emerged.

When Titian asked Eleonora Gonzaga of Mantua in 1546 if he could borrow an image of Christ that he had sold her some time before to do another version of it for Pope Paul III, she declared she had no intention of doing so. She knew it was highly probable that what she would receive back would not be the original but some pale studio imitation, possibly with the spurious excuse that she had not properly paid for the original. (Two of Titian's portraits of Paul III are on


On the one hand, Titian had come to treat his canvases as a commodity like wood and wine, the quality of which did not matter as long as they continued to sell. On the other, he still managed to create some of his greatest works during his last years. He would spend weeks - even years - taking up and putting aside certain canvases, eventually, as Palma il Giovane bore witness, 'painting more with his fingers than his brushes.' And it was with obvious sincerity that Titian wrote to Philip II of Spain in 1559: 'My labors never satisfy me, but I am always seeking with all my efforts to polish and add something to them.'

Titian's late, looser and more impressionistic style was appreciated by some of his contemporaries and became more so in modern times. Pictures such as the Escorial 'Agony in the Garden,' on loan from the Prado, with its extreme chiaroscuro (although it has suffered some severe damage over the centuries, which may somewhat exaggerate the effects) was clearly reckoned to be finished before being dispatched to Spain. But it is impossible to know if some other works that remained in the studio would have been considered finished by the artist himself, raising doubts as to true extent of the impressionism of Titian's late style.

The studio came to an unexpectedly abrupt end when Orazio died four days after his father. The property and its contents were subsequently sold off by the churchman son, Pomponio, the sole heir.

Almost certainly still in the studio when this final sale took place was an unfinished 'Portrait of a Woman and Young Girl,' which after many adventures has ended up in a private collection in England. The recent removal of later over-painting has restored the wonderful, luminous work to its original condition. It is very plausible that this is a family picture kept as a personal memento by Titian, who was unconcerned by its incomplete state, having captured the essence of his sitters in their poses and faces. Profoundly human and strangely intimate, it reveals a side of the painter's own character seldom seen by the wider world.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024