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In search of Titian

Shunning the shuffling path of academics, a bold quest to resolve mysteries of artist’s life falls short

Many facts about Titian’s life are unknown or in dispute, including when he was born. Many facts about Titian’s life are unknown or in dispute, including when he was born. (International Portrait Gallery/Gale Research)
By Sebastian Smee
Globe Staff / January 10, 2010

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A book about the life of the greatest painter who ever lived - a man who lived in 16th century Venice and was a favorite of popes and kings, a friend of writers and poets - ought to be a rollicking read. So much the better if this book dispenses with the obfuscations of traditional art history, all those endless catalog entries about provenance and attribution, X-ray analyses and iconography.

Mark Hudson’s “Titian: The Last Days” tries to be just this book. And in some ways, it is a lively romp. But it’s also uncomfortably bumpy, and the further you read, the harder it becomes to ignore the sound of continual misfiring under the hood.

The problem begins with Hudson’s decision to turn the book into a self-conscious “quest,” a search for the truth about Titian. It means we get rather too many pages devoted to Hudson’s touristy descriptions of Venice, his linguistic frustrations (he speaks no Italian), and his dogged efforts to find and then gain entry into Titian’s home.

The approach, I think, is Hudson’s attempt to solve a problem. So much uncertainty surrounds Titian. No one knows how old he was. No one knows much about his love life. And no one knows quite what to make of his late works - those shimmering, Shakespearean, close-toned canvases that hover among various states of finish, shockingly crude in some parts and fantastically fluent in others.

Despite its title, the book is really an overview of Titian’s entire career, with as much space devoted to Hudson’s readings of various key canvases as to the progress of Titian’s life. But it has a specific riddle to solve: What happened at the end of the artist’s life?

He died during the plague of 1576. Was it the plague that got him, as it did his son Orazio? Or was it simply old age? And what about all those unfinished canvases that were left in his studio? Was the studio, as one document suggests, looted during those lawless, chaotic days? And what was the role of Titian’s other, estranged son, Pomponio, who returned to Venice after his father’s death to make an inventory of his belongings?

Questions like these are interesting. But answers are even better. Unfortunately, in many cases, they’re simply not available. Hudson is honest enough to acknowledge this. But his way of acknowledging it - endless concatenations of hypotheses - become wearying.

In some fine, affecting passages at the start of the book, Hudson claims that he wants to avoid cocooning Titian in the idea of “greatness,” to preserve instead “the immediacy and the physicality of the paintings themselves.” He also wants to get at Titian the man.

In accounting for his unusual approach, Hudson acknowledges the influence of his teachers, artists who were interested in neither iconography nor biography, who instead “absorbed the work visually.” He admired, he says, their attitude - which was not quite anti-intellectual so much as based on “an intellectualism of the visual” - because it implied a way of looking in which “no artist was entirely dead.”

Hudson, too, wants to keep Titian alive. But he also realizes he is going to have to take history, biography, and iconography more seriously if he is “going to get to grips with the meaning and fate of Titian’s final paintings

And so he hits the books hard. And he hits the pavements - not only of Venice but of Cadore (Titian’s hometown), Madrid, Kromeriz, and London - with similar gusto, looking for physical evidence, personal connections, surprise discoveries, even eccentric enthusiasts (one of whom reveals a fascinating interpretation of “The Tempest,” the famously enigmatic painting by Titian’s early teacher, Giorgione).

Inevitably, for all the sincerity of his questing, Hudson ends up depending heavily on the scrupulous research of the very scholars he criticizes for being concerned only with securing tenure, establishing provenance for collectors and dealers, and reducing Titian to “something that is dustily, worthily and safely in the past.”

This, for me, was a problem, as was the ensuing tone of Hudson’s writing: artificially urgent (“What the hell was Titian playing at?”), falsely intimate (of Titian’s wife, Cecilia: “It’s difficult to imagine she can have been much of a looker”), irritatingly attention-seeking (one chapter begins: “I hate Titian”) and yet oddly content to waffle on for pages about issues of only marginal interest.

And yet despite all this, Hudson’s book was the first I have read to sketch in a viable biography of Titian, acknowledging all the unknowns, placing him in the context of his friends and the powerful elite who competed for his services, and correcting many of the myths (including the idea that Titian was greedily obsessed with money; Hudson’s insistence that he was forced to grovel for money to which he was legitimately entitled feels closer to the truth).

We are told of how Titian often delayed the delivery of his canvases until payments were forthcoming, and of how he worked on many canvases at once - thereby ensuring a sufficient stream of work. By the end of his career, “the number of times he returned to a painting became greater, the gaps between them longer and the process of deciding whether it was finished or not more protracted.”

Near the end of the book, the author summarizes the confusing legal tussle between Pomponio and his brother-in-law over the properties and belongings of Titian, who died intestate.

Frustratingly, however, the questions about Titian’s late work and about what was stolen from his house after his death, all remain mired in uncertainty even after so many pages of passionate, searching prose.

And so, after so much huffing and puffing, Hudson’s quest feels awkwardly anticlimactic. Most dismayingly of all, it ends on a note (“Venice never again saw anything remotely approaching the grandeur of the age of Titian”) of exactly the kind of clichéd idolatry he set out promising to avoid.

Sebastian Smee is the art critic for the Boston Globe.

TITIAN: The Last Days
By Mark Hudson
Walker, 320 pp., $27