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Titian and Venice: all you need to know about the city on water to better understand Titian

Art critics like to argue: Florence preferred the lines, but Venice — exclusively color. Therefore, they say, only Venice was able to create the best colorist in the world, Titian. Still, our stories are not about that. We will tell you about Venice from other perspectives: its' politics and prostitutes, taxis and newspapers, food and epidemics, as well as how it all defined the biography of Titian (and partly his contemporaries — from da Vinci to Vasari).
Titian and Venice: all you need to know about the city on water to better understand Titian
Venice in the era of Titian was not just a city, but a small state with the strongest maritime power. After all, the artist lived in the XVI century, when Italy was not yet a single state and only stood on the threshold of national unification. The future Italy was made up of independent city communes. And Venice, proudly calling itself the Republic of San Marco, was the most ambitious of them.

Venice was hated by successive Roman Popes. It did not hesitate to capture areas that had belonged to the Holy See since ancient times: Ravenna, Rimini, Faenza. Padua, Vicenza and Verona paid a tribute to Venice. In April 1509, Pope Julius II imposed an interdict on Venice for its imperialist policy — the prohibition of any church activities on its territory. It turns out, a whole city can be excommunicated.

The second worst enemy of Venice in the days of Titian’s youth was the German ruler Maximilian, who wanted to unite with the Spanish Habsburgs and conquer the Italian lands. The knottiest problem arose when Maximilian intended to meet with the Roman Pope, who promised to crown him as Emperor. There was one snag: to get to Rome, the warlike German had to cross Venice. And Venice legally prohibited him from doing that! Of course, the furious Maximilian then ravaged it with fire and sword, but the very fact of the ban is impressive.

It was in such a city — daring, insolent, and self-confident — that young Titian came from the provincial Pieve di Cadore to stay there forever and win international recognition for himself and Venice.
Titian’s mother Lucia Vecellio did not want to let him go to Venice. But this would be later, when Titian would come "to visit" her and tell what they had there, in Venice: customs, carnivals and torchlight processions. In the beginning it was because of Titian’s mother that they sent him to study in the city on the water. As a teenager, he once painted the Virgin Mary on the whitewashed wall of the house. Lucia, who had returned from the Sunday Mass, burst into tears: the Blessed Virgin Mary was like two drops of water similar to her.

Titian’s father then decided to let his son go to Venice and learn to draw. But the mother was so distressed that also sent Titian’s brother Francesco with him: it’s not that scary to go together, and it would be more fun. So the brothers Vecellio became the disciples of the mosaicist. The mosaics were popular among the Venetians, but almost nobody painted frescoes. They did not last long in the corrosive, humid air of Venice, containing salty sea suspension — they destroyed during the life of their creators.

Every time after the holidays spent at home in Pieve di Cadore, Titian and Francesco returned to Venice, loaded like pack-mules. With what? The biographer voluptuously lists: "with smoked ham, sausages, spicy sheep cheese, bottles of olive oil and wineskins with good home-made wine…" When it came to food, Donna Lucia Vecellio cared a lot about it. How could it be else, if in Venice, people ate — Mа́mmа Mia!, it’s disgusting even to think about! — sea reptiles and that horrible pasta imported from China by Marco Polo.
  • Titian. Our Lady of Sorrows, 1550, The Louvre
  • Titian. Our Lady of Sorrows, 1554, Prado
The plague was a scourge of Venice, but contrary to popular belief, Titian did not die from it. Titian really died in the year of the most severe epidemic, but the version that he was a victim of plague, is doubtful. The fact is that Titian was buried not in the plague cemetery, but in the Venetian Cathedral of Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari. Another Vechellio died from the plague — Orazio, Titian’s son who also was an artist. According to legend, Titian himself quietly died in his workshop, being in his declining years and holding a picture in his hands.

But the plague really played a crucial part in Titian’s life. When Titian was only trying to conquer Venice, there was another name familiar to everybody — Giorgione. Venetians were ready to carry in their arms that frivolous and brilliant artist with an unusually lyrical manner of painting. He was insanely popular among local intellectuals and collectors, but died of the plague quite young. Titian miraculously managed to be near the Giorgione’s house when the fires were already nearby: they burned the plagued things of the deceased in them. At the risk of his life, Titian saved from the fire several of Giorgione’s paintings, including the famous Sleeping Venus. And then the admirers of Giorgione turned to Titian with a request to finish some of the pictures, which their idol didn’t have time to finish. And although Titian did his best and did not claim the authorship of the finished works, later he had to prove for a very long time the authorship of his own paintings: malicious gossip had it that they were created by Giorgione, and Titian tried to grab the credit for his work.

It is interesting that before the withering plague of 1510, the famous Venetian gondolas were bright and colourful. But they had to carry a terrible burden. Thousands upon thousands of corpses sailed along the Grand Canal to the islands of San Lazzaro and Lido, where there were plague cemeteries. Urban legend has it that it was then that the authorities of the Republic of Saint Mark in memory of the deceased decided to leave the gondolas painted with black varnish.
Giorgione. Sleeping venus
Sleeping venus
1510, 108×175 cm
Titian Vecelli. Venus Of Urbino
Venus Of Urbino
1538, 119.2×165.5 cm
In Venice, in the middle of the XVI century, there were 11 thousand legalized prostitutes, and Titian did not disdain their services. Of course, it was primarily about posing, but about pleasure, too. Titian was by nature strong, sturdy and endowed with indestructible health. Moreover, for quite a long time (even having two sons) he officially remained a bachelor. It’s quite natural that he resorted to the services of women of easy virtue, and they paid the sedate and kind Titian their flaming devotion.

11 thousand prostitutes — a whole social class! They regularly replenished the Venetian treasury with their taxes. In rich Venice, in the 16th century there was a highly developed printing industry and once a year for the convenience of citizens there was published a catalog of prostitutes — with names, addresses and prices, which varied depending on the distance from the center of the city. There were only few restrictions for courtesans: for example, they had to leave the house exclusively in yellow shawls, so that the clients, God forbid, would not confuse them with pious women.

Titian’s personal preferences were not a secret. Being himself strong and well built, he always loved large women. Ve-e-ery large ones, broad-shouldered, bulky — even Rubens was out of his league! Here is how a biographer, resorting to apologetic analogies and equivocation, writes about Titian’s tastes — either artistic, or intimate ones: "The artist did not like the pre-dawn haze, the beginning of the day and the fragility of young maidens. He was more into the beginning of autumn, the hours before sunset, and preferred women with a full-blooded nature who already enjoyed life beauties."
  • Titian. Female portrait. 1508-1510, National Gallery, London
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    . 1515. The Uffizi Gallery
For a long time, following the critic John Ruskin’s example, it was assumed that this picture of Car

For a long time, following the critic John Ruskin’s example, it was assumed that this picture of Carpaccio depicts two Venetian prostitutes waiting for the client. This, allegedly, was seen from their decolletes and chopines, standing near the balustrade — wedge platform sandals which were often worn by Venetian demi-monde, as well as their expectant glances and poses, and a note, pressed by the dog’s paw. Pavel Muratov, the author of the famous Images of Italy, even believed that on the terrace the courtesans were drying their hair after dying it reddish-gold — the most fashionable colour in Venice. However, after the missing upper part of the board was found in the second half of the 20th century (thanks to it, in particular, it becomes clear that the flower in the flowerpot is a white lily, a symbol of purity), the ladies were "rehabilitated" and are now considered noble Venetians waiting for their husbands to come back from hunting.

The enemy of Venice No. 3 (after the Pope and the German Emperor) were the Turks. But how is it related, you would ask, to the artistic life? Directly! Titian’s contemporary Leonardo da Vinci visited Venice. It was in the city on the water that he got a brilliant idea of creating a submarine. Leonardo believed that only in this way Venice would have a real chance to fight off the Turkish fleet.

For three hundred years Venice managed both to fight and to trade with the Turks. Titian’s teacher Gentile Bellini (Giovanni's older brother, whom Titian was later taught by) lived at the Turkish court, helping his art to build bridges between the warring subjects — the huge Ottoman Empire
Empire (fr. empire – imperial) is the style of the late classicism in architecture, applied art and painting. It was popular during the first three decades of the 19th century.
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and the small but proud Republic of St. Mark. According to the modern writer and Nobel prize winner Orhan Pamuk, the profile portrait of the Ottoman Sultan Mehmet II, the conqueror of Constantinople by Bellini is still considered iconic in Turkey — almost like a portrait of Che Guevara in Cuba.

When Gentile dared to present Mehmed II with a canvas with the severed head of John the Baptist, the sultan noticed that the veins sticking out of his head were painted incorrectly. Gentile tried to object. Mehmed immediately grabbed the sword, cut off the head of the servant standing next to him and began explaining the intricacies of anatomy on a living (or, rather, no longer living) example.

In the heyday of Titian’s talent, the Ottomans were already ruled by another sultan — Suleiman I the Magnificent. Those who watched the Turkish TV series The Magnificent Centuries don’t need any explanation of who he was. In 1521, Suleiman signed peace agreement with the Republic of St. Mark. It is not quite clear whether Titian was at the Sultan’s court, but, for example, his portrait of Laura Dianti (Duke Alfonso I d’Este’s mistress, who took the place of his legal wife, Lucrezia Borgia) was mistakenly considered a portrait of the Sultan’s wife at one time because of the turban on her head. And, unfortunately, until now it is not known for certain who’s depicted in the two portraits below — Suleiman’s wife Hyurrem or his daughter Cameria (Mihrimah), and also whether the portraits belong to Titian, whom they are attributed to, or to the painters from his workshop.
  • Cameria, sultan Suleiman's daughter (?). Canvas, oil. 1555. The location is unknown.
  • La Sultana Rossa (Red-haired Sultana). C. 1550. The Ringling Museum. Sarasota, United States
Venice of the era of Titian is the birthplace of taxis and newspapers. And this is not an exaggeration or unfounded confidence from the category of "the homeland of elephants and football", but pure historical truth.

Venice was famous for freedom of speech and antifeudal feuilletons. So it is quite natural that it was there that they began to produce a jaunty printed sheet called "Gazzettino", from which comes the word 'newspaper'. The first media in Venice was named after a small coin with the image of a magpie (in Italian — gazza) — that was the cost of the newspaper.

At the beginning of the XVI century Giovanni Taxis, an entrepreneur from Bergamo, opened a post and transport office in Venice, near the Rialto bridge. Taxis crews could drive even to Verona, or Padua, and very soon he became a monopolist in his field. There is a version that the name "taxi" comes from his name. Whether it’s true or not, Titian enjoyed using the services of the newly invented service, ordering the stagecoaches in the Taxis office. It was especially pleasant that in the cold season some of them had heating systems. The only frustrating thing was that Taxi’s stagecoaches did not want to take people to Titian’s homeland Pieve di Cadore: it was a rugged mountainous terrain, crossed by rivers, and in comparison with Venice, a terrible wilderness.
  • Titian. Portrait of a Man with a Glove. 1520, The Louvre
  • Titian. Portrait of a Venetian Nobleman
In order to take a favourable administrative position in Venice, Titian tried to scheme against Giovanni Bellini. There was a traditional position for the city — a salt mediator. Back then it was believed the artists were the best at understanding the minerals (it did not matter whether those were pigments for paints or edible salt). To tell the truth, by the time of Titian, the mediator’s function was purely nominal. But it automatically gave many advantages: the post of the republic’s chief artist, 100 tax-free gold ducats annually, two assistants and a luxurious workshop.

Titian used all his connections to take this place, although for many years the position of salt mediator was taken by the elderly Giovanni Bellini, his teacher. Titian’s intrigues worked. He got what he wanted and even more — the unfinished palace of Francesco Sforza on the Grand Canal as a place for a workshop. There was everything there: spacious rooms, a glass ceiling, giving the incredible lighting necessary for work, and even a private pier. However, having learned about such inhuman insidiousness, the decrepit Bellini at once changed his mind to die and regained his lost rights through the courts.

Only after his death, Titian, repentant of his blind greed, became a salt mediator.
Giorgio Vasari was jealous of Titian over Venice. It is known that Vasari, this tireless human orchestra and walking encyclopedia, did not include Titian in the first edition of his famous "Lives…" And it was so illogical and weird: while Vasari described in detail some third-rate authors, he ignored Titian, this "block and strong-willed man". They were even personally acquainted, and met several times. In the second edition of his "Lives", published 15 years after the first edition, Vasari reluctantly included a chapter on Titian.

But why did he ignore Titian in the first one? It turns out that was because of pure jealousy. For Vasari it was important to prove that the birthplace of the great art was Rome and his beloved Florence, but not some sort of the overambitious Venice.
Titian Vecelli. Allegory of prudence
Allegory of prudence
1565, 75.5×68.4 cm
Quotations are taken from Alexander Makhov’s book Life and Work of Titian.

Cover illustration: Titian. Self-portrait. 1550−1562. Berlin Picture Gallery

Author: Anna Vcherashnia