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Tuesday, July 12, 2011


Venus of Urbino, 1538, Tiziano Vecellio
Everyone dreams of living to what we call a "ripe old age." Artists are no exception, and some, such as Michelangelo, Monet, Rembrandt, and a few others, managed to pass the magical fourscore mark, after which we stop lying about our age and begin proclaiming it with some pride. This was certainly the case with one of the greatest painters who ever lived, Tiziano Vecellio. If his name is not exactly a household word, perhaps you might be more familiar with that under which he signed his paintings--Titian. This name is practically synonymous with Venetian painting and in particular his Venus of Urbino painted in 1538 when he was already around 60 years old.

A good part of Titian's greatness as a painter comes from the fact that oil painting came to Italy just as he was starting his career, and that he had the presence of mind to grab hold of the new medium and explore its technical potential while maintaining the considerable skills he'd developed as a colorist using egg tempera. Unlike the strong draftsmanship that was the basis of Leonardo's or Raphael's painting, Titian's strength rested in his incredible use of subtle, transparent, varnished glazes of color, through which he built up his masses and rendered textures that were a standard for oil painters for the next three hundred years. And because of his amazing longevity, he serves very well as a convenient link between the Renaissance and the Baroque era minus the extravagant, self-conscious contrivances that marked the intervening Mannerist period.

Pieta, 1576, Titian, his last painting,
probably intended for his tomb.
Titian not only lived to the proverbial "ripe old age", he lived several years past it. Actually, given the fact no one is exactly sure when he was born, we can't be exactly sure how old the man was when he was done in by the plague in 1576. The mystery is made no less interesting by the fact that once the Titian reached 80 he started lying about his age, adding a couple years here and a couple more there, until once in a letter to the King of Spain, he claimed to be 95 years old in hopes that the monarch would feel sorry for him and pay him the sizable sum he was owed. Experts guess, in that particular case, he added approximately ten years to his age, which would put his birth around 1478. If that date is anywhere close to accurate, he was still painting at the "ripe old age" of 98.

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