"Might not this 'mountain man' have been something of a 'canny Scot' or a 'shrewd Swiss'?"
Josiah Gilbert, Titian's Country, 1869
On a clear day in Venice when the wind blows the mist from the lagoon, you can see the distant mountains 110 kilometres to the north where Titian Vecellio was born into a large and locally prominent family in the little township of Pieve di Cadore, close to the border with Habsburg Germany. It was remote, sparsely populated country whose inhabitants were necessarily tough, hard working and used to rationing and penny-pinching. In summer and autumn there was plenty of milk, cheese, butter and fruit from the lush pastures and orchards. But the thin mountain soil did not produce enough grain to last through the long winters, when supplies had to be hauled up through snow-covered valleys on sleds drawn by horses either from Germany or from the fertile Venetian plain. The communal grain stores were closely supervised by the local authorities, who controlled prices for the poor.
A loyal outpost of the Venetian land empire since 1420, the region of Cadore was divided for administrative purposes into centurie or 'centuries'. And the location of Pieve, where an escarpment rises sharply above the then navigable River Piave, was important to Venice as a control point for one of the trading routes between its overseas dominions in the Levant and transalpine Europe. Convoys of pack animals and carts drawn by oxen or horses, one behind to act as a break when descending steep hills, criss-crossed the surrounding valleys. Merchants from the Habsburg Empire, the German kingdoms, Poland, Hungary and Bohemia carried silver, gold, copper, iron, sheets of tin, metal products, hides, worked leather, furs, coarse cloth and minerals to Venice, where the German exchange house, the Fondaco dei Tedeschi, 'would by itself ', so it seemed to one Jerusalem pilgrim in Venice at the turn of the fifteenth century, 'suffice to supply all Italy with the goods that come and go'. Produce from the north was traded at the Fondaco for luxury goods made in Venice – glass and mirrors from Murano, refined soaps, richly worked and dyed silks and satins – or imported into Venice from the Levant: preserved fruits, molasses, wine and olive oil; seed pearls, ivory; and the products known as spices, a term that covered a wide range of goods from peacock feathers, fine-spun Egyptian cottons and the ingredients of pigments used by artists and dyers to flavourings (cardamom, cinnamon, ginger, pepper, saffron, frankincense, myrrh) that were also essentials as the bases of the only drugs available in Renaissance Europe.
Timber and to a lesser extent iron mining were the principal local industries. Wood in this densely forested area was a precious export commodity, not to be wasted unnecessarily on domestic fires. Venice depended for its very survival on a steady and copious supply of wood from its hinterland, which was imported in vast quantities for building and fitting out the war and trading galleys; for the small boats that plied its waterways; for dykes, palisades and the pilings on which the foundations of its buildings rested; for stoking industrial furnaces and for the unusually numerous domestic fires. Venetians, as we can see from the multitude of conical chimneys in contemporary paintings, liked to keep their houses warmer than those in other northern cities.
Timber was in Titian's blood. He inherited ancestral sawmills near Perarolo, where the River Boite joins the Piave, and later in life ran a timber business in partnership with his brother Francesco and his son Orazio. Rough cut trunks of larch, red and white fir, beech, birch and alder from the forests of Cadore were floated downriver to Perarolo. Here they were sorted, milled, lashed together as rafts, sometimes loaded with iron ore, wool and hides, and transported downriver to Venice where they were parked along the Zattere – the 'rafts' as the quays along the Giudecca Canal are still called – before the wood was sent on for unloading and storage in the timber yard on the northern lagoon, next to the church of San Francesco della Vigna, which the Venetian government, in recognition of the importance of its wood, had granted to Cadore in 1420. It was a privilege that would cause Titian to fall out with the local government later in his life. Cadore supplied Venice with wood into the early twentieth century; and even today you can occasionally hear the buzz of saws in Cadore, in the Parco Rocciolo – the park of rough cut timber – at the base of the castle hill, just above a little piazza, then as now called Piazza Arsenale after an antique arsenal.
Titian was born in this piazza, probably some time between 1488 and 1490 in a house facing a spectacularly jagged fringe of mountains known as the Marmarole, and he spent his early childhood here with his father Gregorio Vecellio, his mother Lucia and their three younger children: Dorotea, born around 1490, Francesco, born not long after 1490, and Orsa, the youngest, born around 1500. A modest cottage of a kind that has now mostly disappeared, it was rediscovered behind a later extension in the early nineteenth century by scholar detectives who identified it from its description in a sale document of 1580. The ground floor, now a little museum, was originally used for storage and in winter for stabling farm animals, whose bodies acted as under-floor heating for the rooms above. The living space on the first floor consists of four small rooms including a kitchen with a flagstone floor and a stove for cooking and heating which would have been kept lit at all times. The other three rooms are wooden boxes, entirely lined with pine for insulation – some of the original ceiling panels cut from giant pine trees are as much as one and a half meters wide. All the windows are small, and the only staircase is external to save space indoors and to act as a fire escape.
Surrounded by dense forests, and guardian to one of the gateways into Italy, the province of Cadore was inevitably subject to frequent fires and to skirmishes with the German and Turkish armies that threatened the borders of the Venetian state. It must have been during one of the sieges by the Habsburg emperor, Maximilian I, in the years between 1508 and 1513 that the parish register of births, baptisms, marriages and deaths was lost, leaving posterity with no certain evidence of the date of birth of Titian, his siblings or indeed anyone else born in Cadore in the previous decades. Titian scholars have been searching without success for this book for at least two centuries.
Unfortunately, since Titian in his later life exaggerated, or perhaps forgot, his age, it is unlikely that we will ever have certain evidence of his exact date of birth. Like many people at the time Titian may not have known or cared exactly when he had been born (neither did Giovanni Bellini or Giorgione, or if they did they left no record of their ages). It would have suited him to exaggerate his age when he was a young artist seeking work in Venice, and again later in life when extreme old age was a rare achievement that commanded great respect. His two earliest biographers, Lodovico Dolce and Giorgio Vasari, both of whom knew him personally, imply that he was born in the late 1480s, and something between 1488 and 1490 is the date that is now, after long and heated controversy, accepted by most authorities. However, his seventeenth-century biographers – an anonymous writer commissioned by a distant relative of Titian4 and Carlo Ridolfi – gave 1477, a date which, like so much misinformation about Titian's life, remains to this day in some of the literature.
Apart from the dramatic mountain scenery and the house where he was born, there isn't much left of Titian's Cadore. The parish church of Santa Maria Nascente where he hoped to be buried and for which he designed a set of frescoes towards the end of his life was torn down in 1813 when remains of the old castle were used to build the bulky neo-Renaissance replacement you see today. The life-sized bronze statue of Titian in the main square, Piazza Tiziano, was erected in the late nineteenth century after Pieve had become part of the newly united Italy. He glares down from his pedestal displaying the gold chain presented to him by the emperor as the insignia of his knighthood, the cap that probably concealed a bald spot and the fiercely down-turned mouth, and wielding palette and brushes like a protective shield against inquisitive posterity. He looks about fifty, still lean and tough, although one can imagine that the rough mountain edges of his voice and manners have been smoothed away. Titian by this time has painted most people of consequence in the Europe of his day. He has a kind of Olympian wisdom, a detached view of the world unencumbered by any particular political or religious agenda (unlike his hero and rival Michelangelo) and a profound understanding of people and how they work. He is regarded almost as a demi-god, an Atlantis, or a reincarnation of Apelles, painter to Alexander the Great. It's hard to imagine him smiling, but on the rare occasions when he does turn up the corners of his mouth it must seem like a gift to the men, and of course the women, he charms with his wit and his self-assured good manners.
If the emperor Charles V really did pick up Titian's paintbrush as Ridolfi tells us, perhaps he was being rewarded for one of those smiles. Both of his contemporary biographers described his charm. "In the first place," says Dolce, "he is extremely modest; he never assesses any painter critically, and willingly discusses in respectful terms anyone who has merit. And then again he is a very fine conversationalist, with powers of intellect and judgment that are quite perfect in all contingencies, and a pleasant and gentle nature. He is affable and copiously endowed with an extreme courtesy of behaviour. And the man who talks to him once is bound to fall in love with him for ever and always."
But elsewhere Dolce uses the verb giostrare, to joust, to indicate a competitive streak. Vasari, who as a Tuscan had reservations about the Venetian way of painting, described him as 'courteous, with very good manners and the most pleasant personality and behaviour', an artist who had surpassed his rivals 'thanks both to the quality of his art and to his ability to get on with gentlemen and make himself agreeable to them'. An anonymous biographer writing in the seventeenth century described him as of a pleasing appearance, circumspect and sagacious in business, with an uncorrupted faith in God, loyal to the Most Serene Republic (a courtesy title given to other European states but most often to Venice, which was widely known as La Serenissima in its strongest period) and especially to his homeland of Cadore. "He is candid, open-hearted, generous and an excellent conversationalist." "Titian", wrote his other posthumous biographer Carlo Ridolfi, echoing Vasari, "had courtly manners ... by frequenting the courts, he learned every courtly habit ... People used to say that the talent he possessed was a particular gift from Heaven, but he never exulted in it." Yet Ridolfi gives us a hint of rough edges to the polished surface of his subject's character. Titian, he tells us, was dismissive of lesser talents, and the highest praise he could bestow on a painting he admired was that it seemed to be by his own hand. What none of his early biographers mention is the lifelong loyalty and devotion to friends and family, the capacity for enjoying himself in company or the dry sense of humour, which must have been one of the qualities that made him such agreeable company. None of them – perhaps because they were all, apart from Vasari, themselves Venetians – says how typically Venetian he was: good humoured, thrifty to the point of stinginess, sweet-tempered but manipulative when necessary for his own ends, and very much his own man.
If you spend a day or two in Cadore you will see Titian's features again: the long bony face, the slightly hooked nose, the fierce gaze. Natives of Cadore are the first to tell you that they look like Titian, and a surprising number bear the name Vecellio – there is a trend in small isolated communities for surnames carried on the male line to increase over centuries. By the time Titian was born, the Vecellio were already one of the largest and most distinguished old families in Cadore. Vasari described the family as 'one of the most noble', a word that was used in the annals of the Vecellio, although no member of the family was of the patrician class and none before Titian himself actually received an imperial title. But his upbringing as a member of a prominent family proud of its long lineage and history of public service might go some way towards explaining the social confidence and the ease with which he acquired those pleasing manners, which were unusual if not unique for an artist at that time.
The Vecellio of Cadore can be traced back to the second half of the thirteenth century. Most were notaries who occupied important positions in the local government. To qualify as a notary it was necessary to be nominated by a count palatine, a man given that title by the emperor, then to satisfy the local authorities, many of whom were also notaries, of competence by delivering before them an eloquent dissertation in Latin in the style of the great Roman advocate Cicero. Notaries were therefore by definition reasonably well connected and educated men. In remote communities like Cadore they fulfilled the roles of attorney, accountant and broker. Their signatures on wills, inventories, powers of attorney, dowry agreements and sales of property gave such documents, theoretically at least, international validity. One of them, a certain Bartolomeo, was also a timber merchant who owned sawmills at Perarolo that Titian would later inherit. Titian's grandfather, known as Conte and one of the most remarkable of the Vecellio clan, must have made a strong impression on the young Titian. He was a shrewd businessman who knew how to manipulate the price of imported grain and a forceful diplomat who on one occasion managed to persuade the Venetian government to lift from Cadore a punitive tax imposed on outlying regions to finance a war against the Turks. From 1458 until his death around 1513 at what must have been a very advanced age he served the local administration as court auditor nineteen times, and often as delegate to Venice.
Excerpted from Titian by Sheila Hale. Copyright © 2012 by Sheila Hale. Excerpted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers.
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