Venus of Urbino, 1538
Tiziano Vecellio, known in English as Titian had arrived in Venice from Pieve di Cadore a mountainous region some 110 kilometres north, aged just 10 or 12. His precise birth date is unknown but now accepted as being between 1485 and 1490. Thereafter he rarely left the city, except for visits home. His early career was marked by a determination to outdo both his venerable teacher, Giovanni Bellini — the senior Venetian painter of the time — and his slightly older friend and mentor, the romantic visionary Giorgione.
Giorgione died during the plague of 1510, aged around 30, but up to then the two artists’ work was so stylistically similar that attribution continues to be problematic. After Giorgione‘s death, however, Titian was to adopt an earthy sensuality that surpassed all before him. It was a decisive break from the dreamy romanticism practised by his former rival.
Comparing Titian‘s «Venus of Urbino» (1538) with Giorgione‘s «Sleeping Venus», on which it’s based, one is struck by its sheer, naked eroticism. Here is a Venus stripped of all mythological trappings – indeed, she looks more like a courtesan. Against the paleness of her body her face is flushed pink, her mouth a bright scarlet. Venus, it seems, has just had sex (the two maids look as if they’re preparing to dress her). Titian was the first artist to employ a live female model, and so perhaps she had.
With the death of Giorgione, followed by the death of his tutor, Giovanni Bellini in 1516, Titian soon rose to pre-eminence as the artist of the Republic – the only painter to have painted a pope (Paul III), an emperor (Charles V) and a king (Philip II of Spain). But so little is actually known of his life, apart from the fact that he lived a very long one.