To see Titian in Venice

Titian's last picture, finished by Palma Giovane, is a Pietà in the Academy. The fellow-pupil of Giorgione was by then 99 years old, according to the traditional belief, now questioned by modern scholars, who whittle the figure down to 91 or even 86. This painting, done in the grave's shadow, is appropriately set in a tomb. The plague was again in Venice, in Titian's own house, at the time he began the painting. The following year, Palladio started building the pink church of the Redentore on the Giudecca, one of the five plague-churches in Venice, erected on five different occasions in thanksgiving for the end of the dreadful scourge. A premonition (natural enough) of his end must have visited Titian, for he intended the "Pietà" for his own tomb in the Frari. The plague took him, before he had finished it, in 1576, sixty-six years after it had taken Big George of Castelfranco. The Holy Sepulcher in the painting is a rich Renaissance niche, framed with neo-classical pedestals and lions. An emblem of the phoenix is set over the grave in which Christ's body is about to be deposited. An angel (resembling a cupid) is descending with a torch. Another Pietà -- a picture within a picture -- is shown in one corner. In short, the trappings are conventional Renaissance. Yet a tragic passion springs out of it. The Mother in a brown veil and blue mantle makes a chill, severe contrast with the glowing Titian flesh tones. A Magdalen, in a green robe, like an Avenging Angel, is turning away from the grave-scene with upraised arm, confronting the spectator with a look of terribilità. This is a piercing, frenzied cry, the most fearsome expression of the mood in Venetian painting that began with the ambiguous idyls of Giorgione. Coming as it does, at the end of a long comfortable career of worldly success and international fame, that disordered Magdalen is like a Gorgon or like the Erinyes howling at the old man's door. These sudden confrontations (first seen perhaps in the Torcello Madonna), these demands, so to speak, for a reckoning or ultimate meaning, pass out of Venetian painting with the death of Veronese.

Titian was a world-figure, the darling of the Pope and of the Emperor Charles V. It is logical, therefore, that only scraps of his work should remain in Venice, the enemy of the Curia and of the Spanish power. There is really very little and that not of the first quality: a "Venus" in the Ca' d'Oro, the "Presentation" in the Academy, the Frari "Assumption" and "Madonna with the Pesaro family," a head of St. Mark in the Salute sacristy, the uncompleted painting in the Doge's Palace, an "Annunciation" in the Scuola di San Rocco, a St. Lawrence in the strange trompe-l'œil church of the Gesuiti, where the Venetian love of rich materials and optical illusions has been carried to bizarre lengths by the Jesuit fathers and the whole interior, down to a fake carpet, is covered with marbles counterfeiting brocade. Again, it seems logical that the Jesuits, themselves the pets of the Emperor and odious to the Venetians, should own one of the few examples of Titian in Venice. The Frari "Assumption," moreover, though owned by the Franciscans, is quite in the Jesuit taste. Ruskin detested it, rightly, I think; with its gaudy reds and blues, it seems to be the first sample of that religious propaganda art which the Jesuits used to "sell" the faith to the masses.

To see Titian in Venice is to conceive an unfair prejudice against him -- the great Titians are in the Prado, Naples, and the Louvre -- yet hardly any visitor is immune to this experience. The old rivalries among the Venetian painters of the Golden Age flare up hotly again in the churches, scuole, and museums. Tintoretto is preferred to Titian; Titian and his blackmailing friend, that monster of vanity, Aretino -- who wrote that he saw his likeness everywhere in Venice, in majolica ware, on the façades of palzzi, on comb-boxes and mirror-ornaments "like a Scipio or Alexander" -- are held responsible for the exile of Lotto, whose Carmine altarpiece was satirized by a hack writer and hanger-on of the Sansovino-Titian-Aretino log-rolling company, as Berenson calls it. Titian's jealousy of the young Tintoretto is cited; the story is told that Titian, envying the Little Dyer's drawing, excluded him from his studio. The Venetians plume themselves on Titian, a provincial from Cadore, but it is hard not to feel, on their behalf, that in some sense he betrayed the Republic, with his Florentine friends and the Pope and the Spanish Emperor.

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