A learned but not entirely compelling portrait of the great Venetian painter.
Hale’s (The Man Who Lost His Language, 2002, etc.) goal is to capture Titian (1488/90–1576) and his 16th-century world, where employment meant staying in the good graces of Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor, Pope Clement VII or Philip II of Spain. Being a genius didn’t hurt either; Titian could even manage to miss deadlines—a battle scene commissioned in 1516 didn’t arrive until 1538—because the result was a masterpiece: realer than real life, an improvement on nature. The facts alone attest to an intense life, and facts alone seem to be Hale’s specialty. She's from the throw-nothing-away school of biography, where minor transactions receive as much attention as major battles; as a result, Titian frequently gets lost in the so-called bigger picture. He isn’t even the most interesting character. That would be his best friend Pietro Aretino, a pornographer, flatterer and would-be cardinal who literally died laughing. Hale is better at capturing Titian’s art than his life; she expertly shows how he worked—mixing colors, applying “transparent glazes and semi-opaque scumbles” to create “a cool, hazy subdued effect”—and astutely describes the paintings. The subject of Charles V on Horseback, for example, is “masterful, thoughtful, weary, earnest, certain of his purpose but unsure of his ability to achieve it in the time left to him.” The author also asks probing questions about his art, such as the violent Flaying of Marsyas: “Did he want to discover what lay beneath the living flesh that his contemporaries said he painted not with pigments but as though with real, trembling skin?”
While not the big, dramatic narrative Titian deserves, Hale’s biography frequently rewards the patience it demands.