Tiziano Vecellio, called Titian (1485/9-1576)
The picture is a rare example of Titian’s late technique, and, unlike so many works by him, is fortunately in good condition.
Titian was the dominant figure of European painting in the sixteenth century. The son of a minor official in the Italian Alps, he began his career when a child, when he was successively a pupil of the Bellini family and Giorgione. But he soon surpassed his masters and by 1510 had established himself as an independent artist with commissions from the highest levels of Venetian Society. Thereafter, his reputation spread rapidly across Italy and by the 1530s, after coming to the attention of the Emperor, Charles V, he had achieved a level of international fame that few artists have attained. More than any other painter, Titian’s oeuvre demonstrates the transition of art from the refined, meticulously finished techniques of the fifteenth century to a freer, more harmoniously coloured approach of the sixteenth century.
This work was painted towards the end of Titian’s career, probably in the early 1570s, and so must be one of the last portraits he painted. As with most works by Titian of this date, such as Diana and Actaeon in the National Gallery, London, it is painted in a spirited and broad manner, which in parts, such as the armour and drapery, leads to an overall effect that borders on the impressionistic. The sitter is placed in a relatively simple composition, but is still given a strong sense of status and dignity by ensuring the viewer’s focus is directed onto the face. The profile lion’s head on the shoulder of the armour is vividly depicted and imparts a degree of animation otherwise lacking in the sitter’s penetrating but serious gaze.
Two drawings in the British Museum attest to the impact the portrait made on artists in the generations after Titian’s death. Perhaps it was the picture’s uncompromising characterisation that made it noteworthy, for both drawings, one by an unidentified late sixteenth-century Venetian artist and one by Anthony Van Dyck of c.1623, appear to focus on the sitter’s striking face. The earlier drawing is done in black and white chalk on blue paper and is inscribed in ink at the bottom, probably in a seventeenth century hand, ‘Tiziano’, which has subsequently been struck through. This drawing was formerly attributed to Palma il Giovane. Van Dyck’s rendition, in his Italian sketchbook, is done in ink, rapidly, but again conveys the sitter’s piercing intensity. Van Dyck has inscribed the sketch: ‘Titian’. A sketch on the same page of the book shows Raphael’s portrait of Pope Leo X and his Nephews, then in Florence.
Despite being evidently well known in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, the picture was entirely unknown thereafter until published by Suida in 1933. It was then in the Bonomi collection in Milan, having previously, by repute, belonged to the Trivulzio family in that city. The picture continued to be little known, no photographs other than that used by Suida being known, and was sold in the 1960s to a private collector. It first surfaced at auction in London in 1997, where it was purchased by a New York gallery, French & Co. They were unable to sell it, however, and placed it back at auction in 2009.
The picture is a rare example of Titian’s late technique, and, unlike so many works by him, is fortunately in good condition. A significant number of pentiments, as seen by x-ray, show that the picture was painted with great speed and vigour. The sitter’s head has been moved to the right, as has his right elbow, while his left shoulder has been moved to the left. The neck of the armour was completed prior to the application of the beard. Furthermore, the method of painting confirms that the picture was painted in rapid bursts; the paint has been quickly but thinly applied and in several stages, the lower layers being allowed to dry before the artist revisited the work. This technique accords with Palma Vecchio’s account of Titian’s practice, as described by Marco Boschini: ‘[Titian] blocked in his pictures with a mass of colours, which served as a bed or foundation for what he wished to express, and upon which he would then build. I myself have seen such underpainting, vigorously applied with a loaded brush, of pure red ochre, which would then serve as a middle ground; then with a stroke of white lead, with the same brush then dipped in red, black or yellow, he created the light and dark areas of the relief effect. And in this way with four strokes of the brush he was able to suggest a magnificent figure… After having thus established this crucial foundation, he turned the pictures to the wall and left them there, without looking at them for several months.’
Some parts of the picture appear unresolved, and may even be unfinished. Unfortunately, the picture’s most recent owners appear to have misunderstood how Titian painted later in his career. Following its purchase in 1997, the picture was ‘restored’ in the United States. The restorers took the sketchy and rapid application of paint to be damage, and filled in large swathes of the canvas, totally altering the picture’s appearance. Large passages were over-painted: the drapery was rendered flat and shapeless; the fingers became crudely defined, and the background was made uniformly flat. Details such as the reflection of the sword in the armour and the knot of the cloak were totally obliterated. Not surprisingly, some questioned the attribution to Titian thereafter, and the work achieved a degree of notoriety in the trade (something not helped by its exhibition in 2000 at Lawrence Salander’s gallery in New York). Happily, modern retouching media are non-invasive and very simply removed. Some of the worst over-paint, most noticeably in the red cloak, was removed prior to the 2009 auction, but much of the canvas was still obscured and misunderstood. The process of removing the later additions has now been carefully completed by this gallery over some months, and the picture can once again be seen in its original state.
However, research undertaken by the previous owners may have advanced the picture in at least one respect. In the exhibition catalogue accompanying the 2000 New York exhibition Frederick Ilchman, now a curator at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, suggested that the sitter in the portrait was Francesco Duodo, a Venetian admiral. Ilchman’s analysis was based first on the premise that the sitter, given his attire, must be a Venetian admiral, and that Duodo, to judge from two contemporary likenesses (a bust by Alessandro Vittoria in the Ca' d'Oro, Venice and an oil portrait of the late 1580s by a follower of Tintoretto in the Museo Storico Navale, Venice) was a plausible candidate. Duodo was a major figure in the naval victory over the Turks in 1571 at Lepanto. Given the date of the present portrait, it seems sensible to suggest, if the sitter is Duodo, that the portrait was commissioned to celebrate his role in the emphatic defeat of Venice’s main enemy.