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Tom Gurney BSc (Hons) is an art history expert with over 20 years experience
Published on June 19, 2020 / Updated on October 14, 2023
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One of the masters of the Italian Renaissance, Tiziano Vecellio (Titian) is especially well known for his application and use of colour.

His outstanding talents brought him great fame in his lifetime and he produced works for luminaries of the day including Phillip II of Spain and the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V.

In later life, in a letter to Phillip II of Spain, Titian claimed to have been born in 1474 but this seems very unlikely- it would make him around 102 at the time of his death.

Most modern scholars put the date of his birth somewhere between 1488-1490. He was born in what is now known as Pieve di Cadore, at that time under the rule of Venice, to Gregorio and Lucia Vecellio.

The couple had four children; Gregorio was a superintendent, working at the castle of Pieve di Cadore and managing local mines on behalf of their owners. In addition he is also known to have been a soldier and a councillor.

Aged around ten or twelve Titian and his brother Francesco were sent to an uncle in Venice in order to find apprenticeships with an artist. At this time Venice was one of the most wealthy and cosmopolitan cities in the western world.

Through family contacts the Vecellios were placed in the studio of the elderly Gentile Bellini, soon after transferring to the studio of his brother Giovanni Bellini. The Bellinis, particularly Gentile, were recognised as the leading artists in Venice at the time.

The Bellinis and Venice

The Bellinis had thriving studios with much for the young Vecellios to learn from. Gentile was well known for his portraiture; this fame led to him being sent to Constantinople to paint the Ottoman Sultan Mehmet II. He had found inspiration in Eastern subject matter and as a result became one of the founders of the Orientalism movement in Western art.

During his lifetime he was the better regarded of the two brothers, but almost as soon as Gentile died Giovanni became the more renowned artist of the two. Giovanni is given credit for revolutionising Venetian painting through pushing it towards a more colouristic and sensuous style.

The significance of Giovanni's experimentation with his colour palette to produce rich and expressive tints allied with the depth and atmospheric fluency of his landscapes can clearly be seen in the work of Titian.

In the studios of the Bellinis the Vecellios also encountered other students. They studied alongside others including Lorenzo Lotto, Giovanni Palma da Serinalta, Sebastiano Luciani and Giorgio da Castelfranco (more famously known as Giorgione).

Titian's friendship with Giorgione was a significant factor in the development of his early style, with Titian joining Giorgione as his assistant. Giorgione was well known for the pastoral mood of his work and this was evident too in Titian's output. The two worked together on the Fondaco dei Tedesch to decorate the external walls. The parts executed by Titian were the ones which received the greatest praise from their contemporaries, leaving Giorgione largely annoyed.

This tutelage in Venice under the Bellinis helped both brothers to become artists. Titian continued to learn and develop under Giorgione pushing himself to grow and adapt in his work in order to produce the great works for which he is famous today. Francesco too went on to work professionally. His output- mainly produced in the 1530s and 40s- made him a noteworthy artist in Venice.

Early Venetian Success

Titian launched an independent career and by 1512- following the death of Giorgione in 1510 and the departure of Sebastian del Piombo (another contemporary) for Rome in 1511- he was now the unrivalled talent amongst his generation in Venice. He continued to develop his style, moving away from his Giorgionesque work and undertaking larger and more complex commissions.

In 1516 he completed 'Assumption of The Virgin Mary' for the altar at Basilica di Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari. This masterpiece (still visible in situ today) caused a sensation for its large scale- at 7 metres high- colourism. It was a turning point in Venetian altarpiece design, challenging others to respond and adapt to these changes in style.

Also in 1516 the professional relationship between Titian and Alfonso D'Este, Duke of Ferrerra began. The Duke was working on a project called the 'Alabaster Cabinet' for his home in the Ducal palace in Ferrarra and to this end he hired the best artists that he was acquainted with at the time.

Alongside Titian he hired Raphael, Dosso Dossi and Fra Bartolomeo, although the deaths of Raphael and Fra Bartolomeo meant that Titian's involvement was greatly increased.

After this project Alfonso continued to employ Titian, particularly producing the Bacchinals that are on show today in the Prado in Madrid and The National Gallery in London.

Private and Public Acclaim

The 1520s were a time of great significance personally for Titian. By this point he was famous and, following his production of a St Sebastian figure for the Papal Legate, his work was sought after among buyers.

He was now also working for the court of Mantua, for Federico Il Gonzaga the future duke (and the nephew of his previous patron Alfonso D'Este). At Mantua he was mainly employed in producing portraits of the court.

In 1525 he married Cecilia, his housekeeper and the mother of his two sons Pompeo and Orazio. Cecilia was at that time seriously ill and Titian married her in part to legitimise their children. Thankfully she recovered and the couple went on to have a third child, a daughter called Lavinia.

In 1527 the architect and sculptor Jacopo Sansovino and Pietro Aretino (known as a man of letters) moved to Venice. They struck up a deep friendship with Titian, introducing him to Mannerism. Mannerism is a style derived from the work of Michelangelo. It is usually figurative and idealises the human form. This is married with an unnatural use of colour that is employed for expressive and decorative purposes.

This introduction took Titian's work off in a new direction as he explored Mannerist ideas through his art. From this point aspects of Mannerism can be seen in his work.

Mature Period

In 1530 Cecilia tragically passed away and the year itself marked a turning point for him both personally and professionally. In this year Titian also met with and painted the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. The resulting work- a full size, full length portrait of the Emperor- is now lost, but at the time it was an innovation in the genre.

Titian quickly rose to become the principal painter of the imperial court. Along with the fame and the fortune of this position came huge privileges, honours and even titles. His children too found themselves made nobles of the court, a high honour for a painter's family. Titian was established internationally now and his time was sought after.

He was also to become the official painter of Charles V's son, Phillip II later in his career.

Later Years

Now a master himself, Titian had set up his own studio working firstly with his son Orazio and later also with his nephew Marco Vecellio (also known as Marco di Tiziano). Both were highly regarded as artists, with Marco being the one of the two who reached something closer to Titian's style.

'Allegory of Age Governed by Prudence' (c.1565-1570) is said to use representations of the three of them in order to explore ideas of ageing and parallels with good judgement. It brings to attention the importance of the studio and the relationships between the artists therein to Titian.

Titian was largely employed at the court of Phillip II now, painting portraits. He was highly self-critical, often coming back to works in order to rid them of imperfections; at times keeping paintings in his studio for years before he was willing to release them as completed.

As an artist Titian continued to grow and challenge himself to develop and improve his work. Starting from the late 1550s he developed a different style of painting that used the brush much more freely and showed a less descriptive and exact representation of reality.

He continued to push and develop this style through the 1560s and 70s, bringing it almost to the brink of abstraction. Later this was termed 'magic impressionism' and is well illustrated by his two latest works: 'Death of Actaeon' and 'Pietà.'


Titian died of the plague on 27th August, 1576, shortly before his son Orazio also succumbed. He was buried at the Basilica di Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari in Venice. Originally his grave went unmarked, just as he had intended. Much later a sculpture by Antonio Canova was commissioned to mark the tomb.


There are about 300 of the 400 paintings Titian is estimated to have completed still in existence today. As it was during his lifetime, his work remains sought after and achieves high price tags when it is available on the market.

Titian's greatest legacy though is seen in the countless generations of artists whom he has inspired. Diego Velázquez, Rembrandt, Anthony van Dyck and Peter Paul Rubens are among those influenced by this Renaissance master.