No one is sure of the exact date of Titian's birth, when he was an old man he claimed to have been born in 1477 in a letter to Philip II, but this seems most unlikely. Other writers contemporary to his old age give figures for his age which would equate to birth-dates between 1473 to after 1482, but most modern scholars believe a date nearer 1490 is more likely. He was the eldest of a family of four and son of Gregorio Vecelli, a distinguished councillor and soldier, and of his wife Lucia. His father was superintendent of the castle of Pieve di Cadore and also managed local mines for their owners. Many relatives, including Titian's grandfather, were notaries, and the family were well-established in the area, which was ruled by Venice.
At the age of about ten to twelve he and his brother Francesco (who perhaps followed later) were sent to an uncle in Venice to find an apprenticeship with a painter. The minor painter, Sebastian Zuccato, whose sons became well-known mosaicists, and who may have been a family friend, arranged for the brothers to enter the studio of the elderly Gentile Bellini, from which they later transferred to that of his brother Giovanni Bellini. At that time the Bellinis, especially Giovanni, were the leading artists in the city. There he found a group of young men about his own age, among them Giovanni Palma da Serinalta, Lorenzo Lotto, Sebastiano Luciani, and Giorgio da Castelfranco, nicknamed Giorgione. Francesco Vecellio, his younger brother, later became a painter of some note in Venice.
A fresco of Hercules on the Morosini Palace is said to have been one of his earliest works, others were the Virgin and Child (the Bellini-esque so-called Gypsy Madonna), in Vienna, and the Visitation of Mary and Elizabeth (from the convent of S. Andrea), now in the Accademia, Venice.
Titian joined Giorgione as an assistant, but many contemporary critics already found his work more impressive, for example in the exterior frescoes (now almost totally destroyed) that they did for the Fondacio dei Tedeschi, and their relationship evidently had a significant element of rivalry. Distinguishing between their work at this period remains a subject of scholarly controversy, and there has been a substantial movement of attributions from Giorgione to Titian in the 20th century, with little traffic the other way. One of the earliest known works of Titian, the little Ecce Homo of the Scuola di San Rocco, was long regarded as the work of Giorgione.
The two young masters were likewise recognized as the two leaders of their new school of "arte moderna", that is of painting made more flexible, freed from symmetry and the remnants of hieratic conventions still to be found in the works of Giovanni Bellini.
In 1507-1508 Giorgione was commissioned by the state to execute frescoes on the re-erected Fondaco dei Tedeschi. Titian and Morto da Feltre worked along with him, and some fragments of paintings remain, probably by Giorgione. Some of their work is known, in part, through the engravings of Fontana. After Giorgione's early death in 1510, Titian continued to paint Giorgionesque subjects for some time, though his style developed its own trademarks, including bold and expressive brushwork.
Titian's talent in fresco is shown in those he painted in 1511 at Padua in the Carmelite church and in the Scuola del Santo, some of which have been preserved, among them the Meeting at the Golden Gate, and three scenes from the life of St. Anthony of Padua, the Murder of a Young Woman by Her Husband, A Child Testifying to Its Mother's Innocence, and The Saint Healing the Young Man with a Broken Limb.
From Padua in 1512, Titian returned to Venice, and in 1513 he obtained a broker's patent in the Fondaco dei Tedeschi (state-warehouse for the German merchants), termed La Sanseria or Senseria (a privilege much coveted by rising or risen artists), and became superintendent of the government works, being especially charged to complete the paintings left unfinished by Giorgione in the hall of the great council in the ducal palace. He set up an atelier on the Grand Canal at S. Samuele, the precise site being now unknown. It was not until 1516, upon the death of Giovanni Bellini, that he came into actual enjoyment of his patent. At the same time he entered an exclusive arrangement for painting. The patent yielded him a good annuity of 20 crowns and exempted him from certain taxes - he being bound in return to paint likenesses of the successive Doges of his time at the fixed price of eight crowns each. The actual number he executed was five.
During the next period (1530-1550), Titian developed the style introduced by his dramatic Death of St. Peter Martyr. The Venetian government, dissatisfied with Titian's neglect of the work for the ducal palace, ordered him in 1538 to refund the money which he had received, and Pordenone, his rival of recent years, was installed in his place. However, at the end of a year Pordenone died, and Titian, who meanwhile applied himself diligently to painting in the hall the Battle of Cadore, was reinstated. This major battle scene, was lost along with so many other major works by Venetian artists by the great fire which destroyed all the old pictures in the great chambers of the Doge's Palace in 1577. It represented in life-size the moment at which the Venetian general, D'Alviano attacked the enemy with horses and men crashing down into a stream, and was the artist's most important attempt at a tumultuous and heroic scene of movement to rival Raphael's Battle of Constantine and the equally ill-fated Battle of Cascina of Michelangelo and The Battle of Anghiari of Leonardo (both unfinished). There remains only a poor, incomplete copy at the Uffizi, and a mediocre engraving by Fontana. The Speech of the Marquis del Vasto (Madrid, 1541) was also partly destroyed by fire. But this period of the master's work is still represented by the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin (Venice, 1539), one of his most popular canvasses, and by the Ecce Homo (Vienna, 1541). Despite its loss, the painting had a great influence on Bolognese art and Rubens, both in the handling of details and the general effect of horses, soldiers, lictors, powerful stirrings of crowds at the foot of a stairway, lit by torches with the flapping of banners against the sky.
Less successful were the pendentives of the cupola at Sta. Maria della Salute (Death of Abel, Sacrifice of Abraham, David and Goliath). These violent scenes viewed in perspective from below - like the famous pendentives of the Sistine Chapel - were by their very nature in unfavorable situations. They were nevertheless much admired and imitated, Rubens among others applying this system to his forty ceilings (the sketches only remain) of the Jesuit church at Antwerp.
At this time also, the time of his visit to Rome, the artist began his series of reclining Venuses (The Venus of Urbino of the Uffizi, Venus and Love at the same museum, Venus and the Organ-Player, Madrid), in which is recognized the effect or the direct reflection of the impression produced on the master by contact with ancient sculpture. Giorgione had already dealt with the subject in his Dresden picture, finished by Titian, but here a purple drapery substituted for a landscape background changed, by its harmonious coloring, the whole meaning of the scene.
Titian had from the beginning of his career shown himself to be a masterful portrait-painter, in works like La Bella (Eleanora de Gonzaga, Duchess of Urbino, at the Pitti Palace). He painted the likenesses of princes, or Doges, cardinals or monks, and artists or writers. "...no other painter was so successful in extracting from each physiognomy so many traits at once characteristic and beautiful", according to the Catholic Encyclopedia. Among portrait-painters Titian is compared to Rembrandt and Velazquez, with the interior life of the former, and the clearness, certainty, and obviousness of the latter.
Titian had a favorite villa on the neighboring Manza Hill, from which (it may be inferred) he made his chief observations of landscape form and effect. The so-called Titian's mill, constantly discernible in his studies, is at Collontola, near Belluno.
He visited Rome in 1546, and obtained the freedom of the city - his immediate predecessor in that honour having been Michelangelo in 1537. He could at the same time have succeeded the painter Sebastiano del Piombo in his lucrative office as holder of the piombo or Papal seal, and he was prepared to take holy orders for the purpose, but the project lapsed through his being summoned away from Venice in 1547 to paint Charles V and others in Augsburg. He was there again in 1550, and executed the portrait of Philip II which was sent to England and proved useful in Philip's suit for the hand of Queen Mary.
During the last twenty-five years of his life (1550-1576) the artist worked mainly for Philip II and as a portrait-painter he became more self-critical, an insatiable perfectionist, keeping some pictures in his studio for ten years, never wearying of returning to them and retouching them, constantly adding new expressions at once more refined, concise, and subtle. He also finished off many copies of earlier works of his by his pupils, giving rise to many problems of attribution and priority among versions of his works, which were also very widely copied and faked outside his studio, during his lifetime and afterwards.
For each of the problems which he successively undertook he furnished a new and more perfect formula. He never again equaled the emotion and tragedy of the Crowning with Thorns (Louvre), in the expression of the mysterious and the divine he never equaled the poetry of the Pilgrims of Emmaus, while in superb and heroic brilliancy he never again executed anything more grand than The Doge Grimani adoring Faith (Venice, Doge's Palace), or the Trinity, of Madrid.
On the other hand from the standpoint of flesh tints, his most moving pictures are those of his old age, the Dan of Naples and of Madrid, the Antiope of the Louvre, The Rape of Europa (Boston, Gardner collection), etc. He even attempted problems of chiaroscuro in fantastic night effects (Martyrdom of St. Laurence, Church of the Jesuits, Venice, St. Jerome, Louvre). In the domain of the real he always remained equally strong, sure, and master of himself, his portraits of Philip II (Madrid), those of his daughter, Lavinia, and those of himself are numbered among his masterpieces.
Titian had engaged his daughter Lavinia, the beautiful girl whom he loved deeply and painted various times, to Cornelio Sarcinelli of Serravalle. She had succeeded her aunt Orsa, then deceased, as the manager of the household, which, with the lordly income that Titian made by this time, placed her on a corresponding footing. The marriage took place in 1554. She died in childbirth in 1560.
He was at the Council of Trent towards 1555, of which his admirable picture or finished sketch in the Louvre bears record. Titian's friend Aretino died suddenly in 1556, and another close intimate, the sculptor and architect Jacopo Sansovino, in 1570. In September 1565 Titian went to Cadore and designed the decorations for the church at Pieve, partly executed by his pupils. One of these is a Transfiguration, another an Annunciation (now in S. Salvatore, Venice), inscribed Titianus fecit, by way of protest (it is said) against the disparagement of some persons who cavilled at the veteran's failing handicraft.
He continued to accept commissions to the end of his life. He had selected as the place for his burial the chapel of the Crucifix in the church of the Fran, and, in return for a grave, he offered the Franciscans a picture of the Pieta, representing himself and his son Orazio before the Saviour, another figure in the composition being a sibyl. This work he nearly finished, but some differences arose regarding it, and he then settled to be interred in his native Pieve.
Titian was approximately 90 years old when the plague raging in Venice took him on 27 August 1576. He was the only victim of the Venice plague to be given a church burial. He was interred in the Frari (Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari), as at first intended, and his Pieta was finished by Palma the Younger. He lies near his own famous painting, the Madonna di Ca' Pesaro. No memorial marked his grave, until much later the Austrian rulers of Venice commissioned Canova to provide the large monument.
Immediately after Titian's own death, his son and pictorial assistant, Orazio, died of the same epidemic. His sumptuous mansion was plundered during the plague by thieves.
Several other artists of the Vecelli family followed in the wake of Titian. Francesco Vecellio, his elder brother, was introduced to painting by Titian (it is said at the age of twelve, but chronology will hardly admit of this), and painted in the church of S. Vito in Cadore a picture of the titular saint armed. This was a noteworthy performance, of which Titian (the usual story) became jealous, so Francesco was diverted from painting to soldiering, and afterwards to mercantile life.
Marco Vecellio, called Marco di Tiziano, Titian's nephew, born in 1545, was constantly with the master in his old age, and, learned his methods of work. He has left some able productions in the ducal palace, the Meeting of Charles V. and Clement VII. in 1529 , in S. Giacomo di Rialto, an Annunciation , in SS. Giovani e Paolo, Christ Fulminant. A son of Marco, named Tiziano (or Tizianello), painted early in the 17th century.
From a different branch of the family came Fabrizio di Ettore, a painter who died in 1580. His brother Cesare, who also left some pictures, is well known by his book of engraved costumes, Abiti antichi e moderni. Tommaso Vecelli, also a painter, died in 1620. There was another relative, Girolamo Dante, who, being a scholar and assistant of Titian, was called Girolamo di Tiziano. Various pictures of his were touched up by the master, and are difficult to distinguish from originals.
Few of the pupils and assistants of Titian became well-known in their own right, for some being his assistant was probably a lifetime career. Paris Bordone and Bonifazio Veronese were two of superior excellence. El Greco (or Dominikos Theotokopoulos) was said (by Giulio Clovio) to have been employed by the master in his last years.