Oskar Bätschmann, University of Bern, emeritus
Samuel H. Kress Professor, 2012–2013
The works of Titian’s last period were not highly esteemed before the twentieth century. Like Vasari, many contemporaries judged that in his old age Titian was no longer able to work because of his trembling hands and that the last paintings were executed mainly by his workshop. The glorification of the last works and the late style of painters, sculptors, composers, and poets started only around 1900.
In 1892 the German poet Stefan George (1868–1933) published in the journal he edited a short lyrical drama in verse, Der Tod des Tizian (The Death of Titian), written by “Loris,” the pseudonym of the eighteen-year-old Hugo von Hofmannsthal (1874–1929). This young Austrian poet produced a remarkable literary realization of the ideas of the artist’s last work. Hofmannsthal’s brief play (quoted here in the translation of 1920 by John Heard Jr.) was performed in 1901 for the funeral service of Arnold Böcklin (1827–1901) at the Künstlerhaus in Munich. Titian (c. 1488/1490–1576) does not appear in the play, nor is his last work seen on the stage. A page relates the dying painter’s intention, after Titian asks to have all his previous paintings brought to him: “He says he must see them. . . / The old, the wretched, the pale ones, / Compare them to the new ones he is painting. . . / Very heavy things are clear to him now, / An unprecedented understanding is coming to him, / That until now he was a feeble bungler. . . .” The theme of the last painting cannot be guessed from the sparse references to it. Tizianello, in the role of Titian’s son, says: “In a fever he paints the new painting, / In breathless haste, strangely wild. . . .” In this poetic mystification of the last painting, the old painter assesses his work thus far as trivial and the depiction of the living as the supreme, unattainable goal.
Obviously it was not Titian’s Pietà or the shocking Flaying of Marsyas or any other known work the young poet supposed to be the last. Hofmannsthal loaded the invisible painting with all the myths collected around the last work of an artist since antiquity. Such idealizations can be traced back to texts by Marcus Tullius Cicero (106–43 BCE) and Pliny the Elder (23–79 CE). In the thirty-fifth book of his Naturalis historia, Pliny wrote of Apelles, Greece’s most famous painter, that he had begun a second Aphrodite at Kos, which was to surpass even his celebrated earlier one. But he was surprised by death, and consequently the last work remained unfinished. In his De officiis, Cicero compared the fragmentary literary legacy of the scholar Panaitios to Apelles’ unfinished painting of Aphrodite, appealing to the testimony of a certain Poseidonios, who in turn knew of a report by Rutilius Rufus (158–78 BCE). According to Rufus, no one was able to finish what Panaitios had left incomplete because of the excellence of what already existed. That is precisely what had happened with Apelles’ last Aphrodite: no painter had ventured to complete it.
When he died on August 27, 1576, Titian left his Pietà among other unfinished paintings, as his biographer Carlo Ridolfi reports, and therefore we cannot say with certainty which of these was his last work. Furthermore, it seems that in his last two decades the painter worked, in collaboration with his workshop and his son Orazio Vecellio (c. 1528–1576), on paintings that he had determined would be his last. Since the fifteenth century artists had sought to become known as the new Apelles by reconstructing the lost paintings of the ancient Greek artist. Titian may have imitated the famous artist by producing the series of reclining Venuses with organist or lutanist, among them a version with a clear allusion to a swan song. He also may have tried to compete with Michelangelo (1475–1564), who was known to have planned a Pietà for his tomb.
Titian began the Pietà as a small painting and enlarged the canvas continually to a large format. Working on it he became, as Paul Joannides wrote in The Cambridge Companion to Titian (2004), “involved in a posthumous dialogue with Michelangelo.” The unfinished Pietà could not be taken either to its apparent original destination, Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, or then, because of a dispute with the monastery, the parish church in Pieve di Cadore. After Orazio’s death an acrimonious dispute ensued between his brother Pomponio and his brother-in-law. At some point Palma Giovane took the Pietà into his studio. What he did to complete it is unclear. He may have made some minor additions and supplied the Latin inscription alluding to Cicero and Apelles as well as showing respect for Titian’s work, which reads, in Sheila Hale’s translation, “What Titian left unfinished Palma reverently set free, dedicating the work to God.”