Knights of Art: Stories of the Italian Painters - Amy Steedman


We have seen how most of the great painters loved to paint into their pictures those scenes which they had known when they were boys, and which to the end of their lives they remembered clearly and vividly. A Giotto never forgets the look of his sheep on the bare hillside of Vespignano, Fra Angelico paints his heavenly pictures with the colours of spring flowers found on the slopes of Fiesole, Perugino delights in the wide spaciousness of the Umbrian plains with the winding river and solitary cypresses.

So when we come to the great Venetian painter Titian we look first with interest to see in what manner of a country he was born, and what were the pictures which Nature mirrored in his mind when he was still a boy.'

At the foot of the Alps, three days' journey from Venice, lies the little town of Cadore on the Pieve, and here it was that Titian was born. On every side rise great masses of rugged mountains towering up to the sky, with jagged peaks and curious fantastic shapes. Clouds float around their summits, and the mist will often wrap them in gloom and give them a strange and awesome look. At the foot of the craggy pass the mountain-torrent of the Pieve roars and tumbles on its way. Far-reaching forests of trees, with weather-beaten gnarled old trunks, stand firm against the mountain storms. Beneath their wide-spreading boughs there is a gloom almost of twilight, showing peeps here and there of deep purple distances beyond.

Small wonder it was that Titian should love to paint mountains, and that he should be the first to paint a purely landscape picture. He lived those strange solemn mountains and the wild country round, the deep gloom of the woods and the purple of the distance beyond.

The boy's father, Gregorio Vecelli, was one of the nobles of Cadore, but the family was not rich, and when Titian was ten years old he was sent to an uncle in Venice to be taught some trade. He had always been fond of painting, and it is said that when he was a very little boy he was found trying to paint a picture with the juices of flowers. His uncle, seeing that the boy had some talent, placed him in the studio of Giovanni Bellini.

But though Titian learned much from Bellini, it was not until he first saw Giorgione's work that he dreamed of what it was possible to do with colour. Thenceforward he began to paint with that marvellous richness of colouring which has made his name famous all over the world.

At first young Titian worked with Giorgione, and together they began to fresco the walls of the Exchange above the Rialto bridge. But by and by Giorgione grew jealous. Titian's work was praised too highly; it was even thought to be the better of the two. So they parted company, for Giorgione would work with him no more.

Venice soon began to awake to the fact that in Titian she had another great painter who was likely to bring fame and honour to the fair city. He was invited to finish the frescoes in the Grand Council-chamber which Bellini had begun, and to paint the portraits of the Doges, her rulers.

These portraits which Titian painted were so much admired that all the great princes and nobles desired to have themselves painted by the Venetian artist. The Emperor Charles V. himself when he stopped at Bologna sent to Venice to fetch Titian, and so delighted was he with his work that he made the painter a knight with a pension of two hundred crowns.

Fame and wealth awaited Titian wherever he went, and before long he was invited to Rome that he might paint the portrait of the Pope. There it was that he met Michelangelo, and that great master looked with much interest at the work of the Venetian artist and praised it highly, for the colouring was such as he had never seen equalled before

'It is most beautiful,' he said afterwards to a friend; 'but it is a pity that in Venice they do not teach men how to draw as well as how to colour. If this Titian drew as well as he painted, it would be impossible to surpass him.'

But ordinary eyes can find little fault with Titian's drawing, and his portraits are thought to be the most wonderful that ever were painted. The golden glow of Venice is cast like a magic spell over his pictures, and in him the great Venetian school of colouring reaches its height.

Besides painting portraits, Titian painted many other pictures which are among the world's masterpieces.

He must have had a special love for children, this famous old Venetian painter. We can tell by his pictures how well he understood them and how he loved to paint them. He would learn much by watching his own little daughter Lavinia as she played about the old house in Venice. His wife had died, and his eldest son was only a grief and disappointment to his father, but the little daughter was the light of his eyes.

We seem to catch a glimpse of her face in his famous picture of the little Virgin going up the steps to the temple. The little maid is all alone, for she has left her companions behind, and the crowd stands watching her from below, while the high priest waits for her above. One hand is stretched out, and with the other she lifts her dress as she climbs up the marble steps. She looks a very real child with her long plait of golden hair and serious little face, and we cannot help thinking that the painter's own little daughter must have been in his mind when he painted the little Virgin.

The Little Virgin


Titian lived to be a very old man, almost a hundred years old, and up to the last he was always seen with the brush in his hand, painting some new picture. So, when he passed away, he left behind a rich store of beauty, which not only decked the walls of his beloved Venice, but made the whole world richer and more beautiful.