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A non-fiction by Elbert Hubbard


Title:     Titian
Author: Elbert Hubbard [More Titles by Hubbard]

Titian by a few strokes of the brush knew how to make the general image and character of whatever object he attempted. His great care was to preserve the masses of light and of shade, and to give by opposition the idea of that solidity which is inseparable from natural objects. He was the greatest of the Venetians, and deserves to rank with Raphael and Michelangelo.

---Sir Joshua Reynolds

The march of progress and the rage for improvement make small impression on Venice. The cabmen have not protested against horsecars as they did in Rome, tearing up the tracks, mobbing the drivers, and threatening the passengers; neither has the cable superseded horses as a motor power, and the trolley then rendered the cable obsolete.

In short, there never was a horse in Venice, save those bronze ones over the entrance to Saint Mark's, and the one Napoleon rode to the top of the Campanile. But there are lions in Venice--stone lions--you see them at every turn. "Did you ever see a live horse?" asked a ten-year-old boy of me, in Saint Mark's Square.

"Yes," said I; "several times."

"Are they fierce?" he asked after a thoughtful pause. And then I explained that a thousand times as many men are killed by horses every year as by lions.

Four hundred years have made no change in the style of gondolas, or anything else in Venice. The prow of the Venetian gondola made today is of the same height as that prescribed by Tommaso Mocenigo, Doge in the year Fourteen Hundred. The regulated height of the prow is to insure protection for the passengers when going under bridges, but its peculiar halberd shape is a thing not one of the five thousand gondoliers in Venice can explain. If you ask your gondolier he will swear a pious oath, shrug his fine shoulders, and say, "Mon Dieu, Signore! how should I know?--it has always been so." The ignorance and superstition of the picturesque gondolier, with his fluttering blue hatband and gorgeous sash, are most enchanting. His lack of knowledge is like the ignorance of childhood, when life has neither beginning nor end; when ways and means present no vexatious problems; when if food is not to be had for the simple asking, it can surely be secured by coaxing; when the day is for frolic and play, and the night for dreams and sleep.

But although your gondolier may not be able to read or write, he yet has his preferences in music and art, and possesses definite ideas as to the eternal fitness of things. In Italy, many of the best paintings being in churches, and all the galleries being free on certain days, the common people absorb a goodly modicum of art education without being aware of it. I have heard market-women compare the merits of Tintoretto and Paul Veronese, and stupid indeed is the boat "hooker" in Venice who would not know a "Titian" on sight.

But the chronology of art is all a jumble to this indolent, careless, happy people. These paintings were in the churches when their fathers and mothers were alive, they are here now, and no church has been built in Venice for three hundred years.

The history of Venice is nothing to a gondolier. "Why, Signore! how should I know? Venice always has been," explained Enrico, when I asked him how old the city was.

When I hired Enrico I thought he was a youth. He wore such a dandy suit of pure white, and his hatband so exactly matched his sash, that I felt certain I was close upon some tender romance, for surely it was some dark-eyed lacemaker who had embroidered this impossible hatband and evolved the improbable sash!

The exercise of rowing a gondola is of the sort that gives a splendid muscular development. Men who pull oars have round shoulders, but the gondolier does not pull an oar, he pushes it, and as a result has a flat back and brawny chest. Enrico had these, and as he had no nerves to speak of, the passing years had taken small toll. Enrico was sixty. Once he ran alongside another gondola and introduced me to the gondolier, who was his son. They were both of one age. Then one day I went with Enrico to his home--two whitewashed rooms away up under the roof of an old palace on the Rialto--and there met his wife.

Mona Lisa showed age more than Enrico. She had crouched over a little wooden frame making one pattern of lace for thirty years, so her form was bent and her eyesight faulty. Yet she proudly explained that years and years ago she was a model for a painter, and in the Della Salute I could see her picture, posed as Magdalen. She got fourteen cents a day for her work, and had been at it so long she had no desire to quit. She took great pride in Enrico's white-duck suits and explained to me that she never let him wear one suit more than two days without its being washed and starched; and she always pipeclayed his shoes and carefully inspected him each morning before sending him forth to his day's work. "Men are so careless, you know," she added by way of apology.

There was no furniture in the rooms worth mentioning--Italians do not burden themselves with things--but on the wall I caught sight of a bright-colored unfinished sketch of the Bridge of Sighs. It was little more than an outline, and probably did not represent ten minutes' work, but the lines seemed so firm and sure that I at once asked who did it.

"An American did it, Signore, an American painter; he comes here every year; our son is his gondolier and shows him all the best places to paint, and takes him there when the light is good and keeps the people back so the artist can work--you understand? A shower came up just as his Excellency, the American, began on this, and it got wet and so he gave it to my son and he gave it to me."

"What is the painter's name?" I asked. Enrico could not remember, but Mona Lisa said his name was Signore Hopsmithiziano, or something like that.

There were several little plaster images on the walls, and through the open door that led to the adjoining room I saw a sort of an improvised shrine, with various little votive offerings grouped about an unframed canvas. The picture was a crude attempt at copying that grand figure in Titian's "Assumption."

"And who painted that?" I asked.

Enrico crossed himself in silence, and Mona Lisa's subdued voice answered: "Our other son did that. He was only nineteen. He was a mosaicist and was studying to be a painter; he was drowned at the Lido."

The old woman made the sign of the cross, her lips moved, and a single big tear stood on her leathery cheek. I changed the painful subject, and soon found excuse to slip away. That evening as the darkness gathered and twinkling lights began to appear like fireflies, up and down the Grand Canal, I sat in a little balcony of my hotel watching the scene. A serenading party, backing their boats out into the stream, had formed a small blockade, and in the group of gondolas that awaited the unraveling of the tangle I spied Enrico. He had a single passenger, a lady in the inevitable black mantilla, holding in her hands the inevitable fan. A second glance at the lady--and sure enough! it was Mona Lisa. I ran downstairs, stepped out across the moored line of gondolas, took up a hook, and reaching over gently pulled Enrico's gondola over so I could step aboard.

Mona Lisa was crooning a plaintive love-song and her gondolier was coming in occasionally with bars of melodious bass. I felt guilty for being about to break in upon such a sentimental little scene, and was going to retreat, but Enrico and Mona Lisa spied me and both gave a little cry of surprise and delight.

"Where have you been?" I asked--"you fine old lovers!"

And then they explained that it was a Holy Day and they had been over to the Church of San Giorgio, and were now on their way to Santa Maria de' Frari.

"It is a very special mass, by torchlight, and is for the repose of the soul of Titian, who is buried there. You may never have an opportunity to see such a sight again--come with us," and Enrico held out his strong brown hand.

I stepped aboard, the boats opened out to the left and to the right, and we passed with that peculiar rippling sound, across the water that reflected the lights as of a myriad stars.

* * * * *

Titian was born one hundred years before Rubens, and died just six months before Rubens' birth.

On the one hundred twenty-second anniversary of the birth of Titian, Rubens knelt at his grave, there in the church of Santa Maria de' Frari, and vowed he would follow in the footsteps of the illustrious master. And the next day he wrote to his mother describing the incident. Thousands of other sentimental and impulsive youth have stood before that little slab of black marble on which is carved the simple legend, "Tiziano Vecellio," and vowed as Rubens did, but out of the throng not one rendered such honor to the master as did the brilliant Fleming. The example of Titian was a lifelong inspiration to Rubens; and to all his pupils he held up Titian as the painter par excellence. In the Rubens studio Titian was the standard by which all art was gauged.

When Rubens returned to Flanders from Italy he carried with him twenty-one pictures done by the hand of the master.

Titian was born at the little village of Cadore, a few miles north of Venice. When ten years of age his father took him down to the city and apprenticed him to a worker in mosaic, the intent of the fond parent probably being to get the youngster out of the way, more than anything else.

The setting together of the little bits of colored glass, according to a pattern supplied, is a task so simple that children can do it about as well as grown folks. They do the work there today just exactly as they did four hundred years ago, when little Tiziano Vecellio came down from Cadore and worked, getting his ears pinched when he got sleepy, or carelessly put in the red glass when he should have used the blue.

An inscription on a tomb at Beni Hassan, dating from the reign of Osortasen the First, who lived three thousand years before Christ, represents Theban glassblowers at work. I told Enrico of this one day when we were on our way to a glass-factory.

"That's nothing," said Enrico; "it was the glassblowers of Venice who taught them how," and not a ghost of a smile came across his fine, burnt-umber face.

There is a story by Pliny about certain Phenician mariners landing on the shores of a small river in Palestine and making a fire to cook their food, and afterward discovering that the soda and sand under their pots had fused into glass. No one now seriously considers that the first discovery of glass, and for all I know Enrico may be right in his flat statement that the first glass was made at Venice, "for Venice always was."

The art of glassmaking surely goes back to the morning of the world. The glassblower is a classic, like the sower who goes forth to sow, the potter at his wheel, and the grinding of grain with mortar and pestle. Thus, too, the art of the mosaicist--who places bright bits of stone and glass in certain positions so as to form a picture--goes back to the dawn. The exquisite work in mosaic at Pompeii is the first thing that impresses the visitor to that silent city. Much of the work there was done long before the Christian era, and must have then been practised many centuries to bring it to such perfection.

Young Tiziano from Cadore did not like the mere following of a set pattern--he introduced variations of his own, and got his nose tweaked for trying to improve on a good thing. Altogether he seemed to have had a hard time of it there at Messer Zuccato's mosaic-shop.

The painter's art, then as now, preceded the art of the mosaicist, for the picture or design to be made in mosaic is first carefully drawn on paper, and then colored, and the worker in mosaic is supposed simply to follow copy. When you visit the glass-factories of Venice today, you see the painted picture tacked up on the wall before the workmen, who with deft fingers stick the bits of glass into their beds of putty. This scheme of painting a pattern is in order that cheap help can be employed; when it began we do not know, but we do know there was a time when the great artist in mosaic had his design in his head, and materialized it by rightly placing the bits of glass with his own hands, experimenting, selecting and rejecting until the thing was right. But this was before the time of Titian, for when Titian came down to Venice there were painters employed in the shop of Sebastian Zuccato who made the designs for the dunderheads to follow. That is not just the word the painters used to designate the boys and women who placed the bits of glass in position, but it meant the same thing.

The painters thought themselves great folks, and used to make the others wait on them and run errands, serving them as "fags."

But the Vecellio boy did not worship at the shrine of the painters who made the designs. He said he could make as good pictures himself, and still continued to make changes in the designs when he thought they should be made; and once in a dispute between the boy and the maker of a design, the master took sides with the boy. This inflated the lad with his own importance so, that shortly after he applied for the position of the quarrelsome designer.

The fine audacity of the youngster so pleased the master that he allowed him to try his hand with the painters a few hours each day. He was getting no wages anyway, only his board, and the kind of board did not cost much, so it did not make much difference.

In Venice at that time there were two painters by the name of Bellini--Gentile and Giovanni, sons of the painter Jacob Bellini, who had brought his boys up in the way they should go. Gian, as the Venetians called the younger brother, was the more noted of the two. Occasionally he made designs for the mosaicists, and this sometimes brought him to the shop where young Titian worked.

The boy got on speaking terms with the great painter, and ran errands back and forth from his studio. When twelve years of age we find him duly installed as a helper at Gian Bellini's studio, with an easel and box of paints all his own.

* * * * *

The brightest scholar in the studio of Gian Bellini was a young man by the name of Giorgio, but they called him Giorgione, which being interpreted means George the Great. He was about the age of Titian, and the two became firm friends.

Giorgione was nearly twenty when we first hear of him. He was a handsome fellow--tall, slender, with an olive complexion and dreamy brown eyes. There was a becoming flavor of melancholy in his manner, and more than one gracious dame sought to lure him back to earth, away from his sadness, out of the dream-world in which he lived.

Giorgione was a musician and a poet. He sang his own pieces, playing the accompaniment on a harp. Vasari says he sang his songs, playing his own accompaniment on a flute, but I think this is a mistake.

Into all his work Giorgione infused his own soul--and do you know what the power to do that is? It is genius. To be able to make a statue is little, but to breathe into its nostrils the breath of life--ah! that is something else! The last elusive, undefinable stroke of the brush, that something uniting the spirit of the beholder with the spirit of the artist, so that you feel as he felt when he wrought--that is art. Burne-Jones is the avatar of Giorgione. He subdues you into silence, and you wait, expecting that one of his tall, soulful dream-women will speak, if you are but worthy--holding your soul in tune.

Giorgione never wrought so well as Burne-Jones, because he lived in a different age--all art is an evolution. Painting is a form of expression, just as language is a form of expression. Every man who writes English is debtor to Shakespeare. Every man who paints and expresses something of that which his soul feels is debtor to Giorgione and Botticelli. But to judge of the greatness of an artist--mind this--you must compare him with his contemporaries, not with those who were before or those who came after. The old masters are valuable, not necessarily for beauty, but because they reveal the evolution of art.

Between Burne-Jones and Giorgione came Botticelli. Now, Botticelli builded on Giorgione, while Burne-Jones builded on Botticelli. Aubrey Beardsley, dead at the age at which Keats died, builded on both, but he perverted their art and put a leer where Burne-Jones placed faith and abiding trust. Aubrey Beardsley got the cue for his hothouse art from one figure in Botticelli's "Spring," I need not state which figure: a glance at the picture and you behold sulphur fumes about the face of one of the women.

Did Aubrey Beardsley infuse his own spirit into his work? Yes, I think he did. Mrs. Jameson says, "There are no successful imitations of Giorgione, neither can there be, for the spirit of the man is in every face he drew, and the people who try to draw like him always leave that out."

There are various pictures in the Louvre, the National Gallery, and the Pinacothek at Munich, signed with Giorgione's name, but Mrs. Jameson declares they are not his, "because they do not speak to your soul with that mild, beseeching look of pity," Possibly we should make allowance for Mrs. Jameson's warm praise--other women talked like that when Giorgione was alive.

Giorgione was one of those bright luminaries that dart across our plane of vision and then go out quickly in hopeless night, leaving only the memory of a blinding light. He died at thirty-three, which Disraeli declares is the age at which the world's saviors have usually died--and he names the Redeemer first in a list of twenty who passed out at the age of three-and-thirty. Disraeli does not say that all those in his list were saviors, for the second name he records is that of Alexander the Great, the list ending with Shelley.

Giorgione died of a broken heart.

The girl he loved eloped with his friend, Morta del Feltri, to whom he had proudly introduced her a short time before. It is an old story--it has been played again and again to its Da Rimini finish. The friend introduces the friend, and the lauded virtues of this friend inflames imagination, until love strikes a spark; then soon instead of three we find one--one groping blindly, alone, dazed, stunned, bereft.

The handsome Giorgione pined away, refusing to be comforted. And soon his proud, melancholy soul took its flight from an environment with which he was ever at war, and from a world which he never loved. And Titian was sent for to complete the pictures which he had begun.

Surely, disembodied spirits have no control over mortals, or the soul of Giorgione would have come back and smitten the hand of Titian with palsy.

For a full year before he died Giorgione had not spoken to Titian, although he had seen him daily.

Giorgione had surpassed all artists in Venice. He had a careless, easy, limpid style. But there was decision and surety in his swinging lines, and best of all, a depth of tenderness and pity in his faces that gave to the whole a rich, full and melting harmony.

Giorgione's head touched heaven, and his feet were not always on earth. Titian's feet were always on earth, and his head sometimes touched heaven. Titian was healthy and in love with this old, happy, cruel, sensuous world. He was willing to take his chances anywhere. He had no quarrel with his environment, for did he not stay here a hundred years (lacking half a year), and then die through accident? Of course he liked it. One woman, for him, could make a paradise in which a thousand nightingales sang. And if one particular woman liked some one else better, he just consoled himself with the thought that "there is just as good fish," etc. I will not quote Walt Whitman and say his feet were tenoned and mortised in granite, but they were well planted on the soil--and sometimes mired in clay.

Titian admired Giorgione; he admired him so much that he painted exactly like him--or as nearly as he could.

Titian was a good-looking young man, but he was not handsome like Giorgione. Yet Titian did his best; he patronized Giorgione's tailor, imitated his dreamy, far-away look, used a brush with his left hand, and painted with his thumb. His coloring was the same, and when he got a commission to fresco the ceiling of a church he did it as nearly like Giorgione frescoes as he could.

This kind of thing is not necessarily servile imitation--it is only admiration tipped to t' other side. It is found everywhere in aspiring youth and in every budding artist.

As in the animal kingdom, genius has its prototype. In the National Gallery at London you will see in the Turner Room a "Claude Lorraine" and a "Turner" hung side by side, as provided for in Turner's will. You would swear, were the pictures not labeled, that one hand did them both. When thirty, Turner admired Claude to a slavish degree; but we know there came a time when he bravely set sail on a chartless sea, and left the great Claude Lorraine far astern.

Titian loved Giorgione so well that he even imitated his faults. At first this high compliment was pleasing to Giorgione; then he became indifferent, and finally disgusted. The very sight of Titian gave him a pain.

He avoided his society. He ceased to speak to him when they met, and forbade his friends to mention the name "Titian" in his presence.

It was about this time that Giorgione's ladylove won fame by discarding him in that foolish, fishwife fashion. He called his attendants and instructed them thus: "Do not allow that painter from Cadore--never mind his name--to attend my funeral--you understand?"

Then he turned his face to the wall and died.

In his studio were various pictures partly completed, for it seems to have been his habit to get rest by turning from one piece of work to another. His executors looked at these unfinished canvases in despair. There was only one man in all Venice who could complete them, and that was Titian.

Titian was sent for.

He came, completed the pictures, signed them with the dead man's name, and gave them to the world.

"And," says the veracious Vasari, "they were done just as well, if not better than Giorgione himself could have done them, had he been alive!"

It was absurd of Giorgione to die of a broken heart and let Titian come in, making free with everything in his studio, and complete his work. It was very absurd.

Time is the great avenger--let us wait. Morta del Feltri, the perfidious friend, grew tired of his mistress: their love was so warm it shortly burned itself to ashes--ashes of roses.

Morta deserted the girl, fled from Venice, joined the army, and a javelin plunged through his liver at the battle of Zara ended his career.

The unhappy young woman, twice a widow, fought off hungry wolves by finding work in a glass-factory, making mosaics at fourteen cents a day. When she was seventy, Titian, aged seventy-five, painted her picture as a beggar-woman.

* * * * *

The quality of sentiment that clings about the life of Giorgione seems to forbid a cool, critical view of his work. Byron indited a fine poem to him; and poetic criticism seems for him the proper kind. The glamour of sentiment conceals the real man from our sight. And anyway, it is hardly good manners to approach a saint closely and examine his halo to see whether it be genuine or not. Halos are much more beautiful when seen through the soft, mellow light of distance.

Giorgione's work was mostly in fresco, so but little of it has survived. But of his canvases several surely have that tender, beseeching touch of spirit which stamps the work as great art.

Whether Mrs. Jameson is right in her assumption that all canvases bearing Giorgione's name are spurious which lack that look of pity, is a question. I think that Mrs. Jameson is more kind than critical, although my hope is that Renan is correct in his gratuitous statement, "At the Last Great Day men will be judged by women, and the Almighty will merely vise the verdict." If this be true, all who, like Giorgione, have died for the love of woman will come off lightly.

But the fact is, no man is great all the time. Genius is an exceptional mood even in a genius, and happy is the genius who, like Tennyson, builds a high wall about his house, so he is seen but seldom, and destroys most of his commonplace work.

Ruskin has printed more rubbish than literature--ten times over. I have his complete works, and am sorry to say that, instead of confining myself to "Sesame and Lilies," I have foolishly read all the dreary stuff, including statistics, letters to Hobbs and Nobbs, with hot arguments as to who fished the murex up, and long, scathing tirades against the old legal shark who did him out of a hundred pounds. Surely, to be swindled by a lawyer is not so unusual a thing that it is worth recording!

But Ruskin wrote about it, had it put in print, read the proof, and printed the stuff, so no one, no matter how charitably disposed, can arise and zealously declare that this only is genuine, and that spurious. It's all genuine--rubbish, bosh and all.

Titian painted some dreary, commonplace pictures, and he also painted others that must ever be reckoned as among the examples of sublime art that have made the world stronger in its day and generation and proud of what has been.

Titian was essentially a pagan. When he painted Christian subjects he introduced a goodly flavor of the old Greek love of life. Indeed, there is a strong doubt whether the real essence of Christianity was ever known at Venice, except in rare individual cases.

It was the spirit of the sea-kings, and not the gentle, loving Christ, that inspired her artists and men of learning.

The sensuous glamour of the Orient steeped the walls of San Marco in their rainbow tints, and gave that careless, happy habit to all the Venetian folk. In Titian's time, as today, gay gallants knelt in the churches, and dark, dreamy eyes peeked out from behind mantillas, and the fan spoke a language which all lovers knew. Outside was the strong smell of the sea, and never could a sash be flung open to the azure but there would come floating in on the breeze the gentle tinkle of a guitar.

But Titian, too, as well as Giorgione, infused into his work at times the very breath of life.

At the Belle d' Arte at Venice is that grand picture, "The Assumption," which for more than two hundred years was in the Church of Santa Maria de' Frari. When Napoleon appointed a commission to select the paintings in Venice that were considered best worth preserving and protecting, and take them to the Belle d' Arte, this picture was included in the list. It was then removed from its place, where it had so long hung, above the grave of the man who executed it.

I have several large photographs of this picture, showing different portions of it. One of these pictures reveals simply the form of the Virgin. She rises from the earth, caught up in the clouds, the drapery streaming in soft folds, and on the upturned face is a look of love and tenderness and trust, combined with womanly strength, that hushes us into tears.

Surely there is an upward law of gravitation as well as a gravitation that pulls things down. Titian has shown us this. And as he drew over and over again in his pictures the forms and faces of the men and women he knew, so I imagine that this woman was a woman he knew and loved. She is not a far-off, tenuous creature, born of dreams: she is a woman who has lived, suffered, felt, mayhap erred, and now turns to a Power, not herself, eternal in the heavens. Into this picture the artist infused his own exalted spirit, for the mood we behold manifest in others is usually but the reflection of our own spirit.

In some far-off eon, ere this earth-journey began, some woman looked at me that way once, just as Titian has this woman look, with the same melting eyes and half-parted lips, and it made an impression on my soul that subsequent incarnations have not effaced.

I bought the photograph in Venice, at Ongania's, and paid three dollars for it. Then I framed it in simple, unplaned, unstained cedar, and it hangs over my desk now as I write.

When I am tired and things go wrong, and the round blocks all seem to be getting into the square holes, and remembrances of the lawyer who cheated me out of a hundred pounds come stealing like a blight over my spirit, I look up at the face of this woman who is not only angelic but human. I behold the steady upward flight and the tender look of pity, and my soul reaches out, grasping the hem of the garment of Her who we are told was the Mother of God, and with Her I leave the old sordid earth far beneath and go on, and on, and up, and up, and up, until my soaring spirit mingles and communes with the great Infinite.

[The end]
Elbert Hubbard's Writings: Titian