Michelangelo Meets Titian

Titian was one of the most famous painters of the Renaissance.  He and Michelangelo  were contemporaries but their conceptions of painting had little in common.

They met once.  Giorgio Vasari arranged the meeting.

Titian ((1490–1576) by himself, in the  Prado Museum, Madrid (a Wikimedia Commons photo released by The Yorck Project)

Titian showed them his latest picture—a nude Danaë—and “naturally, as one would do with the artist present, we praised it,” says Vasari.

Those old-timers could be pretty eloquent. Michelangelo probably told Titian the Danaë was a magnificent painting and Titian scoffed and said he was much too kind, it was a mere trifle. Then Michelangelo, getting inspired, maybe called him the greatest painter in Italy and Titian replied that he was just a poor apprentice who tried his best but produced clumsy results; not like Michelangelo, who was a real painter. Whereupon Michelangelo in his best confession style would have retorted that he was no painter, just a bungling sculptor, God pity him–and so on.
The three said goodbye, no doubt with brotherly embraces and promises to repeat the honor and the enjoyment.

Then afterwards, on the way back to the hotel, Michelangelo and Vasari, with their masks off, shook their sour faces and said it was a pity Titian didn’t know how to paint. Or rather, didn’t know how to draw.

“I like the man’s style and his coloring,” Michelangelo told Vasari, “but it is a great pity that in Venice they don’t learn to draw well from the beginning and pursue their studies with more method. I tell you, if Titian had been helped by art and design as much as he was by nature—for the man has exceptional talent—no one would have been able to beat him, because he has a fine spirit and a captivating style. Really.”
And Vasari agreed. “If an artist has not drawn a great deal and studied carefully selected ancient and modern works, he can’t work from memory or enhance what he copies from life, and so give his work the grace and perfection of art which are beyond the reach of nature, some of whose aspects tend to be less than beautiful.”

Were they reworking their old prejudices about Venetian artists or did they really see faults ascribable to bad drawing in the Danaë? Here she is:

Danaë with Eros, 1544. This painting shows the youthful figure of Eros alongside Danaë. 120 cm × 172 cm. National Museum of Capodimonte, Naple s  (public domain photo)

See Titian at His Best

See Titian at His Best


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23 Responses to Michelangelo Meets Titian

  1. wrjones
    wrjones says:

    Like the story. I’m not so crazy about the painting. The woman’s head looks fine and that is a hard angle to do but her body is sort of lumpy and if her legs and feet really look like that he needs a new model.

  2. ivdanu says:

    Yes, it’a a nice story (and you remember reading it that Machiavelli lived also about that time or before…their hypocrisy…) and what they say could be also true for artists today, in a certain way. Even if, today, almost everybody who can afford to buy some paints and brushes is an artist…not a totally bad thing, either…

    But Bill is too harsh with Tizian’s model…what to say then about Rembrandt’s nudes? or even the fat Rubens’ women? They didn’t fancy ar the time, the lean and slim, anorexic women, I suppose…

  3. kimiam says:

    Hideous foot. Awkward positioning and proportions of the nude. The figure in the back is so different you could convince me it was painted by a different artist.

    Why the shift? Fear of nude women? Idealization of ivory skin, small feet and rounded form so he stylized a bit -in the wrong direction???

  4. erikatakacs – Canada – I am a figurative sculptor working in paper pulp.
    erikatakacs says:

    Another interesting post! I think this is a great painting as a whole, but if you start scrutinizing it, it’s quite baffling. I’m trying to think what were the two criticizing. The proportions seem off, and there isn’t much musculature for Michelangelo’s liking. The figure in the back is painted more in the Renaissance fashion, she’s more in the romantic style. The sheet isn’t realistically painted for a Renaissance man. And what is that smudge in the middle of the painting?

    Finally, the imaginary conversation you describe is hilarious, because I can picture it just like that. Cellini’s style is just like that. :)

  5. kimiam says:

    Michelangelo was a bit awkward with the female form, too. He used male models and added breasts for females sometimes and the results were…uh…Night and Day.

    I agree overall the painting is pleasant as long as you don’t get sucked into the hideous foot. I’m very visual and these things are so distracting, almost painful for me and hard to overlook once I know it’s there.

    Titian definitely had talent, though. The dialogue was right on.

    Erica’s right. great post.

  6. Anonymous says:

    This is indeed a very interesting post because it lets us compare a painting with Michelangelo’s critique of the painting, as recorded by Vasari. Michelangelo’s comment, considered in light of the painting, suggests that he thought art should perfect and idealize the human form, as he did and as the classic tradition (e.g., Praxiteles) decreed. It reminds us that Michelangelo had never seen an aurignacian Venus or a nude by Picasso or Hopper. What would he have thought of these alternative approaches to art? Titian’s nude is not so beautiful a babe as might have been imagined –and maybe this is a fault since Titian was not trying to be a precursor of modern art; the less-than-beautiful shape possibly is not intended to make a statement about the absence of beauty in the human form but may simply fail to attain an ideal of beauty that the artist and his contemporaries were seeking.

  7. Aryul says:

    They were absolutely right on this one, and were probably being polite not to put down Tiziano. Titian is certainly one of the greatest painters ever; beautiful use of color and excellent composition. Although an incredible painter, he lacked in drawing compared to the likes of Michelangelo or Leonardo. As you can see his figures weren’t as accurate as theirs.

  8. billgoldman2013
    William Goldman says:

    kimiam wrote “Michelangelo was a bit awkward with the female form, too. He used male models and added breasts for females sometimes and the results were…uh…Night and Day.”

    He wasn’t in the least awkward: the early Pieta (in St Peter’s, I believe) shows mary as the most heartbreakingly beautiful woman I’ve ever seen. Maybe with the Night and Day nudes M’angelo was trying not to distract himself or others with carnal beauty.

  9. Ken Januski says:

    And Vasari agreed. “If an artist has not drawn a great deal and studied carefully selected ancient and modern works, he can’t work from memory or enhance what he copies from life, and so give his work the grace and perfection of art which are beyond the reach of nature, some of whose aspects tend to be less than beautiful.”

    I find the Danae very odd. And there is some similarity to Michelangelo’s Night and Day. The women are very large boned, large structured, really seeming more like men than women. But then look at the Titian self-portrait. It’s very believable and to me looks very well observed, like he painted from a live model. And yet since it’s a self portrait the most you can say is that some of it might have been painted from looking in a mirror.

    One seems a fanciful mythological painting with no need to use live models, and the other seems a realistic painting solidly based in observation. I don’t recall ever seeing a Michelangelo that looked as lifelike as the self-portrait, at least in paint.

    The reason I quote Vasari is that he seemed to think that great artists need to be able to work from memory or enhance what they see in life. But maybe that just leads to mannerism. It has been interesting reading about Constable and seeing how he went from valuing work from life to studio work. I prefer the earlier work. And in this case I much prefer the self-portrait. It would be interesting to include one of Michelangelo’s more mannered works to add to the comparison.

    • 100swallows says:

      Ken: In just a few years Raphael would start imitating Michelangelo and all the muscles. Many critics thought that was an improvement in his style, which he had changed in imitation of Leonardo’s paintings too. Maybe it was, maybe it wasn’t. It’s true that definition sometimes spoils mystery but Michelangelo was able to keep his details abstract. When looking at them you never think: that is So-and-so’s ear or finger but AN ear, A finger–and a big, clear, pretty one.
      As to your last comment, that was a good idea to post one of Michelangelo’s manneristic women for comparison; but I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. Michelangelo’s elongations and other oddities never seemed like “defects” to me.
      I appreciate your comments a lot but if you fire twice like that I have trouble shooting back while you’re still standing there. Might take a while. Yesterday I saw the first geese (grus grus) headed for England. Now when I look up at them I remember the close-up video you showed me last year with a brother-goose’s eye-view.

  10. Ken Januski says:

    Hi Swallows. Didn’t mean to ‘fire’ twice. I guess I found both posts related and so continued on the thought from the Titian into the one with Raphael. And I was really surprised in both instances that I preferred Titian and Raphael to Michelangelo. I guess that’s why I wrote my thoughts on both posts. Maybe I need to revisit Italy to revive my appreciation of Michelangelo, though I don’t really see that on the horizon.

    Yes spring is in the air and the birds are on their move. I’m sure I’ll soon see evidence of my fellow artists over in England portraying the new ‘grus’ arrivals. Always the most hopeful of times!

  11. billgoldman2013
    William Goldman says:

    Aryul: “Titian is certainly one of the greatest painters ever; beautiful use of color and excellent composition. Although an incredible painter, he lacked in drawing compared to the likes of Michelangelo or Leonardo. As you can see his figures weren’t as accurate as theirs.”

    Please, how is Titian one of the greatest painters ever? You agree he lacked in drawing. However, you say he had “beautiful use of colour and excellent composition”. You think Titian’s use of colour was remotely as good as Raphael’s? Or Michelangelo’s? Or Blake’s, for that matter – William Blake, who wrote that “Painting is drawing on canvas and nothing else”. Yet Blake was a superb colourist. Composition? Is that different from design? But Titian was on the “colorito” side, not the “disegno” side of the Renaissance polarity.
    However, Titian did paint in oils on canvas – easily transportable and very profitable; he painted flattering portraits of European princes, and titillating versions of goddesses and the like, for them to hang in the bedrooms… and so on. Money triumphed over Art, in terms of the ruined taste of Englishmen – isn’t that the Titian story?

  12. billgoldman2013
    William Goldman says:

    The most beautiful woman I remember seeing in any Renaissance painting, or perhaps in any painting, offhand, is Raphael’s St Catherine – at the moment of her transfiguration, her vision of Christ. It and she are heartbreakingly beautiful: they express spiritual beauty, which Titian doesn’t seem to have understood at all. Spiritual beauty contains all beauty, really, unlike Titian’s nude in this painting, whom I think I’d prefer to see clothed, if at all.

    • 100swallows says:

      William Goldman: “You use ‘beautiful’ too much,” one of my readers wrote. “Can’t you say what you mean by it? You wouldn’t write ‘nice’ instead of ‘beautiful’ but to most people it means about the same. In fact, to most people it means the same as ‘I really like’.
      She was right, and I started substituting “beautifuls” for other words (or whole sentences) in some of my posts, which was very hard.

      You speak of spiritual beauty, which by definition is beyond or outside what the eye sees. Like Ruskin, you give aesthetics a moral base. It could be that art can’t be separated from morality: here what you declare beautiful is the illustration of virtue: a concept. I think of all the ideology statues around the world which show patriotism (beautiful) or heroism (beautiful) or solidarity (beautiful). ( A war veteran calls a statue of a soldier praying over the grave of his comrade “the most beautiful thing I ever saw”.) It seems that you are saying that Raphael’s Catherine is a beauty because of what she represents, which is dear to you.

      You might say: “But I didn’t project anything onto Raphael’s work—he was trying to show prescisely spiritual beauty! I am the screen, not the projector. I respond, I applaud.”

      Yet I might say that Raphael painted Catherine the way he painted all women, i.e. with harmony and grace. She could be an angel but she might also be a pretty girl hanging up laundry. There IS no way to show spiritual beauty, only someone looking pious. Raphael has the good taste to avoid making her look silly.

      • billgoldman2013
        William Goldman says:

        100swallows: “It seems that you are saying that Raphael’s Catherine is a beauty because of what she represents, which is dear to you.”

        No, it’s because Raphael made the representation so well! Otherwise I’d be a fan of any old “religious” or “Christian” painting! Point is, Raphael was an artist of genius. He conveys the heartbreaking beauty (whoops!) – that is, the eternal spiritual and moral truth – of Catherine’s ecstatic vision as reported to him. He conveys it so that we can see that her merely feminine “beauty” is really in the service – as it should be – of spiritual truth. All Raphael’s Madonnas are like that – none so captivatingly and heartbreakingly as this one.

      • billgoldman2013
        William Goldman says:

        In fact, 100swallows, Raphael’s painting is itself a visionary representation. Like all the best artists, he aspired to vision, to being a visionary. Titian aspired to nothing, except getting lucrative commissions from wealthy aristocrats – and it shows.
        Raphael, Michelangelo, Blake too, were great artists, Titian an anti-artist.

  13. Anonymous says:

    That’s not the correct version of Danae. Titian painted several versions of Danae. The original one, and the loveliest one, is in Capodimonte museum in Naples. That is the one he showed to Michelangelo. The Prado’s Danae, painted 10 years after, is a larger, but uglier compare to the original one in Capodimonte

    Also it was Titian who traveled to Rome and brought the painting with him, and not the other way around

    • 100swallows says:

      Anonymous: Thanks for the correction. I’m putting in a link to the Capodimonte Danae and we’ll let readers decide which is better.
      Yes, Michelangelo met Titian in Rome, at the Belvedere, where Titian was staying. Vasari doesn’t say that Titian had brought along the painting from Venice, only that he had finished it.

      • Anonymous says:

        Capodimonte’s Danae is a commission work for the Farnese family in Rome, Cardinal Alessandro Farnese. He started it in Venice, but then took it with him to finish it in Rome. The reason he had to finish it in Rome, is because the model is one of the Cardinal Farnese’s mistress.

  14. Anonymous says:

    As far as Michelangelo’s comment about Titian’s painting, I think that’s nothing more than just his ego. There’s no doubt that Michelangelo’s did a lot of study on human body, He knows every single muscle and bone in human body, and he’s very proud of that and like to show that in his paintings. That’s why we see exaggeration of human muscles in many of his figures, even the female ones, which actually make them look funny.

    • billgoldman2013
      William Goldman says:

      Michelangelo could really draw, in other words, unlike Titian. Raphael could draw, too, and Durer. Also Poussin, Blake, Constable…

      • Masaccio says:

        Titian was the finest painter of his era and is one of the greatest and most revolutionary of all times. At the Uffizi museum in Florence, several portraits of Titian and Raphael are collected in the same room: Raphael, who’s works, I must say, usually look better on reproductions, comes out completely humiliated by is Venetian colleague. Titian skills were extraordinary.

        I’m a painter myself, and have always been especially interested in the rendering of anatomy: but when it comes to Titian, honestly, I couldn’t care less if his figures are not as perfect as those of Michelangelo and Raphael, since meticolous anatomy wasn’t the point of his art. My favourite Titian paintings are those he made late in his career; those loose, almost violently liquid brushstrokes are mesmerizing.

  15. Mr.Chimera says:

    A most believable story indeed, but the women does look a little lop-sided. >:)

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