‘The wonder is, he hath endur’d so long’ is the Earl of Kent’s rather bleak verdict on King Lear in the last scene of Shakespeare’s tragedy. The line is one we might echo when nearing the end of Sheila Hale’s magnificent new biography of Tiziano Vecellio, the artist we know as Titian. He was admittedly spared Lear’s decline into beggary and madness and his children were not quite so outrageously heartless as Goneril and Regan. At the end of his long life, however, there’s a similar sense of an old man tested by experience on the ‘rack of this tough world’. In this case, Titian’s genius emerged the victor. His supremacy as the Italian Renaissance’s last great master has never been seriously challenged and painters from Rubens and Poussin to Constable, Turner and Delacroix acknowledged his vital inspiration.
Parallels with Shakespeare himself – twelve years old when Titian died – are not inappropriate. Both men sprang from aspirational bourgeois backgrounds, quitting the provinces for a life of metropolitan sophistication. Both were quick to capitalise on the access their talents afforded them to the highest social echelons at a