One unexpected offshoot of the credit crunch in Britain has been the focus on the 16th-century Venetian painter Titian. Details of the painter’s biography have been recently debated in the media, in Parliament, and at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. As a result, major political figures suffered grave embarrassment. Art history has seldom been such a hot topic.
First came the controversial purchase of Titian’s Diana and Actaeon(1556–59) by the National Galleries of Scotland and the National Gallery in London from the Duke of Sutherland for £50 million (approximately $70 million). The price tag was described as “obscene” by a Labour Party member of Parliament, Ian Davidson, who later remarked on BBC Radio Scotland that “very few people will ever have heard of Titian. Many will have thought he was an Italian football player.”
It turned out, however, that Gordon Brown, leader of the Labour Party and prime minister of Britain, knew a bit about Titian. While in Davos, Brown decided to tell the assembled economic gurus and political leaders an anecdote about the Venetian artist. Today, he pointed out, is the first financial crisis of the global age. “I’m reminded of the story of Titian,” he went on, “the great painter who reached the age of 90, finished the last of his nearly 100 brilliant paintings, and he said at the end of it, ‘I’m finally beginning to learn how to paint.’ And that is where we are.”
It was, as is often the case with Brown’s utterances, not quite clear what he meant by this comparison between the delegates at Davos and a nonagenarian artist who died in 1576. Mind you, there is something strangely relevant about the great Venetian’s later works. The shepherd in Nymph and Shepherd(ca. 1570) at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna has three arms, for example, which would be useful to some contemporary bankers: two hands to hold up in surrender, while one remains stuck firmly in the till.
No one questioned Brown’s allusion until David Cameron, leader of the opposition Conservative Party, brought it up in the House of Commons in February. “The prime minister never gets his facts right,” he taunted. “You told us the other day you were like Titian aged 90. The fact is Titian died at 86.”
At that point the Titian-birthday controversy hit the front pages and was discussed on live television. A writer for the Daily Mirror claimed that both politicians were wrong, since her book about the Uffizi states that the artist was 88 when he died. The Guardian, more circumspectly, pointed out that the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York maintains that Titian lived to 88, while the Louvre opts for 86.
Meanwhile, soon after Cameron spoke out, a lowly member of his party office altered Titian’s Wikipedia entry. This was unwise, partly because the guilty IP address was immediately traced back to Conservative Central Office, and partly because he changed Titian’s date of death to 1572, even though the one certainty is that the artist died in 1576. “He shouldn’t have done that,” Cameron apologized on LBC Radio, adding that the staffer had been “disciplined.” The Conservative leader also reiterated his faith that Titian had indeed lived to 86.
The truth is, of course, that Titian’s age falls into Donald Rumsfeld’s category of “known unknowns”—that is, scholars know they don’t know it. There’s no record of his birth. Titian himself gave out widely varying information at different times. In a letter to Philip II of Spain in 1571 Titian wrote that he was 95, which would have made his birth date around 1476. But he told the art historian Vasari that he was only 18 when he created some frescoes in 1508, meaning he was born in 1490. In fact he was probably lying on both occasions—to make himself seem venerable at one moment, precocious at another. So there is a parallel between Titian, contemporary financiers, and political honchos after all: a creative approach to the facts.
Martin Gayford is chief European art critic for Bloomberg.com.