Perhaps more than any other artist, Titian redefined the status of portraiture in the 16th century and became an enduring influence in the genre for subsequent generations. This commanding picture was first attributed to Titian in 1957 by Antonio Morassi, whose opinion was echoed in 1960 by Hermann Voss (certificates were provided by both experts). It was, however, left out of 20th century scholarship on the artist and only reappeared at a small auction in Geneva in 2013, where it was mistaken for a work by a follower of the master. Recent research and X-radiography have, however, demonstrated that the portrait can now be reasonably reinstated as an autograph work by Titian, making this an exciting re-addition to the artist’s oeuvre.
An inscription in the upper right corner of the picture, framed within an elaborate Renaissance border, identifies the sitter as Gabriele Giolito de' Ferrari (c. 1508-1578), one of the Venetian Republic’s most influential printer-publishers. Giolito established his printing works and bookshop, the Libreria della Fenice, in Rialto in 1523. He specialized in the publication of vernacular translations of modern works of poetry and classical texts, something of a scarcity during the period when the majority of publications of this type were usually in Latin or Greek. Under Giolito’s direction, the Libreria della Fenice, whose device of a phoenix rising from flames atop a globe was inscribed with the initials ‘GGF’, soon opened shops in other cities in Italy, including Naples, Bologna and Ferrara.
The relationship between Giolito and Titian has yet to be clearly established but circumstantial evidence suggests that they may well have been personally acquainted. Titian is known to have associated with other writers whose works were published by Giolito, such as Pietro Aretino (1492-1556) and Baldassare Castiglione (1478-1529), whom he is likely to have met during his visits to Venice in 1517 and 1523. Among this literary and artistic circle was Lodovico Dolce (c. 1508–1568), a humanist and prolific author. Dolce had written his Dialogo della pittura in 1557, a treatise that aimed to exalt Venetian painting as Vasari’s Lives had done with Florentine art. This book championed Titian as ‘divine and unequalled’ in painting and, significantly, provides the most definitive connection between the painter and Gabriele Giolito (W. Brown, trans., Aretin: a dialogue on painting from the Italian of Lodovico Dolce, London, 1770, p. 245). The book was published by Giolito just three years after the present canvas is dated, with first editions showing the firm’s phoenix device and the printer’s initials below. Titian’s evident friendship with the writer, and the latter’s publication with Giolito show that the two obviously moved within the same intellectual circles in Venice and suggest that Titian and Giolito would likely have known one another.
Titian’s links to the world of Venetian publishing and printing are well documented. He often collaborated with woodcutters in the production of prints of his own design. Among the most famous, of course, is his monumental, multi-block Submersion of Pharaoh’s Army. Titian also produced designs for book illustrations, like that originally published by Pietro Arentino in his Stanze, an image that was cut by Giovanni Britto (active 1536–50) and published by Francesco Marcolini da Forli (c. 1500-after 1559). The existence of such images that Titian produced for inclusion in published works makes an association between him and Giolito even more likely.
Titian’s sitter in the present work is elegantly posed, his body in profile and his head turned back toward the viewer. Fashionably (if somberly) dressed in a black, padded overgown trimmed with brown fur, Giolito rests his left hand carefully on a large book, bound in red leather, embossed with gold, and tied with ribbon along the fore-edge, a likely reference to his profession. The plain brown of the background is punctuated by an archway and fluted pilaster that open onto a landscape at left, a device used by Titian in other portraits, such as that of Alvise dalla Scala (1561, Dresden, Staatliche Gemäldegalerie). Indeed, the Portrait of Gabriele Giolito relates to a number of works painted by Titian during the later portion of his career. It was during this period that the painter began exploiting a looser style of painting, using freer and more expressive brushwork in his portraits. These qualities of prestezza (quickness) and non finito in painting had become increasingly popular among cultivated patrons, collectors and connoisseurs as a pictorial exemplar of the gentlemanly virtue sprezzatura (a studied carelessness and effortless ease), which had been propagated by Baldassare Castiglione in his influential Book of the Courtier (J. Dunkerton and M. Spring, ‘Titian after 1540: Technique and Style in his Later Works’, National Gallery Technical Bulletin, XXXVI, 2015, p. 29). The style and format of the Giolito portrait is in keeping with others Titian produced during the early years of the 1550s. The handling of paint in the costume, for example, is similar to that in the artist’s Scholar with a Black Beard (c. 1550, Copenhagen, Royal Museum of Art) while the overall pose of the sitter shows strong parallels with the Portrait of Count Antonio Porcia (c. 1548, Milan, Pinacoteca di Brera).
Technical examination of the present work also presents evidence in support of the attribution. Titian frequently favored canvases with a coarse texture, typically a plain or tabby weave (ibid., pp. 8-9), which is consistent with the support of the present work. The texture of these canvases often remains visible, especially in areas of thin paint, and such an effect can be seen in the Portrait of Gabriele Giolito as well as in the X-radiograph (fig. 1) that clearly shows the warp and weft of the support. Canvases in Venice were usually sold in standardized sizes, and the largest width length that could be produced was typically only around a meter, depending on the width of the loom that was used to make it. When a larger support was required, pieces of canvas were sewn together to produce the desired dimensions. Titian’s portrait of Giolito is just under a meter in width and therefore roughly the largest size that could be achieved in a single piece of canvas at the time; its dimensions are roughly the same as a large number of three-quarter-length portraits by the artist, perhaps indicating that Titian acquired his canvases ready-made from the same source for much of his career (J. Dunkerton and M. Spring, ‘Titian’s Painting Technique to c. 1540’, National Gallery Technical Bulletin, XXXIV, 2013, p. 10.).
In accordance with the practice of almost all painters in the 16th century, especially those whose careers were as illustrious and prosperous as his own, Titian maintained a large workshop, regularly employing his studio assistants to complete pictures or produce replicas of his most successful compositions. His Portrait of Gabriele Giolito has survived with some abraded parts, making an easy distinction between the hand of the master himself and his workshop somewhat complicated. X-radiographs of the painting and close inspection of the paint surface show a small ‘halo’ of paint around the head of the sitter, a typical feature of Titian’s practice, where the sitter’s features would have been painted first and the background added later, possibly by an assistant.
We are grateful to Professors Peter Humfrey and Paul Joannides, who have confirmed the attribution on the basis of firsthand inspection. They have both, however, expressed reservations due to the condition of the painting, which makes a confident judgement of the subtleties of potential workshop participation difficult.