No one is quite sure when Tiziano Vecellio, more generally known as Titian, was born; much of the scholarship on the matter suggests somewhere between 1488 and 1490, though there exists evidence that suggests a date at least a decade earlier.
Titian's chronology is apparently more controversial than I might have thought. Consider this incident, blogged from the Prime Minister's Questions, 11 February 2009:
[David] Cameron says ... [Gordon] Brown recently compared himself to Titian, aged 90. But Titian died at the age of 86. "Isn't it clear that incompetence plus arrogance equals unemployed?"
What Brown had actually said, at the World Economic Forum in Davos a month earlier:
"I'm reminded of the story of Titian, who's 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."
David Cameron has since replaced Gordon Brown as Prime Minister, though I doubt the Titian business had anything to do with it. But it occurred to me that Titian's actual dates might mean something to me, mostly because of this:
The Three Ages of Man seems fairly straightforward, as such things go. The youngsters here are taking a nap; a putto has been dispatched from above to keep watch over them. Off to the left, a chap, perhaps Titian's age, is being serenaded by a maid; he looks almost post-coital though she, for some reason, does not. And way in the back, you can see me.
Okay, maybe it's not me. I'm not particularly stooped, and I spend little time in contemplation of skulls. And I'd like to get a fix on his facial expression: is he remembering someone he used to know, in the manner of Hamlet recalling Yorick? (Obviously Shakespeare wasn't around yet, but his source material goes back centuries.) Or is he paralyzed with fear at the thought that he too will soon be reduced to this?
And here's where I get contemplative myself. Life expectancy in this era was 30-40 years, though the numbers are skewed downward by high rates of infant mortality. (Which may explain Titian's decision to bring in one of the putti.) The Three Ages of Man is generally dated to around 1512. A twentysomething Titian might have figured that the horrors of old age were far enough away that he could afford to stick them in the background. Then again, a thirtysomething Titian had he been born in 1477, he'd have been thirty-five in 1512 might have felt his own days were numbered, and therefore placed the old man just off center as a reminder of what was to come.
It comes for all of us, of course. And as a general rule, we are not privileged or cursed, depending on your perspective to know exactly when. When I was younger, I tended to think of the end of my life as purely an abstraction, something I probably didn't have to worry about though, to borrow a Woody Allenism, I didn't want to be there when it happened. It's no longer quite so abstract. It's not staring me in the face, exactly, but I'm pretty sure I'm on the downhill slope. (Unless, of course, I manage to live past 113, which isn't impossible but which doesn't strike me as very likely. If I'm still here in 2066, feel free to make fun of my neurosis to my face.)
And in the interim, you can make fun of British politics. After the Titian exchange at PMQ, the following absurd little contretemps ensued:
The Tories have admitted a member of staff altered a Wikipedia entry on the artist Titian after a row between Gordon Brown and David Cameron.
The unnamed Tory staffer, I'd like to think, was barred from all contact with young women carrying flutes.
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Copyright © 2010 by Charles G. Hill