The subject matter for this book is fascinating; Venice at the height of its power and the portrait of Titian make for a great premise. But that is not what the book is about, and in a real way the main character is not Titian, but rather Mark Hudson, right along with the gripping dialogue between himself and various personages he met while researching the book. Although the kernel of thought that prompted the investigation might have been trying to recreate what happened in Titian’s last days, that was not the book that Hudson wrote. A more apt title would be ‘Investigating Titian: fact, recollection and reputation.’ Then the title would at least describe the subject matter and forewarn the potential reader.
It is clear through the reading that the author researched extensively and has some background in the field, but without so much as a list of works addressed in the text it feels more like an article for a periodical a la National Geographic, than a serious book. That is, if National Geographic would publish an article of nearly three hundred pages.
The Last Days of Titian is an assorted jumble, seemingly arranged by chronology of research more than anything else, though there is a loose connection to Titian’s life. This biography was difficult to read and hard to get at what it was Hudson intended for the reader to see. He wrote as a journalist in hunt of a story, and while he may be that, his story is five hundred years gone, and his tone, style and methodology was largely inappropriate for a biography of this sort. I would not recommend this book to anyone, and would be disinclined to read anything by Hudson beyond a periodical article.
I wrote the above about a biography of Titian. It was one of the most frustrating books I have ever read, and in particular modern biographies. Hudson is a journalist, and while I may have been more keenly aware of the shortcomings of that particular profession because I had read a scathing review of journalistic prose by George Orwell1 just before starting it, the flaws were there. Rather than approaching this biography as history, Hudson approached it as though it was a piece of journalism, and thus the reporter played heavily into the text. The book was not about Titian and the particular problem he was to address (whether or not Titian’s studio was robbed just after his death), but was about the hunt, about one man’s journey of discovery in a land where he did not speak the language.
For some biographies this may be wholly appropriate. For autobiographies, it is, in fact a necessity, and for more modern works, writing biographies where the author must make use of extensive interviews and conversations with people who knew or know the subject, this approach can work. Not so much for subjects further removed from the present.2
This is not to say that all biography must be perfectly academic, but there is a bare minimum standard that should be adhered to. A list of works cited, perhaps the images in question. Especially for biography dredged ‘from the depths of time’, historical biography, placing the subject on center stage and locating them firmly in a setting, time period and circumstance, while following their life and work in some logical order is a must. Journalistic biography, placing the subject in that context, but including vast swathes of narrative about the investigation itself is detrimental to the overall picture presented by the biography.
1 For a summary of this critique, see the Wikipedia article.
2 I also took slight offense to Hudson’s complaint about the difficulties in dredging out a clear picture from the ‘distant’ past. Yes, 500 years is a long time, and yes, I can relate to his difficulties, but as someone who specializes in a period five times more distant, he has no ground to stand on in that regard.