Cadore, Titian's Birthplace
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
We reached Pieve di Cadore about half-past eleven A.M., delays included. The quaint old piazza with its gloomy arcades, its antique houses with Venetian windows, its cafés, its fountain, and its loungers, is just like the piazzas of Serravalle, Longarone, and other provincial towns of the same epoch. With its picturesque Prefettura and belfry-tower one is already familiar in the pages of Gilbert's "Cadore." There, too, is the fine old double flight of steps leading up to the principal en-trance on the first floor, as in the town-hall at Heilbronn—a feature by no means Italian; and there, about midway up the shaft of the campanile, is the great, gaudy, well-remembered fresco, better meant than painted, wherein Titian, some twelve feet in height, robed and bearded, stands out against an ultramarine background, looking very like the portrait of a caravan giant at a fair.
Turning aside from the glowing piazza and following the downward slope of a hill to the left of the Prefettura, we come, at the distance of only a few yards, upon another open space, grassy and solitary, surrounded on three sides by rambling, dilapidated-looking houses, and opening on the fourth to a vista of woods and mountains. In this little piazza stands a massive stone fountain, time-worn and water-worn, surmounted by a statue of Saint Tiziano in the robes and square cap of an ecclesiastic. The water trickling through two metal pipes in the pedestal beneath Saint Tiziano's feet, makes a pleasant murmuring in the old stone basin; while, half hidden behind this fountain, and leaning up as if for shelter against a larger house adjoining, stands a small whitewashed cottage upon the side-wall of which an incised tablet bears the following record :
"Nel MCCCCLXXVII Fra Queste Vmili Mura Tiziano Vecellio Vene a celebre Vita Donde vsciva gia presso a cento Anni In Venezia Addi XXVII Agosto MDLXXVI."
A poor, mean-looking, low-roofed dwelling, disfigured by external chimney-shafts and a built-out oven; lit with tiny, blinking, medieval windows; altogether unlovely; altogether unnoticeable; but—the birthplace of Titian !
It looked different, no doubt, when he was a boy and played outside here on the grass. It had probably a high, steep roof, like the homesteads in his own landscape drawings; but the present old brown tiles have been over it long enough to get mottled with yellow lichens. One would like to know if the fountain and the statue were there in his time; and if the water trickled ever to the same low tune; and if the women came there to wash their linen and fill their brazen water jars, as they do now. This lovely green hill, at all events, sheltered the home from the east winds; and Monte Duranno lifted his strange crest yonder against the southern horizon; and the woods dipt down to the valley, then as now, where the bridle-path slopes away to join the road to Venice.
We went up to the house, and knocked. The door was opened by a sickly, hunchbacked lad who begged us to walk in, and who seemed to be quite alone there. The house was very dark, and looked much older inside than from without. A long, low, gloomy upstairs chamber with a huge penthouse fire-place jutting into the room, was evidently as old as the days of Titian's grandfather, to whom the house originally belonged; while a very small and very dark adjoining closet, with a porthole of a window sunk in a slope of massive wall, was pointed out as the room in which the great painter was born.
"But how do you know that he was born here?" I asked. The hunchback lifted his wasted hand with a deprecating gesture. "They have always said so, Signora," he replied. "They have said so for more than four hundred years."
"They'?" I repeated, doubtfully. "The Vecelli, Signora." "I had understood that the Vecellio family was extinct." "Scusate, Signora," said the hunchback. "The last direct descendant of `Il Tiziano' died not long ago—a few years before I was born; and the collateral Vecelli are citizens of Cadore to this day. If the Signora will be pleased to look for it, she will see the name of Vecellio over a shop on the right-hand side, as she returns to the Piazza."
I did look for it; and there, sure enough, over a small shop-window I found it. It gave one an odd sort of shock, as if time were for the moment annihilated; and I remember how, with something of the same feeling, I once saw the name of Rubens over a shop-front in the market-place at Cologne.
I left the house less incredulous than I entered it. Of the identity of the building there has never been any kind of doubt; and I am inclined to accept with the house the identity of the room. Titian, it should be remembered, lived long enough to become, long before he died, the glory of his family. He became rich; he became noble; his fame filled Italy. Hence the room in which he was born may well have acquired, half a century before his death—perhaps even during the lifetime of his mother—that sort of sacredness which is generally of post-mortem growth. The legend, handed down from Vecellio to Vecellio in uninterrupted succession, lays claim, therefore, to a more reliable pedigree than most traditions of a similar character.