This book is a wonderful collection of chapters, all of them exquisitely crafted, most of them small—some very small, like the golden tesserae on the ceiling of St Mark’s cathedral in Venice, an image drawn from the book. But the tesserae in St Mark’s form recognisable pictures and patterns. The chapters in Titian’s Boatman take a long time to fall into a pattern, and I am not sure they all do.
Each chapter is written from the perspective of a different character from the preceding chapter. Most of the many characters live in 16th-century Venice, but some are in 21st-century London and New York. The artist Titian is the central character in only two short chapters and is dead for most of the book, although the chapters do not follow a strict chronological order. His personal gondolier (the boatman of the title) has more to say, but even he has only a minor role. This is not the story of the great artist seen through the eyes of one of his servants, as I expected. The book is sub-titled The Man with the Blue Sleeve, which is the title of one of Titian’s paintings, which is central to the London chapters, but the New York chapters centre on his painting of St Sebastian. None of his pictures is central to the Venetian chapters, which are mainly about what happened to Titian’s associates after his death.
This confusion of time, place and perspective is explicit. As the author says in her preface, ‘imagine you can begin anywhere… where will you start?’
This is an interesting book with vivid insights into many different settings and situations, but I found it easier to read each thread separately. But then, I am a traditionalist shackled to chronology, and you may prefer a more unconventional narrative.