by Roderick Conway Morris

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Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna
Susannah and the Elders by Tintoretto, mid 1550s

Every Kind of Picture

By Roderick Conway Morris
VENICE 10 December 2018


'He has painted almost every kind of picture in fresco and in oils, with portraits from life, and at every price, insomuch that with these methods he has executed, as he still does, the greater part of the pictures painted in Venice', wrote Giorgio Vasari of Jacopo Tintoretto, after his visit to the city in 1566.

Indeed, the only one of the greatest sixteenth-century Venetian masters to be born in the city of Venice, where he spent the whole of his working life, Tintoretto achieved a ubiquity on his home ground that was unequalled by Titian, Veronese or any of his other rivals. He painted canvases for scores of churches, scuole (religious fraternity houses) large and small, monasteries, convents, palazzi and public buildings. Many were on a large scale featuring dozens, sometimes hundreds of figures. His 'Paradiso' on the end wall of Sala del Maggior Consiglio in the Doge's Palace, at 72 feet wide and 23 feet high, is reckoned to be the largest-ever old master painting.

While many of Tintoretto's finest works are still in Venice, a sufficient number have left at various times, making a full assessment of his career impossible without also seeing collections elsewhere. Thus, two splendid exhibitions with generous loans, 'Il Giovane Tintoretto' at the Accademia and 'Tintoretto 1519–1594' at the Doge's Palace (which will travel on to the National Gallery of Art in Washington in March), provide an unprecedented opportunity to consider the artist's life and oeuvre.

The occasion is the 500th anniversary of Tintoretto's birth, calculated on the basis of his death certificate of May 1594, which gave his age as seventy-five. Nearly a hundred public and private collections have loaned works to the two exhibitions. The catalogue Tintoretto 1519–1594, edited by the exhibition's curators Robert Echols and Frederick Ilchman, with an appendix listing the works on show in both the Venice and the Washington versions of the exhibition, should serve as the best single volume account of the artist for many years to come. The exhibition catalogue Il Giovane Tintoretto, edited by Roberta Battaglia, Paola Marini and Vittoria Romani, curators of the Accademia show, will also continue to be a valuable source for the artist's early years.

According to Tintoretto's seventeenth-century biographer Carlo Ridolfi, the young Tintoretto inscribed on the wall of his studio a mission statement: 'Il disegno di Michelangelo e il colorito di Tiziano' (The draftsmanship of Michelangelo and the colouring of Titian) – the concept of disegno embracing both drawing and design, and colorito both colour and the handling of paint. The wording is curiously similar to the remark by Paolo Pino, in his Dialogo di Pittura of 1548: 'If Titian and Michelangelo were a single body, if the disegno of Michelangelo were added to the colorito of Titian, then we would be able to call him the supreme god of painting'. So such notions were clearly circulating at the time when Tintoretto was developing his own style.

During the 1530s and 40s there was an influx into Venice of artistic ideas from central Italy, much of it through drawings, prints, statuettes and models. But a number of artists from further south – some, like Jacopo Sansovino, refugees from the Sack of Rome in 1527 – also visited and took up residence in the city, notably the Tuscans Francesco Salviati and the sculptor Bartolomeo Ammannati. Tintoretto's earliest dated picture, 'The Virgin and Child with Saints' (1540), on loan from a private collection at the Accademia, reveals the palpable influence of the Salviati and the Veronese Bonifacio de' Pitati.

A landmark event in Tintoretto's progress came in 1548 with his spectacularly dramatic 'Miracle of the Slave', for the Scuola di San Marco, now one of the Accademia's most treasured works. More than 13 feet high and almost 18 feet wide, a herald of the enormous canvases to come, it contained many allusions and references to other artists: from the north-eastern painters Titian, Pordenone, Jacopo Bassano and Lorenzo Lotto, to the Florentines Michelangelo and Sansovino.

'The Miracle of the Slave' was one of Tintoretto's most 'finished' pictures, making clear that the famously loose brushwork that later became his trademark and for which he was frequently criticized, was a matter of choice. The artist had begun life as a jobbing painter of external frescoes (now lost) and he seems to have carried this experience on into his works on canvas. His 'Self-Portrait' of around 1546–7 (on loan from Philadelphia), opens the exhibition at the Doge's Palace. And the emphatic, almost defiant rough brushwork that captures the young artist's penetrating gaze conveys both a challenge and a manifesto. As his biographer Marco Boschini later put it: 'Like a fulminant Jove he used the thunderbolt of his brush to pursue superiority over all others, and absolute dominion'.

His determination to put his stamp on Venice was pursued ruthlessly on multiple fronts alienating fellow artists. He undercut prices, gave pieces as gifts and worked for minimal payments or sought only to cover his expenses – as he did for the gigantic canvases in his local parish church of Madonna dell'Orto. Even late in his career he was prepared to produce works in the manner of Titian and Veronese when the occasion demanded, as is evident from his mythological canvases for the Doge's Palace. The most notorious example of his no-holds-barred approach to winning a commission was when, instead of submitting a sketch in a competition for the adornment of the Scuola di San Rocco, he arranged to have a finished ceiling painting put in place.

Tintoretto and his studio were by far the most prolific producers of Venetian portraits of the era. These works are of uneven quality but some are powerfully expressive. His early portraits of senior state officials gave him networking opportunities that led in 1553 to a commission for a large canvas (later destroyed by fire) for the Sala del Maggior Consiglio, that prime showcase in the Doge's Palace. His portrait of the newly elected doge Girolamo Priuli in 1560 consolidated his position as the republic's chief portrait artist and in 1574 he successfully petitioned for a sinecure that brought with it recognition as the Serenissima's official painter.

Yet Tintoretto never became as wealthy as Veronese and Titian, with their aristocratic and princely patrons (and, in the latter's case, a lucrative timber and wine trading business). He didn't acquire his own house until he was in his mid-fifties and in 1575 he was seeking tax relief on the grounds of poverty. His unforgiving, haunting 'Self-Portrait' of around 1588, from the Louvre, which closes the exhibition at the Doge's Palace, suggests a man worn out with his labours. It was described by Manet, who copied it, as 'one of the most beautiful paintings in the world'.

'Tintoretto 1519–1594' at the Doge's Palace and 'Il Giovane Tintoretto' at Gallerie dell'Accademia, Venice, 7 September 2018 - 6 January 2019.

'Tintoretto 1519–1594' at National Gallery of Art, Washington, 3 March - 30 June.

Tintoretto 1519-1594
294pp. Marsilio Electa
Robert Echols and Frederick Ilchman (editors)

Il Giovane Tintoretto
240pp. Marsilio Electa
Roberta Battaglia, Paola Marini and Vittoria Romani (editors)

First published: Times Literary Supplement

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024