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Miracle in Venice

By: Joseph R. Phelan
May 17, 2019

Tintoretto (c. 1518/19–1594), one of the great painters of 16th-century Venice, was bold, confrontational, and controversial. His loose, fast, and furious brushwork was compared to a thunderbolt.  Renaissance art historian Giorgio Vasari, despite strong reservations, called him “the most extraordinary brain that painting ever produced.”  Critics, writers, and performers as different as John Ruskin, Henry James, Jean Paul Sartre, and David Bowie considered Tintoretto one of the greatest painters of all time. To commemorate the 500th anniversary of his birth the National Gallery of Art in Washington is presenting “Tintoretto: Artist of Renaissance Venice,” the first major exhibition of his work outside Europe.

Why has it taken so long for a Tintoretto exhibition to reach these shores? With a few notable exceptions, such as the National Gallery, his work is not well represented in our public collections. More significantly, his greatest achievements must be experienced in the many Venetian churches, confraternities, palaces, and public spaces where he lived and worked for his entire career. What the guest curators Robert Echols and Frederick Ilchman have put together are about 50 significant loans from Venice and from major museums around the world, mostly moderately sized canvases by this artist’s enormous standards yet significantly larger than the typical Old Master canvas. Happily, the quality of the loans is uniformly excellent.

Early Years

Entering the first gallery of the exhibition, we encounter a self-portrait (1546/47, left) done when the artist was just under 30. With smoldering intensity, he turns to confront us. Uniquely for self-portraits at this time, Tintoretto hasn’t given himself any aristocratic airs. He’s a working-class artist too busy to comb his hair, trim his beard, or put on fancy clothes. Instead, he wears determination, energy, force, ambition, and impatience on his face. One of his friends remarked that the painter was like a peppercorn that dominated all the other flavors in the stew.

Born Jacopo Robusti, the bantam son of a cloth dyer, he readily embraced his nickname Tintoretto “the little dyer” rather than taking a pretentious Latin name like his contemporaries Sansovino and Palladio. His earliest biographers tell us that the young apprentice entered the workshop of Titian, the leading painter of the day. Within ten days, however, that difficult master ejected him, either out of envy for his talent or frustration with his independent spirit. After this, the young man was largely self-taught, learning as he worked wherever painting was being done in the city.

Where did he look for inspiration? Exciting artistic trends were coming from the artists of Florence and Rome, and, above all, from Michelangelo. Like his hero, Tintoretto’s primary focus was the expressive human figure, based on a study of classical sculpture and live models. Yet, at the same time, Tintoretto couldn’t possibly work in Venice and reject the glorious tradition of oil painting on canvas that Giovanni Bellini had pioneered and that Giorgione and Titian had brought to a high degree of perfection.  Thus the famous motto said to have been inscribed above Tintoretto’s workshop door:  “The disegno [drawing] of Michelangelo and colorito [paint handling] of Titian.” In other words, his goal was to bring together the best qualities of the two dominant artistic schools of his century.

Jacopo seems to have acquired the bold and energetic mark of his brush from his early work painting building facades, ceilings, and furniture. But on the evidence of the first room, he sometimes was too quick, too fast, and had too many ideas. In the early Conversion of Saint Paul (1544) he orchestrates a divine hurricane that knocks not only Saul Paul but everyone off their horses. The fantastic imagery includes a horse and rider tumbling upside down on an outdoor staircase. A large picture like this requires enormous artistic discipline and restraint to pull off, which our young hero had not yet achieved.

Breakthroughs

Venus and Mars Surprised by Vulcan (1545/6), Tintoretto’s bawdy spoof on the classical love triangle recounted in Homer and Ovid, caused a sensation and was much praised by the most influential writer in Venice, Pietro Aretino. This brilliant art critic and poet, known for his erotic works and scurrilous political lampoons, may have had an influence on Tintoretto. Husband Vulcan has arrived home early to find his wife Venus in bed, naked. As he moves to inspect the inside of her thighs, we follow the line of her legs pointing to her little dog on the floor about to bark at the helmeted head of her lover, Mars, who is hiding under the furniture. The artist is mocking Titian’s specialty, the erotic female nude. The sleeping Cupid near the window is an explicit reference to a Michelangelo sculpture (now lost but known from copies).  By making sure to include these pointed references to the rival superstars of the current art scene, and to incorporate these references into a totally new composition is to demonstrate one’s mastery over multiple sources, and to appeal to most sophisticated audience of the day.

Jacopo’s first important commission, for the influential confraternity of the Scuola Grande di San Marco, was the Miracle of the Slave (1548). This great work, which does not travel, can be seen in the Accademia in Venice. It depicts a posthumous episode from the legend of the republic’s patron saint. Against the orders of his pagan master, a Christian slave visited Venice to venerate Saint Mark’s relics. On his return, his furious master orders him to be tortured and put to death. Reading the scene from left to right, we see three attempts at punishment fail, as each of the implements of torture break. The colorful crowd of onlookers looks on in astonishment until the master finally throws up his hands in awe— an indication of his own conversion to Christianity! The drama is conveyed in gestures and poses rather than facial expressions. The saint, seen only by the slave and the viewer, has swooped into the scene to prevent any harm to his follower. Mark’s hand, the hand of justice, represents the vanishing point in the painting. Some scholars think the curly-haired slave is a self-portrait.

Altarpieces and Portraits

Like most Renaissance artists, Tintoretto’s main business was producing religious narratives for churches and public spaces.  In these altarpieces, he demonstrated his intense devotion to the Catholic faith as it was being renewed by the Counter-Reformation. Saint Augustine Healing the Lame (1549/1550), for a church in Vicenza, shows the saint’s miraculous appearance to a group of disabled pilgrims who he directs to the church in the background where they will be cured. One of the articles of faith reaffirmed by the Council of Trent was the power of the saints to intercede on behalf of suffering humankind. Looking at the remarkable bodies yearning to be made whole, we see the influence of Michelangelo’s figural language in which, to quote from the wall text, “The human body serves as the principal conveyor of meaning.”

In the magnificent Deposition (1562, left) the body of the dead Christ and his swooning mother are locked together, supported by Joseph of Arimathea and the two Marys. The beautiful heroic bodies owe something to classical sculpture as well as to Michelangelo’s Pieta, yet Tintoretto has transformed what was cold marble into luminous flesh and blood. The altarpiece, commissioned for the high altar of the church of Santa Maria dell'Umilta, was designed to remind the devout at mass of the meaning of the sacrament of the Eucharist as the real body and blood of Christ—another key tenet of the Catholic faith.

In the past, art historians have held that Tintoretto was a mediocre portraitist compared with the high standards set by Titian and Bronzino. The curators of the National Gallery show argue that while there are many mediocre portraits labeled “By Tintoretto,” these are more likely products of his large workshop misattributed to the master over the centuries. Working from a much reduced catalog of about three dozen high-quality autograph works, the curators have chosen 12 for the exhibition. Rather than interspersing them chronologically throughout, which would have had the effect of dispersing their “star” power, they have concentrated these works in the largest exhibition room. There are ten individual portraits and two large group canvases. Unlike Titian, whose portraits contain elaborate costumes and settings, Tintoretto’s best portraits are austere, understated, stripped of anything that would interfere with our direct engagement with the subjects and their character. Nevertheless by concentrating on the essentials of face and eyes, their direct gaze seems to register our presence.

The Madonna of the Treasures (1567) is a group portrait of the state treasurers and their secretaries who bow and kneel before the Madonna and the Christ Child in a secular retelling of the Adoration of the Magi.  This ordered and harmonious composition depicts members from both the ruling patrizi elite (the treasurers) and those of the lesser cittidani class (the secretaries) who hold the bags of money that the treasurers offer to the Holy Family. Like Tintoretto’s simple individual portraits, this work reaffirms Venice’s republican ethos, picturing a patrician golden age of solidarity and willing public service. It is not surprising that John Ruskin, who wrote with such great sympathy about the unique artistic culture of the old republic, loved this painting best.

Master Storyteller

Jean Paul Sartre quipped that Tintoretto was the first film director. In the next two rooms, we see the master storyteller at work. The Last Supper was one of the artist’s favorite subjects, which he depicted nine times. One of the most significant versions (1563/64) was commissioned for an impoverished neighborhood church. As Christ’s words about his betrayal reaches each of the apostles, they react in surprise, shock, disbelief, and indignation. Set in a humble Venetian tavern, with impoverished looking apostles, this work is an outstanding example of the artist’s embrace of one of the republic’s most important virtues, mediocritas (selfless public spirit while eschewing individual glory or even conspicuousness).

In the adjacent room, there is the Paradisio (1588) from the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum in Madrid. This is the modello for the enormous (72 x 24 feet) painting that hangs in Great Council Hall in the Ducal Palace in Venice. While the modello is entirely by Tintoretto’s hand, the wall painting was executed mostly by his son, Domenico, and assistants, as the father was much too frail to carry it off. So the modello gives us a much better sense of what he intended: Christ crowns the Virgin Mary as Queen of Heaven before a vast assemblage of redeemed humanity and angels stretching into infinity. When the final version was unveiled, we are told that it “seemed to everyone that heavenly beatitude had been disclosed to mortal eyes…a marvel never again to be seen on earth.”

Titian, during his lifetime, was considered the greatest mythological painter by his clients, the crown heads of Europe.  With the older man’s death in 1576, Tintoretto could finally compete for these lucrative contracts. Tintoretto’s canvases in the exhibit’s next room are evidence that the younger artist could produce fascinating work in the older master’s sophisticated genre of poesie. In the ravishing work Origin of the Milky Way (1577/79), Jupiter tries to trick the sleeping Juno into nursing his son, the infant Hercules, by mortal woman. Of course, Juno wakes and the milk spills in two directions: up to create the Milky Way and down to earth where it becomes the lily. In Tarquin and Lucretia (1578/80) from the Art Institute in Chicago, the tragic story about the origin of the Roman republic which Titian had painted a decade before seems to have brought out the best in the younger artist. While Titian relies on facial expressions in his version, Tintoretto uses body language to telling effect. Cinematic is the only word for the Abduction of Helen (1578), which hangs in the Prado in Madrid. The episode from the origins of the Trojan War is imagined as if it were a contemporary battle scene between Turks and Christians.

Legacy

The exhibit’s final room offers two loans from the Scuola San Rocco, which is sometimes known as Tintoretto’s “Sistine Chapel” the confraternity where he devoted decades of his life to painting on its walls and ceilings  the stories from the lives of Mary and Christ. These two loans are mysterious landscape paintings featuring the figure of Mary absorbed in reading and contemplation—suggesting how one should study Tintoretto’s work. There is bravura Baptism of Christ (1580) and an Entombment (1594), the latter designed by Jacopo for his burial chapel but painted by Domenico. There is no comparison between the inspired father and the pedestrian son. In his final Self Portrait (1588, left), Jacopo’s gaze has lost its fire. Old and tired, he looks inward as if anxiously contemplating his mortality and legacy. He needn’t have worried for his unparalleled body of work opened up new avenues of aesthetic expression, and forged a golden chain of influence that runs from El Greco, Peter Paul Rubens, and Diego Velázquez to the Abstract Expressionists of the 20th century. In our own day, as the curators point out in their superb catalog, the avant garde painters Anselm Kiefer and Gerhard Richter have filled their huge canvases with audacious brushwork and colorist effects in homage to Tintoretto. We should be grateful to the National Gallery for providing a rare opportunity for us, too, to study the Venetian master up close.