Tintoretto
Biography of Mannerist Venetian Painter Jacopo Robusti.

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Crucifixion (1565)
Scuola Grande di San Rocco, Venice.
A masterpiece of Christian art of
the 16th century.

Tintoretto (1518-1594) (Jacopo Robusti)

Contents

Introduction
Artist Training
Major Religious Commissions
Portraiture
Style of Painting
Mature Works
Mastery of Mannerism At The Scuola di S. Rocco
Tintoretto and The Essence of Mannerist Painting
Workshop and Legacy

Note: See the difference in painting method between the Venetian preference for colorito, versus the Florentine disegno.



The Last Supper (1592-94) (detail)
San Giorgio Maggiore, Venice.
One of Tintoretto's most influential
works, it is regarded as one of the
greatest Renaissance paintings.


The Miracle of St Mark Freeing the Slave
(1548) Venice Academy Gallery.
(Close-up detail)

Introduction

One of the great exponents of Mannerism during the Venice Renaissance, Tintoretto is best known for his monumental religious art. His intense illusionist style - very much part of the school of Venetian painting and very different to the greater naturalism of mainstream Renaissance art - emphasized the mystical side of religious experience and paved the way for the intensity and illusionism of Baroque painting, which later reflected the dogmas of the Roman Catholic Counter-Reformation. He is reported to have trained very briefly under Titian (1477-1576), but the style of his early work indicates that he may also have studied with Bonifacio Veronese (1487-1553), Paris Bordone (1500-71), or Andrea Schiavone (1522-82). He was also influenced by earlier painters like Piero della Francesca (1420-92) and Giovanni Bellini (1430-1516). Active for nearly all of his life in Venice, most of his paintings are still in the churches or buildings where they were originally installed.

His most notable works include the early St Mark Freeing the Slave, (1548, Accademia, Venice), as well as the series of religious paintings he completed for the Scuola di San Rocco between 1564 to 1588. Following the terrible fires in the Doge's Palace in 1574 and 1577, Tintoretto and his Venetian rival Paolo Veronese (1528-88) were awarded the main commission to redecorate the interior. Tintoretto himself completed the four allegorical paintings now in the Anticollegio, 1576-77, while his workshop painted the monumental Paradise (after 1588) for the main hall. But his greatest masterpiece must surely be The Last Supper (1591-94, San Giorgio, Maggiore, Venice). In addition to religious works, Tintoretto painted allegorical subjects and he was also an outstanding portraitist. He also sketched some of the best drawings of the Renaissance. For more details, see: Venetian Drawing (c.1500-1600). Enormously influential in his time, probably his greatest impact was on the Spanish Mannerist painter El Greco (1541-1614).

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Training as an Artist

Born Jacopo Robusti, little is known of his early life. Tintoretto was a nickname, derived as a result of his father's profession, a dyer (for which the Italian word is tintore). He was born in Venice, the eldest of 21 children. It is believed that he showed an early talent for drawing so his father took the young teenager to the studio of Titian to be apprenticed in painting. However, after only 2 weeks, Titian sent his new pupil home. It has been speculated that the great master was jealous of his young apprentice's talent. However, it is more likely that Titian thought his pupil showed far too much independence to become a manageable pupil. Although we do not know if Tintoretto studied with any other painters, his early works show the influence of other artists, notably Andrea Schiavone, who specialized in small scale religious and mythological pictures.

Tintoretto's early cinquecento works adhered quite strictly to the Mannerist tradition by following the conventions laid down by Parmigianino (1503-40), by their narrrative style and by their conformity with the ideas of Andrea Schiavone, as evident in the Virgin and Child with Six Saints (private collection, New York), the 14 ceiling panels of Mythological Scenes (Modena), the six Old Testament Scenes (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna) and Apollo and Marsyas (Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, Connecticut). This early Emilian influence, which is also evident in Jesus among the Elders (1542, Museo del Duomo, Milan), led Tintoretto to develop a great admiration for Michelangelo (clearly visible in his works of the late 1540s) - a reverence that has given rise to the theory that Tintoretto travelled to Rome in 1547. There is no record of such a trip, but Michelangelo's art was well known in Venice at this time, through prints of his drawings and engravings.

As it was, Tintoretto spent hours studying models, including models carved by Michelangelo. Like Titian, he became an expert in modelling in wax and clay, which was of great assistance to him in creating figures when arranging the content of his pictures. Sometimes he even used dead bodies as models, suspending them from a wooden box.

 

Major Religious Commissions

In his early career, Tintoretto reportedly worked for very small fees, and gained a large number of commissions as a result. But problems could still occur. About 1548 he was commissioned by the Scuola Grande di San Marco - one of Venice's six Scuole Grandi or Major Guilds - to produce St Mark Freeing the Slave, which he duly did, only to have it rejected because it was insufficiently traditional. Fortunately, the resulting publicity gave him the reputation of being the most dynamic young painter in the city. This work marks the beginning of his connection with the religious confraternities, patrons who were to provide him with a constant supply of work. Henceforward, his career was basically the story of one major commission after another.

The Scuola Grande di San Marco eventually accepted St Mark Freeing the Slave and in 1562 commissioned a further three-part cycle representing miracles worked posthumously by St Mark, including: St Mark Working Many Miracles, St Mark Rescuing a Saracen from Shipwreck, The Stealing of the Dead Body of St Mark, (all 1562-66, Gallerie dell'Accademia, Venice).

The 15th century Scuola Grande di San Rocco - more popular than most guilds owing to the fact that its patron saint (Saint Rocco of Montpellier) supposedly offered protection from the plague - was located on the Campo di San Rocco. Tintoretto was commissioned to decorate the interior, a huge project which took him 24 years to complete. During the 3-year period 1564-1567, he painted the 27 canvases on the ceiling and walls of the Sala dell'Albergo (committee room) on the subject of Christ's Passion; then during the 5-year period 1576-1581 he decorated the Sala Superiore (the Great Hall), with New Testament subjects on the walls and Old Testament scenes on the ceiling; during the 5 years from 1582 to 1587 he painted the eight large canvases in the Sala Inferiore (Ground Floor Hall) showing scenes from the life of the Virgin Mary and the Nativity of Christ; and finally in 1588 the altarpiece. These works include his awesome Crucifixion (1565), Christ before Pilate (1565) and The Birth of Christ (1578-81). While the Scuola has numerous paintings by such great artists as Titian and Giorgione (1477-1510), it is the many paintings of Tintoretto that continue to inspire awe to this day. His rough, unorthodox use of brushstroke was criticized at the time, but future generations have appreciated it as a means of heightening drama and tension.

In 1575, the Venetian municipal authorities commissioned Tintoretto and Veronese to redecorate the Palazzo Ducale (Doge's Palace) with a series of allegorical works, votive pictures and examples of history painting. Tintoretto assigned many of these pictures to his workshop, while he himself painted the four allegorical paintings Three Graces and Mercury, Minerva Sending Away Mars from Peace and Prosperity, Ariadne, Venus and Bacchus, and Vulcan's Forge (all 1576-77, Palazzo Ducale, Venice).

In the final two years of his life, when he was 75, he completed what many art historians consider to be his greatest masterpiece - the mystical, incandescent Last Supper (1592-4) - for the church of San Giorgio Maggiore, Venice. For more about Tintoretto's Mannerist-style altarpiece painting, see: Venetian altarpieces (c.1500-1600).

Portraiture

In addition to frescoes and oils for ecclesistical patrons, Tintoretto also painted a large number of portraits, not least because of the social networking benefits they conferred, as well as the income they generated. Influenced by Titian, the greatest Venetian portraitist of the High Renaissance, Tintoretto's portrait art includes works like: Portrait of a White-Bearded Man (1545, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna), as well as portraits of Jacopo Sansovino (before 1546, Uffizi, Florence) Procurator Antonio Cappello (1551, Gallerie dell'Accademia, Venice); Doge Girolamo Priuli (1559, Private collection); Giovanni Paolo Cornaro (1561, Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Ghent); Doge Pietro Loredano (1570, Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest); and Vincenzo Morosini (1580, National Gallery, London). For more information, please see: Venetian Portrait Painting (c.1400-1600).

Style of Painting

Tintoretto is noted for his blend of stylistic features: elongated forms, a dynamic articulation, linear arabesques linked to a forceful plasticity, all translated into a completely personal language and animated by an original handling of light. Plus, there is a new conception of spatial depth, and an achievement of the "spectacular" through preliminary rough sketches and arrangements using small wax figures. This method of creating a painting is characteristic of the Last Supper (Venice, Church of S. Marcuola), Christ Washing the Feet of His Disciples (1547, Prado), and especially of the Miracle of St Mark Rescuing a Slave.

In San Roccco Healing the Plague Victims (1549, Venice, Church of S. Rocco) the subjugation of colour to chiaroscuro produces the sense of a miracle and marks the first step towards Tintoretto's mastery of light. From 1550 to 1552 his contact with the Venetian painting of the day shows in the way he adapted his style to that of Titian and in the new feeling for landscape that appears in Scenes from the Old Testament for the Scuola della Trinita (of which three, The Creation of Animals, Original Sin and The Death of Abel, are now in the Accademia), culminating in such masterpieces as Susannah and the Elders (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna) and St George Rescuing the Princess (National Gallery, London), with their sparkling colours. From 1553 to 1555 he began lightening his palette under the influence of Paolo Veronese: Assumption of the Virgin (Church of S. Maria Assunta, Venice); six Scenes from the Old Testament (Prado); and Journey of St Ursula (Church of S. Lazzaro dei Mendicanti, Venice, ). (See: Titian and Venetian Colour Painting c.1500-76.) Tintoretto exploited an original, more intimate vein in a Last Supper in the Church of S. Trovaso, Venice, which is stamped with religious fervour and executed in a popular style deriving from a simple observation of nature.

Mature Works

Tintoretto's maturity coincided with much greater boldness in his painting. During the period 1562 to 1566, the time of his second phase of work with the Scuola di S. Marco, he produced three pictures. In two of them, behind the 'theatrical' action which takes place in the foreground of the painting, there are striking architectonic perspectives. His talent for bravura appears in the amazing luminosity of the arches in the Discovery of the Body of St Mark (Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan) and in the deserted immensity of the square in the Removal of the Body of St Mark (Venice, Accademia). The third picture, St Mark Rescuing a Slave (Venice, Accademia), is remarkable for the dramatic restlessness of the crowded composition, with its violent movement and bold foreshortening. In this same decade he painted two gigantic canvases, The Adoration of the Golden Calf and The Last Judgement, for the apse of the Church of the Madonna dell'Orto, preceding these by the organ shutters (The Presentation of the Virgin in the Temple; The Vision of St Peter; The Martyrdom of St Paul for the same church.

Mastery of Mannerism At The Scuola di S. Rocco

The cycle of paintings in the Scuola di San Rocco remains the supreme testimony to Tintoretto's art. The work was executed con furia and it is in the spontaneity and the extraordinary rapidity of the brushstrokes, more than in the sometimes dizzying movement of the figures, that the dynamic force of his art rests. In parallel with the work in the Scuola di S. Rocco, Tintoretto engaged in numerous other projects. But the same powerful emotion, coming from his visionary effects of light (St Roch in Prison, 1567, Choir of the Church of S. Rocco) or the rhetorical force of the action (The Last Supper, Church of S. Paolo), is evident in the best works of this period.

In 1576 during his second phase of work in the Scuola di S. Rocco, (notably The Bronze Serpent, Moses Striking Water from the Rock, The Gathering of the Manna and other Biblical scenes) Tintoretto attains the poetic highpoint of his art, and displays complete mastery of the Mannerist style. The fantastic effects of light accentuate the vertiginous space, receding diagonals and other dramatic features, and fuse the separate parts together. A strong moral feeling underlies the drama.

Tintoretto and The Essence of Mannerist Painting

Typical of many Mannerist artists, Tintoretto sought a pictorial language which made it possible for viewers to sense the spiritual content - the divine. The reality-fixated High Renaissance artists, who so casually introduced mythological figures and Christian saints into this world, proved unhelpful in this regard. The Mannerists' aim had explicitly not been to create a deceptively real picture space which the viewer imagined he could enter at any time; their aim, rather, was to create paintings which were not a depiction of this world, with an aura of strange, divine spheres. Because there is no way of visualizing such a supernatural world, the painters were thrown back on the imagination. Like Tintoretto, they staged their stories like theatre-directors. Employing unreal, stage-like lighting with dramatic effects of light and dark, and with highly independent perspectives or daring foreshortenings, they tried to distance their representations from real life. They transformed religious scenes into enthralling scenarios. A brief comparison of the Last Suppers of Leonardo da Vinci and Tintoretto clearly shows the difference in vision and approach: in contrast to Leonardo's balanced, symmetrical frontal composition, Tintoretto's pictorial space is given a dynamic quality by the table placed diagonally to the picture surface. In Leonardo's painting Jesus was what the Christian faith said he was: quite human and quite divine at the same time. In Tintoretto's picture this peaceful coexistence falls apart again. There is a clear difference between the hustle and bustle of the world in the foreground, where the servants are busily fetching food and drink, and the theological story in the depth of the painting. These two levels are united only by the lighting and the ecstatic vitality of the pictorial structure as a whole, which is lent compositional equilibrium by a barely visible band of angels swirling above the whole scene.

That supernatural atmosphere, a suggestive style of painting - in which real and unreal, the world, of the spirit and the perceptible world can no longer be distinguished - had been totally alien to the painters of the Renaissance. In the Baroque, from about 1600, the intellectual pictorial worlds, created by the Mannerists as early as the 16th century, reach their apogee. The painters of the Baroque either leave earthly reality behind, or create a confusing interplay of illusion and reality. The compelling effect of this kind of illusionistic painting as made possible by the perfect mastery of aerial and linear perspective was recognized above all by the Church Fathers. In the face of the rumblings of the Reformation in the north, which were growing menacingly loud, this type of suggestive art struck the Catholic Church as an extraordinarily appropriate way of making faith attractive. Thus at the Council of Trent, which signalled the Counter-Reformation in the Catholic countries, it was decided in 1562 that henceforward the mystical and supernatural sides of religious experience would be given prominence. Tintoretto was the supreme exponent of this idiom, and a major contributor to Catholic Counter-Reformation Art in Venice.

Workshop and Legacy

From the late 1570s, an increasing number of Tintoretto's commissions - aside from those at the Scuola di San Rocco - show a decline in quality caused by most of the actual painting being performed by assistants. (These included his sons Domenico (1560-1635) and, Marco (1561-1637) The four Allegories in honour of the Doges of Venice in the Sala dell' Anticollegio in the Doge's Palace (completed in 1577) are by Tintoretto's own hand, and have a serenity and expressive flexibility typical of the artist. However, in the eight scenes depicting the Splendour of the Gonzagas, commissioned by Guglielmo Gonzaga a little before 1579 and finished in May 1580 (Alte Pinakothek, Munich), the enormous amount of work done by assistants is distressingly obvious, despite the important contribution of his son, Domenico. His last monumental work was Paradise (c.1588, Palazzo Ducale, Venice) which remains one of the biggest pictures ever painted, measuring 74 feet by 30 feet. Tintoretto painted without respite until his last months, crowning his career with the magnificent Last Supper in the Church of San Giorgio Maggiore.

Tintoretto exerted a huge influence on Mannerist as well as Baroque art, but above all, on the work of El Greco. His works can be seen in a number of the best art museums across the globe. For a general view of the influence of Venice painters, see: Legacy of Venetian Painting on European art.

In his Lives of the Most Eminent Italian Architects, Painters and Sculptors, the historian Giorgio Vasari (1511-74) wrote that Tintoretto was "the most extraordinary brain that the art of painting has produced."

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