Rebel with Applause

Jacopo Tintoretto: The Origin of the Milky Way, ca. 1576–78, oil on canvas, 58¾ by 66 1/8 inches. National Gallery, London.


ROMANTIC PAINTERS and playwrights of the nineteenth century found rich material in the lives of the old masters. Fueled by irresistible half-truths and rumors, they created swashbuckling narratives about the personal intimacies and rivalries, as well as the career failures and triumphs, of the Italian Renaissance artists. At the Paris Salon of 1843, for instance, Léon Cogniet unveiled his grand entry, a large canvas depicting Tintoretto painting a portrait of his beloved daughter Marietta, who lies on her death bed. Three years later, the painter and playwright Luigi Marta published a melodrama about an amorous intrigue that supposedly led to the death of Marietta, who assisted her father as an artist in his workshop. The six-episode play reads like a soap opera in which the aristocratic Alfredo is pitted against Marietta’s true love, Valerio Zuccato, a Venetian mosaicist (and thus, in Tintoretto’s world, a fellow craftsman). The play circles around the inevitable showdown between the arrogant count and the sincere artist, which precipitates Marietta’s death at the hands of the entitled, privileged, and violent Alfredo.

Parallel to this love story, the reader is regaled with the homosocial rivalry between Tintoretto and Titian, with Paolo Veronese appearing as an intercessor who mediates a grandiloquent reconciliation scene in which all three masters unite to defend the honor of the Venetian state. The narrative unfolds against Tintoretto’s commission for the Last Judgment (1562–64) in Santa Maria dell’Orto. Marta’s artist was thus, in no uncertain terms, a struggling genius waiting for recognition from his fellow artists even at the height of his success. Indeed, the episode concludes with Titian’s transformative endorsement—Ora non siete più il povero Tintoretto, ma bensì il famoso Giacomo Robusti (“now you are no longer the poor ‘son of a dyer,’ but the famous Jacopo Robusti”).1

Loosely based on actual historical personages, the tale is almost entirely fantasy. Such theatrical characterizations are nevertheless of great importance, for they help give legends the veneer of history. Giorgio Vasari’s sixteenth-century notices about Tintoretto, as well as, in the seventeenth century, Carlo Ridolfi’s biography and Marco Boschini’s various writings on the artist, were the primary sources for many of these tasty morsels, and while scholars have tried to sift fiction from reality, some myths are just too delectable to give up. We still hear repeated, for instance, the unfounded story that the young Tintoretto was kicked out of Titian’s studio. It’s not entirely impossible, but there isn’t a shred of solid evidence to confirm the tale (any more than Ridolfi’s allegation that Tintoretto dressed Marietta up as a boy so that father and daughter could wander the city streets unimpeded by society’s strict gender expectations).

The image of Tintoretto-as-rebel would culminate in Jean-Paul Sartre’s essay “The Prisoner of Venice” (1964), where the artist is reinvented as an existentialist hero, a lone wolf fighting against the stultifying rules of the system:

Fate has decreed that Jacopo unwittingly expose an age which refuses to recognize itself. Now we understand the meaning of his destiny and the secret of Venetian malice. Tintoretto displeases everyone: patricians because he reveals to them the puritanism and fanciful agitation of the bourgeoisie; artisans because he destroys the corporate order and reveals, under their apparent professional solidarity, the rumblings of hate and rivalry; patriots because the frenzied state of painting and the absence of God discloses to them, under his brush, an absurd and unpredictable world in which anything can occur, even the death of Venice.2

At the other end of the spectrum, this leitmotif is perhaps best played out for comic effect in Woody Allen’s Everyone Says I Love You (1996), in which a skirt-chaser (Allen) is overheard in the so-called Tintoretto Museum (really the Scuola Grande di San Rocco) in Venice trying to impress a Tintoretto enthusiast (Julia Roberts) by lauding the artist’s immense genius for painting “outside the academic convention of sixteenth-century Venice.”

Sometimes myths are just too powerful, and the Tintoretto myth is an extremely appealing one for modern tastes, especially in the celebratory year marking the fifth centenary of the artist’s birth. Tintoretto’s anniversary has been staged as a magnificent international banquet. The festivities began last autumn in Venice with exhibitions at the Palazzo Ducale (“Tintoretto: Artist of Renaissance Venice”) and the Gallerie dell’Accademia (“The Young Tintoretto”), as well as an excellent little show at the Scuola Grande di San Marco (“Art, Faith, and Medicine in Tintoretto’s Venice”). New York, in the fall, offered “Drawing in Tintoretto’s Venice” at the Morgan Library & Museum and “Celebrating Tintoretto: Portrait Paintings and Studio Drawings” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The fete continues in 2019 at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., where slightly adapted versions of the Palazzo Ducale and Morgan Library exhibitions go on view this month, fortified by a third independent show called “Venetian Prints in the Time of Tintoretto.” This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for audiences in America to see some one hundred and seventy artworks by Tintoretto and other Venetian Renaissance artists, painstakingly gathered by art historians Robert Echols and Frederick Ilchman (who organized the show at the Palazzo Ducale),along with curators John Marciari (of the Morgan) and Jonathan Bober (of the National Gallery). Fans of the artist and of painting in general should take note.


IT’S HARD NOT TO get swept up in all the unbridled Tintoretto worship, but this celebration also provides us an opportunity to revisit the man, the myth, the legacy, and above all, the work. To start with the biographical elements: Tintoretto was hardly seen as a pitiful “poor dyer’s son” in the eyes of his fellow Renaissance artists, nor as a maverick who “displeases everyone.” When speaking about Titian vs. Tintoretto, one must take into account a few historical particulars. For instance, in 1519, the year after Titian installed the magnificent Assumption of the Virgin in Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, Tintoretto’s only achievement was to be born. In 1545, two years before Tintoretto’s first self-portrait (with which all Tintoretto exhibitions seem compelled to begin), Titian was called to Rome by Pope Paul III; in the 1550s and 1560s he was practically a court painter to the Habsburgs, while Tintoretto was painting acres of canvas to fill the walls at the Chiesa della Madonna dell’Orto, the Scuola Grande di San Rocco, and the Scuola Grande di San Marco in Venice; Titian died in 1576 during the plague, and in 1577 a conflagration devastated the Palazzo Ducale, destroying many of his paintings there, some of which would be replaced with works by Tintoretto and his assistants in the 1580s. While there was probably no love between the two men of the kind that nineteenth-century dramatists might dream up, their careers ran parallel to each other rather than in constant antagonistic competition.

Many romantic myths are dispelled in the scholarship that went into the exhibitions and the catalogue essays, but the melodrama of this rivalry still sneaks into sections such as “The Mantle of Titian,” which, at the Palazzo Ducale, was called “Dopo Tiziano” (After Titian) thereby underlining both chronological priority as well as influence. The paintings Tintoretto did after Titian’s death in 1576—large, powerful mythological pictures such as the Forge of Vulcan (1577) and the Origin of the Milky Way (ca. 1577–78)—are spectacular, but why filter these achievements once more through Titian? And why not have, instead, a section labeled “Dopo Tintoretto,” which would include El Greco, the Carracci, Caravaggio, and a host of other artists from the past five centuries who found inspiration in his stark chiaroscuro, raking perspective, extreme foreshortening, airborne saints, psychologically charged portraits, barefoot worshippers, elaborate banquet scenes, wraithlike angels and spirits, and busted-out straw chairs?

The oft-repeated trope that Tintoretto was an outsider also willfully overlooks his obvious status as a complete insider, born in Venice and fully embedded in its institutions from birth. Titian and Veronese, in contrast, were both provincials (practically foreigners by Renaissance standards), who came from the hills and plains beyond the lagoon. While a questionable seventeenth-century account suggested an aristocratic lineage for the Robusti family, more recent studies have emphasized instead the artist’s “working class” origins. The truth is somewhere in between. Stefania Mason’s essay “Tintoretto the Venetian,” from the catalogue that accompanies “Tintoretto: Artist of Renaissance Venice,” goes a long way to contextualize the precise socioeconomic conditions of the son of a Renaissance dyer or—to be more accurate—the son of a manager of a dye works married to a “well-born woman.” The Robusti were not wealthy by any means, but they were comfortable enough to give Tintoretto a basic education that enabled him later in life to befriend the circle of writers and intellectuals known as the poligrafi, including the notorious satirist Pietro Aretino (a friend of Titian and an early supporter of Tintoretto).

Like his father, Tintoretto married up. His father-in-law, Marco Episcopi, not only belonged to an influential family of Venetian cittadini, he was also the guardian of the Scuola Grande di San Marco, where Tintoretto—two years before his marriage—painted his finest early work, Miracle of the Slave (1548). The scene features St. Mark swooping in headfirst from the sky to protect a slave from being martyred for his faith. Current viewers need not be intimidated by the religious matter of the vast majority of Tintoretto’s pictures—they are gripping visual tales of life and death. According to seventeenth-century artist and critic Marco Boschini, one beholder of Tintoretto’s St. Mark cycle reported: “The terror makes me faint, and the piety liquefies my heart in such a manner that I lose heart and melt like wax and feel completely mad!”3 As much “Game of Thrones” as Catholic doctrine in pictures, these works were meant to move, delight, and instruct their audience. Indeed, one cannot help but feel that if Tintoretto were alive today, he would be an unapologetic fan of action films and special effects. Looking at Miracle, with its explosive light and tense shadows, its superhuman heroes and racially profiled villains, and its meticulous staging of powerful, muscular, controlled bodies, one might think he invented the genre. No wonder Boschini described him as a “thunderbolt” and the “cannons of a ship.”4

Unfortunately, Miracle of the Slave has not been allowed to cross the Atlantic. Audiences in D.C. can, however, marvel at the luminous Saint Augustine Healing the Lame (ca. 1550) and the always pleasing Creation of the Animals (1550–53), which the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze once described as an image of God as a referee “at the start of a handicapped race, in which the birds and the fish leave first, while the dog, the rabbits, the cow, and the unicorn await their turn.”5

While Miracle has been in the possession of the Gallerie dell’Accademia for many decades now, seeing it anew, rehung next to the diminutive bronze relief of the same subject by the Florentine sculptor Jacopo Sansovino, was one of the highlights of the “Young Tintoretto” exhibition. With the works placed next to each other in a darkened room, the similarities and differences were enlightening. Designed and executed between 1541 and 1546 for the north tribune of the choir at the Basilica di San Marco, Sansovino’s glowing bronze panel reduces the scene to a compact, tactile, monochromatic field of chiaroscuro with a vibrant mass of bodies emerging from the picture plane in dynamic, agitated poses. Tintoretto, just on the cusp of his thirtieth year when he painted Miracle, clearly looked closely at the dramatic effects that could be sculpted out of gesture, form, and composition alone. To this art he would add the detail of expression, the intensity of extreme lighting, the terribilità that often comes with scale, and the incomparable power of color.


WHILE THE TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY audiences might think it odd for an ambitious artist to unveil a painting so closely modeled on a recent work by another artist, the reuse of motifs was a common Italian Renaissance practice, as was made clear in an insightful section of the Palazzo Ducale exhibition simply called “The Recycler.” Tintoretto and his assistants, after all, produced more square footage of painting than any other workshop in the Venetian Renaissance. In one instance, the painter salvaged an old composition from his painting Mystic Crucifixion by cutting, splitting, and reintegrating the canvas into a new picture, The Nativity (ca. 1550s and 1570s); on another occasion, he copied, pivoted, and re-costumed a previously used figure of St. Lawrence intended for the Bonomi family altar in San Francesco della Vigna, transforming the martyr into Helen of Troy. Such shortcuts were standard in most Renaissance workshops, especially prolific ones that had to turn out hundreds of altarpieces, portraits, mythological paintings, battle scenes, and other pictures.

The juxtaposition between the Florentine sculptor and the Venetian painter also underlines Tintoretto’s connectedness with other artists. He painted Sansovino’s portrait more than once, even signing one of the works as “Jacobus Tintorettus eius amicissimus” (which, if you believe the inscription, means they were Renaissance BFFs). Tintoretto was an artist’s artist. His profound sense of community comes across in a rather touching contract found in the Venetian archives and included in the small but brilliant “Art, Faith, and Medicine in Tintoretto’s Venice” at the Scuola Grande di San Marco. In this document, drafted and signed shortly after Christmas in 1585, the artist agrees to provide works and forgo any payment on the condition that the confraternity admit four people: his son Giovanni Battista Robusti; his son-in-law Marco Augusta (the real-life husband of Marietta); the tailor Bartolomeo di Lorenzo; and another man named Angelo Girardi. His dedication to his family, friends, and students is also borne out in numerous workshop drawings, which are well represented in D.C.

Offering important opportunities for artistic communion, drawing had its pragmatic as well as pleasurable purposes. In several sketches made after a copy of the ancient bust known as the Grimani Vitellius, we see multiple hands working seemingly side by side, line by line, smudge by smudge, highlight by highlight, with the goal of mastering the visible world around them. The willful way that these graphic studies dematerialize carved stone and reincarnate the male portrait head into what looks at first glance like the image of a flesh-and-blood subject is remarkable. In this sequence, note especially the Morgan Library drawing rendered by what the curator identifies as a “left-handed draftsman.” The work seems almost too bold in its deliberate, sweeping gestures to be “workshop,” but then Tintoretto was clearly a very good master with some very capable assistants.

In Tintoretto’s drawings and paintings, one often feels that he is “sculpting” with chalk, charcoal, watercolor, oil, and pigment, ignoring the flat surface of the paper or canvas. This comes across not only in the speckled black-and-white patterns of his drawings from sculptures (which he avidly collected) but in his life studies, too. His rendering of flesh frequently seems to be rippling and quivering with animal energy, as if the artist were trying to catch the living body in motion. His is possibly the most atomistic rendering of the human form in the Renaissance. The frenetic, vibrating lines in Seated Man with Raised Right Arm (ca. 1577), for instance, exemplify this stylistic peculiarity: the contours of the mythological body can never sit still but seem to be in a constant state of flex and flux. (Indeed, Tintoretto’s figural drawings make Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase and every episode of “The Incredible Hulk” seem old hat when they appear centuries later.)

One of the art-historical myths destroyed—hopefully once and for all—by the exhibitions in honor of Tintoretto is that Venetians did not really draw. Some did more than others, and Tintoretto and his assistants surely drew up a storm. On various sheets we find words such as fa (make), (yes), fatto (made), no (no), and bono (good) scrawled across the surface; sometimes figures are singled out by an asterisk. These marks were workshop instructions on designs that had been cleared for production by the master. Sheets such as Study of a Man Climbing into a Boat (1578–79) were frequently greased and held up to the light so that forms could be retraced on the verso, offering compositional options. Many have squaring grids drawn across them. In some instances, this facilitated the transfer of the design onto a larger surface; in other cases, it assisted in the correction of foreshortening and the adjustment of figural proportions.

Of the thirty-some drawings by Tintoretto and his workshop on display at the National Gallery of Art, the majority are on the blue paper favored by Venetian artists. The dark surface of this carta azzurra provided an ideal ground upon which to map out gestural movements, tonal subtleties, and, above all, the effects of light and shadow. It might also be compared with the darkened grounds of many Tintoretto paintings. The canvas support for The Origin of the Milky Way, for example, is prepared with a brownish layer upon which the artist sketched out his composition with white lead paint (rather than using black paint on a white gessoed surface). Once a scene had been plotted out on the canvas, however, Tintoretto was prone to further editing, altering, and redrawing of figures and forms in a variety of white, black, and even red paint until the work was completed.


PAINTERS AND people interested in the way things are made will find much to consider in these exhibitions. Tintoretto’s process is revealed in medias res through the various X-rays that accompany the didactic material in the galleries and comes across most clearly in the oil sketch Doge Alvise Mocenigo Presented to the Redeemer (1571–74, a work included in the 2016 exhibition “Unfinished: Thoughts Left Visible” at the Met Breuer in New York). Looking at the mannequinlike figures waiting to be dressed with flesh and clothes, one comes to appreciate the procedural logic that binds these drawings and paintings together (a topic expertly discussed in Roland Krischel’s essay “Tintoretto at Work” in the National Gallery of Art exhibition catalogue). The show reveals Tintoretto’s exploratory procedure: visceral, intuitive, yet ultimately studied and thought-through—but never entirely scripted.

Tintoretto is all gestalt. If the Marxist machismo of Sartre’s characterization of the artist as a rebel “born among the underlings who endured the weight of a superimposed hierarchy” is misplaced, one must admit that his phenomenological acumen regarding the works is often startlingly spot on. Sartre writes with great perspicacity about the narrow, vertical composition of Saint George and the Dragon (ca. 1553–55):

Everything is simultaneous in his canvas, he contains everything within the unity of a single instant. But to mask the over-harsh rift, he presents the spectator with the spectre of a succession of events. Not only is the route traced in advance, but each stage devalues the previous one and shows it up as an inert memory of things past. The corpse’s immobility is memory: it is prolonged and repeated from one moment to the next, identical and useless. . . . The time-trap works, we are caught: a false present welcomes us at every step and unmasks its predecessor which returns, behind our backs, to its original status of petrified memory.6

Time and space collapse in on the spectator’s embodied experience, simulating the effects of a hallucinatory drug. And indeed, as early as Boschini we find the revelatory quality of Tintoretto’s art described in pharmacological terms. Of the whirlwind of paintings on the ceilings and walls of the Scuola Grande di San Rocco, he effuses: “I feel as if I am in a drugstore. Under my nose these odors have aromas that overwhelm my heart. These fragrances remain in my mind, my mind feels so utterly purged that my heart jumps for joy in my chest, and my soul feels totally jubilant.”7

One must be in the presence of the work in order to experience the psychosomatic force of Tintoretto’s art. A black-and-white photograph of a room filled with Tintoretto’s portraits can look like a field of dull heads, but in person these works become alarmingly ghostly presences, with hands and faces that seem capable of movement. The sketches that move from light fluffy strokes to devastating valleys of black charcoal seemingly carved with a chisel, the thick ridges of impasto that rise suddenly like waves from the surface of a canvas, the glazes and scumble that modulate color and reflect light differently depending on the angle of view, the enormity of compositions that threaten to engulf the spectator’s body—these elements simply do not translate in any form of mechanical or digital reproduction. This is true not only for Tintoretto but for Venetian art in general, with its penchant for chromatic and luminous variability and richness.

In “Drawing in Tintoretto’s Venice” the difference between Veronese’s gorgeous drawings covered in elegant, spindly figures created in a torrent of quick brown ink strokes and Jacopo Bassano’s schematic black chalk sketches marked by dusty smudges of red, white, green, pink, and brown becomes immediately clear. Domenico Tintoretto, one of the master’s sons, produced oil sketches of battle scenes that look comic in reproduction, but when one stands before the flurry of red, white, and black patches on dark brown paper, these detailed compositions dissolve unexpectedly into near abstraction.

Renaissance drawings are so fragile and sensitive to light that they can be exhibited only rarely, and many  Tintoretto paintings are so large that they have remained in situ in Venice for most of their existence. Thus the current triple exhibition is the first substantial retrospective of the old master’s work in America. It is a fitting tribute on the occasion of his five hundredth birthday—and a viewing experience not to be missed.