IV. TINTORETTO: 1518–94

It was not quite the end; for a power and spirit almost as great had still eighteen years to live, and had still to paint his Paradise.

Iacopo Robusti was the son of a dyer; hence the diminutive nickname by which the whimsical Italians have sent him down to history. He became indeed a tintor as a great colorist; but his family name fitted him well enough, for only a robust soul could have survived the long struggle that Iacopo had to fight for recognition.

Almost the first notice we have of him is that he was apprenticed to Titian at an unknown age, and was dismissed after a few days. Carlo Ridolfi, writing a century later, recounts the incident from the point of view of Tintoretto’s descendants:

When Titian came home and entered the place where his students were, he saw some papers sticking out from a desk; and seeing certain figures drawn on them, he asked who had done them. Iacopo said timidly that they were by his hand. Thereupon Titian, foreseeing from such beginnings that the lad would become a very able man, and would bring him some trouble in art, impatiently, as soon as he had gone upstairs and laid aside his mantle, bade Girolamo Dante, his chief pupil, to immediately forbid Iacopo the house. So a little tinge of jealousy works in human hearts.25

We should like to reject this story, but Aretino, Titian’s bosom friend, alludes to the incident in a letter of 1549. The dismissal is a fact, the interpretation is problematic. It is hard to believe that Titian, who was already a painter to kings when Iacopo was only a lad of twelve, could be jealous of so hypothetical a competitor, or that he could see the future Tintoretto in the drawings of a student just admitted to his school. It is possible that the drawings offended Titian by their carelessness rather than by their excellence; careless drawing remained a fault in Tintoretto through many years. Iacopo throughout his life expressed great admiration for Titian, treasured a picture that Titian had given him, and put upon the wall of his studio a constant reminder of what he aspired to achieve in painting: “The design of Michelangelo and the color of Titian.”26

According to Ridolfi and tradition, Iacopo had no instruction after leaving Titian, but taught himself by assiduous copying and experiment. He dissected bodies to learn anatomy. He observed almost every object in his experience with predatory eagerness, resolved to capture it in full detail in one or another of his paintings. He made models in wax, wood, or cardboard, dressed them, and drew them from every angle to find ways of portraying three dimensions in two. He had casts made and sent to him of ancient marbles in Florence and Rome, and of Michelangelo’s statuary; he set up these casts in his studio, and painted images of them in divers shadows and lights. He was fascinated by the variations produced in the appearance of objects by changes in the quantity, character, and incidence of light; he made a hundred pictures by lamp or candle illumination; he grew too fond of dim backgrounds and heavy shadows; he became a specialist in picturing the play of light and shade upon hands and face and drapes, buildings and landscapes and clouds. He left no pebble unturned in his struggle for excellence.

Nevertheless there was an impatient haste, and lack of finish, in his work —possibly a penalty of self-instruction—which deferred the public recognition of his art. For years after reaching manhood he had to solicit opportunities. He painted furniture, frescoed house fronts, begged builders to get him decorative jobs at low fees, and tried to sell his pictures by displaying them in St. Mark’s Square.27 Everybody wanted Titian; and Titian and Aretino saw to it that nobody of extractable substance should get anyone but Titian, or, if Titian was busy, Bonifazio Veronese. Iacopo must have resented Aretino’s pictorial pandering, but later, when the great Scourge came to him for a portrait, the artist pulled an impressive pistol from his pocket, pretended to measure with it Aretino’s majestic dimensions, and enjoyed the mighty blackmailer’s fright;28 thereafter Pietro’s pen was polite to Tintoretto. When Iacopo noted the vast unpainted walls—fifty feet high—of the choir in the church of the Madonna dell’ Orto, he offered to cover their nakedness with frescoes for a total fee of 100 ducats ($1250?); whereupon the Venetian painters complained that he was “injuring the trade” by underselling art. But Tintoretto was resolved to paint.

He was thirty before his first triumph came. The Scuola di San Marco opened a competition for a painting of St. Mark delivering a slave. The story was in Iacopo de Voragine’s Golden Legend: a Provençal servant had promised St. Mark to make a pilgrimage to his grave in Alexandria; his master refused him permission to go, but he went nevertheless. When he returned the master ordered his eyes to be gouged out, but the iron points pressed upon them failed to penetrate their surface. The master ordered the slave’s limbs to be broken, but the iron rods failed to make any impression upon them. The master, recognizing the intervention of St. Mark, pardoned the slave. Tintoretto’s picture told the tale with magnificent color, convincing realism, and dramatic intensity: the evangelist, clinging to his gospel, descends from heaven to rescue his devotee, who is about to be beheaded by a Moor, while a score of diverse figures look excitedly on. Iacopo seized every opportunity the story gave him: to limn powerful male and graceful female figures; to study the action of light upon Oriental velvets, silks, and turbans; to bathe the scene in colors learned from Giorgione and Titian. The directors of the Scuola were a bit frightened by the fleshly realism of the painting; they debated whether to place it on their walls; the impetuous Tintoretto proudly snatched it from their hands and took it home. They came and begged him to return it; he let them wait a chastening while, then yielded it. Aretino sent him a word of praise, and career was now open to his talent.

Soon commissions came in multitude. A dozen churches solicited him, a dozen lords, half a dozen princes and states. For these he told again, in a hundred paintings, the mighty epic of the Christian cosmology, theology, and eschatology, from the Creation to the Last Judgment. He was not a religious man; few artists were in this sixteenth-century Venice—half molded in soul and dominions by the heretical or Islamic East; art was his religion, to which he sacrificed night and day. But what finer subjects could a painter fancy than the legends of Adam and Eve, and the story of Mary and her Babe, and the tragedy of the God-man crucified, and the sufferings and marvels of the saints, and the awful climax of all history in the summoning of the quick and the dead to the judgment seat of Christ?* The best of this long series is The Presentation (c. 1556), which Tintoretto painted for the church of Madonna dell’ Orto: the Temple of Jerusalem pictured in classic splendor; a timid little Mary welcomed by the high priest with outstretched arms and beard; a woman, drawn with the majesty of Pheidias, pointing Mary out to her daughter; other women and their children, vividly realized; a prophet preaching enigmatic prophecies; beggars and cripples half naked, crouching on the Temple steps; this is a picture rivaling the best of Titian, one of the grand paintings of the Renaissance.

Tintoretto’s success was confirmed when (1564) the Scuola di San Rocco, or the Confraternity of St. Roch, named him to decorate their albergo or assembly rooms. To choose a painter for the vast wall surfaces, the directors invited artists to submit drawings for a picture to fit into a ceiling oval, showing St. Roch in glory. While Paolo Veronese, Andrea Schiavone, and others made sketches, Tintoretto painted a finished picture, flaming with color and alive with action; had the canvas secretly pasted in the assigned place and covered; and, on the day when the others presented their drawings, had this painting uncovered, to the consternation of judges and competitors. He excused this unorthodox strategy on the ground that he could work best in this impulsive way, instead of following a cartoon. The other artists cried foul; Tintoretto withdrew from the contest, but left the painting as a gift to the Fraternity. The Scuola finally accepted it, made Tintoretto a member, gave him a salary of a hundred ducats a year for life, and required of him, in return, to paint for them three pictures per year.

In the next eighteen years (1564–81) he placed fifty-six scenes upon the albergo walls. The rooms were poorly lighted; Tintoretto had to work in semidarkness; he worked rapidly, laying on his colors coarsely, as to be seen from twenty feet below. These paintings became the most famous one-man exhibition in Venetian history; and later artists came to study them almost as students in Florence went to study Masaccio. Rain and damp attacked the pictures through the years, but they are still impressive in their scope and power. “Twenty or thirty years ago,” wrote Ruskin a hundred years ago, “they were taken down to be restored; but the man to whom the task was committed providentially died, and only one of them was spoiled.”29

In this astonishing museum Tintoretto told the Christian story once more, but as it had never been painted before, with an audacious realism that took the episodes out of the world of ideal sentiment and placed them in such natural surroundings that legend seemed transformed into the most indubitable history. The capacity to see, to note every detail of a scene, to feel these details as giving life, to dash them on to the wall with a stroke or two of the brush—like the water visible through the laurel roots in theMagdalen—these were sparks of Tintoretto’s fire. He devoted the lower floor of the albergo to Mary: her humble surprise in the Annunciation, her modest grace in the Visitation, her simple awe at the precious Oriental gifts in the Adoration of the Magi, her slow procession on donkeyback across a peaceful landscape in The Flight into Egypt, safe from that “massacre of the innocents” which provides the most powerful picture in this group. On the walls of the main upper room Tintoretto recounted events in the life of Christ: the baptism by John, the temptation by Satan, the miracles, the Last Supper; this last was so unconventionally realistic that Ruskin called it “the worst I know of Tintoretto”:30 Christ at the farther end, the Apostles absorbed in eating or conversing, servants bustling about with food, a dog inquiring when he too may eat. In an inner room of the upper story Tintoretto painted two of his greatest paintings. Christ Before Pilate shows an unforgettable figure clad in a white robe as if in a shroud, standing quietly in weariness and resignation, and yet in dignity, before a Pilate trying to wash away the guilt of yielding to the bloodlust of a mob. And last of all—judged by Tintoretto to be his best work—The Crucifixion, challenging and surpassing Michelangelo’s Last Judgment in power and range of composition, in artistry of execution; forty feet of wall, and eighty figures, with horses, mountains, towers, trees, all with incredible fidelity to detail; Christ in visualized agony of body and soul; one robber being forced down upon a prostrate cross, and resisting to the last; another, a Titan of strength and desperation, being raised to his death by rough soldiers too angry at his weight to have a mind for pity; women huddled in terrified groups; spectators crowding eager to watch men suffer and die; and, in the distance, a lowering sky offering no answer to the human tragedy but thunder and lightning and an indifferent rain. Here Tintoretto has reached his zenith, and equaled the best.

To all these masterpieces in the albergo Tintoretto added eight pictures for the church of the same Fraternity, chiefly concerning St. Roch himself. One of these paintings stands out, if only through its terribilità—The Pool of Bethesda. The artist takes his text from the fifth chapter of the Fourth Gospel: “a crowd of invalids used to lie” there, “the blind, the lame, and folk with shriveled limbs,” waiting for a chance to bathe in the healing pool. Tintoretto sees not the miraculous healing of the cripple, but the variously diseased or stricken multitude, and he draws them unflinchingly as he sees them, in their malformations, their rags and filth, their hope and despair. It is a scene as from Dante’s Inferno or Zola’s Lourdes.

The same man who could so rage, with his art, against the ills that flesh is heir to, responded eagerly to the splendors of the flesh in the beauty of its health, and almost rivaled Titian and Correggio in portraying nudes. Though we might have expected his turbulent spirit and swift brush to fail in conveying the ancient sense of beauty in repose, we find, scattered over Europe, such delectable figures as the Danaë of the Lyons Museum, dressed in jewelry, the Leda and Swan of the Uffizi, the Venus and Vulcan of the Munich Pinacothek, the Dresden Deliverance of Arsinoë, the Mercury and Graces and Bacchus and Ariadne of the Doges’ Palace…. Symonds thought this last “if not the greatest, at any rate the most beautiful, oil painting in existence.”31 And yet more perfect is the London Gallery’s Origin of the Milky Way from Cupid’s pressure upon Juno’s breasts—as good an explanation as any. The Louvre, the Prado, Vienna, and the Washington Gallery have Susanna and the Elders in four Tintoretto versions. The Prado has a roomful of sensuous Tintorettos: A Young Venetian Woman drawing her robe aside to reveal her bosom; even in the Battle of the Turks and Christians two abstracting breasts appear amid the gleam of arms. And in the Verona Museum is a Concert of nine women musicians, three of them bare to the waist—as if ears could hear when eyes had so much to see. These pictures are not the best of Tintoretto; his forte was in the massive representation of virile life and heroic death; but they show that he too, like Giorgione and Titian, could turn a perilous curve with a steady hand. And in all his nudes there is no immodesty; there is a healthy sensualism; these gods and goddesses take nudity as natural, and are not conscious of it; it is divine of them to greet the sun “all face,” whole-bodily, and not be harassed and jailed with buttons and laces and bows.

After avoiding marriage for nearly forty years, Tintoretto took to wife Faustina de’ Vescovi, who found him so disorderly and helpless that she achieved happiness in mothering him. She gave him eight children, three of whom became pardonable painters. They lived in a modest house not far from the church of Madonna dell’ Orto; and the artist seldom wandered from that vicinity except to paint in a Venetian church, palace, or fraternity; consequently he can be appreciated in his variety and power only in the city of his birth. The Duke of Mantua offered him a place at his court; he refused. He was happy only in his studio, where he worked literally night and day. He was a good husband and father, but cared nothing for the social pleasures. He was almost as solitary, independent, moody, melancholy, nervous, vehement, and proud as the Michelangelo whom he ever worshiped and ever strove to surpass. There was no peace in his soul or his works. Like Angelo, he honored strength of body and mind and spirit above surface beauty; his Virgins are often as unprepossessing as the Doni Madonna. He has left us his own portrait (now in the Louvre), painted when he was seventy-two; it could have been the head and face of Angelo himself—a strong and somber face, profound and wondering, and bearing the marks of a hundred storms.

His own was his best portrait, but he painted some others that attest the depth of his insight and the integrity of his art. For there too he remained a realist, and no man dared sit for him who hoped to deceive posterity. Many a Venetian worthy has come down to us through Tintoretto’s brush: doges, senators, procurators, three proveditori of the mint, six treasurers; above all, in this group, Iacopo Soranzo—one of the great portraits in Venetian art; here too, are Sansovino the architect and Cornaro the centenarian. Surpassed in Tintoretto’s gallery of portraits only by the Soranzo are anonymous pictures of The Man in a Cuirass (Prado), the Portrait of an Old Man (Brescia), the Portrait of a Man (Hermitage, Leningrad) and A Moor in the Morgan Library in New York. In 1574 Tintoretto disguised himself as an attendant of Doge Alvise Mocenigo, secured entry to the Venetian flagship Bucentaur, and clandestinely made a pastel sketch of Henry III of France; later, in the corner of a chamber where Henry gave audience to notables, Tintoretto perfected the portrait. Henry liked it so much that he offered a knighthood to the artist, who begged to be excused.32

His acquaintance with the Venetian aristocracy had begun about 1556, when, with Veronese, he received a commission to paint canvases in the Ducal Palace. In the Sala del Maggior Consiglio he pictured The Coronation of Frederick Barbarossa and Barbarossa Excommunicated by Alexander III; in the Sala del Scrutinio he covered an entire wall with a Last Judgment. These so pleased the Senate that it chose him in 1572 to commemorate the great victory at Lepanto. All four of these paintings were destroyed in the fire of 1577. In 1574 the Senate engaged Tintoretto to decorate the Anticollegio (or antechamber); here the artist inspired the solons with Mercury and the Graces, Ariadne and Bacchus, the Forge of Vulcan, and Mars Pursued by Minerva. In the Sala de’ Pregadi or Senate Hall Tintoretto painted (1574–85) a series of spacious panels celebrating the doges of his time, pictured against the background of the majestic Square: St. Mark’s and its sparkling cupolas, or the Clock Tower, or the Campanile, or the stately façade of the Libreria Vecchia, or the radiant arcades of the Doges’ Palace, or the misty or sunny vistas of the Grand Canal. Then, crowning this sequence to the taste of the proud government, he painted on the ceiling a triumphal picture of Venice Queen of the Seas, robed in splendor as a dogaressa, surrounded by circles of admiring divinities, and receiving from Tritons and Nereids the gifts of the waters—corals, shells, and pearls.

After the great fire the undiscourageable Senate called upon Tintoretto to redeem the ruined walls with pictures that would drown all memory of the loss. In the Hall of Scrutiny he painted a tremendous battle scene, The Capture of Zara. On a wall of the Great Council chamber he pictured the Emperor Frederick Barbarossa Receiving Envoys from the Pope and the Doge, and on the ceiling a masterpiece, The Doge Niccolò da Ponte Receiving the Homage of Conquered Cities.

When (1586) the Senate decided to cover the old fresco by Guariento on the east wall of the Council Chamber, they judged Tintoretto, then sixty-eight, to be too old for the task. They divided the assignment and the space between Paolo Veronese, then fifty-eight, and Francesco Bassano, thirty-seven. But Veronese died (1588) before the work was actually begun. Tintoretto offered to take his place, and proposed to cover the entire wall with one picture, The Glory of Paradise. The Senate agreed, and the old man, aided by his son Domenico and his daughter Marietta, laid out in the near-by Scuola della Misericordia the canvas sections that were to compose the picture. Many preliminary sketches were made; one, itself a chef-d’oeuvre, is in the Louvre. When all was set in place (1590) and Domenico had painted and concealed the seams, it constituted the largest oil painting that had yet been seen—seventy-two feet long by twenty-three feet high. The crowds that flocked to see it agreed with Ruskin that it was the culminating achievement of Venetian painting—“the most wonderful piece of pure, manly, and masterly oil painting in the world.”33 The Senate offered Tintoretto so great a fee that he returned part of it, again to the scandal of his fellow artists.

Time has had its way with this Paradise, and today, when one enters the Hall of the Great Council, and turns back to the wall behind the doges’ throne, he does not find the picture that Tintoretto left there, but a painting so darkened by the smoke and damp of centuries that of the five hundred figures that filled it only a minority can now be made out distinctly by the eye. Circle within circle the figures vibrate—the simple blessed, the virgins, the confessors of the faith, the martyrs, the evangelists, the Apostles, the angels, the archangels—all concentered about Mary and her Son, as if these two, in some fitting recognition of woman as well as man, had become the real deities of Latin Christendom. And beyond the hundred figures that can be seen, Tintoretto makes us feel countless hundreds more. After all, even if only a few are chosen of the many called, there must have come to paradise, in sixteen Christian centuries, quite a happy host; and Tintoretto set himself to show their goodly number and their bliss. He did not deaden heaven with Dantesque solemnity; it was conceived as a place of joy, and only the radiantly happy were admitted there. It was the old artist’s exorcism of his own misanthropy.

He had reason to be sad, for in the very year of the great picture’s unveiling his beloved daughter Marietta had died. Her skill in painting and music had been among the chief delights of his old age; and now that she was gone he seemed to think of nothing so much as of seeing her in another life. He went more frequently than before to Madonna dell’ Orto—Our Lady of the Garden—and there spent hours in meditation and prayer, at last a humble man. He still painted, and produced in these concluding years a series on St. Catherine for the church of her name. But in his seventy-seventh year a stomach ailment gave him such pain that he could no longer sleep. He made his will, bade good-bye to his wife and children and friends, and died on May 31, 1594. Madonna dell’ Orto received his remains.

If, after boating through Venice to stand face to face in every corner of the city with this Michelangelo of the lagoons, we try to clear our conception of his art, the first impression is one of size and multitude, of enormous walls pullulating with human and animal forms, in a thousand degrees of beauty or ugliness, in a carnal confusion that has only this excuse, that it is life. This man who shunned and hated crowds saw them everywhere, and reproduced them with fierce veracity. He seems to have taken little interest in individuals; if he painted portraits it was frankly to earn a fee. He saw humanity in the gross, interpreted life and history in terms of masses of human beings struggling, competing, loving, enjoying, suffering; virile and comely, diseased and crippled, saved or damned. He covered canvases of awesome immensity, because only such expanses gave him scope to picture what he saw. While never completely mastering, as Titian did, the technique of pictorial art, he worked out for himself the method of these gigantic paintings, and to him above all is due the grandeur of the rooms in the Palace of the Doges. Therefore we must not ask of him any finesse of finishing. He is crude, rough, hurried, and sometimes creates a scene with a splash of the brush. His real fault is not this coarseness of surface—for even a coarse surface may illuminate significance—but the theatrical violence of the episodes he chooses, the unhealthy turbulence of his moods, the gloom in which he bathes the life he shows, and the tiresome repetition of his crowds; he was infatuated with number, as Michelangelo with forms and Rubens with flesh. And yet even in these multitudes what a wealth of meaningful detail, what accuracy and insight of observation, what inexhaustible individualization of the parts, what courageous realism where before there had only been imagination and sentiment!

Our final feeling in the presence of these pictures is one of affirmative response: this is art in the grand style. Other artists have painted beauty, like Raphael, or strength, like Michelangelo, or the depths of the soul, like Rembrandt; but here in these cosmic canvases—as in the roar of a city, or in mute masses at prayer, or in the troubled and affectionate intimacies of a thousand homes—is humanity. No other artist has ever seen it so large or pictured it so completely. Sometimes, silent before those fading walls in the Palace of the Doges or in the Confraternity of St. Roch, the canvases of better artists fall from our memory, and we feel that if he could have finished like a jeweler after so conceiving like a giant, the little dyer would have been the greatest painter of them all.

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