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Action Painting in Venice

Tintoretto: Tutte le opere Volumes 1 and 2: Le opere sacre e profane Volume 3: I ritratti

by Rodolfo Pallucchini, by Paola Rossi
Electa, 1000 pp., L 400,000

Vite dei Tintoretto

by Carlo Ridolfi, edited by Antonio Manno
Filippi Editore, 173 pp., L 40,000

Tintoretto: La Scuola Grande di San Rocco

by Giandomenico Romanelli
Electa, 300 pp., L 150,000

Le Siècle de Titien: L’âge d’or de la peinture à Venise, édition revue et corrigée 14, 1993

catalog of the exhibition at the Grand Palais, Paris, March 9-June, by Michel Laclotte
Réunion des Museés Nationaux, 748 pp., FF 390

Tintoretto: Sacre rappresentazioni nelle chiese di Venezia 31, 1994

catalog of the exhibition at San Bartolomeo, Venice, January 15-May
Edizioni delle Grafiche Veneziane, unpaged pp., L 40,000

Jacopo Tintoretto: Ritratti March 25-July 10, 1994

catalog of the exhibition at the Galleria dell’Accademia, Venice,, by Paola Rossi
Electa, 176 pp., L 65,000

Jacopo Tintoretto e i suoi incisori 15-July 10, 1994,

catalog of the exhibition at the Palazzo Ducale, Venice, April
Electa, 160 pp., L 50,000

Capolavori della pittura veneta dal Castello di Praga 20-September 21, 1994

catalog of the exhibition at the Palazzo Crepadona, Belluno, March
Electa, 97 pp., L 50,000

Venice is trying to celebrate the four hundredth anniversary of Tintoretto’s death, but the artist has not made this an easy task. What does one do? Bring more of his paintings into town?That is, truly, bringing coals to Newcastle. Shift the paintings around, to see them in a new way?But his is site-specific art in the fullest sense—which tells not only against changes in the Venetian setting but against trying to memorialize him outside his chosen arena. Tintoretto’s dive-bombing angels are as obtrusive a presence inside Venetian churches as are the strafing pigeons outside in the Piazza. Sartre wrote of the painter:

Given his way, he would have painted every wall in the town, no campo so large, no sottoportico so dark that he could keep himself from brightening it—he would roll paint on the ceiling above and make pretty pictures below for people to walk on, his brush leaving nothing alone, not the palace fronts on the Grand Canal, not the gondolas, not even (maybe) the gondoliers.1

Tintoretto flooded the market in Venice, which partly accounts for his low estate in later critical opinion. Of the major Renaissance Venetians, he is the least regarded now. Carpaccio called up a Venice literal yet dreamlike, creating his own form of “magic realism.” Giovanni Bellini and Titian had long careers of deepening artistry and insight. Giorgione has a small but mysterious oeuvre, catnip to interpreters. Veronese seems to be several different painters in one.

Tintoretto’s place in this company was symbolized by the great Paris show of 1993, Le Siècle de Titien, which promoted Giorgione to approximate equality with Titian and sank Tintoretto to approximate equality with Bassano (who had eleven paintings in the show, to Tintoretto’s eight). Coming after the Paris ex-hibit, with its magnificent catalog, the Tintoretto festivities seem scattered and half-realized—the very charge that is brought against the artist himself.

He never lived down the crack of the cosmopolitan dabbler, Pietro Aretino, who told him in 1548 that “your name will be blessed indeed if you temper your plunge toward completion with pains taken in completing” (se reduceste la prestezza del fatto in la pazienzia del fare).2 Thenceforth Tintoretto’s plunge or “dash” (prestezza) would be the theme of every commentator, made canonical in Vasari’s short section on Tintoretto in the 1568 edition of his Vite.

Tintoretto was also criticized by contemporaries for his pushiness in getting so many commissions—though Giandomenico Romanelli has pointed out that his patrons’ competition with other eminent men was the real source of his success. No Renaissance painter could do on his own what later anecdotists attributed to Tintoretto.3

A third charge against Tintoretto is that he was pushy enough to apply to himself Paolo Pino’s 1548 claim that the ideal art would combine “the form of Michelangelo and the color of Titian.”4 It is probably false that he put that slogan on his studio wall; but if Francesco Arcangeli and Paola Rossi are right, he expressed his aspiration to the slogan’s goal in his 1542-1543 painting of Jesus Teaching in the Temple (now in Milan).5 The young Jesus, throned far back in the picture, gestures to his mother on his right (our left). Seated in a synagogue surrounded by old men wrestling with their huge books of the law, Jesus promotes over them his mother, a symbol of the Church which replaces the synagogue in a new dispensation. In the line of this gesture from Jesus to the Madonna, a young man stands in a crowd of elders, looking straight out at the audience. It is clearly a portrait, and Arcangeli thinks it a self-portrait. I took the occasion of the current portrait exhibit at the Accademia to look at the 1540s self-portraits from the Victoria and Albert and Philadelphia museums. I carried a reproduced detail from the Milan Jesus Teaching, to compare it point by point with the paintings, and it looks like the same face—round eyes in deep sockets, curly hair, slightly bulbous nose, pointed chin.

What is more startling in Arcangeli’s reading of the Milan picture is his claim that, to the youth’s right, one of the elders has Titian’s features, well known from his later self-portraits, while the blunt profile to the youth’s left is Michelangelo’s. Here is the youthful joiner of form and color as the bearer of a new dispensation.

But Arcangeli and Rossi go too far in this triple identification. The man to the youth’s right (our left) does look like Titian’s self-portrait, but from decades after this work was painted—in Titian’s seventies, not his fifties; and the “Michelangelo” is too shadowy to be securely identified. But the presence of the self-portrait alone is a cheeky way of saying that Tintoretto means to dispense with the “old law” in painting. This dyer’s son was cocky in his treatment of highly honored elders. (Titian had been knighted by the Holy Roman Emperor, and was welcomed at royal courts in Europe.)

Sartre, using anecdotes of Tintoretto’s contentiousness, says that he was rejected by “the establishment,” and waged war—covert and overt—against it, disturbing La Serenissima with glimpses of “un monde absurde et hazardeux.”6 It is impossible that such a rebel should have won the state and Church commissions Tintoretto did; but there was a certain arrogance about him that did set people’s teeth on edge. Nineteen members of the Scuola di San Rocco voted against his admission to the confraternity, and one said he would contribute to the Scuola’s decoration only if Tintoretto were not charged with it.

Yet Tintoretto has had his defenders. One of the best was Carlo Ridolfi, who tried in the 1640s to do for Venice what Vasari had done for Florence—trace its artistic growth in the lives of its artists. The lives of Jacopo Tintoretto and two of his painter-children have been reprinted, in this anniversary year, newly edited by Antonio Manno and with a useful topographical index, done by Giovanni Keller, which gives the present locale of each picture mentioned by Ridolfi, cross-listing it with the three-volume catalogue raisonné of Tintoretto’s work by Rodolfo Pallucchini and Paola Rossi (published in 1983 but reissued by Electa for this anniversary).

Ridolfi, who saw most of Tintoretto’s works in their original locations, makes an important point, one that is hard to keep in mind under modern viewing conditions. Against those who criticized Tintoretto’s negligence (disprezzo), Ridolfi argued:

Refinements and finish are not always prized in a painter. Clearly they are useless in those compositions which are placed at some remove from the viewer, since the air, which interferes with our effort at seeing, mixes bold strokes of the painter’s brush into a rare blend, rendered soft and ingratiating from afar. Therefore knowledgeable artists praise Tintoretto for being able to imagine the effect his paintings would have in the places they were meant for, using just the degree of finish appropriate for that site.

Tintoretto, like most Venetians of his time, received some commissions to work in fresco. But the saline humidity of Venice made fresco hard to work and harder to preserve. To challenge the scale of the great masters, who had covered whole walls and chapels, would be hard for a man working in oil. Fresco absorbs light and reveals delicate details. Oiled canvas bounces light, especially over the huge surfaces Tintoretto meant to cover. He had to paint for interiors where slanting lights must be included in the composition of the work. The result, when his pictures are seen in their assigned places, and where no change has been made in the lighting arrangements, is of huge actions fitfully illumined, their dramatic incidents emerging from dim or distant stretches of background.

This explains one of the most puzzling (and, to some, irritating)habits of the painter—to scrawl a line of figures in a silver tracery of mere outline, as if an x-ray were laid over paintings of otherwise thickly textured paint and color. Usually, he does this skiagraphy in the distance, but sometimes the figures are close up. Go, for instance, into San Giorgio Maggiore and look at the huge Last Supper on the right-hand wall of the sanctuary. The table is placed diagonally across the canvas, meant to be seen from outside the sanctuary. A lamp flares in the front plane of the picture, and shadowy angels fly in and through its light. During this celebratory year, the chances are that tourists will have put in their 500-lire coin and turned on the electric light, which throws a glare across the whole picture. In that light, the angels look like some late scrawl added to the scene, in a color scheme (or, rather, a near colorlessness) at odds with everything else. And those who first see the picture this way keep their impression even when the lights blink off. But if you carefully avoid the picture while the lights are on, and come up toward it from the church’s main aisle, the sense of some indistinct spiritual disturbance in the air grows upon you.

It is unfortunately impossible to test this sensation in places where one would most like to. On the ground floor of the Scuola di San Rocco, for instance, as Jósef Grabski has shown in detail, every painting is meant to use the sources of natural light to achieve its effect.7 But today visitors can see the paintings only in the bright electric lighting thrown directly onto each. (Light from the windows has been screened to protect the pictures, and to prevent interference with the artificial lighting scheme.) In the Adoration of the Magi, one of those silvery scrawls picks out a crowd of attendants in the distance. They are obviously meant to twinkle through the gloaming, as if moving; but the hard light makes them look like some unrelated scrawl done when the painter was running low on pigment. As Ruskin said, when studying the Scuola in conditions of natural light, “they were… made to produce, under a certain degree of shadow, the effect of finished pictures”—an effect which, paradoxically, finished pictures would not have produced, and one entirely spoiled by the conditions of modern illumination.

It stunned Ruskin to see how Tintoretto achieved his effects—as in the two vertical landscapes, with women reading, which are placed next to the altar of San Rocco. The magic of the landscapes is created by lightning strokes of the brush:

Tintoret has shown me how to paint leaves. My word, he does leave them with a vengeance. I think you would like to see how he does the trunk, too, with two strokes; one for the light side and one for the dark side, all the way down; and then on go the leaves; never autumn swept them off as he sweeps them on.

Able to watch this process in the brush strokes, Ruskin was stunned by the audacity of it:”He took it so entirely out of me to-day that I could do nothing at last but lie on a bench and laugh.”8

  1. 1

    Jean-Paul Sartre, “Le séquestré de Venise,” in Situations IV (Paris: Gallimard, 1964), p. 304.

  2. 2

    Pietro Aretino, Lettere sull’ arte, edited by F. Pertile and E. Camesasca (Milan: Edizioni del Milione, 1957), Vol. 2, p. 205. Too much has been made of this crack—it led to a rich store of anecdotes about a purported feud between Aretino and Tintoretto. Mark W. Roskill rightly challenges the myth, in Dolce’s ‘Aretino’ and Venetian Art Theory of the Cinquecento (New York University Press, 1968), pp. 31-32. Aretino, with his Tuscan taste, thought all Venetian art sketchy and unfinished—a judgment he delivered even on the magnificent portrait Titian did of him (Aretino). He loved his portrait, nonetheless, just as he earlier praised Tintoretto for “doing a painting in less time than it might take one to think of doing it”—a speed Aretino attributed to Tintoretto’s lightning grasp of his subject (Lettere, Vol. 2, p. 52). See Francesco Valcanover in Le Siècle de Titien, p. 582. Tintoretto’s regard for Aretino is seen from his inclusion of the man’s portrait in the great Crucifixion of the Scuola di San Rocco, in company with Tintoretto’s future brothers of the confraternity of San Rocco.

  3. 3

    One of the most famous stories tells how Tintoretto got his first commission in the Scuola di San Rocco by sneaking a completed picture onto the ceiling of the Scuola’s albergo, and covering it up until the day when proposals were to be judged. This could not have been done (if it was done at all) without the help of powerful members of the Scuola (to which Tintoretto did not yet belong). The story probably illustrates resentment of the party within the Scuola that encouraged Tintoretto to seek the commission.

  4. 4

    Form (disegno) is often translated “design” or even “drawing,” but it had a larger sense, as Vasari showed when he helped set up the Accademia delle Arti del Disegno, which included architects and sculptors as well as painters because “Form is the father of all three arts.”

  5. 5

    Francesco Arcangeli, “La ‘Disputa’ del Tintoretto, a Milano,” Paragone, January 1955, pp. 27-29, endorsed by Rossi in her volume of the 1983 catalogue raisonné, p. 29.

  6. 6

    Sartre, “Le séquestré,” p. 342. This picture of Tintoretto as a dangerous fellow “quarantined” hardly fits with Sartre’s own description of the man painting up the whole town, gondoliers and all.

  7. 7

    Jósef Grabski, “The group of paintings by Tintoretto in the ‘Sala Terrena’ in the Scuola di San Rocco in Venice and their relationship to the architectural structure,” Artibus et Historiae, No. 1 (1980), pp. 115-131.

  8. 8

    The Works of John Ruskin, edited by E.T. Cook and Alexander Wedderburn (London: George Allen, 1903- 1912), Vol. 4 (1903), pp. xxxix, xxxviii.

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