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

Rather than apologize for the man’s prestezza, Ruskin gloried in it. “The necessity of doing much with few strokes keeps his mind so completely on the stretch throughout the work (while yet the velocity of production prevented his being wearied).”9 One sees the painter painting as well as the thing he paints. It is surprising that modern critics have not looked to Tintoretto as a forebear of “action painting.”

Given the importance of site to Tintoretto’s work, it is ironic but (Isuppose) inevitable that one of the recent exhibits took thirteen of his church paintings and displayed them under bright lights in the unused church of San Bartolomeo. It was nice to see them cleaned and close up, though six of the paintings were from the inferior cycle of Saint Catherine (painted mainly by Tintoretto’s son, Domenico). Still, there were three masterpieces here—the Last Supper from San Polo, where Christ offers bread with both outstretched hands, prefiguring the crucifixion; the Baptism from San Silvestro, where John the Baptist’s tortured relationship with Jesus is danced out by the men; and organ doors from the Giglio, showing two evangelists on each panel. The exhibit offered a compromise between a catalog and a guidebook, which misidentifies Judas in the Last Supper, and a free guide sheet for touring the churches with Tintorettos (this latter full of errors on opening times and state of restoration).

There is a better catalog to a better show, at the Accademia, devoted to Tintoretto’s portraits. Paola Rossi, who did the volume devoted to portraits in the 1983 catalogue raisonné, has written the introduction. In her 1983 book she emphasized the paradox of Tintoretto’s portraits—that the man who twists bodies into athletic postures in the public paintings, while minimizing faces and their expression, paints almost bodiless portraits, where all the emphasis is on the face. The Accademia exhibit, perhaps to suggest the range of possible types, has fewer of such men in black against black backgrounds than one might expect. It brings some interesting portraits out of private collections, and includes six of the portraits that Archduke Leopold William owned (and that now belong to the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna).

It is interesting to compare two versions of Marco Grimani’s portrait—one from the Prado and one from Vienna. The one from the Prado is more inward and self-questioning. It is astounding how noncelebratory are Tintoretto’s portraits of Church and state grandees or of family groups. The families fail, in part, because of Tintoretto’s lack of interest in (or ability for) painting women’s faces. His biblical and mythical women have what Iris Murdoch calls a “radiant spiritual vagueness.”10 The portraits of Venetian women show dumpling faces undisturbed by thought. The male portraits, by contrast, are sharply individualized, but their moods vary only from the sober to the anguished. A good measure of Tintoretto’s tropism toward dark portraits can be taken in The National Gallery in Washington. Though Washington sent two paintings to the Venice show, it kept the Portrait of a Senator (which Rossi dates c. 1572). By walking from one room to another in the National Gallery, one can contrast this with Titian’s great Portrait of Doge Andrea Gritti (c. 1545). The doge is all power and mass, his energy radiating through the ceremonial robe, his head snapped to the side in instant judgment. Tintoretto’s senator, by contrast, is lost in his robes, visibly shrinking as we look at him, watery-eyed but not weak, facing life stoically, the private man trapped in the public role. This is not a mere contrast between these two particular sitters. In portraiture, Titian is a painter of certitudes, Tintoretto of doubts. The Accademia show ends with Tintoretto’s unflinchingly honest and haunting self-portrait from the Louvre, painted two years before his death.

A show devoted to Tintoretto’s prints, at the Palazzo Ducale (April 15 to July 10), is of specialists’ interest. Titian, who had an international career, supervised prints made from his paintings and designed works especially for the engraver. Commissions from abroad could be obtained that way. Tintoretto, who stayed in Venice, let others make prints as they desired. These were important, since so little of his work could be seen outside Venice; and some prints, especially of the San Rocco Crucifixion, became well known. (The most popular was Agostino Carracci’s, made in 1582.) The prints also report on lost works, or on faded details of surviving works. That people used them to check items in the paintings is apparent from Ridolfi’s vita. Though he clearly knew the Crucifixion from its site in San Rocco, he describes it in his biography from the print, where everything is inverted.

One of the great pleasures of the Tintoretto year is a show of Venetian paintings from the Prague collection of Rudolph II. It is being held in Belluno, the skiing town in the Dolomites, an hour’s drive north from Venice (March 20-September 21). Although there are only three Tintorettos, two of them minor, the third is a powerful Flagellation of Christ. Cut down from a larger painting, this still presents a roughly life-sized Jesus slumped forward, all dead weight, from the column to which his hands are tied behind his back. This bound and leaning figure has the characteristics Ruskin saw in the painter’s flying bodies:

Tintoret entirely conceives his figures as solid statues:sees them in his mind on every side; detaches each from the other by imagined air and light, and foreshortens, interposes, or involves them as if they were pieces of clay in his hand.11

In The Flagellation, the light that hits Christ’s left side throws into shadow his averted face and whole right side; but we can see, under his right arm, how the light picks up the detail of the knotted ropes at his wrist (a matter further emphasized by the man who completes the knotting at a lit part of the column’s base). The strong musculature of the slumped shoulders, the right arm twisted back from Jesus as his body falls forward—all these emphasize the powerlessness of that right arm which is celebrated in judgment scenes and in scriptural texts (Fecit potentiam in brachio suo). The flagellator, with his back to us, has all his muscles molded by shadow. He is ready to beat the beautifully lit and darkened naked body beside him. The abasement of the God-Man has no more powerful statement.

But no other show can compete with the permanent exhibition of Tintoretto’s great Christic and Marian cycles in the Scuola di San Rocco—the pictures that took Ruskin’s breath away. The most important publication of this year is Giandomenico Romanelli’s new book on the Scuola. The general opinion has been that Tintoretto, more impulsive and idiosyncratic than profound or disciplined, made up the program of these pictures he labored at for over a quarter of a century.12 But Romanelli shows that this profoundly misconceives the status of a guild artisan and the responsibility that confraternities took for all the works of their scuole, artistic as well as charitable. In fact, Tintoretto was assigned to work under two officers of the Scuola, one of whom had directed Veronese in the program for decorating his house and his family’s chapel.

Romanelli sees the program of the second-floor paintings as derived from Counter-Reformation piety centered largely on the Gospel of John, emphasizing the Eucharist, the Water of Life (healing water, in accord with Saint Roch’s actions against plague), and the royal priesthood of Jesus. Romanelli may occasionally go too far in stressing the Counter-Reformation’s influence on the paintings. He thinks, for instance, that the Last Supper reflects a Tridentine emphasis on communion under one kind, since Christ gives only bread to his disciples. Feliciano Benvenuti, on the other hand, thinks Tintoretto was endorsing the Reformers, since he showed wine vessels on the table.13 Actually, the iconography of the Supper was so established—bread and wine present, but only bread given to others—that it would have been hard (and dangerous) to depart from it.

The idea that Tintoretto was a clandestine Protestant does not accord with the Marian cycle of paintings on the ground floor of the Scuola di San Rocco. The glories of Mary’s life are put in narrative form, as in the upper tier of frescoes at Giotto’s Arena Chapel. It is true that most people find this, the last series completed in the Scuola, more populist in its piety, but also more “humanist,” than the theologically denser work in the hall above. Some even consider the vertical landscapes by the altar purely rustic reveries. The mysterious two women seen reading have no obvious iconographic significance, though they have traditionally been called “Mary Magdalene” and “Mary of Egypt”—penitential figures often painted in the desert. But the lush foliage of these scenes is far from the “wilderness” of penitent sinners, and no other attributes of contrition are here.

Romanelli rightly denies that any mere subjective reverie of the painter would have been acceptable to the confraternity, especially so near the altar of their patron. The Marian theme should be carried through these paintings, and Romanelli makes the interesting suggestion that the woman on the honored right-hand side (seen from the altar) is Mary as the Church, a regular motif of Tintoretto. Then what of the woman on the left side, with her back to us, gazing back toward a romantic city?Romanelli calls her the Synagogue—taking up the replacement of the Old Law by the New that was the point of the Milan Jesus Teaching.

He could have strengthened his argument by concentrating on the books the two women read. Books in Tintoretto’s religious pictures are almost always the Bible, and contrasted books are the Jewish and Christian Scriptures (called “Old Testament” and “New Testament” in the theology of his day). In his many paintings of the evangelists, Saints Matthew and Mark, thought to cite the Old Testament more than the other evangelists, are regularly shown reading from one book and writing in another—checking the prophecies before recording their fulfillment. Saint Mark, the patron of Venice often painted by Tintoretto, wrestles the two books together—a clever reference to the customary placement of evangelists in the pendentives, or lower drum, of the domes over high altars. These figures literally “turn the corner” at their posts around the circuit of the sanctuary, or stand at the transition from supporting columns to supported upper courses. In the organ panel on display in San Bartolomeo, Mark’s leg is braced under the Old Law while the body powerfully thrusts itself off, at full stretch, to compose the mysterious book to his right. The right-left division is usually observed, old on the left, new on the right (again as in the Milan painting).14

All this would seem to support Romanelli’s suggestion—that Mary, with her book, on the altar’s right side, corresponds to the Old Law in the hands of a personified Synagogue on the left side—but for one thing:both figures have halos, and it is impossible to think the Confraternity would show the replaced Synagogue wearing that sign. Perhaps the pairing of Mary should be with her normal companion-in-symbol, Eve. As the second Eve, Mary’s “Ave” from the angel reversed the “Eva” of the other leading female symbol in salvation history.

But why would Eve be haloed?She was saved, in the theology often echoed by art—we see her being freed from her holding area in pictures of Christ “harrowing hell,” and she has a prominent place with the saints in that “Paradiso” Tintoretto painted for the Palazzo Ducale. Admittedly, Eve is usually seen naked; but if she is pictured here as living after the Fall, she would appropriately look back to the promised city distant behind her. This Eva-Ave pairing would conclude the cycle begun in the upper hall with the juxtaposition of Eve’s fall and the Annunciation to Mary. Each woman recaptures, in the postlapsarian world, whatever of Eden is made available by the help of holy scripture.

Romanelli’s book is a useful corrective to the view that Tintoretto was simply an impulsive painter of strenuous physical activity, one who had an itch to paint every surface in sight (“maybe even gondoliers”). He was able to win so many commissions from Church and state because he partook of the intellectual and religious and social life of his time, filling the skies of his world with urgent spiritual presences.

This Issue

July 14, 1994