Museo Nacional del Prado/Ediciones El Viso, 472 pp., 48.00; 35.00 (paper)
The paintings of Jacopo Tintoretto come as a revelation. According to standard opinion Michelangelo, Titian, and Raphael were the supreme artists of the sixteenth century; yet often during the last four hundred years, viewers have gazed in awe and surprise at works by Tintoretto, and wondered if he might be the greatest painter of all. Thus John Ruskin during his first visit to Venice wrote:
I never was so utterly crushed to the earth before any human intellect as I was today before Tintoret. Just be so good as to take my list of painters, and put him in the school of Art at the top, top, top of everything, with a great big black line to stop him off from everybody…. As for painting, I think I didn’t know what it meant till today.
Tintoretto was a painter of daring originality and dazzling technical command. He was also an artist of epic breadth and profound human sympathy. Henry James compared him to Shakespeare; Bernard Berenson likened him to Tolstoy.
The full measure of Tintoretto’s colossal achievement can only be grasped in Venice, the city of his birth where he worked for his entire career. It is only there that one can see his most important pictures, above all, the series of paintings he made for the confraternity of the Scuola di San Rocco between 1565 and 1588. Covering the walls and ceilings of two floors of a large building, these include a monumental Crucifixion, a work El Greco called the greatest painting ever made. Not only are such pictures rightly considered too precious to travel, many of them are also simply too big to move. Tintoretto worked on a vast scale the likes of which had never been seen before. The Crucifixion in the Scuola di San Rocco is more than twelve meters wide; the Last Judgment and the Worship of the Golden Calf at the Madonna dell’Orto, Tintoretto’s parish church, are nearly fifteen meters high, the tallest paintings on canvas made during the Renaissance.
Daunted by the practical challenges of doing a show about Tintoretto, no one has tried for the last seventy years. Now, however, the Prado museum in Madrid has mounted an exhibition of his works, organized by Miguel Falomir, a curator at the museum. Lacking so many of the artist’s masterpieces that could not come from Venice, the show does not give a full sense of the painter. Nonetheless, with some forty-nine paintings and thirteen drawings on view, it is a beautiful exhibition, with an excellent catalog, and it is certain to stimulate new interest and research. There are also considerable advantages to studying Tintoretto not in isolation but rather at the center of one of the great museums of European painting; it makes it easier to see what was new and influential about the master’s work. This is especially true at the Prado, owing to its incomparable holdings of El Greco, Rubens, and Velázquez, three artists who drew the deepest inspiration from…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.