Of the three great artists who dominated Venetian painting for much of the 16th century, Tintoretto was the wildest and most avant-garde. In 1568, the Tuscan artist and biographer Giorgio Vasari, who had met Tintoretto in Venice and liked him, reported that aside from the artist’s musical talent and pleasant company, “he was extravagant, capricious, swift, and resolute, the most formidable brain that painting has ever known”—this from someone who had also written a biography of Leonardo da Vinci. From March to July of this year, the National Gallery in Washington is hosting an ambitious exhibition devoted to Tintoretto and what Vasari called “the novel and capricious inventions and strange whims of his intellect”—that is, his paintings. “Whims” is really too pale a translation for Vasari’s colorful term, ghiribizzi, which the Elizabethan writer and lexicographer John Florio defined as “sudden, humorous, fantasticall, toyish conceits,” a description that seems to come close to Vasari’s sense of Tintoretto’s playfulness and unfathomable oddity. Viewers who take in the nearly 50 ghiribizzi and 12 drawings on paper that make up “Tintoretto: Artist of Renaissance Venice” might scarcely believe that so fresh and inventive an artist has been with us for half a millennium.
In fact, Tintoretto’s 1519 birthdate is just a guess. So far, scholars have recovered only the record of his death, which gives his age as 75. We do know that he was Venetian through and through, the eldest son of a man who dyed silk for a living. Dyeing was a profession the Venetians excelled at, thanks to their bountiful markets, which provided the best and most exotic raw materials. Tintoretto’s father would have handled cloth from the far reaches of the Silk Road, sifting through pigments like ultramarine blue, made of ground lapis lazuli from Afghanistan—“ultramarine” because it came from “beyond the sea” on Italian trading ships—or cochineal, “carmine” red, ground from South American beetles. The son must have learned about pigments early, and he certainly used them in his work with uncommon mastery. “Tintoretto” is a nickname that means “little dyer” or “son of a dyer,” and it passed to his artistic children (his daughter Marietta was known as “la Tintoretta”), but the painter signed his name on contracts as Jacopo Robusti.
He revealed his passion for drawing and painting early, showing enough talent to be accepted as an apprentice, presumably at the age of 12 or so, to Titian, the greatest living painter in Venice. The apprenticeship ended quickly, however. According to Tintoretto’s 17th-century biographer Carlo Ridolfi, Titian came into the studio one day, saw some of the boy’s figure drawings, recognized the first stirrings of a potential rival, “and impatiently, as soon as he had gone up the stairs and taken off his mantle, ordered his assistant Girolamo (such is the power of a little worm of jealousy inside the human breast) to dismiss Jacopo from his house immediately. Thus within a few days (they say it was ten days) the wretched apprentice was left without a Master, not knowing the reason why.” The story may be exaggerated—early modern biographers such as Vasari and Ridolfi felt free to embroider their material to improve a tale or make a moral point—but Titian did recognize an entirely different artistic personality, and one that aroused all his defensive instincts. He kept his distance from Tintoretto in later life, even though both men were famous for their social graces as well as their artistic skills.
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