Arts - Spring 2019

The Fantastical Little Dyer

Few artists could match Tintoretto’s mastery of color and form—or his sense of playfulness

By Ingrid D. Rowland | March 4, 2019
The Wedding of Ariadne and Bacchus, featured in the exhibition, shows the artist's knack for lithe, athletic figures. (Palazzo Ducale, Venice, Photo Archive, Fondazione Musei Civici di Venezia)
The Wedding of Ariadne and Bacchus, featured in the exhibition, shows the artist's knack for lithe, athletic figures. (Palazzo Ducale, Venice, Photo Archive, Fondazione Musei Civici di Venezia)

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.

Thereafter, Tintoretto seems to have taught himself. Ridolfi says that the young artist was still reeling from Titian’s rejection when he first tacked a piece of paper to his studio wall with the statement: michelangelo’s line, titian’s color, the two ingredients for an ideal painting. As a Venetian, Tintoretto may never have seen a real work from Michelangelo’s hands, but he knew them from engravings and clay models. He also knew, as every ambitious artist did in the 16th century, that Tuscan-trained artists such as Michelangelo saw drawing, disegno, as the essential foundation of art, whereas Titian and other Venetians were captivated by the relatively new medium of oil paint on stretched canvas (easy to come by in a city with so many sailmakers at work—the shipyards of the Venetian Arsenal could apparently construct and outfit an entire vessel in a single day). Unlike egg tempera, the preferred medium in Tuscany, oil paint dried slowly, making it easy for artists to revise their work. Rather than produce endless preparatory drawings, Venetian masters could sketch out their designs directly on the prepared canvas, in paint or with the blunt end of a brush. But Tintoretto, bent on achieving “Michelangelo’s line,” drew incessantly in an energetic style all his own, made up of a dense collection of short, shimmering lines rather than the long “serpentine” curves favored in Tuscany and Rome. As for color, he could learn about pigments at home, and he picked up the rest by studying the wealth of paintings, fabrics, and colored stones on display in Venice, still one of the world’s great showcases for art in every medium.

Until the 19th century, painters mixed their own pigments, and Tintoretto, as his paintings demonstrate, was a master at creating exotic colors from the vast bounty of materials available to him. Those colors have inevitably altered over the centuries: greens and blues, in particular, tend to darken, much less so if the blue is “true blue,” made from lapis lazuli, much more so if it is mixed from cheaper copper sulfate. Venetian oil paint, pigment suspended in linseed oil, also becomes more transparent with time, such that the brownish undercoat of the canvases begins to show through in paintings that are almost five centuries old. Tintoretto’s works are especially vulnerable to these effects of aging because he painted more thinly and sparingly than his contemporaries; it was part of his distinctive, self-taught style. His human figures also differ significantly from those of his fellow Venetians, the result of his long study of Tuscan drawing and especially of Michelangelo: both men and women are slender, muscular, with rather small heads. If Titian’s women are plump and voluptuous, Tintoretto’s are positively athletic, lithe partners for men brawny enough to have jumped straight to Venice from the Sistine Chapel ceiling.

The painter’s father would have handled cloth from the far reaches of the Silk Road, sifting through ultramarine blue and cochineal, “carmine” red.

But what most disconcerted Tintoretto’s contemporaries was his evident brushwork, the slashes of brilliant paint that created contours and highlights with such economy that he could cover huge swathes of canvas at an incredible speed. Titian, also experimenting with the same effects, greatly annoyed his friend Pietro Aretino by painting a portrait with zigzags of paint across Pietro’s prominent paunch to indicate the sheen on his velvet robes. Aretino had the same reservations about Tintoretto—in one letter he admonishes the painter to “rein in the rush of his carelessness”—but he was also one of Jacopo’s early patrons, commissioning a ceiling painting showing the Contest Between Apollo and Marsyas in 1545. One of the first images in the Washington show, it is a little bit clumsy, with only some dazzling pink and green fabrics and a magnificent tree to hint at the transformation that would come three years later, when Tintoretto painted an unequivocal masterpiece for the prestigious Venetian confraternity known as the Scuola Grande di San Marco. That painting, The Miracle of the Slave (1548), is too delicate to travel from its home at the Galleria dell’Accademia in Venice, but the slightly later St. Augustine Healing the Lame (1549–50) shows how completely the painter had mastered the convincing portrayal of figures in space, from a distant church to the crippled men reclining in the foreground. The African saint, his bishop’s miter glowing within a luminous halo, flies to the rescue of suffering humanity on a fantastic cloud of iridescent purple, its striking hue echoed in several places throughout the composition. The color has been applied in thin, thin layers, and we can see where Tintoretto has changed his mind about the placement of Augustine’s right hand and the outlines of his nearly transparent white robe. The lame man crouching in the center of the painting has taken the pose of a famous ancient statue from Rome, the Knife Sharpener, now in Florence’s Uffizi Gallery, a reassuring classical touch in a painting that otherwise upends most of the expectations 16th-century Venetian viewers would have had for a religious subject.

The exhibition lays special emphasis on Tintoretto’s skill at portraiture. Curators Robert Echols and Frederick Ilchman decided to hang all the portraits together, including two self-portraits. One shows the nervous, no-longer-young artist staring intently at himself (and hence the viewer) with huge, ravenous eyes, his curly black hair and beard as unruly as his spirit. His plain black jacket tells us nothing about him or his status; all we have is that curious, questing face, so joltingly lifelike that it looks like a real person, although we can also see that this person, and this face, have been created from dabs of paint. In 1588, Tintoretto painted himself again, his hair and beard now white, his face wrinkled, his eyes still large and brilliant, but strangely sad. His paintings, as Vasari said, covered most of Venice, but the most significant commission the city had to offer—painting the centerpiece for the Hall of the Great Council in the Ducal Palace, damaged by fire in 1577—had gone to his brilliant rival Paolo Veronese. In 1588, however, Veronese died unexpectedly, and the coveted commission passed at last to Tintoretto. Does the expression in the eyes of this late-life portrait reflect the artist’s disappointment at not receiving the greatest assignment in Venice, or the fear that comes with the responsibility for painting Paradise, no less, at the end of a vast chamber with a ceiling that spans 25 meters? (The entire room is more than half the length and more than half the width of a football field, with not a single interior column to support the span of its immense ceiling.)

Does the expression in Tintoretto’s eyes convey regret at losing a commission to Veronese? (Self-portrait, 1588; Musée du Louvre, Paris. Le département des Peintures, Rmn-Grand Palais/Art Resource, NY, Jean Gilles-Berizzi)

Needless to say, Paradise has not been shipped to Washington, but Tintoretto’s preparatory sketch has made the trip from its usual home at the Thyssen-Bornemysza Collection in Madrid. The final version of this majestic canvas differs from its initial study, but both display how Tintoretto turned his formidable intelligence to imagining the infinite reaches of heaven: as banks of golden clouds, peopled with a dazzling multitude of saints and angels. In a realm beyond the firmament, Christ crowns the Virgin Mary queen of heaven; far beneath them, a funnel of heavenly light beams down to the doge’s throne, which sits directly under the painting. The huge canvas could easily have slipped into chaos, with its pressing crowds of blessed souls and the complex hierarchies of heavenly space, but the whole composition is organized with iron discipline. No matter how swiftly Tintoretto could paint, this was a project that required a team. The lonely boy who had once been expelled from Titian’s workshop had long since turned into the impresario of a major studio, in which his children played a significant role, not only his son Domenico but also his daughter Marietta, one of the few professional women artists of her era. The execution of individual figures in this Paradise is not always up to Tintoretto’s own standard, but the masterly design represents the supreme challenge, and the supreme triumph, of his career. In his own way, he, too, was a conceptual artist.

No one responded to Tintoretto more enthusiastically than a young immigrant from Crete, a colony of Venice from 1205 to 1669. Domenikos Theotokopoulos started life as an icon painter, but ambition took him to Venice and finally to Spain, where his neighbors simply called him El Greco—the Greek. With eyes trained on the gold leaf and shimmering mosaics of Byzantine art, El Greco responded enthusiastically in his own work to the peculiar iridescence of Tintoretto’s colors, and under the turbulent skies of Toledo, he remembered the Venetian’s fantastic heavenly halls, creating a free-form cloud architecture to portray the deep reaches of celestial space. Visitors to the National Gallery will immediately see Tintoretto’s influence on El Greco’s Christ Cleansing the Temple, painted during the younger artist’s two-year stay in Venice (1568–1570). But examining the gallery’s other works by El Greco in the light of Tintoretto will reveal how profoundly the two painters share a passion for ravishing colors, elongated figures, dignified portraiture, and uncannily modern visions of heavenly space. What could be better than that?

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