by Roderick Conway Morris

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San Giorgio Maggiore, Venice
The Last Supper in the Church of San Giorgio Maggiore by Tintoretto, 1592-94

Tintoretto: 400 Years On

By Roderick Conway Morris
VENICE 16 July 1994


Tintoretto, who died 400 hundred years ago this June, was not popular with his fellow Venetian painters. His notoriously low prices undercut the market - and he sometimes offered his services for free. To paint two canvases over 40ft high for Madonna dell'Orto, his local parish church, he asked only for the expenses of his materials.

Famously, when the charitable confraternity of the Scuola Grande di San Rocco held a competition to appoint an artist to decorate their grandiose new premises, whilst other artists presented drawings, Tintoretto produced a finished work. He even contrived to have it placed in position in the ceiling, so the story goes - and rejected any recompense for it. Venice's numerous lay confraternities were under constant pressure from the government not to overspend on lavish architecture and embellishment, to the detriment of their proper activities of caring for sick members, providing for their widows and orphans, and other good works, so Tintoretto's was the kind of offer the Scuola could only with difficulty refuse (though one member pledged a substantial sum on the condition that any other artist but Tintoretto got the job).

Soon after, the artist was received as a member of the Scuola, and spent the next 25 years (on an annual pension) laboring on its decoration - creating as complete a monument to his prodigious energies and artistic prowess as the Sistine Chapel was to Michelangelo's.

But it was not bargain-basement prices that allowed Tintoretto to place his imprimatur on so many of Venice's churches and other institutions. Born in 1518, Jacopo Robusti, the son of a dyer (tintor), hence dubbed 'Tintoretto', he was an artistic child prodigy, and as full of ambition for recognition and glory as any other Renaissance master. He lasted little more than a week as a pupil in Titian's workshop, falling out with Venice's acknowledged artistic supremo even more precipitously than Titian had with his own mentor, Giovanni Bellini. The personality clash did not prevent Tintoretto from emblazoning on the wall of his studio as his target: 'The drawing of Michelangelo, and the coloring of Titian'.

Unlike the two stars he sought to emulate, Tintoretto was a dedicated homebody - only agreeing to go on a brief trip to nearby Mantua to supervise the installation of his canvases for the Gonzaga Duke on condition that his wife and family came too. Yet his familiarity with the most recent trends in contemporary Italian art bears witness to the wide circulation of casts and prints by this period. And, though admiring his seniors, Tintoretto - whose ideas were, in the words of his 17th-century biographer Ridolfi, 'forever boiling in his fertile imagination' - gave rise to a fluid, dramatic and utterly idiosyncratic style, which established him as the principal Venetian exponent of Mannerism.

Indeed, Tintoretto's exuberant daring in composition and color, for all the Venetians' abiding love of theatricality, might have rendered him beyond the pale, had it not been for another quality: a deep and expert knowledge of the Scriptures, modulated by a constant awarness of the Church's emerging post-Reformation dogma.

When Tintoretto began to work on large-scale religious pictures, the Counter- Reformation was in full swing - and the hunt for heresy in full cry. The Venetian Republic, fiercely independent of Rome as ever, insisted on running its own Inquisition, the activities of which were rigorously circumscribed by the civil state, and whose sentences rare and generally lenient.

This unusually liberal atmosphere encouraged the circulation of 'Protestant' ideas, but also, as Tintoretto's art bears witness, the absorption into Venetian Catholic art of closer reading of the Scriptures. Thus, in 'The Agony in the Garden' in Santo Stefano, following St Luke's description, Christ's sweat is shown falling literally like 'great drops of blood'. Or, for example, in the artist's vast rendering of the Last Judgement in Madonna dell'Orto, not only the bodies of the dead buried in the earth are seen to be reconstituting themselves before our eyes, but the sea itself is welling up to give back its crop of those lost and buried at sea (a subject of legitimate interest, and anxiety, to the pious of this sea-going nation).

Tintoretto returned again and again to the Last Supper, a key subject of religious debate - his final version of this event, painted just before his death, for Palladio's church on the island of San Giorgio Maggiore, being, as the Venetian art historian Antonio Manno pointed out 'absolutely stuffed with references to Tridentine theology' (indeed, the Apostles themselves at one end of the table, are apparently engaged in a lively discussion on the significance of Jesus's gestures, moments after the breaking of the bread for the First Eucharist).

Carlo Ridolfi, Tintoretto's principal biographer, whose 1648 'Vite dei Tintoretto' (Lives of the Tintorettos' - it also includes chapters on his son Domenico, and his talented musician-painter daughter, who died young and bitterly-lamented), which has just been re-issued in a handsome, reasonably-priced edition by the dedicated Venetian family publishers, Filippi Editore, proudly notes Tintoretto's canvases already in private collections in London, Paris and Antwerp.

The fact is, nonetheless, that the artist's own limpet-like attachment to his native city, has left Venice with the vast bulk of his principal works. Many of these have been cleaned and conserved over a number of years in anticipation of the present anniversary, in steady efforts as commendable as they have been untrumpeted. In June the scaffolding was at last removed from the facade of the Scuola Grande di San Rocco, and the city has produced an invaluable free map and guide to the nearly 30 churches and institutions where Tintoretto's can be seen.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024