The Italian painter Tintoretto (1518-1594) excelled in grandly agitated and often deeply moving history paintings and dignified portraits of members of the Venetian aristocracy.
The real name of Tintoretto was Jacopo Robusti, but he is better known by his nickname, meaning the "little dyer, " his father having been a silk dyer. The artist was born in Venice and lived there all his life. Even though his painting is distinguished by great daring, he seems to have led a rather retired life, concerned only with his work and the well-being of his family. His daughter Marietta and his sons Domenico and Marco also became painters, and Domenico eventually took over the direction of Tintoretto's large workshop, turning out reliable but un-inspired pictures in the manner of his father. Some of them are, on occasion, mistaken for works of the elder Tintoretto.
Tintoretto appears to have studied with Bonifazio Veronese or Paris Bordone, but his true master, as of all the great Venetian painters in his succession, was Titian. Tintoretto's work by no means merely reflects the manner of Titian. Instead he builds on Titian's art and brings into play an imagination so fiery and quick that he creates an effect of restlessness which is quite opposed to the staid and majestic certainty of Titian's statements. If Tintoretto's pictures at first sight often astonish by their melodrama, they almost inevitably reveal, at closer observation, a focal point celebrating the wonders of silence and peace. The sensation of this ultimate gentleness, after the first riotous impact, is particularly touching and in essence not different from what we find (although brought about by very different means) in the pictures of Titian and Paolo Veronese.
Tintoretto was primarily a figure painter and delighted in showing his figures in daring foreshortening and expansive poses. His master in this aspect of his art was Michelangelo. Tintoretto is supposed to have inscribed on the wall of his studio the motto: "The drawing of Michelangelo and the color of Titian." Unlike Michelangelo, however, Tintoretto worked and drew very quickly, using only lights and shadows in the modeling of his forms, so that his figures look as if they had gained their plasticity by a kind of magic. In the rendering of large compositions he is reported to have used as models small figures which he made of wax and placed or hung in boxes so cleverly illuminated that the conditions of light and shade in the picture he was painting would be the same as those in the room in which it was to be hung.
Tintoretto's earliest work to be dated with certainty, Apollo and Marsyas (1545), was painted for Pietro Aretino, who, in a letter written expressly for publication, noted the quickness of its execution and recommended the artist to the world as a genius of note. At about the same time Tintoretto painted the large and deeply moving Christ Washing the Feet of the Apostles (Madrid), in which greatness of gesture and extreme foreshortening are balanced by the dramatic light which pervades the painting and the intensity of feeling which distinguishes the movement of each of the participants in the scene. The picture is so arranged that we see Christ and St. Peter (in the extreme right corner) last, even though—and yet exactly because— they matter most in the story the picture brings to life. The action which binds these key figures together is dramatized chiefly by an exchange of glances. Throughout Tintoretto's career these elements of procedure, though richly varied and always in harmony with the sense of the story he represents, remain central to his art.
Other early paintings of note in Tintoretto's oeuvre are his Last Supper (S. Marcuola, Venice), St. George and the Dragon, Presentation of the Virgin, and St. Mark Rescuing a Slave, where St. Mark is shown coming from heaven and through the air, headfirst into the depth of the picture, to rescue an ever so nobly painted enslaved Christian who is awaiting execution at the hands of a group of pagans dressed in richly shining Turkish costumes.
The works of Tintoretto's mature style, though often even more dramatic than his early one, s are distinguished by a greater compositional unity and a richer splendor of muted colors. As before, the actions of his figures are breathtakingly daring, but now they hardly ever strike us as extravagant, so well and with such majesty do they serve their function in the dramatization of the story. Examples of this style are the Last Supper (ca. 1560; S. Trovaso, Venice), the Last Judgement (ca. 1560; S. Maria dell'Orto, Venice), the Adoration of the Golden Calf (ca. 1560), the Finding of the Body of St. Mark (ca. 1562), and the Removal of the Body of St. Mark (ca. 1562), in which a thunderstorm is painted with the same dramatic intensity as the principal figures.
The triumph of Tintoretto's art is his paintings for the Scuola di S. Rocco in Venice, which he executed intermittently between 1564 and 1587. The walls and the ceilings are almost completely covered with works invented and, to a great extent, executed by him in their entirety. The paintings celebrate great events of the Old and New Testaments and the lives of the saints. St. Roch, under whose patronage the confraternity to which the Scuola belonged performed its works of charity, is especially honored.
The culmination of the whole work is the vast Crucifixion (1565) in the Sala dell'Albergo. The action is represented at the moment when the sponge is being dipped in vinegar to be lifted up on a stick to Christ. A multitude surrounds the cross—soldiers, followers of Christ, mockers, pagans, and contemporaries of Tintoretto (clearly marked as portraits), who behold the sacred scene as if it were happening now. The cross of the good thief is being pulled into position; a ladder, ready for the deposition, lies on the ground and leads our eye far back into the painting; the bad thief is about to be nailed to his cross, which lies on the ground. Mary, at the foot of the cross, has fainted into the arms of her companions. The work is virtually a night piece built around a glory of light which emanates from Christ on the cross. The whole composition revolves around Christ, and this is accomplished by a most sophisticated arrangement of dramatic gestures, an extraordinarily daring use of foreshortening leading from our space into that of the painting and back, and, above all, a management of lights which connects our time with that of the Crucifixion and the timelessness of the event with the natural world.
The great majority of Tintoretto's large canvases were history paintings with religious subjects. Among his late works, which are distinguished by the joining of a noble naturalism with an ever greater and touching spirituality, is the vast representation of Paradise in the Sala del Gran Consiglio of the Doges' Palace (1588), in which the Madonna and saints, led by St. Mark, recommend the Great Council of Venice and its decisions to the grace of Christ. The countless figures are bathed in a strange, phosphorescent light. Another late work, of incredible daring and yet ultimately quiet in its effect, is the Last Supper (1592-1594; S. Giorgio Maggiore, Venice). Tintoretto fills the air of the great hall with a rush of adoring angels; their presence is made visible by subtle highlights accentuating the darkness of the room.
Tintoretto's allegorical works and scenes from ancient and modern history include the ribald Mars, Venus, and Vulcan (ca. 1550), which shows Mars hiding under a bed to escape detection by Vulcan, who, having returned home unannounced, is approaching Venus; the melodramatic and yet affecting Rape of Lucretia (ca. 1556-1559); and a number of paintings for the Doges' Palace in Venice. These include tightly knit battle scenes on land and sea and allegories in praise of Venice that feature, with much dedication to their beauty and grace, the gods of classical antiquity. Perhaps the noblest among the allegorical paintings is Bacchus and Ariadne (1578). The god walks through the sea to offer Ariadne the ring that will unite them in marriage. Above the couple a personification of the air (or Venus) with one hand holds Ariadne's hand and with the other holds aloft Bacchus's gift to his beloved, a starry crown. On the allegorical level this painting may be interpreted as the loving homage of the mainland, represented by Bacchus, to the beauty, grace, and merit of Venice.
Tintoretto was much sought after as a portraitist. His figures are almost always elegant and extraordinarily decorous, the women gentle and the men impressive, both tinged with a certain loneliness. Infinitely moving is his self-portrait as an old man (1588, Paris) in a very simple pose, en face, resigned and wise.
Further Reading on Tintoretto
The most useful work on Tintoretto in English is still Hans Tietze, Tintoretto: The Paintings and Drawings (1948), although it shows touches of an expressionist bias. A remarkable and far-reaching study, perhaps confused in its search for standards of taste by which to judge Tintoretto's art appropriately, is F. P. B. Osmaston, The Art and Genius of Tintoret (2 vols., 1915); it is a very dated work but worth reading if only for its bravery in the questions it raises. John Ruskin's discussions of Tintoretto's art in Modern Painters (5 vols., 1843-1860) and The Stones of Venice (3 vols., 1851-1853) are passionately evocative and sometimes severely critical.