Venetian Painting – Tintoretto (continued)

THE first portion of the vast building that was finished was the Refectory, but in examining the scheme, it is perhaps more convenient to leave it to its proper place, which is the climax. Before beginning, Tintoretto must have had the whole thing planned, and we cannot doubt that he was influenced by the Sixtine Chapel and recalled its plan and significance ; the old dispensation typifying the new, the Old Testament history vivified by the acts of Christ. The main feature of the harmony which it is only reasonable to suppose governs the whole building, is its dedication to S. Roch, the special patron of mercy. The principal paintings of the Upper Hall are therefore concerned with acts of divine mercy and deliverance, and even the monochromes bear upon the central idea. On the roof are the three most important miracles of mercy per-formed on behalf of the Chosen People. The paintings on roof and walls are linked together. The ” Fall of Man ” at one end of the Hall, the disobedient eating, corresponds with the obedient eating of the Passover at the other, and is inter-dependent with the Manna in the Wilderness, the Last Supper, and the Miracle of the Loaves. The Miracles of satisfied thirst are represented by ” Moses striking the Rock,” Samson drinking from the jawbone and the waters of Meribah. The Baptism and other signs of the Advent of Christ and the Divine preparation, balance events in the early life of Moses. In the Refectory which opens from the Great Hall, we come to the “Crucifixion,” the crowning act of mercy, surrounded by the events which immediately succeeded it, and typified immediately above in the Central Hall, by the lifting up of the Brazen Serpent. The miracles include six of refreshment and succour, two of miraculous restoration to health, and two of deliverance from danger. The whole scheme has been worked out in detail in my book on ” Tintoretto.”

In the working out of his great scheme, Tintoretto is impatient of hackneyed and traditional forms ; he must have a reading of his own, and one which appeals to his imagination. We see that passion for movement which distinguishes his early work. ” Moses striking the Rock ” is a figure instinct with purpose and energy. The water bounds forth, living, life-giving, the people strain wildly to reach it. His figures are some-times found fault with, as extravagant in gesture, but the attitudes were intended to be seen and to arrest attention from far below, and we must not forget that the painter’s models were drawn from a Southern race, to whom emphasis of action is natural. Tintoretto, it may be conceded, is on certain occasions, generally when dealing with accessory figures, inclined to excess of gesture ; it is the defect of his temperament, but when he has a subject that carries him away he is sincere and never violent in spirit. Titian is cold compared to him ; his colour, however effective, is calculated, whereas Tintoretto’s seems to permeate every object and to soak the whole composition. To quote a recent critic : “He chose to begin, if possible, with a subject charged with emotion. He then proceeded to treat it according to its nature, that is to say, he toned down and obscured the outlines of form and mapped out the subject instead in pale or sombre masses of light and shade. Under the control of this powerful scheme of chiaroscuro, the colouring of the composition was placed, but its own character, its degree of richness and sobriety, was determined by the kind of emotion belonging to the subject. To use colour in this way, not only with emotional force, but with emotional truth, is to use it to perform one of the greatest functions of art.”

So in the Crucifixion it is not so much the aspect of the groups, the pathos of the faces or gestures, that tells, but it is the mystery and gloom in which the whole scene is muffled, the atmosphere into which we are absorbed, the sense of livid terror conveyed by the brooding light and shadow, that makes us feel how different the rendering is from any other. In the ” Christ before Pilate ” the head and figure of Christ are not particularly impressive in themselves, but the brilliant light falling on the white robes and coursing down the steps supplies dignity and poetry the slender white figure stands out like a shaft of light against the lurid and troubled background. Again, in the “Way to Golgotha ” the falling evening gleam, the wild sky, the deep shadow of the ravine, throw into relief the quiet form, detached in look and feeling, as of one upborne by the spirit far above the brutal throng. Nowhere does that spiritual emotion find deeper expression than in the ” Visitation.” The passion of thanks-giving, the poignancy of mother-love, throb through the two women, who have been travelling towards one another, with a great secret between them, and who at length reach the haven of each other’s love and knowledge. Here, too, the dying light, the waving tree, the obliteration of form, and the feeling of mystery make a deep appeal to the sensuous apprehension. We find it again and again ; the great trees sway and whisper in the gathering darkness as the Virgin rides through the falling evening shadows, clasping her Babe, and in that most moving of all Tintoretto’s creations, the ” S. Mary of Egypt,” the emotional mood of Nature’s self is brought home to us. The trees that dominate the landscape are painted with a few ” strokes like sabre cuts ” ; the landscape, given with apparent carelessness, yet conveying an indescribable sense of space and solemnity, unfolds itself under the dying day ; and in solitary meditation, thrilling with ecstasy, sits that little figure, whose heart has travelled far away to commune with the Spirit, ” whose dwelling is the light of setting suns.”

It is not possible in a short space to touch, even in passing, on all the many scenes in these halls : the ” Annunciation,” with its marvellous flight of cherubs, reminding us of the flight of pigeons in the Piazza, and how often the old painter must have watched them ; the ” Temptation,” contrasting the throbbing evil, the flesh that must be fed, with the calm of absolute purity ; the ” Massacre of the Innocents,” for which the horrors of sacked towns could have supplied many a parallel,—we have not time to dwell on these, but we may notice how the artist has overcome the difficulty of seeing clearly in the dark halls, by choosing strong and varied effects of light for the most shadowed spaces, and we can picture what the halls must have been like when they first glowed from his hand, adorned with gilded fretwork and moulding, and hung with opulent draperies, with the rose-red and purple of bishops’ and cardinals’ robes reflected in the gleaming pavement.

Leonardo, by one supreme example, Tintoretto, by many renderings, have made the Last Supper ” peculiarly their own in the domain of art. It shows how strongly the mystic strain entered into the man’s character, that often as Tintoretto treated the subject, it never lost its interest for him, and he never failed to find a fresh point of view. In that in S. Polo, Christ offers the sacred food with a gesture of vehement generosity. Placed as the picture is, to appeal to all comers to the Mass, to afford them a welcome as they pass to the High Altar, it tells of the Bread of Life given to all mankind. Tintoretto himself, painted in the character of S. Paul, stands at one side, absorbed in meditation. We need not insist again on the emotional value of the deep colours, the rich creams and crimsons and the chiaroscuro. In his latest rendering, in S. Giorgio Maggiore, he touches his highest point in symbolical treatment. Some people are only able to see a theatrical, artificial spirit in this picture, but at least, when we consider what deep meditation Tintoretto had bestowed on his subjects, we may believe that he himself was sincere and that he let himself go over what commended itself as an entirely new rendering. ” The Light shined in the Darkness, and the Darkness comprehended it not.” The super-natural is entering on every side, but the feast goes on ; the serving men and maids busy them-selves with the dishes ; the disciples are inquiring, but not agitated,; none see that throng of heavenly visitants, pouring in through the blue moonlight, called to their Master’s side by the supreme significance of His words. The painter has taken full advantage of the opportunity of combining the light of the cresset lamp, pouring out smoky clouds, with the struggling moon-light and the unearthly radiance, in divers, yet mingling streams which fight against the surrounding gloom. In the scene in the Scuola di S. Rocco the betrayal is the dominating incident, and in San Stefano all is peace, and the Saviour is alone with the faithful disciples.

Though several of the large compositions ascribed to Tintoretto in the Ducal Palace are only partly by him, or entirely by followers and imitators, its halls are still a storehouse of his genius. There is much that is fine about the great state pieces. In the ” Marriage of St. Catherine,” the saint, in silken gown and long transparent veil, is an exquisite figure. Tintoretto bathes all his pageantry in golden light and air, and yet we feel that these huge official subjects, with the prosaic old Doges introduced in incongruous company, neither stimulated his imagination nor satisfied his taste. It is on the smaller canvases that he finds inspiration. He never painted anything more lovely, more perfect in design, or more gay and tender in idea, than the cycle in the Ante Collegio. The glowing light and exquisitely graded shadows upon ivory limbs have a sensuous perfection and a refined, unselfconscious joy such as is felt in hardly any other work, except the painter’s own ” Milky Way ” in the National Gallery. In all these four pictures the feeling for design, a branch of art in which Tintoretto was past master, is fully displayed. In the Bacchus and Ariadne all the principal lines, the eyes and gestures, converge upon the tiny ring which is the symbol of union between the goddess and her lover, between the queenly city and the Adriatic sea. Or take ” Pallas driving away Mars ” : see how the mass into which the figures are gathered on the left adds strength to the thrust of the goddess’s arm, and what steadiness is given by that short straight lance of hers, coming in among all the yielding curves. The whole four are linked together in meaning : the call to Venice to reign over the seas, her triumphant peace, with Wisdom guiding her council, and her warriors forging arms in case of need. In con-junction with these pictures are two small ones in the chapel, hardly less beautiful—St. George with St. Margaret, and SS. Andrew and Jerome. It is difficult to say whether the exultant St. George, the dignified young bishop, or the two older saints are the more sympathetic creations, or the more admirable, both in drawing and colour. The sense of space in both settings is an added charm, and every scrap of detail, the leafy boughs, the cross and crozier, is important to the composition.

There are many other striking examples, ranging all through Tintoretto’s life, of his untiring imagination. In the Salute is that Marriage of Cana,” in which all the actors seem to swim in golden light. The sharp silhouettes bring out an effect of radiant sunshine with which the hall is flooded, and all the architectural lines lead our eyes towards the central figure, placed at a distance. On that long canvas in the Academy, kneel the three treasurers, pouring out their gold and bending in homage before the Madonna and Child, who sit enthroned upon a broad piazza, through the marble pillars of which a blue and distant landscape shines. Grave senators in mulberry velvet and ermine kneel before the Child, or hold counsel on Paduan affairs under the patronage of S. Giustina. The “Crucifixion “‘ (in S. Cassiano) is another triumph of the painter’s imaginative conception. The bold lines of the crosses, the ladder, and the figures detach against a glorious sky, and the presence of the moving, murmuring throng, of which, by the placing of the line of sight, the spectator is made to form a part, is conveyed by the swaying and crossing of the lances borne by the armed men who keep the ground. There is a series, too, which deals with the Magdalen. She mourns her dead in that solemn, restrained Entombment,” where the enfolding shadows frame the cross against the sad dawn, which adorns the mortuary chapel of S. Giorgio Maggiore; and the Pietà in the Brera, the long lines of which add to the impression of tender repose, has its peace broken by the passionate cry of the woman who loved much. Tintoretto’s ideas are exhaustless ; he can paint the same scene in a dozen different ways, and, in fact, the book of sketches lately acquired by the British Museum shows as many as thirty trials dashed off for one subject, and after all he uses one composed for something quite different. It is this habit of throwing off red-hot essays, fresh from his brain, that has led to the common but superficial judgment that Tintoretto was merely a great improvisatore, whose successes came more or less by good luck. He could, indeed, paint pictures at a pace at which many great masters could only sketch, but he had already designed and considered and rejected, doing with oil, ink, and paper what many of his contemporaries did mentally. Such achievements as the Ante-Collegio cycle, the ” House of Martha and Mary,” the ” Marriage of Cana,” the ” Temptation of S. Anthony,” to name only a few, show a finish and perfection and a balance of design which preclude the idea of their being lightly painted pictures. When he was actually engaged, Tintoretto let himself go with impetuous ardour, but we may feel assured he left nothing to chance, though he had his own way of making sure of the result.

It is strange to hear people, as one does now and then, talking of the ” Paradiso” as ” a splendid failure.” It may be granted that the subject is an impossible one for human art to realise, yet when all allowance has been made for a lament-able amount of drying and blackening, it is difficult to agree that Ruskin was all wrong in his admiration of that thronging multitude, ordered and disciplined by the tides of light and shadow, which roll in and out of the masses, resolving them into groups and single figures of almost matchless beauty and melting away into a sea of radiant ether, which tells us of the boundless space which surrounds the serried ranks of the Blessed.

Tintoretto was seventy-eight when it was allotted to him, and it was the last great effort of his mind and hand. Studies for it are preserved both at the Louvre and at Madrid, and it is evident that the painter has framed it upon the thought of Dante’s mystic rose. The circles and many of the figures can be traced in the poem, and the idea of the Eternal Light streaming through the leaves of the rose dominates the composition. It is appropriate that it should have been his last great work, as it was also the greatest attempt at composition ever made by a master of the Venetian School.

There is no room here to study Tintoretto as a painter of battlepieces, though from the time he painted the ” Battle of Lepanto,” for the Council of Ten, he often returned to such subjects. His two series for the Gonzaga included several, and the Ducal Palace still possesses examples. The impetuosity of his style stood him in good stead, and he never fails to bring in graceful and striking figures.

His portraits are hardly equal to Titian’s intellectual grasp or fine-grained colour, but they are extraordinarily characteristic. He prefers to paint men rather than women, and he painted hundreds—all the great persons of his time who lived in and visited Venice. The Venetian portrait by this time was expected to be more than a likeness and more than a problem. It was to please the taste as a picture, to interest and to satisfy criticism. Tintoretto, like Lotto, gets behind the scenes, and we see some mood, some aspect of the sitter that he hardly expected to show. His penetration is not equal to Lotto’s, but he deals with his sitters with an observation which pierces below the surface.

In criticising Tintoretto, men seem often unable to discriminate between the turgid and melodramatic, and the spontaneous and tempera-mental. The first all must abhor, but the last is sincere and deserves to be respected. It is by his best that we must judge a man, and taking his best and undoubtedly authentic work, no one has left a larger amount which will stand the test of criticism. As an exponent of lofty and elevated central ideas, which unify all parts of his composition, Tintoretto stands with the greatest imaginative minds. The intellectual side of life was exemplified in Florentine art, but the Renaissance would have been a one-sided development if there had not arisen a body of men to whom emotion and the gift of sensuous apprehension seemed of supreme value, and at the very last there arose with him one who, to their philosophy of feeling and the mastery of their chosen medium, added the crowning glory of the imaginative idea.


Augsburg. Christ in the House of Martha and Mary.

Berlin. Portraits ; Madonna and Saints ; Luna and the Hours Procurator before S. Mark.

Dresden. Lady in Black ; The Rescue ; Portraits.

Florence. Pitti : Portraits of Men ; Luigi Cornaro ; Vincenzo Zeno.

Uffizi : Portrait of Himself ; Admiral Venier

Portrait of Old Man ; Jacopo Sansovino ; Portrait.

Hampton Court. Esther before Ahasuerus ; Nine Muses Portrait of Dominican ; Knight of Malta.

London. S. George and the Dragon ; Christ washing Feet of Disciples ; Origin of Milky Way.

Bridgewater House. Entombment ; Portrait.

Madrid. Battle on Land and Sea ; Solomon and the Queen of Sheba ; Susanna and the Elders ; Finding of Moses ; Esther before Ahasuerus ; Judith and Holofernes.

Milan. Brera : S. Helena, Saints and Donors ; Finding of the Body of S. Mark (E.).

Paris. Susanna and the Elders ; Sketch for Paradise ; Portrait of Himself.

Rome. Capitol : Baptism ; Ecce Homo ; The Flagellation. 266

Colonna. Adoration of the Holy Spirit ; Old Man playing Spinet ; Portraits.

Turin. The Trinity.

Venice. Academy : S. Giustina and Three Senators ; Madonna with Saints and Treasurers, 1566 ; Portraits of Senators ; Deposition ; Jacopo Soranzo, i 564 (still attributed to Titian) ; Andrea Capello (E.) ; Death of Abel ; Miracle of S. Mark, 1548 ; Adam and Eve ; Resurrected Christ blessing Three Senators Madonna and Portraits; Crucifixion ; Resurrection Presentation in Temple.

Palazzo Ducale : Doge Mocenigo commended to Christ by S. Mark ; Doge da Ponte before the Virgin Marriage of S. Catherine ; Doge Gritti before the Virgin.

Ante-Collegio : Mercury and Three Graces ; Vulcan’s Forge ; Bacchus and Ariadne ; Pallas resisting Mars, abt. 1578.

Ante-room of Chapel : SS. George, Margaret, and Louis ; SS. Andrew and Jerome.

Senato : S. Mark presenting Doge Loredano to the Virgin.

Sala Quattro Porte : Ceiling. Ante-room : Portraits Ceiling, Doge Priuli with Justice. Passage to Council of Ten : Portraits ; Nobles illumined by Holy Spirit. Sala del Gran Consiglio : Paradise, 1590.

Sala dello Scrutino : Battle of Zara.

Palazzo Reale : Transportation of Body of S. Mark S. Mark rescues a Shipwrecked Saracen; Philosophers. Giovanelli Palace : Battlepiece ; Portraits.

S. Cassiano : Crucifixion ; Christ in Limbo ; Resurrection.

S. Giorgio Maggiore : Last Supper ; Gathering of Manna ; Entombment (in Mortuary Chapel). S. Maria Mater Domini : Finding of True Cross.

S. Maria dell’ Orto : Last Judgment (E.) ; Golden Calf (E.) ; Presentation of Virgin (E.) Martyrdom of S. Agnes.

S. Polo : Last Supper ; Assumption of Virgin.

S. Rocco : Annunciation ; Pool of Bethesda ; S. Roch and the Beasts ; S. Roch healing the Sick ; S. Roch in Campo d’ Armata ; S. Roch consoled by an Angel.

Venice. Scuola di S. Rocco : Lower Hall,. all the paintings on wall. Staircase : Visitation. Upper Hall: all the paintings on walls and ceiling. Refectory : Crucifixion, 1565 ; Christ before Pilate ; Ecce Homo ; Way to Golgotha ; Ceiling, 1560.

Salute : Marriage of Cana, t561 ; Martyrdom of S. Stephen.

S. Silvestro : Baptism.

S. Stefano : Last Supper ; Washing of Feet ; Agony in Garden.

S. Trovaso : Temptation of S. Anthony.

Vienna. Susanna and the Elders ; Sebastian Venier ; Portraits of Procurators, Senators, and Men (fifteen in all) ; Old Man and Boy ; Portrait of Lady.