Venetian Painting – Tintoretto

IT does not seem likely that many new discoveries will be made about Tintoretto’s life. It was an open and above-board one, and there is practically no time during its span that we are not able to account for, and to say where he was living and how he was occupied. The son of a dyer, a member of one of the powerful guilds of Venice, the ” little dyer,” il tentoretto, appears as an enthusiastic boy, keen to learn his chosen art. He was apprenticed to Titian and, immediately after, summarily ejected from that master’s workshop, on account, it seems probable, of the independence and innovation of his style, which was of the very kind most likely to shock and puzzle Titian’s courtly, settled genius. After this he painted when and where he could, pursuing his artistic studies with the headlong ardour which through life characterised his attitude towards art. Mr. Berenson thinks he may have worked in Bonifazio’s studio. He formed a close friendship with Andrea Schiavone,’ he imported casts of Michelangelo’s statues, he studied the works of Titian and Palma. Over his door was written ” the colour of Titian and the form of Michelangelo.” All his energies were for long devoted to the effort to master that form. Colour came to him naturally, but good drawing meant more to him than it had ever done to any Venetian. Long afterwards, to repeated inquiries as to how excellence could be best ensured, he would give no other advice than the reiterated, ” study drawing.” He practised till the human form in every attitude held no difficulties for him. He suspended little models by strings, and drew every limb and torso he could get hold of over and over again. He was found in every place where painting was wanted, getting the builders to let him experiment upon the house – fronts. To master light and shade he constructed little card-board houses, in which, by means of sliding shutters, lamplight and skylight effects could be arranged. It is particularly interesting to hear of this part of his education, as in the end the love of shine and shadow was the most victorious of all his inspirations.

The chief events in Tintoretto’s life are art-events. For some years he frescoed the outside of houses at a nominal price, or merely for his expenses. He decorated household furniture and everything he could lay hands on. Then came a few small commissions, an altarpiece here, organ-doors there, for unimportant churches. No one in Venice talked of any one save Palma, Bonifazio, and, above all, Titian, and it was difficult enough for an outsider, who was not one of their clique, to get employment. But by the time Tintoretto was twenty-six his talent was be-coming recognised ; he had painted the two altarpieces for SS. Ermagora and Fortunato, and the offer he made to decorate the vast church of his parish brought him conspicuously into notice. In the first ardour of youth he completed the ” Last Judgment ” for the choir. From time to time, during fourteen years, he redeemed his early promises and executed the ” Golden Calf” and the Presentation of the Virgin.” Within two years of his offer to the Prior, came his first great opportunity of achieving distinction. This was a commission from the Confraternity of St. Mark, and with the ” Miracle of the Slave ” he sprang at once to the highest place.

The picture was universally admired, and was followed by three more dealing with the patron saint. At forty he married happily a beautiful young girl, Faustina dei Vescovi, or Episcopi, as it is indifferently given, the daughter of a noble family of the mainland. Tradition has always pointed to the girl in blue in the ” Golden Calf” as her portrait, while it is easy to recognise Tintoretto himself in the black-bearded giant, who helps to carry the idol. His house at this time was somewhere in the Parrocchia dell’ Orto, and there, during the next fourteen years, eight children were born, of whom the two eldest, Domenico and Marietta, attained distinction in their father’s profession. Another great event, which profoundly influenced his life, was the beginning of his connection in 156o with the Scuola di San Rocco, the great confraternity which was devoted to combating the ravages of the plague and to succouring the families of its victims. His work for this lasted to the end of his life and is his most distinguished memorial.

The palace to which the Robusti family moved in 1574, and which was inhabited by his descendants so late as 1830, can still be identified in the Calle della Sensa. It is broken up into two parts, but it is evident that it was a dwelling of some importance, a good specimen of Venetian Gothic. It still bears marks of considerable decoration the walls are sheathed in marble plaques, and the first floor has rows of Gothic windows in delicately carved frames and little balconies of fretted marble. Zanetti, in 1771, gives an etching of a magnificent bronze frieze cast from the master’s design, which ran round the Grand Sala. The family must have occupied the piano nobile and let off the floors they did not require.

Descriptions of the life led by the painter and his family are given by Vasari, who knew him personally, and by Ridolfi, whose book was published in 1646, and who must have known his children, several of whom were still alive and proud of their father’s fame. We hear of pleasant evenings spent in the little palace, of the enthusiastic love of music, Tintoretto himself and his daughter being highly gifted. Among the habitués were Zarlino, for twenty – five years chapel-master of St. Mark’s, one of the fathers of modern music ; Bassano ; and Veronese, who, in spite of his love for magnificent entertainments, was often to be found in Tintoretto’s pleasant home. Poor Andrea Schiavone was always welcome, and as time went on the house became the haunt of all the cultured gentlemen and litterati of Venice.

It is not difficult from the materials available to form a sufficiently lively idea of this Venetian citizen of the sixteenth century, as father and husband, host and painter. Ridolfi has collected a number of anecdotes, which space forbids me to use, but which are all very characteristic. We gather that he was a man of strong character, generous, sincere and simple, decided in his ways, caring little for the great world, but open-handed and hospitable under his own roof, observant of men and manners, and sometimes rather brusque in dealing with bores and offensive persons. Full of dry quiet humour and of good-natured banter of his wife’s little weaknesses. A man, too, of upright conduct and free, as far as it can be ascertained, from any of those laxities and infidelities, so freely quoted of celebrated men and so easily condoned by his age. Art was Tintoretto’s main pre-occupation ; but he seems to have been a man of strong religious bias, making a close study of the Bible, and turning naturally in his last days to those truths with which his art had made him familiar, truths which he had represented with that touch of mystic feeling which was the deepest part of his nature.

His relations with the State commenced in 1574, when his offer to present a superb painting of the Victory of Lepanto was made to and accepted by the Council of Ten. Tintoretto was rewarded by a Broker’s patent, and between this and the ” Paradiso, the work of his old age, he executed a number of pictures for the Signoria. The only record of any travels are confined to two journeys paid to Mantua, where he went in the ‘sixties and again in 1579 to see to the hanging of paintings done for the Gonzaga, and of which the documents have been kept, though the pictures have vanished. Tintoretto’s last years were saddened by the death of his beloved daughter, who had always been his constant companion. He died in 1579 after a fortnight’s illness and left a will, which, together with that of his son, throws a good deal of light upon the family history.

It is not easy to select from the vast quantity of work left by Tintoretto. He is one of those painters whose whole life was passed in his native city and who can only be adequately studied in that city. Perhaps the first place in which to seek him, is the great church which was the monument of his early prime. The ” Last Judgment ” was probably inspired by that of Michelangelo, of which descriptions and sketches must have reached the younger master, over whom the Florentine had exercised so strong a fascination. Tintoretto’s version impresses one as that of a mind boiling with thoughts and visions which he pours out upon the huge space. It depicts a terrible catastrophe, a scene of rushing destruction, of forms swept into oblivion, of others struggling to the light, of many beautiful figures and of a flood of air and light behind the rushing water,—water which makes us almost giddy as we watch it. The ” Golden Calf” is a maturer production and includes some of the loveliest women Tintoretto ever painted. We see too. plainly the planning, the device of concentrating interest on the idol by turning figures and pointing fingers, but nothing can be imagined more supple and queenly than the woman in blue, and the way the light falls on her head and perfectly foreshortened arm shows to what excellence Tintoretto had attained. The ” Presentation ” is a riper work. The drawing of the flight of steps and of the groups upon them could not be bettered. The little figure of the Virgin, prototype of the new dispensation, as she advances to meet the representative of the old, thrills with mystic feeling, yet the painter has contrived to retain the sturdy simplicity of a child. The ” St. Agnes,” with its contrast of light and shade, of strength made perfect in weakness, is of later date and was the commission of Cardinal Contarini.

It is interesting to realise how Tintoretto, especially in the ” Presentation,” has contrived, while using the traditional episodes, to infuse so strong an imaginative sense. The contrast of age and youth, the joy of the Gentiles, the starlike figure of the child surrounded by shadows, convey an emotional feeling, in harmony with the nature of the scene.

Next let us group together the miracles in the history of St. Mark. One of the qualities which strikes us most in the ” Miracle of the Slave ” is its strong local colour. It tells of Titian and Bonifazio and is unlike Tintoretto’s later style. The colours are glowing and gem-like ; carnations, orange-yellows, deep scarlet, and turquoise-blue. The crimson velvet of the judge’s dress is finely relieved against a blue-green sky, and Tintoretto has kept that instinctive fire and dash which culminates at once and without effort in perfect action, ” as a bird flies, or a horse gallops.” It startled the quiet members of the Guild, and at the first moment they hesitated to accept it. The ” Rescue of the Saracen ” and the “Transportation of the Body ” are more in the golden-brown manner to which he was moving, but it is in the ” Finding of the Body ” (Brera) that he rises to the highest emotional pitch. The colossal form of the saint, expanding with life and power as he towers in the spirit above his own lifeless clay, draws all eyes to him and seems to fill the barrel-roofed hall with ease and energy. Every part of the vault is flooded by his life-giving energy, and here Tintoretto deals with light and shade with full mastery.

As we follow Tintoretto’s career, it is borne in upon us how little positive colour it takes to make a great colourist. The whole Venetian School, indeed, does not deal with what we under-stand as bright colour. Vivid tints are much more characteristic of the Flemish and the Florentine, or, let us say, of the painters of to-day. Strong, crude colours are to be seen on all sides in the Salon or the Royal Academy, but they are absent from the scheme of sombre splendour which has given the Venetians their title to fame. This is especially true of Tintoretto, and it becomes more so as he advances. His gamut becomes more golden-brown and mellow ; the greys and browns and ivories combine in a lustrous symphony more impressive than gay tints, flooded with enveloping shadow and illumined by flashes of iridescent light. An-other noticeable feature is the way in which he puts on his oil-colour, so that it bears the direct impression of the painter’s hand. The Florentines had used flat tints, opaque and with every brush-mark smoothed away ; but as the later Venetians covered large spaces with oil-colour, they no longer sought to dissimulate the traces of the brush, and light, distance, movement, were all conveyed by the turns and twists and swirls with which the thin oil-colour was laid on. Look at the power of touch in such a picture as the ” Death of Abel ” ; we see this spontaneity of execution actually forming part of the emotion with which the picture is charged. The concentrated hate of the one figure, the desperate appeal of the other, the lurid note of the landscape, gain their emotion as much from the impetuous brush-work as from the more studied design. We come closest to the painter’s mind in the Scuola di San Rocco. He had already been employed in the church, and there remains, darkened and ruined by damp, the series illustrative of the career of S. Roch, patron saint of sufferers from the plague. When the great Halls of Assembly were to be decorated in 1560, the confraternity asked a conclave of painters, among whom were Veronese and Andrea Schiavone, to prepare sketches for competition. When they assembled to display their designs, Tintoretto swept aside a cartoon from the ceiling of the refectory and discovered a finished picture, the ” S. Roch in Glory,” which still holds its place there. Neither the other artists nor the brethren seem to have approved of this unconventional proceeding, but he ” hoped they would not be offended ; it was the only way he knew.” Partly from the displeased withdrawal of some of the rest, but partly also from the excellence of the work, the commission fell to Tintoretto, and after two years’ work he was received into the order, and was assigned an annual provision of zoo ducats (50 lbs) a year for life, being bound every year to furnish three pictures.