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Tintoretto is Venice.

And Venice is Tintoretto.


Translated by Hoyt Rogers

THE EXHIBITION ON Jacopo Robusti, known as Tintoretto, on display at the National Gallery in Washington through July 7, 2019, is a must for all art lovers. The Financial Times lists it among the ten unmissable events of the art year 2019, in agreement with the most authoritative critics in the field.

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Still, the exhibition cannot be considered an absolute first, so much as a second version of the more wide-ranging retrospective held in Venice from September 2018 to January 2019. For the fifth centennial of the painter’s birth (1518 or 1519), from important public institutions (the Louvre, the Kunsthistorisches Institut in Vienna, the Prado, etc.) and priceless private collections, the Ducal Palace and the Accademia have brought together masterpieces that aptly portray the Venetian painter’s youth as well as his artistic maturity.

As an inveterate admirer of Tintoretto, I did not let the opportunity escape me, and during the Christmas vacation of 2018, I visited the exhibition with great pleasure.

Through Tintoretto, ‘I have learned to love art, contextualising it in the period of its creation and exulting in its immortal poetry.’

I will start by saying that Tintoretto is probably one of my favourite painters. Through his oeuvre I have learned to love art, contextualising it in the period of its creation and exulting in its immortal poetry. Returning to Venice from my numerous trips, I have always sought out the great masterworks of Tintoretto in the churches where I grew up, at San Cassiano, at San Moisè, at San Simeone Grande, in order to draw closer to the city again, to feel that it is mine again. Abroad, in every museum I have visited, I have always hoped to come across a work by Tintoretto. From the Prado in Madrid, to the Beaux-Arts in Brussels, to the National Gallery in London, to the Dutch museums of Boijmans Van Beuningen and Kröller Müller, as I crossed the threshold of these temples of art I was always spurred by the urgent wish to find a Tintoretto, in order to reunite myself with my origins, to become the boy again who left Venice to seek his fortune in 2010.

In seeing the exhibition, then, a special emotion overwhelmed me. I seemed to see distant friends gathered together again, as in a wedding attended by those who have accompanied you on life’s path.


In particular, I lingered over the section housed at the Ducal Palace, where Jacopo Robusti’s maturity is explored—that is, the years following The Miracle of St. Mark Freeing the Slave, the work that elevated him to the Olympus of Venetian painting in his era.

There the thematic strands that characterise Tintoretto’s work are laid out with admirable expertise, such as his depiction of the Nativity, of the female nude, of the acts of faith, as well as his secular subjects; all help us to parse the motives that led the painter to choose a specific style, particular forms, and ultimately to adopt a coherent poetics in his art.

At this juncture, I do not wish to dwell on these parts of the exhibition—curated with masterly care, in my opinion. Thanks to the magnificent works displayed, they succeed in rendering full justice to Jacopo Robusti’s oeuvre. What I feel compelled to underscore is an aspect that I consider quite important for Tintoretto’s aesthetic, and which the exhibition singles out.

Judiciously, the exhibition focuses on Tintoretto as a man of his time, Tintoretto as a businessman, Jacopo Robusti as the exhilarating paladin of that ‘creative destruction’ which inspired Venice in the sixteenth century to hang his canvases in its most prestigious rooms. In a city where artistic competition was extremely intense, and where the painters vied with each other to curry favor with this or that client, his imposing Michelangelesque figures in the foreground become the formal pretexts to occupy large portions of his pictures, fundamental to complying with the schedules of those very patrons, and yet harmonious with the noblest circles of Italian Mannerism. Even the stunning strength of his blues, as transparent as they are dark, derives from the need to prepare in advance the backgrounds of his works, according to the dictates of tonal painting, assimilated at this stage—via Titian—by all the artistic studios of the lagoon. In this way, his characteristic pictorial schemes (the garments, the figures in the background), hasty and verging on incomplete, become valuable solutions, linked to the acceptance of assignments that—owing to the schedules and demands—few artists would have been able to carry out.

The garments sketched with abstract strokes, the extraordinary Michelangelesque figures, the flashes of colour, thus begin to take shape out of a particular necessity: the exigency of speed. A dazzling necessity where genius comes into play, and the achievement amazes us in its respect for the masters and the fashions of the time. Tintoretto’s own motto was indeed ‘drawing like Michelangelo’s, colour like Titian’s,’ but Vasari was the one who qualified him as a ‘swift and resolute’ painter.

Starting from this premise of the necessity for speed, the exhibition sheds light on Tintoretto’s stupendous creative genesis. In particular, through the analysis of his studies a great deal can be learned. Indeed, Tintoretto needed no more than the outlines of the figures—no more than their idea—for them to come to life. Hence in Tintoretto the mystical progeny of creative genius, the primal form of the material is still visible: perhaps this truly is Michelangelo’s grand legacy at Robusti’s fingertips. To be sure, in keeping with his nature as a shrewd businessman, Tintoretto made use of preconceived studies, merely traced out, alluding to the shapes and then adapting them to the pictures. In this way his studies reveal the infinite imagination of the painter, capable of rough sketches that today we might attribute to a Kandinsky in his pre-abstract phase.

The necessity of speed thus imposes on Tintoretto an artistic method that is highly disembodied: it will not only jeopardise his finished works, but also force him to transform himself into a genius…

The necessity of speed thus imposes on Tintoretto an artistic method that is highly disembodied: it will not only jeopardise his finished works, but also force him to transform himself into a genius in order to triumph in Venice, and leave forever an indelible mark on the world of art.

However, at this point it would be easy to fall into an interpretive trap. In fact, one might assume that Tintoretto was a ‘superficial’ artist, a creator who paid little attention to details, and who was exceedingly imprecise when it came to figuration. Vasari entertained just such an opinion of Robusti. Indeed, in his Lives he speaks of Tintoretto as an artist who was ‘extravagant, capricious, swift and resolute, and the most incredible brain that painting has ever produced, as can be seen in all his works and in the composition of the scenes, fantastic and rendered differently by him, outside the practice of other painters; in fact he has gone beyond extravagance, with those novel, capricious inventions and strange whims of his mind, working at random and without drawing, virtually showing that this art is a prank.’

A total rejection.

ALL THE SAME, in my opinion Vasari forgot to mention an important facet of Tintoretto’s painting. In reality, Robusti was capable of spending hours to perfect the portrayal of a garment’s hem, the tonalities of flesh, the position of St. John the Baptist’s hand. In fact the painter became extremely detailed wherever necessary—wherever it was essential to release the communicative strength of the figure depicted, wherever the observer’s gaze would tarry the most—in order to let the power of his art sink in. An absolutely central aspect of Robusti’s painting is his precise awareness of the observer’s gaze. At the Ducal Palace, this element is underscored with care, and often reaffirmed. To that end, a section is dedicated to the genre where this side of Robusti was most markedly manifest: the portrait.

In that distinctive pictorial genre, Tintoretto was able in effect to reach superb pinnacles of detail, precision, and incisiveness alongside nuanced and impalpable forms. Transparent and saturated strokes remain anchored to the outlines of the figures, cleaving to their bodies, giving us a confirmation of their physical being. In Tintoretto, the subjects are individuals who emerge from the shadows, not to be understood as darkness, but rather as a primal soup, taking shape upon contact with the light, as in a Neoplatonic ideal. Slowly, from these indistinct forms, the details become clear, the image is made specific, the figure is delineated. The symbols of power stand out, the medals and rich garments. Lastly, the eyes come into focus: the psyche behind them sees through us, deceives us, intrigues us, dismisses us.

In this way, Tintoretto’s portraits become a summation of ineffable, disconcerting, and terrifying emotions, such as Thomas Bernhard has recounted in his work, Old Masters: A Comedy. In this novel, a portrait by Tintoretto is the only thing that keeps Reger, the elderly protagonist, alive. Only the picture of the Man with a White Beard (not shown at the Ducal Palace, but on display in Washington, though normally found at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna), can hold its own against his excessive rationality; he is obliged to contemplate it daily, so he can ‘continue to exist.’ Perhaps Tintoretto’s secret resides precisely in this: in his innate ability to hide any rational element from the observer, embarking us on a continual dream, a perpetual voyage within our own inner mystery, an enrichment of our being beyond all bounds.

Accordingly, at the Ducal Palace portraiture ends up being perhaps the most intense experience in this odyssey through Tintoretto’s art.

Nonetheless, in my opinion the exhibition is marred by a serious flaw in respect to Robusti’s oeuvre: that of not covering sufficiently the ‘dark’ years of Tintoretto’s painting, possibly the most ‘potent’ period of his work.

Starting in 1563, with the end of the Council of Trent, new artistic directives are proposed by the Catholic clergy. A more sober manner of painting than in the past is required, meant to extoll the revitalised spiritual rigor of the curate and the sacraments, so roundly vituperated by the Protestants.

In the wake of such a challenge, Tintoretto will ascend to sublime peaks of creativity.

In Tintoretto, the Counter-Reformation finds a painter whose sincere faith reveals itself as an ideal medium for transmitting the redemptive aspirations of the Council of Trent.

The artist now has the possibility of applying his own techniques in an even more radical manner, availing himself of darker colours and employing even more abstract brush-strokes to delineate forms. With such an approach, we almost have the impression that what was true for the portrait—the emergence of the figure from the primordial—now comes to the fore in the depiction of the sacred. Entire biblical scenes, whether from the Old Testament or the New, become holy emanations in their own right, or even divine eruptions into everyday life. In Tintoretto, the Counter-Reformation finds a painter whose sincere faith reveals itself as an ideal medium for transmitting the redemptive aspirations of the Council of Trent. Starting with the cycle at the Scuola di San Rocco, Robusti begins to express an art both overwhelming and unclassifiable. Michelangelo and Titian are now mingled with an obscure mysticism, in a mesmerising dance of renewed belief.

Unfortunately, at the Ducal Palace, the importance of this late Tintoretto is only emphasised in the last room, relegating it to the concept of religion in his oeuvre. Through merely three works, of uncontestable value but certainly not exhaustive, it is thus impossible to gain an idea of the complexity of this period, rich in formal intuitions and profoundly innovative from a luminist point of view: so much so that in the late Tintoretto, the early Caravaggio has often been glimpsed.

To tell the truth, an in-depth analysis of Robusti’s later years would surely demand an additional exhibition of its own — after the Accademia has traced the period of his youth, and the Ducal Palace has presented the themes of his artistic maturity — in order to round out a detailed examination of his painting. Then again, we might consider this utterly uncalled-for. It would be enough simply to stroll through the interior of two churches: Madonna del Orto and San Giorgio Maggiore. Without belittling the fine work of today’s museum curators, there we would find ourselves engaged in the priceless experience of looking at stupendous canvases within buildings erected by Palladio, for example, in the place where they were conceived. Spending a bit of time at the Scuola Grande di San Rocco, we could immerse ourselves in the most impressive exhibition of Tintoretto’s genius—discovering even more, by the way, about his nose for business. In the church of San Cassiano, always deserted, we could admire an astounding Crucifixion; and at San Moisè, a groundbreaking version of ‘the washing of the feet.’

Ultimately, the definitive exhibition of the late Tintoretto would turn out to be Venice itself: the Venice of the second half of the sixteenth century, where he lived, worked, and made his mark. In the houses of the merchants, worried about the newly opened American routes. In the palaces of power, wielding the clout of ships built without the technology needed to face the commercial challenges of future centuries. In the churches of the various ecclesiastical orders, reproducing a spiritual strength irredeemably compromised by the Protestant Reform. The art of Tintoretto’s final period is everywhere in Venice: the anxious synthesis of the socio-economic realities and values of a city on the threshold of its decline. Embodying this last, epic moment, Tintoretto in his later years becomes an incomparable narrator, the fading breath of a culture doomed to a melancholy future.

On closer inspection, the only real deficiency of the exhibition, the absence of the late Tintoretto, signals a fresh opportunity: to return to Venice and observe Robusti’s final artistic phase, which symbolises the Serenissima’s tragic moment so well. Certainly, given the current condition of the city, such an experience would make our understanding of what Venice is today far more complete.

Michele Casagrande is a native Venetian. After graduating from the University of Bologna in International Relations, he went on to earn two Master’s degrees, one in Economics and one in Arts Management—in Belgium and the Netherlands, respectively. He currently holds the post of Lecturer in the Economics of Art and Culture at Erasmus University, Rotterdam. He has conducted extensive research on international ‘soft power’ and its relation to the art market, particularly in the case of China and the Venice Biennale. In addition to his academic position, he is the Development Manager for the online auction house, Lot-Art. His essay, ‘A Venetian’s View of Venice’, appeared in a previous Fortnightly Review portfolio.

The original Italian version of this article is here.


index of this portfolio:
Tintoretto: after and before by Hoyt Rogers | Tintoretto is Venice by Michele Casagrande
Heard in Tintoretto by Hoyt Rogers

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