Skip to content

Tintoretto: after and before.



THROUGH JULY 7, 2019, the National Gallery of Art in Washington is presenting Tintoretto: Artist of Renaissance Venice, the first comprehensive exhibition of his paintings ever organised in North America, in commemoration of the fifth centennial of his birth.

NOTE: In The Fortnightly’s online template, illustrations are thumbnails with captions or onward text links embedded. To enlarge an illustration, click on it. To read a caption, hover over the illustration. To play an embedded video in a larger size, click twice.

In large part, this homage was previously on display at the Ducal Palace and the Accademia in Venice from September 7th through January 6th, along with several ancillary shows on special subjects. Yet anyone who has already enjoyed the Venetian edition will be amply rewarded by the differing selection available in Washington, the only other venue for this grand retrospective. While thirty-six works on view in Italy have not travelled to America, twenty-eight paintings not included there have been added at the National Gallery, which has also mounted two parallel exhibitions: Drawing in Tintoretto’s Venice, assembled by the Morgan Library in New York, and Venetian Prints in the Time of Tintoretto, on display only in Washington. For those who missed the Metropolitan’s small, well-curated survey of the painter’s portraits, which came to an end several months ago, the Venetian-American compendium also stresses this often-neglected aspect of his art, devoting an extensive section to Tintoretto the portraitist. To accompany both versions of the show, the renowned scholars Robert Echols and Frederick Ilchman, along with a dozen of their colleagues, have produced an authoritative catalogue. Many of them previously collaborated on the 2007 Tintoretto retrospective in Madrid and on the Rivals in Renaissance Venice exhibition of 2009-10 in Paris and Boston, which examined Tintoretto alongside his fellow-artists and competitors, Titian and Veronese.

Of particular satisfaction to me is that this new transatlantic tribute features a painting I have always considered one of Tintoretto’s greatest, though it has generally gone unnoticed not only by the tourist hordes who tramp through Venice, but also by the majority of educated visitors (see the ‘Heard in Tintoretto’ section of this portfolio, second image). During the fourteen months I have spent in the Serenissima over the past decade, I have usually had the canvas all to myself. Tucked away in a dim side-chapel of the Church of San Trovaso, and rather small for a Tintoretto, it portrays the Last Supper as an unremarkable, almost everyday scene. The early date of its creation, 1563-1566, lends it a signal importance: in my modest opinion as an art-lover, rather than an art historian, it should be counted among the turning points of Western painting. A diminutive, ghostly inset of the Holy Family introduces the only overtly spiritual note, though even that tiny vignette seems like little more than a distant reminiscence. In the jumble of a dingy room, rough-hewn men sit around a humble meal, their haloes well-nigh invisible. One of them reaches behind him for a jug of table-wine, set casually on the floor. A mischievous cat plays nearby, and a rustic, straw-seated chair—identical to those Van Gogh will later depict—lies overturned in the foreground. The dog-eared books piled in the right-hand corner could imply several interpretations, such as the fulfilment of Hebrew Law or the future propagation of the Gospel; but on the surface, they merely reinforce the sense of disarray. Such an unvarnished image certainly adumbrates the naturalism of Annibale Carracci; yet by fusing earthiness with tenebrism, it also foreshadows the plebeian chiaroscuro of Caravaggio, three or four decades into the future. As I stood before the canvas one morning with a Venetian friend, the canon of the Orthodox cathedral, he shook his head in dismay. ‘Yes,’ he sighed, ‘this is the beginning of the end.’

Jacopo Robusti, nicknamed ‘the little dyer’ because of his father’s artisanal metier, was the first to imbue lofty biblical events with a mundane cast, as though they could be happening in the here-and-now.

By which he meant that ordinary humanity had now supplanted any vestige of ‘iconic’ otherworldliness, and that Tintoretto had initiated a sea-change in religious art. Jacopo Robusti, nicknamed ‘the little dyer’ because of his father’s artisanal metier, was the first to imbue lofty biblical events with a mundane cast, as though they could be happening in the here and now. It took me a long time to understand the enormity of that revolution; indeed, the fifth-centennial celebrations of the artist’s birth have triggered many half-forgotten memories, and I now realise that his work has been a touchstone for me from early on. All the same, I would posit that Tintoretto is no artist for young men—or at least, not for me in 1970, on my first trip to Venice. Mark Rothko had committed suicide earlier that year; in his honour, the bridges over the Grand Canal were hung with immense crimson banners bearing his name. The retrospective of his work at the Venetian Museum of Modern Art overshadowed even the Biennale itself. Since the early ’sixties, I had been following the meteoric development of American painting and its rising influence on the international scene. In fact, my mother had attended secondary school with Jasper Johns, which for me injected a familial note into this heady era of US cultural projection abroad.

Still, that artistic triumphalism (sometimes grating) was hardly uppermost in my mind. I had come to Venice with an earnest, unswerving purpose: to complete an education in Renaissance art that had begun in Paris under the tutelage of Yves Bonnefoy, and that had continued with a reverential pilgrimage to Florence at his behest. He was then engaged in writing his most elaborate art-historical work, Rome 1630, but in our weekly conversations he mainly referred to his discovery of Piero della Francesca and other Quattrocento painters when he was more or less my age—an aesthetic maturation he has recounted in his poetic autobiography, L’Arrière-pays. Like him, I was entranced by the purity of Umbrian and Tuscan art: the transparence of the colours, the pristine disegno (meaning both ‘draughtsmanship’ and ‘composition’), the hieratic poses that seemed to make time come to a stop. For almost a year, I had been retracing my mentor’s journey through that ‘inward country’; and naturally, I tended to adopt his stance on Renaissance art. Accordingly, when I first arrived in Venice, the luscious tonalities and soft edges of Titian and Veronese appeared less ‘intelligible’ (a favourite word of Bonnefoy’s) than the more static images of the Quattrocento, and only Bellini’s and Cima’s lucent pictures held something of their appeal. As to Tintoretto—especially in the days before his canvases would benefit from improved lighting and colour-brightening restorations—his paintings puzzled me. What was I to make of his deteriorated pigments, his chaotic crowd-scenes, his seemingly imprecise drawing?

Bonnefoy asserted that the Quattrocento, first in Masaccio and then in Piero’s pittura chiara, defined the perceptible world through a limpid clarity of perspective and form.

With myriad nuances, my teacher in Paris built upon the traditional principles outlined in the early twentieth century by Heinrich Wölfflin, an author I read under his aegis. In a nutshell, Bonnefoy asserted that the Quattrocento, first in Masaccio and then in Piero’s pittura chiara, defined the perceptible world through a limpid clarity of perspective and form. At the apex of the Renaissance, Raphael and Leonardo achieved a superb balance of colour and disegno. The first half of the Cinquecento brought this ideality down to earth, with the sensuousness of Titian. But as Michelangelo’s anguish poignantly betrayed, any mimesis of externals implies a corresponding cleavage with the spirit. By the end of the Cinquecento, this inner contradiction engendered a futile artificiality, often labelled Mannerism. While Wölfflin did not consider the latter distinct from the Baroque, Bonnefoy’s writings echoed the late twentieth century’s renewed appreciation of Seicento artists, particularly those who were active in Rome. Chief among them were Caravaggio, Cortona, and Poussin, all of whom I could easily appreciate; after the lessons they had drawn from the School of Bologna, they had realigned themselves with a lucid coherence of form. Bonnefoy had reservations about the first two, but he exalted Poussin over every other painter—an understandable predilection for a Frenchman. Like most art-lovers then and now, I favoured Caravaggio, whose works I venerated during several stays in Rome.

Though enthusiastic about the Baroque—despite some minor quibbles—Bonnefoy harboured a marked distaste for Mannerism. Though the dates of this stylistic trend are ill-determined, they are often thought to stretch from Raphael’s death in 1520 till the end of the century. In Rome 1630, Bonnefoy associates its most objectionable manifestations with ‘the second half of the Cinquecento.’ He dismisses its ‘frigidity’ and its ‘mirages’; he critiques its ‘doubts, remorse, and anxieties,’ its ‘warped’ and ‘acrid eccentricities.’ He particularly repudiates such painters as Francesco Salviati, Alessandro Allori, and Federico Barocci, for the unforgivable flaw of not basing their art on reality; but for him, even earlier masters like Michelangelo and Pontormo are fraught with ‘transcendentalist illusions.’ On the whole, it is the Florentine Mannerists who elicit his strongest disapproval, whereas Titian and his anointed successor, Veronese, emerge virtually unscathed, despite their (for Bonnefoy) ‘troubling’ sensuality. Within this scheme, Annibale Carracci will finally come from Bologna to revive artistic naturalism at the Farnese Gallery in Rome.

Characterising historical styles is hazardous. Bonnefoy inspired me to spend many years labouring over the distinction between Mannerism and the Baroque in literature, an effort which culminated in my Oxford doctoral thesis, later published as The Poetics of Inconstancy. I can attest that the definitions of both these -isms tend to fluctuate. Yet over time, I began to notice a significant absence in my mentor’s lucubrations: Tintoretto, who is cited but once in his art-historical writings, and even then only in passing, perhaps because he is often deemed the quintessential Mannerist. Certainly, in one meaning of the term, he wielded many ‘manners’ of painting, including those of Florentines like Salviati. Especially in his early phase, he was as adept as Titian at erotic atmosphere (witness the Vienna Susannah), and as skilful as Veronese with colour and moulded form (consider St. Mark Freeing the Slave; see Casagrande’s essay in this portfolio). But in his later career, from the paintings at the Scuola (and the Church) of San Rocco to the Last Supper at San Giorgio Maggiore (cf. ‘Heard in Tintoretto,’ in this portfolio), he developed a pictorial language that united tenebrism, theatrical lighting, dramatic gestures, and diverse enactments on multiple planes. Such was the power of this visionary idiom that even Titian was affected by it in his final period, from the Gesuiti St. Lawrence to the tragically unfinished Pietà. Most scholars would now agree that Elsheimer, and the young Poussin, also came under Tintoretto’s spell. His influence extended throughout the second half of the Cinquecento, setting the stage for the European Baroque.

After all, Annibale Carracci does not arise ex nihilo. His master in Bologna, Passerotti, was among the pioneers of genre scenes—like those of transalpine painters—in Italian art. This kind of working-class realism reappears in Carracci’s Christ Church canvases (and several others) which Bonnefoy greatly admired. Yet Annibale also sojourned with his brother Agostino in Venice between 1587 and 1588, and there he could have contemplated Tintoretto’s ground-breaking Last Supper at San Trovaso, painted over two decades earlier. This is all the more likely, given that Agostino had done an engraving of another canvas by the artist in the same church, several years before. When the Carraccis were residing in the Serenissima, Robusti and his assistants were toiling to complete the mammoth Paradiso for the Ducal Palace. After Titian’s death in 1576 and Veronese’s in 1588, Tintoretto was the most eminent living painter in Venice. His canvases were omnipresent, and he certainly designed them all, even if their execution was compromised at times by the lesser hands in his studio. The splendid final works he conceived for San Giorgio Maggiore were still to come, and they would attest to his undiminished powers. Like most other artists in this period, the Carraccis must have felt the fascination of his oeuvre, though Veronese’s ripe colours will soon provide a more suitable palette for the Galleria Farnese’s amorous myths.

Was Tintoretto the ‘quintessential Mannerist,’ as I ventured earlier? Impressed by his undeniable stature, art historians who disparaged Mannerism often annexed him to the Renaissance as an anomalous holdover, despite the lateness of his floruit. In Rome 1630, Bonnefoy performs a similar sleight-of-hand by leaving Robusti aside altogether, and focusing on what he calls ‘lesser Mannerism’ (without identifying any ‘greater Mannerism’). Yet I would suggest that even the painters he classifies under the ‘lesser’ rubric contributed more to the advent of Seicento painting than his book would allow. As I noted, Barocci, Salviati, and Allori are particularly singled out by him as inadequate. Nowadays, I belong to a swelling throng of aficionados who look upon Barocci as an extraordinary painter, as daring in his Deposition at the Perugia Cathedral as Pontormo had been in his at Santa Felicità; his tours de force in Urbino or Rome are meticulous and dazzling. Visitors to the Metropolitan can contemplate his moving St. Francis; at the Alte Pinakothek, his Noli me tangere frames lavish fabrics with a stormy backdrop. In his portraits, Allori never reached the opaline polish of Bronzino, though he was raised in his studio. Still, his Pearl-Fishers or his Proserpine span limitless horizons, while his St. Peter unfurls inky waves and far-off blue depths. In his Incredulity of St. Thomas—like Barocci and Allori—Salviati displays the vivid colour-combinations and clear-cut drawing that herald both the Carraccis and the early Poussin. And as Echols and Ilchman demonstrate in their catalogue, during his sojourn in Venice in the 1540s, Salviati exercised a discernible impact on the young Tintoretto.

Mannerism is not always ‘slapdash’ and ‘substanceless,’ as Bonnefoy would have us believe; moreover, the term has increasingly been applied to the literature as well as the art of the period. Today many scholars, especially on the Continent, would point not only to Tintoretto, but to Ronsard and Shakespeare as ‘Mannerists,’ given the eclecticism of their sources, the variability of their tone, and their bold reversals of long-held conventions. We need only think of the coexistent Petrarchism and Anti-Petrarchism found in their love poems, or such stylistically unstable romances as Cymbeline, Pericles, and The Tempest. Rather than trying to determine where Mannerism leaves off and the Baroque begins, we ‘Anglo-Saxons’ might be inclined to employ more neutral designations, whether royal reigns or merely dates. In art, the late sixteenth century seethes with many currents—Florentine, Venetian, Bolognese, and importations from the North—that converge on Rome during the Counter-Reformation. I have already mentioned realism, vibrant colour-schemes, and tenebrism; the last-named is an outmoded word, but it still evokes a mounting tendency of the time.

I would argue that these currents first come to a head in Tintoretto (once we understand how his pigments have aged) before attaining their apogee in Caravaggio—whose originality, like Carracci’s, does not spring from nowhere. He may have derived his naturalism from his Milanese apprenticeship, but the town near Bergamo from which he took his nickname (and where he and his family, the Merisis, sought refuge from the plague during his adolescence), was on the Serenissima’s border. His teacher in Milan, Peterzano, was born in Venice; he had been Titian’s pupil before moving to Lombardy. Caravaggio’s style reflects that hybridization. In 2011 Vittorio Sgarbi—as erudite as he is mercurial—organised a provocative exhibition, Gli Occhi di Caravaggio: Gli anni della formazione tra Venezia e Milano (The Eyes of Caravaggio: The Formative Years Between Venice and Milan). Following a lead from none other than Roberto Longhi, Sgarbi contended that Merisi would ‘inevitably’ have examined Venetian painting in situ between leaving Lombardy in 1592 and reappearing in Rome in 1596. Tintoretto did not die until 1594, in the exact middle of this period, and at the pinnacle of his fame. Throughout his short life, Caravaggio will continue to hover between Robusti’s shadowy dramas and the Lombards’ down-to-earth frankness—though this element is also present in Tintoretto himself. And while a line from tenebrism to chiaroscuro is easily traced, another link between the two painters has often been overlooked: the careful staging of scenes. Whereas Robusti used small wax figures or larger mannequins, sometimes suspended from the ceiling, Merisi would employ living models. The latter were reserved by Tintoretto for individual studies, rather than group compositions, yet an avowed theatricality is a hallmark both artists share.

A more precise example of Robusti’s long-range effect on later painting is that Cortona and Poussin will repeat the exact same Serlian ‘stage-set’ he had employed in his Washing of the Feet, now at the Prado—though Tintoretto had given it a Venetian twist, complete with a canal. Many such minutiae could be marshalled, but I will leave that important task to the experts. Not long ago, many of them scoffed at my notion of a link between Tintoretto and Caravaggio, though I gather they are slowly coming round. In 2014, while seeking out Merisi’s final masterpieces in Naples, Malta, and Sicily, I became convinced that he was Robusti’s most authentic heir.

Intuitively, rather than rationally, I started seeing Tintoretto ‘through Caravaggio’s eyes’: peering through the lens of chiaroscuro, that gloom where a cathartic drama unfolds. Caravaggio faced the terrors of ‘nothingness,’ no doubt, but his overriding message is the salvific grace of compassion. During three months in Sicily, the fires of my conviction flared in Syracuse, before the Burial of St. Lucy, with its figures wedged into a mostly invisible space around her corpse. Finally, at the strangely fragile museum in Messina, they burned for hours, as I stood mesmerised before The Resurrection of Lazarus, a painting even darker than Tintoretto’s darkest. Here Christ’s raised arm recalls his vigorous command in The Vocation of St. Matthew; but the blackness of the canvas reduces—or elevates—the scene to a moribund ember of hope, dwarfed by an obscure trapezoid in the background.

Overwhelmed by that harrowing work, perhaps Merisi’s last (though another candidate might be the equally nocturnal Martyrdom of St. Ursula in Naples), I sometimes repaired to his nearby Adoration of the Shepherds, at the same largely deserted Sicilian gallery. There too I fancied I had uncovered the subterranean link between Tintoretto and Caravaggio, mirrored not only in the overall transition from Mannerism to the Baroque, or from tenebrism to chiaroscuro, but also in particular features like recurring gestures, dramaturgical cues, and the consistent emphasis on ordinary people. As Sartre points out in his writings on the artist, with whom he was obsessed in his old age, of all the Venetian masters only Tintoretto was close to the working-man’s world, the milieu of his origins. While the painter’s most recent biographer, the eloquent essayist Melania Mazzucco, accepts the noble genealogy spun out by an in-law of the family, Stefania Mason rejects such claims in the catalogue of the current retrospective—and she may be right. For one thing, Tintoretto felt out of place anywhere but on his own home turf, a characteristic of unpretentious citizens throughout the ages. A more plebeian social origin would also explain the down-to-earth details in his works; only an artisan who had grown up among dyers, and who had decorated furniture in his youth, would have portrayed them with such fondness and exactitude. Similar motifs will reappear in several paintings by Annibale Carracci, as I noted earlier; but they will become far more pervasive in the oeuvre of Merisi, who highlights the commonplace and often uses proletarian models. In Messina, the connection between Tintoretto and Caravaggio became startlingly clear to me, down to the last detail. Before Merisi’s Adoration, I even daydreamed that the incandescent straw on the ground was borrowed from the blazing wisps of Robusti’s San Rocco version of the scene. Such visual poems may take shape at times in an art-lover’s febrile reveries, without any need of objective proof.

SHORTLY AFTER THIS, I was rushed to the emergency room; it took five hours of touch-and-go surgery to save my life. I was discharged from the hospital eight days later, and convalesced for several weeks in a small coastal town between Palermo and Cefalù. I then flew back to Venice, where I spent six months in the Dorsoduro, overlooking a quiet garden. Severely weakened, I had to give up my usual pursuits, writing and translation; still, I needed to keep moving as part of my rehabilitation. In this desultory state, I struck on a project I could carry out with my friend Michele Casagrande, who was raised in the Serenissima. Since 2011, he has been my mentor in all things Italian, during protracted stays in the Belpaese that have totalled two and a half years. We began with conversation lessons, but soon progressed to architecture and art. In that summer of 2014, as he prepared for graduate school, his schedule was as flexible as mine. With no other goal in mind, we decided to experience the Veneto through its most prolific painter—museum by museum, church by church, scuola by scuola, nook by nook. As with most of my latter-day adventures in Italy, here was a chance to draw upon and supersede the impressions of my youth. Had I found Tintoretto incomprehensible in 1970, even off-putting? Now, forty-four years later, by gazing backwards—historically and personally—through the dark glass of Caravaggio, I hoped to come face to face with his mastery. In my lifelong art-lover’s quest, this was the last great door of Italian painting I still needed to unlock.

We were as methodical in our exploration as we could be at the time. One of the welcome offshoots of this year’s fifth centennial is the compilation by Save Venice of a printed guide to all the Tintoretto pictures on public view in Venice—a helpmeet we often felt the need of, and intermittently discussed as a possible outcome of our walks. An American foundation, Save Venice preserves artworks throughout the Serenissima; incidentally, the organisation states on its webpage that seven of the paintings it has helped to restore are on view in the Washington exhibition. Such efforts are too often taken for granted by the general public, but I would like to acknowledge them gratefully here. The non-profit maintains its headquarters and library at the Palazzo Contarini Polignac—built in 1492, when Columbus sailed to the New World, and once owned by an American heiress. I remember the many conversations that led to its establishment there, and I am glad those long-range plans have come to fruition.

In 2014, Casagrande and I had to make up the itineraries on our own, using the index of the Guida del Touring Club Italiano. Armed with that classic red bible, we began with the church of San Marcuola, which enshrines Robusti’s first version of the Last Supper—perhaps the most frequent of all his themes. By following his development of the motif from that ‘Raphaelian’ symmetrical design, through the freer variants at San Polo and San Trovaso, to the final apotheosis at San Giorgio Maggiore, we gained many insights into the evolution of his style—or rather, styles (see the images in the ‘Heard in Tintoretto’ section of this portfolio). As Echols and Ilchman assert, the cliché of comparing the last-named canvas with Leonardo’s fresco in Milan, by way of contrasting the equilibrium of the High Renaissance with the lability of later periods, is all too pat. In fact, Tintoretto was always capable of employing many idioms; even more than his fellow-Mannerists, he borrowed from the ‘manners’ of various predecessors. He adjusted his brushwork to the circumstances (his patrons’ predilections, the exigency of speed, or the distance of the work from the viewer) and altered the lines of perspective to match the picture’s position—for example, depending on whether the canvas would occupy a frontal spot over an altar or a lateral wall in a chapel.

Even during the heaviest season for tourists, the San Marcuola church held a mere handful of local parishioners, seemingly indifferent to Tintoretto’s early masterwork. As with his stupendous paintings The Descent into Limbo and The Crucifixion at San Cassiano—another little-frequented church—we naively considered it a gem only we had unearthed. All three pictures are given pride of place in the current catalogue, even if they are not included in the exhibition itself. Besides the San Trovaso Last Supper, Washington museum-goers will conveniently be able to view other canvases we took some pains to find, such as those at San Marziale, or the municipal museum in Vicenza, or the monastic chapel at San Giorgio Maggiore. The last section of the show provides a virtual index of Tintoretto’s religious themes. In addition to the Last Supper, two other biblical episodes that Robusti often depicted were the Washing of the Feet and the Crucifixion: all three are informed by the Tridentine mandate to exalt the sacrament of Communion. On the eve of his death, Christ the King lowers himself to the simplest human level by washing his disciples’ feet; then he sacrifices his body to redeem mankind through the Crucifixion, memorialised by the Eucharist. Tintoretto’s deployment of such interlocking topoi underlines his fidelity to the theological programme of his time, as well as his infinite capacity to vary them through brilliant shifts in composition, brushwork, and point of view.

OVER THE COURSE of several months, we not only lingered at such obvious destinations as the Scuola (and the Church) of San Rocco, the Accademia, the Palazzo Ducale, and the Madonna del Orto in Cannaregio (near Tintoretto’s house, still extant). We also ferreted out lesser-known works at Santa Maria Mater Domini, San Lazzaro dei Mendicanti, San Giuseppe di Castello, the library of the Ateneo Veneto, and a host of other locations. Our dogged persistence gained us the favour of several curators; one of them discreetly ushered us to a studio where a restorer was toiling over a minor but unusual Tintoretto. Patiently, she chatted with us about technical matters such as varnishes, pigments, and different types of brush-strokes; above all, she stressed her deep commitment to the artist’s stylistic principles. Like her, we took our task seriously. We pored over every canvas at length, recording our impressions of each one—an exhaustive ‘oral catalogue,’ mostly in Italian, which I still listen to with pleasure. Another adjunct to the fifth centennial celebration is that the Venice museum system has devised a tool which strollers through the city may consult on their mobiles. (It is available here.) We would encourage the same entity to post itineraries for Bellini, Carpaccio, Titian, Veronese, the Guardis, and the Tiepolos. Though not as numerous as Tintoretto’s, their paintings are also spread throughout the city, often in byways that afford unexpected vistas of the Serenissima and its lagoon.

Instead of ‘death in Venice,’ I found life: in a period of grave physical distress, Robusti literally brought me back to my senses.

Did my pilgrimage convert me to Tintoretto at last? I suppose the reader will have gathered from the outset that it did—resoundingly so. Instead of ‘death in Venice,’ I found life: in a period of grave physical distress, Robusti literally brought me back to my senses. Over that summer of 2014, I became so inured to every feature of his art that I instantly recognised a dusty canvas at the Church of San Simeone as his; it was a version of the Last Supper we had overlooked in the Touring Club guide. The sacristan had cavalierly stuck the picture on a back pew while workers were repainting a wall, and any passer-by could have stolen it. I teased him about his carelessness, and he shot back gaily: ‘Oh, there are so many Tintorettos in Venice, who would want this one!’ By September, Robusti was haunting my increasingly firmer steps up and down the bridges, and from one calle or campo to the next; scores of facades had come to signify not only their architectural epochs, but also the Tintorettos concealed behind them. Like his artworks, my past had become my present, my present opened out on the future—and vice-versa: each momentary breath was the connective ‘and’ in ‘after and before.’

A characteristic of the painter that particularly fascinated me was a zigzagging brush-stroke he invented, and which his son Domenico would perpetuate (in the meantime, it has been acknowledged as their painterly ‘signature’). Both of them employ it especially for fabrics, turning them into bundles crisscrossed by lightning-bolts; they seem to detach themselves from the pictures where they occur, almost becoming ends in themselves. My friends in Europe used to make fun of me for detecting precursors of modern abstractionism in exuberant passages like these, comparing them to Kline, Soulages, or Richter. Perhaps they will also find it odd that Echols and Ilchman wryly bear me out in their introductory essay. They quip that instead of a marriage of Michelangelo’s disegno with Titian’s colouration, as Tintoretto is said to have boasted, his painting is more like a fusion of Salviati’s disegno with de Kooning’s brushwork. No doubt all great art sends us back and forth in time. For example, Rothko allowed me to value the hovering blackness that enshrouds Merisi’s San Lazaro, as well as the layered veils woven by Robusti. And yet of all painters, it seems to me, Tintoretto is the most Janus-like. As Maria Ustyuzhaninova commented during a recent talk in Berlin, he reaches back at times to Byzantine iconography, the fundamental origin of Venetian art. He resumes the entire Renaissance, in all its different ‘manners’; but he also looks forward to the Baroque, to contemporary art—and for all we know, to trends we cannot predict.

In his essay on the Venice retrospective in this portfolio, Casagrande rightly stresses that beyond its multi-faceted and absorbing didacticism, the show reminds us above all that in order to comprehend Tintoretto, we have to view his paintings in situ, just as the two of us did in 2014. Because of the sheer extent of his oeuvre, not to mention the gigantic size of many of his canvases, most of his paintings appear in neither version of the fifth centennial retrospective. Many are passed over even in the catalogue: for example, my favourite of all, The Washing of the Feet at the Church of San Moisè:

The past, as our imagination transforms it in the present, already evolves into the future. This was the lesson I learned from Tintoretto in work after work…

This one painting epitomises all the typical traits of Tintoretto I have outlined above. The principal scene, on the right, is elevated on a dais, like the stage of a theatre. The kneeling donors on the left inhabit another space and time, like the audience of a mystery play. In some in-between realm, the woman in red exhorts them to imitate Christ’s humility. Meanwhile, in the immediate background, two servants go about their tasks, illustrating that selflessness must rule our everyday life, in the here and now. Finally, on a remote plane to the left, surveyed by more ‘theatre-goers’ from a balcony, a vision of the Garden of Gethsemane expands the picture to the breaking point. Is this the past, the present, or the future? Paradoxically, a fleeting moment of eternity is what the entire painting, by melding all dimensions into one, powerfully conveys. In many of Tintoretto’s late works—most dramatically in The Gathering of the Manna at San Giorgio Maggiore, the ghostly figures in the distance seem to translate a basic truth: that memory is the surest form of resurrection. We can understand this as the Old Testament being fulfilled in the New, or as the Scriptures governing our current thoughts and acts, or as our constant reinterpretation of history, both collective and individual. The past, as our imagination transforms it in the present, already evolves into the future. This was the lesson I learned from Tintoretto in work after work—a lesson that quickened my steps and restored me to reality, that multivalent realm of ‘the seen and the unseen.’

In 2011, when I began my latter-day phase in Venice, my old friend Alessandro Giannastasio, the economist, art historian, and native Venetian, liked to expound on one of his cardinal themes. With a mixture of humour and wonder, he speculated that the link between America and Venice could not be more profound. For a thousand years, until the end of the eighteenth century, the Serenissima was the only self-styled republic on earth; it suffered its coup de grâce at the hands of Bonaparte—ironically, on behalf of the short-lived First French Republic. To this day, Giannastasio concluded, the upstart Corsican rates as the most egregious villain among Venetians: not only did he disband many religious institutions and demolish their age-old buildings, he also made off with countless artworks—some of which, like Veronese’s magnificent Wedding Feast at Cana, have never been returned. The American Republic was born shortly before the Serenissima’s demise, almost as though the self-governing impulse was fated to crop up once again. Profiting from the Emperor Napoleon’s financial woes, Jefferson acquired the Louisiana Purchase from him in 1803, for a mere pittance: this was poetic justice, my friend concluded gleefully.

Be that as it may, it does seem fitting that the twin exhibitions in celebration of the most Venetian of all painters should take place in the capital cities of these two historic republics. True, they have often behaved as badly as any monarchy: one of them despoiled Constantinople and the other, in recent decades, has waged a string of futile wars. But for that very reason, the tireless curators in Washington and Venice must be warmly applauded for their international cooperation; they have mobilised enormous resources, spurring the keen participation of public and private entities on both continents. In an era when petty nationalism is on the march throughout the world, our cultural institutions continue to set an example for us all, holding forth a precious beacon of hope.

Hoyt Rogers is a writer, translator, scholar, and internationalist; born in North America, he has spent most of his life in Latin America and Europe. He was educated at Columbia, the Sorbonne, Harvard, and Oxford. He is the author of a book of verse, Witnesses, and a volume of criticism, The Poetics of Inconstancy. His poems, stories, and essays have appeared in many periodicals. He translates from the French, German, Italian, and Spanish; he has published many translations, including various books by Borges, Bonnefoy, and du Bouchet. He is a contributing editor of The Fortnightly Review. His latest translation, Bonnefoy’s Rome 1630, is forthcoming from Seagull Books. For further information, visit

Note: A minor edit was made to this essay after publication.



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

Post a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared. Required fields are marked *