“The drawing of Michael Angelo and the colouring of Titian”. This was the ‘motto’ that used to hang over the workshop of Jacopo Robusti, aka Tintoretto, who had formulated it as a young man to describe his art. And certainly there is no better definition for the artist who subsequently ascended to the Olympus of the 'greats' of the Venetian Golden Age, together with Titian, Veronese, Palma il Giovane and Bassano. Jacopo Robusti, however, unlike most of the latter, was born and lived all his life in the Serenissima: he was a true-blooded Venetian… in temperament too! Indeed, he was excellent at promoting himself throughout his life, as Vasari recalls, who defined him il furioso, for his energetic and unmistakable line but also il terribile, for his strong character and dramatic use of perspective and light.
Autoritratto, 1546 - 1547 ca, olio su tela, 45 x 38 cm. Philadelphia Museum of Art, dono di Marion R. Ascoli e del Marion R. and Max Ascoli Fund, in onore di Lessing Rosenwald.
Born between 1518 and 1519 (the date is not certain), he was the son of a ‘tintore’ or dyer of fabrics – hence the nickname 'Tintoretto' – and he quickly overtook all his rivals, on the one hand accepting many low-paid commissions and on the other respecting virtually impossible delivery terms.
Tradition has it that, having gone as a pupil to Titian, the latter soon threw him out through jealousy and for his showy skills. Despite this, over the years Tintoretto developed a pictorial technique that was both effective and would amaze his audience. It was almost a form of 'drawing in paint', which highlighted his dynamism and the unconventional approach, especially in the biblical scenes he produced.
The influences of his line and his art inspired groups of artists, even though as a figure he was often the subject of controversy: he was in fact praised for his inventive ability but also strongly reproached for painting works considered to be unfinished.
His triumphant success came in 1548, when for the Scuola Grande di San Marco, he painted The Miracle of the Slave (now visible at the Accademia). Other extraordinary paintings followed: The Last Judgment and The Adoration of the Golden Calf, produced in the 1550s for the church of Madonna dell’Orto. In 1564 he began what would become his most famous monument, the decoration of the Scuola Grande di San Rocco, which he managed to complete only twenty-five years later, but which now represents the largest concentration of significant paintings by a single artist in Venice. He painted dozens of paintings for the churches of Venice, while his workshop – in which his children Marietta and Domenico worked – assumed more and more the characteristics of a family business. Naturally, the great painter had no lack of works commissioned by the Republic during his career. These spanned a period of about forty years, from 1553 to 1592, a span that saw the appointment of no less than eight doges. And in particular, he worked for the symbolic seat of the Serenissima’s power and government – Palazzo Ducale – both before and after the two great fires of 1574 and 1577 that destroyed many of his works as well as those of other artists. These lost works were soon replaced by others, all of them dwarfed by the enormous panel of the Paradise, one of the largest canvas paintings in the world, produced in pieces between 1588 and 1592 in the Scuola Grande della Misericordia with a major contribution from the workshop and his son Domenico.
It is therefore clear that an artist of this magnitude, one of the greatest geniuses to have ever trod the the stage of the world’s art scene, deserved a grand celebration to celebrate the five hundredth anniversary of his birth. And 'his' city has responded with major exhibitions and events that are not to be missed, itineraries through the city and churches, and original displays, publications and conference initiatives, in a collaborative spirit and network proposed and supported by the City of Venice.
The focal point is the impressive exhibition project that the Fondazione Musei Civici di Venezia has been working on with the National Gallery of Art in Washington since 2015 and which has enjoyed the full collaboration of the Gallerie dell’Accademia di Venezia. The result, 80 years after the last exhibition dedicated to him in the city (in 1937), is an extraordinary monographic study of the artist at Palazzo Ducale from 7 September 2018 to 6 January 2019 (TINTORETTO 1519 - 1594). This focuses on the most fruitful period of his art, from the full affirmation of his reputation, towards the mid-1540s, to his last works. And at the same time, there is another great exhibition at the Gallerie dell’Accademia di Venezia (THE YOUNG TINTORETTO) dedicated to the masterpieces of his first decade of activity and the inspiring context in which he embarked on his artistic career.
Many other leading institutions in the lagoon are celebrating Jacopo Robusti in this special year. Among these, in particular, are the Scuola Grande di San Rocco, one of the fundamental sites of the artist’s activity and guardian of his impressive pictorial cycles, and the Patriarchal Curia, responsible for the many churches that still conserve fine works by Tintoretto. The support of Save Venice Inc. has also been vital, for in the past two years it has provided support for the scientific examination and restoration of many masterpieces by the artist to be found in Venice (no less than 18 paintings plus the painter’s tomb in the church of the Madonna dell’Orto). Its contribution has enabled the public to admire these works in their original splendour in the exhibitions or along the city route specially drawn up by the Fondazione Musei Civici di Venezia in collaboration with the Patriarchal Curia.
The Palazzo Ducale presents the astonishing creative vitality of the mature Tintoretto, while the Gallerie dell’Accademia is showing works form his early youth as he sought to establish his reputation, set within an integrated display of extraordinary masterpieces from leading public and private collections of the world.
Organised in co-production with the National Gallery of Art in Washington, in collaboration with the Gallerie dell’Accademia, with the support of Save Venice Inc. and of Louis Vuitton, the ‘Tintoretto 1519 - 1594’ exhibition – curated by Robert Echols and Frederick Ilchman, with the scientific direction of Gabriella Belli – sees the arrival of a series of splendid masterpieces from America and from leading European museums, thanks to which it is possible to reread his work in greater detail, in the light, moreover, of recent studies and some fundamental restorations.
The Prado of Madrid has sent Joseph and Potiphar’s wife (about 1555), Judith and Holofernes (1552-1555) and The Rape of Helen (1578-1579), while the famous and fascinating Susanna and the Elders is a masterpiece from the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna 1555-1556. For its part, the Staatliche Museen of Berlin has sent the noble Portrait of Giovanni Mocenigo (circa 1580). No less noteworthy are the Portrait of a Procurator of San Marco (1578 - 1585) from the National Gallery of Art in Washington, one of the most impressive Tintoretto portraits, and the Portrait of Vincenzo Morosini from the National Gallery in London, which has been lent abroad for the first time, in addition to the two famous and extraordinary self-portraits with which this exhibition opens and closes; one dating from the beginning of his career – loaned by the Philadelphia Museum of Art – and one from the end, a famous work lent by the Louvre. And this is just the beginning, as the ‘journey’ continues among the other Tintoretto works in the Palazzo, in a whirlwind of emotions that can only make us agree with John Ruskin, who in 1845 declared: “I never was so utterly crushed to the earth before any human intellect as I was today before Tintoret”.
Main image: Tarquinio e Lucrezia, 1578 - 1580 ca
olio su tela, 175 x 152 cm
The Art Institute of Chicago, Art Institute Purchase Fund