The great Venetian painter Jacopo Tintoretto was probably born in late September 1518, the first child in a family which was to grow to 21. His father, whose surname was actually Comin, was a dyer in the city of Venice, who had become nicknamed Robusti on account of his robust defence of the gates of the city of Padua during the recent War of the League of Cambrai.
Almost nothing is known about Tintoretto’s training. Some have claimed that he was taken for assessment in Titian’s studio, but was sent home from there after only a few days or weeks. Various reasons are given for this, some that Tintoretto was already such a good artist that he would never make a good pupil.
By May 1539, though, Tintoretto appears to have matriculated from the Arte dei Depentori so that he was able to work as an independent painter in his own right. To have done so would ordinarly have required him to have completed an apprenticeship satisfactorily, and there is no good evidence of the Venetian master to whom he had been apprenticed.
His first datable work, a painting of the Virgin and Child with saints and the donor Procurator Girolamo Marcello, is put at 1537-38, but its location is currently unknown. After that are a handful of surviving religious paintings between the late 1530s and early 1540s, and some fragments of fresco.
Tintoretto’s first substantial commission appears to have been for the young patrician Vettore Pisani, to decorate a room in his palace at San Paternian, near San Marco in Venice. Fourteen have survived and are now in the Galleria Estense in Modena, Italy. Painted on octagonal panels of about 130 x 130 cm, they appear to have been mounted in the ceiling, or at least towards it, and by convention their figures are viewed from below and greatly foreshortened as a result. I have been able to locate suitable images of thirteen of these, thanks to the photography of Sailko.
As they show scenes from some of the more famous myths told by Ovid in his Metamorphoses, I will consider them in the order in which they appear in his text, and provide links to fuller articles examining those stories and their representation in paintings, in my recent series on the Metamorphoses.
Deucalion and Pyrrha in Prayer (1541-42) (E&I 19) refers to one of the early stories in Book 1 of Metamorphoses, covered here, and an account of a flood myth which sees this rather strange couple as the only survivors. Deucalion is shown on the right with his greying beard, and his wife Pyrrha clasps her hands in prayer on the left. Although Tintoretto makes clear with the statue behind them that this is pre-Christian, he shows the couple as devoted and devout. There is little to link them to the story of the flood, nor of the odd way in which the rocks that they ‘sowed’ were turned into humans.
Apollo and Daphne (1541-42) (E&I 13), which is detailed here, is an outstanding example of pictorial narrative. It shows the moment of peripeteia, at which Apollo catches Daphne, just as she is being transformed into a laurel tree. The billowing scarf, flowing hair, and Apollo’s legs tell of the pursuit which is just ending, and the abundant branches and leaves forming from Daphne’s arms tell of the tree which she is becoming.
Mercury and Argus (1541-42) (E&I 20) tries to tell a little of the complex interlinked stories of Jupiter, Io, Mercury, Argus, Pan, and Syrinx. A challenge to cover even in a series of images, Tintoretto has chosen the time in which Mercury is trying to lull Argus to sleep, so that Io (who has been turned into a cow) can be abducted by Jupiter. Mercury is certainly playing a flute-like instrument, but Argus doesn’t look too sleepy yet.
Fall of Phaeton (1541-42) (E&I 18) tells the famous conclusion to this story from Book 2 of the Metamorphoses,
detailed here, in which Phaeton loses control of the chariot of the Sun, and comes crashing towards the earth. Although not a particularly difficult climax to paint, Tintoretto provides the viewer with all the clues needed to complete the story, even down to a whip which is also tumbling down.
Minerva, Vulcan and Cupid (Birth of Erichthonius) (1541-42) (E&I 24) shows one of the less well-known embedded myths, examined here. Ericthonius had developed without a mother, from the semen spilled by Hephaestus (Vulcan) when he tried to rape Minerva. Ovid only actually tells of the daughters of Cecrops and the infant Ericthonius. Tintoretto shows Hephaestus/Vulcan at the left, about to try to rape Minerva, stood at the right, with Cupid quite inappropriately in the sky above them.
Jupiter and Europa (1541-42) (E&I 26) tells the popular myth of the rape of Europa, as detailed here. A very modestly-dressed Europa has just got astride the white bull, which is Jupiter in disguise, and is about to be whisked off over the sea to Cyprus. Unusually for this series, Tintoretto has added two figures for a more complex composition, but still gives the essential clues.
Jupiter Appearing to Semele (1541-42) (E&I 16), from Book 3, is a complex story which I think is almost impossible to tell well in a single image, as I have described here. The god is impressive, clutching thunderbolts in both hands, with his eagle flying below. Semele is shown below, but is not yet being consumed by fire, and there are few other clues to the origin or outcome of this scene.
Sadly, I have been unable to find an image of Tintoretto’s painting showing the tragic young couple Pyramus and Thisbe, from Book 4, but other accounts are shown here.
Niobe and her Children (1541-42) (E&I 22) tells a tragic consequence of human pride from Book 6, which I detail here. This is another masterpiece of narrative painting, which accomplishes a great deal in its brilliant composition. The arrogant and boastful mother Niobe is shown in a dark green dress, holding her arms up to Apollo and Diana above, who are raining their arrows down and killing her children around her.
Although Niobe’s arms are almost certainly not accurately projected and too large, they dominate the painting quite dramatically.
Lycian Peasants Changed Into Frogs (1541-42) (E&I 14) tells the once-popular story of Latona, who had given birth to the twins Apollo and Diana, and craved water to slake her thirst. When the local Lycians muddied the waters around her, she turned them into frogs, and provided an excellent visual story for many artists. Tintoretto is again very successful in expressing this in just five figures and a simple composition.
Apollo and Marsyas (1541-42) (E&I 15) tackles one of the most gruesome and horrific stories in the whole Metamorphoses: that of the music contest between the satyr Marsyas and the god Apollo, which ends with Marsyas being flayed alive. I have examined this here. Tintoretto pictures the contest, which thankfully leaves its outcome to the imagination of the viewer. Apollo is on the left, holding an anachronistic violin, as Marsyas on the right plays his pipe.
Priapus and Lotis (1541-42) (E&I 23) jumps ahead to Book 9, to a sub-story which is referred to by Ovid, but not told in full, of Priapus who pursued the nymph Lotis in an attempt to rape her. This is described here. Tintoretto shows the start of that myth, in which Priapus (who is remarkably shown clothed) discovers Lotis, rather than its ending in which she is transformed into the Lotus bush.
Eurydice Before Pluto (1541-42) (E&I 21) tells of another doomed couple, from Book 10: the well-known Orpheus and Eurydice. When Eurydice dies of a snake bite moments after their wedding, Orpheus is granted permission to enter the Underworld, and to try to take her back, as described here. Tintoretto shows the beautiful Eurydice pleading her case before Pluto, the king of the Underworld. This is another eloquent image, although a little richer in its details.
Race of Hippomenes (1541-42) (E&I 25) is the last of the myths, also drawn from Book 10 of the Metamorphoses, and detailed here. Hippomenes (man) challenged Atalanta (woman) to a running race, knowing that she was faster than he, but distracting her by dropping golden apples, which allowed him to pip her at the post, and win her hand in marriage. Although Tintoretto has painted a fine foreshortened figure of Hippomenes, in omitting his opponent and the crucial golden apples, the narrative is surprisingly weak.
Tintoretto’s Fables of Ovid is a remarkable series of narrative paintings for an artist at the start of their career. Technically, its challenges in perspective projection are substantial; as relatively small paintings which often had to tell complex stories, the conflicting demands for detail and simplicity are generally handled expertly.
Yet these panels are so often glossed over or omitted altogether in accounts of Tintoretto’s work. Not only that, he is usually considered to be primarily a religious painter, who had little interest in depicting narratives from myth.
When originally in place in the palace at San Paternian, these paintings must have been a wonder to see, and should have formed excellent talking points.
Robert Echols and Frederick Ilchman (2009) Toward a new Tintoretto Catalogue, with a Checklist of revised Attributions and a new Chronology, in Falomir op cit.
Miguel Falomir (ed) (2009) Jacopo Tintoretto, Proceedings of the International Symposium, Museo Nacional del Prado. ISBN 978 84 8480 171 9.
Roland Krischel (ed) (2017) Tintoretto, A Star was Born, Hirmer (in German). ISBN 978 3 777 42942 7.
Tom Nichols (2015) Tintoretto, Tradition and Identity, 2nd edition, Reaktion Books. ISBN 978 1 78023 450 2.