Towards the end of the 1570s, Jacopo Tintoretto and his workshop began work on a dozen paintings for the walls to complete the Sala superiore in the Scuola Grande di San Rocco. At about the same time, they were busy with a series of other commissions, as well as a steady trade in portraits. Before I return to the Scuola, this article briefly covers those other paintings.
Danaë (E&I 217), now believed to have been painted between about 1578-83, follows one of Titian’s successful narrative nudes from more than twenty years earlier. It tells the story of the daughter of King Acrisius of Argos and his wife Eurydice (unrelated to the wife of Orpheus). The king had been told by the oracle at Delphi that he would be killed by his daughter’s son, so kept Danaë imprisoned in a bronze chamber under the court of his palace, so that she would never see daylight, let alone get pregnant.
Jupiter lusted after her, though, and entered her chamber through a grille in its roof, in the form of a rain of gold which impregnated her. It is this moment which Tintoretto shows, as has almost every artist who has painted this myth.
Danaë and her maid were clearly painted by different hands, and it is thought that Jacopo was responsible for the Titianesque figure of the heroine, and left the maid and background to his assistants. Jupiter’s rain of gold is shown as gold coins tumbling down onto her lap, in this conventional treatment. I’m not sure what the lute is doing at the far right, though, which seems out of place.
Danaë’s son was Perseus; mother and infant survived being cast into the sea in a wooden chest, and Perseus much later accidentally struck the old Acrisius on his head when competing in the games at Larissa, killing his father in accordance with the prophecy.
Jacopo is believed to have painted rather more of Tarquin and Lucretia (E&I 219) in 1578-80. This shows the rape of the Roman noblewoman Lucretia by Sextus Tarquinius, the son of an Etruscan king, which led to her suicide, the overthrow of the monarchy, and foundation of the Republic of Rome.
Tintoretto provides many signs of the violent struggle taking place. The string of pearls around Lucretia’s neck has just broken, and its pearls are seen symbolically falling to the floor. Tarquin’s dagger rests by her right foot, a bronze statue is tumbling to the ground, as is a white cushion. These are accentuated by the bold and painterly highlights on the fabrics.
It is less clear how much of this third secular work from this time was made by Jacopo himself. However, Leda and the Swan (E&I 221), from about 1578-83, tells another story of rape accomplished by Jupiter when in assumed form, this time as a swan which seduced Leda. Considering its quite explicit and bestial content, I am always surprised at how often this myth has been shown on canvas.
The design and composition do appear to have been by Jacopo: he wittily includes two caged birds, a duck and what appears to be a parrot, with a cat taunting the duck. I wonder if its Venetian viewers were invited to suggest what the maid might have been saying to her mistress.
Tintoretto’s Portrait of Vincenzo Morosini from about 1575-80 shows how gesturally he applied orpiment and realgar to form the sitter’s golden sash of a knight of the order of the Stola d’Oro; this resembles painterly applications made by Rembrandt almost a century later.
Morosini lived between 1511-1588, and attained the high office of Senator of the Republic of Venice.
Joyce Plesters reported that this portrait was painted on a thin gesso ground which had browned from excess of glue. Underdrawing was brushed over that in lead white. Pigments used include azurite, with a few particles of smalt, malachite green, verdigris, copper resinate green, and scattered particles of green earth in the flesh of the face, vermilion in flesh and lips, red lake in the crimson robe, together with orpiment and realgar as noted above.
As a taste for what is to come in the paintings for the Scuola which I will examine in the next article, here are the two saints, the smallest of the dozen works, who stand at one end of the room.
Saint Roch (E&I 223) (1578-81) is, of course, the patron of the Scuola. He is seen languishing in prison, where he died after five years of neglect. His left thigh is bared to reveal a plague sore there, as one of his traditional attributes.
Saint Sebastian (E&I 224) (1578-81) is shown conventionally, impaled with the arrows with which he was martyred.
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.
Joyce Plesters (1980) Tintoretto’s Paintings in the National Gallery Part II: Materials and techniques, National Gallery Technical Bulletin 4: 32-48.