Over the last two months, I have surveyed 111 of the paintings of Jacopo Tintoretto, who was most probably born five hundred years ago today, on 29 September 1518, or thereabouts. He was one of three grand masters in Venice during the 1500s, but today has fallen from favour in comparison with the other two, Titian (c 1488/90-1576) and Paolo Veronese (1528-1588).
One reason for this current unpopularity is what is perceived as the variable quality of his work. Some paintings which have been attributed to Tintoretto not only look the worse for their great age, but lack the pictorial quality. This is an unfortunate consequence of his popularity at the time: those were often painted by his son Domenico, and the family workshop, and many may not even have had his design input or oversight.
Deciding in retrospect which works he did design and execute is a very difficult task. In this series, I have relied on the latest checklist of his works, compiled over nine years ago by Robert Echols and Frederick Ilchman. Although it effectively excludes some of the works, such as the Gonzaga Cycle, which have long been presumed to be ‘Tintorettos’, in relying on it I hope that it has helped Jacopo’s true greatness to shine through.
Today, to celebrate his half millenium, I’d like to look back at a small selection of his paintings which I like the most.
Jacopo’s Miracle of the Slave (E&I 46) from 1548 shows a slave about to be martyred by having his limbs and body broken, for the offence of venerating the relics of a Christian saint. The skilfully foreshortened flying figure of Saint Mark has already freed the slave, who is left lying on the ground, where he is surrounded by the shattered fragments of the instruments of his torture, and his torturers are left clawing and hammering at thin air.
Saint George and the Dragon from about 1555 tells the well-known story of the saint, the dragon and the Princess. George is still locked in battle with the dragon, and the Princess runs towards us in terror. The corpse of the dragon’s last victim rests on the grass, his blue clothing in tatters. Above them and the massive walls of a distant fortress is the figure of God, in a brilliant mandorla in the heavens.
In Susannah and the Elders (E&I 64), from about 1555, Susannah is still blissfully ignorant of being watched by the evil elders, but the viewer is not, putting us in that uncomfortable predicament of knowing what is going on (wrong), but equally knowing that its actor is unaware.
Susannah is a Titianesque nude, both in form and appearance, caught drying her leg after bathing in the small pool beside her. She is looking at herself in a rectangular mirror propped up against a rosy trellis in a secluded part of her garden. Tintoretto is almost mischievous in his use of reflections, often used to extend the view of the figure on display. The plane mirror is angled to show just a glimpse of the sheet in front of Susannah, and none of her body, and the reflection shown on the surface of the pool is of her left knee and leg.
Making of the Golden Calf (E&I 78) is one of two very tall paintings for the Madonna dell’Orto, and tells one of the more memorable stories of Moses. During that epic journey from bondage in Egypt to the Promised Land, Moses left the Israelites for a period of forty days and nights, when he ascended Mount Sinai to be given the Ten Commandments. While he was away, the people demanded that Moses’ brother and deputy Aaron made them a graven image to worship.
The lower half of the painting shows the golden calf and the Israelites worshipping and feasting around it. Just over half way up is Moses on the summit of the mountain, being delivered the tablets with the commandments. Above that is heaven, with the Israelites’ God.
Crucifixion (E&I 123) (1565) is over 5 metres (17 feet) high, and 12 metres (40 feet) across. Jacopo makes use of space with a narrative technique based on the traditional ‘multiplex’ form popular during the Renaissance: its single image shows events at more than a single point in time, in an ingenious and modern manner.
Naturally, the painting centres on Christ crucified, but the two thieves executed beside him are not shown, as would be traditional, already hanging from their crosses. Instead, to the right of Christ, the ‘bad’ thief is still being attached to his cross, which rests on the ground. To the left of Christ, the ‘good’ thief is just being raised to the upright position.
Spaced out around the canvas are relevant sub-stories from that whole. At the foot of Christ’s cross is his group of mourners, including the Marys. Each of the crosses has attendant workers, busy with the task of conducting the crucifixion, climbing ladders, hauling on lines, and fastening each victim to his cross. This mechanical and human detail brings the scene to life, adding to its credibility and grim process.
Ascent to Calvary (E&I 128) is unusual among paintings of this phase of the Passion for its inclusion of all three of those to be crucified bearing their crosses. Christ is naturally prominent in the upper half of a composition dominated by diagonals, formed by the winding path and the crosses themselves. He and the two thieves are each given assistants who help them with the burden of the crosses.
In the upper distance are banners declaring the oversight of the Roman authorities, in their inscriptions of SPQR. Tintoretto links this with the Crucifixion with the inclusion of the tradesmen and their tools who were shortly to be responsible for the mechanics of the executions. Here thick ropes bind the figures together, as they are used to attach the crosses to their bearers, and to draw the three along to their deaths.
The Brazen Serpent (E&I 173) was completed in 1576 as the centrepiece of the ceiling in the Sala superiore in the Scuola Grande di San Rocco. It is not only large in size, but epic in its imagery. Based loosely on the Old Testament book of Numbers, chapter 21, 5-9, it refers to a period in which God sent ‘fiery serpents’ among the people, because they had spoken against both God and Moses.
The cascade of figures in the foreground, filling much of the lower half of the canvas, are the victims of the many snakes seen among their bodies. Above and beyond those writhing bodies, on the brightly-lit plateau, a serpent is ‘crucified’, and brings healing to those who remain enlightened. Above them is the figure of God, bearded and bald, flying with his swarm of angels.
The Gathering of the Manna (E&I 175) (1577) is probably the first depiction of this provision of food which is faithful to the Biblical account that the manna fell at night. It also shows very clearly that it came not just ‘from above’, but from God himself.
The Origin of the Milky Way (E&I 213) (1577-79) is probably Jacopo’s finest painting of myth. The infant Hercules is being pulled away from Juno’s breast, as fine streams of milk gush upwards to generate individual stars, and downwards to form lilies. In the background, Jupiter’s eagle has a crablike object in its talons, perhaps representing the constellation of the Crab (Cancer), and Juno’s peacocks are at the right.
The Adoration of the Shepherds (E&I 225) starts the series depicting the life of Christ in the Sala superiore of the Scuola Grande di San Rocco in a successfully inventive composition. Tintoretto takes the conventional (even a little hackneyed) scene of the nativity and adds a second story.
Within this, his references stay with tradition: downstairs is an ox and an ass, a cockerel, even a peacock. The Holy family are naturally upstairs, where the infant Christ really does look like a tiny, newborn infant. At the very top, peering through the tumbledown roof, are angels. There are visual links to the crucifixion in the ladder at the foot and cruciforms in beams of the roof.
This secular work showing The Rape of Helen (1580) is an outstanding depiction of the abduction of the wife of Menelaus, King of Sparta, by Paris, sparking off the Trojan War. Tintoretto brings forward the start of the war to this moment long before the thousand Greek ships set sail. As an archer is about to shoot his arrow, and another Trojan fends off attackers with a pike, Helen, dressed in her finery, is manhandled onto Paris’s ship like a stolen statue.
The Annunciation (E&I 264), thought to have been painted in about 1582, is an unusual composition, with natural rendering of contemporary brickwork, a wicker chair, and a splendidly realistic carpenter’s yard at the left. This is coupled with an aerial swarm of infants, at the head of which is the dove of the Holy Ghost in a small mandorla. Christ’s origins are here very real, tangible, and contemporary, in stark contrast to most traditional depictions of this scene.
Jacopo’s last huge masterpiece appropriately shows Paradise (E&I 298) (1588-1592), and is seven metres (almost twenty-three feet) high and twenty-two metres (over seventy feet) across. It centres on the Coronation of the Virgin, inspired by Dante’s Paradise.
At the top, the Virgin Mary, behind whom is her traditional symbol of the white lily, stands with Jesus Christ, in their matching red and blue robes. Between them is the white dove of the Holy Ghost, and all around are cherubic heads of infant angels.
Echols and Ilchman’s meticulous scholarship has, though, deprived us of one marvellous painting which had been attributed to Jacopo: they consider that this brilliantly projected view of Athena and Arachne in the throes of their weaving contest may have originated in a design by Jacopo, but was not painted by him. Given the projection of the figures, it still looks to my less knowledgeable eye to have the hallmark of Jacopo’s genius.
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.