In the middle of the sixteenth century, the city of Venice was at the height of its power and trade. Beside its crowded canals and alleys in its lagoon, a great many artisans produced the finest silks, brocades, jewellery, armour and glass. At their centre were fraternity institutions known as scuole (plural of scuola). There were numerous regular scuole, but a few rose to become officially recognised as Scuole Grandi, which had elaborate constitutions and were regulated by the Procurators of the city. In 1564, there were just six, of which the Scuola Grande di San Rocco was the second youngest, being founded in 1478.
In addition to their system of boards and officers, the Scuole Grandi had grand premises. In their main building was an androne or meeting hall, and its upper floor had two rooms for smaller gatherings: the larger one was used by its main board, and a smaller albergo for its supervising committees. There was usually an affiliated hospital, and of course the Scuola’s church. The Scuole Grandi also had a long history of commissioning music and musicians, and art, including architecture, sculpture, and painting.
San Rocco’s meeting house had undergone protracted and costly development, being started on its formation in 1478 and only ‘substantially’ completed seventy years later in 1549.
For a painter like Tintoretto, the scuole were the key to artistic and commercial success. Unlike individual churches, whose commissions came and went, a well endowed scuola could keep him in work for the rest of his career. Tintoretto, christened Jacopo Comin and the son of a dyer, had little if any formal training in painting. Although he seems to have studied briefly in Titian’s workshop, he was largely self-taught.
By May 1539, when he was still only about 21, 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.
The painting which marked a turning point in Tintoretto’s career is his Miracle of the Slave from 1548. Based on the notoriously unreliable Golden Legend, a slave is about to be martyred by torture in having his limbs and body broken, for the offence of venerating the relics of a Christian saint.
The naked slave is lying on the ground, surrounded by the shattered fragments of an axe, other tools, and lengths of rope which were being used to kill him slowly. One of his torturers, wearing a distinctive turban, is caught just to the right of centre, in the midst of hammering something to inflict more pain and suffering.
Surrounding the slave is a tight cluster of people: his torturers, bystanders, several women and their children. Flying above them all, into the picture plane, his right arm stretched down towards the chaos, is the foreshortened figure of Saint Mark.
This seems to have been Tintoretto’s first really large-scale work, which brought him renown throughout Venice. His composition was inspired by a bronze relief of the same scene by Jacopo Sansovino, made in 1541-44. Commissioned for the Scuola Grande di San Marco, it proved controversial and was initially returned to the artist as being unsuitable. It marked the start of a long and very beneficial relationship with the Scuola, and Tintoretto’s promotion to the major league of Venetian artists.
Within a year of completing that, Tintoretto painted the large Christ Washing the Disciples’ Feet for the Scuola di San Marcuola.
The disciples are gathered in a palatial room, around a large refectory table which looks appropriate for the Last Supper, an event which appears to be depicted in a painting hanging on the wall. In the right foreground, Jesus Christ is washing the feet of those disciples one by one, with them standing in turn in a shallow wooden tub. Elsewhere, disciples are seen pulling one another’s boots off, and a hound sits alert in the centre foreground.
According to his biographers, and some surviving records of accounts, Tintoretto resorted to some extraordinary tricks to build up the business for himself and his studio. Most notable, at least among other Venetian painters, was his practice of undercutting prices. Sometimes this would mean painting for the cost of his materials, a ploy which he used on several occasions until he was securely established in the 1560s.
In 1549, in a bid to strengthen his hand with the Scuola Grande, Tintoretto donated his painting of Saint Roch Cures the Plague Victims to its Church of San Rocco, but it had been his patron Tommaso Rangone who commissioned his recent series of paintings of Saint Mark. Most significantly, in 1550, he married the daughter of a noble who was helpfully the guardian grande of the Scuola Grande di San Marco.
At last his opportunity came in 1564, when the brothers of the Scuola Grande di San Rocco called a competition between the leading painters of Venice to start providing paintings for its albergo.
Tintoretto, faced with hostility from some of the brothers, pre-empted the competition by donating what he intended to be the thematic centre panel of the ceiling: St Roch in Glory (1564). The full story is given by Tom Nichols (2015, see references below), and resulted in Tintoretto stealing the commission, and completing twenty-two more paintings for that project. Over the following years, his paintings came to dominate the treasures of San Rocco, and his place in the history of art was assured.
The following year, commissioned again by the Scuola Grande for its albergo, Tintoretto painted one of the major religious works of the century: his vast Crucifixion. This is over 5 metres (17 feet) high, and 12 metres (40 feet) across. Having at last convinced the sceptics of San Rocco that he was to be trusted, he applied the lessons learned in previous works for the Madonna dell’Orto. He makes use of space and uses a narrative technique based on the traditional ‘multiplex’ form popular during the Renaissance, in which its single image shows events at more than a single point in time – but in an ingenious and modern manner.
Tintoretto then had three further paintings to make for the albergo in the Scuola Grande di San Rocco, large scenes from the Passion which hang close-packed on the wall opposite his vast Crucifixion. Unfortunately, the nature of the room prevents the viewer from seeing both walls at the same time, which has perhaps lessened their visual effect.
The right of the three shows Christ before Pilate, and like the others was completed between 1566-67. Pilate is the bald and bearded man in the red robe sat on a throne to the right of centre, and is talking to the High Priest or his representative at the lower right. Christ dominates the canvas as he stands, his face and eyes cast down, to the left of centre. His hands are bound by thick rope, a unifying theme through these three paintings.
In the centre is Ecce Homo (‘behold, the man’), showing a bloody and battered figure of Christ exposed to an unseen crowd, of which the viewer is a member. Christ wears the crown of thorns, and his hair and beard are matted with dried blood. His wrists and ankles are again bound with rope. He gazes into the distance, here looking across the albergo to the image of himself on the cross, providing a subtle forward link in the narrative.
At the left is the Ascent to Calvary, which 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 the 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.
Individually, these are major Christian religious paintings. Taken as a series with the Crucifixion opposite, they must be one of the canonical depictions of the Passion.
Tintoretto was now in good standing with the Scuola Grande di San Rocco. He was admitted to the confraternity in 1565, served as one of its deacons, and as a syndic, and his paintings in its albergo were much admired. He still had his opponents, but when in July 1575 he offered to provide a very large painting to go in the middle of the ceiling of the Sala superiore, the Scuola gratefully accepted. The artist’s tactic had worked a second time.
This remarkable centrepiece is known as The Brazen Serpent, and was completed in 1576 after about a year of planning and preparation. Being slightly more that 8 x 5 metres (26 x 16 feet) and mounted in the middle of the ceiling, it is very difficult to get a good and faithful image of it.
The Brazen Serpent is not only large in size, but is 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.
Parallels have been drawn with the situation in Venice at the time: there had been another severe outbreak of plague in 1575-76, which on 27 August 1576 had claimed the life of the great Titian.
Provision of the remaining paintings to complete the ceiling took Tintoretto and his large workshop remarkably little time. There are a dozen substantial works in addition to their centrepiece, and another eight smaller pieces, the majority of which were largely executed by the workshop between 1577-78. The whole cycle can be seen as detailing the preparatory steps which led up to Christ’s Passion, as shown in the albergo.
The arrangement with Tintoretto made in 1577 was most unusual. Instead of being paid for each painting as a separate commission, as was normal, the Scuola paid him a modest annual salary of 100 ducats, in return for which he and his workshop would deliver three paintings each year before the feast of Saint Roch, on 16 August.
This was something of a gamble for both sides. As it turned out, Tintoretto was provided with a sound and dependable income which allowed him to pursue other work too, and the Scuola paid a small fraction of what any other artist would have cost them, for a Meeting House which steadily filled with some of the finest paintings of the century.
Just as his workshop was completing the last of their paintings for the Sala superiore in the Scuola, Jacopo was starting on the final series, to hang on the walls of its lower room, the Sala terrena. These were to keep him and his workshop occupied until about 1584, by which time Jacopo turned 66, and was delegating even more work to his son Domenico and his co-workers. In a sense, then, this series is Jacopo’s grand finale.
The theme for this series is the early life of Christ, with its references to the Passion and Crucifixion in the future, and his family, notably the Virgin Mary. This fits excellently with his previous series for the upper rooms.
The Visitation from about 1588 celebrates one of the lesser-known feasts in the Christian calendar, to mark the visit made by the Virgin Mary during her pregnancy to Elizabeth, who was at the time pregnant with John the Baptist. Mary stayed for as long as three months, which probably included her attendance at Elizabeth’s confinement and the birth of John. Their exchange leads to one of the greatest sections in the Christian liturgy, the Magnificat (“My soul doth magnify the Lord…”).
In this, his last surviving painting for the Scuola Grande di San Rocco, where it was hung on the staircase, Tintoretto shows the two women embracing and supporting one another, with their older husbands on each side.
Over a period of twenty-five years, the Scuola Grande di San Rocco and Tintoretto enjoyed one of the most productive symbiotic relationships in the history of painting. Tintoretto established himself as one of the great Venetian Masters, and the Scuola Grande acquired one of the great collections of paintings in Europe. All it took was a couple of free samples at the right moments.
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.