THE VENETIAN PAINTING SCHOOL V. Tintoretto

The third great personality of this generation of Venetian artists from the second half of the 16th century wasn’t as highly esteemed as Titian and Veronese were. Only modern art criticism has understood the importance and exceptional value of the body of work of this third singular genius that was Jacopo Robusti, called Tintoretto (late September or early October 1518 – 31 May 1594). From his short biography “La vita di Giacopo Robusti” (1642) wrote by Carlo Ridolfi, who has been considered as the “Venetian Vasari” (he also wrote in 1648 “Le maraviglie dell’Arte ovvero, Le vite degli Illustri Pittori Veneti e dello Stato” about the lives of the painters of the Veneto), it is clear that Tintoretto was never accepted as an equal with Titian and Veronese and that, in order to work at ease as demanded by the fierceness of his conceptions, he had to fight until the end of his life. Tintoretto was a dynamic genius who was disliked by people, but that eventually prevailed. Throughout his life he had to strive to get commissions; his head and heart were bubbling with images, and he needed vast walls and immense canvases to give shape to the ideas that crowded into his brain.

We know little of his life, except for what Ridolfi has passed on to us. Born in Venice, he was of short stature, the son of a Venetian cloth dyer, or tintore, hence his nickname of Tintoretto (“little dyer” or “dyer’s boy”). It seems that at first, he was able to attend Titian’s studio for a few days and, according to Ridolfi, the master dismissed him soon out of envy. Instead, recognizing the high value of Titian’s work, Ridolfi himself says that Tintoretto, being very young, wrote on the wall of his workshop as a standard thought for his studies: “The drawing of Michelangelo and the coloring of Titian”. From this moment on, Tintoretto didn’t look for any further teaching, and instead he studied on his own by working alongside artisans who decorated furniture with paintings of mythological scenes, while he also studied anatomy by drawing live models and dissecting cadavers. He loved all the arts and as a youth played the lute and other instruments, some of them of his own invention, and designed theatrical costumes and properties. He was also well versed in mechanics and mechanical devices.

Ridolfi tells us that Tintoretto, in the midst of his poor condition, was able to collect casts of Michelangelo’s statues of Dawn, Day, Dusk and Night, and that he never tired of studying them from all possible angles, although his impetuous genius and phenomenal energy in painting (which earned him the nickname of Il Furioso, ‘the Furious’) soon made him look for other models. These were not Nature’s living beings, as Giotto had stated before, but wax and clay figurines, which Tintoretto dressed in silks and placed inside small wooden houses with miniature windows and doors, which he hung from the ceiling of his workshop to study, from below, the foreshortenings and perspective. A modern genius, Tintoretto, with his experiments with artificial lights described by Ridolfi, seemed one of those insatiable artists of our days who always look for new effects. He wasn’t a prolific draftsman; his ideas came quickly out of his brush, without wasting time in preparing a composition with preliminary studies. Once his style was formed, he only wanted to paint, to fill vast walls with images. He often asked no more compensation for his work than the material value of paints. His wife, Faustina from the noble Vescovi family, looked after her own dowry and tried to regulate her husband’s expenses.

After explaining that Tintoretto exercised great discipline in drawing, Ridolfi says that he “didn’t neglect to continually copy Titian’s paintings, from which he learned the beautiful colors”. Indeed, the coloring of Titian can be seen predominantly in the works of Tintoretto’s youth, but even in his old age it reappeared in his easel paintings.

The Miracle of the Slave (1548) is the first of a series of works originally painted for the Scuola Grande di San Marco while Marco Episcopi, Tintoretto’s future father-in-law, was Grand Guardian of the School. This large painting illustrates an episode from the Golden Legend which tells of the miraculous appearance of St. Mark to rescue one of his devotees, a servant of a knight of Provence, who had been condemned to torture for worshipping the saint’s relics against his master’s will. Tintoretto set the scene on a kind of proscenium which seems to propel the action out of the painting towards the viewer. We see a crowd standing in a semi-circle around the protagonists: the nude, foreshortened figure of the slave lying on the ground, the executioner holding aloft the broken implements of torture, the knight of Provence, to the right, standing from his seat and thus coming out of the shadow into the light, while the forceful figure of St. Mark swoops down from above. Tintoretto displays all his talent in the way he keeps the drama of the action by employing a tight composition, dramatic foreshortenings and sudden strong contrast of light and shade. Some scholars see the slave on the ground as a concealed self-portrait of Tintoretto. Scattered on the ground, from left to right, we have a still-life with the torture tools arranged in a striking zigzag pattern precisely in the order in which the failed attempts to torture were made. A self-portrait of Tintoretto as a young man is seen in the bearded man with dark hair standing to the left of the man wearing a bright pink turban.

The Miracle of the Slave, oil on canvas, by Tintoretto, 1548, 415 x 541 cm (Gallerie dell’Accademia, Venice).

The famous Susanna and the Elders (ca. 1555-1556) now in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, although difficult to date, is one of Tintoretto’s most characteristic examples of Titian’s style depicting Olympian serenity and glorious sensuality, and is considered as one of his masterpieces. It is surprising to see the originality of this interpretation of the subject by Tintoretto when repeating a theme heavily depicted by other painters. The theme of Susanna and the Elders is based on a scene from the biblical episode of Susanna, from the Book of Daniel. Tintoretto shows us Susanna, a young married woman, sitting on the edge of a small pool, preparing to take a bath. She is being watched by two elderly men, acquaintances of her husband, who desire her. The lustful elders are depicted in the painting hiding behind a rose trellis in her garden. They are watching and spying on her, trying to find an opportunity to catch her alone in the garden. In this painting, Susanna looks more like a pagan nymph or goddess of love than a biblical heroine. The totally naked Venetian woman overflows with transparent whiteness, while she carefully contemplates herself in a mirror. Tintoretto placed Susanna so clearly in the spotlight using a bold chiaroscuro that the viewer himself becomes a voyeur. Absorbed in the contemplation of her own beauty, Susanna hasn’t noticed the two old voyeurs who are about to approach her. Her body is luminous to the extent that her foot sunk in the water is still glistening. The semi-darkness of the garden, from which the old men spy on her, is more idyllic than romantic. Susanna’s pale body is contrasted in a masterful way against the dark mass of the rose trellis, and the dark water, while the bodies of the three figures form a triangle. Tintoretto’s paintings often contain still-lifes painted with great detail. The items he depicted included elements to be understood as complementary to the main subject of the painting. In Susanna and the Elders, the precious objects sparkling on the dark grass (a jar of ointment, a mirror, comb, hairpin, pearl necklace and ring) show that Susanna is a pampered lady used to luxury, lavishing special care and expense on the care and adornment of her body. The lines of the rose trellis draw the viewer into the scene, opening up new vistas through the arch in the background and adding depth to the painting. A magpie is perching on a branch to the right above Susanna (on the upper right corner of the painting), behind it there’s a bush of elder. To the right behind the farthest old man, a family of ducks is swimming in the river. The garden area with the swimming pool is delimited by a wooden fence seen in the background. The entrance area of this fence includes caryatides. Beyond this entrance, the view opens onto a spacious garden landscape with a river, meadows and forest. On the river bank to the left of the painting we see a deer and a hind, and beyond, in a haze, we see the outline of a city surrounded by water, Venice, Tintoretto’s home. Many elements of the painting were used to emphasize the moral message contained in the biblical narrative (animals and color symbolism): the magpie stands for the impending defamation, the ducks for loyalty, the roses for lust, the white of the elder flowers and the objects next to Susanna stand for innocence and purity, the red robe of the elders signals danger and lust, the deer stands for desire and also lust.

Susanna and the Elders, oil on canvas, by Tintoretto, ca. 1555-1556, 147 x 194 cm (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna).

In other of Tintoretto’s easel paintings where the coloristic sumptuousness influenced by Titian clearly shines, the violently agitated figures, typical of his work, acquire more importance to the point that at times it could be said that they almost seem to be shaken by an intense epileptic tremor. This is the case in Joseph and Potiphar’s wife (ca. 1555) from the Prado Museum, a new opportunity for Tintoretto to depict other opulent jeweled nude, and in the paintings of Mars and Venus Surprised by Vulcan (1551-1552, Alte Pinakothek, Munich) and Tarquin and Lucretia (1578-1580, Art Institute of Chicago).

In Joseph and Potiphar’s wife Tintoretto depicts the biblical story told in the book of Genesis 39: 1-23, where Joseph (the elder son of the Hebrew patriarch Jacob and of Rachel) is tempted by the wife of his master Pharaoh Potiphar. He refused her advances as she clutched his robes, pleading to make love to her. Joseph then fled precipitately, leaving his cloak at her hands. When Potiphar came home she avenged her humiliation by accusing Joseph of trying to rape her, using the cloak as evidence. Joseph then was promptly thrown into prison. The general composition of the painting and its viewpoint suggest that it could have adorned a ceiling. It was bought with five other biblical paintings for Philip IV of Spain by Diego Velázquez during his second visit to Venice, reason why it is now kept in the Prado Museum in Madrid.

Joseph and Potiphar’s Wife, oil on canvas, by Tintoretto, ca. 1555, 54 x 117 cm (Museo del Prado, Madrid).

In Tarquin and Lucretia now kept in the Art Institute of Chicago, perhaps Tintoretto’s most lascivious painting, we see Tarquin raping Lucretia. She surprised, falls backwards with her limbs in disarray, her necklace brakes with its pearls sliding over her body, thus increasing the tactile perversion of the scene. The painting depicts a passage from Roman history that tells of the rape of the virtuous matron Lucretia by Tarquin, son of the king of Rome, which incited the people to overthrow the monarchy and establish a republic around 510 BCE. With Tintoretto’s characteristic expressive distortions of anatomy and space, together with his vibrant treatment of light, the artist shows us the struggle between Tarquin and Lucretia: a pillow flies through the air, her pearl necklace breaks apart, and the fabric and carved post of the bed’s canopy collapses around them.

Tarquin and Lucretia, oil on canvas, by Tintoretto, 1578–1580, 175 × 151.5 cm (Art Institute of Chicago).

In the painting of Mars and Venus Surprised by Vulcan (Alte Pinakothek, Munich), Vulcan, the smith of the gods, knows about the love affair between his wife Venus and Mars, the god of war. He then leaves his forge and insultingly examines Venus to see whether, as he fears, adultery has actually been committed. Mars hides under a table in vain, as Venus’s little lapdog will denounce him away by barking. Meanwhile the god of love, Cupid, pretends to be asleep. This sudden irruption of Vulcan, who surprises the lovers, shows less brutality than Tarquin and Lucretia, but neither Titian nor Veronese would have ever painted that tense and nervous scene that unfolds before the figure of Cupid, asleep with fatigue. The recumbent figure of Cupid is a reference to the then famous statue of the Sleeping Cupid at the ducal court of Mantua, sculpted by a young Michelangelo (now destroyed) to make it look like a Greek ancient sculpture.

Mars and Venus Surprised by Vulcan, oil on canvas, by Tintoretto, ca. 1551-1552, 135 x 198 cm (Alte Pinakothek, Munich).

The first set of great paintings in Venice done by Tintoretto was executed at a low cost. In 1551, Veronese arrived in Venice and soon begun getting the important commissions that Tintoretto wanted for himself. Tintoretto then boldly approached the leaders of his neighborhood church of the Madonna dell’Orto. For 100 ducats Tintoretto offered himself to the prior of the church and offered to decorate the immense walls of the choir by executing two colossal canvases, the tallest canvases ever painted during the Renaissance. The prior accepted his offer realizing that he wasn’t even paying Tintoretto’s own expenses. Both paintings, the Idolatry of Golden Calf and the Last Judgment, (each 14.5 m tall) were widely admired, and Tintoretto gained a reputation for his ability to complete massive projects quickly and on a low cost.

For the decoration of the walls of the choir of the church of the Madonna dell’Orto, Tintoretto executed The Last Judgement (right wall), Idolatry of Golden Calf (left wall), St. Peter’s Vision of the Cross (left of the apse), the Cardinal virtues: Justice and Temperance (left side-half dome of apse) and Prudence and Strength (right side-half dome of apse), and the Decollation of St. Paul (right of apse).

View of the choir of the church of Madonna dell’Orto (Venice, Italy), with walls paintings by Tintoretto and detailed in the text.

In the Idolatry of Golden Calf (1560-1563) located on the left wall of the choir, Tintoretto depicted Moses towards the upper part of the canvas as if he was transfigured by divine light. Moses is on the peak of cloud-capped Mount Sinai with his arms outstretched in a Christ-like attitude, receiving the two Tables of the Law brought to him by God and ten angels, some of them, as Michelangelo had depicted before, without wings. In this state he receives the tablets while the Jews, in the lower part of the painting, collect gold to make the calf-idol of which they already have a clay model: four strong men carry the model of the calf through the Israelite camp, and jewelry and golden vessels are being collected in baskets towards the lower right corner. Above this, women are helping each other to remove their earrings. Aaron, the maker of the idol, is seated in the foreground in the lower right corner of the painting, and he’s engaged in conversation with the skilled craftsman Belzaleel (holding a compass) and his assistant Oholiab. Belzaleel is ordered by Aaron to place the Calf on the altar in front of the picture, that is, in the choir of the Madonna dell’Orto itself, a clever way of Tintoretto to incorporate the painting’s subject with the church it occupies. The enormous height of the canvas emphasize the contrast of high against low, religion against idolatry, and the spiritual splendor of heaven against the material brilliance of metal and materialistic life.

Idolatry of Golden Calf, oil on canvas, by Tintoretto, ca. 1560-1563, 14.50 x 5.90 m
(Church of the Madonna dell’Orto, Venice).

Even though Veronese was producing his monumental banqueting scenes during the same years Tintoretto painted these large scale canvases for the church of the Madonna dell’Orto, the difference between the painters is evident. Veronese’s works are brilliantly colorized, but Tintoretto deliberately dispenses color with harmony and composure. Instead he favored a glaring, sultry light, in which the tense postures of the figures and the strong perspective are used for expressive effect. Tintoretto’s Last Judgment (1560-1563) for the same church, a pendant to the Idolatry of Golden Calf, is a systematic summary of Titian’s and Michelangelo‘s great models in a scene of the Judgment that in his interpretation resembles more of a flood. The large height of the painting and a masterful and skillful manipulation of the point of view enabled Tintoretto to create the illusion that the slanting cosmic deluge is pouring over the viewer. This large canvas is considered one of Tintoretto’s most complex iconographically speaking and it hasn’t been fully interpreted to this day. Tintoretto’s Last Judgment is a raging elemental event of cosmic dimensions: as represented in late medieval northern panel painting, Christ is shown at the very top of the composition as judge of the world, with the lily of mercy at his right and the sword of righteousness to his left, while the Virgin Mary and John the Baptist to his right and left respectively, intercede for the resurrected mankind. Tintoretto cleverly painted the line of the waterfall leading diagonally down to precisely adapt to the angle of vision of a viewer in the church, thus making the observer to feel that the rain is also pouring on him/her.

The Last Judgment, oil on canvas, by Tintoretto, ca. 1560-1563, 14.50 x 5.90 m (Church of the Madonna dell’Orto, Venice).

In the same way, almost as a favor, Tintoretto obtained permission to work on several wall paintings to be placed between the windows of the reading room of the Marcian Library, which was being decorated by Titian and Veronese. The Philosopher (1570), one of the five figures in niches by Tintoretto, represent a change from painting crowded narrative scenes to the depiction of more simple compositions with its consequent effects of light on the strained pose of a single figure. Tintoretto also got the commissions to execute the magnificent decorations of the Ducal Palace with difficulty, between them the Conquest of Zara (1584) and the Triumph of Venice (1584). The first was painted for the Sala dello Scrutinio (“Voting Hall”), the second largest hall of the Doge’s Palace. The iconographic program of this hall was inspired by the Venetian naval victories on the Eastern seas, reason why they were depicted in the ceiling decorative canvases. Tintoretto’s Conquest of Zara is on the right wall upon entering the hall, and it depicts an event that took place during the Fourth Crusade that aimed at conquering the Holy Land. It ended up subduing the revolt of Zara against Venice and taking over the city of Constantinople. The second painting mentioned, the Triumph of Venice, is part of the ceiling decoration of the Sala del Senato (“Hall of the Senate”). It is in fact, the central painting on the ceiling and it was painted with the assistance of Tintoretto’s son, Domenico Robusti. The painting illustrates the allegorical scene of the triumph of Venice as an ascending vortex of mythological sea creatures which rise towards the personification of Venice as a beautiful an aristocratic young Venetian woman, seated above, to offer gifts and recognition to everyone below.

A Philosopher, oil on canvas, by Tintoretto, 1570 (Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana, Venice).
Conquest of Zara, oil on canvas, by Tintoretto, 1584 (Sala dello Scrutinio, Palazzo Ducale, Venice).
Triumph of Venice, oil on canvas, by Tintoretto, 1584 (Sala del Senato, Palazzo Ducale, Venice).

Tintoretto’s great masterpiece, the decoration of the brotherhood’s house of San Rocco was entrusted to him thanks to his violent genius and insistence, ripping it almost by force from its judges. The San Rocco brotherhood was looking for a painter and had opened a contest; several artists came on the appointed day carrying a sketch, but Tintoretto presented one of his large canvases already finished, painted as if by lightning. From that moment on he was admitted to the brotherhood and he no longer moved from its premises. Fifty-two paintings, the best of Tintoretto’s artistic spirit, fill the rooms and church of the Scuola Grande di San Rocco, a gigantic work begun in 1565 and completed in 1588, a few years before his death.

View of the Sala Superiore of the Scuola Grande di San Rocco in Venice decorated with oil on canvas paintings executed between 1576 and 1581 while Tintoretto was also working on the decorations of the Doge’s Palace. The ceiling of this spectacular hall located on the upper floor of the Scuola was decorated with paintings executed by Tintoretto depicting stories from the Old Testament, while he also decorated the walls with paintings illustrating episodes from the Gospels. These artworks emphasized the charitable aims of the Scuola.

You have to go to the Scuola di San Rocco to get to know the master’s work in all the splendor of his art: thousands of figures, unforgettable light, flashes of halos and deep shadows, foreshortenings accumulated by a neurotic titan, perceptions of a supra-terrestrial world. You have to go there to meet Tintoretto, a modern painter, later admired by Rembrandt and Velázquez, the inspiration of a young man recently arrived from Crete who would later be known as El Greco. Tintoretto and El Greco, here are two artists who linked two schools and explain how the Italian Renaissance art, in its last stage, was grafted in spirit into the art sentiment of another land and another blood, the Spanish. The more the circumstances of artistic production are understood through time, the better it’s seen that Nature, in the realm of the human spirit, doesn’t usually act by chance either. Some leading examples of the works by Tintoretto in the Scuola di San Rocco are the Crucifixion and the Plague of Serpents.

The Sala dell’Albergo was the first room of the Scuola decorated by Tintoretto. The decorative program here contains scenes of Christ’s Passion, all with stringent compositional vigor and intense pathos. On the end wall of the room is the immense Crucifixion (1565), one of Tintoretto’s most remarkable achievements for the Scuola. The painting depicts the dramatic moment when the Cross is being raised upright in the midst of soldiers, executioners, horsemen, and apostles. At the left the cross the penitent thief is being partly lifted, partly tugged into place by ropes; at the right the impenitent thief is about to be tied to his cross. A soldier on a ladder behind Christ reaches down to take the reed with the sponge soaked in vinegar from another soldier on the ground. The figures at the very foreground are grouped in a massive pyramid at the base of the cross and form the base of the composition. The body of Christ is surrounded by a great aureole, and almost seems as if he has been separated from the Cross, thus giving the impression that Tintoretto is bringing the Redeemer out of the area of the picture itself and into the viewer’s space.

Crucifixion, oil on canvas, by Tintoretto, 1565, 536 x 1224 cm (Sala dell’Albergo, Scuola Grande di San Rocco, Venice).

In The Plague of the Serpents (1575-1576), the first painting on the ceiling of the Sala Superiore of the Scuola Grande di San Rocco painted by Tintoretto, the terror of the poisonous snakes of the desert is thwarted by the magic serpent of bronze that Moses carries aloft on the cross to the left of the painting. At the time Tintoretto painted this work, Venice was ravaged by the plague, which in two years would wipe out a quarter of the city’s residents. The allusion to the healing of the sick by the Scuola is clear in the brazen serpent with a fish’s head, twisted around the cross as if it was a caduceus. The painting is overwhelmingly dramatic: the turmoil of angels in the sky, following the Eternal Father emerging from the shadow, seems to force its way into the tangle of humans and serpents in the lower part of the composition, while on the left, in the distance on a hill, Moses forcefully points at the cross with the brazen serpent.

The Plague of Serpents, oil on canvas, by Tintoretto, 1575-1576, 840 x 520 cm (Sala Superiore, Scuola Grande di San Rocco, Venice).

It is impossible to describe here the most important paintings by Tintoretto as it has been done with those by other masters. Actually, Tintoretto’s works are not remembered one by one, but by his style, his treatment of light and his way of arranging the compositions. Tintoretto sometimes restrains himself, trying to be correct and academic, as in his beautiful compositions of the ante-college (Sala dellAntecollegio) in the Ducal Palace, which almost seem painted by Veronese. In others, still within normal precepts, Tintoretto agitates his figures with a radiant convulsion of stormy forms.

But when Tintoretto finds, so to speak, alone with himself, as in his works for Santa Maria dell’Orto or for the Scuola di San Rocco, he forgets earthly air and natural light and illuminates his figures by means of oblique rays that come to fall wrapped in shadow. That is when the furious magician performs his prodigies. The Presentation of the Virgin in the Temple (1553-1556) once adorned the outsides of two organ wings, which have now been stitched at the middle. The monumental gilded stairway is a reference to the musical connection of the painting: its 15 steps or “grades” refer to the 15 graduals, the psalms sung by pilgrims in annual temple processions. The richly decorated steps on Mary’s way into the temple are reminiscent of the Giants Staircase in the interior courtyard of the Ducal Palace, the lower section of which also has 15 steps. Like the high priest in Tintoretto’s picture, the Doge used to receive important guests on this staircase.

The Presentation of the Virgin at the Temple, oil on canvas, by Tintoretto, 1553-1556, 429 x 480 cm (Church of the Madonna dell’Orto, Venice).

In the large Last Supper (1592-1594) Tintoretto painted for the church of San Giorgio Maggiore, the entire atmosphere of the hall is filled with luminous clouds among which the angels can hardly be discerned. The Lord sheds light, other lights come out of the Apostles’ heads, a lamp also wants to give its artificial, but human, light to the scene… And everything is so real, that the observer wonders what world is being represented and to what supernatural place he/she has been transported. This version of the Supper by Tintoretto can be described as a fest of the poor. Christ mingles with the crowds of apostles, however, a supernatural sight with winged figures comes into the hall as if radiating from the light around His head. This endows the painting with a visional and mystical atmosphere clearly differentiating it from paintings of the same subject made by earlier artists like Leonardo. The curious diagonal position of the table in this version of the Last Supper (instead of the traditional frontal and horizontal) is explained by the placing of the painting on the right wall of the presbytery of San Giorgio Maggiore: the table was to be perceived by visitors to the church as an extension in perspective of the high altar, or conversely the high altar was to be seen as a prolongation of the table of the Last Supper. The winged apparitions are a symbolic way to characterize the Eucharist as the “bread of angels” (according to St. Thomas Aquinas) and in their non-material, other-worldly nature they also indicate the mystery of transubstantiation (the transformation of bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ).

The Last Supper, oil on canvas, by Tintoretto, 1592-1594, 365 x 568 cm (Church of San Giorgio Maggiore, Venice).

Towards the twilight of his life, Tintoretto was commissioned to paint the scene of the Paradise (after 1588) for the Doge’s Palace, finally making a painting 22.6 meters long by 9.1 meters high, which is still the largest painting on canvas in the world. It is a stupendous work with hundreds of figures, and so far removed from all painting traditions that it has always been considered a pure eccentricity by scholars. Venice admired it when it was finished, and to this day it amazes us too. Only a fiery and dynamic genius could have attacked the problem in such a colossal way. It seemed that after Michelangelo no one could paint anymore a scene of this magnitude and scope. Tintoretto beats Michelangelo, if not in feeling and depth, at least by the agitation and number of the figures. He gives an impression of humanity, complicated and varied, that is not found in Michelangelo’s gigantomachy.

The Paradise by Tintoretto in its context in the Sala del Maggior Consiglio in the Palazzo Ducale (Venice).

For this prestigious commission, Tintoretto competed with several other artists and submitted a large sketch of the composition in 1577 (now in the Louvre Museum, Paris). The work was given jointly to Veronese and Francesco Bassano, but Veronese died in 1588 before he could start to work on the painting, and the commission was reassigned to Tintoretto. The Paradise was the last work by the master, who died on 31 May 1594 from severe stomach pains complicated with fever from the plague, at the age of 75, and was buried in Santa Maria dell’Orto next to his daughter Marietta (who had died in 1590 at the age of 30) and who in turn had been one of his most prominent assistants and enjoyed fame as a portrait-painter of considerable skill, as well as a fine musician, vocalist and instrumentalist.

The Paradise is part of other large paintings that Tintoretto executed for the decoration of ceilings and walls of the Sala del Maggior Consiglio of the Palazzo Ducale. The decorative program for this large room emphasized Venice’s military achievements, celebrated the city’s unique form of government, touted civic freedom, and claimed Venice’s parity with the papacy and the Holy Roman Empire. Tintoretto was commissioned with the replacement of a Coronation of the Virgin painted by Guariento in 1365 and destroyed during the fire of 1577. This painting was located behind the dais on which the Doge and leading patricians sat during meetings of the Great Council. The idea was to have a decorative program centered around Christ and Mary, but preserving the general paradisiacal theme of the old composition by Guariento.

Tintoretto’s solution for his version of Paradise was to focus on the figure of Christ rather than of Mary, placing her as a subsidiary figure of the redeemer. The convulse and whirling crowds of near 500 figures of saints and angels placed on a series of curved lines in concentric perspective, purposefully suggest a Last Judgment scene, thus reminding the members of the Great Council of the importance and enduring significance of their deliberations and actions. The spiraled movement builds up towards the top center of the composition to a brilliant central point dominated by the central figures of Christ and the Virgin. From the central vertical line of the composition a path of light opens up leading to the Empyrean, allowing the souls of the Just to ascend (with the assistance of the whirling angels), while symbolically God’s Grace descends upon the Doge sitting right below. At the center of this path, midway along the vertical line at the center of the composition, is the radiant figure of a semi-veiled Archangel. The dove of the Holy Spirit hovers radiant between the figures of Mary and Christ. A reference to the Annunciation is found at the left of Mary, with the Archangel Gabriel holding out a lily to her. Mary is depicted with a halo of 7 stars. The divine light clearly emanates from the figure of Christ the Judge, shown holding a globe surmounted by a cross. To his right is the Archangel Michael holding out to Him the scales of justice. In this monumental painting, Tintoretto respected the order of the celestial hierarchy: the evangelists appear in a semi-circle immediately beneath the main scene, with the saints aligned in the same order in which they figure in church litanies. This gigantic canvas was painted in sections, in the large main hall of the Scuola della Misericordia. By the time, Tintoretto was an elderly man and lacked the strength to climb up and down the scaffolding to properly work on the canvas, so some of the work was done by his son Domenico.

Paradise, oil on canvas, by Tintoretto, after 1588, 22.6 x 9.1 m (Sala del Maggior Consiglio, Palazzo Ducale, Venice).
Paradise (detail), oil on canvas, by Tintoretto, after 1588 (Sala del Maggior Consiglio, Palazzo Ducale, Venice).

Tintoretto, creator of so many imaginary worlds, of so many fantastic characters, was a portraitist determined to interpret the physiognomy of real men with rigorous accuracy. He was Venice’s most prolific painter of portraits during his lifetime. Most of the portraits by Tintoretto are of middle-aged men, elders, patricians, magistrates or senators of the Serenissima. Only one portrait of a woman by Tintoretto is preserved, now in the Museum of Fine Arts of Budapest, which is assumed to be Marietta Robusti, Tintoretto’s daughter. As a pupil of her father, she was also a painter held in high esteem by her contemporaries but no authentic works of her remained for posterity. Ridolfi tells us that Tintoretto also painted portraits of some Japanese ambassadors, but unfortunately they are lost. The magnificent Portrait of Marquis Francesco Gherardini (1568) is considered one of Tintoretto’s greatest examples of portraiture. The nobleman Gherardini is portrayed at ca. 70 years of age and dressed in black velvet with crease-edges defined by brisk highlights of whitening. As usual of the portraits by Tintoretto, the figure of the sitter emerges with great vividness from the neutral dark background. The facial features are depicted with meticulous precision and rendered with a warm coloring, standing-out from the dark background and clothing.

Portrait of Marquis Francesco Gherardini, oil on canvas, by Tintoretto, 1568, 70 x 60 cm (Ca’ Rezzonico Museum, Venice).
Portrait of a Woman, oil on canvas, by Tintoretto, 38 x 33, 3 cm (Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest).

We know three self-portraits of Tintoretto. In one of them (ca. 1546–1547 in the Philadelphia Museum of Art), he presents himself without the symbols of status that were customary in self-portraits at the time. The sitter’s informality, the directness of his gaze, and the bold brushwork visible throughout were innovative. We see in this self-portrait a young Tintoretto who turns his wide open eyes to the viewer. His dark curly hair almost blends with the darkness of the background, while his forehead is illuminated by the source of light which is falling from the side.

Self-Portrait, oil on canvas, by Tintoretto, ca. 1546-1547, 46 x 38 cm (Museum of Art, Philadelphia).

Other self-portrait (ca. 1588 in the Louvre) is an austerely symmetrical depiction of an aged Tintoretto. Édouard Manet, who painted a copy of it, considered it “one of the most beautiful paintings in the world”. In this self-portrait at the Louvre, we see an old Tintoretto frontally addressing the viewer in a particularly dignified attitude. The hair on the artist’s head, still thick, is smoother now, but the bushy beard seems to be wind-blown as if by the breath of Fate. The light, falling almost vertically from above, suggests a metaphysical reference, also reflected in the stillness of the picture, with his radiant face framed by the silvery hair and beard.

Self-Portrait, oil on canvas, by Tintoretto, ca. 1588, 63 x 52 cm (Musée du Louvre, Paris).

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