Tintoretto Was the Unsung Hero of the Venetian Renaissance

Tess Thackara
Feb 19, 2019 9:53PM

Jacopo Tintoretto, The Origin of the Milky Way, c. 1576/78. © The National Gallery, London.

In 16th-century Venice, an artistic arms race was underway. A young painter named Tintoretto was striving to establish himself alongside—and perhaps even to eclipse—his rivals. During the Renaissance, Venice was a place where artists worked at the vanguard of painting, incorporating humanist ideas and technical innovations that arrived from Florence and Rome, and outdoing them. Titian, the city’s leading painter, cast a long shadow over the next generation of artists. Meanwhile, Tintoretto’s contemporary Veronese was earning praise for his rich, elaborate compositions. In the midst of this competition, Tintoretto fought to secure the most prestigious commissions from the city’s churches, ducal palaces, and guilds. He also sought to distinguish himself by creating larger and larger paintings. But how to compete with Titian’s refinement, sensuality, and transporting architectural settings, or Veronese’s opulent color?


The two curators behind a landmark survey of Tintoretto’s work, which marks the 500th anniversary of his birth, hope to show that he offered something quite distinct. Tintoretto’s devotion to the Catholic Church and knack for dramatic storytelling made him “the great painter of religious narrative in the 16th century, who tells the stories of the Bible and the saints with a kind of operatic grandeur,” said Frederick Ilchman, who, along with fellow Tintoretto expert Robert Echols, curated the blockbuster exhibition, set to open at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., next month. Tintoretto also made invaluable contributions to the development of oil painting, forging a rapid painting technique that enabled his hand to keep up with his lofty ambitions.

In so doing, Tintoretto advanced a looser, broader brushstroke and a more expressive, direct quality to his paint-handling and compositions—a precedent that the curators see echoed in works by El Greco, Gustave Courbet, and other giants of the art-historical canon. Indeed, the composition of Diego Velázquez’s Las Meninas (1656) is based on Tintoretto’s The Washing of the Feet (ca. 1548–49), which Velázquez observed in the Spanish royal collection. “It’s really hard to imagine later painters like Rubens and Delacroix, or Van Gogh for that matter, who loved a rich play of paint and strong, aggressive marks, without Tintoretto as a predecessor,” Ilchman said.

Jacopo Tintoretto, Standing Clothed Man Seen from Behind, c. 1555. © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2017. Courtesy of the Royal Collection Trust and the National Gallery of Art.

Tintoretto was born Jacopo Robusti, the working-class son of a cloth-dyer, or tintore. Unlike many of his Renaissance counterparts, Tintoretto lacked extensive formal training. His 17th-century biographers described him as largely self-taught, save for a brief stint as an apprentice in Titian’s studio. Nor did he possess a natural flair for channeling his artistic vision: Tintoretto “was not a prodigy like Raphael or Pablo Picasso, preternaturally accomplished from an early age,’’ write Echols and Ilchman in the exhibition’s accompanying tome. “He was more like Van Gogh or Jackson Pollock, struggling to harness his raw and often unruly talents.”

What Tintoretto did have was ample experience working alongside fresco and furniture painters, who were “very much at the bottom of the totem pole of Venetian painters,” Echols said. These low-prestige painters, who were often stationed outside in the Piazza San Marco, worked fast and rough. “They would quickly dash off a little landscape scene or a little story to go on a wooden chest. They didn’t strive for the very finished, careful technique that Titian, for example, was doing, or fresco painters of the early 16th century,” Echols explained.

Tintoretto’s ability to work quickly was matched by his considerable aspirations and energies—even as he associated with the city’s poor, holding onto a working-class nickname while other artists upgraded their names to appear more aristocratic (Veronese, for instance, adopted the name of a noble family, Caliari). Tintoretto’s “impulse toward the gigantic, his overwhelming desire to create enormous paintings that would dominate prominent public places” was fundamental to his identity, according to Echols and Ilchman. Indeed, a playwright once wrote a note to the young Tintoretto, testifying to his largesse: “Your personality is so big despite your small stature that you’re like a single peppercorn that takes over the flavor of a whole dish.”

But Tintoretto’s confidence was not immune to Titian’s daunting influence. It was perhaps due to the artistic challenge the older artist posed on his home turf that the young Tintoretto instead aligned himself with Michelangelo. As Echols and Ilchman demonstrate, Tintoretto specifically quoted some of his compositions and poses, placing an emphasis on the rendering of vigorous male bodies with fabulous, rippling muscles. The curators point to the way in which two seated figures in Tintoretto’s breakout painting, The Miracle of the Slave (1548), echo Michelangelo’s marble statues from the Medici tombs in Florence, a bent wrist evoking that of the artist’s powerful resting figure Dusk (1524–34).

Jacopo Tintoretto, The Forge of Vulcan, 1578. © Photo Archive - Fondazione Musei Civici di Venezia.

The unveiling of Tintoretto’s Miracle in the Scuola Grande di San Marco—one of the city’s charitable guilds—“created a sensation,” launching the artist and “setting a new artistic standard for Venetian painting,” write Echols and Ilchman. But Tintoretto’s real triumph would come later with his cycles for the Scuola Grande di San Rocco, 50 canvases depicting the life of Moses and the Virgin Mary—what the curators call Tintoretto’s Sistine Chapel. They note in particular the empathy that the artist displayed for the poor and humble by portraying the apostles with patched clothing in ramshackle settings.

This same humility can also be seen in Tintoretto’s portraits, which are underlined in the National Gallery survey. Among them are two self-portraits, painted at the beginning and end of his career, around 1546–48 and 1588, respectively. They are remarkably direct, showing the artist gazing intently out at viewers with a furrowed brow and slightly rumpled hair. A pared-down emphasis on the subject’s face was unusual for portraits at the time, as were Tintoretto’s loose, visible brushstrokes. While in his self-portraits Titian presented himself as “a patrician, formally posed, luxuriantly dressed,” the curators write, Tintoretto portrayed himself without the window dressing. “This may be the first autonomous self-portrait in European art to leave the touch of the artist so evident, functioning almost as a signature,” Echols and Ilchman explain. “The line that extends to the freely painted self-portraits of Rembrandt, Vincent van Gogh, and Paul Cézanne starts here.”

Jaco Tintoretto, Self-Portrait, c. 1546/48. Courtesy of The Philadelphia Museum of Art / Art Resource, New York.

Jacopo Tintoretto, Self-Portrait, c. 1588. © RMN-Grand Palais / Art Resource, NY, Jean Gilles-Berizzi. Courtesy of the National Gallery of Art.

While Tintoretto’s achievements were considerable, he was, in some ways, “a victim of his own success,” said Echols. In his aggressive pursuit of new commissions, Tintoretto bit off more than he could chew. He consequently employed a large studio, and had numerous followers and imitators who were unable to recreate Tintoretto’s swift, personal technique—but whose paintings are nonetheless often attributed to him. “The result is that there are many paintings all over Venice that are second-tier,” argued Echols, whose dissertation involved weeding out dozens of these misattributions. “And those are the paintings that people generally have in mind when they say they don’t really like Tintoretto.” Shining a spotlight on the very best of his work, they hope to give Tintoretto back his voice—one characterized by a painterly, experimental approach to his medium, an appetite for drama as expressed through the human body, and a deep empathy for his fellow Venetian citizens.

Tess Thackara