The Smart-Aleck Tintoretto Gets His Due

Christ among the Doctors (Milano, Museo del duomo © foto Malcangi)
Titian scorned him as an upstart, but the young Venetian knew more about color than anyone else.

It’s the 500th birthday of Jacopo Robusti, called Tintoretto, and Venice is celebrating his genius, combustible and expansive as it is. Last week, I saw the new museum retrospectives, two shows split between the Galleries dell’ Accademia’s Il Giovane Tintoretto, covering the young artist’s work until 1548, and the big show, Tintoretto, 1519–1594 at the Doge’s Palace. They travel together, more or less, to the National Gallery in Washington next year. I’m writing about the Accademia show this week and Tintoretto’s work after the 1540s next week.

Tintoretto briefly worked as a young man in Venice for Tiziano Vecellio, Titian, (1488–1576), the patrician giant of his own age, painter to kings and popes. He was fired, called “spirituouso” (a gentle Italian word for “smart ass”), and thereby set to train himself and make his own way.

He emulated Titian’s painting technique, thirsted for his success and renown, and endured decades of his enmity. Titian thwarted him whenever he could. He was a rival, but it was personal. Tintoretto, son of a dyer, a “tinter,” was the inveterate upstart, hard-wired to be on the make and on the move.

The Accademia show beautifully covers much ground, but Tintoretto’s youthful development is best seen in three pictures. His earliest dated painting is Virgin and Child with Saints, from 1540. It’s a proper “sacra conversazione” with many prototypes by artists from Venice to Rome who conveyed the feel of a casual chat, granted an unlikely one given that the subjects are divinities. Then only 20, Tintoretto invested the convention with heat. He tightens the focus on the figures and animates them in pose and engagement. The Virgin does a bit of a cross-legged kick dance. We’re looking less at a static, pickled scene than theater. Tintoretto might never have gone to Florence or to Rome, and he might have admired Titian, but through prints and models he saw — and liked — Michelangelo’s athleticism, as if a supersized figure, torsion, and big, powerful thinking were ineluctably bound.

Sacra Conversazione (© Luca Zanon)

A couple of years later, Tintoretto painted Jesus among the Doctors. He was hired to tackle the subject of a twelve-year-old Jesus in the temple contesting the hooey peddled by rabbis and professors who felt, much as Titian did of Tintoretto, that “this kid is a smart ass.” Not through erudition but through simple truths, Jesus makes fast work of pedigreed blather from pettifogging bores. Tintoretto could empathize. Such was his life, too.

It marks a full-blown new style. It’s enormously complex, with lots of figures in multiple states of agitation but with some core anchors: the four giant foreground figures, the two big plinths in back, and, prophetically, the central cross against which the speaking Jesus is fixed. Faces are wild-eyed and the palette electric. From a family business that dyed for a living, he knew more about color than anyone.

The catalogue reminds us that some scholars see the picture as having a bit of parody, even burlesque, but that’s off the mark. It’s splendid juvenalia, a young man tackling a subject well suited to what he sees as his strength — his “spirituouso” — and what others tell him is a fatal flaw. Fourth from the left is the young, smooth-faced, oval-headed Tintoretto, looking pleased with himself and deceptively sweet.

For the young Tintoretto, a mercurial, inquisitive, and ambitious temperament met his moment in new technology: the advent in Venice of oil-based paint. Oil paint brought a new malleability to materials. Viscous and slow to dry, it allowed artists more freedom to mix colors and to apply glazes on top of drying brushstrokes to make them glow. Applied thickly, the “impasto” (Italian for dough) gives texture. Tempera paint, made from egg yolks, dried immediately. Fresco — applying pigment to plaster — was a nuisance in its own ways. Oil paint was infinitely various.

In Christ among the Doctors, we first see Tintoretto the slasher, dragging a loaded brush, using sweeping, thick strokes to create agitation and movement. The gesture — big, physical, and insistent — is the visual equivalent to mood music. Here, geography meets the man as well. Venice is unique as a city built on water, with abrupt shifts in shadow and light making a constant shimmer. Thick, zigzag strokes of light and dark color, adjusted later with glazes, suggest the shimmer like nothing else does. It’s something Titian soon learned from him.

The picture has awkward moments. There are logjams amid so many anchors. The row of faces in the center right is like a slowly shuffling deck of cards. Quick to agitate, Tintoretto was also quick to pander, and here he was squeezing in as many benefactor portraits as he could. In the show’s dramatic conclusion, The Miracle of the Slave, from 1548, he smooths the kinks and paints high drama like no one else.

The Miracle of the Slave

It was his breakthrough picture, painted for the Scuola Grande di San Marco in 1548. He campaigned hard for the job of painting the biggest scene in the boardroom of one of the city’s prestigious social clubs. St. Mark is Venice’s ubiquitous patron saint, and the picture shows one of his many posthumous miracles. A slave flirted with Christianity, and his pagan master ordered him killed. St. Mark intervenes, and all manner of execution fails as a crowd watches in amazement. It’s the befuddled master who quickly converts.

It’s a big picture, just short of 20 feet wide, with a conflated narrative. The dazed slave is a splendid, prostrate nude, with the broken, failed instruments of death scattered around him. His complement is the flipped, trapeze-ready St. Mark, as aerodynamic as the slave is flat on the floor. They’re connected by the elegantly turning executioner to make a sweeping bow. The master, on the right, has his own match in the onlooker who climbed a column for a good view. The clutch of witnesses on the center left is a symphony of light, color, costume, texture, pattern, and pose, the diagonal row starting with a woman’s sleeve built from zigzagging strokes of light and dark, a Tintoretto trademark, to the executioner’s elegant turban composed of swirls.

Detail of The Miracle of the Slave

Tintoretto at first proposed another St. Mark story, the nighttime smuggling of his body to Venice from Constantinople. That proposal, represented in the show by a Tintoretto oil modello, was rejected. The selection committee liked it — Tintoretto later used the story for another commission — but thought it didn’t allow enough donor portraits slapped on the faces of onlookers. There are at least a dozen such moments in The Miracle of the Slave. Here, Tintoretto added a personal grace note to his triumph. He’d just concluded a decade of scorn, brickbats, and climbing a greasy pole with Titian’s shoe keeping him down. Like the slave, Tintoretto stuck with what he believed. If Venetians ever had the old saw “sticks and stones may break my bones,” Tintoretto might have said it sotto voce.


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