2018 marks the 500th anniversary of the birth of an artist remarkable even by the exalted standards of 16th century Italy – Tintoretto (‘little dyer’, named in honour of his father’s profession); or, if you prefer, Jacopo Comin, his given name; or Jacopo Robusti, the name by which he was generally known; or even the nickname Il Furioso, bestowed in recognition of his sheer energy and the speed at which he worked. Voyages to Antiquity guest lecturer Professor Robin Cormack of the Courtauld Institute of Art celebrates an artistic anniversary in our latest blog post.
Tintoretto was born in Venice, the oldest of 21 children; and after he was established as a major artist, his own children followed him as painters – most notably his daughter, Marietta Robusti, one of the very few women artists of the Renaissance, renowned for her portrait paintings. Tintoretto’s whole career was based on commissions in Venice and, while several museums around the world have important canvases by him, it is only in Venice today (in my opinion) that his genius may best be appreciated.
The first and most important stop on the Tintoretto trail is Scuola di San Rocco, which has been inspiring travellers since the days of El Greco, who visited San Rocco a twenty-something icon painter and changed his style of painting forever in homage to Tintoretto thereafter.
But the most ardent admirer of all was Victorian art critic John Ruskin who, upon his visit to San Rocco in 1845, declared ‘I never was so utterly crushed to the earth before any human intellect as I was today before Tintoret’. At the time, the gilded roof was pocked with Austrian shell holes and dripping water threatened to destroy the frescoes, yet Ruskin still advises Venetian travellers to make haste and give ‘unembarrassed attention and unbroken time’ to the artistic wonders within. In the third volume of The Stones of Venice, this usually voluble commentator was reduced to silence by The Crucifixion: ‘I must leave this picture to work its will on the spectator; for it is beyond all analysis and above all praise’.
By placing him foremost in the hierarchy of Venetian painters, Ruskin rehabilitated the reputation of Tintoretto, which had languished somewhat since his contemporary Vasari, whilst according him ‘the most extraordinary brain that the art of painting has ever produced’, decried his composition as ‘haphazard and without design, as if to prove that art is but a jest’. Perhaps it was Vasari’s Florentine bias that inspired this unfair assessment; perhaps the phenomenal scale on which Tintoretto worked – The Crucifixion is 706ft2, Paradise in the Ducal Palace 1,658ft2.
A word about San Rocco, the building in which Tintoretto toiled between 1565 and 1567 and again between 1575 and 1588. Roch or Rocco was a 14th century Catholic saint who survived the plague and went on to cure many subsequent victims. His body was supposedly carried to a Venetian church in 1485, and it resides there still, preserved within the high altar. The confraternity (or guild) of San Rocco built grand rooms nearby (the Scuola) in the 16th century, and these Tintoretto was commissioned to paint with scenes from the life of Christ and a depiction of the saint on the ceiling. The confraternity was not so much pious as a ‘club’ of wealthy Venetians, but the artist gave them of set of extraordinarily powerful religious images, which have today been restored and glow with colour. It takes time to absorb the nuances of the compositions. The focus on the ground floor is on the life of the Virgin Mary, while upstairs is the Old Testament cycle (on the ceiling), and on the walls the New Testament. The dramatic Crucifixion is in a room apart.
Despite his most economical appreciation in The Stones of Venice, Ruskin writes more comprehensively about The Crucifixion in the second volume of Modern Painters (1853). He describes heart-tearing contrasts and tensions; the agony of Christ crucified, the despair of the apostles, the rage of the people, the brutality of the soldier and the apathy of the centurion. It is a storytelling tour de force. Neatly recalling Christ entering Jerusalem five days before this scene, for example, is a man riding an ass – while he points with a rod towards the cross, the ass is feeding on the remnants of withered palm leaves, strewn in Christ’s path on that happier day.
Ruskin was, of course, the great promoter of the architecture and art of Venice, and so much of the conservation and restoration of its buildings is thanks to him. When I was organising the Royal Academy exhibition Byzantium 330-1453, which opened in London in 2008, the only reason that it included major works of art from the Treasury of San Marco in Venice was because the architect of that church pleaded on our behalf that, though the pieces we requested were of the greatest fragility, ‘how can we deny these loans to the city of John Ruskin?’
Scuola San Rocco has not only preserved Tintoretto’s masterpieces, but today offers opportunities to attend concerts and enjoy both the paintings and great music in a truly splendid setting. Perhaps one of the visitors impressed by the experience was the Polish painter Jan Styka who, in 1897, completed his canvas of Golgotha or The Crucifixion. It would certainly explain the vast scale on which he was moved to paint – at 8,891ft2, it is now the largest permanently mounted religious picture in the world. But despite the comparisons that can (and should) be made with the Italian master, to see it requires a visit to the Forest Lawn Memorial Park at Glendale, Los Angeles. And however impressive, it still pales in comparison to the experience of Tintoretto in Venice.
Professor Robin Cormack of the Courtauld Institute of Art will be accompanying Voyages to Antiquity’s 15-day Classical Italy & the Adriatic cruise, departing 18 May 2018 and visiting Venice, along with Urbino, Split, Dubrovnik, Lecce, Corfu, Butrint, Sicily, Sorrento and Rome. An optional excursion to San Rocco will be offered.