Unorthodox in the Last Degree

On 31 May 1564, the Scuola Grande di San Rocco decided to host a competition to select a painter from amongst the most eminent artists in Venice to decorate its walls. Painting, during the Renaissance, was an essential aspect of the public life and exercise of power – in both religious and political arenas – in the Italian city states. Often during periods of uncertainty, when there was not a clear master whose studio might automatically receive the most important commissions, talent was so rife and the stakes so high that the only way to determine merit was by agon, a contest. The reliefs on the northern doors of the baptistery in Florence, for instance, were carved by Lorenzo Ghiberti upon winning the competition hosted by the Cloth Importers Guild in 1401, and went on to be known as the ‘gates of paradise’ – dubbed so by Michelangelo himself.

In this manner, the Scuola di San Rocco, a confraternity of merchants holding vast wealth and influence during mid-sixteenth-century Venice, sought the very best for its designs. Although they were not officially members of the oligarchic elite, the scuolas performed many governing roles in the city, such as the provision of alms and medical care, acting almost as a parallel welfare system to the state. The first preference to decorate its walls and ceilings was naturally the premier artist of Venice, Titian, who had, in fact, offered to be its painter; but upon much deliberation and conflict in his professional schedule, this arrangement came to naught, and so the Banca e Zonta, the Scuola’s supervisory board, had to hunt for a painter worthy of the task from the next generation of painters. The candidates for this privilege were Giuseppe Salviati, Federico Zuccari, Paolo Veronese, and Jacopo Robusti, also known as Tintoretto.

The rules of the competition were simple: the contestants were given a month to present their model drawings or designs to the Scuola for review, upon which the best among them would be granted the commission. While the other competitors were still drafting their cartoons, one among them had a slightly different idea as to what was meant by a model. Tintoretto completed the actual painting of St Roch, the patron saint of the Scuola, within the allotted month and hung it at the centre of the ceiling of the Sala dell’Albergo, the principal room of the building, in which the governing body deliberated. The scandalised clients remonstrated with the wayward participant and told him they had requested a design and not the finished work, upon which Tintoretto, in the words of his Tuscan contemporary Giorgio Vasari, replied ‘that he did not know how to proceed in any other manner, and that designs and models of works should always be after that fashion, so as to deceive no one, and that, finally, if they would not pay him for the work and for his labour, he would make them a present of it.’

Amazed by this paradoxical display of impudent modesty, they awarded him the commission, and the cycle of 39 paintings then executed by the master are available for us to behold even today, 500 years since his birth.

Tintoretto’s willingness to flout convention – not of course, for its own sake, but wherever he saw fit – is usually what first strikes the viewer upon being introduced to his work. It was, for instance, customary to paint the principal room of a scuola with episodes of miracles from the life of its patron saint – St Roch, in this case. Tintoretto, however, strikes out on his own, commanded by his vision to paint scenes from the passion of the Christ upon the walls of the Sala dell’Albergo. The room is by no means small, but the magnitude of his paintings seems to dwarf its space, especially when viewed in the gloomy, greenish light filtering through its windows. The light and dimension of the room might have made such colossal renditions seem cramped under the charge of an artist schooled in the traditional laws of harmony, but Tintoretto’s cycle, instead, renders the beholder feeling small in the presence of each sublime scene.

The largest painting, ‘The Crucifixion’ (18 feet by 42 feet), towers over the beholder as a whirlwind almost: the scene is framed by the frenetic circular motion of the subjects surrounding the crucifix, which stands tall in a stark Calvary night, as a gale buffets trees in the distance. But amid the chaos is the Christ, starkly motionless, yet radiant with energy. With his eyes masked from view, his expression is inscrutable; with chin tilted down, the principal feature of the crucified body becomes the musculature of the arms and torso, brought out through the dance of light and shade. In Renaissance art, traditionally, the physiognomy of the Christ in a crucifixion scene will attempt to answer some question that has riddled Christian thought: the Christ’s poise in Raphael’s ‘Mond Crucifixion’ or his fortitude in the rendition by Giovanni Bellini may answer, in different ways, how a god may be said to suffer. The only traditional mystery of scholastic theology that the painting forces the beholder to consider, through the vigour of its depiction, is how the Christ can be, at the moment of crucifixion, both most human and most divine. But Tintoretto does not attempt an answer. He is more concerned with what that event should mean to the people who beheld it: although the only source of light in the gloom is a halo emanating from the crown of thorns and spread like an ethereal wing, the Christ is given scant attention by the imperial operatives scrambling around the crucified. Those closest him mourn the man they loved, and others, who have been stopped in their tracks, behold a god – unorthodox in every aspect.

Tintoretto completed the 39 paintings of the Scuola in almost two decades, a feat that earned him the diminutive ‘Il Furioso’ among the Venetian cultural elites who had never witnessed such vertiginous speed in artistic creation. It was used as a slight to remind Tintoretto that even his late works are not mature, being impelled instead by the impetuosity of youth. But speed was essential to Tintoretto’s work, and his philosophy of creation. Take ‘The Creation of the Birds, Fish and Animals’, for example. Unlike the languid figure of Adam barely able to raise his arms to meet the finger of God atop the Sistine Chapel, life juts out of the divine hand in Tintoretto’s painting: with birds soaring, fish streaming, and the unicorn’s mane eddying in the wind, the painting almost discloses creation as a feat of velocity.

The rise of a painter so eccentric to his contemporaries to such eminence in public life is interesting to consider for us in an age so different from the Venetian system of patronage. Proscription by the academy or critics almost necessarily entails doom for a painter in our world. Patrons of the art world today are more often investors after cultural capital, and that is provided by the verdict of the institution. In the words of the philosopher Arthur Danto, the turn of art post impressionism to a ‘non-mimetic’ form has created a paradigm shift in which works of art can seem almost unrecognisable as such without critical justification, or some form of institutional defence. But Tintoretto, it must be remembered, is painting into a world in which a real work of art is its own justification, and its unveiling is a public event. In Renaissance culture, patrons possessed a taste refined by the natural aesthetic education that accompanies a public consciousness legislated through images. Hence they were astutely able to discern how art might shape the populace in matters of public importance without the intercession of academic judgment. Thus Tintoretto was able to achieve renown in a Venetian system of oligarchs despite the scorn he provoked from most contemporary artists, writers upon art, and other intellectual and cultural elites of his day.

Born around 1518, Tintoretto rose from the humblest beginnings: his independent and non-academic manner is not entirely surprising when considering his provenance as the son of a poor dyer. His father’s profession triggered his fascination with colour, and his musings on the walls of the workshop fetched the little tintore his name: Tintoretto, or ‘little dyer’. He was an autodidact in the art of painting, having been rejected from Titian’s studio. In his lifetime, biographers and commentators never esteemed him in the ranks of the great Florentines or even among Venetian masters like Bellini, Titian or Veronese. Vasari, who is considered the founder of art historical writing, seems to recognise a raw power in his work. Yet he regards the dramatic movement and the contravention of perspective characteristic of Tintoretto’s early oil paintings as mere ‘jest’, an impression that must have been reinforced by the verdict – an impulsive ‘furioso’ – of his sources, the Neo-Platonist intellectual circles of Venice. It is only through the revisions of Carlo Ridolfi in 1642 that Tintoretto attained his place among what we now recognise as the great triumvirate of Venetian art: Titian, Veronese and Tintoretto. Regarded in youth with nothing but disdain by Titian and the rest of Venetian high culture, he laboured in poverty, learning form from his keen observation of the vibrant life of Venetian industry, and musculature from the reflection of candlelight upon dissected cadavers, nude and draped at dusk, in the schools of anatomy, until he became convinced enough of his ability to begin his own studio – its doors inscribed with the ambitious hope: Il disegno di Michelangelo ed il colorito di Tiziano.

Tintoretto’s formation as a craftsman, independent from the orthodoxy of academic training, is oddly mirrored in his career as an artist, which was sustained by the patronage of the professional and commercial classes of Venice, who seemed to appreciate the elements of his person dismissed by the intellectuals. The speed of production acquired by a craftsman working in the busy life of the Venetian lagoon translates not only to his modus operandi: in the fact, say, that he saw no essential difference between design and painting during the competition at the Scuola. But impressions of the vibrancy of commercial life in the venation of Venetian marketplaces, we may say, can also be seen in the dramatic movements and tempestuous settings of most of his paintings. In doing so, though, we must be careful to not disregard other historical contexts that occasioned such display of pomp – for instance, the imminence of the Reformation and subsequently, the office of art in the Counter-Reformation to serve as prophylactic to the former.

The rise of Tintoretto’s stature, the public role of his art, and his philosophy (for want of a better term) of art, are perhaps best exemplified by his commission in late life to decorate the walls of the Sala del Gran Consiglio in the Ducal Palace. The Council of Ten, which was perhaps the most powerful body in Venice (considering that the oligarchs that composed it elected the Doge himself) deliberated in this room. Tintoretto was invited to paint, upon the largest wall behind the high table, his vision of paradise. It must be noted that commissions for skilled masters from high offices at the time were some of the most remunerative appointments in the state. The British art historian Michael Baxandall traces the specific consideration of skill in payment as far back as to Sandro Boticelli, who, apart from the costs of workmen and pigments, commanded almost as much for ‘his brush’, or his skill. This dichotomy in price between skill and material had become heavily skewed by the time Titian came to prominence: before painting the portrait of the Holy Roman Emperor, say, he would demand a considerable hoard of ducats solely for his calibre. But when finally entrusted to paint ‘Il Paradiso’ in the Ducal Palace – what John Ruskin called ‘the central building of the world’ for its Venetian multicultural mix of Arab, Norman, and Roman architecture – Tintoretto, remaining until the last a humble craftsman, is supposed to have asked for a voluntary sum only if it should please the Senators, and even claimed that he would be satisfied in the execution alone – that the very act of painting would grant him Paradise.

This near-final testament of the aged master may be understood as more than mere sentiment if we closely regard the figures from legend resurrected in the colossal painting (31 feet by 74 feet): they are not merely static or hieratic, recognisable solely by their implements, such as St Paul with the sword or St John with the book. They are instead in the throes of action and yet serene, arrested in deed as Abraham is, for instance, with knife in one hand and Isaac in other, head thrown dramatically back as he, with his fellow elect, glides upon a sea of cherubim. The formal features of the painting, in which every inch is occupied by a figure, intimate a most unusual theology of a paradise that is more action than destination: attained in the vocation of human deed. In other words, paradise, for Tintoretto, is in the present, with the Angel of the Sea at the centre of his vast canvas, the largest painting in the world when composed, praying for the Venice its painter so loved – unorthodox to the last detail. And in like manner, the unusual career of this humble dyer who painted furiously and incessantly all his life is perhaps best understood from that bold interjection to his patrons: that the achievement of paradise lay in painting it – in carrying out his vocation.