Jacopo Tintoretto

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Jacopo Tintoretto
born c. 1518, , Venice
died May 31, 1594, Venice

c. 1547
Oil on canvas, 46 x 38 cm
Museum of Art, Philadelphia

byname of Jacopo Robusti great Mannerist painter of the Venetian school and one of the most important artists of the late Renaissance. Early paintings include “Vulcan Surprising Venus and Mars,” the Mannerist “Christ and the Adulteress,” and his masterpiece of 1594, “Last Supper” of S. Giorgio Maggiore. Increasingly concerned with the drama of light and space, he achieved in his mature work (e.g., “The Law and the Golden Calf,” c. 1562) a luminous, visionary quality.

Background and early years

Little is known of Tintoretto's life. In a will of 1539 he called himself an independent professional man—not a surprising description in view of his imposing and forceful personality. No documents have survived regarding Jacopo's artistic education. His biographers, among them Carlo Ridolfi, whose book was published in 1648, speak of an apprenticeship with Titian that was broken off because of the master's resentment of the pupil's proud nature and exceptional accomplishment. On the other hand, a contemporary pointedout that Tintoretto's style was formed by studying formal elements of the Tuscan school, especially those of Michelangelo, and of pictorial elements derived from Titian.

Most probably, Jacopo's precocious talent prompted his father to place him in the workshop of some undistinguished painter, but one with a solid artisan tradition so that his son might learn the foundations of his craft. Traces of an absolute style in his youthful works tend to corroborate this hypothesis. But he soon became aware of the variety of approaches tried by painters working between 1530 and 1540 in Venice and already reacting against the style of Giorgione, who was the first to merge forms and to subordinate local colour to its pervading tone. It was the emigration of Roman artists to Venice in 1527 after the sack of Rome by imperial troops, as well as subsequent contacts with painters from Tuscany and Bologna, that induced the painters of the Venetian school to return to greater plasticism, without altering the fundamental chromatic nature of the Venetian tradition. The influence of Michelangelo, the visit of the art historian Giorgio Vasari to Venice in 1541, and the journeys of Venetian artists to central Italy renewed Venetian painting in depth, giving it means of expression adapted to different types of pictures. In the renewed idiom, form and colour were blended in a synthesis in which light dominated so as to express a richly fantastic and visionary spirit. Thus the early works of Tintoretto were affected by all of these influences. Critics have identified a group of youthful works of Tintoretto, above all Sacre Conversazioni, the most important of which is in the Wildenstein Collection, New York City. Painted in 1540, it represents the Virgin with the Child on her knees, facing away from her, and six saints. While the style echoes various elements of the Venetian art of Tintoretto's time, italso shows a definite Michelangelesque influence.

Self-Portrait with a Book
c. 1585
Oil on canvas, 73 x 58 cm
Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence



A group of 14 octagonal ceiling paintings with mythological themes in Modena, at the Galleria e Museo Estense (originally painted for a Venetian palace), with their singular refinement in perspective and narrative clarity, also belong to Tintoretto's first phase. Among other influences, they recall the fashion of partitioned ceiling paintings imported to Venice by Vasari. This was also the period of Tintoretto's closest collaboration with Andrea Meldolla; together they decorated the Palazzo Zen with frescoes. The fresco technique had an important part in the formation of Tintoretto's idiom, for it suggested to him the quickness of execution that was to become fundamental to his manner of painting. Unfortunately only some 18th-century prints of his frescoes and a few fragments of the numerous frescoed facades that adorned Venice survive.

Tintoretto's drawing exercises were made from nature, from statues, and from small wax models posed in various ways and artificially illuminated, as in tiny stage sets. These methods were suited to the painter's concern with resolving problems of form and light. The indefatigable draftsman acquired a narrative fluency that allowed him to trace with a brisk brushstroke and fanciful inspiration the series of biblical stories, the mythological episodes for the poet Pietro Aretino's house in Venice (1545), and sacred compositions such as “Christ and the Adulteress,” in which figures set in vast spaces in fanciful perspectives are illuminated in a distinctly Mannerist style. Tintoretto returned to an earlier form of composition in his “Last Supper” of S. Marcuola (1547), in which the choice of rough and popular types succeeds in endorsing the scene with a portrayal of ordinary everyday reality struck with wonder by the revelation of the miracle.

A few months later Tintoretto became the centre of attention of artists and literary men with his “S. Marco Freeing the Slave.” A letter from Aretino, full of praise, yet also intended to temper Tintoretto's youthful exuberance, confirmed the fame of the 30-year-old painter. Relations between Tintoretto and Aretino did not come to an end at this point, even though one of Aretino's letters contains hintsof dissension. Although Aretino was no longer to write laudatory letters to Tintoretto, he commissioned him to execute family portraits. And after his death, his likeness was to appear in Tintoretto's huge “Crucifixion” of the Scuola Grande di S. Rocco (1565). The painting “S. Marco Freeing the Slave” is so rich in structural elements of post-Michelangelesque Roman art that it is reasonable to assume that Tintoretto had visited Rome. He did not, however, interrupt his artistic experiments. Stories from Genesis, painted for the Scuola della Trinita (1550–53), show a new attention to Titian's manner of painting as well as a palpable awareness of nature. The masterpiece of this phase is undoubtedly “Susanna Bathing”; the light creates Susanna's form in crystalline clarity against a background evoked with a fresh poetic sense.

In 1555 Tintoretto, now a famous and sought-after painter, married Faustina Episcopi, who, affectionate and devoted, bore him eight children. At least three of them—Marietta, Domenico, and Marco—learned their father's trade and became his associates. An artist of indefatigable activity, of a veritable fury of creativity, Tintoretto spent most of his life in the bosom of his family and in his workshop. But the love of solitude to which his biographer alludes did not prevent the painter from forming friendships with several artistic personalities. This particular period in Tintoretto's career—marked by greater vivacity of colour, by a predilection for a variegated perspective, and by a highly decorative quality—coincided with his growing admiration for the art of Paolo Veronese, who had been working in the Doges' Palace. The assimilation and transformation of the Veronesian elements in Tintoretto's work are discernible in his beautiful ceiling paintings of Bible stories, now in the Prado, Madrid.

The use of a colour that absorbs light yielded new possibilities for suggesting spaces no longer structured by the pure play of perspective. And in those spaces the painter introduced crowds in harmonized order with the rest of the picture, a feature that had until then been missing in Venetian art. It was at that time that Tintoretto began to participate in the decoration of the church of the Madonna dell'Orto and the private chapel of the Contarini family contained within it, which in 1563 became the final resting place of the great cardinal Gasparo. Tintoretto's works for the Madonna dell'Orto, which occupied him for approximately a decade, also give an idea of the evolution of the idiomatic elements of his art: the “Presentation of the Virgin in the Temple” (1552) was according to Vasari “a highly finished work, and the best executed and most successful painting that there is in the place”; in “St. Peter's Vision of the Cross” and in “The Decapitation of St. Paul” (c. 1556), the figures stand out dramatically on a space suffused with a vaporous, unreal light. In the two enormous canvases depicting the Jews worshipping the golden calf while Moses on Mt. Sinai receives the tables of the law and a Last Judgment, Tintoretto painted two works of the highest rank with a great richness of narrative means, with an awareness of the thematic link between the two scenes that attests to a knowledge of scripture and of contemporary spiritual movements. The high figurative quality of the two paintings implies that Tintoretto made a number of experiments in this decade. Proof of this is, above all, the dramatic style in which the scenes are executed, a style that firmly impresses their romantic pathos on the beholder. Tintoretto's spatial conception has a dynamic character. As a modern critic has noted, Tintoretto conveys a feeling of an almost precipitate falling forward or of an equally swift rise. The contrasted movements give the figures a similar instability. To achieve such effects Tintoretto used formulas that were invariably different: in “The Pool of Bethesda” in the church of S. Rocco (1559) the evangelical episode is realized in a compressed space through which the foreshortened ceiling seems to weigh upon the milling crowd; in “St. George and the Dragon” Tintoretto sets the fable in a landscape of considerable depth, intersected by the white walls of the city. A series of canvases that the philosopher and physician Tommaso Rangone, grand guardian of the Scuola di S. Marco, commissioned from Tintoretto in 1562 contains similar elements.

In May 1564 the councillors of the Scuola Grande di S. Rocco decided to have the Sala dell'Albergo decorated with paintings, in place of the movable decorations used during feast days. S. Rocco (St. Roch) is the protector against plagues; the numerous epidemics of that period had given new impetus to the cult of the saint and caused great riches to flow to the Scuola, which built a splendid centre to assist the poor and the infirm. When Tintoretto presented the Scuola with his oval painting the “Glorification of S. Rocco,” the directors decided to entrust him with the decoration of the Sala. Vasari relates that designs were invited from various prominent artists, including Paolo Veronese, but Tintoretto, who presented his work already installed in the Sala, won hands down over his competitors. Similar episodes are counted by contemporary sources as proof that when it came to his work the painter knew no scruples. He was indeed a man devoured by the passion for painting and not for pecuniary gain, for he committed himself to grandiose undertakings for exceedingly modest remuneration.

The question of who assisted Tintoretto in his dizzying activity is still open: at that time Marietta was only about nine and Domenico four; but it is known that in 1560 his studio began to be visited by young painters, especially from the Netherlands and Germany. In 1565 his immense “Crucifixion” was displayed in the Sala dell'Albergo. Around Christ, in the centre, many figures revolve in a livid light that, muting the picture's colours, invests it with dramatic power. The decoration of the chamber was completed in 1567; it included other scenes of Christ's Passion, remarkable for their thematic innovations.

Vasari, who visited Venice in 1566 to bring his Lives of the Most Eminent Italian Architects, Painters and Sculptors up to date, had an opportunity to follow Tintoretto's work in progress. Undoubtedly he had the painter's most recent works in mind when he wrote that Tintoretto was “the mostextraordinary brain that the art of painting has produced.” For all his fundamental reservations about Tintoretto's style, Vasari sensed his greatness.

In 1576, with renewed zeal, Tintoretto resumed the decoration of the Scuola Grande di S. Rocco. He had finished the huge central panel of the upper hall with “The Erection ofthe Brazen Serpent” in time for the feast of the saint on August 16 and promised to paint a certain number of canvases, “wishing to demonstrate the great love that I bear for the saint and our venerable school, because of my devotion to the glorious Messer San Rocho.” In 1581 all the ceiling paintings were completed (10 ovals and 8 rhomboid chiaroscuro panels; the latter restored in the 18th century) and 10 teleri on the walls. Certainly the fundamental idea goes back to the conception elaborated in the rough illustrations of the Biblia Pauperum—i.e., the concordance of the Old and New Testaments.

It seems almost impossible that in the same year the paintershould have executed the four mythological allegories for the Doges' Palace, of which the most famous is that of “Ariadne, Bacchus, and Venus.” All are works of great elegance, with an almost academic finishing touch. But the real Tintoretto is certainly to be found in S. Rocco, where he bears witness to his great faith and, like the medieval mosaicists, offers an illustrated Bible to the crowds of the poor who frequented the beneficent institution. His deep but independent faith in the religious myths, unrestricted by anyrules of the Counter-Reformation, is apparent as much in thestriking sketch of “The Council of Trent” (Turin, private collection), executed for the Doge Da Ponte, as in the altarpiece of S. Trovaso, executed in 1577 for Milledonne, a participant and historian of the Council, with the semi-nude women who tempt St. Anthony.

By 1577 Marietta and Domenico, already officers of the painters' guild, could help their father, together with other future artists of the close of the 16th and the beginning of the 17th century. Certainly the presence of collaborators is obvious in two cycles: the eight scenes of the “Gonzaga Cycle” (Alte Pinakothek, Munich), with vivid scenes of battles, painted between 1579 and 1580, and the many paintings for the halls of the Scrutinio and of the Maggior Consiglio in the Doges' Palace, which the Republic wanted toadorn with new canvases after the fire of 1577. It was certainly more his wish to finish his immense work in the decoration of S. Rocco than it was his advanced age that induced the painter to leave the canvases of the Doges' Palace largely to his workshop.

In the canvases executed between 1583 and 1587 for the lower hall of the Scuola Grande di S. Rocco, depicting episodes of the life of Mary and Christ, Tintoretto follows a new direction: light in its most lyrical meaning dominates the paintings, dissolving the colour in a flash of diaphanous brushstrokes. Space is multiplied in unlimited successions ofperspectives; the scenery at times prevails over the human figure, as in the two great works in the ground floor hall, with the “St. Mary of Egypt” and the “St. Mary Magdalene” immersed in an incandescent hazy atmosphere in which things are animated with a life of their own: an invitation to the contemplative life of the 70-year-old painter, more than ever leaning toward the view of man and his destiny offered by the Christian faith. A marvelous model (in the Louvre) of the “Paradise” for the Doges' Palace and “The Last Supper” of S. Giorgio Maggiore (see ), with the incorporeal apparitions of angelic creatures, finished a few months before his death, are proof of Tintoretto's deep spiritual bent. He died in 1594 and was buried in the church of Madonna dell'Orto next to his favourite child, Marietta.


c. 1588
Oil on canvas, 63 x 52 cm
Musйe du Louvre, Paris


Tintoretto was a painter with a wholly personal, constantlyevolving technique and vision. Although it is almost certain that his family was originally from Lucca, Tintoretto (a nickname meaning “little dyer,” after his father's profession of silk dyer, or tintore) is considered a Venetian painter, not only by birth but because he always lived in Venice and because with his innumerable works he contributed to creating the face of that city. He was not only an exponent ofthe witness to the life of the city, of the sacred and profane complex pictorial developments of Venetian art, but of the myths of a society that formed a part of the dramatic history of 16th-century Italy.

Tintoretto's art was much discussed and highly appreciated in Venice in the years after his death, above all in the acute evaluations of Marco Boschini, the great 17th-century critic of Venetian painting. Roger de Piles, following in the latter's footsteps, exalted Tintoretto's luministic idiom. But to the 18th century, the closer it drew to 19th-century Neoclassical rationality, Tintoretto appears excessive and too remote from its own sensibility. John Ruskin's romantic enthusiasm inaugurated a new attitude toward the art of Tintoretto. And modern art historiographyis coming to recognize in him the greatest representative of that wide-ranging European movement that was Mannerism, interpreted in accordance with the great Venetian tradition.

Rodolfo Pallucchini

Encyclopædia Britannica


The Martyrdom of the Ten Thousand (fragment)
c. 1538
Oil on panel, 138 x 218 cm
Gallerie dell'Accademia, Venice

The Supper at Emmaus
Oil on canvas, 156 x 212 cm
Szйpmыvйszeti Mъzeum, Budapest

St George
Oil on canvas, 122 x 92 cm
The Hermitage, St. Petersburg

The Conversion of Saul
c. 1545
Oil on canvas, 152 x 236 cm
National Gallery of Art, Washington

Christ Washing the Feet of His Disciples
c. 1547
Oil on canvas, 210 x 533 cm
Museo del Prado, Madrid

The Miracle of St Augustine
c. 1549
Oil on canvas, 255 x 175 cm
Museo Civico, Vicenza

Baptism of Christ
Oil on canvas, 137 x 105 cm
Museo del Prado, Madrid

Sts Helen and Barbara Adoring the Cross
Oil on canvas 275 x 165 cm
Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan


Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery
c. 1550
Oil on canvas, 119 x 168 cm
Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Antica, Rome

Creation of the Animals
Oil on canvas, 151 x 258 cm
Gallerie dell'Accademia, Venice

St Jerome and St Andrew
c. 1552
Oil on canvas, 235 x 145 cm
Gallerie dell'Accademia, Venice

St Louis, St George, and the Princess
c. 1553
Oil on canvas, 226 x 146 cm
Gallerie dell'Accademia, Venice

The Birth of John the Baptist
c. 1554
Oil on canvas, 181 x 266 cm
The Hermitage, St. Petersburg

Assumption of the Virgin
c. 1550
Oil on canvas, 244 x 137 cm
Gallerie dell'Accademia, Venice

The Assumption
Oil on canvas, 440 x 260 cm
Gesuiti, Venice

Christ and the Adulteress
c. 1555
Oil on canvas, 160 x 225 cm
Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

The Presentation of Christ in the Temple
Oil on canvas, 239 x 298 cm
Gallerie dell'Accademia, Venice

The Evangelists Mark and John
Oil on canvas, 257 x 150 cm
Santa Maria del Giglio, Venice

The Evangelists Luke and Matthew
Oil on canvas, 257 x 150 cm
Santa Maria del Giglio, Venice

St George and the Dragon
Oil on canvas, 158 x 100 cm
National Gallery, London

The Deposition
Oil on canvas, 104 x 135 cm
Private collection