Tintoretto was one of the most influential artists of the Italian Renaissance. His style of painting and subject matter paved the way for his contemporaries and followers to explore important ideas about the place of art in human life.
11. Tintoretto Was Greatly Influenced by His Upbringing
Tintoretto was born in Venice in 1518 and grew up with his twenty younger siblings. His father was a cloth dyer by trade, meaning that his son was exposed to a great spectrum of rich pigments in his workshop. In fact, the Italian word for dyer (‘tintore’) is how the artist got his moniker.
Despite having patrician descent from his mother, Tintoretto felt inclined to establish his professional persona through connection to his father’s craft. Given the efforts of Renaissance artists to establish themselves as a superior, liberal caste of intellectuals, Jacopo’s decision goes against the grain and perpetuates the virtually anachronic notion of painters as artisans.
One could also assume that his choice of nickname further concurs to his aspiration to become the most cherished Venetian master. Since the Venetian school was valued for its coloring, a dyer’s son could be the best contender.
10. He Demonstrated Artistic Talents From a Young Age
Tintoretto was famously expelled from the studio of Venice’s other master artist, Titian, and it is alleged that the older artist took such measures to prevent the young man from developing into a serious rival. Titian’s precautions were of no avail, however, as Tintoretto took to studying the works of the great Italian artists by himself.
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He laboriously examined the bodies of Michaelangelo, became adept at modeling figures with wax, and practiced under some of Venice’s most successful fresco painters. Even though he had been excluded by the artistic elite, he still acknowledged their talents, aiming to create works that combined ‘the drawing of Michelangelo and the color of Titian’, according to the sign that he hung above his humble studio.
Tintoretto painted the mythical creation story of Deucalion and Pyrrha aged 24, and even this early work demonstrates his avant garde approach. The dramatic angle presented a radical new way of looking at painted figures, and hinted at the revolutionary impact his work would come to have.
9. Religion Formed the Bedrock of his Early Work
Again the product of his Catholic upbringing, Christian imagery featured heavily in the paintings of Tintoretto’s youth. Working under some of Venice’s foremost fresco artists, he contributed to the ornate interiors of the city’s churches.
One of his most famous masterpieces, Susanna and the Elders, shows a scene taken from the Book of Daniel. The naked young woman dominates the center of the canvas, immediately stealing the viewer’s attention. Only after this does the figure of the elder begin to materialize, peering surreptitiously from behind a rose trellis. The painting is packed with symbolism but is perhaps most fascinating for the way in which the artist handles the tension between chaste purity and sinful lust.
8. Tintoretto Made His Name with an Ambitious Project
While still in his twenties, Tintoretto undertook the task of painting the church of the Madonna dell’Orto, which was being refurbished and where he was later buried. He decorated the walls, the organ, and the choir with stories from the Bible, many of which still survive today.
The greatest of these was The Last Judgement. The scene had been well-handled by Italy’s artists, but Tintoretto’s rendering does not fail to make a striking impression. The eye ascends up the chaotic mass of human and angel bodies before fixing on the surprisingly minimalistic figure of Christ. The painting captures all the confusion and anxiety associated, in the Christian mind, with the day of judgment. It is remarkable that Tintoretto did not insist on any payment for this painting, producing it purely to spread his name and elevate his artistic status.
7. Tintoretto Trained and Employed his Children
Tintoretto was a continuator of the family workshop tradition, which remained prominent in Venice following the fame of the Bellini brothers. Tintoretto and his wife had eight children, of which half were destined to take on the craft of painting. While it is plausible that all took part in the family enterprise, documents only indicate the direct involvement of three: Marco, Domenico, and Marietta.
Marco assisted his father in an early age, having then renounced the profession in exchange for a more leisurely lifestyle. Domenico was the real continuator of his father’s enterprise, borrowing elements of style and producing a large corpus of paintings both during and after Tintoretto’s demise. In fact, after the 1570s, the father and son were close collaborators in the increasing number of commissions received in Venice.
Anecdotal evidence tells us that Tintoretto’s favorite pupil was Marietta, who trained in the workshop from a very young age and wore boy clothes to escape prying eyes. Her fame went beyond the confines of the lagoon.
Emperor Maximilian II, Archduke Ferdinand, and King Philip II all invited her to paint their portraits. Her father dismissed the invitations, as wanted to make use of her talent and keep her close.
Such prestigious patronage came owing to her distinctive talent in painting portraits. Increasingly more museums are proposing that portraits previously thought to have been conceived by Jacopo Tintoretto are in fact the creations of Tintoretta. Despite of her talent, the corpus will never be that rich, as Marietta died abruptly at the age of 30.
Another offspring of consequence was Octavia. While not having trained as a painter herself, she was the virtual bearer of Tintoretto’s testament. Upon Domenico’s death in 1637, she was delegated to marry the last pupil of Tintoretto and Domenico, the German Sebastiano Casser. The purpose of the marriage between Octavia, age of eighty, and Sebastiano, aged only fifty-five, was to continue the Tintoretto workshop into a third generation. Predictably, that would get to be the last age of the bottega.
6. Classical and Mythological Ideas Also Crept into His Work
The Renaissance saw an explosion in the popularity and artistic prevalence of ancient ideals and imagery. Tintoretto was not immune to this development and, being influenced by the likes of Leonardo da Vinci and Titian, included classical motifs and stories in many of his paintings.
There was an unspoken competition between the artists of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries when it came to handling the well-worn subject matter of Greek and Roman myths. The adultery of Venus and Mars, a story told for thousands of years, appeared again and again on the canvases and boards of the Renaissance. Tintoretto takes a new approach, with his depiction showing Mars, the god of war, hiding under the bed, while the crippled and cuckolded Vulcan dominates the image, his powerful muscles reflected in a mirror.
5. He Worked for Some Highly Influential Patrons
After having won fame as the artists behind the Madonna dell’Orto, Tintoretto began to produce paintings for the Scuola di San Rocco, which was among the richest of Venice’s confraternities. At the same time he started a series of works for the Doge’s palace, Venice’s political center and home to its elected ruler.
It was for this building that Tintoretto produced his ultimate masterpiece. Paradise was designed on a massive scale to impress upon the viewer the majesty of the scene. At over 22m in length, it is the glorious counterpart to his earlier rendering of The Last Judgement. Here too a mass of tangled figures are practically indiscernible, but in Paradise the effect is transcendent rather than terrifying. In the center, Christ and Michael the Archangel radiate a heavenly glow, reminding the Venetian politicians seated beneath of the importance of justice and piety.
4. The Scuola Di San Rocco Was the Stage for one of his Greatest Triumphs
In 1560, the scuola held a competition to decide on the artist who would paint the ceiling of one of its halls. Tintoretto, eager to be accepted as a member of the confraternity, entered the contest, as did his rival-cum-colleague Veronese, another young artist working in Venice at the time.
However, rather than submitting a sketched design as requested, Tintoretto produced a complete painting and had it installed on the ceiling before unveiling it to the judges. He was aware that the organization was forbidden from rejecting any charitable donation and therefore, when it was revealed, he announced that he was presenting it to the scuola as a gift. As a result, and despite his disgruntled competitors, Tintoretto was victorious and his painting of Saint Roch remains in place today.
3. Tintoretto Maintained a Humble Lifestyle
It is clear from his humble depictions of religious piety that Tintoretto prized a life of simplicity and saw great honor in humility. The portrayal of Mary in a tiny, run-down house in his Annunciation, for example, reflects the artist’s admiration for the poor and unassuming. In the context of Counterreformation, such homely details in religious paintings also strived to humanize the Biblical stories and bring the worshippers closer to God.
In regards to his lifestyle, archival evidence shows us that Tintoretto never got rich. Although his great works had undoubtedly earned him a vast store of wealth, Tintoretto lived a modest life, never traveling or interfering in state affairs. Often working for free and accepting only gratitude as payment, Tintoretto did not aspire to become a Venetian magnate like Titian or Veronese.
2. Tintoretto’s Style Was Met with Interest, Praise, and Caution
Although his subject matter varied little from those typical at the time, Tintoretto approached the stories and figures he painted in a radical, new way. He was one of the early proponents of canvas as an alternative to wooden boards. This medium allowed for richer depth, color, and brushwork, as the artist could build layer upon layer while subtly blending pigments. His work also displays a sense of dynamism and passion that moves away from the ordered symmetry of his contemporaries and towards an emphasis on feeling and atmosphere over technical accuracy.
Despite his commercial success, Tintoretto was often dismissed as eccentric by contemporary critics. The father of art history, Giorgio Vasari, describes his unique style as ‘all of his own and contrary to the other painters’, but does not count Tintoretto among the greatest of the Italian artists. Even Pietro Aretino, who praised many of his works, expressed concern that Tintoretto’s works were overly rushed. The result of these criticisms was that when Tintoretto was commissioned to paint Aretino’s portrait, he took his measurements using a dagger instead of a ruler.
1. Tintoretto Was One of the Italian Renaissance’s Key Players
Despite the disappointing critical reception Tintoretto received during his lifetime, he proved to be one of the era’s most influential artists. His clear, bold brushstrokes and poignant use of color offered an alternative to the style of his contemporaries and the earlier Old Masters of the Renaissance. He is also cited as a key inspiration for many Baroque artists during the following century, as they strove to emulate the vivid expressionism contained within his paintings.
The vast majority of Tintoretto’s art is still held by Venetian institutions, or academic establishments worldwide, but when one painting came up for auction at the Dorotheum auction house in 2016, it was sold at €907,500, attesting to the incredible value and importance of the master’s work.