Jacopo Tintoretto is a Renaissance master who is quite hard to pin down. Accounts of his life and work make it hard to distinguish between the myth and the man. His paintings were judged in the tropes that dominated art criticism, while the efforts of his later biographers to make sense of his personality were based on rumors and speculations. Below, you will find an account of his unconventional technique and his even more unusual stratagems for earning a living as a painter in Renaissance Venice.
Jacopo Tintoretto: the Enfant Terrible of Venice
It was during an affluent party in a Venetian nobleman’s house that Tintoretto found himself suddenly challenged. Giacomo Contarini had brought artists and connoisseurs together to discuss the redecoration of the Palazzo Ducale, following the great fires of the 1570s. The guests reportedly praised a portrait by Titian. Tintoretto, who attended the party, was distraught by the bold statements of one of the guests that one should only paint as Titian did.
Considering his success in portraiture, Tintoretto wanted to get even. When the time came, Tintoretto crafted a Titian-like painting and showed it to the same connoisseurs. The experts declared it to be a Titian of particular merit. Calling the bluff, Tintoretto allegedly confronted the value of their authority and showed how little people truly understood painting.
The committee of Venetian gentlemen was not the first nor the last to confuse a Tintoretto for a Titian (or vice versa). In fact, stylistic appropriation was only one of Tintoretto’s ingenious practices for expanding his clientele. It was his infinite resourcefulness that earned him a spot in the pantheon of Renaissance art. Likewise, it granted him the reputation of the enfant terrible of the Venetian trio, next to Tiziano Vecellio and Paolo Veronese.
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Jacopo Tintoretto was without a doubt the prodigy of sixteenth-century Venice. His bold brushwork and innovative, rapid technique inspired countless artists—from Rubens and Velasquez to Delacroix and Manet. His compelling storytelling and animated compositions have propelled him as the most prominent religious narrative painter. It further set him apart from Titian’s subtle and sensual art and from Veronese’s diligently colored and orderly canvases. Yet, art history started to value his work late into the twentieth century.
A Renaissance Coming of Age: Tintoretto Redefining Competition
Jacopo Robusti, nicknamed Tintoretto, came of age in a difficult era. Son of a cloth dyer (in Italian tentore), he did not benefit from dynastic artistic pedigree and the patronage that comes with it. However, his ancestry was only the first obstacle he had to overcome. Getting the attention of Venetian patrons was a Herculean task in mid-sixteenth-century Venice.
At that time, Titian was the arch-painter of Venice, with fame soaring all over Europe. Scoring numerous international patrons, such as the Hapsburg king Philip II, and benefitting from the support of art critics of the time, Titian was thought to embody the Venetian tradition. Tintoretto’s only way to success was therefore by way of emulation. The emergence of Paolo Veronese, a protegee of Titian, made it even harder for the young Tintoretto to enter the Venetian art scene. The environment of fervent competition was the most formative aspect for Tintoretto.
The celebrated masters of Renaissance Venice are often studied in terms of their artistic relationships and, most of all, their rivalry. The terms for such debates were, in point of fact, set by contemporary Renaissance art critics like Giorgio Vasari and Pietro Aretino. The concept of competition was instrumented for discussing the art of the different schools of the Italian Peninsula and was considered an essential ingredient for stimulating artistic innovation. In this debate, the main actors were the Florentine-born Michelangelo and Titian and, respectively, their ensuing pupils. This genre of humanist literature, called paragone, was an elevated form of comparison. It is with these intellectual battles between the merits of the two masters that art criticism was born.
Tintoretto’s debut came with the commission for a giant canvas that was meant to be displayed in the hall of the Confraternity of Saint Roch in Venice. The painting rendered one of the post-humous miracles of Saint Mark of Alexandria, the patron saint of Venice. The Miracle of the Slave tells the story of a man who goes on a pilgrimage to St. Mark’s relics (kept in Venice since the ninth century) and is then punished by his pagan master. The slave is dramatically rescued by St. Mark’s ethereal intervention and the episode culminates with the conversion of the tormentor to Christianity.
The choice to depict a story so integral to Venice’s spiritual history was a bold political move. Furthermore, it allowed the young painter to showcase his resourcefulness and ingenuity. With explicit quotations from Titian, Michelangelo, and Rafael, the illustrious masters of his day, Tintoretto wanted to announce that he belonged with them by way of appropriating and emulating their work. After the unveiling of The Miracle of the Slave in 1548, Tintoretto received a flow of new commissions in no time.
A Sea of Patrons: Tintoretto’s Chase for Commissions
Despite Titian’s unmatched reputation, Venice was a salutary climate for ambitious and enterprising young artists. Venice presented a rich republican culture, brandishing civic art. Such were the scuole—devotional confraternities or brotherhoods set up for charity. Such entities allowed Tintoretto to find patronage within the lagoon.
In the middle of the sixteenth century, painters finally benefitted from an elevated social and professional position, after having separated themselves from the medieval title of artisan. That was possible due to the efforts of Italian humanists like Leon Battista Alberti, who argued in favor of the inclusion of painting among the liberal arts and their distancing from mechanical arts. Tintoretto’s decision to identify himself with his father’s craftsmanship meant stepping away from the newly established position of privilege that courtly painters such as Titian fought so hard for. By stressing his connection to the manual labor involved in painting, Jacopo Robusti wanted to expand his appeal to as many patrons as possible.
Another means of advertisement was through self-portraits. An anecdote tells us that Tintoretto would display his self-portrait in the busiest trading ground in Venice—the Merceria. In the only self-portrait from his early career, young Jacopo represents himself with no embellishments. The format draws attention to the face and the bold spirit of the painter and strays away from the typical contemporary self-portraits that usually promote high social rank and material wealth.
Business Man or Humble Venetian?
Tintoretto approached his career as a business venture with a daring goal in mind: filling all of Venice with his canvases. Considering his entrepreneurial acumen, many assumed that Tintoretto was chasing riches. While that might be in part true, since painting was a waged profession, Tintoretto seems to have been more interested in obtaining fame and recognition. In order to become the icon of the Venetian lagoon, Jacopo bent tradition and the rules of decorum. He exhibited ready-made paintings as street merchandise, imitated the manner of other artists, and famously installed canvases without permission.
The story goes that in 1564, the confraternity of Saint Roch, his longstanding patron, opened a contest for the decoration of their newly erected residence and invited several artists to submit their designs. Tintoretto, however, took a shortcut. Instead of presenting a drawing, he secretly installed the canvas on the ceiling of the boardroom. When the time came, judges assembled just to witness Tintoretto’s spectacular depiction of Saint Roch in Glory. Given that the confraternity was a charitable entity, Jacopo knew that they would not be able to turn it down if it was delivered as a donation.
In the hope of future bounties, Tintoretto painted a superhuman quantity of canvases and always compromised his prices. While a Titian or Veronese would earn thousands of scudi and could spend their capital in lavish real estate properties, Tintoretto earned on average 100 scudi per year. While this wage set him in the upper echelons of Venetian society, it was by no means a luxurious income. To minimize costs and maximize profits and commissions, he ran an industrious workshop in which his main assistants were his children. Domenico, Marco, and Marietta collaborated with their father in a traditional atelier model, much like in the medieval period.
In fact, after 1570, when his health deteriorated, Tintoretto started to rely on Domenico’s labor. The most prominent workshop commission was the monumental depiction of Paradise adorning the Grand Council Hall of the Doge’s Palace. The Paradise is the largest old master painting ever created and represents one of the chief works of the Venetian Renaissance.
Jacopo Tintoretto: The Last Renaissance Master
Tintoretto’s ascend to recognition was by no means easy. In his lifetime, the artistic establishment pushed him to adopt idiosyncratic strategies to be able to practice his art. Posterity condemned him too. His tireless and vigorous work ethic, which may have determined his swift brushwork and unfinished style, came at odds with the developing taste of art critics, who preferred finished and idealized painting. It was not until the perpetual revolutions in the artistic canon that came starting with Romanticism and Impressionism, that Tintoretto could be given pride of place in the history of art.
Today, Tintoretto stands with dignity in the canon of the Italian Renaissance and has become an emblem of the Venetian school. It is not without irony that it took connoisseurs centuries before they appointed him as one of the flag bearers of venezianità, when Jacopo Robusti Tintoretto was the only artist of the lagoon who was born and buried in Venice. His works still adorn countless monuments in Venice.
The self-portrait dating just five years before his death is a vivid testament to the master. Confronting the viewers with staggering self-awareness, Tintoretto gazes at posterity in an almost godly manner. The old Tintoretto brandishes his age as proof of his merit. It is with him that Renaissance ends and the seeds of the Baroque are planted.