What Made Tintoretto the Greatest Master of the Renaissance?

Dubbed the last genius of the Italian Renaissance, Tintoretto revolutionized painting by breaking the artistic rules of his time.

May 23, 2024By Anastasiia S. Kirpalov, MA Art History, Modern & Contemporary Art

what made tintoretto master renaissance


Although he never painted his native city of Venice, Tintoretto was the quintessential Venetian painter of his time. He was a student of Titian, who soon turned into his master’s greatest rival. His painting speed was unmatched and his marketing skills made him one of the most sought-after artists in Venice. Read on to learn more about Tintoretto, the master of the Italian Renaissance.


Tintoretto was Titian’s Student 

tintoretto self portrait painting
Self-Portrait, by Jacopo Tintoretto, c.1546-48. Source: Philadelphia Museum of Art


Jacopo Robusti, known as Tintoretto, was born in 1518 in Venice. He was the oldest child with 22 younger siblings. His family was of humble origin, with the father working as a textile dyer or tintore. Thus, the artist’s professional surname derived from his father’s occupation. Perhaps Tintoretto’s early exposure to pigments, dyes, and colors facilitated his later artistic experiments.


The boy’s family noticed his talent in painting, so they managed to arrange an apprenticeship in the workshop of the most celebrated and skilled artist of their time, Titian. Tintoretto was only ten years old, yet he already showed remarkable talent. However, the apprenticeship lasted only a couple of weeks. Some say Titian became jealous of the younger artist’s talent, while others believe he simply had nothing to teach him since the boy already knew everything. Whatever the reason was, soon Titian sent Tintoretto back home and never said a single kind word about him or his art.


Left without a master, Tintoretto devised his own study program. He studied the works of Michelangelo and visited anatomical theaters to get a better understanding of human anatomy. By the age of nineteen, he developed a personal style and started a full-blown career as an independent painter. In contemporary art history, his works are usually attributed to the Mannerist art movement for their emotional intensity and compromising attitude toward proportion and perspective. However, the stylistic definitions and genre criteria would be too limiting for a complex and multi-dimensional artist like Tintoretto.

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He Represented the Venetian School of Painting

tintoretto annunciation painting
The Annunciation, by Jacopo Tintoretto, 1583-87. Source: Web Gallery of Art


Tintoretto was the ultimate Venetian painter who could not have created the same body of work in any other place. For centuries, the Venetian school of painting rivaled the Florentine, with generations of artists attempting to prove the superiority of their skill and conceptual approach. Florentine artists appreciated precision, strict line, and grandiose monumentalism, while the painters of Venice—the city of theaters and celebrations—valued free, dynamic compositions and bold color. Tintoretto was no exception, putting living emotion before painstakingly crafted details.


Unlike Titian, who worked for European royalty of all kinds, Tintoretto was a more community-oriented painter, mostly painting for Venetian citizen associations and churches. In his works, he managed to capture the hidden duality of the city and its real nature. Behind the colorful carnival of bold colors, flashes of light, and swift dynamism there was a morbid undertone that left the viewer nauseous from the incessant movement and peered at them from the darkest corners. It was the essence of Renaissance Venice with its colorful facade, behind which bloomed conspiracies, intrigues, and secret political manipulation of all sorts.


He was a PR Genius

tintoretto christ painting
Christ at the Sea of Galilee, by Jacopo Tintoretto, 1575-80. Source: Wikimedia Commons


Tintoretto understood the significance of his art and was never afraid to boast about it, even at the expense of relationships with fellow artists. In 1546, the Scuola Grande di San Rocco, an association of wealthy Venetians doing charity work, announced a competition between the leading painters of the city. The winner was to receive the commission for the decoration of the entire Scuola building.


The contestants were supposed to present sketches of their future painting of St. Roch, the patron saint of the association. However, the rules were written for everyone but Tintoretto. Instead of presenting a preliminary sketch he, using his extraordinary painting speed and skill, brought a completed work and officially donated it to the association. The rules of the Scuola prohibited refusing donations, and, despite the anger of other contestants, Tintoretto became their unintended winner.


Although some sources present Tintoretto as a mad artist obsessed with his work who was ready to paint for free, his financial choices were, in fact, wise and unconventional. Giving away free paintings meant great recognition, especially during the early stages of his career, while Titian and his followers were spreading unpleasant rumors about the artist. The generous donation to the Scuola di San Rocco soon won him 22 paid commissions. Moreover, he kept track of all his finances and commissions, often offering his clients temporary contracts with annual salaries instead of project-based deals.


His Paintings Caused Scandals and Established his Reputation

tintoretto miracle painting
The Miracle of the Slave, by Jacopo Tintoretto, 1548. Source: Wikimedia Commons


Despite the great fame of Tintoretto, he had a fair share of critics. Apart from his bitter ex-teacher Titian, he was targeted by the painters of the Florentine school who mocked his uncompromising use of color and distorted proportions. Tintoretto’s contemporaries often blamed him for working too fast and not paying enough attention to detail. Indeed, Tintoretto had no interest in fine details if they did not affect the overall impression of a whole. The twentieth-century art historians compared him to the then-fresh art movement of Expressionism, which also valued emotional effect over realistic details.


Some of his compositional decisions caused backlash as well. One of Tintoretto’s most famous paintings, The Miracle of a Slave, provoked a scandal that somehow only worked to strengthen the artist’s popularity. The painting retold the story of St. Mark, the patron saint of Venice, saving the life of a slave who came to visit the saint’s relics against his master’s will. The master ordered a brutal execution of the slave for his disobedience, but with St. Mark’s help, all tools meant for torture break before harming the man. Tintoretto understood St. Mark’s interference literally, with the saint hovering over the naked body upside down.


Tintoretto Challenged Traditional Iconography

tintoretto supper painting
The Last Supper, by Jacopo Tintoretto, 1592-94. Source: Web Gallery of Art


The innovative approach of Tintoretto spread beyond the limits of painting style and compositional decisions to the domain of traditional Christian iconography. Tintoretto painted the scene of the Last Supper, or the final meal of Jesus with his apostles before his crucifixion, several times in his lifetime, but the latest version from the mid-1590s was perhaps the most innovative of all.


Instead of the traditional ceremonial setting, the gathering takes place in a dark and crowded tavern. The foreground of the painting is occupied not by the principal characters but by random tavern workers and drunk brawlers. There’s even a cat stealing something from a food basket. The things that hint at the significance of the scene are the halos around the apostles’ heads and the lonely figure sitting on the other side of the table representing Judas, who will soon betray them all.


The long table, traditionally painted to fit Christ and his twelve apostles, is turned to the side, vanishing into the horizon. The unusual angle of the table could be partially explained by the site-specificity of the painting. Tintoretto painted it for the church San Giorgio Maggiore, where it still hangs beside the altar, visually extending it with the asymmetrical composition.


He Preferred Tension Over Harmony

tintoretto deposition painting
The Deposition of Christ, by Jacopo Tintoretto, c.1586-1590. Source: Wikipedia


Unlike many artists of his time, Tintoretto had little interest in the visual perfection of a symmetrical composition. He preferred distorted forms, bold and sometimes aggressive colors, and the radical use of perspective. Instead of following strict religious canon, he often allowed himself to incorporate elements of everyday life or figures unrelated to the story. When it came to conveying feeling and emotion, Tintoretto used all means possible. His characters express their emotions with their entire bodies, making bold gestures and dramatic movements. The artist did not try to fit his figures onto the canvas. On the contrary, he gave them as much space as they needed, even if it meant compromising some compositional elements. The dynamism of his compositions partially relied on his swift painting style and loose brushwork.


Tintoretto, the Precursor of Modern Art 

tintoretto mark painting
Discovering of the Body of Saint Mark, by Jacopo Tintoretto, 1562-66. Source: Pinacoteca Brera, Milano


Despite the artist’s significant success and fame, the audience could truly appreciate the innovation of Tintoretto only centuries after his death. The philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre called Tintoretto the first film director. Tintoretto’s scenes were more reminiscent of film stills, with movement on them captured but not interrupted. The dynamism of Tintoretto’s works suggests that the action continues beyond the moment that’s fixed on canvas.


In his way of interacting with the audience through art, Tintoretto became akin to modern and contemporary artists rather than those of his own time. His paintings are deliberately conflicting, often nauseating and overwhelming. They do not offer harmony but rather stir up emotional turmoil and feelings.

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By Anastasiia S. KirpalovMA Art History, Modern & Contemporary Art Anastasiia holds a MA degree in Art history from the University of Groningen, the Netherlands. Previously she worked as a museum assistant, caring for the collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art. She specializes in topics of early abstract art, nineteenth-century gender, spiritualism and occultism. Outside of her work, she is interested in cult studies, criminology, and fashion history.