GENEVIEVE VERDIGEL // The Question of Tintoretto’s Artistic Formation

The Question of Tintoretto’s Artistic Formation


Tintoretto: A Star was Born

The Wallraf-Richartz Museum, Cologne, 6 October 2017 – 28 January 2018.

Tintoret: Naissance d’un génie

Musée du Luxembourg, Paris, 7 March – 1 July 2018.

Il Giovane Tintoretto

Galleria dell’Accademia, Venice, 7 September 2018 – 6 January 2019.

Tintoretto: Artist of Renaissance Venice

The National Gallery of Art, Washington, 10 March – 7 July 2019.

The year 2018 marks the five-hundredth anniversary of the birth of the Venetian artist, Jacopo Tintoretto (1518/19-94). A host of exhibitions have been curated to celebrate the occasion, shown in the artist’s native Venice and across the world. Two of these sought to explore Tintoretto’s artistic formation: one curated by Roland Krischel which was held at the Wallraf-Richartz Museum and the Musée du Luxembourg, the other the collaborative effort of Roberta Battaglia, Paola Marini, and Vittoria Romani, mounted at the Galleria dell’Accademia and soon to be exhibited at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, as part of a major retrospective on the artist (10 March – 7 July 2019). New perspectives on this topic are particularly welcome as, despite the remarkable fame and success Tintoretto achieved in his later career in his capacities as a Ducal artist, the matter of how he constructed his artistic identity within the milieu of sixteenth-century Venice remains a hotly discussed topic. Few of Tintoretto’s early paintings can be dated with certainty and therefore the exhibition format presents a valuable means to test out the various dates proposed in the literature. For the sake of both clarity and brevity, this review will address the exhibitions as they were displayed in Paris and Venice respectively.

Fig. 1: Jacopo Tintoretto, Holy Family with the Young Saint John the Baptist, ca. 1547, oil on panel, 46 x 69 cm, Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven.
Fig. 1: Jacopo Tintoretto, Holy Family with the Young Saint John the Baptist, ca. 1547, oil on panel, 46 x 69 cm, Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven. Courtesy of Yale University Art Gallery.

An issue fundamental to understanding Tintoretto as an artist is establishing what constitutes the parameters of his juvenile phase. This was something both exhibitions neatly sidestepped by omitting any such dates from major wall labels. Reference, however, to Krischel’s catalogue reveals that the period between 1537 and 1555 was taken by him to encompass Tintoretto’s early years, while the Venice exhibition culminated with Tintoretto’s The Miracle of the Slave of 1548. The corresponding disparity in the time span of Tintoretto’s career covered by the two exhibitions had a marked effect on their focus. For example, an entire section of the Paris show was devoted to Tintoretto’s strategic if scholastically problematic collaboration with the Bergamasque painter Giovanni Galizzi and how Tintoretto managed an increasingly active workshop. Display of the unfinished modello of the Holy Family with the Young Saint John the Baptist (Fig. 1, ca. 1547) was particularly insightful in the latter context as it showed how Tintoretto explored a composition by rapidly sketching forms prior to revising the design in successive up paint layers.

Painted Self Portrait by Jacopo Tintoretto
Fig. 2: Jacopo Tintoretto, Self Portrait, ca. 1546-48, oil on canvas, 45.1 x 38.1 cm (Framed: 7.3 x 63.5 x 5.1 cm), Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia. Philadelphia Museum of Art, Gift of Marion R. Ascoli and the Marion R. and Max Ascoli Fund in honor of Lessing Rosenwald, 1983-190-1.

The curators of the two exhibitions justly concurred that Tintoretto was a child of his time. As such, it was unsurprising to find that both invoked the oft-repeated if fabricated phrase ‘il disegno di Michelangelo ed il colorito di Tiziano (Michelangelo’s design and Titian’s colour)’ that Carlo Ridolfi claimed was inscribed on a wall of Tintoretto’s workshop. There was, however, a notable difference between how the two exhibitions visually communicated Tintoretto’s engagement with the work of his elders and the way they ‘set the scene’. The Paris exhibition commenced with the remarkable Self-Portrait with its direct gaze and bold brushstrokes that Tintoretto executed in circa 1547 before launching into a brief survey of some of Tintoretto’s earliest paintings and the small decorative paintings that were among his early commissions (Fig. 2). This hasty overview came at the expense of satisfactory visual comparisons with earlier paintings by key reference artists such as Titian and de’ Pitati – with whom Tintoretto allegedly trained – and which brief references in the wall labels to these artists did not overcome. A more successful approach was assumed by the Venetian curators. The first rooms were devoted to the artistic culture of mid-sixteenth-century Venice, including the presence of Tuscan artists and their work in the city. Display of paintings by Pordenone, Titian, de’ Pitati, and Giorgio Vasari amongst others served to illustrate the visual stimuli that the young Tintoretto would have encountered.

The major strength of the Venice exhibition was simply that it included a superior array of works drawn from the extensive repository of paintings that remain in the city where they were produced or well-selected works from various museum collections. While Krischel’s show did feature a few drawings from Tintoretto’s workshop and contemporary prints, those selected did not complement the visual narrative as successfully as in Venice. Several works featured in both exhibitions, although the way that they were displayed produced different outcomes. A case in point is Tintoretto’s Conversion of Saul (Fig. 3, ca. 1544). In Paris, this painting was hung in the first room entitled ‘Prendre son envol’ (Taking off) and was presented as a work in which Tintoretto attempted to break onto the art scene. The Venetian show dated the painting several years earlier to circa 1539-40 – the authors of the catalogue entry retaining the date of circa 1544 – but more adeptly emphasised the way Tintoretto amalgamated the work of his seniors by hanging it in close proximity to Titian’s modello for the Battaglia di Cadore he completed for the Sala del Maggior Consiglio in the Palazzo Ducale in circa 1538.

Painting by Jacopo Tintoretto with people and horses.
Fig. 3: Jacopo Tintoretto, The Conversion of Saint Paul, ca. 1544, oil on canvas, 152.7 x 236.3 cm, National Gallery of Art, Samuel H. Kress Collection, Washington. Courtesy of the National Gallery of Art, Washington.

Two uniting points emerged from the exhibitions under review. The first is the great variety in stylistic and technical terms of the works placed to the start of Tintoretto’s career. One hopes that ‘Tintoretto 500’ will occasion further reflection on how to explain these inconsistencies within the framework of Tinoretto’s workshop operation. Second, and perhaps most important, is that Tintoretto’s genius was as much innate as it was a product of the dynamic artistic culture of the city in which he was raised.