A retrospective exhibit on the Venetian genius arrives in the United States, which more than any other country witnessed the strength of Western values and the freedom that Venice, like Washington, has always defended by remaining open to dialogue and cultivating relationships with the entire world
If find yourself in Washington D.C., don’t miss out on the exhibition “Tintoretto: Artist of Renaissance Venice”, open until July 7th at the National Gallery of Arts. This is the first monographic exhibit dedicated to the painter in the US.
Organized to celebrate the 500th anniversary of his birth, this collection comes from the Gallerie dell’Accademia and the Musei Civici di Venezia [Galleries of the Academy and the Civic Museums of Venice]. About 50 paintings and a dozen drawings trace the career of this extraordinary artist from a younger generation compared to Titian. However, he did not let himself be crushed by his illustrious predecessor. Rather, he powerfully innovated the language of the city on the Lagoon.
His name was Jacopo Robusti. His nickname comes from his father’s work, a dyer of fabrics. His contemporaries did not love him, especially other artists. They criticized his dark personality and highly competitive spirit. The rapacity with which he procured orders, voracious in gaining all the important work, also annoyed them. He had set up a workshop organized with an industrial “assembly line” criteria, which churned out works at a fast pace. Other artists, likely envious, criticized this speed. They said that the painting was botched and lacked care. They resentfully noted that characters copied from earlier works sometimes appeared in his paintings. Dismayed, they then observed the way in which he enticed the clients, providing them with a finished work instead of illustrative sketches as was the common practice at the time. This was the 16th century’s version of modern advertising gadgets.
All these accusations were true. However, his painting was magnificent, perturbing and seductive. Tintoretto did not represent reality. He did not want to convince with reason, rather his goal was to have an effect on the observer’s feelings.
His talent drew the public’s definitive attention with The Miracle of the Slave, painted in 1548. Never before had we seen figures come to life in that way. There are tumultuous movements, although they are synchronized like the gears of a clock, the movement of one character corresponds equally and to the contrary of another. Light also dominates where it is absent – the shadow of the pergola that covers the central scene increases the dynamism of the action as it leaves both the foreground and the background of the painting in full light.
With time, this light becomes charged with spirituality, becoming fantastic and visionary. The atmospheres and feelings become darker, pierced by flashes of golden light or “illuminated” by figures made of light. This is a rather theatrical representation, a true anticipation of Baroque.
The best definition of his painting was given by Ridolfi, who in 1642 dedicated a biography to him. He wrote that Tintoretto combined Michelangelo’s drawing, powerful and sculptural, with the colour of Titian.
In order to fully understand these works, Ridolfi tells the story of his method, which also explains the theatrical and dramatic nature of his representations. He set up a sort of “theatre”, creating figurines in wood, wax or clay that he placed inside cardboard architecture or that he hung from the ceiling to simulate flight. He also placed them in strategic positions, inside the windows of the houses or behind the mannequins, where he would put little candles, so as to study the shadows and the propagation of light “directly”. Even the brushstroke contributes to the “mobility” of the scene, due to its rapidity, where he does not enter into details. Instead, he makes the sense of form by creating effects of dynamism that attracted the clients, but which his detractors attributed to sloppiness.
The portraits were extraordinary. These works made him was famous and a section of the exhibit is dedicated solely to these works. Today, looking at them we understand the admiration of peers. They are alive and throbbing, not “plastered”. They seem to stop the moment, as in a photograph. For the curators of the exhibition, those faces are a representation of the ephemeral and not of the eternal, and perhaps this is the reason why they still fascinate us today.
The event was also an opportunity to revisit the catalogue of Tintoretto. The activity of his workshop was enormous, but not always of the highest quality due to the way the work was organized. Consequently, many of the pieces were the work of his apprentices.
There is no doubt he was a brilliant yet ruthless innovator. However, at a time when women were excluded from art, he took his daughter Marietta in at his workshop. Perhaps this was business calculation or a recognition of a great talent, or simply the love of a father. In any case, he once again proved to be generous and farsighted. The girl died young, and History, merciless with women, forgot about her. His contemporaries called her Tintoretta… but we’ll find another time to talk about her again.