Tintoretto was around thirty years old in 1548 when he painted The Miracle of the Slave for the Brotherhood of St. Mark in Venice, the revolutionary manifesto of his art. Two exhibitions currently in Venice till January 6th help us understand what happened before and after that painting.
Considering an exhibit on Tintoretto in his birth town had last been arranged in 1937, then one does not want to miss this exceptional occasion to recap the reasons why this artist still amazes 500 years after his birth.
At the Accademia Galleries the focus is on the first steps, when Jacopo Robusti was a young painter trying to find his space at a time when important personalities were not missing in Venice. And were pretty aggressive, too.
The arrival of artists from Rome to Venice
After the sack of Rome in 1527 many artists had moved to Venice and their innovative ideas about painting, architecture and sculpture found a strong supporter in the Venetian government, led by Doge Andrea Gritti. The publishing industry, particularly developed in Venice at that time, was cleverly used for promotion.
It must have felt as if Venice had to be turned inside out. Frescoes appeared in the aristocratic palaces facing the Grand Canal. Prestigious monasteries and churches would host paintings with a bold new style. New public buildings were erected in St. Mark’s square, while the devotional brotherhoods chose not to be left aside and started renewing their paintings’ cycles, too.
Monumental and dynamic. Just like in Michelangelo’s art
Nothing could be small. Whether it was a religious subject or a mythological story to narrate, proportions got gigantic. Antonio Sacchis, called Pordenone as his home town in the Northern-eastern part of Italy, left amazing work to admire. His St. Martin and St. Christopher leave all of us in awe. These two doors were painted for the closet of St. Rocco church’s treasure by Pordenone in 1527.
Surely Tintoretto was then too young, but as he worked later on in that church, he surely had a chance to admire those monumental saints.
The background and theatrical stage of paintings could not be anonymous. Painted art became an occasion to state a connection to Renaissance architecture as it was promoted in his books by Sebastiano Serlio. Columns and arcades, bas-reliefs, sculptures and staircases, porticoes, arches were so important that almost prevailed over the stories represented. Like in Paris Bordon’s Presenting the Ring to the Doge where the scene acquires a heroic character due to the architecture monumentality surrounding the fisherman and the Doge.
Twisted, contorted human bodies. Foreshortened spaces and figures
Giorgio Vasari reached Venice in 1541 summoned by Pietro Aretino, the very influential intellectual from Tuscany who had reached the lagoon a few years before. Aretino needed his expertise for the scenography of his comedy La Talanta to be performed during Carnival in 1542. During his stay, Vasari painted the ceiling of a bridal bedroom in Palazzo Corner-Spinelli in Venice. In these works you can see those unnatural contortions that surely influenced the young Tintoretto.
Powerful, wide brushstrokes. Whirlwind-like compositions
While you move from one painting to the other, there’s however something that slowly changes from one work to the other. As if taken by frenzy, Tintoretto’s hand more and more often draws thick lines of paint on the canvas with energy and impatience. It may be a head, or a body. Or the fabrics enveloping a body and the muscles.
The rapidity and apparent inaccuracy or extravagance became his signature. If you then merge this Jackson Pollock’s or Emilio Vedova’s style with compositions where a powerful whirlwind seems to sweep the whole scene, then you cannot but surrender to Tintoretto’s attempt to emotionally involve you. You may not like him, but you cannot show indifference. Especially when it comes to the representation of a sudden frame, a still image freezing the moment of a miracle…
The Miracle of the Slave
St. Mark suddenly flies in and saves the slave who, guilty of having prayed on his tomb, is going to be punished by his Provençal master. The torturer helplessly holds the tools of torture broken into pieces by the miraculous intervention of the Evangelist. Special, visionary use of lighting is creating the sense of an extraordinary event. The naked and defenceless body of the slave lies on the ground in full light, while St Mark’s face is a perfect backlit shot.
All the characters in full human size, including a member of the brotherhood, observe the scene and we cannot but be drawn in, too.
After the Miracle of the Slave, Tintoretto’s career would change. In which way? The exhibition at the Doge’s palace on Tintoretto’s later years is quite enlightening in this respect. And that’s the subject of my next post…
by Luisella Romeo
registered tourist guide in Venice, Italy