An eye for the dramatic

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It is time to rewrite the encyclopedias. Jacopo “Robusti”, alias “Il Tintoretto”, now has a real surname. This is one of the more media-friendly discoveries to emerge from the detailed research behind the Prado’s landmark exhibition. Yet his “new” name, plain Jacopo Comin, seems unlikely to replace the old one, whose mention has for four centuries evoked love or disapproval in other artists. This is the first imp­ortant monographic Tintoretto show for 70 years, and the pictures gathered in Madrid vividly display the whole range of his mannerist quirks, and his lifelong dedication to breathing new life into biblical storytelling.

Representative though this collection is, it is only a small proportion of a vast output. To mount any big exhibition of Tintoretto outside his native Venice, where the last retrospective was held in 1937, is to wrestle with near-insuperable logistics. Not only are many of these huge canvases in the hands of churches wary of lending, but they were also, like the great San Rocco cycle, intended as site-specific pieces.

Nevertheless, the Prado’s show is as absorbing a study as it is possible to mount. An early gallery shows how the brief student of Titian – some accounts calculate that Tintoretto’s stint with the master lasted a mere 10 days – was a determined overreacher from early on. Fittingly, “Jesus among the Doctors” (1542) takes as its theme new ideas superseding the old. Many of Tintoretto’s characteristics are already evident: the removal of the boy Christ to the distance, while the secondary figures of the amazed priests spill down the vertiginous pulpit steps into the foreground. In a faintly comic pose, one cleric crouches over a man-sized book. The contrast of myopic pedantry with the supernal was to become a Tintoretto leitmotif.

Tintoretto’s ability to infuse a whole painting with drama through one uniting detail grows picture by picture. In “Venus and Mars Surprised by Vulcan” (1545), the tension rests on the figure of the little dog who has glimpsed the adulterer Mars cowering under the table, and is about to give the game away by barking. In the same way, although on a higher spiritual plane, this instantaneousness is used to brilliant effect in “Ahasuerus and Esther” (1548). In revealing to her husband the plot to massacre the Hebrews, Esther faints before his throne. The stir is palpable. Her women rush to sustain her, holding at bay the onlookers.

The robes in this picture are rendered in all their Venetian sumptuousness, yet with energetic, free brushstrokes and impasto for lace or jewels. No wonder Velázquez was so fascinated by Tintoretto, and collected his pictures for the Madrid court. It was another masterpiece of Tintoretto, “The Washing of the Feet” (1548), that had a marked effect on the Sevillian painter for its offset composition. Seeing it here, it is clear why: Christ performs his humbling task on the far right. The focus is on the antics of the apostles as they pull on or replace their footwear, as if in a scene from a school gym class. “It is real ... one may step inside it,” Velázquez reported.

Such storytelling informed Tintoretto’s various Last Suppers, a favourite theme. The best here, the 1563 “San Trovaso” version, takes place in a distinctly low-life joint: a rough table, a chair kicked over. The 19th-century critic John Ruskin primly objected to the indecorousness of the apostle reaching behind him to grab a swig from the wine bottle. But it is surely a question of timing: his arm is, in fact, frozen in the act, leading our eye to Christ’s face as he tells of his imminent betrayal. Recoiling from the horrible news, some lean inwards, others out. Christ is the centre of the drama, a lonely, fatalistic figure among the consternation rippling around him.

Rape, in classical mythology and the Bible, provided Tintoretto with the possibilities of struggle and escape. In the altarpiece “Saint George and the Dragon” (1553), the maiden charges helter-skelter out of the picture. It is a beautiful piece of painting, with her foreshortened fingers clawing for safety, the gorgeous reddish robe whispering over the ground and her subtle features turned into the shadow as if daring a backward glimpse at the carnage behind. Nearby, “Susanna and the Elders” (1555) brings Tintoretto’s creation of tension to a high pitch. Alabaster-white, Susanna stares into her mirror unaware – as at first the viewer is – of the elderly voyeurs stalking her. The bald pate of one in the foreground, lying on the floor to peer at his prey, infuses the scene with furtive malevolence.

If there is a sense that any aspects of Tintoretto are missing, it is probably those works that reflect the heightened spirituality of his later years. These had a formative impact on El Greco. One picture here that could be said to be in this vein is the intriguing “Martyrdom of Saint Lawrence” (1580). A nocturnal scene, its sketchiness and sparseness is curiously modern. The light from pyre and torches glints off the executioners and their tools, while perched behind are those pedantic priests, murmuring to one another while the execution runs its horrific course.

Although he was much in demand as a portrait painter, Tintoretto’s reputation in this sphere has suffered in the intervening centuries. Yet it is one small self-portrait that, even among the dazzling biblical canvases that surround it, has a lasting impact. Rightly, it is with this moving, understated image that the exhibition signs off.

Painted in 1588, it is a simple head-on image of an old man of 70. Emphasising the slack, drawn-down cheeks are heavy bags under his eyes, the rims dry and the pupils themselves like “two black suns”, as an awed Sartre once wrote. Here, perhaps, Tintoretto truly is recognisable as plain old Jacopo Comin: the last of the cinquecento, with all the light and glory he committed to canvas to be wondered over by the baroque age just dawning.

‘Tintoretto’ is at the Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid, until May 13.
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