Tintoretto’s ‘The Wedding of Ariadne and Bacchus’ (1578)
Tintoretto’s ‘The Wedding of Ariadne and Bacchus’ (1578)

Tintoretto in Venice: his art fills a palace and a museum, a scuola, basilicas, a dozen churches. It seethes and shouts: in “The Creation of the Animals”, a headlong rush of flying, swimming, leaping beasts breathed into life by a surging, haloed god is an analogy for Tintoretto himself as divinely inspired creator of new forms. Experience such visionary compositions at a stretch, and they echo the rhythms, pace and strange unreality of the city so sharply that painter and setting begin to fuse.

Marking the 500th anniversary of the artist’s birth, the unmissable Tintoretto retrospective that opened this weekend at Palazzo Ducale (the mature work) and Gallerie dell’Accademia (The Young Tintoretto) invites all this and more. The first exhibitions here since 1937, they are centrepiece of a feast to be savoured over days, for they only fully make sense in the wider context of the city’s permanently installed painting cycles and altarpieces, all proclaiming the dash and verve — “tutto spirito e tutto prontezza” according to suspicious, awed contemporaries — of this native Venetian through half a century.

In “The Baptism of Christ”, the eloquent conclusion at Palazzo Ducale, a twisting John the Baptist, in tremulous silhouette before a crepuscular lagoon, throws water over a rippling, muscular, brilliantly illumined Jesus. Across the canal in San Giorgio’s “Last Supper”, transparent angels, mere outlines of light, swirl through the air above steely grey, wildly gesticulating apostles: the miraculous infuses the naturalistic.

Emerging into daylight from such encounters to traverse Venice — via a shadowy calle that suddenly ends at a sun-baked campo, or a narrow waterway opening on the Grand Canal — you perceive how Tintoretto’s calligraphic lines and dynamic chiaroscuro repeat the city’s haphazard, winding streets and abrupt dark to bright changes.

Venice’s golden haze, too, and the way in which solid shapes dissolve into flickering reflections bouncing off the water, are in these paintings, suffusing or heightening narrative in diverse, marvellous ways.

‘The Baptism of Christ’ (c1580)
‘The Baptism of Christ’ (c1580)

The central imploring figure in San Travaso’s “The Temptation of Saint Anthony” is bathed in a heavenly glow. Pearls fall like iridescent tears on gossamer lace from the necklace broken by violation in “Tarquin and Lucretia”, returning to Palazzo Ducale from Chicago. In the three-metre “Rape of Helen”, a star loan from the Prado in Madrid, a multitude of impressionistic fragments of horses and soldiers turns the raging background battle — resembling Venice’s wars with the Ottomans — into a quivering silvery chimera, adding psychological charge; we share with Helen, dragged to the Trojan ship, a dizzy sense that the unbelievable is actually happening.

In foreground close-up, Helen tumbles towards us, compressed into the picture’s corner by virile captors amid impossibly plunging perspectives of rolling vessels, thrusting masts, heads sinking like blots beneath the water. Artifice builds reality; the passing instant is frozen eternally; a dream world is conjured from one we know, transformed by mysterious light and gravity-defying effects as everything churns, spins, dips in Tintoretto’s proto-baroque, unstable spaces.

The Accademia traces the evolution of this aesthetic, rooted in the artist’s quest to combine “the drawing of Michelangelo and the colour of Titian”, and developed with entrepreneurial Renaissance spirit through an immense workshop and unpopular tactics (he gifted work to secure bigger projects). Casualties — the prolific oeuvre became uneven, execution over-swift, perfunctory — were inevitable, but at his best Tintoretto still overwhelms eye and mind.

The Accademia’s highlight is the spiralling 20-metre drama “The Miracle of a Slave”, with which the 30-year-old Tintoretto burst to fame in 1548 as challenger to Titian. A zigzagging St Mark — Venice’s patron saint — plummets out of the sky to save a Christian captive, brilliantly lit naked body foreshortened along a parallel angle, from a turbaned executioner who holds up his snapped instruments of torture in astonishment. Chiaroscuro intensifies astringent colours — orange, olive, deep reds and blue — while vigorous, daringly undisguised brushwork strengthens three-dimensional forms and makes surfaces livid, alluring.

San Rocco’s “Saint Roch Ministering to the Plague Victims” (1549) followed: emerging from shadowy backgrounds in torchlight, the sick and dying writhe and groan — a scene desperately familiar to 16th-century Venetians yet ennobled, every figure sombre, convincingly naturalistic but based on heroic sculptural models.

That distillation of the experience of the poor and humble within the grandest conceptions is characteristic and touching. In “The Presentation of Christ”, for the barrelmakers’ guild, a barrel lies on the majestic temple steps and the most affecting figure is a man in tattered clothes selling doves for sacrifice. Hard not to connect this scene with migrant beggars outside Venice’s churches this summer.

While Titian was absorbed by Habsburg patronage, Tintoretto worked almost exclusively at home, for guild and monastery, nobleman and doge. Beyond the exhibition, the Palazzo Ducale is the home of his heavy secular allegories, mostly executed with workshop assistance; smaller opulent panels such as “The Marriage of Bacchus and Ariadne”, symbolising Venice’s marriage to the sea, are finer, with figures like classical statues warmed by gleaming flesh tones.

Tintoretto’s heart, though, was in his sacred work; he was devout, and also built piety into his self-image. In Philadelphia’s 1546-48 frontal “Self-portrait” his brow and eyes, steadily gazing, are spotlit against a dark ground; disdaining to show brush or palette, Tintoretto concentrates on intellect, spirituality, determination. He is indomitable still in the Louvre’s 1588 “Self-portrait”: the gaze has lost its brilliance, the eyes stare off into space yet with the wrinkled forehead declare a mind alert if quieter — mouth hidden beneath beard, ears beneath hair, in a representation of silent contemplation. Manet called this “one of the most beautiful paintings in the world”.

The greatest portrayal of the artist’s inner life is the decorative cycles — 33 paintings depicting the life of Christ in the Sala Capitolare alone — packing the Scuola San Rocco, Tintoretto’s essential monument. Profuse, tumultuous, complicated — Vasari called Tintoretto “the most extraordinary brain that the art of painting has ever produced”, and didn’t mean it as a compliment — they nevertheless repay detailed looking with emotional revelation: the bloody reflections in the soldier’s glinting armour contrasting with Christ’s pale flesh in “Ecce Homo”, the Holy Family charging out of the canvas in “The Flight into Egypt” while tiny boatman and farmer go serenely about their business in a distant Veneto landscape. “And such a ‘Resurrection’ as there is,” Ruskin wrote from San Rocco, “the rocks of the sepulchre crashed all to pieces and roaring down upon you, while the Christ soars forth into a torrent of angels, whirled up into heaven until you are lost 10 times over. And then to see his touch of quiet thought in his awful ‘Crucifixion’ — there is an ass in the distance, feeding on the remains of strewed palm leaves . . . a master’s stroke . . . As for painting, I think I didn’t know what it meant until today.”

To January 6, 2019, then at the National Gallery of Art, Washington DC, March 10, 2019-July 7, 2019

Get alerts on Visual Arts when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window)

Follow the topics in this article