Few painters have unleashed more praise and blame than Tintoretto. Vasari blasted him for dashing off his work off “by mere skill of hand” yet admitted he had the “most extraordinary brain the art of painting has ever produced”. The great Renaissance historian Jacob Burckhardt slammed him for vulgarity. Perhaps his mercurial genius is best nailed in Sartre’s description of: “An insane Titian, devoured by Buonarotti’s sombre passion, shaken by St Vitus’s dance.”

Graced by top-notch loans and cogent analysis, this Rome exhibition leaves you in no doubt that the dyer’s son broke every rule in the Renaissance book. Sometimes his vision dies in the attempt. An early work here, “The Dispute with Jesus and the Doctors in the Temple of Jerusalem” (1541-42), which shows Christ as an insubstantial figure dwarfed by two faux-Michelangelo giants, is an unqualified failure of scale, proportion and perspective.

Soon Tintoretto would master these skills. Yet his reliance on a vast bottega of assistants allied to his obsessive hunger for work meant many paintings never received the attention they deserved. A shameless hustler, he earned the hatred of his peers for gazumping their commissions. (He would work for expenses to win favour and famously won the competition to decorate the Scuola of San Rocco by presenting the clients with a finished painting rather than a proof.)

This show, which includes a section devoted to his studio works, makes no secret of his weakness for quantity over quality. Yet its cache of masterpieces reminds you that, at its best, his vision – turbulent, thrilling, transgressive – put even Titian in the shade.

The exhibition gets off, literally, to a flying start with “The Miracle of the Slave” (1547-48). Narrating the rescue of a servant condemned to torture for paying homage to St Mark, it shows the saint plummeting headlong into a crowd of onlookers, as the torturer’s hammers snap and scatter around the victim’s naked body.

Tintoretto has milked the scene for every ounce of drama: rapt faces gaze up in vertiginous awe; the plethora of turbans adds exoticism; bodies reel and gesticulate with coiled energy. Colours glow, splinter and melt. Harmony has been discarded, yet a latent symmetry remains. Chaos is tempered by choreography, disorder by discipline.

Tintoretto’s flair for pulling his mise-en-scène back from the brink of bedlam testifies to the expertise that underpinned his technique. He was born in 1519, and little is known about his apprenticeship. An early biographer, Carlo Ridolfi, suggests that Titian, threatened by Tintoretto’s talent for drawing, rejected him. Given the older master’s reputation as a hard-headed professional, the tale is hard to credit. However, a clutch of surviving drawings – sadly none on show here – plus infra-red scans that show complex sketches beneath paintings mean that Tintoretto’s draughtsmanship is not in doubt.

Ridolfi claims he was equally thorough about composition. Those angelic swallow-dives, a leitmotif of his oeuvre, were based on models roped to the beams of Tintoretto’s studio. He learnt his lurid, diaphanous light effects by putting wax figures in tiny houses illuminated by candles placed outside.

For all his painstaking preparations, Tintoretto, like all the great Venetians, was wedded to conjuring emotion through the play of colour and light. Yet while Titian’s polished pageants hold viewers at a reverent distance, the younger man’s topsy-turvy scenarios tug you into the heart of the action. Titian’s pathos is rooted in a memory of Platonic calm; Tintoretto’s world is permanently on the edge of a storm.

His life, of course, spanned one of the lagoon city’s most tempestuous centuries. Born into a republic on the brink of war with the Holy Roman Empire, England and the Papal states, he would live to see the Ottoman Turks vanquish Venetian hopes of international domination. He saw La Serenissima assailed by famine, plague and a fire that would wipe out his own work in the Ducal Palace. Crucially, he would become the chief painter for a church in the grip of the Counter-Reformation. Never before had there been so much confusion about the role of the religious image.

Even before the Council of Trent published its final decrees in 1563, artists would have been aware that pagan myths, nudes and “figures exciting to lust” – once the basic vocabulary of their visions – were more problematic than before. Venice, always resistant to Vatican bossiness, stayed aloof from the worst of the hysteria. One of the unalloyed glories of this show is “Suzanna and the Elders” (1555-56), on loan from Vienna. In a vision that is as witty as it is wondrous, Suzanna, her voluptuous, alabaster flesh the incarnation of pure desire, sprawls in the front of her mirror oblivious to the desperate, pathetic contortions of the decrepit old men behind the pergola.

Nevertheless, unlike the young Titian, Tintoretto would have thought twice before mixing pagan and Christian stories in the same canvas. Perhaps it was these very boundaries that fuelled him to push composition, colour and chiaroscuro further than ever before. Commissioned in 1553 to depict St George and the Dragon – on loan from the National Gallery – Tintoretto shoves the gallant saint and hissing dragon into the background and makes a star out of the fleeing princess. Every element – her swirling raspberry cloak, the dragon’s frantic wings, God’s evanescent lemon cloudburst – is whipped up into a violent, feverish whirlpool of light, colour and movement. This is action painting ahead of its time and there’s little doubt that the real hero is not St George but Tintoretto himself.

Called on to paint the Creation of the Animals (1550-51), he abandons the orthodox iconography of God immobile at the centre of his herd, and depicts him in flight surrounded by a yellow halo accompanied by flocks of birds and fishes, as if all are being sucked towards an invisible, omnipotent force just beyond the frame.

Paradoxically, that bold imagination gave his vision unrivalled verity. Asked to paint “The Last Supper” in 1562-63 by a confraternity of the Holy Sacrament (a lay brotherhood attached to a parish whose members were artisans and small merchants), Tintoretto transports the scene to a rowdy 16th-century osteria. From the cat crouched under a stool and the upturned rush chair to the lagoon-weathered disciples sprawled about in boozy shock, the scene’s familiarity must have gripped the imaginations of the poor, illiterate Venetians for whom it was designed. To see their own fractious, fragile world sent reeling by spiritual revelation would have inspired piety in the most rough-and-ready soul.

His gift for fervour made Tintoretto the Counter-Reformation painter par excellence. By the time of his death in 1594, his canvases covered myriad Venetian churches and scuole (lay brotherhoods devoted to particular saints). Yet he was a masterly portrait painter too. (Always keen on lucrative work, he boasted he could dash off a sketch in half an hour.) Here, a stellar gathering of high-born gentlemen and Venetian statesmen demonstrate that however fast he worked, his psychological intuition never betrayed him.

Unlike the other great Renaissance portraitists, Titian and Bronzino, who would dazzle spectators with the magnificence of a silk sleeve or jewel-encrusted bodice, Tintoretto’s sitters are usually dressed in dark, nondescript outfits. Instead, he floods light on to their faces; on to grooves and blemishes left by decades of struggling to cling on to wealth and power. Overwhelming every other element are the eyes: sunken, wary, often glancing over one shoulder. Tintoretto’s genius, in this most tumultuous of times, was to capture Venice’s ruling classes in the act of watching their backs.

Until June 10


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