Tintoretto is one of Venice’s most famous painters. With more than 700 works spread all over the city, it’s almost impossible to visit Venice without a glimpse on several of his paintings. The most difficult part is to choose which masterpieces you really want to admire in-depth.
In this post, I will start with some background information on Tintoretto. Afterwards, I will tell you more about 2 locations (Scuola Grande di San Rocco and Chiesa della Madonna dell’Orto) which together have more than 60 of his paintings on display. Finally, I will show you the ‘Santa Caterina’ altarpiece which was owned by David Bowie. It will return to Venice for a large exhibition at Palazzo Ducale in September 2019.
Jacopo Robusti or Tintoretto
Jacopo Tintoretto was born in Venice in 1518 as Jacopo Comin and lived there until his death in 1594. He was the eldest child in a family of 21. His father was a dyer of fabrics (‘tintore di panni’ in Italian), so he was called Tintoretto, or the little dyer.
Jacopo started painting at a very young age. When he joined the studio of Titian at the age of 15, his apprenticeship only lasted a couple of days. Rumors claim that Titian was jealous of the undeniable talent of this young boy. Officially, it was said he couldn’t teach Tintoretto anything new as the boy had already developed his own style. If you want to know more about the difficult relationship between Tintoretto and Titian, I can recommend the book ‘Titian, Tintoretto, Veronese: Rivals in Renaissance Venice’.
DID YOU KNOW? Tintoretto admired Titian as well as Michelangelo. He tried to combine the best of both in his paintings. To remind him of this challenge, he wrote the following artistic credo on the wall of his studio ‘il disegno di Michelangelo e il colorito di Tiziano’ (the design of Michelangelo, the colouring of Titian).
Together with his wife Faustina, Tintoretto raised a very artistic family. His sons, Domenico and Marco, as well as one of his 3 daughters, Marietta, followed in his steps. Marietta, or la Tintoretta, dressed as a boy for a very long time so she could join her father at work. Studios were off-limit for women at that time.
Tintoretto knew how to challenge the tradition embodied by Titian. He decided to innovate, not only with daring technical and stylistic solutions, but also with iconographic experiments that marked a turning point in the history of Venetian painting of the 16th century. As a sophisticated colourist, he used the full range of pigments available in the Venice of his time. As an extraordinary storyteller, he explored a variety of different genres, from religious subjects to great history paintings, and from portraiture to profane and mythological themes.
Tintoretto rarely left Venice and painted obsessively. This led to his nickname ‘Il Furioso’. The result of all this passion is a vast collection of more than 700 paintings in Venice. This does not even take into account those which have been destroyed over time. You can admire his work at Palazzo Ducale, Gallerie dell’Accademia and other museums, the Scuole Grandi di San Marco and di San Rocco, the church of San Giorgio Maggiore and many other churches such as Madonna dell’Orto, San Cassiano or Santa Maria Mater Domini.
Scuola Grande di San Rocco
With more than 50 paintings of Tintoretto, the Scuola Grande di San Rocco is de facto a Tintoretto museum. He spent more than 20 years (from 1564 until circa 1588) at the Scuola to complete this magnificent oeuvre.
DID YOU KNOW? According to some critics, Tintoretto’s art at the Scuola Grande di San Rocco is as important to Venice as Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel is to Rome.
This honour might have gone to Paolo Veronese, Andrea Schiavone, Federico Zuccari or Giuseppe Salviati, if Tintoretto wouldn’t have been so bold. When the Scuola Grande asked for proposals to decorate the ‘sala dell’albergo’, Tintoretto sneaked into the building to paint his proposal ‘San Rocco in Gloria’ (The Glory of Saint Roch) on the ceiling. It goes without saying that the other painters found this totally unfair. However, when he offered the painting for free to the confraternity, they gladly accepted it as a gift. It was the first step in their close relationship. He worked most of the time for free or at cost and became a member of the Scuola (for more information on the role and history of the scuole grandi in Venice, see my post ‘The scuole grandi combine social history and art’). After a couple of years, he asked for a yearly fee of 100 ducats in return for 3 new paintings per year. This guaranteed him an income and limited the competition from other artists.
His paintings decorate the entire building as well as the San Rocco church, which you can visit for free. The ‘sala terrena’ on the ground floor is an amazing place to start your introduction to Tintoretto. It has 8 large canvases from the life of the Virgin Mary and the childhood of Christ. The ‘sala capitolare’ (chapter room) on the first floor is even more impressive with a cycle of 33 paintings. The stories of the Old Testament are told on the ceiling, while the life of Christ is painted on the walls. You can easily spend a couple of hours looking at all the details.
INSIDER TIP: To take a closer look at the ceiling and to avoid a sore neck, make sure to use one of the mirrors to walk around the room. It might feel silly at the beginning, but you will be glad you took one.
The benches against the wall are decorated with 12 wooden sculptures made by Francesco Pianta il Giovane. On the right side, you will recognize Tintoretto.
(San Polo 3052)
Chiesa della Madonna dell’Orto
After Tintoretto moved his studio from San Cassiano to the Campo dei Mori, he spent the last 20 years of his life in Cannaregio. Tintoretto is buried here in his parish church, the Chiesa della Madonna dell’Orto, together with his son Domenico and his daughter Marietta. You can see a bust of Tintoretto, made by Napoleone Martinuzzi, near the grave.
Tintoretto devoted a lot of time decorating the church with 10 magnificent paintings. Similar as in the Scuola Grande di San Rocco, he worked almost for free as the monks did not have the means to pay him. He first decorated the organ doors with the ‘Presentazione della Vergine al Tempio’ (Presentation of the Virgin). Later, he added the other paintings such as the huge canvases around the altar. ‘L’adorazione del Vitello d’Oro’ (Adoration of the Golden Calf) and ‘Giudizio Universale’ (Last Judgment) are almost 15 metres high and very impressive. The ‘Last Judgment’ is one of his most complex works and shows his intention to combine the skills of Titian and Michelangelo. This style of monumental artistic decoration of a church was new to Venice at that time. His work here influenced other churches around Venice to commission elaborate art.
INSIDER TIP: Take your time to admire the beautiful façade and the statues of the gothic church before you wander around Cannaregio and enjoy the peace and quiet. A walk around the most interesting sites in the area can be found in my post ‘Cannaregio: A walk along artisans and history’.
When you walk from the church to the house of Tintoretto at the Fondamenta dei Mori, you will notice a lot of sculptures. The moors and the camel refer to the Mastelli brothers who moved to Venice and lived here as textile merchants. The Hercules statue on the facade of Tintoretto’s house was built after he killed a witch who tried to bully his daughter. It is an indirect reference to the name Robusti, which his father received after defending the gates of Padua against the imperial troops.
David Bowie’s ‘Santa Caterina’
The majority of Tintoretto’s work can be found in Venice. However, the masterpiece ‘Angelo che predica Santa Caterina d’Alessandria del suo martirio’ (Angel foretelling Saint Catharine martyrdom) has been on display at the Rubens House since 2017. In September 2019, it will however return to Venice after more than 500 years and be permanently displayed at Palazzo Ducale. The painting is not as monumental as the ones at the Scuola Grande di San Rocco or the Chiesa della Madonna dell’Orto, but it’s really stunning. I have already seen it twice and the colours are astonishing. Tintoretto painted this altarpiece of Santa Caterina between 1560 and 1570 for the church of San Geminiano on the Piazza di San Marco. It remained there until the church was demolished in 1807 by Napoleon (more information in my post ‘7 authentic libraries that will amaze you in Venice’).
The painting was bought by David Bowie at the end of the 1980s. After his death in 2016, it was acquired by an art collector for approx. 200,000 euros. The fact that Rubens owned 7 works of the Venetian painter and that David Bowie loved the Rubens House triggered his decision to offer it as a long term loan to this museum.
DID YOU KNOW? When Rubens traveled to Italy in 1600, he was deeply impressed by the work of Tintoretto. Most likely, he has even seen this painting in the San Geminiano church on his trip.
Earlier this year, researchers analyzed the painting with radiography and infrared technologies. They discovered a drawing underneath the paint, which shows how the painting was made. Apparently, Tintoretto first sketched the big lines and the figures before he started to paint. One remarkable finding was the fact that the drawn figures were naked, and that he only added the clothes during the painting.
The ‘Santa Caterina’ painting will travel to Venice as part of the ‘From Titian to Rubens. Masterpieces from Flemish Collections’ exhibition at Palazzo Ducale (September 5, 2019 until March 1, 2020). Flemish masters such as Rubens, Van Dyck and Maerten de Vos will be shown next to Venetian works owned by Flemish museums. The exhibition will illustrate the tight link between the Flemish painters and Venetian art. It is a project of the Rubens House in cooperation with MUVE. You can read more about this exhibition in my post ‘Marvel at Venetian and Flemish masters in Palazzo Ducale‘. Afterwards, the painting will remain at Palazzo Ducale as a permanent loan.
You can find more information in the book and catalogue of the exhibition ‘David Bowie’s Tintoretto: Angel foretelling Saint Catharine martyrdom’.
If you want to know more about Tintoretto, I recommend to download the app of The Venice Art Guide. It has biographical notes about Tintoretto, over 30 entries about his works, including a listing of where you can find the works and a map to get there. It’s unfortunately only available for Android at the moment, but they are working on an iOS version. Alternatively, you can also buy the book ‘Tintoretto: Tradition and Identity’.
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(Painting in banner: Il Ritorno del figliol prodigo – © Palazzo Ducale)