Before this month’s meeting, many of us thought of Titian as Venice’s great Renaissance painter but, the revelatory insight into the work of Tintoretto, by Sian Walters, suggested a contender. One of twenty-one children, 2018 will be the 500th anniversary of his birth. Seeing his son’s paintings on the walls of his home, his father, a silk-dyer, thought he might become a pupil at Titian’s studio. The much older Titian sent him home after ten days. Probably he realized the intense, ambitious teenager, although an admirer, would never be a true pupil.
Whereas Titian travelled widely, Tintoretto went outside Venice once. He admired Michelangelo but never having gone to Rome, he had models of the great sculptures. He used preparatory drawings and sculptural models but unlike Michelangelo, Titan and Tintoretto painted directly on to the canvas. Working by night and day, his phenomenal output led to the ‘Il Furioso’ name. Unlike many great artists, some of Tintoretto’s most impressive work can be truly appreciated in its original context.
The dimness and direction of the light and the function of the building are intrinsic to the dramatic canvases covering the walls and ceiling of the Scuola di San Rocco. Being one of the wealthiest of Venice’s Scuola, the interior needed to complement the impressive highly decorative exterior of the San Rocco Scuola. The Scuola held a competition for the centrepiece of the smaller hall but, by shrewd manoeuvring, Tintoretto, having already worked for the San Marco Scuola and as a local artist with a reputation for working within budget and time, ‘won’. He then gifted the rest of the ceiling decoration.
The paintings’ subjects related to the activities of the Scuola. Simultaneously, he had worked on many paintings in the Doge’s palace and, after a fire there, started on the work again. In 1565 he painted the ‘Crucifixion’ that El Greco hailed as `’the most beautiful painting in the world’. In 1576, a year of horrendous plague in Venice, he started work on the High Hall. Of the twenty-six canvases, the ‘Brazen Serpent’ most closely associates with that, San Rocco and the Scuola’s purpose. He gave the centrepiece for the ceiling of the main hall and then accepted whatever the Scuola were prepared to offer for the rest of its decoration. The diagonal lines running through a composition draw the eye to their intersection and into the background and his use of lightness and darkness reinforce its message. Near the altar his paintings were related to the Eucharist. His ‘Last Supper is a dramatic, powerful painting, with Christ almost in the background, unlike da Vinci’s with a central Christ but it was designed to be seen from where the priest stood at the altar.
Titian and Tintoretto inspired Rubens and El Greco in his ‘middle period’. Napoleon closed most of the Scuola but San Rocco escaped with the paintings in situ. However, in the C20th Ruskin and Henry James complained of their poor condition with greens turned to browns. Despite restoration in the 1960’s and ‘70’s some of the original colours have changed. However, the rarity of having paintings in their original location increases their impact.