Arts feature

Martin Gayford visits the greatest one-artist show on Earth

21 December 2019

9:00 AM

21 December 2019

9:00 AM

For a good deal of this autumn, I was living in Venice. This wasn’t exactly a holiday, I’d like to point out, but a suitable place to work while beginning a new book. The result was, though, that week after week, when I had finished writing, I went for a stroll around the neighbourhood, Dorsoduro, which very quickly came to feel like home. One thing I realised as I wandered around, between buying the groceries and admiring the view, was just how crammed the city was with works by Tintoretto.

There must have been well over 70 within a few minutes of the apartment where I was staying. There are other painters who are rightly classed as ‘Venetian’ — Titian, Veronese, Giorgione and the Bellini family among them. But none is so absolutely centred on the place as Jacopo Robusti (1518–94), otherwise known as the Little Dyer, or Tintoretto. He was born and bred in the city, as the others, except for the Bellinis, were not (Titian came from the foothills of the Alps, Giorgione from Castelfranco, Veronese, as his name suggests, from Verona).

The lower storey of the hayloft in Tintoretto’s ‘Adoration of the Shepherds’ (1578-81) at the Scuola Grande di San Rocco, Venice. Image: Cameraphoto Arte Venezia / Bridgeman Images

Tintoretto did much of his work for his fellow townsfolk, specialising in providing paintings for the Scuole — a Venetian institution that was very roughly speaking part charitable organisation, part social club, part religious association. The more humble of these dedicated altars in parish churches, perhaps with a Tintoretto masterpiece or two attached; the more affluent had their own headquarters.

One of the largest and wealthiest was the Scuola Grande di San Rocco, housed in an opulent building that I found myself walking past, and sometimes into, several times a day. Inside, there is a cycle of more than 50 Tintoretto canvases, covering the walls and two ceilings and amounting, without any exaggeration, to one of the most spectacular one-artist shows on Earth.

In different parts of the building there are two separate Nativities — an ‘Adoration of the Magi’ downstairs and an ‘Adoration of the Shepherds’ above in the grand meeting hall. Of these, the latter is my favourite. It stands out in this array of pictures — which are variously apocalyptic, tragic, epic, spectral and visionary — for a different quality. This is an intimate, almost domestic painting.

It would be going too far to say that it is set in 16th-century Venice. For one thing, the location is a barn or stable and it seems unlikely that there were ever any cows, or even chickens, in this watery city. But the people in the painting — apart from the Holy Family — are obviously ordinary 16th-century individuals, farm hands and servants, dressed in the clothes of the day. But it’s not the costumes that give this Adoration its tender mood. That’s a matter of lighting plus what Alfred Hitchcock would have noted as an ingeniously unusual camera angle.

‘The Adoration of the Shepherds’, 1578–81, by Tintoretto

There are thousands upon thousands of Nativities in Christian art. But I can’t think of another one that is staged on two storeys of a building. Mary, Jesus and Joseph have occupied a hayloft up a ladder from the ground floor where the shepherds are kneeling and the cow is chewing.

This makes excellent sense when you stand in front of the painting. Because of the arrangement of the room, this canvas had to occupy an oblong position between two windows, and is hence higher than it is wide. Tintoretto put these awkward dimensions to brilliant use — so that you, the spectator, are standing below, looking over the shoulders of the shepherds and the serving women, up towards the trio of sacred figures nestling amid the straw in the top right.

One of my visits to the Scuola was in the company of a couple of visiting friends from the film world, who were struck by how cinematic Tintoretto’s devices were. They could see the Renaissance equivalents of tracking shots and zooming close-ups. But it was also a matter of lighting. ‘The Adoration of the Shepherds’ is lit a little like a film noir.

It’s not clear that it is a night scene —though it may be — because the whole sky has turned orange and is populated by glowing cherubim. But the barn is dark and shadowy, except for the supernatural illumination of the newborn Christ and the luminous angels above. This catches just those points to which Tintoretto wants to direct our attention — the side of the older, kneeling shepherd’s head, for example, the cow’s straw bedding and the eggs in the basket — while other sections, such as the young man in the jerkin seated on the lower left, are silhouetted against it.

The effect is not entirely like a 1940s Hollywood thriller, however, because although this is not a colourful painting it is not monochrome either. Tintoretto used a warm range of reds and russets which — although no fire is visible — give it a cosy quality. In fact, it feels Christmassy, suitable — for those who still send them — to be put on a card. It comes as a surprise to discover that to his contemporaries, Tintoretto seemed an anarchic disruptor.

In his Lives of the Artists, Vasari gave him — then still in his mid-forties and just embarking on the Scuola — a mixed review. He was ‘swift, resolute, fantastic and extravagant’, Vasari wrote, ‘the most extraordinary brain that the art of painting has ever produced’. But as far as Vasari was concerned, Tintoretto was much too original, surpassing ‘the limits of extravagance with new and fantastic inventions’. Vasari suspected Tintoretto was out to prove that art was nothing but a joke.

For one thing, he objected to the speed at which Tintoretto worked, with superfast brushwork that is clearly visible in the finished picture. The straw that seems to crackle around the Holy Family, for example, is conjured up by rapid marks of a fine brush; the highlights on their robes consist of a few slashing strokes made with a wider one.

This kind of thing struck Vasari, and others, as outrageous: displaying something that looked like a rough sketch as a finished picture. But Tintoretto’s contemporary admirers understood that those loose, free strokes gave his pictures energy. Four and a half centuries later, they remind us of Van Gogh or Jackson Pollock.

The velocity with which Tintoretto worked was also part of his business model: in modern terms — pile ’em high and sell ’em cheap. This annoyed rivals such as Titian, whose highly successful strategy was to work at a snail’s pace and charge the earth. One of the results, though, was that Titian sold mainly to the super-rich, while a Tintoretto was more affordable for middle-class Venetians. That’s one reason why there’s such an astonishing number of his works still there in the city, quite often in exactly the position for which they were painted. It’s marvellous to see them. When, two days after I reluctantly flew home, Venice was engulfed by the worst floods for half a century, I was worried about the people I knew: friends, art dealers, shopkeepers and restaurant proprietors. But one of my first thoughts was for Tintoretto.

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