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Tintoretto - The Man

( Originally Published 1912 )

"Meantime I'll draw you as you stand,
With few or none to watch and wonder."


IT is a familiar complaint that we know but little of the lives of many of our greatest geniuses. But in general it is because we pursue a chimaera, forgetting how different are the actions which fill the life-hours of statesman and warrior, poet and artist In the case of Jacopo Robusti, detto il Tintoretto, we may be said to know how most of the hours of his life were spent. Not only so, but in those great works of his we can read his thoughts more fully than it is given us to read the thoughts of many of those with whom we come into daily contact. We have not to hunt through chronicles of his actions ; they are there before us—look ! It is all there ; a large-handed, generous soul, yet passion-ate withal and easily moved, a restless, yearning character that strives and will not be satisfied. We see, too the reverent spirit, and even feel the hand that is capable of a loving touch or an affectionate caress. No : if we grumble when we have that enormous output of more than six hundred pictures, and what we may call Ridolfi's appendix to this living story, it is because we pursue a chimaera. For what more could there be room for in the span of a single human existence.

This little sketch by Ridolfi is most admirable, and just supplements the extant work. Rid olfi, who was himself an artist, was born almost exactly on the date of Tintoretto's death, and hence we find in him a sympathy and insight such as we should expect from one almost a contemporary and of the same profession. It is most refreshing to read such a simple, just, straightforward statement, after observing the way that Tintoretto has been treated by most of his German critics. Unfortunately their opinion has been too readily accepted. For the most part these men have not been artists, and it has been difficult or impossible for them to enter into the artistic spirit.

This spirit was possessed by Tintoretto in a degree unusual even for a man of his profession, a fact which has always rather limited the circle of those who would place him on the highest pinnacle of artistic fame. Art was everything to Robusti : it was no means to an end, or at least a means to no end less than the great end of all being. Art, as Ridolfi insisted, in what should be a truism, does not copy nature ; it transcends nature. The truth as ordinarily understood is for Art but half a truth. It is not and was not for him or Tintoretto the servant of religion or morality. A picture may have its moral side, but the beauty and the goodness are each capable of abstraction, and are but correlative parts of a wider and grander whole. Hence Tintoretto could paint the Crucifixion in the Scuola di S. Rocco or S. Cassiano, and at the same time be the author of the marvellously beautiful Bacchus and Ariadne in the Doge's palace. There is nothing inconsistent in his position, as is sometimes urged. No man had a greater religious fervour ; no man had a greater power over the beautiful; but his philosophy was wider than that of his critics, and beauty and goodness were for him neither synonymous nor mutually exclusive terms, and there was room in his work for one alone or both. This is the man with whom we have to deal : a stumbling-block to the critic, but the founder of all that is best in modern art.

The year of his birth is not certainly known. Practically all that it is necessary to know in order to grasp his position in the history of Art is that he was born in the early part of the sixteenth century. Ridolfi gives 1512 as the date. The records in the State Archives and S. Marcilian do not tally with this ; from them the later date of 1518 must be inferred, since they give the year of his death as 1594, and his age at death as seventy-five years and eight months.

He was the son of Battista Robusti, a cloth-dyer of Venice. This explains the name Tintoretto, little dyer, by which he was known. We may assume that he was born in the city, and was therefore a Venetian in a sense in which his great compeers were not. As a boy he was fond of drawing; and we know that he used to draw upon the walls of his father's house, and found the colours used by his father valuable for such a purpose.

There is reason to suppose that he studied for an in-appreciable amount of time under Titian. In the main, however, if not entirely, he was his own master and his indefatigable industry and lofty ideal of purpose is well borne out by what Ridolfi tells us of his training :

" Knowing Titian's worth, and the many distinctions he had gained, he studied his works with care, and also the reliefs of Michael Angelo . . . and in order not to depart from this resolution he wrote on the wall of his studio these words :

"' Il disegno di Michel Angelo e 'I colorito di Titiano.'"

Perhaps we may best translate : the form of Michael Angelo and the colour of Titian ; for the word " disegno," generally translated "drawing," means drawing in the widest sense, including the notion of design. As the essential constituents of a picture are its form and colour, and the two artists named were the greatest in these two lines respectively, the motto evidently means that his ideal was the highest excellence all round. The interpretation of the motto as meaning that he intended to combine the particular styles of the two masters is utterly removed from the facts, as seen in his work. That he may have copied some of their works in his early days in order to find out how to achieve such excellence is quite probable, but is not the same thing.

Left to his own devices we find that the first thing that Tintoretto did was to procure chalk drawings from the antique. He even took the trouble of getting small models by Daniello da Volterra of the famous figures by Michael Angelo from the Medici tombs—Dawn, Twilight, Night, and Day. These he carefully studied, using for the most part artificial light in order to obtain strong shadows, and he thus acquired an extraordinary facility in dealing with objects in relief.

Besides working from these reliefs he made careful studies from the life, and dissected bodies in order to obtain a correct anatomical knowledge. Further, he made models in wax or clay, draped them, and set them in small houses made so that he could light them by little windows, and thus gain a command over his lights and shadows. It is also said that he suspended these models from the ceiling, in order to learn the correct perspective of flying figures seen from below. Then, too, we hear of an ingenious device which he made by straining strings across a rectangular framework, which when held up before the model would assist the eye to learn to measure the proportions carefully.

The result of all this training was that he did obtain a mastery over drawing absolutely unparalleled by any Venetian. This mastery enabled him to undertake with ease poses involving the most difficult foreshortening. His anatomical knowledge, although never obtruded or leading to exaggeration, as is sometimes the case with Michael Angelo, gave him a power of representing motion in any position that has never been surpassed. It is doubtful if there can be found by any master a piece of modelling so incomparably subtle as that of Tintoretto's Eve in the Adam and Eve belonging to Mr. Crawshay. But despite his efforts and his undoubted ability, the difficulty that he had in obtaining work was extraordinary. Can it have been for the want of a little influence at the start which, had things been otherwise, it would have been natural for Titian to give ? Or was it this versatility and power, this upsetting of old traditions by a man still so young, that made the old wiseacres shake their heads and say, " We never saw things done after this fashion " ? Perhaps it was not entirely the conservative spirit that was against him, for one of his earliest successes was won by a striking departure from conventional rules.

In that long winding street called the Merceria, which leads northward from the Clock Tower in St. Mark's Square, it used to be the custom for the younger artists to expose their pictures, not, apparently, with the object of selling them, but as at a sort of exhibition, where they would get the benefit of criticism passed upon their work. Here Tintoretto once exhibited two portraits, the figures strongly lit by artificial light—one of himself holding a relief in his hand, and the other of his brother playing the guitar. They were regarded as an extraordinary tour de force, and created such a sensation that someone was moved to write the following couplet :

"Si Tinctorettus noctis sic lucet in umbris
Exorto faciet quid radiente Die?"

If Tintoretto thus by night is light,
What will he do when day has risen bright?

Some have considered that these artificial light effects show a decline in art, and this might be true of a painter who confined himself entirely to effects of that sort. Rembrandt, with all his greatness, is perhaps not quite free from blame on this charge.

So great was his difficulty in getting employment, that the first piece of work of which Ridolfi tells us was only obtained in a most unorthodox way. He heard that a new clock was to be placed in the Citadel (sic), and he succeeded in inducing the workmen, whose business it was to place the clock, to allow him to decorate the dial according to his own design. We are not told, however, what the architect thought of the freak, or whether Robusti received anything for the work.

In his early life Tintoretto was indebted to his friend Schiavone for some of his commissions. Schiavone was a pupil of Titian, and, although he used to paint pictures and frescoes, his chief occupation at that time seems to have been the adornment of wooden benches and cabinets. The calling was of some importance, and its followers (of whom Schiavone was apparently the head) had a place of exhibition in the Piazza. It is said that Tintoretto acquired from Schiavone some of the secrets of Titian's technique, whatever they may have been, and that in return he used to assist Schiavone with his work. Schiavone was the younger man, and probably owed his advance at the first to Titian. The friendship was continued throughout their lives, although their positions were later reversed.

One of Tintoretto's most remarkable traits was his passion for work. Work he would have at all costs, and whether he was paid for his work or not did not seem to matter to him. His restless ambition and limitless energy sought even in his early years for some great emprise wherein he might reveal the greatness that he knew was in him, and with this end in view he offered to paint the two great walls in the choir of Madonna dell' Orto. The worthy prior was taken aback, for these walls were fifty feet high ; he thought that it would be impossible to pay for such a stupendous undertaking even with a year's revenue of the fraternity, and he declined the offer. But Tintoretto was not disheartened. He proposed to do the paintings if his expenses merely were guaranteed, and it was finally agreed that he should be paid 100 ducats.

This action of Robusti's was most characteristic : we hear of his doing the same thing on several occasions. Yet his work seems hardly to have been appreciated as it deserved. With a shrewd insight into human nature Ridolfi here makes comment, that as we value ourselves so are we assessed in the estimation of others. Tintoretto painted these mighty themes for one hundred ducats, and at one hundred ducats were they valued by the crowd. And it is not surprising to find that they in nowise enhanced his reputation ; nor was it till about the year 1548 that he received a really important commission. In that year the great picture of The Miracle of St. Mark was unveiled. It was painted for the Scuola di San Marco, and now hangs in the Venetian Academy between two even finer works by the same hand. Ridolfi gives us another peep into Robusti's impetuous nature, when he is telling us how the picture did not at first meet with universal approbation : " But because merit always encounters difficulties it came to pass that dissensions broke out among the brotherhood, some wishing that it should remain and others objecting." This so angered Tintoretto that he took away the picture and put it in his own house, but was after-wards induced to bring it back and replace it. The impetuosity of character here shown was clearly visible in his work : it is the vigour and dash of it that gives its strength and freshness. Yet this was the charge that was brought against the picture, that it suffered from a too hasty execution. Tintoretto was certainly a quick workman, and the speed at which his thoughts moved was astonishing, but the haste of carelessness is one of the last charges that can be brought against him.

A good story illustrative of the speed at which Tintoretto could work is told of the picture on the ceiling of the refectory in the Scuola di San Rocco. "About 156o1 the members of the brotherhood resolved to have a great picture painted in the refectory," and invited the best artists of the city to compete. Tintoretto was one of them, and secretly obtained the exact measurements, so that, while the others were doing their designs, he with his marvellous power of quick execution completed a finished picture, which he privily had fixed into the place it was to occupy.

" When, on the appointed day, Paolo Veronese, Andrea Schiavone, Giuseppe Salviati, and Federigo Zuccaro came to show their designs, and Tintoretto was asked to exhibit his, he uncovered his canvas, which he had cleverly hidden with a cartoon, and said that they could make no mistake about the design which he had drawn; and if his readiness displeased them he would make a gift of it to S. Rocco, who had already given him so much."

The artists were naturally surprised at the speed at which so great a work had been done, and withdrew from the competition forthwith. But the brotherhood were annoyed, and wanted to remove the picture on the ground that they had only ordered a design. However, on the matter being put to the vote, they decided to keep it, partly because their rules forbade them to refuse anything given to the saint, and partly because the picture was very good.

" So they received Robusti into the brotherhood, and gave him the charge of what paintings should be needful for the rooms of the Scuola. In addition they granted him an annuity of 100 ducats for life, on condition that he should provide one complete picture each year."

Perhaps Robusti went a little too far in this matter, but the whole seems to have been regarded rather in the light of a joke. Except the brotherhood no one minded, and Paolo Veronese and Tintoretto always remained the best of friends.

Tintoretto seems to have been generally much be-loved, and, beside Pietro Aretino, we do not hear of his falling foul of anyone. Aretino, who spared no man in his lampoons, and was one of the most spiteful people of his day, seems at length to have roused Tintoretto by his scurrilous jests at his expense. Meeting him one day Tintoretto invited him to his house as though he wished to paint his portrait. When they were indoors the host produced a pistol and proceeded, much to the dismay of Aretino, who was a great coward, to measure him with the weapon. " You are just two pistols and a half," he observed, as if this was a usual preliminary of the portrait painter. He then dismissed Aretino, who seems to have taken the hint and troubled him no more.

There are several stories illustrative of the merry side of Robusti's nature, perhaps the most amusing of which is the one about the picture of St. Jerome.

He had painted the picture of St. Jerome in the Wood, representing him as in front of the trees. But his patron objected, saying that the saint was not in the wood but outside. Tintoretto did not reply, but when the man came again there was nothing to be seen but the forest of trees. " Where 's St. Jerome ? " he said, and Tintoretto replied " Oh, he 's in the wood, where you wished him to be." " But I can't see him at all," he persisted. " There he is," said Tintoretto, wiping off a piece of the fresh paint, with which he had put an extra quantity of oil. " In that case you'd better take him out again." So the picture was cleaned and left as before.

We do not know the date of Tintoretto's marriage, but we know that his wife was Faustina, daughter of Marco dei Vescovi. When that has been said there is little more to say, for we know nothing of the Vescovi family, which, though noble, is not found in the golden book of the ducal palace. It can only be assumed that they came from the mainland. Faustina, too, is hardly more than a name. Tintoretto is said to have painted her portrait in the priestess in the Worship of the Golden Calf, and in one of the women in The Nativity.

We are told that she was very particular about her husband's attire, and insisted on his always wearing the long cloak of the nobility. She was apparently the family banker, and Tintoretto had to give a strict account of all his expenditure. When pressed too closely he used to tell her that he had given his money to the poor, or the fund for prisoners.

They had certainly three children, Marco, Marietta, born in 156o, and Domenico. Marietta was a great favourite with her father, and used to accompany him, as a child, to his studio dressed as a boy. There she acquired her father's art, and became one of the most celebrated portrait painters of her day. Domenico was an artist of considerable skill, but lacked his father's inventive power and force of character. After his father's death he seems to have held the foremost place among the artists of Venice, but his work certainly suffers by comparison with that of the greater man.

There are no descendants of the Robusti family now in Venice. It seems to have flashed up from obscurity for a brief moment, and disappeared as suddenly as it came. Perhaps, too we should have liked a peep into Jacopo Robusti's own family circle, or heard of some of those evenings when he would delight his friends or family with the music of which he was a great exponent. But all this is denied us. It was, after all, but the playtime of his life, and the man for us lived in the studio, hard-working and strenuous, with but few idle moments in which to satisfy the gossip of the curious.

One of the most discussed questions with regard to the life of Tintoretto is that of his supposed visit to Rome. Let it be said once for all that we have absolutely no evidence of any kind whatever upon the point. The argument is entirely based on an imaginary resemblance to Michael Angelo's style found in the Madonna dell' Orto pictures, and not found in earlier work. A similar argument is adduced for a visit to Florence from the style of the picture in the Carmine, which it is not certain is a Tintoretto at all.

It is this picture that is probably at the bottom of all the nonsense talked about Tintoretto. No one who has carefully studied the S. Ermagora pictures, or the Cain and Abel and its companion, can seriously contend for one moment that there is any additional outside influence in The Last Judgement and The Worship of the Golden Calf.

It is not necessary to argue that he had not visited Rome, but simply to point out that there is not a shadow of reason for the affirmative view, any more than for a visit to Athens or any other treasury of art. It should be noted that this kind of argument is generally used by the lay critic, who is naturally unacquainted with the lines pursued by the artist. In the first place it is not necessary to assume that any resemblance must be the result of conscious or unconscious plagiarism. But without entering into a discussion of such a truism, it is not unfair to assume that it is but natural that two men of kindred genius working towards the same goal may, if surrounded by similar environments of race, time, and the works of previous masters, develop on the same lines and in a similar style quite independently.

But although this is more than possible, nevertheless it must be recognized even by those of the most limited art experience that it is not necessary to go to Rome to learn of Michael Angelo. Indeed, we know in the case of Tintoretto that he actually possessed casts after Michael Angelo's work, and might be able to see drawings and designs at least without going as far as Rome.

But the amusing part about the whole controversy is that the supposed resemblance when analysed does not exist. To build up any argument whatever it would be necessary to find some point of resemblance other than that which already existed in the minds and characters of the two men, or had already been shown in previous works. But in the case of the Madonna dell' Orto pictures there is nothing of the kind. There is a vigour of motion and power of conception about them that transcend any pre-existing Venetian work; but what would we expect otherwise from Tintoretto—" it Furioso " as they called him ? Indeed, we have it already in the Cain and Abel and the S. Ermagora pictures. There is, too, a strength of drawing that in a few places borders on exaggeration; but it hardly resembles Michael Angelo, and has a totally different quality of line, and if there be anything it is more than accounted for by the copies from that master that we know Tintoretto actually to have made.

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