Tintoretto's Pictures : Their Condition And Preservation. Earlier Work.
( Originally Published 1912 )
"While, blackening in the daily candle smoke,
ROBERT BROWNING, Pictor Ignotus.
ANYONE studying Tintoretto's work must have been struck by the deplorable condition in which it is found. Although Tintoretto is one of the last of the great Italians, and the hand of time should there-fore have been laid less heavily on his work, nevertheless his pictures are among those that have suffered most.
The preservation of a picture may seem a fairly simple matter, but it has proved far too great a task for the dwellers in Venice, and before assessing the value of Tintoretto's achievement due allowance must be made for this fact. Perhaps, as a class, the pictures in the churches have suffered most. In every case they are covered by thick layers of incense smoke which has accumulated undisturbed for ages. Further, a large proportion are sadly disfigured by the droppings of candle grease, or are blistered by their nearness to the flames. Is it any wonder then that the pictures have lost their brilliancy ? Indeed, the picture by any master that survives this treatment, must have been of dangerously garish colour at the outset. But once the dirt is there, it is difficult to decide what should be done. Anything of the nature of cleaning, as ordinarily understood, is fatal. However carefully varnish is removed there is certain to be a minute amount of paint taken off also, whatever process we employ. But it is just the surface glazing or scumbling that often gives the subtle value to the colour of a picture, and no matter how small the damage, it is irrevocable. To clean down to the varnish is another thing, if one can only find a man who will stop there.
Not only, however, has dirt disfigured the pictures, but in many cases the colour has actually perished. Tintoretto used to employ in his shadows a pigment or method which, when properly preserved, gives an exquisite slightly-green quality to the grays. Whatever this pigment or method was, it seems to have been particularly liable to injury from the salt atmosphere of Venice, and those pictures that have remained longest in Venice have suffered most ; whereas the red pigment in Titian's grays seems unaffected by this cause. There can be no question about the right course to pursue : under absolutely no conceivable circumstances of any possible kind whatsoever should the minutest touch of restoration be permitted. This brings us to the consideration of Robusti's worst enemy, the " restorer," and we find that this blackening of the shadows is worst in those pictures that have been " restored " ; take for example The Last Supper in the church of S. Trovaso in Venice. It would be impossible to mention all the pictures upon which the restorer has been at work. The evil is all the greater because no artist of any reputation would demean him-self to do such an act of vandalism, and thus it is done by the worst and most ignorant of their craft. The brotherhood of S. Rocco are amongst the worst offenders, and the Academy goes so far as to keep such a destroyer permanently employed to ruin their pictures.
There is no doubt that on the whole the best plan is that pursued in the National Gallery, London, of covering the pictures with glass. If the picture is properly hung at the right angle, and not flat against the wall, as generally in Italy, it is almost always quite possible to see the picture well. In any case glass is not as difficult to see through as dirt, and moreover is easily removed for a short time for any special study of a picture. The system of blinds, too, when rooms or churches are not greatly frequented, would do much to prolong the life of a picture.
It is strange, but there are some people who would condone the offence of restoration. Speaking of the two mighty works by Robusti in the church of Madonna dell' Orto in Venice, Mr. Stearns says : " In the present instance it was certainly better to repaint the pictures, so that we can at least see what Tintoretto's designs originally were, than to permit them to remain in the patchy and partially-effaced condition that Ruskin found them in when he wrote ` The Stones of Venice.'"
No ! photograph as much as you please, and copy all with the greatest care, and preserve every minutest atom of the design that you may. Reback the canvas if you will, or secure a falling flake but leave us some idea of the master himself, and, as long as a shred remains, let us be able to distinguish what is his and what the copyist's, which, directly the vandal's hand is let loose upon the original, becomes impossible.
Ridolfi tells us that Tintoretto " produced in charcoal and water colour on coloured cardboard the hands, arms and torsos which he had collected, putting in the high lights with chalk and white lead." Now, the method that has been adopted in the case of many such drawings by the old masters may conceivably point the way toward a really legitimate method of restoration. Frequently the high lights in these drawings have turned absolutely black, yet it has been possible to recover their former brilliance by chemical means 1 without the faintest possibility of the most infinitesimal damage being done to the drawings. It is perhaps not too much to hope that modern chemists may one day assist us to recover some of our " lost " pictures.
The restorer, the cleaner, and the negligent have thus ruined a large proportion of the master's work, so that it is only with the greatest hesitation that we can venture to criticise what is extant. Much of the earlier work, too, has totally disappeared. Of this we have some account in Ridolfi, which may yet lead to the identification of some of the pictures buried in private collections or scattered throughout the world. Some of his earliest commissions were, as we have seen, obtained through his friend Schiavone. Such was a panel of a full-length female figure painted on the ceiling for the Zeno family. This was so much appreciated that it led to a commission for a large picture of the Conversion of St. Paul facing the Campo San Paolo. The two friends are known to have worked together over a frieze in some internal decoration, representing the Life of St. Barbara, and a figure of St. Christopher in a conspicuous position .l Of other pictures that Ridolfi mentions, The Adoration of the Magi may be in England, and The Circumcision or Presentation, so much admired by John Ruskin, and Mr. Stearns in his excellent little book, still stands in its original place in S. Maria del Carmine.
Ridolfi tells us that in his day many thought that the picture was not by Tintoretto but by Schiavone, and, were it not for the extravagant praise bestowed upon it by the above authors, we should say that they were probably right, and modern criticism wrong. As Tintoretto and Schiavone so frequently worked together, it is possible that the former had some hand in it. The style may be unlike Schiavone, but it is not in the least characteristic of Tintoretto. The composition is exceedingly weak, almost childish. An aggressive-looking table with a white cloth fills the most important part of the picture, whilst on either side are two figures that fulfil a some-what elementary notion of symmetry. On the left is the high priest, with a fine face certainly, but with, a figure entirely out of drawing : on the right is a not very happy idealization of the Mother of our Lord. She holds the Saviour, who is standing on the table in an attitude that is almost comic. The colour is warmer and flatter than Tintoretto's wont, but is on the whole good, despite the deplorable weakness of design. That good colour and bad design was Tintoretto's own criticism of Schiavone is some argument in favour of the latter being the author.
The first date that we have for any work of Tintoretto is given by Ridolfi for Belshazzar's Feast. This he did in 1546 for the façade of the house of the smiths of the Arsenal. It was a fresco, and, like nearly all the rest of Tintoretto's work in fresco, has entirely perished. It is the more to be regretted as it would have given us some clue to the dating of his pictures by their style.
It is mentioned immediately after the picture in the Carmine, but, as Ridolfi merely says that he will record with brevity the works of his first youth, we must not lay too much stress upon this, particularly in view of this picture's disputed authorship.
As Tintoretto grew in reputation he obtained more important commissions, and in the next year he painted two pictures for the church of S. Ermagora—a Supper of Christ and a Washing of the Apostles' Feet. Ridolfi admires the perspective of the latter, but tells us that it was taken away and a copy substituted.
Both these pictures are still to be seen in the church today, which is more familiarly known as S. Marcuola.
It seems not altogether improbable that the painting of The Feet Washing is a replica by the master himself. In the dim light of a stormy day it was certainly very impressive, being painted in a remarkable colour scheme of whites and browns, which is most pleasing. On the extreme right is the figure of Christ kneeling, whilst the apostle is standing, as is also the case in the S. Stephano picture. The table from which some of the apostles have not yet risen is some way back in the picture, which gives a curious effect. On the left of the table is a group of two figures apparently about to fulfil the behest : " If I, then, your Lord and Master, have washed your feet, ye also ought to wash one another's feet." Behind is a gallery on columns running across the picture.
The strange effect of putting the table so far back in the picture, a most telling device of composition, has been exaggerated by pieces of canvas being added both above and below, so as to make it fit its new position when the church was restored. The same has been done to the companion picture ; but the result is not altogether unpleasing, and at least this method of restoration does no actual harm, and the original intention can always be gathered by the use of two books. It is advisable always to carry in Venice some such adjuncts, as the conditions of lighting often make it impossible to see anything otherwise : two broad L-shaped pieces of black cardboard are perhaps the simplest expedient.
The original picture was in the collection of Charles I., but along with the rest of that collection, at that time the best in Europe, was sold by the Commonwealth Government, and now is to be seen in the Escurial near Madrid. The other picture is the earliest dated work of Robusti, and as the two were probably executed together they give us some clue as to the development of Tintoretto's genius.
The inscription on the picture is
" 1547 die 17 Agosto
It is a fine piece of very rich colour, and a remarkable contrast to the other. The clue then merely leads us to the conclusion that even at that date Tintoretto's style was extraordinarily varied, and that we must beware of laying too much emphasis upon his style in determining the date of his work.
In S. Severo he painted a Crucifixion, of which Ridolfi gives a very short description. Blanc also mentions it, and calls it a remarkable work. There is now a prison on the site of the church, and it would be interesting to know what became of this picture. Ridolfi speaks of it as a long canvas, but whether he means anything more than that it was not of the more usual upright shape of altar-pictures we cannot tell. The description, as far as it goes, would apply to the Academy picture, but that we know to have been in SS. Giovanni e Paolo. It would even better describe The Crucifixion at Merton College, Oxford, but unfortunately the authorities cannot give the date of its acquisition.
Among Tintoretto's early works were five pictures painted for the church of The Trinity, having reference to the creation of the world. The Fall of Man, some-times simply called Adam and Eve, and The Death of Abel hang in the Academy, and are unfortunately rather at a disadvantage by having their quiet warm brown colouring thrust into too close proximity to The Miracle of St. Mark, and all three pictures suffer from the colour of the wall.
The Death of Abel is the finer composition there is no artificiality about it, no struggle for balance and symmetry, which is perhaps just evident in the other ; and the result is completely satisfactory because it defies analysis. The conception is as good as the composition ; the tempest of motion that the winds of passion have stirred—the sad world of sombre browns—with just a hope of better things suggested in the blue vista beyond.
There is plenty of colour nevertheless in these low tones, exquisitely lovely in their gradations, and the drawing is no less wonderful than the colour. Only Raphael could have drawn a figure so splendid as that of Abel ; different indeed, with a lither grace, but like this, with none of the exaggerations that, say what one may, are often a blemish to Michael Angelo's work. But if this pose and its contours are a marvel, what is to be said of the modelling of Adam's back in the companion picture? Many think it unsurpassed in this world ; but it is because they have not seen the Adam and Eve by the same hand in the possession of Mr. Crawshay. What Robusti has here achieved in the case of the male figure, he has there done in the case of the female, and as it is the more difficult task it may be deemed the higher achievement. Mr. Crawshay's picture is by far the finer composition, and we cannot help wishing that he had put this figure of Adam into it.
In the days of her glory the walls of Venice were decked without by the works of her greatest masters ; but these, alas ! have all perished, Tintoretto's along with the rest. In his early years, when he could find but insufficient outlet for his energetic nature, he once heard that there was a new house being built near the Ponte del Angelo. But he found upon inquiry that the owner was not wishful to have his house painted. Tintoretto was not to be daunted ; here was a field for his genius, and paint it he must. So he offered to do it for nothing, only being paid for the cost of the colour. And to this the owner finally agreed. Ridolfi gives us a description of it, with the knights riding on their infuriated horses, and we know how Robusti would have revelled in such a tumult of motion ; but it is idle to go into the description of a work that is irredeemably lost to us.
" With a similar idea," says Ridolfi, "it came into his mind to paint the little house of a dyer at S. Giovanni Lateran, on which he painted a Ganymede, naked, carried by Jove in the form of an eagle. And he did not represent a soft and delicate youth, such as the poets tell, but rather a figure stout of limb, and he painted it with such vigour that it could not be surpassed."
On the east side of the Rio della Paglia, not far from S. Giovanni Nuovo, is a small house overlooking the water, upon which are the remains of some frescoes by the hand of Tintoretto. It is also not twenty yards from the Ponte del Angelo, but it is to be noted that the house is small. A head or so, and parts of figures, may be made out near the upper part of the wall. Is this the little house of the dyer? Perhaps it is, and yet that is all that is left to us of this once beautiful work. One is often arrested in wonder at the folly of the ancient Venetian, who could waste such gifts in this prodigal manner upon walls exposed to the ravages of the cruel sea air of their city. But the wonder grows when we see the folly turn to the criminal neglect of a later generation. At least, in the days of her pride, it might be urged that whence this came more might follow ; but now that those mighty hands are laid in the dust for ever, and the priceless gifts have come to an end, should not the more care be taken of the remnant that is left ? But as we speak the flakes are scaling from the walls, and in a few years there will be nothing left even to mark the place.'
Although it is not possible to trace anywhere the muscular limbs of the beautiful cupbearer, nevertheless the subject has a peculiar interest for us in Britain. In the National Gallery hangs an octagonal picture of a muscular Ganymede. It is or was called " School of Titian," with what intent it is hard to say, for Titian himself could never have painted it, much less a mere follower. There is a certain amount of very doubtful evidence in favour of this picture being by Damiano Mazza. This on examination, although tempting, proves to be quite inconclusive. Were the case really so, Damiano Mazza could never, any more than Robusti himself, be considered as a mere follower of Titian. It is of exquisite colour and of a subdued brilliance, superb in the subtlety of its gradations. The drawing is masterly, combining a power over foreshortening with an extraordinary suggestiveness of motion. Titian never inspired that picture ; it is remarkable in each of its qualities for power that Titian did not possess. But who was the master of motion, of foreshortening, of drawing and colour in one? And here Ridolfi tells us that Tintoretto actually painted such a Ganymede. We know how fond he was of repeating his subjects, and nothing is more likely than that he should have repeated on some internal decoration a design that had given him satisfaction on the perishable surface of the outside of a house. But further, if we go to the church of S. Cassiano (Venice) and look at the figure of the angel in the upper corner of the Christ in Hades, we shall be tempted to ask where have we seen that figure before, and we find it in the conception of the Ganymede in London.
To me at least then, the Ganymede in the National Gallery will always be a Tintoretto ; and, though quite possibly painted by another hand, it remains the embodiment in small compass of the peculiar characteristics of the master himself. It is one of the finest pictures in the world, not of such size as to tempt one to say it passes the limits of a picture, and although probably once intended for a ceiling, it looks better on the wall in its present frame than under such neck-breaking conditions.