Titian And Tintoretto
( Originally Published 1912 )
"Friend, there's a certain sorry little scrub
ROBERT BROWNING, Andrea del Sarto.
EVEN in the city of to-day, whose woebegone aspect is calculated to inspire disgust rather than pity, there is still sufficient to remind us that Venice once styled herself not altogether inaptly " The Queen of the Sea." And although it is true that, when the fingers of time have been remodelling a stone building, we have a surface incomparably lovely, in comparison with which peeling paint and falling stucco are altogether abominable ; nevertheless, despite the paint and the filth and the squalor, there is yet a suggestion of the brilliancy of old ; while the glorious light and the rich colours of the water have lost nothing of their beauty.
This colour, which fascinates us to-day, and was to Turner an inspiration, doubtless exercised to the full its power over the artists of the city's golden age. When Venice had passed her zenith, her people still revelled in all the grandeur that colour could afford. Magnificent displays of dress were the features of her public pageants, and a wealth of brilliant hues adorned her private citizens. Her artists naturally fell under the spell, and the Venetian artists were the greatest of the world's colourists.
The earlier Venetians taught the world what could be done by the juxtaposition of brilliant and harmonious colour. Indeed, they had carried their art so far that it seemed as though there were nothing more to- say. Yet in truth they were but the forerunners of a greater school of colour than their own. The colouring of Giorgione, Titian, and Tintoretto revealed an infinitude of new possibilities, and to each of these men must be credited much that was then discovered.
It has been too often the rule to give to Titian all the honour which he should share with his contemporaries. It is doubtful whether Titian did not himself directly owe much to Giorgione, and in any case it is incorrect to attribute Tintoretto's mastery to the direct teaching of Titian, or even to any marked extent to his indirect influence. Indeed, it is not unfair to say that the advance in colour from. Titian to Robusti is as great as Titian's own advance upon that of his predecessors. With regard to the effect of direct teaching upon Robusti, there seems to be absolutely no reason against accepting the story that Ridolfi gives us as substantially true. " His parents," says that writer, "both wished to further his desires, and took him to Titian, where he was received with other boys, and allowed to copy some of Titian's work. But when he returned after a short absence, he saw some drawings peeping out from below a form, and asked who did them. Jacopo, who had done them, and was afraid of his work being wrong, said with some hesitation that they were his. Titian perceiving that the lad might from such a start become a great painter and do him an injury, went upstairs, put off his cloak, and told his pupil Girolamo to send Jacopo away, so that he was deprived of a master without knowing why. So active is the little worm of jealousy in the human breast."
There is no evidence against the story, and the only argument is that of Titian's adherents, who refuse to believe it, as showing in him a jealous and unfriendly disposition. Yet if we look into the matter, we shall find that what little evidence we have all points in the same direction. In the year 1561 the senate resolved to decorate the library, and appointed Titian to carry out the work. It would have been most natural to have asked Tintoretto to take part, yet Titian did nothing of the kind, but distributed the undertaking between Paolo Veronese, Schiavone, Zelotti, and Salviati. The result was that people began to talk, and unpleasant comments were made, and the old story of the dismissal was raked up again. It was certainly believed at the time, and we hear of no contradiction while the actors were yet alive ; so that it is a little late to raise an objection based upon nothing but a preconceived prejudice in favour of Titian after a lapse of more than 400 years. It is pleasant to notice that the agitation had its effect, and the committee to whom the affair had been entrusted allotted to him the spaces between the windows, in which he painted the fine, but somewhat overrated, series of philosophers still to be seen there. Ridolfi mentions four, but the official records assign seven to his hand.
It may also be added that we know from other sources that Titian was not in the habit of treating his pupils too well. Vasari, who was a great admirer of Titian, blames him for his treatment of Paris Bordone, who found Titian indifferent to his progress, and finally left the studio, because, he said, that what he got there was not worth the cost.
It is certainly a reversal of the usual order of things when a master cares least about keeping his best pupils.
There is no doubt that Robusti himself believed that Titian was not fair to him ; so much so, that he took special pains to obtain an admission of his worth from Titian, without the latter being aware to whom his praise was given. Not very long, apparently, after his short experience of Titian's studio, he painted a spirited historical work, and placed it on exhibition on the bridge of the Rialto. In those days it was the only bridge over the Grand Canal, and Titian was certain at some time to cross it. It fell out as he had expected, and Robusti's friends were able to tell him of Titian's criticism. It seems that Titian was much struck by the picture, and praised it exceedingly, without knowing the author.
We never hear of any direct intercourse between the two men after the early incident, which it seems not unfair to attribute to Titian's prejudice ; for there must have been ample opportunity amongst their mutual acquaintances, and Tintoretto, we know, was a welcome guest wherever he went, and much beloved by those who most closely rivalled him in his work, and who were endeavouring to obtain the same commissions.
As to the indirect influence of Titian upon Tintoretto a certain amount undoubtedly cannot be denied. But the temperament of the two men was so different, and their ideals so wide asunder, that the usual view of the influence of Titian is quite untenable.
Titian was a direct descendant of the older men ; his colour was brilliant, because theirs was brilliant ; and although he paid more attention to chiaroscuro than had ever been done before, it was rather on the old lines, and perhaps even here the honour of leading belongs to Giorgione. But Tintoretto worked on a different principle ; his plan was rather to proceed as Turner did, from the sombre and low-toned schemes of colour, working up by a progress of his own, that did not depend upon past tradition, to a more brilliant and gorgeous effect.
Tintoretto could rival and surpass Titian on his own ground, working in the most brilliant colours without suggesting the possibility of garishness. At the same time he was the most consummate master of colour in a more subdued key, the master in whose footsteps it was the aim of Velasquez to follow. In the church of Ma-donna dell' Orto there is gathered about the painter's ashes a veritable treasure-store of Tintoretto's genius, and in one of the chapels of the nave hangs the magnificent low-toned picture of our Lady as a child ascending the steps of the Temple. .Ridolfi tells us that it was once outside on the doors of the organ, but how it ever fitted with the two pictures, which he says were inside, is to me at least a mystery. A man may be able to gaze upon the Worship of Me Golden Calf, and upon its companion picture in the same church, and pass away un-moved ; but he must have a heart of stone, a sense of Art more dead than lifeless stock, who can gaze upon that picture without a thrill.
It is the more interesting because Titian also has painted this subject with extraordinary power. I shall never forget my first impression of Titian's picture, of which I had never heard, and which, with no guide-book, I came upon suddenly down the long gallery of the Academy. Gradually it dawned upon me that it was a Titian—a Titian so fine that it was almost too good to be a Titian—with a wealth of wondrous colour based on the keynote of a glorious turquoise blue. There was no flat colour as in The Assumption or the Frari picture, none even of that finer, grander, golden rosy glow ; but a sense of harmony in the most perfect broken colour, suffused with light, that with its marvellous subordination of the part to the whole suggested Tintoretto. But it was not Tintoretto. Tintoretto never drew those figures, beautiful as they are. Tintoretto could never have done so great a work without flinging more passion into it, more sentiment, more emotion. There was just a touch of coldness—just a little. It was a scene to Titian, and no more ; none of the fervour of religion, nor even the fervour of " one that loved his fellow-men." Tintoretto too, who painted the Paradise with a sense of unity, would hardly have so forgotten the unity of so simple a composition as to let that grand if somewhat hard figure of the old woman predominate till it overweighs the raison d'ętre of the picture. But despite these faults, and faults they fain must be, I had rather have Titian's Presentation than fifty Assumptions, or fifty pictures of the like achievement. And with this picture we must compare the Presentation by Robusti. It is not so ambitious a work in colour or in size. But though the Titian may strike us more, it is the Robusti we shall love the better.
Titian's work was painted in his old age, whereas Tintoretto's was a comparatively early work. This may be assumed partly by its style and colour-scheme, partly by Ridolfi's apparently including it under his earlier works. Hence it is assumed that the slight similarity in treatment was a compliment to Tintoretto by the older master. I do not, however, think that this is the case, nor do I, with Mr. Stearns, think that " they were painted in the same manner because it would be difficult to conceive them otherwise."
Like the Greeks, although to a less extent, the Italians used to have certain conventions, to which they made each particular treatment conform ; such, for instance, as The Blood of the Redeemer or The Annunciation, both favourite subjects of the earlier masters. But to say that it is difficult to conceive a Presentation of the Virgin without an obelisk in the background is the height of folly. Yet such was the convention. Carpaccio has an obelisk, Titian has an obelisk, Tintoretto has an obelisk. The same applies to the flight of steps and other points. What was the origin of the convention is another problem, probably the reversion to some earlier picture supposed, in a sense, to represent the inspired tradition.
But there is little need to make a difficulty about it. Within these limits, however, there was much room for originality, and each has pursued the theme in his best or nearly best manner. I think Titian's picture is far nearer to his own high-water mark than is the case with Robusti, although it is a very fine example of the latter.
In point of colour no comparison is possible. Titian's is painted in a very brilliant scheme and is fairly high in key. In Tintoretto's picture, on the other hand, the colour is subordinated to that golden-brown effect of which he is so fond. It is full of subtle variety, nevertheless, and is an excellent instance of Robusti's special colour treatment which is elsewhere treated at length.
With regard to the composition of the pictures there can be little doubt that Tintoretto's is much the finer. It is less conventional and less stiff, and the happy idea of the curved steps with their decorated risers is very pleasing.
The centre of interest is well preserved, although the principal figure is small. The attendants behind the high priest, even the people in the distance, whose heads only are seen, the spectators, the beggars, and that grand maternal figure at the foot of the steps, all lead up to the small girlish form and the light that gleams about her head, never to be darkened.
The spirit of wonder and reverence permeates the picture, and we feel that although Titian's work is all beautiful, and is a rare feast for the eye of the finest effects that man may see, yet Tintoretto had a grasp of the higher things that are not seen but eternal, and that of these he would give us a glimpse if we care to look behind the mere visual image.
An interesting comparison is afforded by the two remarkably similar figures of Our Lady by these two masters. Unfortunately they are, both of them, very slight and rather sketchy. But as far as they go they are typical.
Not much can be gathered from any reproductions, and in this case a little allowance must be made for the Tintoretto being from a bad photograph. It is particularly misleading, as it suffers from a certain flatness which, though a not uncommon fault with Titian, was one of which Tintoretto was never guilty. The marked differences will at once be noted : Titian's figure is stiff and stumpy, and is not merely sketchy, but, in comparison with the other, is devoid of even a suggestion of drawing. The drapery hangs in wooden lumps, and suggests paint rather than any texture of drapery. It is perhaps not fair to consider the faces, which occupied so subordinate a part in the smallest figures of large pictures (even Tintoretto's must be some 14 feet by 15 feet wide) ; but here Tintoretto suggests a subtlety of pose in the head with the chin turned away from the spectator. The texture of the veil is admirable, and the whole figure, though sketchy, and with some faults of drawing, is distinctly graceful. For those who prefer the testimony of the ruler to the judgement of the eye, we may remark that Tintoretto's is nearly a head taller, and hence less stumpy. It is also very clear in the painting, but it hardly comes out in the photograph, that there is a roundness and feeling for modelling in Tintoretto's little figure, whereas Titian's is somewhat lacking in this respect.
Such, then, are the two pictures of The Presentation of Our Lady, and, although it would be difficult to say that one picture is finer than the other, it is quite true to say that Tintoretto's picture contains much of the highest value, which never enters into the art of Titian at all.
In the Accademia at Venice there are hanging on two adjacent walls a great picture by Tintoretto and a great picture by Titian—The Miracle of St. Mark and The Assumption. The former picture created some excitement at the time of its execution, and one of the stories connected with it has been already told, and the question of its impressionism discussed. But it is not the qualities above considered alone that give The Miracle of St. Mark its place among the pictures of the world ; and much as the picture has been praised it has not been overpraised, but other greater pictures left us by the same giant mind have not had their due.
It has its faults certainly. St. Mark lacks that delicacy of poise that so often lends a grace to Tintoretto's flying figures ; he almost falls upon the multitude. But the real reason why this cannot be considered as Robusti's masterpiece is that it is a little lacking in inspiration. It is indefinable, but one cannot but feel it the picture was done to order. A sort of inspiration has been kindled, more, perhaps, than often fell to the lot of Titian yet that great soul of Tintoretto was not on fire when he was told to paint this subject and created this picture. Yet it is perhaps more than we could expect such a subject to do ; the whole idea is too theatrical, and here was no room for the pathetic grandeur of a Crucifixion or a Christ before Pilate. We look at it and wonder, but our hearts are not touched, and the whole is a striking commentary on the fact that miracles in themselves can do nothing ; the love behind them can do much, and is as powerful without the miracles as with them. But stand in San Cassiano before those three lonely crosses gleaming ghostly in the shadows, while the murmur of the crowd outside the church only helps us to realize the murmuring invisible crowd that must be massed behind that sea of spears appearing over the brow of the little hill ; and criticism of colour, technique, and composition flies to the winds, and we can only stand and gaze, thrilled by the painter's touch to something past him and us and Art even, far away in the infinite beyond. Titian never painted such a picture ; his loftiest conception was of the earth earthy.
And here we have something more on a par with Titian's work ; it is very clever, very grand, very good ; but it is good prose, not good poetry. St. Mark descends from the sky ; the Christian slave, who was to have been tortured, is saved ; the tools are shattered and held up for the inspection of the presiding officer on his little raised dais on the right. The crowd surge round and look on with a certain eager curiosity, but it is a nine days' wonder, and then all will be as before.
Yet, despite what it lacks, the picture is great, wonderful, and impressive, if not inspiring, and affords opportunity for comparison with the famous Assumption of Titian.
The Titian has been " restored" and the Tintoretto has been " cleaned " ; so we must, to a certain extent, be guided by what we know of the masters from other works. The Titian, moreover, was removed from its lofty position over the high altar, and perhaps it is impossible to get away to exactly the right distance. But as the picture suffers considerably from a fault discussed in a previous chapter, of not being painted for a common view-point, it is certainly impossible to say what that distance is. The Tintoretto, too, was hardly intended for a boudoir, and the room is none too large for it. It also suffers considerably from the excessive narrowness of its frame, which brings it into too close proximity to the colour of the wall, that clashes with it offensively.
Nevertheless, its colour is far the finer. There are colours in it as brilliant as those in Titian's, but they are kept more in hand. It is curiously like the difference between ancient and modern glass. In the Tintoretto the value of having large portions with less colour and approaching to black or white is fully appreciated, and reminds us of the clear glass used in the old windows.
Titian's Assumption, on the other hand, like the modern window, is too full of colour, so that it defeats its own end by the conflict between the colours, and moreover borders dangerously on the garish rather than the beautiful. Then, too, there is a flatness that is very painful, occasioned partly by the want of true colour relief, and partly by an inadequate treatment of chiaroscuro ; while Tintoretto's greater power over chiaroscuro gives to his picture far more depth and solidity. It is futile to compare the composition, as Titian's has no composition at all, and the three parts of the picture seem totally unrelated. A certain want of inspiration in such a subject as The Miracle of St. Mark may be pardoned, and indeed is not felt. But if an Assumption is not inspired or inspiring, one might ask, why paint it ? But the Madonna is heavy, the upper figures do not be-long to the picture, and those below are posing, but are certainly in no wise touched by the scene they are supposed to be watching.
If we take any other pictures by the same masters we shall find that the same truths hold good. In delicacy and beauty of colour Titian yields to none, although, even in this, Robusti generally equals him. When it comes to the yet more subtle treatment of that colour, as the colour scheme in a whole picture, Titian falls far behind. As a draughtsman or creator of great compositions no one has ever claimed for Titian the foremost place, and we are probably fully justified in saying that in the greatness of ideas, the majesty of his conceptions, and the earnestness of purpose no man ever approached Jacopo Robusti.
It is not surprising, therefore, and it is only ordinary human weakness after all, if Titian was a little jealous of this man of greater powers than his own, seeing that he himself had been accustomed for many years to justly consider himself as without peer among the artists of Venice.
It was not, however, till the very end of his life that Tintoretto was ever actually chosen over his head. The great battle-scene representing the victory of Lepanto, perhaps the most glorious in the history of the republic, was destroyed by fire along with The Last judgement during the author's lifetime in 1577. Ridolfi tells us, with regard to the former picture, that the senate had determined after so great a triumph to have a large painting executed to celebrate the event, and to this end they chose Titian with Giuseppe Salviati as his assistant. Titian was at that time so old that it was clear that the undertaking was beyond his power, and Robusti at length bestirred himself and approached the Doge and his council, pointing out that the whole arrangement was a mistake, and that Titian's great name would merely screen the inefficiency of Salviati. Moreover, he added, he was desirous of showing his patriotism at this great moment of his country's history, and was prepared to execute without payment, save the honour which it brought, a picture of his countrymen's heroic deeds. This he would complete within a year, and if anyone should produce a better representation within two years he would remove his own picture. This offer the senate accepted, and presumably enjoyed the picture from 1572 to 1577. " Such a resolution," Ridolfi remarks, " could not find place in a base soul."