Tintoretto - Great Works In Venice
( Originally Published 1912 )
"As for Venice and her people, merely born to bloom and drop,
ROBERT BROWNING, A Toccata of Galuppi's.
TINTORETTO was perhaps the most prolific artist that the world has seen. When we take into consideration the numerous large frescoes by his hand, every one of which has perished, and then consider the enormous number of pictures that are actually extant to-day, besides the many that have been burnt or lost, it becomes a wonder that they were all executed within a single lifetime. Almost every picture that he painted is worthy of careful study ; but as that would be an impossible task, it would be well to look at a few of his masterpieces still to be seen in the city of his birth, especially any of surpassing excellence about which little has been said before.
Perhaps what most strikes the visitor for the first time is the enormous size of the pictures, and the immense number of figures that they contain. It is for this reason that the pictures outside Venice for the most part give a very inadequate idea of Robusti's greatness. There are doubtless many remarkable works by him in the public and private galleries of Europe.
Such pictures as the Esther before Ahasuerus, or the Nine Muses at Hampton Court, or, again, Mr. Craw-shay's Adam and Eve, or Luna and The Hours at Berlin, are miracles of art, but they are comparatively small canvases. For the same reason it is absolutely impossible to convey the least idea by means of small reproductions in a book, and anyone who attempts to judge even the drawing and composition by these means will have a totally erroneous impression of the Art of Tintoretto.
Two comparatively early works of the master, for instance, to which we have already alluded, are on can-vases fifty feet in height.' These pictures, in the church of Madonna dell' Orto, although of great importance to the student of Tintoretto, somehow, with all their power, are wanting in something after all.
The doing savours of disrelish :
There is a want of unity about both pictures, particularly the Worship of the Golden Calf. It may be difficult to preserve unity in a picture fifty feet high, but the in-controvertible answer is found in the question—why do it ? Tintoretto elected to paint a picture this size, and the size cannot be taken as an excuse for the fault ; it is rather the fault itself.
But we must remember that these were early works ; they were the training ground for other huge canvases that were to follow. A man cannot paint fifty-foot canvases in his studio for practice, and these were his first. And, whatever may be the general feeling with regard to immense pictures, there are certainly some pictures in the world that are undeniably great despite their size, and of these Tintoretto painted the largest and greatest of all.
If we may judge from the small remnants of fresco to which we have already alluded, it was his habit when dealing with the large spaces of exterior walls to make the figures colossal, and thus overcome the difficulty of scattered composition. But whether that kind of work helped him or not, we look at the Worship of the Golden Calf and are bound to confess that it is broken up, that the clouds across the middle are not a satisfactory arrangement, and, in fact, that in themselves they are undeniably ugly. Then, too, the straggling figures around the Almighty are an uncomfortable solution of the problem elsewhere better solved by Tintoretto than any other of depicting figures floating in the air.
The lower part is more pleasing, and almost makes a picture in itself; indeed, Tintoretto probably treated it as if it were. He may even have intended to symbolize how they were cut off in their folly from their everlasting Father. But this should not have been done so as to spoil the picture. The Adoration of the Shepherds is even more cut in two, but is a perfect composition nevertheless. The women under the canopy, who watch the procession as it winds along, are a dream of beauty, and the surging crowd behind the calf is admirable. But it is not in the composition merely that there is something at fault. Given all the drawing, all the colour, all the composition, all the conception of the grandeur of the scene, and the glorious pageantry, yet we want something more. It is difficult to define it, but perhaps we might call it a touch of tenderness. It might be that Tintoretto was a little lacking in this quality. Titian certainly never had the spirit, nor had Paolo Veronese, and the Venetian life of the time was calculated to crush out anything of the kind—one long-continued 'esta. But it was not altogether so with Tintoretto. Those who have seen his Christ before Pilate or the Pietà at Milan see that such a hypothesis is impossible. Is it then that this spirit is incompatible with these great canvases and these innumerable hosts of human beings ? Yet seldom is there any great concourse of humanity where the tenderness, whether of pity or sorrow or love, may not find a place. The poets give it to us, and we would have our artists give it also. What a universe of pity such a scene might evoke, and yet we cannot find a trace of it here. There is almost a sense of light-hearted joviality that jars : the very men that carry the accursed thing are portraits of himself and his compeers. For that great stalwart man is " the little dyer," mighty in physique as in intellect. Perhaps there is something in the look of the youngest bearer, supposed to be Giorgione, that, suggesting as it does a yearning after higher things, strikes the introductory chord ; but the rest of the music has been drowned by the acclamation of the multitude.
The figure that is almost hidden is generally said to be Titian, but about the remaining figure there is some dispute. Paolo Veronese is perhaps the most likely, as there might well be ten years between the ages of the two front figures, but others have suggested Paris Bordone as nearer to Tintoretto in years. The tradition handed down by the sacristan says Paolo Veronese.
But if it is hard to speak of the Worship of the Golden Calf, it is still harder to treat of the Last Judgement. It is certainly finer in composition as a whole, and surely the finer work altogether ; but as it contains no portraits about which to talk, it does not lend itself so well to the guide and the guide-book, and therefore the tourist and the unintelligent will prefer it less. But let those who can afford twenty minutes for a picture that has taken a year to think out, stand before it in wonder and try to take it in.
The picture rises before us dark and awful ; forms in-numerable loom dimly in the gloom of its vast depths and gradually shape themselves before our eyes. All is movement, confusion, chaos ; for the last great day has come, and the countless hosts of the generations of men go to meet their reckoning. And there high up is the vision of Him who came once as guide, but now appears as judge over those who were to walk in the way that He had shown, and by Him are the Virtues who represent the whole armour of God, wherewithal we may stand in this final hour. But many, alas ! are they who have neglected to put it on, and them, with drawn sword, the Archangel Michael pursues and treads down underfoot. While, lower yet, there rages a watery torrent, whence arise those that have met their death in the great waters, and in the which, as in a stream of eternity, some that have arisen are swept down to perish anew. Over these waves of doom is swept the. little boat of Charon, which passes the power of that dim helmsman to control, and, laden high with many a derelict soul, is drifted to the deeps of an endless damnation.
Still further down there writhe in contorted attitudes some that have but half received again their fleshly covering, while from others still the green leaves grow in place of limbs, and one in vain attempts to flee from out the scene and escape the tribulation that has fallen upon her.
There are many greater pictures than this Last Judgement, but the men who have painted them are but few in number, and were this the only picture that he ever painted, and not merely an early effort when scarce known to fame, Tintoretto would yet stand close within that circling ring that holds apart the greatest of this world's creators.
Of the drawing there is scarce need to speak ; but look upon the figure sweeping headlong into the right-hand lower corner of the composition ; or, again, see the fleeing figure on the left, to which we have above alluded. Indeed, the vast majority show a skill and mastery over material and an ease of execution quite at the pinnacle of artistic excellence ; and if not carried out to that minute degree of finish that we meet with in the famous quatrain of the Doge's palace, or the Adam and Eve of Mr. Crawshay or the Venetian Academy, we feel it is not because he had not the power, but simply because in a work so huge there must be some sense of power in reserve, which, squandered in profligate confusion over that stretch of canvas, would be felt to be a waste of the divine force within the artist.
Of the colour we can say nothing ; much remains, but more has vanished beneath the touch of the house decorator's facile brush.
There are two other magnificent pictures in this church, where rest the mortal remains of the master himself. Of one of these fit monuments to his genius, The Presentation of the Virgin, we shall have cause to speak later ; the other is the picture in the chapel of Cardinal Contarini, and represents the Miracle of St. Agnes.
It is one of Tintoretto's best pictures, but the light is such that it is almost impossible to see. But with the aid of two books, or one of those familiar metal shades, we can make out a good deal.
The rejected pagan suitor lies upon the ground upon the left. The scene evidently depicted is the moment when, after attempting as a last resort to carry off the bride of Christ, he has been struck by death. St. Agnes is kneeling in prayer, with her face upturned to heaven, and her petitions are beginning to produce their effect, for the lovesick youth is gradually feeling back his way to life. His father, the Prefect, stands with hands out-stretched in amazement on the right ; while behind the eager curious crowd are seen the threatening spears, the foreboding that tells of the saint's martyrdom, that not all the efforts of the Prefect or his son could then avert.
Whatever we may think of the legend, in which the saint certainly appears in a peculiarly unenviable light, we cannot but admire the picture. The artist at any rate has chosen the redeeming incident in the life of an unfortunately self-conscious, if not selfish heroine. The position was doubtless a hard one, and the selfishness mistaken for self-sacrifice ; but the solution demanded a greater than St. Agnes, or at least one that had walked a little closer in the Master's footsteps, and gained a little more of His broader and more comprehending spirit of love and self-abnegation.
The picture is a wonderful example of all that is best in Venetian art. There is the full richness of colour, combined with that management of tones in which Tintoretto remains peerless. The composition is full, with a certain sense of scenic display in which the great Venetians love to revel. It is a graceful picture., in which Tintoretto has paid a more than usual amount of attention to the beauty of the female face. It is also very characteristic in the way in which it brings out that fervour of spirit which was so marked a trait in the artist's religious and intellectual attitude.
It is interesting to compare Tintoretto in this respect with others of the world's greatest artists. It is not that other men were less religious, but theirs was a calmer worship, like some inland lake ever for the most part unruffled, but Tintoretto is like the troubled Northern sea. The gentle Fra Angelico, or Crivelli with his reverent touch, belong to another world. Raphael and Andrea were never quite whole-hearted ; this world was very dear, and religion might be a passing love, it was not a consuming passion ; for Titian it was not much more than merchandise ; Leonardo da Vinci was cold in comparison with Tintoretto.
There is a cold formality about Leonardo's famous Supper that contrasts unfavourably with Robusti's magnificent creation in S. Paolo, Venice. Leonardo's picture is sadly ruined, but the light in the refectory is good, and a not unjust estimate may be made of its former excellence. Even its colour may be recovered some-what, and must at its best have been a little flat and tame. Tintoretto's picture, which hangs in a very dark corner, shines out like a lamp. The drawing, though not lacking in refinement, has far more strength than can be found in the other picture. From the technical point of view, one of its highest qualities, apart from the superb richness of its comparatively low-toned colour, is the dexterous skill with which the reflected lights in the shadows are treated. No one but Tintoretto could have painted that tablecloth. None, save perhaps Rembrandt, could have approached the lighting effect ; and, as a piece of composition, it is idle to compare it with any-thing so prosaic as Leonardo da Vinci's conventional representation. Here is poetry, here is life, here is fire and imagination. The conception is magnificent. Peter, the ever-impetuous, startles us with his passionate out-burst of loyal affection. The very sky partakes of the passion of the moment, and yet at the same time strikes the warning note, and in those wild clouds we see the shadow of the approaching tragedy. This and far more is plainly written in the picture, and it is one of the greatest canvases in the world. But ere long it will utterly perish, as all else that is noble in Venice ; and will make another item in the general ruin that indifference and neglect allow to crash and fall each day before our eyes.
Tintoretto's Last Supper in S. Paolo is by no means his only conception of the theme. We have already mentioned the S. Ermagora picture. There is also a fine treatment of the subject in S. Rocco, while in S. Trovaso is another, which is, perhaps, the most completely obliterated picture of all that the restorer has disfigured. But there is also in S. Giorgio Maggiore another to which this creature has been more lenient. It is a bold conception that once seen will never be forgotten—the light that shines from the head of the Light of the world, before which the flaming brazier almost pales, the smoke wreaths gradually shaping themselves into angel spirits, the beautiful attendants, and the eager company of apostles.
Much might be said about this picture as of the other most valuable treasures from the same brush that S. Giorgio Maggiore contains. But our attention must be given to what at one time must have been almost the grandest colour scheme that Robusti ever attempted. The Gathering of Manna is one of his gigantic compositions that reproductions only travesty, and even now still retains much of its gorgeous colour. The name does well enough as a label by which to recognize the picture, but certainly does not in the least represent the subject, which is rather that of the many employments of the children of Israel on their wanderings—the actual gathering of the manna playing but a very subordinate part in their many occupations. The picture is one of the most satisfactory compositions of a large number of figures in existence. It has all the completeness and unity of a smaller work, in which each individual pre-serves his own interest, and the composition does not degenerate into a crowd ; yet at the same time all the majestic breadth of a gigantic canvas is fully maintained. It is one of the pictures where Tintoretto is supposed to have given us his own portrait. He just appears behind Moses and Aaron in the right-hand bottom corner. It does not, however, strongly resemble other portraits of him. The drawing is of the finest, with delicate model-ling and a subtle mastery over flesh, combined in many instances with a grace of motion and ease of pose that are altogether charming.
For once Tintoretto does not seem to have any secondary aim in view, and the painting contains no exposition of any great principle. He revels in the sheer beauty of the scene, especially in the colour. Blue is the master colour—a rich and full azure blue, whilst the brilliant reds, that the Venetians loved so much, play no unimportant part. The colour scheme is something like that of the delightful little St. George and the Dragon in the National Gallery, London. The most interesting thing to note, however, is the valuable use of white, of which Tintoretto so often makes such excellent use, and which again and again enables him to carry out a scheme too brilliant to be otherwise possible—a point that has been elsewhere discussed. What this colour must have been when Tintoretto left it, and before it was damaged, it is hard even to faintly realize.
It is strange how easy it is to miss the things that are most worth seeing, although we may pass quite close to them. In the church of the Gesuiti is a remarkable picture of the Assumption by Tintoretto, in which the colour has been almost entirely ruined. Yet in the refectory of the same church is one of the best preserved and most beautiful pictures that have come down to us ; but for every fifty persons that see the one, there is not one that sees the other. The subject is the Presentation of our Lord, and is carried out in Robusti's finest manner. It should be said that the reproduction gives absolutely not the slightest idea of the picture, as the value of the contrasts and the sense of relief are two of the most prominent characteristics of the original. The colour is strong, and reminds one of Titian at his best, but is more broken and luminous. If examined too closely it has a slightly rough appearance, but when seen at the proper distance, like the Finding of the Body of St. Mark at Milan, it gives an extraordinary sense of minute detail. The charming peep of the singularly beautiful faces of the women seen beyond the table is very typical of Robusti, and the majestic figure, at the foot of the steps on the right, outrivals Michael Angelo's best drawing. The drawing of the head-dress is by no means a unique instance in the work of Tintoretto of a reminiscence of the drawing of Phidias, and indeed his idealistic treatment of drapery has been equalled by the great Greek sculptors alone.
No visitor to Venice, still less a lover of Robusti, is likely to omit a visit to the Doge's palace, neither will he neglect the pictures in the Ante-Collegio ; but an incident that I myself there witnessed may be of interest. One of the guides was taking a party of Americans through the building, and as he reached this room he paused for a moment before Paolo Veronese's Europa and the Bull. " This," said he, in his very best English, " is the finest picture he ever painted, and is always considered his masterpiece." " Oh, ah ! " replied one of the visitors, and turning to her companions remarked," Isn't it pretty ? " and they then left the room. The guide is welcome to his opinion about Paolo Veronese, and this is not the place to assess the picture at its true value among the great master's works ; but to pass by the four pictures that certainly are masterpieces was distinctly amusing. Much has been written about this marvellous quatrain, which would be sufficient excuse for not saying more, but as they are the perfection of technical excellence that passes criticism, it would be an additional superfluity.
There is not in these classical subjects quite the same opportunity for majesty of conception, and Robusti has chosen rather to treat them from a decorative point of view. It would be hard to conceive anything more beautiful than the Bacchus in the Bacchus and Ariadne, of which even the reproduction gives some idea. Vulcan's Forge, a picture which at first sight is a little less satisfactory than the others, is one that has a tendency to grow upon one more than the rest, whereof the first sight astonishes. Perhaps Minerva and Mars is a little spoilt by the motif; but its technique is as excellent as the rest.
There are, as we should expect, many other works of wonderful merit in the Doge's palace that, were this a larger work, it would be fitting to consider. Their special qualities have, however, already been noticed by other authors, or treated in this little book when they have occurred in other pictures. The magnificent drawing and composition, the power over motion that is to be found in the four ceiling panels' of the Grand Council chamber has, for instance, already been met with again and again. The stupendous composition in the Sala dello Scrutinio representing the Conquest of Zara may be taken as the greatest example of a type that might be considered separately. They are huge canvases with mighty hosts of men, at one time battle-scenes, at another ceremonial pageants, whether real or allegorical. There are many such both in the palace and elsewhere, and with all their greatness they suffer from a certain confusedness which arises from a want of concentration of interest in the battle-scenes, and the artificial dullness of the whole proceedings in the other case, such as we are wont to associate with a London civic show. It is not a weakness in the composition, as one is tempted to imagine at first sight, for on analysis this is found to be absolutely untrue.
The Conquest of Zara rises above this, although belonging to the same class, and is really a great painting ; but it is not by any of these pictures, done for the most part to order, that Tintoretto will be remembered.
There is, however, another class of paintings which deserve particular attention, and that the more so because no one has taken the trouble to mention them before. The little single figures, sometimes of putti, sometimes of allegorical representations of places, or of the virtues, and so on, would really be worthy of a chapter to themselves. The peculiar characteristics of the Italian photographer, coupled with the regulations regarding photography in Venice, have made it impossible to reproduce some of these as I had hoped. The Sala delle Quattro Porte is adorned with five of these, representing towns. Padua is seated, and looks down to the right, holding a book upon her knee, and is an example of most exquisite silvery colour that reminds one of Paolo Veronese at his best Brescia is equally fine, with magnificent colour of some-what deeper quality. It is a simpler conception, but perhaps even better carried through. But perhaps most pleasing of all, for its very slightness, is one of the four putti in the Ingresso. He is a charming little infant, reclining amid foliage, with a small piece of drapery across him, with which he toys with his fingers. The eyes are not quite happy, but otherwise it is most beautiful. The colour scheme is a lovely golden brown.
In the Academy there are four beautiful single figures on the ceiling of the small room containing the drawings, that are seldom noticed, yet are well worth seeing.
Of the pictures in the Doge's palace, nothing has here been said about the Paradise, in some respects the greatest of all. Yet a great deal has been written about this picture, sometimes on the most slender knowledge of the work. Mr. Stearns devotes half a page of his description to its red colour ; now I am writing these words with the picture before me. It is not red ; if anything the predominant colour is blue. The wings are all blue, the clouds are all blue, the distant peeps are all blue, except just at the top, which is orange cooled with blue; and, moreover, there is quite as much blue as red drapery. But his criticism, although containing other equally astounding statements, is in the main just.
As the picture is impossible to reproduce, being nearly eighty feet long, it is best to say but little about it. For those who cannot see the picture Ruskin's criticism may be interesting, but the long descriptions of any other writer in such a case can only be irritating. As a summing-up it might be said that the colour harmony is grand, scaling through all colour. The unity that is preserved throughout this composition is its most marvellous quality, and one which on à priori grounds it might have been urged was impossible with so many figures. It is thus a Paradise indeed. The one unfortunate circumstance is that Christ and the Virgin are the least satisfactory part of the whole picture.
It is interesting to remember that the commission was originally given to Paolo Veronese. The committee who had to choose the artist were for a long time doubtful, some suggesting Tintoretto, but the majority considering him to be too old. Francesco Bassano was to have been Veronese's assistant, but as Veronese died before he had completed even his sketches, there remained no one save Robusti who was at all competent. In spite of his age there was no diminution of vigour, and his son Domenico, who assisted him, does not seem to have done anything until the separate pieces, painted in the old Scuola of the Misericordia, were put up in their final position. Robusti, however, then found himself too old to run up and down the ladders and give the last touches which should join it satisfactorily together. So he left most of this to his son, while he stood below and superintended the work.
Before proceeding to the Scuola di S. Rocco, there is still one neglected picture in Venice that demands our attention. The Finding of the True Cross, which hangs in S. Maria Mater Domini, is one of the loveliest pictures that Tintoretto has left us. It is unfortunately very hard to see, and at least an hour is necessary before the eyes get sufficiently accustomed to the gloom to do the picture any justice. But when that is done it is a veritable colour feast that will long remain in the memory. The picture is equally remarkable for its tones, the beauty of its drawing and strength of composition. It a little reminds one of the Miracle of St. Agnes, but on account of its shape is more satisfactory as a whole, for there is no break in the composition. In the centre of the picture can be seen Bishop Macarius and the mother of Constantine the Great, the Empress Helena, who visited Jerusalem in 326 A.D., and made a search on Calvary for the cross of Christ. In front of them is the sick woman whom the cross restores to health, while the crosses of the two thieves lie on the ground. The attendants of the Empress are remarkably beautiful figures, in Robusti's very best vein, and the curious bystanders, and the man who eagerly receives the nails from the cross, are all examples of the finest figure drawing.