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Tintoretto - S. Rocco

( Originally Published 1912 )

"Wherever a fresco peels and drops,
Wherever an outline weakens and wanes
Till the latest life in the painting stops,
Stands One whom each fainter pulse tick pains :
One, wishful each scrap should clutch the brick,
Each tinge not wholly escape the plaster,
A lion who died of an ass's kick,
The wronged great soul of an ancient Master."

ROBERT BROWNING, Old Pictures in Florence.

ABOUT the year 1559 Robusti began his connection with the brotherhood of S. Rocco, painting for them in the chapel of the order. Some of the pictures there are worthy to rank with his highest efforts but for the most part they are not easy to see, and the lighting of them is exceedingly bad. The reflections upon those in the choir are such as to make the pictures almost entirely invisible. It is strange that the Italians have not grasped the value of a little judicious tilting to enable a picture to be seen. But as this is perhaps the most unenlightened community in Italy, we must not expect too much. However, we are pleased to hear that there is some likelihood of the government taking away from them the custody of all their art treasures, and it is to be hoped that no effort will be spared either by their countrymen or by visitors to bring this about.

Mr. Ruskin's description of these pictures, in the appendix to the third volume of " The Stones of Venice," makes it superfluous to say much here. The pictures will certainly be well worth a visit when in the hands of the nation, but at present their invisibility is merely irritating and makes it a waste of time.

Of the pictures in the choir the one which Mr. Ruskin calls The Finding of the Body of S. Rocco seems to require comment. Mr. Ruskin says of this painting : "An elaborate but somewhat confused picture, with a flying angel in blue drapery ; but it seemed to me altogether uninteresting, or, perhaps, requiring more study than I was able to give to it."

Had I read this before, I should have given the picture even more attention. My own notes tally exactly in describing the picture as confused, but there is still left some remarkably fine colour, although restoration has removed most of it, and the drawing almost throughout reaches the highest level. The rush of figures and the intense interest suggested in the composition, would alone make this picture famous ; but, alas ! as has been said before, the picture is almost impossible to see, and half an hour is necessary before we can gather any-thing at all. It is to be regretted that the incivility of the Scuola di San Rocco makes it impossible to give a reproduction. This somewhat confused composition is called by Ridolfi S. Rocco struck by death and visited by an Angel. The death apparently takes place in a prison, Ind this perhaps is more likely than the traditional title landed down by the sacristan and given by Mr. Ruskin.

There are just a few pictures in the world that are )beyond criticism and beyond praise, before which we can only stand and admire, and in the presence of which words fail us. It was such a picture that Tintoretto painted for the refectory of S. Rocco in 1565. There it hangs before us to-day vast and awful, and there it may hang in safety if only the government will act quickly and take over the Scuola as a national monument. But it must be quickly, for the present brotherhood, in their ignorance and rapacity, have already begun to ruin most of the pictures in their possession, in order to cater for the vulgar crowd. It is a work whose colour is of surpassing beauty ; a silvery light plays upon it from the cross, so that the scene shines out from that darkness which overhangs the guilty city. There is a mighty concourse of people, decked here and there with many a gay colour ; but one figure stands out alone against the sky ; the two thieves are not yet raised, and in loneliness amid the multitude our eyes rest on the Saviour of the world. All the rest is as some dream : there are the soldiers with the dice ; there is one digging a place for another cross ; while here at the foot of the central cross is the sad group of mourners, and the Mother of Christ swooning in her agony.

If ever a picture realized its end, if ever a picture grew upon the spectator, till it overcame him with the majesty of its conception, the harmony of its colour, the perfection of its drawing, and the oneness of its composition, pointing its one truth, it is this ; and be he artist, layman, saint, or sinner, he cannot pass on unmoved without hearing the cry spoken from that great canvas, " Is it nothing to you, all ye that pass by ? " Other pictures may excel in their several excellences, but this excels in them all, and excelling in all must excel in the highest. Surely, if any picture can lay claim to be the greatest in the world, it is here. And great as this painting is, it is not alone, and one can linger for hours in that strange treasure-house breathing in an inspiration from every picture. But others more able have written of their wonders, and this little book endeavours rather to point out what has not been said before, than to go over the old familiar ground, so that it is only here and there that we can pause and see what the Scuola pictures have to tell.

We have had occasion before to mention the Annunciation in the Lower Hall. It is a powerful, rather strange, composition, symbolic of a mighty onrush, as the angel and the Holy Spirit descend with a rushing mighty wind compassed about with a great cloud of cherubim. Mary is overcome with astonishment, while outside, all unconscious, Joseph is working at his task. The picture is absolutely free from convention, and we feel that we are breathing in a freer, wider atmosphere. It is a painting that would arrest the attention of the most careless observer, and that once seen would never be forgotten.

It is difficult to know which pictures to single out for comment in this unique collection, but perhaps the most striking picture on this wall is The Massacre of the Innocents, where we see the fury of man let loose—awful and terrible. The very brush seems instilled with the same demonic spirit. On it comes, a resistless tide of human passion, nor all the love nor lamentation of motherhood can stand against it. Invincible strength lives in every line of the drawing, and the swirl of the onrush fills the canvas, and we know that none, not even one, shall escape.

The statuesque strength of Michael Angelo is as nothing to it. This is alive, and is even now upon us, till the ground trembles beneath our feet.

There is warmth in the colour that becomes the hot rage of the slaughterers, yet in some strangely colder lights we may find, if such be our fancy, the cold-blooded calculation of the remorseless king.

But even Tintoretto is not always on the move, nor has he his sole delight in the more physical aspect of humanity. Let us come upstairs and stand for a moment before his picture of The Temptation. Here indeed is a revelation of the deepest truths. It must be plain that this is something more than the ordinary interpretation of the narrative. This is no haughty prince turning to one starving in the desert and bidding him satisfy his bodily needs.

It may have been a quaint conceit of Tintoretto's ; but it is clear that to him, at least, such a temptation of the mere bodily senses seemed to be no temptation at all for the Saviour of the universe. The attitude of the strangely beautiful figure of Satan is that of one that implores ; he is a real suppliant, and the favour is for him. It is he that wants the bread, and not the pitying Christ that looks down upon him. And shall we be going further than Tintoretto intended if we fancy that we see in the stones the results of Satan's own husbandry, a stony bread that satisfieth not, for the pleasures of sin are but for a season. " Give me bread," he cries, " for this is all that I have ; give me bread if Thou wilt " ; and this time the answer is again a questioning repetition of the suppliant's words : " If Thou wilt, O Satan ! nay, this is the one thing that is impossible for the all-righteous ; not even for the Almighty will the corrupt tree bring forth good fruit, and there only remaineth the fire of purification."

One of the most interesting pictures in this collection is The Ascension, in the same room. It is painted with resplendent colour, cold yet jewelled, such as Tintoretto alone could use. The colour has suffered from the ravages of time and neglect, yet still affords great delight to the beholder ; it is luminous broken colour that seems to shine with a light of its own. It quite baffles description, is far removed from the least suspicion of crudity, maintaining throughout its iridescence a quiet subtlety, which will always fail to appeal to the crowd.

But the picture does not demand a visit for the sake of its colour alone. It is rich in the boldest, most magnificent drawing. Parts of it are distinctly sketchy, but they all show in their vigour of line and grand rhythm of posture the cunning hand of the great master. In the upper part of the picture is the Christ, no longer the lowly son of the carpenter, but the King of Glory, about whom there cluster the beautiful attendants of the angel host, bearing Him up in their hands lest He dash His foot against a stone. The very sky is filled with His radiance, and clouds of glory float about them all. Below we see far through into a wonderful landscape distance, that stretches away to the far hills, and in it walk the disciples from Emmaus. On the right the company of apostles are gathered together, no longer cast down, but exultant, for hath not their Master gone to receive His Kingdom : while in the foreground we see the evangelist with his book, in the which to write of all these things, so that we children of a latter day, far removed in time and space, may yet see the vision also, and hand down the reflection of that first magnificence to our children's children.

It is impossible to leave the Scuola without pausing for a moment before the picture of Christ before Pilate. There is something in this that differentiates it from other pictures, whether by Tintoretto or other men. We find the same indefinable quality in the great Crucifixion, but there it is one among many, here it is isolated. It is, perhaps, the spirit of tragedy which in The Crucifixion at least implies a great hope, but here the still white Christ stands before us meek and defenceless, with not even a single, follower to suggest that all has not been in vain.

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