Rome, Scuderie del Quirinale, from 25 February to 10 June 2012

1. Jacopo Robusti, called il Tintoretto (1518-1594)
Self-portrait, c. 1546-1547
Oil on Panel - 45.7 x 36.8 cm
London, Victoria and Albert Museum
Photo : Victoria and Albert Museum

While Titian and Veronese have been featured in several monographic exhibitions in the recent past, Tintoretto, the third figure of the 16th century Venitian "Trinity" seems to have been overlooked. Perhaps due to the difficulties, even the impossibility, to evoke his grand décors ? Or because of a style which at first glance appears less attractive and "easy" than that of his illustrious contemporaries ? Is it the complexity of choosing works out of a superabundant corpus, which is also frankly, of uneven quality ? Whatever the reasons, after the extensive Venetian retrospective at Ca’ Pesaro in 1937, art lovers had to wait 70 years for the Prado to stage an event around Tintoretto. Although we were not able to see the show in Madrid, a close reading of the catalogue and the review published on the French site left us with a very positive impression of it. Alas, we cannot say the same of the current exhibition at the Scuderie del Quirinale, despite its commendable ambition. The project was initiated by Vittorio Sgarbi, who needs no introduction, a brilliant but controversial figure whose reputation was no doubt instrumental in bringing certain jealously kept masterpieces from Venice.

Assembling famous paintings by Tintoretto is however not enough to conceal the lack of a theme. First of all, we would point out the insufficient number of canvases, barely thirty by the master, of which the most important had already been shown at the Prado in 2007 and more recently in other Venitian exhibitions. Among further additions, there are works by 16th century Italian painters, which as we will see further are of limited interest, even counter-productive. It was of course impossible to move Tintoretto’s largest canvases, although his genius was truly revealed in these monumental décors ; and as we can see, the church or scuole paintings assembled at the Quirinale are in fact too cramped. The nine rooms alternate between a chronological presentation and a thematic vision, at times belaboured, slightly confusing and definitely unsuccessful in its demonstrations. The introduction of the sections was turned over to Melania G. Mazzuco, well-known in France for her books on the master and his children and which, though fictional, are well documented based on thorough research. Her texts are pleasant and easy to understand, but often elaborate an approach to art history through anecdotes which do not really add anything, rather tend to oversimplify the very rich life, work and personality of Tintoretto. The famous Self-portrait from the Victoria & Albert Museum (ill. 1) alone, exhibited in the first room, is enough to reveal the artist’s ambitions and doubts, which pursued him throughout his life.

2. Jacopo Robusti, called il Tintoretto (1518-1594)
Saint Mark Freeing the Slave from Torture
also known as The Miracle of the Slave, 1547-1548
Oil on Canvas - 415 x 541 cm
Venise, Gallerie dell’Accademia
Photo : Gallerie dell’Accademia

3. Jacopo Robusti, called il Tintoretto (1518-1594)
Christ among the Doctors in the Temple, c.1541
Oil on Canvas - 197 x 319 cm
Milan, Museo del Duomo
Photo : Museo del Duomo

4. Jacopo Robusti, called il Tintoretto (1518-1594)
The Creation of the Animals, 1550-1553,
Oil on Canvas - 151 x 258 cm
Venise, Gallerie dell’Accademia
Photo : Gallerie dell’Accademia

For Vittorio Sgarbi, Tintoretto is a Dionysian painter, as opposed to the Apollonian Veronese, and his art is a forerunner of cinema, a statement which is obviously as debatable as it is attention-grabbing...What could better support this claim than to open with The Miracle of the Slave (ill. 2), the first major public commission for Tintoretto who in 1548 successfully imposed himself on the Venetian scene, temporarily deserted by Titian who was serving Charles V in Augsburg ? Obviously, this masterpiece continues to strike us with its spectacular staging, its immense figures moving heavily (in particular, the unforgettable Saint Mark, appearing miraculously in the sky thanks to a virtuoso foreshortening) and his touch, quick to sketch in the fold of a fabric, a lock of hair or a coat of mail with a previously inexistent optical force. However, we should not forget the work which came before this. Tintoretto was barely thirty when he painted The Miracle of the Slave true, but despite laborious beginnings had already shown his promise early on. The second room reveals the paintings from the 1540’s. Although Titian’s shadow lurks continuously in Tintoretto’s career, the latter nevertheless belongs to that generation of Venetian painters who are faced with the rise of Mannerism from Rome or Tuscany, which spread through Northern Italy as of 1520. And the ceilings at the Galleria Estense in Modena are Tintoretto’s response to similar compositions by Giulio Romano and his collaborators at the Palazzo Te in Mantova, where gods and mortals stand out against dark blue skies in bold foreshortenings which serve to amplify the dramatic character of the mythological narrative. There are also the marked allusions to Raphael and Michelangelo, totally incorporated later in The Miracle of the Slave. Still a bit confusing, the composition of Christ among the Doctors in the Temple of Jerusalem (ill. 3), boldly reinterprets The School of Athens, disfigured by the brutal variations in spatial scale ; references to the Sistine Chapel, notably the doctor under Christ close to the "ignudi" or the figure on the far right evoking the prophets. It is hard not to recall The Creation of Adam for the divine form in The Creation of the Animals (ill. 4) intended for the Scuola della Trinità, striking for the way in which it illustrates Tintoretto’s talent, as nowhere else, in painting animals.

5. Jacopo Robusti, called il Tintoretto (1518-1594)
The Removal of Saint Mark’s Body, 1562-1566
Oil on Canvas - 398 x 315 cm
Venise, Gallerie dell’Accademia
Photo : Gallerie dell’Accademia

Starting with the productive 1550’s, Tintoretto reveals the depth of his talent in the large formats, an aspect of his work exhibited in two rooms. He often uses the same process, tall figures in a distorted space enclosed within antique architectures inspired by engravings from treatises by Serlio. Thus Saint Augustine Healing the Paralytics, painted for the church of San Michele in Vicenza, shows us muscular bodies submitted to an accelerated perspective. This theatrical effect culminates perhaps in The Removal of Saint Mark’s Body (ill. 5) placed in the "scuola" of the same name about fifteen years after The Miracle of the Slave, which repeats the simple but effective motif of the pavement to animate the scene. The use of white lead is also virtuoso, transforming the noble buildings and the frightened people of Alexandria into pale ghosts under an almost supernatural nocturnal storm. The effect might have been even more striking if the canvas had been hung higher up, and the same goes for the two Last Supper exhibited nearby. Tintoretto’s production cannot be studied without looking at his series representing Christ’s last supper : at times he focuses on the institution of the eucharist, like in San Polo, by evoking the act of charity of the scuole sponsors among the poor, at others he is more interested in Judas’ betrayal, illustrated in the canvas of San Trovaso with the brutal gesture of surprise expressed by the apostles and the motif of the fallen chair in the foreground. Another high pont in Tintoretto’s career is the Scuola Grande di San Rocco, his artistic testament. Was this reason enough to bring the two canvases, entitled respectively The Virgin Mary in Meditation and The Virgin Mary Reading [1] ? True, these works were restored expressly for the exhibition and are among the most extraordinary landscapes in Venetian painting, their subtle nuances close to the late Titian. This does not however justify such a move, as it is always unfortunate to disband, even temporarily, such an invaluable ensemble which can only be really appreciated when together.

6. Jacopo Robusti, called il Tintoretto (1518-1594)
The Virgin and Child with Saint Sebastian, Saint Mark
and Saint Theodore Venerated by Three Chamberlain

also known as The Madonna of the Treasurers, 1566-1567
Oil on Canvas - 221 x 521 cm
Venise, Gallerie dell’Accademia
Photo : Gallerie dell’Accademia

In contrast to the "painter to all" in the service of religious congregations, the following section studies the "painter to the doges", an artificial division if only because some of the members of the "scuole" belonged to the Venetian aristocracy. Moreover, the artist uses the same plastic resources for the paintings intended for the elite, such as The Madonna of the Treasurers (ill. 6) from the Palace of the Chamberlains : here we see the tile floor and the architecture of the "scuole" canvases, as well as the same vigorous strokes. By associating a group portrait and Marian devotion, the canvas is undoubtedly one of Tintoretto’s most accomplished in this style, offering a vision where the kingdom of heaven and the Venetian Republic are as one, a political-religious interpretation which finds its ultimate achievement in the décors of the Sala del Collegio in the Doge Palace.

7. Jacopo Robusti, called il Tintoretto (1518-1594)
Portrait of Jacopo Sansovino, c. 1566
Oil on Canvas - 70 x 65.5 cm
Firenze, Galerie des Offices
Photo : Galerie des Offices

8. Jacopo Robusti, called il Tintoretto (1518-1594)
Portrait of a Woman, c.1550
Oil on Canvas - 98 x 75 cm
Vienne, Kunsthistorisches Museum
Photo : Kunsthistorisches Museum

The portrait section continues on the upper floor, this time with individual likenesses which are more sober and introspective. The figures, seen half-size, dressed in black robes or red velvet in the case of the Magistrates, against a dark background, are greatly indebted to Titian for the centring, but also to the portraits from central Italy and particularly Salviati for their careless elegance. Few portraits are documented, most of the models remain anonymous and it is difficult to observe a real evolution, making it hard to pinpoint exact dates. At times we see a friend, among others that of Jacopo Sansovino, posing naturally and proudly displaying his architectural compass (ill. 7). A rare woman’s portrait (ill. 8) stands out for its frontal angle and her relative lack of expressivity insisting rather on her attire, corresponding to the social status of Venetian women restricted to the private sphere and kept out of the city’s political life.

9. Jacopo Robusti, called il Tintoretto (1518-1594)
Venus, Vulcan and Mars, 1550-1555
Oil on Canvas - 134 x 198 cm
Munich, Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen - Alte Pinakothek
Photo : Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen

Women are again the subject with Tintoretto’s mythological and biblical nudes. The genre is always associated with Venetian painting during the Renaissance. Yet, compared to his contemporaries, the artist produced few examples, due to a mitigated interest for eroticism and the prohibition of the Counter Reformation according to the exhibition organizers, a likely explanation [2], despite the fact that at the same period Veronese devoted himself as much to religious compositions as to his charming nudes. Although Tintoretto rarely ventures into this domain, he nevertheless reveals a very personal creativity, sometimes treating the loves of the gods in a comical manner as if to respond impudently to Titian’s sensual Classicism. In any case, we must admit that Tintoretto’s few erotic paintings date generally back to his early career, for instance Venus, Vulcan and Mars (ill. 9), a veritable vaudeville show on Olympus, instilled with piquant humor. Even if the hand on the cushion and the goddess’ locks caressing her breasts are a tribute to the Urbino Venus and the sleeping Cupid might be an allusion to antique sculpture (or a pastiche of Michelangelo), there remains a strong sense of creativity in the circular spatial construction surrounding the divine cuckold. The knowledgeable play of the reflections centers on the round mirror, much like an omniscient eye. The lover is not hiding in the wardrobe but under the bed, found out by a barking dog... Similar optical illusions and ambiguous amorous intrigues, though a bit more sordid, are found in a contemporaneous painting, the sumptuous Susanna and the Elders. This painting, among Tintoretto’s best known, charms us nevertheless by the pearly beauty of the woman bathing and the delicate description of her accessories as well as the enveloping nature. The greenery provides a particularly complex, almost ambiguous, space where the reflections in the water and the mirror multiply the viewpoints, a clear reference to the supremacy of painting in the context of a paragone. As for the elders, they are just as voyeur as the viewer ! Tintoretto’s incursions into the feminine nude are remarkable, both for the exalted beauty of the body as well as the allegorical perspective it presents of the vision and art of painting. Vulcan, Venus and Mars at the Palazzo Pitti, supposedly contemporary to these two masterpieces, pales beside them due to a weak composition and the awkwardness of the bodies : might this be a studio work or else executed by the master with the help of collaborators, as has already been suggested more than once by critics ?

To place Tintoretto in context, an entire room is devoted to Venetian Mannerism. An excellent initiative, but alas, a bit late in the visit. And this is not the only drawback to the hang, which is not clear in its chronology and the production centers, summing up an extremely complex chapter in Italian art history with just a few paintings. A selection of canvases by Titian and Veronese, who maintained very specific ties to Mannerism, different from those of Tintoretto, occupies an entire wall. Unfortunately, the selection is not very pertinent, the Portrait of Gabriele Tadino and The Annunciation (from San Maggiore in Naples, on deposit at Capodimonte by Titian can barely be labelled Mannerist, especially given his ceilings for San Spirito in Isola, today at the Salute. The same thing can be said about Veronese with the paintings from the Pinacoteca Capitolina (Good Government and Peace) and from the Galleria Borghese (Saint Anthony Preaching to the Fish) with little interest for this demonstration, to such an extent that we might wonder if they are not there simply because they come from Roman museums...the other wall is more convincing, with a Holy Conversation by Bonifacio de Pitati. Although of lesser rank, this master paradoxically occupies a leading role in 16th century Venetian painting, as his studio welcomed many artists, including Tintoretto in the 1540’s. At the end of the decade in fact, Tintoretto’s style displays obvious affinities with that of two fellow painters whom he probably met in Bonifacio’s workshop, Lambert Sustris and Andrea Schiavone : these names were suggested alternatively for a Midas and Bacchus (private collection) and which we believe goes to Schiavone when comparing it to his stories of Callisto held at the National Gallery in London and the Musée de Picardie in Amiens. Though we must not forget the influence of Parmigianino (whose The Virgin with Child and Saints Zachary, Mary Magdelene and John the Baptist at the Uffizi) in Venice, Salviati and Vasari’s presence was more direct (quoted here but not represented), who were in Venice during the 1540’s. Even before the arrival of these Tuscan painters, Giovanni De Mio adopted a maniera inspired by the art of Raphael and Michelangelo, obvious in a Holy Conversation, one of his rare easel paintings [3] anticipating by at least ten years certain formal solutions appropriated by the young Tintoretto.

The next-to-last room looks at the studio, a bit incoherently and with few details about the works. This is disappointing as many artists, despite the uneven quality, frequented this workshop of family proportions but of international status. We might mention the children Domenico (1560-1635) and Marietta Robusti (1554-1590), the Greek Antonio Vassilacchi, known as Aliense (1556-1629) who also attended Veronese’s studio, the Flemish Ludovico Pozzoserrato (c. 1150-1604/1605) known mainly for his frescoes in Conegliano and Treviso, as well as Paolo Fiammingo (1540-1596) who found his expression in landscapes. How much collaboration was there in The Trip of Saint Ursula with the Eleven Thousand Virgins, a painting which in fact is hard to see in Venice at the church of San Lazzaro dei Mendicanti, of such very high quality that it appears to be entirely by the master ? The question is even more pertinent in the case of The Meeting between Judas and Tamar from the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza in Madrid, where the landscape could have been painted by one of the many Northern-European artists close to Tintoretto. The same applies for the Danaë from the Museum in Lyon ; though a bit stiff, true, and attributed by some critics to Domenico Robusti, Tintoretto’s most gifted child. Domenico is today unanimously as being the author of the Portrait of a Woman Baring her Breast at the Prado, previously given to Jacopo, although the iconography remains problematic ; instead of this being a portrait of a courtesan, perhaps the famous Veronica Franco according to some, might this not be an ideal image corresponding to a tradition dating back to the early 16th century ? The many talents of Domenico, always (too) faithful to his father’s art, deserve perhaps to be considered in his own right, finally acknowledging his identity.

The last painting produced by Tintoretto, probably with Domenico’s help [4], The Entombment from San Giorgio Maggiore, constitutes a moving conclusion to this rich career. We cannot help but see a connection with the two artists Tintoretto admired the most, Titian and Michelangelo, who on their death also left profoundly emotional works on the Pietà theme. By then totally committed to the expressive demands of the Council of Trent, Tintoretto however does not abandon his feverish style, in an aesthetic apotheosis before dying. The elderly master seems aware of his approaching death in his last self-portrait, in response to the one of his youth, with a candour of feeling and the chromatic restriction which had attracted Manet [5] then Sartre [6]. Despite such a splendid finale, the exhibition leaves us unsatisfied and brings few new elements to our knowledge of the artist and his circle, in fact at times, results even in contradictions and misleading shortcuts. The catalogue makes up for some of these deficiencies, with a publication of fine quality in both form and content as Skira usually does. However, it presents gaps here and there, with the entries organized according to general themes, following a different order than the one in the exhibition and rarely renewing the criticisms presented so many times before. Tintoretto does not appear aggrandized in this retrospective, too popularized in certain aspects, at times even sensationalized or presented in a Manichean way. In concluding, we would say that anyone wishing to discover Tintoretto should not come to the Eternal City but go rather to his home town, starting with the Scuola Grande di San Rocco which has more than earned its nickname as Venice’s Sistine Chapel.

Curators : Vittorio Sgarbi, Giovanni Morello

Collective Work, Tintoretto, Skira, 2012, 272 p., ISBN 978-88-572-1355-2, 49 € (price in the exhibition : 35 €)

Visitor Information : Rome, Scuderie del Quirinale, via XXIV Maggio 16. Tél. : 06 39967500. Open from sunday to thursday from 10am to 8pm, friday and saturday from 10am to 10.30pm. Price : 10 euros (reduced : 8,5 euros)

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Benjamin Couilleaux, lundi 28 mai 2012


[1] These are traditional titles, probably poorly adapted to the true sense of the works. A convincing interpretation has been suggested by Valentina Sapienza, linked to the mystical texts of Guillaume Postel.

[2] It should be qualified however by saying that much of this production corresponded to private orders coming at times from the highest echelons, not necessarily proving the painter’s inclination or lack of it, for eroticism : the story of Hercules, including The Origins of the Milky Way from the National Gallery in London and Hercules Chasing the Faun from Omphale’s Bed from the Szépmüvészeti Múzeum in Budapest were painted for Rudolph II quite surely in the early 1580’s. The commission thus came a few years after the death of Titian who monopolized Hapsburg orders in Venetian circles until the end of his career.

[3] The art which has come down to us by Giovanni De Mio is mainly décors, including the ceilings and lunettes in the Sauli chapel inside Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan, as well as three tondi for the ceiling of the grand salon of the Libreria Sansovina (Nature, Pallas and Jupiter ; Theology before the Gods ; Natural Philosophy).

[4] The canvas seems covered with a thick layer of varnish, making it difficult to evaluate. We would hope that a restoration in the near future will help to improve this possibility.

[5] He made a copy in 1854, today at the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Dijon.

[6] See his essay Le Séquestré de Venise in Situations IV (1964).

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