Accessible Art History
Artist Spotlight: Tintoretto
Updated: Jul 1, 2020
Welcome back to the Accessible Art History Blog! This post is going to be another addition to our Artist Spotlight series. We are going to be covering the amazing Mannerist artist, Jacopo Robusti. He is better known by his nickname, Tintoretto and for his use of drama and perspective. To understand his style, we are going to examine three of his most famous works.
Born in the fall of 1518, Jacopo Robusti was the oldest of 21 children! His father, Giovanni, worked as a cloth dyer. This is most likely where he got his nickname as it means “little dyer” or “son of the dyer” in Italian. Not much is known about his early childhood or his days as a young artist. There are some records that indicate that Tintoretto worked a short time for Titian. However, this arrangement didn’t last long and he eventually left to teach himself. Eventually Tintoretto’s style developed and was described as combining Michelangelo’s figures with Titian’s use of color. He also focused on creating a narrative for his works to explore.
Tintoretto spent the majority of his life living and working in Venice. His paintings can be seen in churches and public buildings around the city. Due to this incredible output and the fact that he painted with vigor, his contemporaries also called him “Il Furioso” (The Furious). According to records, he was quite passionate about his artistry and about using his wages to support the poor.
On May 31, 1594. Tintoretto died after a few weeks of illness. He was 75 years old. His eldest daughter (and fellow artist), Marietta had died a few years earlier, and he was buried next to her in the Church of Madonna dell’Orto in his beloved city of Venice.
Today, Tintoretto is known for becoming a bridge between the Renaissance and Baroque art. We are going to explore how he achieved this by using three of his key works.
Il Paradiso is perhaps Tintoretto’s most famous work. It is located in the main hall of the Doge’s (Venetian Italian for “duke”) Palace in Venice. In 1577, a fire destroyed the 14th century painting and so the Doge held a contest for a new design. Paolo Veronese won, but he died before work could even be started. So, Tintoretto stepped in and created this masterpiece. He worked on it between 1588-92.
The first thing viewers notice about this work is its size. It is massive at 22 x 7 meters, (72 x 23 feet)! This painting features Tintoretto’s ideal of heaven. The Virgin Mary and Jesus Christ are in the center. They are surrounded by a golden halo and sit on a throne made of cherubs. To the left, the angel Gabriel flies towards Mary, with a lily in his hand. This is an allusion to the Annunciation. The rest of the work is taken up by dozens of figures of saints and the resurrected dead.
Tintoretto painted this work using an upwards tilted perspective. This not only allows the viewer to see the entire scene easily (because it’s such a large piece), but it also places the holiest figures above them. It reinforces the idea of heaven and creates a narrative.
The Last Supper
The Last Supper was one of Tintoretto’s favorite subjects. In fact, he painted it on nine separate occasions. This one is located in the Basilica di San Giorgio Maggiore in Venice. The most remarkable thing about this work is the diagonal perspective. Normally, this story is told with a frontal point of view. This was due to the precedent set by Leonardo da Vinci in 1495. However, Tintoretto shifts the perspective and approaches the story from the side. This puts the focus on the secondary characters in the scene, instead of on Christ and His disciples. In addition, it creates asymmetry, a rare thing in art at this point.
Adding to the drama, there are only two sources of light and the rest of the work is shrouded in shadow. A lamp illuminates the left side of the painting, while Jesus’ halo lights up the right. By doing this, Tintoretto creates a narrative for the viewer to take in and invites them to become an active participant.
The Origin of the Milky Way
The final work of Tintoretto’s that we are going to look at breaks away from Christianity. He painted The Origins of the Milky Way in 1575 and it is now in the collection of the National Gallery in London. In this story, Zeus attempts to have his illegitimate son Hercules feed from Hera’s breasts in order to gain immortality. She wakes up from the suckling and pushes the baby away. Her breast milk squirts up into the sky, creating the stars of the Milky Way.
The intense colors of this work mark it solidly in the Venetian school. Tintoretto uses reds and pinks, blues and greens, to create an ethereal scene. He also uses a strong sense of dynamic movement along a diagonal plane to create a dramatic narrative. The viewer can also see a bit of Michelangelo’s impact on the muscular, full body of Hera. Tintoretto truly brings this myth to life!
Tintoretto is one of the great artists of the Mannerist period. His use of color, diagonal lines, and light, create dramatic narratives that resonate with his viewers. It is almost a “changing” of the rules that creates his own type of visual language. There are many more of his works available for study online, so make sure to check them out!
All images are Public Domain, retrieved via Wikimedia Commons