Jacopo Tintoretto - Biography and Legacy
Biography of Jacopo Tintoretto
Childhood and Education
There are few details known about the childhood and early life of the Italian artist Tintoretto. Born Jacopo Robusti, even the year of his birth is unclear with scholars placing it sometime in either 1518 or 1519. He is known to have come from Venice, however, making him one of the few iconic artists of the Venetian School to have been born in this city.
His father, Giovanni Battista Robusti, was a cloth dyer; an occupation which would influence his son's artistic style surrounding the young Jacopo with colors, pigments, and other artistic mediums virtually from infancy. This trade also provided the inspiration for the name he would ultimately adopt, according to art historian Stefania Mason, he "...proudly declared the family connection with dyeing when he adopted the nickname by which he remains best known - Tintoretto, 'the little dyer' - as seen in his signature on paintings as well as various documents."
Although no definitive records exist, it is generally believed that Tintoretto's training began sometime in his early teens with a brief stint as an apprentice in the workshop of the famed Venetian painter, Titian. This association did not last long with many speculating it was due to a strong clash of personalities between the old master and the more progressive exuberant and boundary-pushing personality of the young pupil.
Largely self-taught after this experience, Tintoretto would continue to develop his skills in part through making paintings on furniture. In Italy, at the time, there was a great demand for cassoni or ornate chests decorated with paintings, and it is here that Tintoretto is believed to have developed his distinctive approach characterized by rapidly executed loose brushwork often appearing sketch-like and, at times, incomplete. In his book, "Tintoretto: Tradition and Identity," art historian Tom Nichols writes, "In a number of small-scale paintings attributable to his earliest period, Tintoretto radically abbreviates his treatment of form, the sketchy effect being reinforced by his employment of a limited range of broken tones, close to one another on the color scale [...] Works such as these were intended to adorn furniture, and support [early biographer Carlo] Ridolfi's report that Tintoretto associated with painters of this type who peddled their wares from temporary wooden booths set up in St. Mark's Square. Ridolfi tells us that it was in this public (but professionally marginal) context that Tintoretto first learned the 'method of handling colors' particular to the cassoni painters."
Tintoretto's gestural style, although once fashionable with associations to the earlier master Giorgione, was by then equated with the lower ranking cassoni painters. This left Tintoretto out of favor with some of his fellow Venetian artists and patrons. The writings of the artist Giorgio Vasari, best-known today for his biographies of the Renaissance artists, illustrate just how radical Tintoretto's technique was to his contemporary audience. Vasari writes, "this master at times has left us finished work sketches so rough that the brushstrokes may be seen. Done more by chance and vehemence than with judgement and design." While this passage may read as critical, perhaps to show a preference for the internationally recognized, and considerably more polished technique, of Titian, another quote shows Vasari's admiration for the bravura of Tintoretto's brushwork, citing the younger artist as "the most extraordinary brain that the art of painting has produced."
From as early as 1538, there is evidence of Tintoretto having his own workshop and referring to himself as a professional working in Venice. From the outset, the young artist set himself apart from his former teacher Titian, despite the popularity of his rival's accomplishments. Tintoretto's interest in, and emulation of, Michelangelo's approach to painting was especially disagreeable to his former master. According to curators Robert Echols and Frederich Ilchman, as they wrote in the 2019 exhibition catalog, Tintoretto: Artist of Renaissance Venice, the young artist "...presented himself in the role of a challenger to the established tradition as embodied by Titian and identified himself instead with the newest ideas circulating in Venetian painting. In the early 1540s that meant emulating contemporary currents in Florence and Rome, and above all Michelangelo, the biggest name in all of Italian art. [...] While the concept of an avant-garde painter aiming for 'the shock of the new' was not one articulated in the sixteenth century, Tintoretto was positioning himself on the cutting edge of Venetian painting." Unfortunately, Titian never forgave what he considered Tintoretto's disrespect and attempted on numerous occasions to thwart the younger artist's advancement by blocking Tintoretto's success in obtaining commissions and membership in various organizations.
Despite Titian's disapproval, Tintoretto began to make a name for himself, first through a series of public works in the form of mural fresco paintings. He was able to gain work through charging extraordinarily low fees, often only covering the cost of materials, to gain exposure to a larger audience. This strategy proved successful, as Tintoretto began gaining commissions, including many religious works for which he would remain best known, including multiple depictions of the Last Supper, the first of which he created in 1547. Arguably it was his first masterpiece, The Miracle of the Slave, (1548) that brought him to the attention of the larger Venetian public and patrons and, in effect, launched his career.
As Tintoretto began to prosper professionally, he also flourished in his personal life. He became friends with many of the leading literary figures of the day. Then, around 1550 he married Faustina Episcopi whose father was affiliated with the Scuola Grande di San Marco confraternity for whom he had created a painting. They would have eight children; three of whom would become artists.
In addition to church commissions, a major source of employment for Tintoretto and other Venetian painters during the 16th century was for confraternities or scuolas. These organizations played a large role in the cosmopolitan Venetian culture, organized around a variety of purposes ranging from national origin to acts of public service, such as helping the ill and poverty-stricken. Over time, these scuolas acquired great wealth from their affluent members which provided a major source of patronage for the Venetian artists. Although Titian managed to block some of these commissions from Tintoretto, including from the Scuola Grande di San Rocco which Titian secured for himself in 1553, he never actually completed the assignment. Despite this occasion, Tintoretto was able to skillfully navigate the competitive process from which he benefitted greatly throughout his career.
In fact, Tintoretto seemed destined to face challenges by other artists despite how impressively his reputation grew. The second major competition came in the form of Paolo Veronese who arrived in Venice in the late 1550s. Art historians Echols and Ilchman describe the impact of Veronese as "...unofficially but publically recognized as Titian's successor, as the older artist presented him with a golden chain for having executed the best ceiling painting for the reading room of Jacopo Sansovino's Libreria Marciana - a competition from which Tintoretto had humiliatingly been excluded. With this coveted position as the next leader of Venetian painting seeming to slip through his fingers, Tintoretto had to contend not only with Titian's machinations but with the undeniable talent of Veronese."
Rather than concede defeat, Tintoretto persevered and strengthened his status by focusing on works characteristic of his style that set him apart from the more traditional approaches of Titian and Veronese. In so doing he made increasingly dramatic works, densely populated with figures creating rhythmic contrasts in light and dark that appeared more Mannerist than Renaissance in style.
Tintoretto often employed questionably ethical means to secure coveted commissions, at times reducing the fee for his paintings enough to undercut other artists. The most notorious example of his strategic ingenuity centered around a competition for a ceiling painting for the new meeting house of the Scuola Grande di San Rocco in 1564. The prospectus from the confraternity called for selected artists, including Tintoretto, to submit a sketch for the proposed ceiling painting. Tintoretto, rather than providing a sketch, unveiled his completed panel, already installed on the ceiling. When others objected, he presented the painting as a donation, knowing that the confraternity would be obligated to accept a gift. The strategy worked, and by promising to render all additional paintings for the house for an annual salary of 100 ducats, the artist secured an exclusive contract with numerous commissions over the following two decades. Tintoretto was also admitted into the confraternity in 1565, where he would go on to hold various offices.
Tintoretto was only known to have left Venice once to travel to Mantua, at the age of 62, in 1580. This was four years after the death of his rival, Titian, who had of all the Venetian painters, dominated the international stage. It was during this later period that Tintoretto also received a few important international commissions including an altarpiece for King Philip II of Spain and four works for the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II. He also painted an increasing number of non-religious themed paintings during this time. In these later years, he also created portraits and received many commissions from the Venetian state. One of the most notable being his creation of the large-scale painting, titled Paradiso, in 1592 for the Ducal Palace.
As he neared the end of his life, Tintoretto increasingly relied on the help of his studio assistants to finish his paintings, including Paradiso. Most notable of those assistants were three of his nine children: daughter Marietta and sons Domenico and Marco. The artist was devastated when his oldest daughter, whom he lovingly nicknamed 'la Tintoretta,' died during childbirth in 1590. Just four years later, Tintoretto died fifteen days after contracting a fever. His sons would continue the work of his studio for many years, perhaps still under the guidance of those words Tintoretto had inscribed on its wall years before: Il disegno di Michelangelo e il colorito di Tiziano (The drawing of Michelangelo and the coloring of Titian).
The Legacy of Jacopo Tintoretto
Jacopo Tintoretto left an indelible mark on 16th-century Venetian painting and beyond. His unique approach to artmaking with rapid, loose brushstrokes and strong contrasts between light and dark deeply challenged the traditional style of the iconic master Titian, Paolo Veronese, and his Venetian contemporaries. His bold compositions offered an alternative style to the hierarchal staging of the traditional Renaissance paintings. Because of this, Tintoretto is often associated with the Mannerist painters of the later Renaissance period.
His influence, however, was felt long after his own time. Tintoretto's highly dramatic, almost theatrical compositions would serve as inspiration for the development of the 17th-century Baroque art movement. The impact of his gestural style, notable for its obvious traces of his brushwork, reverberates in the passionate style of Diego Velazquez and Peter Paul Rubens. His early self-portrait, dated to 1548, is considered a precedent to those of later artists including Rembrandt; while the contemplative mood of his much later self-portrait, was described by the modernist icon Edouard Manet as "one of the most beautiful paintings in the world."
Tintoretto's influence continues to permeate the world of painting, impacting contemporary artists most notably in the grand, expressionistic aspects of his compositions. According to Echols and Ilchman, "in our time, such painters as Emilio Vedova, Anselm Kiefer, and Jorge Pombo have specifically measured themselves against Tintoretto, creating huge canvases filled with audacious brushwork and coloristic effects."