Tintoretto was born Jacopo Comin 500 years ago this month, in late September 1518. The great painter was a notable exponent of the Venetian school. The speed with which he painted and the unprecedented boldness of his brushwork were both admired and criticized by his contemporaries. For his phenomenal energy in painting he was termed Il Furioso. His work is characterized by muscular figures, dramatic gestures and the bold use of perspective in the Mannerist style.
In his youth, Tintoretto was also known as Jacopo Robusti. His father had valiantly defended the gates of Padua during the War of the League of Cambrai and was called Robusti (robust) for his actions. Remarkably, the painter’s real name “Comin” was only discovered in 2007, while preparation for a retrospective of his paintings was taking place.
Tintoretto was born in Venice and was the eldest of 21 children. His father, Giovanni, was a dyer or tintore; which is how his oldest son earned the nickname Tintoretto, or little dyer. The family was believed to have originated from Brescia in Lombardy, then part of the Republic of Venice.
In his childhood, Jacopo demonstrated that he was a born painter. In 1533, his father took him to the studio of Titian to see if could be trained as an artist. Tintoretto lasted only ten days with the master. His drawings exhibited so much independence that Titian judged that young Jacopo had the makings of a great painter, but a lousy student! From that point onward, Tintoretto studied on his own. He frequently worker with painter Andrea Schiavone on murals, usually for a pittance, but all of these works have long since perished.
One of Tintoretto’s earliest paintings that is still in existence is the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple, located in the Church of the Carmine in Venice. Two of his paintings from this period are located in the Gallerie dell’Accademia in Venice. These are Adam and Eve and the Death of Abel. Both of these works demonstrate not only his mastery, but independence of technique.
By the time he was 30, Tintoretto had painted three exceptional works for the Church of the Madonna dell’Orto: the Worship of the Golden Calf, the Presentation of the Virgin in the Temple and the Last Judgment. This led to commissions for four paintings for the Scuola di San Marco that he completed in little more than a year.
In 1550, Tintoretto married Faustina de Vescovi, the daughter of a Venetian nobleman. Faustina bore him several children, believed to be two sons and five daughters. Tintoretto’s oldest was his daughter Marietta Robusti, who became a master portrait painter.
The development of the fast painting techniques called ‘prestezza’ allowed him to produce many works, engaging in both large projects and commissions from individuals. In 1560, Tintoretto began a series of paintings for the Doge’s Palace in Venice, including a portrait of the Doge, Girolamo Priuli. Unfortunately, many of the works were destroyed by a fire in the palace in 1577.
After the work for the Doge, he moved on to the Sala dell Anticollegio, where Tintoretto painted four masterpieces: Bacchus, with Ariadne crowned by Venus, the Three Graces and Mercury, Minerva discarding Mars and the Forge of Vulcan. These works were relatively small in scale when viewed against his next major work, which may well be the crowning achievement of Tintoretto’s life.
The master conceived of a vast work that he called Paradise. When completed in 1588, the painting measured 84 feet by 30 feet. Painted in sections, it is the largest painting ever done upon canvas and contains over 500 figures. The Venetian senate that commissioned the work for the Doge Palace told the master to name his price upon seeing the completed work. Tintoretto first named a fantastic price and then lowered it, making the ultimate high price seem quite reasonable to the senate. Tintoretto had learned a few things about business dealings during his years of working on commissions. The work was stupendous in scale and extraordinarily different from the standards of the day; however, over time the fascination with Paradise waned and for 300 years it existed as a curiosity rather than an acknowledged work of genius. After the completion of the Paradise, Tintoretto was reluctant to take on any additional major works, although one of his last paintings was of the Last Supper, completed in 1594. Its composition is remarkably different from da Vinci’s painting of a century earlier, showing how the evolution of scale and shading had evolved during the Renaissance.
In 1594, Tintoretto was seized with severe stomach pains, complicated with fever. He died on May 31, 1594. He is buried in the Church of the Madonna dell’Orto by the side of his favorite daughter Marietta, who had died in 1590 at the age of thirty.