In The Light of Venice- Contemplating La Serenissima, Tintoretto and Ruskin
Updated: Jun 28, 2019
Artistic Reflections on a city of shimmering light, art and history-
An Essay by Brian Keeler
Has an exhibit ever opened you to new understandings as if a veil had been lifted or a doorway opened? Well many such visits to museums around the world have done just that- perhaps that’s why I find museums of art and history so enthralling if not positively exhilarating at times. The way great art can connect one to the higher aspects of our being while offering insights, revelations and understandings that border on epiphanies is part of the value or our great repositories of human treasurers. I’ve heard that one of the investigators of Nazi war crimes after World War II was asked how he coped with listening to the accounts of horrible atrocities on a day-to-day basis. His answer was that he visited the Vermeer paintings in the Mauritshuis Museum in Delft. Here’s a quote from a collector, Richard M. Scaife whose collection was recently on exhibit at the Brandywine Museum in Chads Ford, PA; “ Beautiful art- paintings, music or literature can transform our moods, lighten our hearts, make us think or change our minds, inspire us to be creative or live better lives.”
And from the Clark Institute in Williamstown, MA; " In this place men and women will be strengthened and ennobled by their contact with the beauty of the ages."
So it was the case with visiting the show of Tintoretto, the Venetian figure painter of the 16th century at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC earlier this spring. The exhibit of course brought to mind my first encounter with Tintoretto’s work in the huge confraternity of San Roch or The Scuola Grande di San Rocco (in Italian) in Venice in 1992 and on several other visits to “La Serenissima” as the city is called, meaning the most serene.
To view a short vid of the sketching experience at the NGA - go to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N0SofB3Fp-I
The show at the NGA brought to us a remarkable painter, whom I suspect is certainly not a household name to most. Yet it is easy to see how his robust and energetic paintings of the human figure in allegories and Biblical narratives easily eclipse or supersede other more famous examples. Even his name, Jacopo Robusti, but he’s know to us as Tintoretto, seems to contain implications of his future as an action painter of robust qualities. His father was a dyer (tintore) of fabrics and therefore his sobriquet reflects his father's trade, much like other painters of the renaissance, who were known by their father’s occupation- like Andrea Del Sarto, whose father was a tailor or Pollaiuolo whose father was a chicken farmer.
But I am thinking of a couple of Renaissance painters whose work we all know, whose specific paintings have become cultural icons. I mention them here because I believe Tintoretto’s examples went beyond these more famous works. Leonardo’s Last Supper is one such work, but Tintoretto’s several versions of the same theme are even better. I see Tintoretto’s versions as being much more ambitiously conceived with dynamic interiors and engaging perspectives, varied light and enfilades of receding rooms similar to Vermeer’s interiors with a succession rooms leading back in spatial coherence. By contrast, Leonardo’s Last Supper is a rather static exercise in one-point perspective with all the orthogonal lines converging in the center- on Christ’s head.
The exhibit at the NGA was also wonderfully paired with another show of Tintoretto’s drawings in a separate downstairs gallery. This show also included many followers and students of Tintoretto. I always love looking at the drawings as one can see the process and the unpolished conceptions. Here too we were availed of the Venetian master’s sources of inspirations, primarily the work of Michelangelo and statuary. This was supportive of my own propensity to draw from statuary. Apparently Tintoretto did the same and advocated study of famous sculpture for his workshop assistants and students. We can observe how Tintoretto related to and found sustenance in the inventive poses that Michelangelo, then employed these for his nudes in frescos and sculptures- and then Tintoretto took them in his own direction.
This exhibit coincided with 500th anniversary of the birth of the Venetian master but it also dovetailed with the 200th anniversary of the birth of the British art critic and artist John Ruskin. Ruskin fits in with this exhibit as he almost single-handedly resurrected the reputation of Tintoretto. Ruskin discovered the Venetian painter's work in 1845 in a sad state of neglect in a building that was open to the elements and full of cobwebs. Ruskin, while on the Grand Tour, was bowled over upon entering San Roch in Venice and described the emotional impact in hyperbolic and glowingly effusive terms. But also factually, as Ruskin compared the experience of seeing the Tintoretto paintings as being similar to entering a huge dark cave with one room of treasures after another.
The writer Henry James also waxed poetic when he reported after seeing Tintoretto’s work in San Cassiano in Venice as; “ It seemed to me I had advanced to the uttermost limit of painting.” Here’s a passage from the show catalog that also encompasses the quality of Tintoretto; “ Today, five centuries after his birth, Tintoretto’s works continue to astonish. Even with audiences familiar with abstract expressionism, action painting and informalism, and the gigantic proportions of some contemporary art, Tintoretto’s superhuman scale, dynamism and bold brushwork, and often hallucinatory combination of fantastic and quotidian worlds still push the boundaries of what painting can encompass.” I particularly like the reference to contrasting the fantastic and quotidian as I too have endeavored similar juxtapositions. But I also appreciate the mentioning of action painting, which suggests a presaging of swashbuckling realists like Frans Halls, Sargent and Sorolla or even the zen-like abstractions in black and white in the canvases of Franz Kline.
There’s a book that accompanies the exhibit; “Looking at Tintoretto with Ruskin” that offers us an overview of how the two related and how the influences of Tintoretto affected Ruskin but also how the British painter, J.M.W. Turner before him was swept away by seeing these works. The book brings us Ruskin’s letters to his father that are detailed and honest impressions of Tintoretto’s work as it lay dark in the confines of San Roch and elsewhere in Venice. San Roch is compared now to Michelangelo’s Sistine Ceiling as being the Venetian Sistine. Ruskin does not pull any punches either for he lets us know when he thinks works are lacking or outright failures. But the upshot for me, is relating to Ruskin’s adventure and scholarship at a fairly young age. The book and the exhibit evoke my own first visit to San Roch in 1992 and on other years. Ruskin was making a thorough and scholarly investigation from which we have all benefited. He made detailed drawings and watercolors of the master’s work which accompanied his letters. Myself by contrast, I was just a casual observer and I benefited by the well lit and clean environs of San Roch and the Ducal Palace, not the dilapidated and dank interior that Ruskin encountered in 1845. Still, I can relate to his heart-felt enthusiasm upon the discovery.
The dark side – or our criticism of Tintoretto is worth mentioning. Ruskin was not shy about letting us know of when the master’s work hit a false note or otherwise was lacking. I often find Tintoretto’s work just too dark and furthermore compounded by a dirty looking palette of browns, ochres, black and white. We can understand this somewhat limited palette as a result of painters of that era not having access to the pigments that we do today. Still, his contemporaries, Caravaggio and Rembrandt and De La Tour also had similar range of pigment and value but somehow they miraculously rendered their own paintings into essays of light. We can only wonder how Ruskin could see these paintings in non-illuminated interiors in 1845. In fact he mentions this, by complaining of being barely able to see certain works because of the backlight and dark interior. Here is just one small passage of Ruskin’s where he was criticizing one of Tintoretto’s Last Suppers. “ A most unsatisfactory picture; I think about the worst I know of Tintoretto’s, where there is no appearance of retouching. He always seems to make the disciples in this scene too vulgar, they are not only vulgar but diminutive, and Christ at the end of the table the smallest of them all.” I have to beg to differ here, as this painting although dark is remarkably conceived, an interior setting of inventive and engaging perspective- to be contrasted with Leonardo’s static version.
Ruskin wrote two other books that relate to this exhibit and Venice, "The Stones of Venice" and "Modern Painters." The later volume presents an intriguing concept that comes up several times in this book, that being “The Imaginative Penetrative.” The idea expressed here is to bring out an understanding of an idea or object completely in outward appearance and inner essence. It is appreciable to see how Ruskin regarded the work of Tintoretto and accomplishing this imaginative penetrative. The artist grasps the concepts of various Biblical scenes, the importance historically and then gives these narratives dynamic form in paint with heroically expressed figurative works. He also fits in with San Rocca's mission of charity by expressing the dignity of the poor and unfortunate. This happens to be one of Ruskin's criticisms mentioned above, as being too "vulgar" which means common. Caravaggio was criticized for the same thing, making his Biblical scenes full of everyday characters with dirty feet and torn clothing- nothing of the elegaic or transcendent with the earthly taking the importance as protagonist for these painters- at times anyway. I issue the caveat, "at times" because on occasion, Tintoretto is unabashedly propagandistic for the Popes if not for swooning expressions of ascendant saints.
The other artists of the Venetian Republic’s golden years of stellar accomplishment are also evoked as we read or pass through this exhibit. The big three of course come to mind, Titian, Tiepelo and Tintoretto. But Canova’s sublime marbles that I also visited on my first trip, are recalled and the Belini’s and Carpaccio depictions of everyday life are remembered in the Academia and perhaps my favorite Giorgione. These artists and Tintoretto bring to mind the as idea of Venetian “Colore” that is so often bandied about as being the hallmark of chroma. But Tintoretto’s many dark canvases and even Titian’s canvases make one wonder if this adulation is overstated. By today’s standards anyway that seem hardly the examples of colorist expansiveness that some would have us believe.
The exhibit at the NGA and the subsequent readings have also evoked memories of my painting trips to Venice. First in 1992 sort of on a lark after attending an art center for printmaking near Urbino. I was not prepared for the grandeur of Venice, its historical significance or its vast treasures of art and architecture. I stayed at charming little hotel, The Hotel Tivoli in the center of the city which was operated by the same couple since 1953 and it was only $35 per night at the time. I’ve painted there plein air on that trip and on all the other visits as well. On that firs trip, I painted two works on the steps of San Roch, one being the same location as a painting by Sargent. The city’s light and architecture is an impressionist dream in many respects. The refracted and reflected light playing off the canal water makes for a great motif with the ancient and beautiful buildings as a backdrop. We can relate to Monet’s fascination with the city as with Turner’s beautiful paintings and many others including Whistler and Hastletine. To bring us back out of our reverie or pull the rug out of our gobsmackedness for Venice we can think of some of its detractors. For instance one of my traveling companions compared Venice to Disney Land and D.H. Lawrence famously called Venice; “an abhorrent green, slippery city. And Thomas Mann’s book, Death in Venice is hardly an upbeat representation of the lido.
I will end with a passage from the foreword in the book mentioned above by Patriarchal Delegate for the Cultural Heritage of Venice, Don Gianmatteo Caputo- his version somewhat more elevating. “ The Great fascination Tintoretto inspires in Ruskin lies perhaps in his realism and in that immediacy of representation leading to an extreme synthesis the profound link between the human and the divine, spiritual and material. Ruskin is enraptured by Tintoretto because he evokes the divine in the human dimension and vice versa, omnipotence in weakness, the infinite in the fragment, light and shadow, presence and absence.