Jacopo Robusti, according to some Jacopo Comin, called Tintoretto (Venice, September or October 1518 – Venice, May 31, 1594), was an Italian painter, citizen of the Republic of Venice and one of the greatest exponents of Venetian painting and Mannerist art in general.

The nickname “Tintoretto” came from his father”s trade, a dyer of silk fabrics. For his phenomenal energy in painting he was nicknamed Il furioso or the terrible, as Vasari called him because of his strong character, and his dramatic use of perspective and light, which made him considered the precursor of Baroque art.

The early years

His date of birth is not certain. His baptismal certificate was lost in the fire of the San Polo archives, therefore it can be deduced from his death certificate: “31 maggio 1594: morto messer Jacopo Robusti detto Tintoretto de età de anni 75 e mesi 8” (May 31, 1594: died Messer Jacopo Robusti detto Tintoretto aged 75 years and 8 months).

His father Giovanni Battista worked in the field of silk dyeing, we don”t know if at an artisan or commercial level: he probably came from Lucca, since this art had been imported to Venice in the 14th century by the people of Lucca. This ancestry would explain the artist”s interest in his “colleagues” of the Tuscan-Roman school, such as Michelangelo, Raphael and Giulio Romano: Tintoretto knew their works through the spread of prints, while it is certain that he saw Romano”s frescoes in Palazzo Te in Mantua. It seems that Battista was one of the “citizens”, i.e. those Venetians who were not nobles but who enjoyed certain privileges: thanks to this position of a certain privilege, Jacopo was on good terms with the Venetian elite and obtained the support of the patricians.

Jacopo did not hide his origins, indeed, in his paintings he signed himself as “Jacobus Tentorettus” (Portrait of Jacopo Sansovino, circa 1566) or “Jacomo Tentor” (The Miracle of St. Mark Freeing the Slave, 1547-48).

Very little is known about the painter”s childhood, since there are no documents attesting to the studies carried out. The main sources are the payments of the orders and the biography written by Carlo Ridolfi (1594-1658), although he never met Tintoretto, but drew his information from his son Domenico. Ridolfi says that Tintoretto, still a child, used the colors of his father”s workshop to paint the walls of the laboratory: to support the inclination of his son, Battista found him a place as an apprentice in the workshop of Titian, in 1530. This apprenticeship lasted only a few days: it seems that Titian, having seen one of his pupil”s drawings, for fear that the promising pupil would become a dangerous rival, had him chased away by Girolamo, one of his collaborators.

In a document of 1539 Tintoretto signs himself “mistro Giacomo depentor nel champo di san Cahssan”, that is to say he boasts the title of master, with an independent studio at campo san Cassiàn, in the San Polo district.

The first commission came from Vettor Pisani, a nobleman with family ties to Andrea Gritti and owner of a bank, around 1541: on the occasion of his wedding he had his residence at San Paterniàn restored and commissioned the young Tintoretto, 23 years old, to paint 16 panels illustrating Ovid”s Metamorphoses. The paintings, now largely preserved in the Galleria Estense in Modena, would have been placed on the ceiling and Pisani requested that they have the powerful perspective of the paintings of Giulio Romano in Mantua: Tintoretto went in person to Palazzo Te, probably at the expense of his client.

Contemporary to the paintings for Pisani are the six panels conserved at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, which are thought to have been made as decorations for chests of drawers, also because of their almost identical dimensions: Ridolfi, in fact, reports that Tintoretto collaborated with furniture craftsmen who traded near the Ducal Palace. Nothing, however, confirms that these panels come from wedding chests. The peculiarity of these works is the management of the elongated format (the largest ones, in fact, measure 29×157 cm): Tintoretto uses the architecture to scan the temporal sequence of the events narrated.

Early successes

It is thought that Tintoretto had sought a contract with the Scuola Grande di San Marco in 1542, when the decoration of the capitular hall was commissioned: the artist was preferred to decorators, who would have taken less time to complete the requested works.

Five years later Marco Episcopi, father of the artist”s betrothed, was appointed guardian da matin and this facilitated a favorable commission for Jacopo. Episcopi was the son of Pietro, an apothecary in Campo Santo Stefano, who had properties rented out to dyers of silks and velvets: for this reason, or for the simple fact that as an apothecary he also traded in pigments, it is assumed that he had contacts with Battista Robusti.

In April 1548, on the wall facing Campo Santi Giovanni e Paolo, the painting of The Miracle of San Marco was placed: Tintoretto immediately received praise from Aretino.

In the meantime, in 1547, Tintoretto moved to Cannaregio, near the church of the Madonna dell”Orto: here he began a collaboration with the canons of San Giorgio in Alga, in charge of the church, who intended to renovate it. He realized several works, ranging from the decoration of the organ with the Presentation of the Virgin at the Temple, to the Contarini Chapel, completed in 1563; he also collaborated with the brothers Cristoforo and Stefano Rosa, who were responsible for the trompe-l”œil wooden ceiling, in which Tintoretto inserted paintings depicting episodes from the Old Testament and, in the clerestory, twelve niches containing portraits of prophets and sibyls, an open reference to Michelangelo”s Sistine Chapel. Most of these works were lost during the neo-Gothic restoration of the 19th century. In order to obtain this commission, Tintoretto asked for a payment that could barely cover the cost of the materials: it is probable, however, that a later payment came from the Grimani family, who had a chapel inside the church.

The relationship with the Scuola Grande di San Marco continued until about 1566, with the execution of three other canvases depicting posthumous miracles of the saint: St. Mark Saves a Saracen, Stealing the Body of St. Mark and Finding the Body of St. Mark. These paintings were paid for by the then Guardian Grande of the Scuola, Tommaso Rangone: the work was presumably finished in 1566, the date in which Vasari notes that he saw them. To these canvases are also added some wall paintings, depicting the seven Vices and the seven Virtues, of which, however, no trace remains.

Having concluded his relations with the Scuola Grande di San Marco for the time being, the painter obtained an important commission for the Albergo della Scuola della Trinità, a minor confraternity: the building was located where the Basilica of Santa Maria della Salute now stands. Initially, the commission had been entrusted to Francesco Torbido: the reason for the rescission of the contract is not known, but it can be assumed that Tintoretto was preferred for a more advantageous offer, as he was used to procuring commissions.

For the Albergo della Scuola, between 1551 and 1552, he executed a cycle of paintings inspired by the stories of Genesis, including the Creation of the Animals, the Original Sin and Cain and Abel: in conceiving the compositions, he was inspired by the works of contemporary artists, such as Titian and his collaborator Gerolamo Tessari, or of Venice”s past, such as Vittore Carpaccio and his Stories of Saint Ursula. The painting of Original Sin would later influence an artist such as Giambattista Tiepolo.

In the canvases he painted for the Scuole Grandi in Venice, Tintoretto created paintings that look like large stages where miraculous episodes materialize, dominated by the dramatic gestures of the characters, the strong and anti-naturalistic contrasts between light and darkness that also symbolically highlight the exceptional nature of the event represented.

The Great School of San Rocco

Founded in 1478, in 1489 it could already boast the title of “Great”: like the other Schools, it aimed to offer its members “honorable burial”, assistance in case of illness, dowries for daughters, and homes for widows. The Schools competed with each other not only in pious works, but also in magnificence of decoration: Tintoretto aspired to become the “official” artist of the Scuola Grande di San Rocco already at the beginning of his career. However, when the first works for the Scuola were commissioned in 1542, decorators were called in, as in the case of the Scuola Grande di San Marco: seven years later, finally, Tintoretto was awarded his first commission, San Rocco healing the plague victims, for the church adjacent to the Scuola.

For the next commission, however, the painter had to wait again: in fact, Titian, jealous of his success, came back as a member of the school and offered to execute works for the hotel. This ended in a dead end and Tintoretto, in 1559, received a new commission: it was the execution of the doors of the closet that contained the sacred silverware of San Rocco.

In 1564, Tintoretto presented to the Giunta the oval of San Rocco in Gloria, to be placed in the main hall of the Albergo: the Scuola was planning a competition that would have involved other artists besides Tintoretto, for the assignment of the oval in question. Documents show that one of the members of the confraternity, Mara Zuan Zignoni, was willing to pay 15 ducats so that the commission would not be assigned to Tintoretto: this indicates that her name was already being considered for the work.

Vasari narrates that unlike his colleagues involved in the competition, who were intent on carrying out preparatory studies, Tintoretto took the exact measurements of the work, painted it and placed it directly where it had been predetermined: to the protests of the brothers, who had requested drawings and not a finished work, he replied that this was his way of drawing and that he was willing to donate the work to them.

With his decidedly advantageous offer, the artist succeeded in obtaining the much-desired commission, even if it caused a “stir and discontent”.

In spite of this, on the eleventh of March of the following year, with 85 votes in favor and 19 against, Tintoretto was nominated a member of the Scuola: in conjunction with his election, he was commissioned to execute a cycle of paintings for the walls of the Sala dell”Albergo, which were to represent the Passion of Jesus. Instead of starting in chronological order, therefore with Christ before Pilate, Tintoretto preferred to execute the Crucifixion first: the following year the decoration of the hall was finished and the artist turned again to the church of the saint.

Already in 1549 he had painted San Rocco healing the plague victims: now he had the chance to finish the cycle, thought to consist of four canvases, among which the one that stands out the most is San Rocco in jail (1567). In 1575 the restoration of the ceiling of the Great Hall was completed and the go-ahead was given for the execution of the canvases, already planned by Tintoretto for some time: in the summer of the same year, however, Venice was devastated by the plague. Perhaps to ensure the clemency of the Saint, protector of plague victims, towards himself and his family, the artist offered to execute the central canvas without any compensation: the following year, on the occasion of the feast of the Saint, the canvas was inaugurated. Only a few days later, news arrived of the death of Titian and his son Horace.

For the other two canvases on the ceiling, painted in 1577, Tintoretto took his cue from the oration that the doge held in San Marco, as a request for salvation and encouragement to the remaining population: Alvise I Mocenigo recalled the biblical episodes of the manna and the spring brought forth by Moses, which the artist depicted on two large canvases. For this work he asked for compensation only for the cost of the materials used, and this is what he offered to do for subsequent works: he asked the Scuola for 100 ducats a year as his only payment, a sum much lower than that received, for example, by his colleague Titian when he was in the service of the Hapsburgs. This request is explained by the artist”s great devotion to the Saint, to whom he felt indebted for having saved his family during the terrible plague of those years.

Tintoretto worked in the Sala Capitolare until 1581, illustrating scenes from the Old Testament for the ceiling and from the New for the walls. The following year he began painting for the Lower Hall, with paintings inspired by the lives of Mary and Jesus.


One of the major sources of income for Tintoretto”s workshop was portraits, despite the great competition he faced in Venice, in particular from Titian: it seems that in this particular field the artist was helped by his children Marietta and Domenico, and that the skill of his daughter was well known at the time. Portraiture was an excellent way to make oneself known in high places and thus obtain important positions.

For a portrait, time of execution was fundamental: often the subject could not afford long posing sessions, either because they were tiring or because he could not go too far away from his business. For this reason, it was customary to make a series of quick studies from life, to be then reworked for the actual painting: these studies could be kept and reused on other occasions, such as in the case of portraits of sovereigns in several versions.

Girolamo Priuli, who became doge in 1559, commissioned Tintoretto to paint his portrait: Andrea Calmo, a friend of the artist, reports that the work was completed in half an hour. Tintoretto had in fact prepared the canvas in time; the pose was already sketched, since doge”s portraits had a determined scheme; the finishing touches and the drapery of the clothes were then executed in the painter”s studio, with the help of mannequins and fabrics.

If a portrait had to be included in a large work, such as a votive painting, Tintoretto used to execute it on a canvas stretched on a temporary frame, and then have it sewn directly onto the larger canvas.

In addition to the prominent personalities of contemporary Venice, such as nobles and politicians, among the portraits made are also those of some of the most famous courtesans of the time: among them we remember Veronica Franco, a cultured and educated woman who delighted in poetry, attended noble houses such as the Venier and even entered into the good graces of Henry III of France. Tintoretto also portrayed courtesans in the guise of mythological heroines, such as Leda, Danae or Flora. In the portraits of these maidens one can recognize the “profession” of courtesan thanks to the typical attributes they possess: precious jewels, pearl chokers, decorated combs or mirrors.


In the middle of the century, after the death of Titian and Bonifacio de” Pitati, the two biggest names on the Venetian artistic scene were those of Tintoretto and Paolo Veronese: despite the fact that the Republic was heading towards decline due to the reduction of its importance in trade routes caused by the discovery of the Americas, the defeats against the Turks and against the League of Cambrai, the demand for works of art continued at full pace, thanks to the push of the Counter-Reformation and the consequent renewal of religious buildings.

Veronese was a rival not only for his bravura, but also for his young age: having just arrived in Venice, he managed to obtain a commission for the Doge”s Palace as early as 1553.

It is in this period that Tintoretto dedicated himself to demanding commissions, in particular decorative cycles for churches, schools and for the Doge”s Palace: in these works, the artist “deepens the dynamic component of the compositions”, resorting to foreshortenings and perspectives that exalt the dynamism of the illustrated scenes.

The Stories of Genesis, painted for the Scuola della Trinità in the early 1550s, find an important support for the characters in the landscape, an unusual theme for Tintoretto, who uses it to highlight and accompany the story, although he does not achieve the same force that can be seen in Giorgione or Titian. The Lamentation over the Body of Christ, now in the Museo Civico Amedeo Lia in La Spezia, is dated between 1555-1556, influenced by the work of Paolo Veronese. The landscape innovations are condensed in Susanna and the Old Men of 1557: here the nature that surrounds the scene punctuates the narrative, leading the eye of the observer, undoubtedly attracted by the bursting nudity of Susanna, towards the two lecherous old men, up to the garden in the background, an unreachable Eden.

For two years, he was busy with the paintings made for the choir of the church of the Madonna dell”Orto, delivered in 1563: they were two large canvases, 14.5 x 5.8 meters, depicting the Adoration of the Golden Calf and the Last Judgment, and five segments dedicated to the Virtues. For the Judgement he was undoubtedly inspired by Titian”s Glory and Michelangelo”s Last Judgement.

In the same period, Tommaso Rangone, Guardian Grande of the Scuola Grande di San Marco, offered to have three paintings depicting the miracles of the saint executed at his own expense: the commission was entrusted to Tintoretto, who had already worked for the Scuola. Thus the artist”s relationship with the Scuola Grande di San Marco continued until about 1566, with the execution of the canvases San Marco salva un saraceno durante un naufragio, Trafugamento del corpo di San Marco and Ritrovamento del corpo di San Marco. To these, were also added some wall paintings, depicting the Seven Deadly Sins and the Seven Virtues, cardinal and theological, which, however, no trace remains.

On March 6, 1566 he was appointed a member of the prestigious Academy of the Arts of Drawing, born in Florence at the behest of Vasari, under the protection of Cosimo I, and which grouped under itself the most important artists of the time.

Once again, he was entrusted with an important commission by a School, that of the Holy Sacrament, of which Christino de” Gozi was Guardian: it was the execution of two canvases for the church of San Cassiano, depicting the Descent into Limbo and the Crucifixion.

Giulio Carlo Argan writes: “The Venetian Republic is the only Italian state in which the religious ideal is identified with the civil ideal, and this ideal is equally reflected, albeit with different accents, in the paintings of the two masters. In sixteenth-century Venice, Tintoretto expresses the consciousness of duty and civil responsibility, the profoundly Christian spirit that led to the war against the Turks and to the dramatic triumph of Lepanto; Veronese, on the other hand, is the interpreter of the intellectual openness and civil way of life that made Venetian society (…) the freest and most culturally advanced society. The sentiment of duty and that of freedom have a common source, the humanistic ideal of human dignity; and since this is felt, in the art of the time, only by the Venetian masters (by Palladio the architect no less than by the painters), it is explained how their work preserves and passes on to the following century (to Caravaggio, Carracci, Bernini and Borromini) the great heritage of humanistic culture” (that is, of Humanism and the Renaissance). Further on Argan writes that in Tintoretto “nature is a fantastic vision, disturbed almost obsessive; history is spiritual torment, tragedy”. “Tintoretto”s visions are not ecstatic, contemplative, soothing but, on the contrary, agitated, dramatic, tormented. They do not placate, they intensify to the point of paroxysm the pathos of existence.”

The reconstruction of the Ducal Palace

Already in 1566 Tintoretto had worked for the Ducal Palace, with five canvases to be placed in the Saletta degli Inquisitori: Borghini mentions them as the Allegoria del Silenzio e le Virtù. In the same period, after many commissions for religious institutes, he received an important commission from the state: a large canvas depicting the Last Judgment to be placed in the Sala dello Scrutinio, which Ridolfi describes as “such was the reason for that painting that it terrified people to see it”. Together with this one, he also realized the commemoration of the Battle of Lepanto, for the Doge Alvise I Mocenigo: both canvases were destroyed in the fire of 1577, which devastated the Doge”s Palace just one year after the serious plague that had decimated the population.

The artist”s workshop was also involved in the decoration of the Libreria Sansoviniana, entrusted to masters such as Veronese, Salviati, and Andrea Schiavone: Tintoretto was entrusted with the execution of the five canvases of the Philosophers, although contemporary critics report eleven or even twelve canvases. The cartoons for the mosaics to be placed in San Marco also date back to the same period: the Presentation in the Temple is faithful to the Byzantine mosaic in a “deliberately archaic style” and the similarities with The Circumcision made by Domenico for the Scuola di San Rocco lead the artist”s son to conceive it.

While still working with the Scuola di San Rocco, Tintoretto agreed to work on the reconstruction of the Doge”s Palace, starting with the ceiling of the Sala delle Quattro Porte, with frescoes in the compartments designed by Francesco Sansovino: the decorations have as their theme the personification of Venice and its dominions on the mainland.

In 1574 he bought a house in the Fondamenta dei Mori near the Church of San Marziale, where he lived until his death: for the high altar of the church, the artist had already made, between 1548 and 1549, an altarpiece depicting Saint Martial between Saints Peter and Paul.

Still busy with the commissions for the Ducal Palace, in 1579 he received the commission from Duke Guglielmo Gonzaga for the realization of a series of works to be placed in the Ducal Palace of Mantua: it is a cycle consisting of eight large canvases – known as Fasti gonzagheschi – depicting episodes of war and courtly that have as protagonists marquises and dukes of the Gonzaga lineage. In September 1580 Tintoretto went in person to Mantua with his wife Faustina, guests of his brother Domenico, for the inauguration of the works placed in the Hall of the Dukes.

The fire of 1577 also destroyed Guariento”s fresco on the wall of the Doge”s and Councillors” tribunes in the Sala del Maggior Consiglio: in 1580 a competition was held to assign the commission, in which Tintoretto, Veronese, Francesco Bassano son of Jacopo and Jacopo Palma il Giovane also participated. Initially entrusted to Veronese and Bassano, the commission was then taken over by Tintoretto upon Veronese”s death in 1588.

The immense painting (7.45×24.65 meters) depicting Paradise was made in pieces, in the studio of San Marziale, with a great contribution of the workshop and in particular of his son Domenico, who also took care of the connection of the canvases on site. Unlike the initial sketch, which saw Mary crowned as the protagonist, the painting focuses on the figure of Christ Pantokrator, “divine doge”.

At over 70 years old, in the same year of his death, Tintoretto still had the strength to devote himself to two great works for the Basilica of San Giorgio Maggiore, the Jews in the desert and the fall of the manna and a Last Supper: still for San Giorgio, he executed the Deposition in the sepulchre, which can be placed between 1592, the date of construction of the chapel of the dead, and 1594, the date of payment.

After a fever of two weeks, Tintoretto died on May 31, 1594 and was buried, after three days, in the church of the Madonna dell”Orto, in the crypt of the Episcopi family.According to what is reported by a contemporary cartographer and artistic patron, Ottavio Fabri, Tintoretto after dying, by testamentary will, was lying on the ground for forty hours, apparently in an attempt to resuscitate. In fact, Fabri wrote to his brother Tullio who was in Constantinople: il Tentoretto Dominica se ne morì et d”ordine di suo testamento è stato tenuto 40 hore sopra terra, mà no” è ressussitato. It should also be noted that May 31 was a Tuesday and not a Sunday.

Analyses carried out in the 1970s on samples taken from the canvases in the Scuola Grande di San Rocco provided valuable information about the materials and techniques used by Tintoretto.

The canvases used, in all the samples, turned out to be linen, with different weaves, both simple like tabì, similar to taffeta, and stronger like herringbone. The choice of weave does not seem to be dependent on the type of painting or its location, rather on its commissioner: for example, for the Last Supper Tintoretto used a coarse weave, despite the fact that the painting is visible from a close distance.

As already mentioned regarding Paradise, it was not uncommon for paintings to be made on canvases sewn together: the looms of the time could in fact produce heights of up to 110 cm. Usually, the seams were made before the execution of the painting, so that they were as invisible as possible, and especially that they were not in correspondence of important parts such as hands and faces: it was also preferable to use pieces with the same texture, to have a greater uniformity. Tintoretto, on the other hand, does not seem to pay attention to these expedients: he uses scraps of canvas with different weaves, with obvious seams, as in the case of the face of the Virgin in the Flight into Egypt, from the Scuola di San Rocco.

The most common primers were composed of a thin layer of chalk and glue, derived from those already used in painting on wood: the light background gave greater luminosity to the colors subsequently applied. Tintoretto, on the other hand, preferred a dark ground, applied over the chalk imprimitura or directly onto the canvas. Analyses have revealed that it is not a uniform brown color, but rather an impasto obtained with the residues of the palettes, given the presence of microscopic colored particles. On the background prepared in this way it was possible to paint both light and dark tones, even allowing the background itself to show through: this was possible in cases where the painting was in dark areas or in shadow and helped to speed up the execution of the painting considerably.

Ridolfi tells us that the artist used to prepare small “theaters” to study the composition of the works and the effect of the lights: he draped the clothes on wax models, which he then arranged in “rooms” built with cardboard, lit by candles. To study the views, he hung mannequins from the ceiling of the studio: this is evident from the comparison of two paintings, the Miracle of St. Mark freeing the slave and the San Rocco in prison comforted by an angel, in both of which we can recognize a similar model used for the suspended figures.

For his chalk studies, Tintoretto was fond of the blue paper that was so fashionable in Bologna and that allowed him to use both darks and highlights.

In 1550 he married Faustina Episcopi, from whom he had 7 children, while he had an illegitimate daughter by a foreigner: Marietta, the firstborn, was the only one to have enough talent to follow in her father”s footsteps. Already at the age of 16 years she was in demand as a portraitist by clients of a certain importance: between 1567 and 1568 the merchant Jacopo Strada had commissioned a portrait of himself from Titian, while for that of his son Ottavio, an obvious pendant of his own, he had turned to Marietta. To prevent his daughter from being “kidnapped” by foreign courts, Tintoretto gave her in marriage to the Venetian goldsmith Marco Augusta. In 1590, when she was little more than thirty years old, Marietta died and was buried in the church of the Madonna dell”Orto.

Domenico, four years younger (1560 – May 1635), chose to continue his father”s workshop to the detriment of his private life: a lover of literature, he had to support his mother and sisters. The workshop, under his guidance, lost the prestige it had known with the founder. Among the works produced shine most portraits for their freshness, while the compositions with more figures are heavier and stereotyped. He died in 1635: four years later, his collaborator Sebastiano Casser married the sister of Domenico, Octavia, now more than eighty years old, trying in vain to raise the fortunes of the workshop.

Very little is known about Giovan Battista, he probably died at a young age; Marco (March 12, 1563 – October 1637) preferred to become an actor, against the wishes of his family. Perina (also of the other two daughters, Altura and Laura, not much is known.

During his life, Tintoretto treated his sons and daughters with equal dignity, trying to leave them something to live on: in the request for the senseria in 1572 he named the males after the females and in his will he named all of them as his heirs.

Tintoretto and his family are the protagonists of the historical novel La lunga attesa dell”angelo by Melania Mazzucco.



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