3 Days, 150 Paintings: A Whirlwind Tintoretto Tour

VENICE — So you are a young college student, American, on your first whistle-stop tour of Europe. You have fought through the multitudes in front of the Mona Lisa and “Las Meninas,” tried to concentrate on the Sistine Chapel ceiling as the tour groups jostle you. But when you wash up here in the lagoon, and make your way to the Scuola Grande di San Rocco — a 16th-century clubhouse for middle-class Venetians — you step into something you’d forgotten: silence.

Inside there are fewer than a dozen people, and all around you, in the half-light, are some of the boldest paintings of the Italian Renaissance, depicting the life of Christ with a directness you have never seen before. You gasp before the burly bodies that loom amid shearing bolts of white and divine blasts of amber. You walk out of San Rocco half an hour later, and the light outside seems too bright. Everything you thought you knew about painting is wrong.

Some people’s whole lives get upended when they first discover Tintoretto, the most Venetian of artists and the world champion of painterly turbulence. The Victorian art critic John Ruskin nearly fainted outside San Rocco. Henry James became ecstatic. Today, some visitors are reduced to tears. Tintoretto left me powerless, too, when I first visited San Rocco in my youth, and did so again for different reasons this October, just before record flooding turned St. Mark’s Square into a swimming pool.

For I’d come to Venice with a mission: to see every work I could by an artist who always overpowers, with an uncommon devotion to a single city.

Tintoretto, born here 500 years ago, in 1518 or ’19, remains less well known than his Venetian rivals Titian and Veronese, to say nothing of the slightly earlier Florentine painters so renowned they got Ninja Turtles named after them. One reason: Almost every major painting by Tintoretto remains here.

Unlike the older Titian, he took few commissions outside the Most Serene Republic, preferring to decorate the lavish cathedrals and palazzi of his aquatic hometown, and to offer his services to humbler congregations from Cannaregio to Castello. His paintings are brash, giant, overwhelming — but also fragile and, in most cases, immobile. Only Madrid’s Museo del Prado, in 2007, has tried to present a real Tintoretto retrospective outside Italy.

That changes next March, when the National Gallery of Art in Washington presents “Tintoretto: Artist of Renaissance Venice,” which will finally offer Americans a fuller view of his brassy, staggering paintings. The National Gallery has organized the exhibition with two Venice institutions, which are presenting it now: the Gallerie dell’Accademia, Venice’s principal art museum, and the Palazzo Ducale, the grand pile in Saint Mark’s Square adorned with vast murals by Tintoretto and his workshop.

The two-part show is magnificent, but Venice itself is a permanent Tintoretto exhibition, with more than two dozen churches, museums, libraries and state buildings holding at least one of his canvases. So I set myself a task both absurd and irresistible: to see every Tintoretto in Venice, from the epic frescoes in the Palazzo Ducale to the forgotten pictures in churches open for just a few hours a day.

Some visitors to Venice daydream in rocking gondolas; some sit in their favorite campiello and quaff spritzes all afternoon. I had no time for such romance. For four days, I buzzed through Venice’s back streets and charged over its bridges like a mercenary, fueled by countless shots of espresso.

I sweet-talked my way in broken Italian into one closed building, though I had no such luck at a padlocked church by the train station. At one cathedral, Santa Maria della Salute, I had to crash a wedding rehearsal, sneaking into the sacristy over a bed of rose petals.

In all, I saw 150 or more paintings across 23 sites, from the overpowering San Rocco to little churches with a single Tintoretto, often dimly lit, visited only by the faithful. And I rediscovered how a city can shape an artist, and vice versa, though the price of the lesson was two severely blistered feet.

I STARTED my Tintoretto binge at the Accademia, whose show “The Young Tintoretto” was so mobbed on a Sunday that security alarms blared several times a minute as visitors nearly collided with the paintings. I nudged and squeezed to see Tintoretto’s earliest portraits and religious scenes, hesitant, yet already exhibiting the sketchy, speedy brush strokes that would later so perplex his contemporaries.

Also here were black chalk studies of contorted, muscular nudes, which Tintoretto drew after small model statues by Michelangelo. The young Tintoretto, so the legend goes, scrawled on his studio wall the instruction to paint “with Michelangelo’s line and Titian’s color.”

That double inspiration animates the huge painting “The Miracle of the Slave,” his breakthrough work, from 1548. Nearly 18 feet across, this epic tableau pictures the gleaming Saint Mark, patron saint of Venice, plunging headfirst from the sky to free a naked slave punished for worshiping him. A massive crowd of bystanders — their bodies are brawny wads of orange, olive and blue — cranes to see the disentangled victim, who lies knocked out on the ground.

At the Accademia I got up as close as I could, inspected the soldier at the painting’s left, and gasped at the pure white strokes Tintoretto slashed across his armor. The brush is visibly moving. A new, more active kind of painting is being born.

“The Miracle of the Slave” shocked Venice: Tintoretto was 29. And all around the city, I saw how the newish development of raw oil paint allowed him to compose directly on the canvas, pushing Titian’s example to the limit and turning each painting into a battleground.

In the tiny church of Santa Maria Mater Domini, abandoned but for one old woman playing with her iPhone in the pews, I was flabbergasted by a “Finding of the True Cross” with the same massive, colorful bodies as the Accademia’s early masterpiece. Down at San Trovaso, a lovely church by the lagoon, I found a dynamic “Temptation of St. Anthony,” with bare-breasted she-devils repelled by a Christ flying through golden clouds.

I resisted the call of the waterside bar at the chichi Bauer Hotel to check out the church of San Moisè next door, where I spent a euro to illuminate a scene of Christ washing his disciples’ feet; then I strutted past the Gucci and Ferragamo boutiques to find a second, better version in Santo Stefano.

A few things become clear when you see this many Tintorettos in a short time. Unlike Titian, he doesn’t really do landscape. Unlike Michelangelo, he paints architecture only in the most schematic ways. He isn’t even much of a draftsman; his drawings are mostly unworked aids for larger compositions.

What Tintoretto cared about were bodies, muscly and in motion. The figures are often foreshortened and hover in abbreviated spaces. Their poses are orchestrated to the max — everyone is flying, crashing, charging, recoiling. Their clothes, especially white fabrics, are translucent to the point of perviness. All of it is done with a speed and freedom that enthralled some of his contemporaries, and others dismissed as a scam to fulfill more commissions and make money.

Maybe this is why some of us still don’t get Tintoretto: He remains too “furioso,” to use his 16th-century nickname, for audiences who expect the Renaissance to be bright and ageless. On the island of San Giorgio Maggiore, in Palladio’s exquisite basilica, I almost wished I had night-vision goggles to apprehend Tintoretto’s vast, nocturnal “Last Supper,” whose spectral angels float above the apostles in ghoulish white outline.

Even the hundreds of ascending souls in his wildly overstuffed “Paradise,” which he and his workshop painted for the largest room of the Palazzo Ducale, could easily flip and descend into hell. That, too, is Venice: seductively grand, but also sultry, hazy, a little bit debased.

YET TINTORETTO BELIEVED. I went to see “Paradise,” whose ecstatic angels and prophets frame the doge’s throne, after two visits to the excellent and rigorous exhibition that will be coming to Washington in March. The crowds were thinner at the Palazzo Ducale than at the Accademia, where I contemplated a newly conserved altarpiece from the humble church of San Silvestro: a twilit scene of the baptism of Christ, in which the drenched, half-nude son of God stands off center in a pool of light.

You might think that Tintoretto, never very wealthy, would have done his best work for the palace, and let his assistants dash something off for San Silvestro’s working-class congregation. But it’s the other way around. “Paradise” comes across as schematic, workmanlike, while “The Baptism of Christ” radiates spiritual conviction.

He painted a few great mythological scenes and several acute portraits of old, bearded men, but at his core Tintoretto was a religious artist, far more so than Titian and Veronese. Traipsing across Venice in search of Tintoretto clarified how thoroughly a Christian faith animated the formal invention of his greatest paintings, which I often found in obscure churches and cash-poor confraternities.

I hiked to the far north of Venice to see the church where he prayed, the drafty Madonna dell’Orto, where his bones lie beneath the tiles. To either side of the altar are two of the tallest paintings ever made: the “Making of the Golden Calf” and the “Last Judgment,” each more than 47 feet tall and jammed with idolaters and redeemers.

These two giant altarpieces, painted for almost no money, were Tintoretto’s unsubtle applications for the biggest commission of all: the Scuola Grande di San Rocco, the last stop on my binge. Often compared to the Sistine Chapel, this is Tintoretto at his most ambitious and all-consuming — the place where devotion, fame and Venetian spirit collide with overwhelming force.

Its intensity starts right above the ticket desk, with an “Annunciation” of tremendous drama; Gabriel crashes through a ruined door to a shocked Mary, while dozens of cherubs divebomb into the room. Upstairs, in the dim main hall, are scenes from the New Testament suffused with passion, many of which celebrate Jesus’s humility in ways that feel like a rebuke to the surroundings. In the blazing “Resurrection,” Jesus doesn’t so much rise as erupt from his tomb, aided by buff angels with wings of lacerating white stripes.

It’s all too much to bear, but the biggest shock is Tintoretto’s panoramic, heart-stopping “Crucifixion.” Calvary appears as a shallow, warm-toned field, topped by a lightning-cracked sky. From the top of the painting, Christ looks down on the hard-working men who are executing him, and the writhing crowd of soldiers on horseback, but he does not appear to be suffering. It is the rarest thing in Tintoretto — in this torrent of movement, an absolute stillness.

Nearly two centuries ago, in 1845, a young Ruskin stumbled out of San Rocco, his head full of those booming oranges and ectoplasmic whites, and lay down on a bench. The critic felt he’d been pummeled. That evening he wrote to his father: “I never was so utterly crushed to the earth before any human intellect as I was to-day.” The paintings left him feeling like a whipped schoolboy, helpless, amateurish. “He lashes out like a leviathan,” sighed Ruskin after that first trip to San Rocco, “and heaven and earth come together.”

No increase in quantity is enough to recreate that first, awed rush of awe in front of Tintoretto’s strapping yet weightless saints. He had thrashed me, too, after two dozen site visits — though mine was no spiritual pummeling, just the fatigue of a wasted globe-trotter who’d negotiated the crowds along the canals far too fast.

And yet my overdose had a paradoxical effect: It grounded my understanding of Europe’s most extravagant painter, pulling him from the realm of eccentric genius and planting him back in his waterlogged home. What I hadn’t appreciated was how much Tintoretto’s dynamism drew from an experience of life in Venice you can still have in 2018: the shimmering of the canals, the winding back streets, the low-slung arcades, the continual sensation of being lost. Too much Tintoretto is not good for your head; it is certainly hard on your joints. But you have to bathe in this bustling city to find the source of light.

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