Jacopo Tintoretto is calculated to have been born on 29 September 1518, the eldest of twenty-one children. His father, Giovanni Battista ‘Robusti’ was a tintore (silk cloth dyer), and his son was nicknamed the ‘little dyer’ or ‘dyer’s boy’. It is likely the family came from Brescia in Lombardy, in the north-west of Italy, then part of the Republic of Venice. However, other sources place their origins in Lucca, Tuscany.
Jacopo was known by the surname Robusti when he was growing up. This was attributed to his father’s ‘robust’ exploits in the War of the League of Cambrai, or the War of the Holy League (1508-1516). Jacopo’s actual surname, Comin in Venetian, translates to the spice cumin in English. This fact was discovered by art historian and director of the National Museum of Prado (Madrid), Miguel Falomir, and announced at the launch of the retrospective of Tintoretto’s work at the institution in 2007.
Jacopo received almost no formal art training; his father had noticed his son’s penchant for drawing on the walls and sent him to the celebrated artist Titian for training. However, the fifteen-year-old boy and the older man, by then either in his forties or fifties, did not hit it off. Titian is alleged to have sent his student home after a mere ten days, recognising that the prodigy was already beyond teaching. Titian was reputed to be envious of the boy’s achievements and went on to successfully block many commissions that he later applied for. Despite this denigration, Jacopo admired the older man, as well as his contemporary Michelangelo. Jacopo inscribed the words Il disegno di Michelangelo ed il colorito di Tiziano (Michelangelo’s drawing and Titian’s colour) on the walls of his studio.
Jacopo taught himself a method used by Titian, making clay and wax models using casts and bas-reliefs. He also painstakingly studied Michelangelo’s Dawn, Noon, Twilight and Night sculptures. He would also use cadavers as models, either naked or clothed, which he dissected or studied in anatomy schools. He would arrange the mock-ups in a wooden box, suspending them over a net until he was satisfied with the scene, then using the composition to arrange figures in his paintings. He would place a candle in a special aperture in the boxes and use the cast light to create dramatic lighting for the tableaux.
Tintoretto became known as Il Furioso (The Furious), due to the speed and forcefulness with which he produced his paintings. His style is generally described as Mannerist, defined by dictionary.com as “a style in the fine arts developed principally in Europe during the 16th century, chiefly characterised by a complex perspectival system, elongation of forms, strained gestures or poses of figures, and intense, often strident colour”.
Tintoretto’s career began with his painting cassoni, where he developed his signature loose style and visible brushwork. These wooden chests were usually made as a pair to be used as marriage trunks to hold a bride’s dowry; they were ornately and elaborately carved and painted, often displaying the bride and groom’s respective coats of arms. On a lesser scale, Tintoretto and his colleagues of the time would sell these cassoni from booths in St Marks’s Square in Venice. This taught Tintoretto how to manage colour mixing peculiar to this art-form.
Two of his earliest works, now lost, are believed to be the frescoes of Belshazzar’s Feast and Cavalry Fight. He often collaborated with fellow artist Andrea Schiavone (1522-1563), born in Croatia but who lived and worked in Venice.
Tintoretto would obtain commissions by either working for no fee or charging only for the cost of materials. His earliest painting still in existence is the Sacra Conversazione Molin (1540, signed Jachobus) held in a private collection in America.
Another of his earliest works to survive is the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple (1541-1542). This was an altarpiece created for the Church of Santa Maria dei Carmini in Dorsduro, Venice. An account book which was discovered for the church describes Tintoretto being commissioned to ‘decorate the balcony of the organ’, three years before painting the organ shutter doors.
Tintoretto, together with Andrea Meldolla, painted a series of fourteen mythological paintings for Vettore Pisani for his palace at San Paternian near San Marco, Venice. They are now held in the Galleria Estense in Modena. Entitled Fables of Ovid, all depict scenes from Ovid’s Metamorphoses and were painted on octagonal panels measuring 130 x 130cm between 1541-1542. They are:
- Deucalion and Pyrrha in Prayer
- Apollo and Daphne
- Mercury and Argus
- Fall of Phaeton
- Minerva, Vulcan and Cupid (Birth of Erichthonius)
- Jupiter and Europa
- Jupiter Appearing to Semele
- Pyramus and Thisbe
- Niobe and her Children
- Lycian Peasants Changed Into Frogs
- Apollo and Marsyas
- Priapus and Lotis
- Eurydice Before Pluto
- Race of Hippomenes
He painted the Siege of Asola (1544-1545, oil on canvas 198 x 469 cm), which was formerly held in the National Museum, Poznań, Poland. It was auctioned by Christie’s in 2014 for £1.14 million and is now held in a private collection.
He created his first version of the Last Supper in 1547 for the Chiesa (Church) di San Marcuola. He painted another version for the Chiesa di San Felice in 1559 and yet another between 1592-1594 (oil on canvas, 365 x 568 cm), which now resides in the Basilica di San Giorgio Maggiore, Venice.
In 1548, Tintoretto was commissioned to paint four pieces for the Scuola di San Marco on the life of the patron saint of Venice, St Mark. His future father-in-law, Marco Episcopi was at the time Grand Guardian of the School. The works comprise:
- The Miracle of St Mark freeing the Slave (1548, oil om canvas, 416 x 544cm), held in the Gallerie dell’Accademia, Venice
- The Finding of the body of St Mark, (1562, 405 x 405cm, oil on canvas), now in the Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan
- Saint Mark’s body brought to Venice (1566, oil on canvas, 398 x 315cm), now in the Gallerie dell’Accademia, Venice
- A Votary of the Saint delivered by invoking him from an unclean Spirit (held in the library of the Royal Place, Venice)
Between 1550-1553, Tintoretto was commissioned to paint five pieces, all oil on canvas, for the Scuola della Trinità; The Temptation of Adam and Eve and Original Sin (150 x 220 cm, the Death of Abel and Cain Kills Abel (149 x 196 cm), the Creation of the Animals (151 x 258 cm), Adam and Eve Before the Lord and the Creation of Eve. The first three works are held in the Galleria dell’Accademia in Florence, Adam and Eve Before the Lord is in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, and the final work was lost or stolen from the Ducal Palace.
In 1550, he married Faustina de Vescovi. They had seven children; three sons and five daughters. Jacopo’s eldest daughter, Marietta was probably born of an affair with a German woman before his marriage. Marietta was to later join her father as an assistant until she turned fifteen, dressed as a boy. She became a skilled painter in her own right but died during childbirth at the age of thirty.
Many 16th century Venetian painters earned an income from commissions issued by the scuolas – organisations whose wealthy members performed charitable acts to poor communities. The scuolas themselves became very affluent and their funds were able to patronise local artists.
Tintoretto became a member of Pietro Aretino’s circle; the latter was known for his sharp wit and satirical, often pornographic letters. He was wont to use these missives to blackmail men who had approached him for advice on immoral activities. The Swiss historian Jacob Burckhardt (1818 – 1897) wrote of Aretino: “His literary talent, his clear and sparkling style, his varied observation of men and things, would have made him a considerable writer under any circumstances, destitute as he was of the power of conceiving a genuine work of art, such as a true dramatic comedy; and to the coarsest as well as the most refined malice he added a grotesque wit so brilliant that in some cases it does not fall short of that of Rabelais.” – The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, 1855
Aretino was also Titian’s patron and friend; they were close for more than thirty years. The artist painted Aretino’s portrait a number of times and was in turn introduced to European nobility, which helped further his own career.
Aretino and Tintoretto were not on the best terms, following a dispute involving the painting of a ceiling in Aretino’s home. To reinforce his feelings about the patron, when Tintoretto was called to paint his portrait, he took his measurements with a stiletto.
Despite Tintoretto’s association with the rich and famous, he always returned to his roots and did not forget the poorer churches and brotherhoods which had supported him in his early days.
On 22 May 1564, the brothers of the Scuola Grande di San Rocco invited a number of prominent artists to submit drawings on Saint Rocco being received into Heaven, for a centrepiece to be created for the Sala dell’Albergo. They had a deadline of one month, and Tintoretto cunningly produced a finished painting, The Apotheosis of St Roch (1564, oil on canvas, 240 x 360cm). He had this inserted into position on the ceiling, and which he declared was a gift. His rivals cried foul, but a bylaw of the institution forbade the rejection of any gifts and on 22 June 1564 the work was accepted. The artist went on to complete sixteen complementary pieces on the ceiling, free of charge. These comprise the four Seasons, the seven Virtues and five allegories of the Scuole Grandi of Venice including:
- Allegory of St. John’s Guild
- Allegory of St. Mark’s Guild
- Allegory of St. Theodore’s Guild
- Allegory of the Charity Guild
- Allegory of the Misericordia (Mercy) Guild
In 1565, he painted the huge Crucifixion, 518 x 1224 cm, for the largest wall of the same chamber and was paid 250 ducats. Between 1566-1567, he completed a further three works for the other walls; Christ before Pilate, Ecce Homo and Christ carrying the Cross. An additional two works portraying two prophets were made. These, however, are believed to have been completed by Tintoretto’s assistants due to their lesser quality.
Seven years after the completion of those works, in 1574, the confraternity decided to redecorate the Sala Superiore (Upper Hall). For the ceiling, Tintoretto completed thirteen works, consisting of The Brazen Serpent (1575-1576, oil on canvas, 840 x 520 cm), Moses Drawing Water from the Rock and The Miracle of Manna, both completed in 1577, as well as ten additional oval pieces. Between 1578-1581, he completed five works for each of the two long walls. Eight additional paintings by Giuseppe Angeli (1712-1798) were installed in 1777-1778 as replacements for Tintoretto’s tempera works.
In November 1577, Tintoretto struck a deal with the Scuola, whereby he would receive 100 ducats for three paintings per annum. Through this arrangement, the artist received a total of 2447 ducats, only his death preventing the completion of some pieces.
In 1560, he had accepted a commission to paint a number of works for the Doge’s Palace, including a portrait of the Doge, Girolamo Priuli (1486-1567). After a fire in the palace in 1577, he began another series of paintings, including Bacchus, with Ariadne crowned by Venus, the Three Graces and Mercury, Minerva discarding Mars and the Forge of the Vulcan. He was paid 50 ducats for each piece, excluding materials. A number of other works followed, including Venice, Queen of the Sea (1581–84), the Espousal of St Catherine to Jesus (1581–84) and the Capture of Zara from the Hungarians in 1346 amid a Hurricane of Missiles (1584–87).
But Tintoretto’s crowning glory must be his massive work, Il Paradiso. Measuring 22.6 x 9.1 meters, it is believed to be the largest painting on canvas.
Following the fire in 1577, a competition was held to replace the damaged fresco Coronation of the Virgin by Guariento. Two artists were chosen to work together on the new piece; Paolo Veronese and Francesco Bassano. Their painting was still a work in progress when Veronese died on 19 April 1588. Tintoretto was then chosen as the replacement and for which he submitted two sketches. One of these, 143 x 362 cm, is now held in the Louvre Museum, Paris. The huge painting was completed in sections, in the Scuola Grande della Misericordia.
Tintoretto was then aged about seventy, and a large part of the work was undertaken by his son Domenico. It was finally completed in 1592 and was Tintoretto’s last important work.
He developed a fever along with a stomach ailment and he died on 31 May 1594. He is buried alongside his daughter Marietta in the church of Madonna dell’Orto.