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Risky Business

Tintoretto in Venice

trois crayons drawing
After Jacopo Tintoretto, Miracle of the Slave

According to his seventeenth-century biographer Carlo Ridolfi, Jacopo (Robusti) Tintoretto was “il più arrischiato pittore del mondo,” the riskiest, or rashest, or better, most adventurous painter in the world. Immersing oneself in Tintoretto’s work at two shows in Venice—the rather thin Young Tintoretto exhibit at the Accademia museum, and the more substantive and compelling show at the Doge’s Palace of the painter’s mature works—any artist who has tried to work in a classical manner knows just what Ridofli means. Tintoretto was blessed, or cursed, with an adventurous spirit, an emulative aspiration to wed the drawing of Michelangelo with the painterly technique (colorito) of Titian, and a culture willing to indulge and reward him. That relentless, indeed obsessive, need to test the limits and prove himself, which he never lost even in old age, and a conviction that his audience would put up with his loose manner if he constantly stupefied them with audacious compositions, dramatic lighting and projected shadows, and dissonant color harmonies reminiscent of contemporary madrigals, drove him to rethink again and again potentially stodgy subjects like the Last Supper.

You can like or not like some or all of what he painted—and probably even he would admit that every adventure didn’t always pan out—but one has to admit that, as the Carracci recognized, he enriched immeasurably the classical repertoire, the very culture of classical painting. Vertiginously suspended figures, torsions that tested anatomy but didn’t break it as the Florentine Mannerists would, architectural scenography that was also an actor in the narrative—all this that Baroque painters would exploit and refine is owed to Tintoretto; combined with the elegance of his contemporary Paolo Veronese in parallel subjects, it is no wonder the Carracci brothers and cousin thought Vasari’s Tuscanophilia was narrowminded. Not wrongheaded, but limited in what it showed that painting can do. And it is just as narrow today to focus on anatomy at the exclusion of composition and narrative, on rendering instead of painting, of realism instead of idealism, of depiction as opposed to narration.

Tintoretto reminds us of classical painting’s adventurous side, its sense of risk and danger, its open-ended possibilities. There is no moral advantage to a meticulously rendered drapery with no evidence of the human hand over Tintoretto’s dabs and slashes with color; it is enough that either, or both, are beautiful. And moreover, is effective in the larger job of a painting, which historically was always about more than mere representation. Dare one say it, large scale paintings were decorative, in the sense that they participated in a larger environmental context, and they were as much opaque surfaces as limpid windows. Evviva il più arrischiato pittore del mondo!

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