Venice: fall in love with Tintoretto

Most visitors to Venice fall in love with Tintoretto or they "discover" him here for the first time, which amounts to the same thing. The syllables "Tintoretto" must vie with "il conto," as the most commonly pronounced in Venice. He is the one the gondoliers chatter of and the children in the street. St. Mark's, the Doge's Palace, the Gothic churches of the Frari and S. Zanipolo, the Rialto, the Grand Canal, a gondola ride, and Tintoretto comprise the touristic Venice. Scarcely a sightseer leaves without a pilgrimage-visit to the Scuola di San Rocco, which houses the "Crucifixion" series. His wraithlike figures, his staggering perspective arrangements, his diagonals, his chiaroscuro, the whole gigantism of him, make a stupendous, unforgettable impression on the layman, who would be shocked to learn that professional art critics today depreciate his works. He is the literary amateur's painter; torrents of descriptive prose have been expended on him, as though to match his own torrential output.

"Surely, no single picture in the world," writes Henry James of "The Crucifixion," "contains more of human life; there is everything in it, including the most exquisite beauty ... There are pictures by the Tintoret which contain touches more exquisite, revelations of beauty more radiant, but there is no other vision of so intense a reality and an execution so splendid." Further on, however, he speaks of "poor dusky Tintoret"; the pictures in the Scuola were blackened and rotting, and the average person, James says, in the dim room, would get a sense of "the genius loci having been a sort of mad whitewasher, who worked with a bad mixture, in the bright light of the campo, among the beggars, the orange-vendors, and the passing gondolas."

Since that time, the paintings have been cleaned, lights have been installed, and the average person, including me, reacts with due respect. Tintoretto is certainly inferior to the great Venetians -- Carpaccio, Bellini, Cima, Giorgione, Veronese, Titian. He is perhaps even what the critic Longhi calls him: "the Stakhanovite of the Scuola di San Rocco." But the force of this genius takes the breath away. One's admiration is given more, possibly, to the conception of a Tintoretto than to its realization. He writes large what he means to convey; that is why we amateurs respond to the "terrific" effects of "The Last Supper," "The Crucifixion," "The Manger," "The Annunciation." We see at once what he is up to; the unleashing of a supernatural event that strikes into ordinary life like a cyclone, knocking everything askew, tilting tables and crockery, so that everything seems to be sliding, as in a house carried away by a wind or a flood. These sliding, dangerous diagonals leave no doubt as to their intention, which is partly to amaze by their artistic legerdemain -- Tintoretto was a supersalesman -- but also to evangelize.

There is a strong evangelical excitement in the Scuola di San Rocco series, an afflatus of that mood of reformed Christianity, of direct revelation, that produced the Quakers and Shakers long afterwards in the Anglo-Saxon mercantile communities. This is gospel truth, these paintings seem to preach, pointing to the slightly hairy, snub-nosed peasant girl who is receiving the Annunciation or to the strawy barn in Bethlehem that seems to smell of dung. Even Ruskin, who was enraptured with Tintoretto, found the disciples too vulgar in "The Last Supper." But Tintoretto was not concerned with refinement here; he was looking for an effect that would "tell," like a minister scanning his congregation in search of some homely example.

No comments: