Jacopo Tintoretto, Crucifixion, Scuola Grande, Sala dell’Albergo: Detail of the presumed self-portrait.

Jacopo Robusti was called Tintoretto, after his father Giovanni Battista’s occupation as a dyer of silks. He was born in Venice presumably in 1519 since his age when he died on 31 May 1594 was given as seventy-five. Around 1550, he married Faustina Episcopi, the daughter of Marco, Guardian Grande in 1547 of the Scuola di San Marco. They had several children including Marietta (1554 c.),  Domenico (1560) and Marco (1561) who were also painters and who played an active part in their father’s workshop. Sources describe Tintoretto as being short and having a proud and obstinate character. In a document dated 1539, at just twenty years of age, he already seems to be an independent master. His developing years fell during that important period when the Venetian pictorial scene was undergoing renewal, influenced by the mannerist stimuli caused by the Venetian artists' visits to the centres of the new Roman, Tuscan and Emilian art which had sprung up following Raphael and Michelangelo; by the circulation of drawings and prints in that style in the Veneto; by the presence in Venice of Tuscan artists such as Jacopo Sansovino, Francesco Salviati, Giuseppe Porta, and Giorgio Vasari.

The first works of Tintoretto, who is said to have frequented Titian’s workshop for a very short time, reflect this climate and are particularly rich in the influences of the creative ease of Bonifacio Veronese and Schiavone, the sophisticated elegance of Paris Bordone, the plastic-chiaroscuro strength of Pordenone, the overwhelming expressive vitality of Michelangelo whose classical sculpture was made the subject of frequent graphical transcriptions by the young Venetian artist. Tintoretto’s language matured and had its first impressive achievements in the “Supper” of 1547 in the church of San Marcuola and in the “Miracle of St. Mark” painted in 1548 for the Scuola dedicated to the Saint of the same name and which today hangs in the Accademia Gallery. In these works some of the fundamental tones which characterize his style are clearly asserted: the overwhelming and composit vitality of the spatial-perspective creativity; the rapidity of the brush-work; the emphasis on three-dimensional modules and chiaroscuro outbursts of colour; the controlled capacity for gestures and poses; the impassioned force of locally important colours which change quickly into cold tones.

In his portrayal of reality, narrative, spontaneous and harmonious, which immediately arouses the emotion of the onlooker, light increasingly becomes the main protagonist, in contrast to Titian’s elegant stress on tonality. At the beginning of the sixth decade, in a series of masterpieces including the “Story of Genesis” for the Scuola della Trinità which is today in the Accademia Galleries, the “Susanna and the Elders” in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, and in the organ doors in the Venetian church of the Madonna dell’Orto, light keeps its primary role even when Tintoretto’s creative strength, coinciding with the rapid rise in fortune of the glorious painting of Paolo Veronese, becomes more relaxed and takes on a calmer expression of figurative rhythms and cadences and a greater harmony of clear chromatic tones. Soon, however, between the sixth and seventh decades, in the organ doors portraying the Evangelists (1557) in the church of Santa Maria del Giglio in Venice, in the “St. George and the Princess” in the National Gallery in London, in the “Piscina Probatica (Jesus makes a lame man walk )” in the church of San Rocco (1559), Tintoretto’s language pours out in an imaginative excitement where the dramatic force of light, the catalysing element of chromatic and sketching values, emerges more and more. With an inner emotional and formal strength, based on luministic poetics, Tintoretto tackles the great religious and profane themes, always outside of any academic convention and completely independent of the other major painters in Venice in the second half of the 16th century: Titian, Paolo Veronese and Jacopo Bassano. If the presence of the workshop is nearly always noticeable in the commemorative canvases in the Palazzo Ducale, then in the religious works, for example the “Marriage in Cana” in the vestry of S. Maria della Salute (1561), the “Invention of the Cross” in Santa Maria Mater Domini, the new canvases in the Scuola di San Marco (1562/66) including the “Discovery of the Body of St. Mark” at the Brera Gallery in Milan, the enormous compositions of the “Adoration of the Golden Calf” and the “Last Judgement” (1562-65) in the church of the Madonna dell’Orto, he proudly works alone. Here, by means of a quick weaving of chiaroscuro, Tintoretto achieves a harmonious and forceful magnificence of scenic conception pervaded by an existential restlessness, while staying firmly anchored, within the limits of the new intentions of the Catholic reform, to deeply religious thoughts made intelligible in a moving and poetic way to everybody by the simple and spontaneous representation of the story. In this way he prefigured the extraordinary pages of the Scuola Grande di San Rocco begun in 1564 and where the artist had the chance to assert his great visionary strength together with his intense capacity for work with conscious perfection.


The pictorial decorations of the rooms took Tintoretto until 1588 and constitutes one of the most fascinating pictorial undertakings ever known: from 1564 to 1567 the 27 canvases on the ceiling and walls of the Hall of the Hostel, where members of the Banca and Zonta who governed the brotherhood used to meet; from 1576 to 1581 the 25 canvases on the ceiling and walls of the Upper Hall; from 1582 to 1587 the eight large canvases in the Ground Floor Hall.

La Sala dell'Albergo
On the July 24th, 1546 the decision was made to give the Guardian Grande of the Scuola di San Rocco the authority to have the walls of the Sala dell’Albergo decorated “with canvases or canevazze portraying figures, as he thinks fit and where he is advised, and the rest with paintings”. This decision was not put into practice and a few years later, on September 21, 1553 Titian offered to undertake the large canvas to be placed on the wall behind the seats of the members of the Banca. Nothing came of the proposal however, although it was initially accepted unanimously. Only on January 3, 1557 was the decision taken to proceed with the permanent decoration of the Hall. For this purpose the Scuola set aside two hundred ducats annually. Nevertheless, it was not until May 22, 1564 that this decision was put into effect with the promise on the part of the thirty-six councillors to shoulder the expense of the first painting, the central canvas on the ceiling. It is significant that during the meeting one of the councillors, a certain Zani de Zignioni, declared himself ready to donate fifteen ducats on the understanding that the work should not be assigned to Jacopo Tintoretto. However, it was Tintoretto who, with self-confident resolution, secured the commission by presenting the finished central oval canvas representing the “Glorification of St. Roch” instead of the sketch asked for by the governors of the Scuola. In a meeting on May 31, 1564 the latter had decided on a competition in which some of the most renowned painters active in Venice were invited to take part and, according to Ridolfi (1648), they were: Andrea Schiavone, , Federico Zuccari, Giuseppe Salviati and Paolo Veronese. After donating the canvas of the “Glorification of St. Roch” on June 22, 1564, not without some opposition, Tintoretto carried out without payment the decoration of the rest of the ceiling during the summer and autumn. On July 22 of the same year the gilding of the wooden part of the ceiling had begun and was not finished until October 22 of the following year. In 1565, the year when Girolamo Rota was the Guardian Grande, Tintoretto, now a brother of the school, started and finished the enormous “Crucifixion”, placed exactly where Titian had offered to put one of his paintings in 1553. The following year, on March 31, the governors of the Scuola decided to finish the decoration of the walls of the Sala dell’Albergo. They had Tintoretto paint three more canvases representing themes relating to the Passion of Christ. Tintoretto waited all through 1566 and the first months of 1567 before starting the work; since May of that year he had been busy painting the two canvases in the presbytery of the church of San Rocco which he finished the following September (
R. Pallucchini-P. Rossi, Tintoretto-The Religious and Profane works, Milano, 1982). In just over two years Tintoretto completed the decoration of the Sala dell’Albergo, beginning in the Scuola Grande of Saint Roch, in harmony of ideas and artistic intentions with most of his clients, an extraordinary and fascinating work which was destined to last for the greater part of his whole career and to remain a living testimony of his art which was carried to such a point as to be recognized in popular thoughts and feelings through pictorial innovations of both suggestive and inspired spontaneity.

Upper Hall
Ten years had hardly passed since the pictorial decoration of the Sala dell’Albergo was finished when Jacopo Tintoretto was already busy decorating the Upper Hall. The vast room was decorated with “canevazzi,” transient paintings that adorned the Hall in occasion of the Patron’s feast-day but which the Scuola di San Rocco had decided to buy on August 24, 1542: “to adorn theHall until a further decision is made.”  On July 9, 1559 it was noted that the “canevazzi” had become decrepit with time and it was therefore necessary to carry out a new, worthier decoration. On May 6, 1574 the decision was taken to proceed with the re-decoration of the ceiling. The carpentry work was finished and the gilding still going on when on July 2, 1575 Jacopo Tintoretto proposed to decorate free of charge the large central square of the ceiling, promising to finish it by August 16, 1576, San Rocco’s feast-day.
On January 13, 1577, only a few months after finishing ”The Brazen Serpent,” Tintoretto offered to paint the other two main ceiling paintings, asking only to be reimbursed for the cost of materials and colours, and letting the Banca and Zonta decide how much his work was worth. His conditions were immediately accepted by the Scuola, and just seven days later on 20 January, the artist began work on the two paintings: “The Miracle of Manna” e “Moses Drawing Water from the Rock.” This work was still not completed when on 25 March 1577 Jacopo Tintoretto stated he was ready to paint the whole ceiling on the same conditions stipulated on the previous 13 January. This second offer was also accepted and a statement made on November 27, 1577 by Tintoretto himself shows that, by then, the undertaking was at a satisfactory stage. The artist also declared that he was ready to dedicate his work for the rest of his life to the decoration of the Scuola, carrying out ten paintings, the altar-piece in the Upper Hall, the canvases for the new ceiling designed for the church of San Rocco and any other painting for the Scuola and the Church. Furthermore he promised to deliver three large finished paintings every year on San Rocco’s feast-day. He himself would provide the colours but he asked for an annual allowance of one hundred ducats for the rest of his life should he fall ill after finishing the works in the Upper Hall. Tintoretto’s proposal was accepted by the General Chapter of the Scuola on December 2, 1577. On February 24, 1578 the Scuola elected a commission made up of three Brothers who had the task of examining, judging and approving the paintings carried out by Tintoretto under his conditions. Both the artist and the clients kept to the agreement and the magnificent pictorial undertaking in the Upper Hall was finished in the summer of 1581. In this Hall and in the Ground Floor Hall Jacopo Tintoretto gives his best, leaving more or less the work on the canvases commemorating Venice’s fortunes in the large reception rooms in the Palazzo Ducale to his workshop. In the Upper Hall in particular, he carries the feeling of religious fervour, so ardently expressed in the Sala dell’Albergo, to a magnificence of conception and to an imposingness of forms which renew themselves in the continuous inventive onrush of meanings which are as intensely authentic as they are openly spectacular.

Ground Floor Hall
After the completion in 1581 of the large canvases in the Upper Hall and the unfulfilled realization of the project for the decoration of the ceiling of the church of San Rocco, which he said he was ready to carry out on November 27, 1577, Jacopo Tintoretto was given many commissions, among which the official ones in the most impressive rooms of the Palazzo Ducale. However, in 1582 he started working again at the Scuola di San Rocco, dedicating himself to painting the canvases on the walls of the Ground Floor Hall. There is, in fact, a note about the cost of the frame for the “Adoration of the Magi”. dated July 16, 1582. Further records exist regarding his work for the years from 1583 to 1587. The last one is dated August 12, 1587, and is a note of expenses from which it can be deducted that the “Circumcision” was the last painting to be placed in the Ground Floor Hall. However Tintoretto continued to receive the annual allowance of one hundred ducats agreed upon in November 1577. The last payment was made on 1 May 1594, not very long before Jacopo Tintoretto’s death on 31 May. Out of the whole series of paintings in the Ground Floor Hall, only the “St. Mary Magdalene” and the “St. Mary of Egypt” are not mentioned in the documents of the Scuola, nor by the guides, nor by 15th and 16th century sources. This omission and the fact that the two paintings fit in badly with the iconographical whole of the Hall lead Tietze (Sketches by Jacopo Tintoretto in “Arte Veneta” 1951) to believe that these came from somewhere else, being part of a group together with two male figures, one of which has been identified in a “Hermit in a wood” and whose sketch is still in the Museum of Historic Art in Princeton. Other scholars, however, maintain that the two extraordinary “Landscapes” belong to the original decoration of the Ground Floor Hall of the Scuola Grande di San Rocco and are representative of the Mariological meaning of the series, proved by the presence of the “The Assumption of the Virgin” (De Tolnay, 1960, op. cit.) where the miraculous element prevails (E. Huttinger, Die Bilderzyklen Tintorettos in der Scuola di San Rocco, Zurich, 1962). According to Niero (in “Venice and the plague 1348/1797”, Venice 1979) the two figures of the Saints allude to the shameful diseases widespread during that century, such as lues or syphilis, which were considered a form of epidemics like the plague. There seems to be no doubt that the two “nocturnal landscapes,” conceived in such an imaginative way, are the natural conclusive stages to a formal procedure founded on very fervid sentimental motives and which finds its principle means of expression in light. In August of 1587 the placing of the “Circumcision” on the Ground Floor Hall completed the decoration of the reception rooms of the Scuola. Here Jacopo Tintoretto offers an incomparable picture of his art during more than two decades of the last part of his creative career by means of density and perfection of imaginative inventiveness. The interaction between the unforgettable pages of Tintoretto and the Scuola Grande di San Rocco is such that nobody can think back to the first without evoking the second and, vice versa, no one can remember the latter without associating it with the poetic strength of the former.

The governors of the confraternity have always seen to the conservation of the great pictorial displays by Jacopo Tintoretto. Some of the many restorations can be dated exactly, as recent results of archival research has shown (P.Rossi, The Works of Domenico Tintoretto, Sante Piatti and Giuseppe Angeli for the Scuola di San Rocco, in “Arte Veneta”, 1977) by Domenico Tintoretto in 1602 (“Probatica piscina”); by Angelo Vidali in 1673 (the large canvases in the Sala dell’Albergo), in 1674 (“The Miracle of the Loaves and the Fishes”; “The Temptation of Christ”) and in 1678 (“The Assumption of the Virgin”); by Lelio Sonetti in 1696 (“Probatica piscina”); by Gaetano Zompini before 1672 (canvases in the Sala dell’Albergo). After being chosen in 1770 as the restorer of the “precious and numerous paintings of the Scuola,” the painter Giuseppe Angeli, from 1777 onwards, applied himself to the difficult work on the canvases of the ceiling of the Upper Room. He went over the original paintings, even redoing in oils the chiaroscuro tempera of Tintoretto’s rhomboid forms. The last documented restoration was carried out by Florian in 1834 (“The Assumption of the Virgin”). By the end of the 1960s a thorough restoration of all of Tintoretto’s paintings, except the canvases on the ceiling of the Sala dell’Albergo was necessary as a result of the thick layer of dirt and non-original coats of varnish and, above all, the fact that the stability of the colours had been compromised when the original canvases had been removed from their supports. The work was carried out between 1969 and 1974, financed for the most part by the Edgard J. Kaufmann Charitable Foundation of Pittsburgh through the Venice Committee of the American International Fund for Monuments and entrusted to the Soprintendenza ai Beni Artistici e Storici di Venezia to Antonio Lazzarin. In the course of the restoration which succeeded in providing a more authentic interpretation of Tintoretto’s masterpieces, it was possible to verify how Tintoretto prepared the realisation of his various themes by first making sketches on the canvas. In these large sketches visible in infrared photographs, the figures are outlined in the nude, as they are in the few signed drawings of single figures by Tintoretto. The fact that the artist preferred to define his ideas on the finished whole by means of graphic notes directly on the canvas, clarifies his method of work and explains the almost total absence of preparatory drawings done on paper. Restoration work has also made it possible to explain how the general harmony of colour in the painting has notably darkened due to the alteration with time of some pigments and their relative colour combinations. In particular, the blue has become lead-grey, the green brown, the red pale pink, the yellow amaranth. This has created an irreversible change which, if on the one hand, has lessened the tone-colour vividness of the chromatic harmony, on the other hand has increased that intensity of luministic effects which originally must have been dramatically set off in the semi-darkness of the rooms, especially in the Upper Room. It is necessary to take this change of colour into account when appraising Jacopo Tintoretto’s paintings at the Scuola Grande di San Rocco at the most important moments in the art of this great Venetian artist and in European painting of the second half of the 16th century.

(excerpts taken from FRANCESCO VALCANOVER,Jacopo Tintoretto e la Scuola Grande di San Rocco,Ed. Storti, Venice 1983).

Concerning the restorations, we can add that, in preparation for the IV Centenary of Tintoretto’s death (1994), all of the canvases of the Scuola Grande were restored under the supervision of the restoration expert, Ferruccio Volpin, in 1993.

In 1549, Tintoretto had already completed the canvas now displayed at the centre of the right wall, San Rocco risana gli appestati (St. Roch heals the plague victim), and in 1559 Cristo risana il paralitico (Jesus makes the lame man walk) for the presbytery of the Church. Once his work in the first room had been finished, that of the Albergo, on April, 13 1567, he was commissioned to complete the other paintings for the presbytery of the Church. By November he had been paid for San Rocco in carcere confortato dall'angelo (Saint Roch in prison is comforted by an angel) and for San Rocco risana gli animali (Saint Roch heals the animals). From 1580 there is the canvas San Rocco colpito dalla peste (Saint Roch Stricken by the plague), while San Rocco catturato alla battaglia di Montpellier (Saint Roch captured at the Battle of Montpellier), which is found at the centre of the right wall, was painted from 1582 to 1584. Between 1577 and 1584, Tintoretto worked on the panels of the organ: San Rocco presentato al Papa (St. Roch presented to the Pope) and the Annunciazione (The Annunciation), which are now displayed after much reworking and restoration, to the right and left of the portal.