Where should you visit after lockdown? To the home of one of the great artistic tricks of the Renaissance

How much will we travel in the future? I suspect that we will look back on the last few decades as the golden age of travel, when open borders and cheap flights made it easy to explore the world. But maybe this will mean that we travel with more purpose and with more care in future. To travel not to escape but to explore.

When all this is over I want to travel back to Venice, a place that has suffered from an excess of tourism, but is still probably the greatest city in the world. More than anything I would like to boat down the glimmering Grand Canal, heading off before the Palazzo Baldi and alight at my favourite place in the city – the Scuola Grande di San Rocco.

I will never forget visiting here aged nineteen. I was in Venice as part of a solo mini grand tour I took in my university holidays, my first real attempt to teach myself about the great art of the past. It was my first day ever in Venice and walking in to the darkened chambers of the Scuola, to be encountered by Tintoretto’s vast canvases, totally blew me away.

Who was this man with the imagination and audacity to create these vast and mind-boggling designs?

Tintoretto, Self-Portrait, 1546-8 © Philadelphia Museum of Art

I think the story of how Tintoretto won the commission to fill these walls is one of the best, and most illuminating, of the Renaissance. It gives us a brilliant insight into the into vicious, competitive atmosphere of sixteenth century Venice.

The Scuola Grande di San Rocco was a Venetian confraternity. At that time in Venice only a few thousand male members of the Venetian nobility were able to join the government (from a population of 150,000 – to give you a symbol of Venice’s decline, there are under 60,000 residents today), which excluded a huge number of ambitious middle class residents from governing roles. If these successful businessmen, artists, industrialists, artists and merchants wanted to play a prestigious role in Venetian society they needed to join a confraternity.

These confraternities were part unions and part charities – as well as looking their poorer members, they ran almshouses and hospitals and in wartime supplied men for the army. Each Scuola supported different groups of people and had differing aims. The Scuola di San Rocco was particularly concerned to helping plague victims and was named after Saint Roch, the patron saint of the plague.

The plague was ever present in the Venetian mindset, a constant fear (one that we can now begin to understand). Saint Roch is said to have been a Frenchman who lived as a hermit and looked after plague victims. In 1485, a few years after the Scuola di San Rocco was set up, several members of the confraternity took what were thought to be his remains to Venice where they was triumphantly inaugurated. The symbolism behind this helped Scuola di San Rocco quickly became an extremely popular confraternity. It became the Scuola Grande di San Rocco, one of the largest confraternities in Venice. It became very rich and eventually there was a demand for a lavish headquarters.

This Scuola was therefore a nouveau riche confraternity. It was a new force in Venice as Tintoretto was growing up. The construction of their huge new headquarters began in 1517, a year before Tintoretto was born, and it was completed in the late 1540s, about the time Tintoretto established himself as a serious painter.

Scuola Grande di San Rocco, Venice

The building work was done but there was no artwork on the walls.

In 1564 the confraternity announced a competition for the first painting to fill these walls, a large oval canvas to fit the ceiling of the Sala dell’Albergo, the room where the governing body of the confraternity met.

The commission was a plum opportunity, as whoever won it would be in the best position to win further assignments within this vast and as yet undecorated building. 

The competition was between the four best painters in Venice – Giuseppe Porta Salviati, Federico Zuccaro, Veronese, and Tintoretto (by this date Titian was painting for Philip II of Spain and this was too small fry for him).

The competition was the catalyst that turned artist against artist. 

Of the four, Tintoretto was the most desperate to win. He was the oldest, aged forty-six, more than twice the age of Zuccaro. Although established, he was a minor figure next to Titian, who was hostile to Tintoretto and was happy to promote the claims of Veronese to damage Tintoretto. Veronese was in his thirties and the up-and-coming artist, a new rival to Tintoretto. 

The Scuola asked each of the four artists to present them with drawings illustrating their plans for the ceiling canvas, which was to depict Saint Roch received in heaven by God. Veronese and Zuccaro’s presentation drawings for the competition survive (see below)

Federico Zuccaro, Saint Roch carried up to heaven and received by God the Father, 1564 © The Trustees of the British Museum
Paolo Veronese, Saint Roch in Glory, 1564 © Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum  

As the four artists completed their designs, there were serious political shenanigans going on behind the scenes. One senior member of the Scuola announced that he would give 15 ducats towards the final painting (which was 3 times more than any other member had offered) but only on the condition that the job went to someone other than Tintoretto. 

Why was Tintoretto unpopular? We don’t know, but there were rumblings that he was conceited and also willing to do literally anything to win commissions from other artists, as we are about to see.

But we can be certain Tintoretto felt as if he was up against it and this may have led him to come up with his mischievous plan. 

One day in early June, all four painters arrived at the Scuola to have their designs judged by the Scuola’s governing board. Each stood forward and presented his drawing. 

Tintoretto, however, had arrived without a drawing. This must have caused a fair bit of suspicion. What was he up to this time?

When it came time for Tintoretto to present his design to the leaders of the Scuola, he removed a large piece of cardboard on the ceiling to reveal, not a drawing, but a completed painting, installed in the intended position.

Tintoretto, Saint Roch in Glory, on the ceiling of the Sala dellAlbergo, 1564 © Scuola Grande di San Rocco
Tintoretto, Saint Roch in Glory, 1564 © Scuola Grande di San Rocco

The other three painters were stunned, and the board of the Scuola furious, at this breach of protocol. 

How had he done it? 

Tintoretto must have had inside help. A friend inside the Scuola had clearly helped him measure the space and install the finished canvas without anyone on the governing body knowing.

Tintoretto had his excuse planned. He told them that it was much better for them to judge an actual picture than a preparatory drawing ‘so as to deceive no one’ as to final result. He then said that if the Scuola did not want to pay for his work he was happy to make a gift of it to them. 

This gesture was not as altruistic as it might seem; Tintoretto knew full well that the Scuola was obligated to accept all donations and so they had to accept this one. They had no real choice but leave the painting where it was.

Tintoretto had thwarted his rivals.  

He must have known that in a competition to produce the ‘best and most beautiful drawing’ he would not stand a chance against the other three artists, all accomplished draftsmen known for the finish of their renderings (see above). 

Tintoretto occasionally made drawings but this was not his forte. He was a true follower of Titian in this respect, known for painting designs straight onto the canvas. He would sometimes prepare his compositions using wax figures in a miniature doll’s house set-up but he didn’t make detailed designs which his Florentine contemporaries like Michelangelo undertook before putting brush to canvas. A drawing competition was suicide for him. So what did he do – ignore the instruction! 

Tintoretto could pull off this audacious trick because he worked at phenomenal speed. He could paint a canvas of that scale in weeks compared to months. However it must be said that this work is unusual in his repertoire, with a fairly conservative composition compared to his normal daring plays of perspective. Despite his bold trick, Tintoretto was obviously careful to ensure that the painting itself was not rejected on the grounds of being improper or ill-suited to the high ideals of the Scuola.  

Tintoretto’s move proved to a masterstroke.

His coup temporarily stalled Veronese assent and turned Zuccaro from a rival into an out-and-out enemy. 

But within a few years the Scuola had commissioned Tintoretto to paint all the other empty spaces in this room and subsequently the entire building. He was even given membership of the Scuola. From 1564 to 1588 Tintoretto painted more than fifty paintings in the Scuola, some of them up to forty feet wide, by far the most important commission of his career.

I think he turned the Scuola into one of the great artistic wonders of the world, Venice’s answer to the Sistine Chapel. 

Have you been? What do you think?

I never was so utterly crushed to the earth before any human intellect as I was today, before Tintoretto…I don’t believe it took him ten minutes to invent & paint a whole length. Away he goes, heaping host on host, multitudes that no man can number — never pausing, never repeating himself — clouds & whirlwinds & fire & infinity of earth & sea… I can’t see enough of him, and the more I look the more wonderful he becomes.’

John Ruskin, writing to his father from Venice in 1845
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5 thoughts on “Where should you visit after lockdown? To the home of one of the great artistic tricks of the Renaissance

  1. The Crucifixion by Tintoretto in the Scuola San Rocco should be seen on Good Friday; and let it become an annual ritual as it has for me.

    Like

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