Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
September 6, 2007
Miguel Falomir, ed. Tintoretto Madrid: Museo Nacional del Prado, 2007. 465 pp.; 206 color ills. Paper $90.00 (1903470463)
Exhibition schedule: January 30–May 27, 2007
Tintoretto. Christ Washing the Feet of His Disciples (c. 1547). Oil on canvas. 210 x 533 cm. Museo del Prado, Madrid.

The Prado’s exhibition on Tintoretto, mounted by curator Miguel Falomir, meets the standard that a show is justified by its educational value to both the specialist and the public. Occupying the central wing of the primo piano of the Prado, the exhibit is mounted spaciously and offers judicious juxtapositions of paintings, drawings, and technical data. While presenting itself as the first monographic exhibition for the artist since 1937, the show also disclaims any pretension to be complete. (During the Tintoretto anniversary year of 1994, the Accademia in Venice provided an exhibition of Tintoretto’s portraiture, at which time an itinerary of his many works in churches and at the Scuola Grande di San Rocco was published and marked throughout the city.) The Prado show is selective of necessity, since so much of Tintoretto’s work must stay in situ in Venice, but this necessity is made something of a virtue by careful choices. For the occasion the main hall is painted a blue that resembles the azurite often used by Tintoretto; a few perpendicular partitions make roughly chronological divisions. Related material is often pointed to in small photographs mounted on the labels.

A room to the side of the main hall displays “El proceso creativo,” including preparatory drawings, an oil sketch, infra-red reflectography, and x-rays, along with drawings made from sculpture displayed with examples of the sculptures that Tintoretto used. The drawings are nicely selected: a few are studies from sculpture, while the rest are squared drawings related to known paintings, among them the compositional study in Berlin for the Munich Venus and Vulcan (ca. 1545) and the Uffizi study on two joined sheets of two figures for the Crucifixion (ca. 1554–56) from San Severo. Typical studies of single figures are related to paintings ranging from 1560 to 1580, some of which are in the show. At the center of this room is an installation of the possible arrangement of six canvases belonging to the Prado of stories concerning Old Testament women. The surrounding displays include an x-ray and an infrared reflectograph of two of these, placed so that they can be viewed simultaneously with the painting. (Small versions of technical photographs of this series are included within the catalogue entries, 19–24, on the series.) Altogether this section informs the visitor efficiently of key techniques employed by Tintoretto: his practice of drawing from sculpture, shared with his assistants; his use of squaring drawings, the enlarged grid shown also in the infrared of the Vienna Suzanna (1555–56); his frequent pentimenti, made evident in x-rays; his underdrawings. Tintoretto’s biographer, Carlo Ridolfi, in 1648 described most of Tintoretto’s painting methods; and in 1944 Hans Tietze and Erica Tietze-Conrat examined his workshop practice in the Drawings of the Venetian Painters in the 15th and 16th Centuries (New York: J. J. Augustin). The examples brought to bear in the exhibit, as well as earlier technical studies conducted in Venice and London, confirm Ridolfi’s testimony and wonderfully illustrate Tintoretto’s dynamic process. The very specific data given in this section is supported in the catalogue by Jill Dunkerton’s more general essay on “Tintoretto’s Painting Technique.” Dunkerton’s article builds, as she readily acknowledges, on the earlier work of her predecessor as conservator at the London National Gallery, Joyce Plesters.

The first section in the main hall addresses the always difficult question of Tintoretto’s training, which is undocumented. Very early works of unsettled style are assembled here (the first dated example is from 1540), and the possible role of Bonifazio de’ Pitati as Tintoretto’s teacher and some association with Andrea Schiavone are addressed. Robert Echols’s essay on this section in the catalogue reflects his analysis of the question of Tintoretto’s training in his dissertation of 1993, “Jacopo Tintoretto and Venetian Painting of the 1540’s” (University of Maryland).

Toward the center of the exhibition, Tintoretto’s stunning Washing of the Feet, belonging to the Prado, is shown laterally together with the symmetrical Last Supper dated 1547, also from San Marcuola, Venice, and displayed on an adjacent perpendicular partition. This juxtaposition easily convinces the viewer that the two paintings were not lateral pendants, as later installed, but that the Last Supper was designed for an end wall and the Washing of the Feet for a side wall. Along the same wall as the Washing of the Feet is the altarpiece of Saint Augustine Healing the Lame, from San Michele in Vicenza, now belonging to the Museo Civico di Vicenza. Seen in close proximity, the similar light tonality of the two paintings is evident, along with the deep spaces and various studied poses of the figures. In the catalogue, Echols dates the Washing to ca. 1548–49 and the St. Augustine to ca. 1549–50. Also in the catalogue, Falomir reminds readers that Velazquez was familiar with the Washing of the Feet, which had been hung in the Escorial a year prior to the painting of Las Meninas (1656). Significantly, Las Meninas was visible to visitors at the exhibition through an open view into an adjacent gallery.

The Prado’s Rape of Helen (ca. 1578–79) is key to the section on late works. Convincingly described as almost entirely by the master’s hand, whose bold underdrawing in lead white on dark ground is shown in the x-ray displayed in the technical section, it is accompanied by other works of authorship shared with the shop, or, as in the case of the 1583 Adoration of the Shepherds from the Escorial, designed by Jacopo yet executed in large part by Domenico’s less energetic hand. This arrangement and the accompanying labels offer useful juxtapositions that illustrate the range of work produced during Jacopo’s late period.

As already suggested, the catalogue of the show includes essays as well as entries. The essays fill some 160 pages, and the catalogue proper is divided into sections that correspond to the divisions of the show. Miguel Falomir edited the catalogue and wrote parts of it; his collaborators were Robert Echols, Frederick Ilchman, Roland Krischel, Edward Saywell, Linda Borean, and Jill Dunkerton. Entries were written by Echols, Ilchman, and Falomir, with Echols handling the early section, Ilchman the mature works, and Falomir the late period. These three scholars also contributed general essays and introductions to chronological sections of the catalogue, while Borean put together the end section on documentation. Ilchman and Saywell collaborated on the drawing section; Krischel wrote on “Tintoretto and the Sister Arts.” Falomir’s essay “Tintoretto and Spain: from El Greco to Velazquez” addresses the importance of Tintoretto for El Greco and Velazquez and illuminates not only Velazquez’s role in acquiring Venetian art for the Spanish crown but the considerable patronage of Tintoretto by Spanish nobility, beginning with Hapsburg patronage after Titian’s death in 1576. Falomir documents in particular the role of Spaniards resident in Italy who visited Venice, as well as Spanish nobles who collected Tintoretto’s work in the later seventeenth century.

In the exhibition and catalogue Tintoretto’s keen awareness of central Italian art, especially that of Michelangelo, is stressed. At the same time the authors dismiss the previously held idea that Tintoretto must, in his early, little-documented years, have experienced this art directly in visits to Florence and Rome. The authors emphasize instead the well documented and frequent exchange of artists and art between Venice and central Italy, in particular the sojourns in Venice of such central Italian artists as Francesco Salviati, Giuseppe Porta, and Giorgio Vasari. It seems to this reviewer that the question remains open. Despite the lack of documentation of a trip, Tintoretto may have experienced the art of central Italy directly on site as a young man as well as via the many prints, drawings, casts, and artists from Rome or Florence present in Venice.

There is no question that this thoughtful exhibition, together with its catalogue, makes a serious contribution to Tintoretto studies. There is also no question that the show was appreciated by the general public. Some 500,000 visitors viewed “Tintoretto” in the four months of its duration. Due to the intense interest, the closing date of the show was extended from May 13 to May 27, and many groups of Spanish visitors filled the gallery. One realizes that Madrid is an appropriate setting for a Tintoretto show. After all, Velazquez played a role in the acquisition of many of Tintoretto’s works belonging to the Prado. And perhaps it is not surprising that a nation that loves El Greco should appreciate his early model: Tintoretto!

Diana Gisolfi
Professor, Department of Art History, Pratt Institute