On Tintoretto II

This is the second part of my look at some of the Tintoretto works included in the Prado retrospective which closes today. Read part I, which includes an introduction and general remarks about the exhibition here.

Preparatory drawings
The exhibition included a small section devoted to drawings, small canvases, oil sketches, x-rays and the like in order to give a sense of practice and process in Tintoretto’s studio. It was all very illuminating, despite two of his famous studies of Michelangelo’s Samson and the Two Philistines being terribly displayed in a dark trough-like box. Anyway, let me here focus on a couple of preparative studies and the received wisdom about them.

First up is the study for the Munich Venus and Mars surprised by Vulcan (c. 1545), also in the exhibition. Carlo Ridolfi, who wrote the most extensive historical biography on Tintoretto in 1642 mentions how Tintoretto would arrange small figurines in miniature sets and experiment with positioning, lighting, etc. in order to develop many of his compositions. The only extant drawing of its kind, this sheet has been taken as evidence of such an approach. Given the very subtle lighting, this may just be true, but I would still suggest some care of judgment here. This is a vigorously composed drawing, with the perspective lines laid in freehand. Why would as accomplished a draughtsman as Tintoretto need small mannequins for this?

Similarly, received wisdom appears to hold that most of the figure studies for his paintings, of which there were a handful of examples in the show, are drawn after either figurines or live models. This might be the case for some of them – a figure study for the Theft of the Body of Saint Mark (painted in 1562-66 for the Scuola di San Marco, now in Milan) could for example very likely have been drawn after a mannequin hung from a rafter or something like that. And in both the sign and the catalogue, it is pointed out how lines through the hand of a male figure used for the Madonna dell’Orto Casting of the Golden Calf (c. 1559-60) stem from a pole the model was ostensibly holding on to. The former I am ready to accept, the latter I am not so sure about.

Watching the confidence with which Tintoretto puts down his wavy contours, constructing his figures curve by curve, a figure like the latter could just as well have been done freehand. Two studies for a Martyrdom of Saint Lawrence (1578-80) included in the show are, I think, examples of this. At one and the same time so loose and so controlled, these figures are surely inventions made on paper with no visual aid. Their expressiveness is of the kind one creates while improvising figures in line. The common art historical notion that everything must have been done according a prototype or through the use of some kind of mechanical aid or the like is one we need to regard with strong skepticism.

Check back over the following days for more thoughts on individual works in the exhibition. And if you happen to be in Madrid today, go – it’s the last day of the show. Be warned though, it’s going to be crazy; this is what it looked like on the Sunday three weeks ago.

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