People | The Little Tanner

The name Jacobo Robisti (1519-1594) doesn’t ring a lot of bells but you may have heard of Tintoretto. It means little tanner, a nickname the artist earned as a child working in his father’s tannery. The boy was always ambitious and grew up to be one of the most remarkable painters of his age. His reputation was greatly enhansed by the writings of John Ruskin (1819-1900) who was a great admirer and marveled at the size and visual depth of the canvases. The best places to appreciate these are Chiesa della Madonna dell’Orto and the Scuolo di San Rocco where the painter audaciously won a competition by bypassing regulations by submitting and installing a completed work rather than a sketch. The Scuola contains 73 works from the painter in the immense ground and first floor halls where Venetians met. Subject are religious in nature and cover both the old and new testaments. At a time of widespread illiteracy these were vital ways to illustrate the Bible and remind citizens of the power of man and god. The first painting he completed for the scuola is across the square in the church of San Rocco.

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St. Roch in Glory. The painting that started it all.

Unlike Rome and Florence, Venice’s damp climate was unsuited for fresco painting and wood or canvas were the preferred by artists. This was advantageous to painters like Tintoretto who could work in his studio located along the Fondament dei Mori and saved him the kind of grueling back aches Michelangelo endured working on the Sistine Chapel. That didn’t mean Tintoretto’s paintings were any smaller than his Renaissance contemporaries. He mastered the ability to cover colossal spaces with scores of dramatic figures in epic scenes. Unlike many artists who travelled around Italy painting for patrons Tintoretto remained in Venice his entire life, which may explain why he isn’t the most famous Renaissance painter. Even in his hometown he generated contrasting opinions but worked steadily throughout his life and left behind an enormous artistic inheritance that can be seen in churches, palaces, scuole and museums throughout Venice. He was buried in the church of Madonna dell’Orto and it’s not uncommon to find fresh flowers on his tomb presumably layed by one of his modern day fans.

Your guide to Italy.
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