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THE VENETIAN PARIAH
Nothing. His life is an enigma: A few dates, a few facts, and then the cackling of ancient writers. But courage: Venice speaks to us. Her voice is that of a perjured witness, now shrill, now whispering, always marked by periods of silence. Tintoretto's life story, the portrait painted during his lifetime by his native city, is tinged with unrequited animosity. The Doge's City reveals her contempt for the most celebrated of her sons. Nothing is stated outright; there are hints, suggestions, remarks made in passing. This inflexible hatred has the inconsistency of sand; it takes the form, not so much of outspoken aversion, as of coldness, moroseness, insidious ostracism. And this is just what we would expect. Jacopo fights a losing battle against a vast adversary, grows tired, surrenders, dies. That is the sum and substance of his life. We can study it in all its somber nakedness if for an instant we push aside the brushwood of slander that blocks our passage.
First, the birth of the dyer's son in 1518. Venice immediately insinuates that fate has marked him from the outset: "About 1530 the youth started to work in Titian's studio as an apprentice but was dismissed a few days later when the illustrious quinquagenarian discovered his genius." This anecdote reappears in book after book with astounding regularity. It might be argued that it does little credit to Titian—and this is indeed the case—not today, at any rate, not in our eyes. But when Vasari reports it in 1567, Titian has been reigning for half a century, and nothing is more respectable than long impunity. Then too, according to the customs of his time, Titian has his own studio, where he is second only to God in the conduct of his affairs and has every right to dismiss an employee. In such circumstances his victim is presumed guilty; marked by fate, contagious perhaps, he is presumed to have the evil eye. Here for the first time the gilded legend of Italian painting is threatened by an ill-fated childhood. But the lesson to be learned from his alleged dismissal must come later. The voice of Venice never lies provided that we know how to interpret it; we can listen once our ears have been properly attuned. At this point we suspend judgment but call attention to the improbability of the facts.
That Titian was not good-natured is well known. But Jacopo was twelve. At twelve talent is nothing and anything will obliterate it; patience and time are required to mold nascent skill and change it into talent; no artist at the pinnacle of his fame—not even the most supercilious—would take umbrage at a small boy. But suppose that the master, jealous, dismissed his apprentice. That amounts to assassination of him. The curse of a national celebrity weighs heavily, very heavily. More especially as Titian lacks the candor to make known his true motives; he is king, he frowns and from this moment on all doors are closed to the black sheep. He is forever barred from the profession.
A blacklisted child is something of a rarity. Our interest quickens. We are eager to find out how he managed to overcome his handicap. Vain desire, for here the thread of the narrative breaks at the same time in every single book and we are confronted by a conspiracy of silence. No one will tell us what happened to him between the ages of twelve and twenty. Some writers attempted to fill the void by imagining that he had learned the art of painting independently. But they were in an even better position than we to know that he could not have done so, for at the beginning of the sixteenth century painting is still a complicated, rather ceremonious technique; unduly fettered by formulas and rites, it is a skill rather than an art, proficiency rather than knowledge, a set of procedures rather than a method. Professional rules, secret traditions—everything contributes toward making the apprenticeship a social obligation and a necessity. The biographers' silence betrays their embarrassment. Unable to reconcile the precocious notoriety of young Robusti and excommunication, they throw a veil of darkness on the eight years that separate the two. We can be certain that no one has rejected Jacopo; and since he has not perished from languor and scorn in his father's dye-shop, he must have worked normally and regularly in the studio of a painter about whom we know nothing except that he was not Titian. In closed, suspicious guilds hatred is retroactive; if the mysterious beginning of Jacopo's life seems a premonition of its mysterious end, if a curtain raised to show a disaster miraculously arrested is lowered on a disaster unattended by any miracle, this is because Venice rearranged everything afterwards to make his childhood consonant with his old age. Nothing happens and nothing ends; birth mirrors death and between the two lies scorched earth; everything is consumed by the curse.
We pass beyond these mirages and find our view unobstructed all across the horizon. An adolescent emerges, dashes away at high speed in search of glory. The year is 1539; Jacopo has left his patron to set up his own studio; he is now a past master. The young employee has won independence, fame, a clientele; now it is his turn to hire workers, apprentices. This much is certain: in a city filled with painters, where an economic crisis threatens to strangle the market, becoming a master at the age of twenty is the exception to the rule; merit alone is not enough, nor work, nor tact; one must also have a run of good luck. Everything is in Robusti's favor. Paolo Cagliari is ten, Titian sixty-two; between the unknown child and the old man who will surely die before long many good painters might be found, but only Tintoretto holds out the promise of excellence; in his generation, at any rate, he has no rival and therefore he finds the road before him open. He does in fact pursue this road for several years: his commissions multiply, he enjoys the public's favor as well as that of patricians and intellectuals; Aretino deigns to congratulate him in person. The young man is endowed with supernatural gifts which Providence reserves for adolescents who are to die, but he does not die and his woes begin: The old monarch Titian manifests a startling longevity, continuing all the while to vent his hatred on his young challenger and finally resorting to the malicious ruse of officially designating as his successor, to the surprise of no one, Veronese; Aretino's condescension turns to bitterness; critics lash out, censure, chide, castigate—in short, they behave like modern critics. This matters little so long as Jacopo retains the public's favor. But suddenly the wheel turns. At thirty, confident of his means, he asserts himself, paints The Miracle of St. Mark and puts himself, his whole self, into the painting. It is characteristic of him to astound, to strike hard and impose his will by surprise. In this instance, however, he will be the first to be caught off guard; his work dumbfounds his contemporaries but it also scandalizes them. He finds impassioned detractors but not impassioned defenders; behind the scenes we can detect a cabal: Frustration. Face to face, united and separated by the same feeling of uneasiness, Venice and her painter contemplate but no longer understand each other. "Jacopo has not lived up to the promises of his adolescence," says the city. And the artist remarks, "To deceive them, all I had to do was reveal myself. So I was not what they loved!" Mutual grudges widen the gap between them, breaking one thread in the Venetian woof.
The pivotal year is 1548. Before, the gods are for him; afterwards, against. No great misfortunes are associated with his persistent bad luck—just enough little ones to lead him to the brink of despair. The gods smiled on the child only to bring about the downfall of the man. Jacopo suddenly undergoes radical change and becomes the frantic, harassed outlaw, Tintoretto. Before, we know nothing about him except that he worked relentlessly, for fame is not easily acquired at the age of twenty. Afterwards his tenacity turns to rage; he wants to produce, to produce without ceasing, to sell, to crush his rivals by the number and dimensions of his canvases. There is a certain element of desperation in his forced effort, for until his death Robusti works against the clock without ever revealing whether he is trying to find himself through his work or to escape from himself through excessive activity. "Lightning Tintoretto" sails under a black flag, and for this swift pirate all means are fair, with a marked preference for unfair advantages. Disinterested whenever disinterest pays off, he lowers his eyes, refuses to name a price, repeats like a child, "It will be whatever you wish." But those Neapolitan rascals are in a better position than anyone else to know the value of their wares; they expect the customer to fleece himself through his generosity.
On other occasions he offers his merchandise at cost in order to close a transaction, only to make other more advantageous sales as a result of the initial emergency contract. On learning that the Crociferi are going to offer a commission to Paolo Cagliari, he feigns ignorance of everything and offers them his services. They essay a polite refusal: "Thank you, but we want something Veronese." And he: "Something Veronese? Well and good. And who is going to do it?" Somewhat taken aback, they reply: "Why, we thought that Paolo Cagliari had been designated...." And Tintoretto now expresses his amazement: "Cagliari? The idea is fantastic. I'll paint you something Veronese. And for less." Signed and sealed. He resorted to the same gambit twenty times, painting in the style of Pordenone, in the style of Titian, always for less.
How can he cut costs? That is the question that torments him. One day he finds the contemptible but ingenious answer that will wreck a tradition. The masters are accustomed to having their canvases copied; their studios execute replicas and sell them at inflated prices, thereby creating a second market for their paintings. To win over their clientele, Jacopo will offer them better paintings for less. He eliminates sketches; he will allow others to draw their inspiration from his canvases but not to copy them; through simple, invariable procedures his collaborators will produce something new but not original. They will need only to rearrange the composition, put the left on the right and the right on the left, substitute an old man for a woman who can be used again in another context. Such operations require some training but no more time than simple copying. Tintoretto candidly proclaims: "In my studio one can acquire an original work for the price of a reproduction."
When his canvases are spurned, he gives them away. On May 31, 1564, at the Scuola San Rocco the Brotherhood decides to beautify its conference hall by placing a painting in the central oval of the ceiling. Paolo Cagliari, Jacopo Robusti, Schiavone, Salviati and Zucearo are invited to submit sketches. Tintoretto bribes servants, obtains the exact measurements. He had already worked for the Brotherhood and I do not rule out the hypothesis that he found accomplices even within the Banca e Zonta. On the day set, each painter exhibits his sketch. When Robusti's turn comes, he electrifies them all. He climbs up a ladder, removes a section of pasteboard, and reveals above their heads a dazzling painting, already in place, already finished. Pandemonium. "A drawing is easily misunderstood," he explained. "While I was about it, I preferred to see it through. But if my work is displeasing to you, gentlemen, I will give it to you. Not to you, but to San Rocco, your patron, who has done so much for me." This forced their hand and the rascal knew it, for the rules of the Brotherhood prohibited their refusing religious donations. All that remained was for them to make the episode a matter of record in the Scuola: "On this day the undersigned Jacopo Tintoretto, painter, presented to us a painting; he asked no remuneration, promises to complete the work if requested to do so, and states that he is satisfied with it." And the undersigned wrote in his turn: "Io Jachomo Tentoretto pintor contento et prometo ut supra."
Satisfied? Why not? His gift spreads panic among his competitors, opens to him every door of the Scuola, places its vast, barren walls at the mercy of his brush and finally brings him an annual pension of a hundred ducats. So satisfied is he, in short, that he repeats the gambit in 1571. At the Doge's Palace this time, authorities wishing to commemorate the battle of Lepanto, organize a contest. Instead of a sketch Tintoretto brings a canvas and presents it as a gift. It is accepted with gratitude; shortly thereafter he sends his bill.
In his base but charming shenanigans one is tempted to see, perhaps, a trait attributable more to morals than to character. We might with some degree of accuracy say that ostentation was characteristic not of Tintoretto but of his century. If an attempt were made to condemn him on the basis of these anecdotes, I know everything that might be said in his defense. The most telling argument is that no one at that time could work for himself. Today paintings are in demand; then painters were for sale. They lined the market place like the bracciante in the southern towns; buyers came, examined all of them, singled out one and took him to their church, their scuola or their palazzo. Artists had to make themselves available, to advertise themselves as our directors do, to accept just any work in the same way that our directors accept just any scenario in the foolish hope of using it to display their talents. Everything was under contract: the subject, number, quality, and sometimes even the attitude of the figures, and the dimensions of the canvas; these were complemented by restrictions imposed by traditions relating to religion and to taste. Their clients had their moods just as our producers have their whims. And their clients—alas!—they, too, had their sudden inspirations; at their bidding, everything had to be reworked. In the palace of the Medici, Benozzo Gozzoli was for a long time knowingly tortured by idiotic patrons; and we need only compare Tintoretto's Paradise in the Louvre with the one in the Doge's Palace to understand the magnitude of the pressures to which he was subjected. Intransigence, rejection of compromise, the superb choice of misery were out of the question since the artist had to provide for his family and keep his studio in operation, as present-day machines are. In sum, he had to renounce painting or to paint according to instructions. No one can blame Tintoretto for wishing to become rich. As a matter of fact, toward the middle of his life he was never out of work, never lacked money. This utilitarian artist followed the principle that nothing is done for nothing, that painting would be a mere pastime unless it produced some income. At long last, as we shall see, he will buy a comfortable plebeian house in a residential district. This purchase will crown his career, exhaust his savings, leave the Robusti children with only a ludicrous heritage to divide: the contents of his studio, a diminishing clientele, and the house itself, which is passed on to the oldest son, then to his son-in-law. Twelve years after the death of her husband, Faustina recalls bitterly that he left his family in need; she has every reason to complain, for the deceased had his own way. He liked money, of course, but in the American way. He saw in it nothing more than the external sign of success. At the bottom, this contract chaser sought only one thing: the means of practicing his craft. There is also an element of justice in his shenanigans, for they would be inconceivable without his professional talent, hard work, and speed. His speed gives him an advantage, for to paint a good picture he requires only the time taken by others to make bad sketches.
Furthermore, if he plagiarized Veronese, the latter repaid him in kind. Their reciprocal borrowings must be viewed through the eyes of their contemporaries. For many of their contemporaries the greatest painters are those who have met the test of certain social criteria; they are personalities defined by collective judgment. We are interested in a particular painting at first, and then in the particular man who painted it; we hang Matisse on our walls. But contrast our view with that of the Crociferi: they were not interested in Cagliari; they wanted a certain style that appealed to the senses, trifles, inoffensive and harmonious pomp; they knew a trademark, a slogan. A painting signed Veronese is certain to please. That is what they wanted, nothing else. Cagliari could produce better works and proved it when he painted his Terrible Crucifixion, but he was too shrewd a businessman to squander his genius. Under such conditions we could hardly blame Tintoretto for appropriating at times a style that belonged exclusively to no one. After all, he made an honest proposal: "You want something trite and lifelike? I will provide it."
Excerpted from Essays in Aesthetics by Jean-Paul Sartre, Wade Baskin. Copyright © 2011 Philosophical Library, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Philosophical Library.
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