Self-portrait *oil on panel *45.7 x 36.8 cm *ca. 1548

How Tintoretto won a commission

Jacopo Robusti (c. 1519-1594) was one of the greatest artists of the Italian Renaissance, but his name may well be unfamiliar. That is because he is universally known by his nickname of Tintoretto. This means “little dyer” and is a reference to his father’s profession as a dyer of silk cloth in Venice.

Jacopo did not follow his father’s trade for long, but became apprenticed to the great Venetian artist Titian, who quickly recognized that his pupil was so talented and original that he had little to learn from his master.

Not only was Tintoretto a brilliant wielder of a paintbrush, but he was also extremely quick-witted and not above using trickery to get his way when it came to winning commissions for his services.

In 1564 a competition was announced by the committee of the Brotherhood of San Rocco in Venice. They wanted the interior of the Brotherhood building (also known as the Scuola Grande, next door to the church of San Rocco) to be decorated, and wished to start with the central roundel of the ceiling. Four artists, including Tintoretto, were invited to submit designs and a date was set for when the results would be considered.

However, Tintoretto could see a way of beating his rivals. When nobody was about he climbed up the scaffolding that was in place and measured the exact area of the roundel. He went back to his studio and worked on a canvas in double-quick time. He then slipped back into the Brotherhood building and stuck his canvas in place.

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(The completed central roundel)

When the committee members next looked up at the roundel, there was Tintoretto’s design. There was a certain amount of annoyance directed at the artist, both from the committee and the other artists, but Tintoretto simply announced that the painting was a gift for which he asked no fee. The policy of the Brotherhood was never to refuse a gift, so they never even considered the other designs but accepted Tintoretto’s contribution there and then.

Not only that, but they felt honour bound to give Tintoretto the commission to work on the rest of the building, which kept him busy (and paid) for the next 24 years.

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(The Scuola Grande di San Rocco, Venice)

There was never any question that Tintoretto’s work was not of the very highest quality, which suggests that his little trick might not have been necessary in the first place. It is still possible to see Tintoretto’s work in the Scola Grande, which is considered to be some of the best he ever did, and it is universally agreed that the committee made the right decision, although maybe not for the right reasons.

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(The Crucifixion, by Tintoretto)


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