‘Venice’s Sistine Chapel’ was painted by Tintoretto over a 23-year period. Like Michelangelo, he worked alone without assistants; like Michelangelo he created a visionary cycle of paintings from the depths of the imagination.
Founded in 1478, the Scuola< di San Rocco was dedicated to caring for the ill, especially those ill with plague. Bartolomeo Bon the Younger designed the new confraternity’s headquarters, though it was hardly completed when the Venetians nabbed the relics of St Roch from Montpellier. With subsequent outbreaks of plague, donations poured in, hoping to secure Roch’s aid, but also so enriching the Scuola that Bon’s building was given a beautiful, lively façade by Scarpagnino in 1549.
To embellish the interior, a competition was held for the Scuola’s inaugural painting. Four artists (including Paolo Veronese) were asked to bring a preparatory sketch to the judges on a certain day, but Tintoretto won the contest by a blatantly unfair trick: rather than make a mere sketch of St Roch being Received into Heaven, he finished a painting, place it in the ceiling oval it was destined for, and rigged it up behind a curtain, unveiling it with a flourish and offering it as a gift to the confraternity.
To the outrage of the other competitors, the judges accepted this fait accompli, especially when Tintoretto offered to finish the ceiling for free. It commissioned more works from him up until 1585, when he had covered nearly every square inch with an extraordinary 54 paintings.
Tintoretto strove to depict even the most conventional subjects from a fresh point of view, often working out his compositions in his little box-stages, with wax figures and unusual lighting effects. But unlike the virtuoso theatrics of the Baroque, Tintoretto’s fireworks come entirely from within the subjects, and ignite their spiritual meanings. Vertigo is not an uncommon response.
To follow the development of Tintoretto, begin where he did, upstairs in the Sala dell’Albergo, just off the main hall. In the middle of the ceiling is his prize-winning panel, the Glory of St Roch, though it has since been completely overpowered by the vast Crucifixion (1565), the greatest and most engrossing work in the cycle, where the noble sacrifice is the central drama of a cosmically busy human world.
When you can draw your eye away, there are more Tintorettos on the opposite wall: The Way to Calvary, Christ Crowned with Thorns and Christ before Pilate. The easel painting of Christ Bearing the Cross (1510), long attributed to Giorgione, is now generally thought to be a Titian, and was venerated as a holy picture in the church of San Rocco, while the Pietà is believed to be by a pupil of Giorgione.
1 God appearing Moses
2 Vision of Ezekiel
3 Elisha Feeding the Multitude
4 Moses and the Pillar of Fire
5 Jacob’s Ladder
6 Elisha Fed by an Angel in the Desert
7 Adam and Eve
8 Moses Bringing Forth Water from the Rock
9 Jonah Emerging from the Whale
10 The Miracle of the Brazen Serpent
11 The Sacrifice of Issac
12 The Fall of Manna in the Desert
13 The Passover
15 Christ at Bethesda
16 The Temptation of Christ
17 San Rocco
18 Vision of San Rocco
19 San Sebastiano
20 Adoration of the Shepherds
21 Baptism of Christ
23 Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane
24 Last Supper
25 Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes
26 Resurrection of Lazarus
Tintoretto frescoed the adjacent Chapter House (see plan), in an intense period between 1575–81, with a programme of Old Testament scenes on the ceiling. The three dominant panels are the stunning Moses Bringing Forth Water from the Rock, The Miracle of the Brazen Serpent, and The Fall of Manna in the Desert.
All the smaller paintings are just as remarkable; the only works not by Tintoretto are the chiaroscuro panels along the sides repainted for some reason in the 1770s. Lining the walls are New Testament scenes, if anything even more dizzyingly conceived.
The satirical allegorical carvings on the benches and trompe l’œil bookcases beneath them were added in the late 17th century by Francesco Pianta as an antidote to the mystically feverish paintings; Tintoretto himself, holding a bunch of brushes, represents Painting (near the high altar), while the comical figure of the cloak-and-dagger Spy (Curiosity) is perhaps the most endearing piece of sculpture in Venice. If you have the time, you can follow the other allegories conveniently listed by Pianta himself by the main entrance.
Other works crying out for your attention are the easel painting by the altar: Titian’s Annunciation, Tintoretto’s Visitation, and Giambattista Tiepolo’s Abraham and the Angels and Hagar and the Angels, the last works acquired by the Confraternity in 1785.
The last set of paintings Tintoretto did for the Scuola are downstairs, but, as you descend Scarpagnino’s grand staircase, take a look at the two large canvases commemorating the end of the 1630 plague, by Antonio Zanchi and Pietro Negri, Tintoretto-esque paintings that more than anything bring out the unique qualities of the real thing.
The paintings devoted to the life of the Virgin in the Ground Floor Hall (1583–7) were executed in Tintoretto’s last years, when (unlike Michelangelo) he mellowed enough to take in landscapes – and few by any artist can match the luscious charm of The Flight into Egypt, or the autumnal essences in the Mary Magdalene and St Mary in Egypt, both shown reading books. But he never compromised on the blasts when the subject was of blasting importance: The Annunciation startles the viewer as much as Mary, and the Massacre of the Innocents is aptly horrible and confusing.
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Campo San Rocco
Vaporetto: San Tomà
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Images by: PD Art, Dana Facaros and Michael Pauls