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July 2000

Battle Field

Tintoretto-acclaimed painter of dramatic scenes

For thousands of years the rulers of the world have embellished their palaces with paintings and sculptures, which demonstrate their power and legitimize their position. And what better means to express the strength and sovereignty of a ruler than to represent him in battle? No doubt these were the thoughts of Guglielmo Gonzaga when he commissioned a cycle of eight paintings for his Palazzo Ducale in Mantua in 1574. The cycle was to chronicle the rise to power of the ruling Gonzaga family, starting with the elevation of Gianfrancesco to the rank of marquis in 1433.

All paintings, except the first and last in the series, were to depict his ancestors in battle. This aspect was so essential that history was rewritten for one painting: the only war in which Lodovico II fought was one against his own brother, yet here he would be celebrated as the victor in a battle actually won by his father. Four paintings were to show the battle exploits of Federico II, father of Guglielmo, who was bestowed the title of duke in 1530 by Emperor Charles V. Rather uncharacteristically, Duke Guglielmo did not wish to be portrayed as the last glorious link in the chain of ancestors, but instead dedicated the final painting to his brother Francesco III, second Duke of Mantua, who died at the age of 17.

For this grand project, Guglielmo did not rely on local artists, but chose the most prominent Italian painter of the time, the Venetian Jacopo Robusti (1518–1594), better known as Tintoretto, a name derived from his father’s profession as a dyer. Tintoretto was a clever choice for the subject matter. The master had by then made a name for himself as a history painter, executing innumerable commissions at hitherto unimagined speed. Indeed, the unorthodox, rough brushwork engendered by such speed became a trademark of Tintoretto’s style. His art was one of rapid action and passionate emotion, and was therefore particularly suited for rendering the drama of battle. He executed the Gonzaga commission in less than two years, completing the cycle in 1580.

In his paintings, Tintoretto developed a technique that allowed him to fill the canvas swiftly while focusing on the tension between light and dark. He primed his canvases with flat dark tones of greens, browns or slate gray, sometimes dividing the surface into more than one color area. This foundation served as the basic tone for the shadows. The figures from the preliminary sketches were then cursorily outlined on the dark priming, before being painted in with bright colors. As a result, the underlying darks always dominate Tintoretto’s pictures, in which the action, particularly in the Gonzaga cycle, often looks as though it were taking place in the middle of a thunderstorm, illuminated by sudden flashes of lightning. Such dramatic chiaroscuro effects were ideally suited to the heroic depictions of fighting scenes.

Further visual elements served to heighten the violent mise-en-scène of the action. Tintoretto made frequent and deft use of foreshortening, representing the body in unusual poses. His compositions were often built up on exploding centers or rapidly receding diagonals. Repoussoir figures in the foreground and at the sides of the canvas gave depth to the painting. Banners functioned like curtains on a stage. Finally, this orchestrated drama was strengthened by Tintoretto’s unusual use of color, particularly visible in the clothes, where sparkling greens might be combined with mute pinks or velvety reds.

Eventually, the Gonzaga family found itself in straitened circumstances, and was forced to sell the paintings, which ended up in the collections of the Wittelsbach Electors, and, by 1910, the Alte Pinakothek. There they are hung two rows above other, more widely known Venetian masters, and only rarely do visitors lift their eyes to these darkened works of art.

This much-neglected group of paintings has now been selected for a special exhibition at the Alte Pinakothek. For the first time, the paintings are shown at eye level, allowing the visitor to inspect the vibrant colors and vigorous brushwork up close. The show also unites all known preparatory sketches for the paintings. One room is dedicated to X-ray pictures of the works, highlighting the sketched outlines and late changes made by the artist. This is a unique chance to see the work of the artist at close range. Perhaps you will even agree with Francesco Sansovino, a Venitian contemporary of Tintoretto’s, who summed up the master’s work as being “tutto spirito, tutto prontezza” (all spirit, all speed!) <<<

“Tintoretto: The Gonzaga Cycle” is on display until August 27, 2000 at the Alte Pinakothek, Barer Strasse 27, Tel. (089) 238 052. Museum hours are Tues., Wed., and Fri.-Sun. 10-17, and Thurs. 10-22.

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