On September 24, 1845, John Ruskin wrote an unguardedly rapturous letter to his father from Venice, describing the momentous impact onhim of the paintings he had seen earlier that day by Jacopo Tintoretto, at the Scuola di San Rocco:
I have had a draught of pictures today enough to drown me. I never was so utterly crushed to the earth before any human intellect as I was today, before Tintoret. Just be so good as to take my list of painters, & put him in the school of Art at the top, top, top of everything, with a great big black line underneath him to stop him off from everybody–and put him in the school of Intellect, next after Michael Angelo. He took it so entirely out of me today that I could do nothing at last but lie on a bench & laugh…. M Angelo himself cannot hurl figures into space as he does, nor did M Angelo ever paint space itself which would not look like a nutshell beside Tintoret’s.
Tintoretto is hardly a household name, and it certainly holds little of the aura that Ruskin’s effusive language implies, especially not in comparison with that of Michelangelo. Part of the reason is that most of Tintoretto’s work is permanently installed on the walls and ceilings of Venice, where the artist spent his entire life. That is why no one would have been able to form much of a picture of his staggering artistic achievement unless they had spent some time in Venice. “I had always thought him a good & clever & forcible painter,” Ruskin wrote, “but I had not the smallest notion of his enormous powers…. It is marvelously lucky I came here, or I might have disgraced myself for ever by speaking slightly of Tintoret. I look upon him now, though as a less perfect painter, yet as a far greater man than Titian.” But Titian and Michelangelo, along with Leonardo and Raphael, are widely considered the first-magnitude stars of Italian art. Who other than Ruskin would have placed Tintoretto among or even above them?
One difficulty is that Tintoretto has no pivotal place in the grand art-historical narratives most of us carry with us when we visit museums. He was, unlike his fellow Venetian, Titian, not really part of the Renaissance; he belonged instead to the Mannerist era–a period still dimly understood–that came just after it, and that Tintoretto helped shape. Consider, for example, the Annunciation in San Rocco, which especially moved Ruskin. In Renaissance painting, the annunciate Virgin is depicted as receiving in sweet resignation the news of her tremendous fate, from an angel who acknowledges her purity by kneeling in her presence. That is how Fra Angelico, for example, painted the hushed scene. Tintoretto’s, by contrast, is pure noisy wildness, as the angel sweeps into the Virgin’s space with the force and clatter of a compact tornado. Ruskin’s description matches its intensity:
Not in the meek reception of the adoring messenger, but startled by the rush of his horizontal and rattling wings, the Virgin sits…not by the green pasture of the restored soul, but houseless, under the shelter of a palace vestibule ruined and abandoned, with the noise of the axe and the hammer in her ears, and the tumult of a city round about her desolation.