Confusion and Composition

As the High Renaissance passed away with Raphael, its idyllic standards of composition and balance began being challenged. The technical expertise of the Italian masters was developing to a point where change was simply necessary. Tintoretto (1519-1594) lived in this period of transformation and he was himself part of such a glorious development. Along with the Mannerist painters from Florence, his oeuvre shows the extent of the loss of Renaissance harmony. In this post, I will consider his 1565 Crucifixion and show how it re-interprets the style of the early sixteenth century.

Crucifixion – Tintoretto – 1565 – oil on canvas – ca. 5×12 m

The Crucifixion is a monumental piece, which occupies an entire wall in the Scuola Grande di San Rocco. The piece presents a realistic view of the chaotic execution of Christ on Mount Calvary. The scene is crowded from many figures, some traditional, such as the Virgin collapsing in the centre, and other less strictly related to the traditional iconography. Indeed, there are a few prominent knights on the sides which may actually be cryptoportraits of donors.  In fact, the variety of figures is not surprising per se. Rather, it is interesting to notice how Tintoretto grouped the characters unevenly. There is no trace of the Renaissance ideal of balance and overcrowded sections of the portraits are paired with shallow spaces, such as the plain area behind the cross.

The knight to the left is particularly prominent, maybe a cryptoportrait

Tintoretto did not completely ignore the principles of symmetry. The composition is set around the cross which provides an axis for the painting and the empty area behind it defines the circle of people on the borders of the image. Moreover, elements such as the ladder in the foreground remind us the geometrical construction of the scene through linear perspective. Therefore, we can notice that the painter was particularly careful in dosing confusion and balance while assembling his composition. This clever arrangement maintains the centrality of Christ while more variety is added through a plethora of figures attending different tasks.

The Mannerist aesthetic of Tintoretto consists of a careful balance between employing the traditional norms and rejecting them. In this regard, the symmetry of his work is paired with the uneven alternation of crowded and empty areas. The claustrophobic bird’s eye perspective, which shows the pictorial space narrowing as it proceeds toward the landscape, contributes to the suffocating aura of chaos and upheaval, further reinforced by the dark colours and the lively pose of each character.

The Crucifixion is quite a complete example of Tintoretto’s style, which embodies the vibrant nature of Venetian colouring and the chaotic Mannerist wit. In fact, his artworks embody the interplay between rule and license that is typical of the mid-sixteenth century and bring it to a level of technical perfection which is Renaissance in its forms but much more modern in its purpose. Tintoretto tells a story of evolution and growth, whose core narrative is the painful detachment from the withering tropes of harmony and pictorial confidence that the Renaissance intellectuals fostered overconfidently.


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Alessandro M. Rubin Written by:

Cambridge History of Art alumnus. Passionate early-modernist, curious about contemporary art and aesthetic theory.

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