On December 20, 1577 disaster struck Venice. The Doge’s Palace – the architectural gem of the Venetian Republic – was hit with a devastating fire, leaving massive damage to the southern portion of the building. The damage was so great that some wondered if the whole Palace shouldn’t be torn down and rebuilt. It was quickly realized, however, that no structure could ever replace the history embodied by the building. A decision was made to restore the Palace, keeping intact the Venetian gothic architectural style of the original. The work proceeded rapidly, with much of the building architecturally restored within a year. The decoration of the building, however, would take considerably longer. The fire had destroyed a number of priceless works of art, including pieces by Titian, Gentile da Fabriano, and Giovanni Bellini, among others. But perhaps most gutting of all was the destruction of Guariento di Arpo’s beloved 14th century fresco depicting the crowning of the Virgin Mary in Paradise. It would take 15 years to replace this work. In that period, multiple artists would be chosen for the commission, only to come up short. In the end, it was the great artist Tintoretto who at last restored to the Palace its lost Paradise.
A Fresco for A Fresco
After the fire of 1577, a commission of noblemen was established to lead the monumental restoration efforts. The Commission immediately set about working on a solution to replace di Arpo’s fresco of Paradise. The first challenge was to find an artist of sufficient skill to complete the work. Skilled fresco painters were in short supply in Venice. The humid and salty climate of the city was not kind to frescoes, generating a strong preference for oil on canvas among Venetian patrons. Thus few, if any, Venetian painters had the requisite experience to take on a project of this magnitude. The Commission consequently turned to Federico Zuccari, an artist then in Venice but who was most known for his work in Rome and Florence, two cities where fresco painting rivaled oil in popularity.
Zuccari must have felt like an inspired choice initially. It wasn’t long, however, before he began to struggle. While he had worked in Venice before, his painting style strongly reflected the Central Italian style he had emerged from. His initial designs for the fresco, while in keeping with the classicized tradition then in vogue in Rome, were almost too conventional. Against the dream like compositions being created by Venetian artists like Veronese and Tintoretto, Zuccari’s design felt stiff, even unimaginative. Perhaps most provocatively, Zuccari’s designed his work around Roman style arches, which clashed with the straight cross-beam roofs characteristic of Venetian gothic architecture. As the Commission had decided to retain this architecture in the Great Council Hall, Zuccari’s design became unworkable.
A year went by with Zuccari never receiving approval from the Senate to begin. Zuccari believed this to be due to the Senate’s complete preoccupation with a war then under way in the Near East. This may, however, have just been a face saving explanation offered to him as the Commission sought to extricate themselves from any prior arrangement. Once Zuccari had departed the city, the Commission decided an oil painting might work after all. The area to be covered by the painting was massive, but recent works by Tintoretto and others had shown that canvases could be stitched together to make larger works without leaving visible seems.
Thus, between 1579 and 1582, the Commission put out a call for proposals to replace the lost Paradise with a monumental canvas. The Commission received submissions from all of city’s leading artists, including Palma Giovane, Paolo Veronese, Francesco Bassano, and Tintoretto. In the end, it was Veronese’s and Bassano’s work which won the Commission over. Veronese’s proposal in particular proved enchanting. Taking a cue from Dante’s Divine Comedy, Veronese’s proposal depicts concentric rings of saints and blessed souls converging on the crowning of the Virgin on top. The colors are those of dawn; while the atmosphere feels ephemeral, almost haunting. It was far more in tune with the reining Venetian aesthetics than Zuccari’s earlier bid.
Tintoretto’s Take on Paradise
Unfortunately for the restoration effort, Veronese would die before completing the commission. As Bassano had yet to begin his portion, the Commission held another competition for the work in 1588. Over a decade after the fire, work was again at square one. This time, Tintoretto was chosen to provide the painting of Paradise. The artist was then at the high watermark of his career, having just completed his revolutionary narrative cycles at the Scuola di San Rocco (see my post about it, here). In the intervening years, he had also done other restoration work in the Palace, proving his reliability.
In the initial competition six years earlier, Tintoretto had proposed a bright work. His proposal (which is now in the Louvre) shows groups of figures floating on clouds around the image of Christ crowning the Virgin. The spatial configuration of the groupings has a harmony and rhythm to it, giving the piece a lightness which contrasts with Veronese’s denser design. It is a classic Tintoretto painting, showing all the hallmarks of the innovative style Tintoretto had become known for. However, as a condition of his being awarded the commission, Tintoretto agreed to abandon his earlier proposal and instead follow through on Veronese’s original vision.
Of course, he took some liberties, with the resulting work ultimately coming out somewhere in between both Tintoretto’s and Veronese’s original Paradise designs. While adopting the spatial configuration of Veronese, the coloring is more reminiscent of Tintoretto’s work at San Rocco, dark at the edges but becoming lighter around Christ and the Virgin. Angels, saints, and blessed souls float around them, many visibly moved by the honor Christ bestows on the Virgin. The sheer number of figures and the detail with which they are depicted is astounding. As with Tintoretto’s other works, one can see the echoes of Michelangelo in the sculpture-like quality of many of the figures.
Perhaps most importantly, Tintoretto correctly read the room, perfectly channeling the desires of his patrons into the work. Despite the religious theme, this was a painting for the state, not a church altar. Its function was to elevate the statesman who presided beneath the painting. Thus in the picture, we see a shaft of light running against the overall lighting scheme. It descends downward from Christ into the area of the room where the Doge and other Senate officials would have sat during sessions of the Great Council. These officials thus revel in Christ’s glory, seemingly elevated into the courtly Paradise depicted above them. In this way, divine glory is shared with the earthly rulers of the Venetian Republic.
The Master’s Workshop
Tintoretto’s work was received rapturously by the Senate. A full 15 years after the previous work was destroyed, Venice at last had its new Paradise. Tintoretto’s success in the end may seem somewhat improbable, perhaps only made possible by Veronese’s death. Veronese, however, was awarded the commission six years before his death, making very little progress during the intervening timeframe. Tintoretto, on the other hand, completed the entire work in just four years. As it turns out, Tintoretto was uniquely suited for a work of this scale due to a talent for which he had long been ridiculed – his prestezza, or speed.
As art historian Tom Nichols writes, Tintoretto’s prestezza largely came about as a result of the patrons he served. Artists like Veronese, who painted for Venice’s patrician class, could turn a high income off a relatively small number of paintings. Among this select group of elite painters, speed was not important. Tintoretto never had such luxury. He produced paintings for a broad range of patrons, often at highly discounted prices. Thus, for him, the speed of production was not just a virtue, it was an economic necessity.
Tintoretto’s speed (captured by his nickname – il furioso) came about from both the actual rapidity of his painting and the workshop he meticulously built around him. A lot of attention is given to the former quality, but the workshop was also important, especially as Tintoretto aged. By the time Tintoretto took on the Paradise commission, his workshop was a well-oiled machine. Young painters (including Tintoretto’s children) were brought in at a young age, trained, and then given responsibilities appropriate to their artistic maturity. The output of his workshop was of such high quality that modern historians often have trouble distinguishing the paintings done by Tintoretto’s hand and those done by the artists who worked for him.
Neither Veronese nor other leading Venetian artists devoted this much attention to their workshop. They didn’t need to – their business was built around the reputation of the master. A strong workshop might actually have worked against them if patrons felt they weren’t getting a work done by the master’s hand. The result of this, however, was that when faced with the enormous logistical challenge presented by Paradise, Veronese was flummoxed. Tintoretto, on the hand, never even attempted to complete the work by himself. His son Domenico and undoubtedly many others from the workshop all chipped in, leveraging the training provided by the master to make one of the finest paintings ever created. More than anything else, it was this attention Tintoretto gave to the training of the next generation of artists which uniquely enabled him to create this stunning work.
Sources/Further Reading on Tintoretto’s Paradise
- For more on another monumental work by Tintoretto, see this post on the artist’s gravity defying Miracle of the Slave.
- For more on the fire of 1577 (and other disasters to have hit the Doges’ Palace), see this site.
- Voss, Hermann. “A Project of Federico Zuccari for the ‘Paradise’ in the Doges’ Palace.” The Burlington Magazine, vol. 96, no. 615, The Burlington Magazine Publications Ltd., 1954, pp. 172–75
- Nichols, Tom. “Tintoretto: Tradition and Identity.” London. Reaktion. 1999