Art of the Plague Saint: Tintoretto at the Scuola Grande di San Rocco

Interior view of the upper hall of the Scuola Grande di San Rocco.  A statue appears in the foreground.  Tintoretto's altarpiece hangs in the background.  A part of the ornate gilt ceiling is visible overhead.
The altar in the chapter hall of the meeting house of the Scuola Grande di San Rocco. © Artifacts

In 1575, Tintoretto began work on his masterpiece – the monumental narrative paintings decorating the chapter hall of the Scuola Grande di San Rocco.  This was no ordinary commission.  The Scuola Grande was one of the most prestigious institutions in Venice and the custodian of the relics of Saint Roch, the patron saint of plague victims.  Over the next six years, Tintoretto would paint 33 monumental works to fill the massive chapter hall, decorating every surface but the floor.  In these works, we see Tintoretto’s unique style reach its fullest expression.  His swirling compositions with their sharp chiaroscuro bring to a fever pitch the emotional resonance of these traditional Christian subjects.  To see these 33 paintings by Tintoretto in one room of the meeting house of the Scuola Grande di San Rocco is overpowering.  If there were ever a Venetian retort to Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel, this is it.

Tintoretto and the Scuola Grande di San Rocco

The Scuola Grande di San Rocco (or the Great School of Saint Roch) was one of several lay confraternities which emerged in Venice between the 13th and 16th centuries.  These religious brotherhoods were formed among Venice’s middle class and generally excluded both clergy and the nobility from leadership positions.  While primarily dedicated to charity, the six “great schools” (of which San Rocco was one) also functioned as a sort of social club for its membership, many of whom worked in similar professions. 

Self-portrait of Tintoretto showing the artist advanced in age.  His dark and simple clothing contrasts with the large white beard.
Tintoretto self-portrait (oil on canvas, c. 1588). (wikicommons)

Tintoretto (born Jacopo Robusti) joined the Scuola Grande di San Rocco in 1565, eventually rising to hold a number of leadership positions.  He had much in common with the other brothers of the Scuola.  Like them, he styled himself a skilled craftsman, an identification echoed in his moniker – Tintoretto – which means “little dyer.” 

This moniker was a reference to the profession of his father, a fabric dyer by trade (an industry in which about a quarter of the Scuola’s members also worked in).  The moniker and its association with the middle class set him apart from Venice’s other elite artists, who styled themselves intellectuals – on par with poets or philosophers. 

Ironically, Tintoretto’s embrace of his middle class roots turned many of the brothers of the Scuola against him.  To these conservatively minded individuals, Tintoretto’s rejection of the reining ethos of the painting profession tainted his work and, by extension, the patrons who commissioned it.  

Tintoretto’s Art and Its Detractors

These suspicion did have some basis in Tintoretto’s work.  Tintoretto’s experimental painting style was seen by many as a rebuke to existing artistic conventions.  For one, his compositions are full of dynamic figures, arranged in spatially striking configurations with little precedent in Venetian art.  Furthermore, his dry brush and glazing techniques (which added texture and depth of color) left visible brush strokes, contrasting with the more finished images typical of other leading artists of the day.

Of course, as evidenced by Tintoretto’s professional success, he also had plenty of supporters, many of whom occupied important positions throughout Venice.  These supporters found Tintoretto’s unique painting technique invigorating, seeing in it the opening of new vistas of expressive potential.

This controversy would come to a head in an open competition held in 1564 for the Scuola’s first major commission at its meeting house.  In this competition, the matter of competing artistic tastes was at last settled, paving the way for Tintoretto to complete his masterful decoration of the Scuola’s meeting house.  The road to this competition, however, was long. To understand how it unfolded, we first have to take a look at the history of the Scuola Grande di San Rocco, including the cult of St Roch from which it emerged. 

The Life and Cult of St Roch

Founded in 1478, the Scuola Grande di San Rocco formed just as the cult of St Roch was reaching new heights of popularity in Northern Italy.  St Roch was the patron saint of plague victims.  At a time in which outbreaks of plague continued to wreak havoc across Europe, many sought the Saint’s protection in their prayers. 

Painting of St Roch by Francesco Ribalta.  St Roch is seen displaying the bubo on his upper thigh, a symptom of the plague.  A dog with a loaf of bread sits at the bottom.
Saint Roch by Francesco Ribalta (oil on canvas, c. 1625). Saint Roch displays the bubo on his inner thigh, a common symptom of the plague. (wikicommons)

St Roch’s legend was seemingly perfectly crafted to meet the needs of the time.  According to his hagiographies, he was born on the border of Italy and France in 1295.  A French nobleman, he gave away all his wealth at an early age and set out on a pilgrimage to Rome.  As he travelled through Italy, he visited hospitals, miraculously curing any plague sufferers present.  Eventually, he caught the plague himself, retiring to the woods to convalesce alone.  With divine help, he recovered and resumed his travels.  His freedom, however, would be short lived.  He soon entered a region governed by his uncle, whose men arrested him on suspicion that he was a spy. 

St Roch would die in captivity five years later.  According to legend, while on his deathbed, St Roch was visited by an angel.  The angel told him that before he died, God would grant him one wish.  Saint Roch asked that any plague sufferer who prayed to God in his name be cured.  This wish, we are told, was granted.

Despite this promise of divine intercession, St Roch remained an obscure figure until the mid-15th century, when his cult began to take off in Northern and Central Italy.  Once established in these regions, it wasn’t long before veneration of the saint spread to other parts of Europe.  This was in no small part due to a tract written by Venetian author Francesco Diedo on the life of St Roch. Published in Latin and Italian in 1479, the tract became wildly popular. Other writings on the life of St Roch soon followed.  Aided by the recent advent of the printing press, these writings quickly made their way throughout Europe, greatly boosting St Roch’s profile in the public imagination. 

St Roch’s sudden emergence as a popular figure almost a century and a half after his death appears to have bothered some Church leaders at the time.  As historian Louise Marshall notes, no family records or contemporary first-hand accounts substantiating St Roch’s miracles (or existence) were ever located.  In fact, the documentation of St Roch’s life was so thin that as late as 1590, Pope Sixtus V threatened to remove him from the ranks of the saints unless further proof of his miracles could be provided. 

Though Sixtus relented following protests from the Venetian Ambassador, doubts about the veracity of the hagiographical accounts continued.  These doubts, however, never appear to have taken hold outside the upper echelons of the clergy.

The Relics of St Roch

The rapid rise in St Roch’s popularity led to the establishment of a number of religious organizations throughout Northern Italy dedicated to his memory.  Among these, Venice’s Scuola Grande di San Rocco emerged as the most important, a status affirmed after it acquired St Roch’s remains in 1485.

No one appears to have asked many questions about how this happened.  Leaders of the Scuola said the relics had been stolen by a friar from a hospital in Voghera and brought to Venice.  The story nicely paralleled the narrative by which the relics of Venice’s patron Saint – St Mark – were brought to the city.  As Venice was already a focal point for the worship of St Roch, it was perhaps felt that the city was a natural resting place for the famous holy man’s earthly remains. 

Image of the casket of St Roch in the Chiesa di San Rocco in Venice.  Standing on the casket is a statue of the saint.
The tomb of St Roch behind the high altar of the Chiesa di San Rocco in Venice. (credit: Didier Descouens/wikicommons/CC BY-SA 4.0)

As the custodian of St Roch’s relics, the Scuola’s profile grew rapidly.  This drew generous donations, which allowed the Scuola to construct a church in which to house the saint’s relics.  Work began on the church in 1489.  Upon its completion in 1508, the Scuola had St Roch’s relics entombed behind the high altar, where they remain to this day.

Tintoretto’s First Work for the Scuola Grande di San Rocco

The Church of St Roch (Chiesa di San Rocco) is where Tintoretto did his first work for the Scuola Grande.  In 1549, the Scuola commissioned Tintoretto to paint St Roch Healing the Plague-Stricken.  It came just a year after Tintoretto had completed his highly acclaimed (though somewhat controversial) Miracle of the Slave for the Scuola Grande di San Marco, a rival to the Scuola di San Rocco.

The scene depicts St Roch in a hospital making the sign of the cross over a plague victim’s bubo – a swollen lymph node in the upper thigh which was a symptom of the plague.  The work has a sharp light-dark contrast (chiaroscuro), which while illuminating the foreground, leaves the background lost in shadow.  As you peer into the shadow, the scene grows thematically darker.  A corpse lies on the ground behind where St Roch is standing, its head lost in the darkness.  Looking further back, we can see the outlines of two men placing another corpse into a sack.  A barely visible priest stands behind them, likely to accompany the body to its burial.

Image of St Roch Healing the Plague-Stricken by Tintoretto in the Chiesa di San Rocco.
St Roch Healing the Plague-Stricken by Tintoretto (oil on canvas, 1549). On display at the Chiesa di San Rocco, Venice. (wikicommons)

In the midst of this gloomy scene stands St Roch, who offers a glimmer of hope to the suffering.  The act he performs – making the sign of the cross above a man’s bubo – is said to have cured many a plague victim.  This painting offers a key insight into why St Roch held such appeal to so many across Europe.  In an age in which medical science could do little to help those suffering from plague, St Roch offered some hope to those who otherwise faced a dim prognosis. 

After completing the painting, Tintoretto sought admission to the Scuola Grande di San Rocco – a customary courtesy extended to artists whose works the Scuola commissioned.  Surprisingly, the Scuola did not accept him into its ranks.  This snub followed a similar decision by the Scuola Grande di San Marco, who while accepting Tintoretto’s work, also did not extend him membership.  The case of San Rocco is especially surprising given Tintoretto’s family background in the dyeing industry – which as noted above, about a quarter of the members of the Scuola di San Rocco also worked in. Though he would be admitted to the Scuola in the 1560’s, this initial refusal shows the strong feelings held by members of the Scuola toward Tintoretto, who while having many friends in high places, also had influential detractors.

The Meeting House

Image of the front exterior of the Scuola Grande di San Rocco's meeting house and the Chiesa di San Rocco.
The exteriors of the Scuola Grande di San Rocco’s meeting house (left) and the Chiesa di San Rocco (right). ©Artifacts

Though the Scuola would eventually call Tintoretto back to paint three more works for the church, it would be decades later when he was much better established.  The delay in commissioning further works for the church may have been due to the Scuola’s need to divert its attention to the construction of its long delayed and over budget new meeting house.  The series of disagreements between the Scuola’s architects and its members regarding the design of the meeting house were widely known throughout Venice.  The cost overruns that resulted from changing leadership and designs deeply damaged the institution in the eyes of the public and even drew condemnation from the Venetian government.

Construction of the meeting house began in 1517, nine years after the church had been consecrated.  The Scuola chose the architect Bortolomeo Bon (who had designed the church) to lead the project.  He would serve as lead architect for seven years before the Scuola dismissed him for straying too far from their preferred designs.  Another architect, Sante Lombardo, worked on the building for another three years until the Scuola’s leaders dismissed him as well.  In 1528, the confraternity engaged Antonio Abbondi (known as Scarpagnino).  He oversaw work on the building until his death in 1549, making substantial progress during his 21 years on the job.  Following his death, the Scuola engaged one last architect, Giangiacomo dei Grigi, who finally finished the building in 1560, 43 years after the cornerstone had been laid.

Over the course of the entire project, the Scuola spent around 47,000 ducats, a staggering sum far out of proportion with the scope of the project.  The expense incurred by the Scuola in building its lavish meeting house made it the target of popular ridicule.  During a time when there were so many in need of charity, many wondered how the Scuola (a charitable institution) could possibly justify such expense. 

Romans and Republicans

According to art historian Tom Nichols, the prolonged and costly effort to build the new meeting house was in large part due to growing divisions within the Scuola itself. Nichols notes that Venetian society in the 16th century was increasingly divided among two poles.  At the one end were those who sought to emulate the tastes of the Venetian patrician class, who increasingly gravitated toward the more ostentations classical tastes then prevalent in Rome and other European capitals.  On the other end were those who looked back on Venice’s Republican traditions, which prized self-restraint and moderation. 

Close up of the classical columns and decorative motifs which run across the façade of the Scuola Grande di San Rocco's meeting house.
Detail of the exterior façade of the Scuola Grande di San Rocco’s meeting house. ©photoclaudio/stock.adobe.com

The brothers of the Scuola Grande di San Rocco, as with the other confraternities in Venice, were torn between these two poles.  For a time, the faction supporting the more ostentatious décor preferred by the Venetian nobility were clearly in ascendance.  This is reflected in the Roman style columns and classical motifs across the façade of the new meeting house. 

In insisting on this architectural style, it is likely that the members of the confraternity actively sought to create an institution whose splendor mirrored that of the aristocratic homes and institutions of the city.  This view, however, threatened to undercut the school in the public eye, especially when the price to achieve this equality was 47,000 ducats. 

The Competition of 1564

The humiliation over the expense incurred in building the new meeting house appears to have intensified the divide among the Scuola’s members.  When it came time to decorate the new building, many appear to have wanted to stay the course in bringing the classicizing feel of the exterior into the interior.  According to Nichols, other members of the confraternity likely understood that this would be a mistake, especially given the public scrutiny that the confraternity was then under.

This debate reached its climax in 1564, when the Scuola held a competition for the commission to paint the central ceiling panel for the new boardroom (often referred to as the sala dell’albergo).  Though an important commission in its own right, whoever won could expect a string of follow-on commissions to decorate the great halls of the Scuola’s newly built meeting house. 

The confraternity invited some of Italy’s greatest painters to compete, including Joseffo Salviati, Federico Zucchero, Paolo Veronese, and (of course) Tintoretto.  Of these four – Zucchero, Salviati, and Veronese all represented the more aristocratic painting tradition, fully embodying its classicizing tastes.  As noted above, Tintoretto had actively worked to distance himself from such associations, styling himself more humbly as a skilled artisan.

In the competition of 1564, the odds seemed stacked against Tintoretto.  As the fiasco with the building of the meeting house had demonstrated, many members of the Scuola remained firmly in the thrall of the classicizing taste of Venice’s aristocracy and were prepared to pay whatever price to get it.  One of the members of the Scuola even offered a substantial donation to pay for the decorations of the boardroom on the one condition that Tintoretto not receive the commission.  Knowing this, Tintoretto devised a strategy he knew was sure to set him apart from his competitors.  

The artists had each been given one month to submit a design for the panel to the Scuola. When the Scuola convened to judge the designs, they found that Tintoretto had done more than just make a drawing. He had painted a full canvas, even having it installed in the ceiling of the boardroom. 

The members of the Scuola where shocked.  They admonished Tintoretto for his boldness and reserved the right to withhold payment.  When asked for an explanation as to why he had not submitted a design but a fully finished work, Tintoretto famously replied that this was how he painted.  He claimed he knew of no other way to make a design and that this way, his patrons would know what they were getting.  In consolation, he suggested that if the painting was not satisfactory, he would offer it to the Scuola as a gift.  After some further internal debate, the Scuola accepted the work (as a gift), thus initiating Tintoretto’s long period of work on the meeting house of the Scuola Grand di San Rocco. 

The Apotheosis of St Roch by Tintoretto displayed on the ceiling of the boardroom of the Scuola Grande di San Rocco.
The Apotheosis of St Roch by Tintoretto (oil on canvas, 1564). This is the work with which Tintoretto derailed the competition of 1564. (wikicommons)

The Boardroom Passion Cycle

Though some members of the Scuola continued to oppose the selection of Tintoretto, Nichols points out that others likely saw the advantages of Tintoretto’s humbler professional reputation.  Given the scandal of the expenses incurred in building the meeting house, the commissioning of Tintoretto would show the Scuola’s public critics that they were mending their ways, returning to the values of moderation and self-restraint prized by earlier generations of Venetians.  Nichols even suggests that Tintoretto’s allies within the Scuola might have proposed the whole ploy to overturn the 1564 competition.

Whatever the origins of Tintoretto’s sneaky tactics, the strategy worked.  In addition to the ceiling, the Scuola commissioned Tintoretto to provide the rest of the paintings for the boardroom, which he completed between 1565 and 1567.  For the ceiling, Tintoretto painted a series of allegories, placing them around the central panel depicting St Roch in Glory (the work he had created to win the competition in 1564).  Around the walls, Tintoretto painted a series of monumental canvases following the narrative of the Passion of Christ.  The main works in this series were The Way to Cavalry, Christ Before Pilate, Ecce Homo, and The Crucifixion.  Of these paintings, it was Tintoretto’s Crucifixion which became best known.

I wrote about that work in a previous post, available here.  The painting holds pride of place in the boardroom, taking up the entire wall opposite the entrance.  In it, Tintoretto breaks with earlier depictions of the Passion of Christ, which typically focus on Christ’s suffering.  Instead, Tintoretto paints a powerful Christ, who though nailed to the cross, seems almost to be floating above the scene. 

Beneath him are a multitude of figures, some seemingly aware of Christ’s powerful presence and others not.  These figures, which hold an array of complex poses, were a powerful display of Tintoretto’s raw artistic talent, honed over years of studying the works of Michelangelo and other great artists. This and the other monumental works on display in the boardroom appear to have put to rest whatever reservations members of the Scuola had about Tintoretto.   

The Brazen Serpent and the Chapter Hall Ceiling Paintings

After finishing his work in the boardroom, Tintoretto went on to paint two more works for the Scuola’s church, adding to the cycle he had begun in 1549 with his St Roch Healing the Plague-Stricken.  With this completed, there was an eight year lull in further commissions from the confraternity.  This was because the other rooms of the meeting house were not yet ready to have paintings installed, perhaps still being fitted out with furniture, carvings, and other decorations. 

In 1575, Tintoretto’s work picked up again.  The Scuola accepted his offer to provide paintings for the ceiling of the chapter hall on the upper floor of the Scuola’s meeting house.  The works that resulted would set the tone for the many other paintings that would later fill the room. 

The ceiling was to include three large oil paintings, surrounded by a range of smaller oval and angular works – 21 paintings in total.  For the subjects for the three larger works in the center, Tintoretto and his patrons decided on The Brazen Serpent, Moses Striking the Rock, and The Gathering of Manna – all Old Testament narratives depicting healing and divine charity, the core mission of the confraternity. 

The ceiling of the upper hall of the  Scuola Grande di San Rocco.
The ceiling of the chapter hall of the Scuola Grande di San Rocco. © Artifacts

The Brazen Serpent is perhaps the most notable of the three.  It hangs right in the middle of the ceiling, thus setting the tone for every other painting in the room.  The story, which comes from the Book of Numbers, tells of how the Israelites were set upon by swarms of poisonous snakes as they wondered the desert after fleeing Egypt.  To protect the faithful, Moses erected a pole with a bronze serpent on top.  Anyone bitten by the poisonous snakes need only look upon the bronze serpent and be cured.

The Brazen Serpent by Tintoretto on the ceiling of the upper hall of the  Scuola Grande di San Rocco.
The Brazen Serpent by Tintoretto (oil on canvas, 1575-76). On display at the Scuola Grande di San Rocco (wikiart)

In Tintoretto’s work, piles of dead bodies lie heaped in the bottom foreground, lost in the dark shadow of the painting’s dramatic chiaroscuro.  The painting grows gradually lighter towards the top, reaching its brightest point near the figure of Moses, who calls to his countrymen to look up.  On top of the heap of bodies, some of the Israelites have taken notice.  As they look on, they appear to recover their strength, even as those below them lie still.

This image of the monstrous snakes crawling over and around heaps of dead bodies says something about the time in which it was painted.  In 1575, when Tintoretto began this work, Venice was in the grip of one of the worst plagues it had ever experienced.  In the ensuing two years about one third of the city’s population would succumb. 

Connections between the poisonous snakes in the Brazen Serpent and the plague are made explicit by the buboes painted onto the legs of many of the victims.  In such a crisis, the brothers of the confraternity must have imagined themselves to have been like Moses, calling to their countrymen to believe and be healed.  They even had their own bronze serpent in the form of the relics of St Roch sitting in their church. 

Humilitas – The Chapter Hall Wall Paintings

In late 1577, the plague had passed.  Tintoretto offered to complete the rest of the decorations for the entire meeting house in exchange for a yearly stipend of 100 ducats for the remainder of his life.  As 100 ducats was the price typically charged by leading artists in the city for a single painting, Tintoretto’s offer was exceptionally generous.  The Scuola immediately accepted the proposal, and Tintoretto got to work.

After completing the paintings for the ceiling in 1578, Tintoretto began work on 12 massive canvases to sit between the windows on the walls of the chapter hall.   In total, this brought the number of canvases in this one room to 33 – all painted by Tintoretto.  Unlike the works on the ceiling, all of the wall paintings came from stories in the New Testament. 

View of the upper hall of the Scuola Grande di San Rocco, Venice.  Tintoretto's paintings sit wedged between the double-arched windows.  Beneath them are wooden carvings and large lamps running the length of the hall.
Chapter Hall of the Scuola Grande di San Rocco, Venice. © Artifacts

In a break with Venetian artistic tradition, Tintoretto chose not to order the wall paintings chronologically and instead arranged them to correspond to the ceiling paintings overhead.  Thus beneath the Gathering of Manna – we see the Last Supper and the Gathering of Loaves and Fishes.  These biblical events share the theme of divine nourishment and were commonly connected in a number of theological and artistic contexts in the 16th century.  Another example is The Baptism of Christ and Pool at Bethesda, which sit beneath Moses Striking the Rock.  These share strong water motifs, and again carry suggestions of divine charity. 

Collectively, the wall paintings depict a humble image of Christ, whose divinity is subsumed by the larger themes of humanity and compassion.  Two paintings – Agony in the Garden and The Baptism of Christ – perhaps best exemplify the overall theme of humility and charity characteristic of the wall paintings. 

Agony in the Garden depicts the moment in which Christ prepares himself for his imminent sacrifice, betraying both fear of what is to come and determination to see it through.  In the work, we see Christ turning away from the comfort offered by an angel bearing a chalice; seemingly transfixed on his forthcoming sacrifice (suggested by the image of his bearing the cross in the lower left).  As this happens, the apostles John and Peter lie asleep beneath him, unaware of the psychological torment experienced by Christ above.

Image of Agony in the Garden by Tintoretto.
Agony in the Garden by Tintoretto (oil on canvas, 1578-81). On display at the Scuola Grande di San Rocco, Venice. (wikicommons)

This painting is a classic example of the style Tintoretto employed across many of his later narrative religious paintings.  The work depicts multiple scenes occurring simultaneously in a spatially distorted composition.  This creates a dreamlike feel to the work, which adds to the sense that what we are witnessing is from Christ’s own internal contemplations.

Accentuating the drama of the scene is Tintoretto’s deep chiaroscuro (light-dark contrast).  In Agony in the Garden, the light in the scene appears to emanate from the chalice held by the angel.  It washes over the painting, flowing downward to the sleeping apostles and Christ’s vision.  It creates a sense of inevitability regarding the darkness that is about to come, heightening our awareness of the suffering which Christ will soon endure.  

The Baptism of Christ is another work which emphasizes Christ’s humanity.  Tintoretto depicts Christ humbly submitting to the ceremony presided over by the prophet, John the Baptist.  An explosion of heavenly light illuminates the scene, falling across the image of Christ and the figures in the background.  These individuals in the background (among them a swooning virgin) appear unfinished, as if washed out by the light showering them from above. 

Image of the Baptism of Christ by Tintoretto.
The Baptism of Christ by Tintoretto (oil on canvas, 1578-81). On display at the Scuola Grande di San Rocco, Venice. (wikicommons)

The bright background contrasts sharply with the dark foreground.  Here, the figures almost blend into the shadowy murkiness of the river and nearby hill.  The only exception is the breastfeeding woman.  Her bright skin stands out against the dark surroundings, drawing the viewer’s attention toward her.  The charity she offers the hungry child mirrors that offered to Christ by John the Baptist. 

Both Baptism of Christ and Agony in the Garden, like the works around them, soften the overall religious tone of the images in hall.  The nightmarish snakes and fantastical visions depicted on the ceiling paintings give way to the more humble religious imagery of the works decorating the walls.  The use of readily available pigments and Tintoretto’s visible brush strokes further enhances the sense of modesty within these works and would have provided a stark contrast with the more finished images of the elite painters serving Venice’s patrician class. 

Wide view of the upper hall of the Scuola Grande di San Rocco facing the altar.
Chapter Hall of the Scuola Grande di San Rocco, Venice. © Artifacts

Collectively, the paintings in this room provide a strong rejoinder to those who had accused the Scuola of extravagance.  They express a passionate striving to follow in the example set by Christ and other biblical forefathers.  An example that embodied the virtues of charity, compassion, and humility.  These, of course, were virtues that the brothers of the Scuola, with their taste for lavish expenditure, had routinely failed to live up to.  In emphasizing these virtues in the decoration of its meeting house, the Scuola nevertheless reaffirmed its commitment to them – both to outsiders and itself.

The Ground Floor Cycle

By 1581, Tintoretto had finished almost all of the paintings for the upper floor of the meeting house, leaving the ground floor as the last remaining area still requiring significant work.  Between 1581 and 1587, Tintoretto remedied this with eight paintings depicting scenes from the early life of Christ.  These, together with one final painting for the church and another for the altar in the room above, would be the very last paintings Tintoretto would make for the Scuola Grande di San Rocco. 

The paintings on the ground floor (where one first enters the building) serve as an entrée to the Passion cycle of the boardroom and the complex New and Old Testament schema of the chapter hall.  As the scenes depicted come from Christ’s childhood, the Virgin Mary takes on a more prominent role.  Most of the paintings on this floor are placed between the large double arched windows which run the length of the hall.  Tintoretto took particular pains in these paintings to carefully mold his figures and scenery to blend seamlessly into the surrounding architecture.  Fortunately for us, the paintings and the architecture remain virtually unchanged since Tintoretto’s day, appearing just the way they looked over four centuries ago.

Wide view of the ground-floor hall of the Scuola Grande di San Rocco.
Ground-Floor Hall of the Scuola Grande di San Rocco, Venice. © Artifacts

The first scene in the ground floor cycle is The Annunciation, where the angel Gabriel tells the Virgin that she would soon conceive the son of God.  The painting is a notable departure from earlier depictions of this subject, which during the Renaissance show a bright and joyful scene.  In this work, Mary’s surroundings appear entirely decrepit.  Especially notable is the crumbling Roman column in the foreground; one of many details that appear emblematic of the fallen world into which Christ is to be born. 

Image of the Annunciation by Tintoretto
The Annunciation by Tintoretto (oil on canvas, 1583-87). On display at the Scuola Grande di San Rocco, Venice. (wikicommons)

Against this backdrop, the image of Gabriel and the stream of cherubs flying overhead appear all the more miraculous.  They, together with the dove (symbolizing the Holy Spirit) convey a sense of renewed hope in otherwise dark times.

When looking at the work in person, one also can’t help but notice the parallels between the world in this painting and the room in which it is located.  The ruined column mirrors the position of a similar column not far in front.  The red and white tiled floor of Mary’s room also matches the actual floor pattern of the ground-floor hall.  Nichols suggests that in making this connection, the Scuola is conceding a certain level of regret over the excessive expenditure incurred in building the meeting house. 

Another notable painting on the ground floor is Tintoretto’s Flight into Egypt.  The painting depicts the holy family’s flight from Herod’s massacre of the innocents to the safety of Egypt.  In this work, Egypt appears almost like a new Garden of Eden; a bucolic refuge in which the holy family will be safe.  Tintoretto lavishes attention on the landscape, particularly the trees and shrubs which line the river.  Against the arid mountains in the background, the fertile lands of Egypt appear all the more appealing. 

Image of the Flight into Egypt by Tintoretto.
The Flight into Egypt by Tintoretto (oil on canvas, 1583-87). On display at the Scuola Grande di San Rocco, Venice. (wikicommons)

Tinging this scene of joy, however, are reminders of Christ’s future sacrifice – namely the cross sticking out of the ground on the right and the palm rising above it.  These remind us that this joy cannot last, a point forcefully made in the boardroom passion cycle and the wall paintings in the chapter hall.

As with The Annunciation, Tintoretto pays special attention to the surrounding architecture.  The bending olive tree and palms reflect the shape of the two double arched windows on either side.  This adds to the sense that the verdant and enlightened land of Egypt is blending into the real world of the Scuola’s meeting house.  Thus, even as The Annunciation reflects the past vanity of the Scuola, Flight into Egypt indicates that they now follow in the humility of the holy family’s example.

Conclusion

After completing the paintings for the ground floor, Tintoretto painted his final work for the Scuola – an altarpiece depicting St Roch looking down from heaven toward his worshipers.  With its placement on the altar of the meeting house in 1588, Tintoretto concluded his work at the Scuola Grande di San Rocco. 

Tintoretto would continue to collect his 100 ducat per year stipend from the Scuola until his death in 1594 (he would joke in these years that he hoped to live another 1,000 ducats worth of life).  Though the Scuola would not collect any further paintings from Tintoretto, on net, the Scuola still received quite the deal.  For 65 paintings, the Scuola in total paid a little over 2,000 ducats – around a third of what most elite Venetian artists would have charged for this many paintings.  The speed and economy with which Tintoretto provided these works was a sharp contrast with the fiasco of the meeting house’s construction and no doubt did much to repair the Scuola’s damaged reputation.

After Tintoretto’s death, the Scuola Grande di San Rocco continued to play an important role in Venetian society until Napoleon brought an end to the Republic 200 years later.  Though the Scuola Grande di San Rocco was the only one of Venice’s hundreds of schools to not be permanently dissolved, it would never again possess the wealth or prestige it had under the Republic.  Today, its most lasting legacy remains the physical building and artwork contained within.  The decision to gamble on an artist best known for speed and economy turns out to have been perhaps the best one the Scuola ever made.  Through Tintoretto’s art, the memories and values of the Scuola and its brothers live on.

Sources/Further Reading on Tintoretto’s Work at the Scuola Grande di San Rocco

  1. For more on the monumental art of Tintoretto, see this post on Tintoretto’s Paradise at the Doge’s Palace – the largest painted canvas in the world.
  2. Check out the Scuoal Grande di San Rocco’s website, here. This is perhaps the best Italian museum website I have yet encountered. Occasionally the English side of the site seems non-functional, so you may want to download the google translate browser extension, if you don’t have it already.
  3. To see high quality images of all of Tintoretto’s paintings at the Scuola di San Rocco (including ones not discussed here), check out this page on the Web Gallery of Art.
  4. Nichols, Tom. “Tintoretto: Tradition and Identity.” London. Reaktion. 1999 – The second half of this book offers an in depth discussion of almost every one of Tintoretto’s paintings in the Scuola di San Rocco’s meeting house. I highly recommend it if you are interested in learning more about Tintoretto.
  5. Grabski, Józef. “The Group of Paintings by Tintoretto in the ‘Sala Terrena’ in the Scuola Di San Rocco in Venice and Their Relationship to the Architectural Structure.” Artibus et Historiae, vol. 1, no. 1, IRSA s.c., 1980, pp. 115–31.
  6. Marshall, Louise. “A Plague Saint for Venice: Tintoretto at the Chiesa Di San Rocco.” Artibus et Historiae, vol. 33, no. 66, IRSA s.c., 2012, pp. 153–87.
  7. Sperling, Jutta Gisela. “Allegories of Charity and the Practice of Poor Relief at the Scuola Grande Di San Rocco.” Wallraf-Richartz-Jahrbuch, vol. 70, Freunde des Wallraf-Richartz-Museum und des Museum Ludwig e.V., 2009, pp. 119–46.