Ruskin "discovered" Tintoretto in 1845 on a visit to the Scuola di San Rocco. Later in The Stones of Venice (Vol. III), he declared that the traveller in Venice should "give unembarrassed attention and unbroken time" to the marvels of Tintorettos within. In his guide to the churches of Venice, Ruskin described nearly every work by Tintoretto in the city, and he would eventually come to rate Tintoretto above all other renaissance painters. Here is Ruskin in full flow:
But for that porter's opening, I should, have written the Stones of Chamouni, instead of the Stones of Venice[…] but Tintoret swept me in away into the mare maggiore of the schools of painting which crowned the power and perished in the fall of Venice; so forcing me into the study of Venice herself; and through that into what else I have traced or told of the laws of national strength and virtue."
Dispensing with the systematic approach of 19th century art historians like Franz Kugler, J.A. Crowe and G.B. Cavalcaselle who organised painters into schools and their subdivisions, Ruskin merely elevated Tintoretto to the top of the food chain. His initial classification of renaissance painting was as follows:
Division 1: "Pure Religious Art: The School of Love"- Fra Angelico, Raphael and John (Giovanni) Bellini.
Division 2: "School of Great Men" Michelangelo, Giotto, Leonardo, Ghirlandaio and Masaccio. Ruskin rated these painters second class because in their art the Christian content coexists with their profound observations of the human.
However, once Tintoretto's art had fired up Ruskin, he had no option but to crown Tintoretto with the ultimate honour.
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 and put him in the school of Art at the top-top-top-of everything, with a big black line underneath.
I think I'm not wrong in saying that nowadays this kind of subjective ranking would be considered eccentric, if not downright barmy. Like Ruskin I'm tremendously moved when standing in front of Tintoretto's Crucifixion, which stunned the critic into an awed silence- but I could never put Tintoretto above Titian whose Assunta- in the Accademia when Ruskin saw it, was dismissed by him as not measuring up to the genius of Tintoretto. I saw both paintings in the space of a couple of hours last April, and found them equally stupendous. I could never elevate one over the other though.
So, what was it about Tintoretto that Ruskin liked. It's difficult to find the core reason buried in Ruskin's effusions about the Venetian master, but perhaps a clue is found in his remarks on the copy of Tintoretto's Circumcision by one of his disciples Edward Burne-Jones, who drew many renaissance works, mainly at Ruskin's insistence. Ruskin said that Burne-Jones's drawing (made about 1862) gave "an idea of the subdued tones of dark colour employed in the higher schools of the Venetians after their complete acceptance of chiaroscuro as a collateral power." Ruskin praises Burne-Jones for not adding more vivid colour, but especially for emphasizing chiaroscuro, an element of painting that runs alongside colour, though without ever eclipsing it.
Strangely enough, this was precisely what Ruskin did in his own pencil sketch (with watercolour and body colour) of the Circumcision made 7 years later in 1869; here, he virtually eliminated colour, choosing instead to emphasise the interplay of light and shadow. It's almost as if that "collateral power", chiaroscuro has attained full supremacy, much as it does in many of Tintoretto's pictures. Ironically, it was chiaroscuro that the P.R.B. would dispense with in favor of a more pronounced graphic style, the unforgiving harsh line which so provoked their critics. Coincidentally, I'm about to attend an exhibition of P.R.B. drawing at my local museum, so it seems logical to do the next post on that.