Tintoretto and His Jewish Neighbors

Art historians have almost completely ignored the many connections between the great Old Master and the Jews of Venice. Is there more to be said?

From The Creation of the Animals, 1550-1553, oil on canvas, by Jacopo Tintoretto. National Gallery of Art.

From The Creation of the Animals, 1550-1553, oil on canvas, by Jacopo Tintoretto. National Gallery of Art.

Observation
July 17 2019
About the author

Menachem Wecker, a freelance journalist based in Washington DC, covers art, culture, religion, and education for a variety of publications.


Standing in the largest room of the recent exhibition Tintoretto: Artist of Renaissance Venice at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, I was tempted to judge this Old Master, known for his dramatic staging and intense light, by the company of his sitters. In one enormous painting from c. 1575, Alvise Mocenigo, the doge—that is, highest official—of Venice and his family peer out at us while behind them are the Madonna and Child: the Holy Family itself.

A few years before Tintoretto created this picture, which suggests that the doge’s wealth and power have won his family an audience with divinity, Mocenigo had advocated the expulsion of the Jews from Venice. Chiming in, his brother Giovanni, depicted in an adjacent Tintoretto portrait, had said that accepting baptism was the only way the city’s Jews could be freed from forced labor.

In fact, nearly every juncture in the life of Jacopo Robusti (1518-1594), who became known as Tintoretto (“little dyer”) after his father’s profession, was marked by significant events affecting the city’s Jews. Born two years after the debut of the Venetian ghetto, the city’s newly gated Jewish quarter, he lived two small islands away from it. So he must have been aware of the public burning of the Talmud in 1553, and the incineration of additional thousands of Jewish books in 1568. Both conflagrations occurred in the Piazza San Marco, a location that might be likened to Times Square at high noon.

Also in 1568, a Venetian senator declared Jews to be “the scum of the earth, spies for the Turks, and internal enemies.” In December 1571, the senate voted to expel them altogether. Fearing economic backlash, it reconsidered within days, but Venetian Jews remained in limbo for several more years. As the historian Robert Finlay has written, “Venetians wanted to be rid of the Jews, yet could not do without them . . . as money-lenders to the poor, as an important source of tax money and forced loans, and as pawnbrokers holding considerable Venetian property in pledge.”

By 1573, official Jewish readmission had been arranged with the help of the Turkey-based Venetian diplomat Jacopo Soranzo, who had sat for a Tintoretto portrait 25 years prior. Tintoretto also painted Marcantonio Barbaro, an outright proponent of Jewish rights.

Curiously, however, both art historians and scholars in other relevant fields have almost completely ignored the subject of Tintoretto and his Jewish neighbors. Nor does the subject seize the imagination of the historian Cecil Roth in his masterful History of the Jews in Venice. And yet, as Robert Bonfil writes in a “cultural profile” of Venetian Jews, a chapter in a collected volume entitled The Jews of Early Modern Venice, “Although the gates of the ghetto remained closed during the night, they were open wide during the daytime, thus offering enough chances for processes of encounter to take place.”

Not only did Tintoretto likely see and perhaps regularly interact with Jewish Venetians, but his work includes an unusually large number of figures and scenes drawn from the Hebrew Bible. They include Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Joseph and Potiphar’s wife, a series on the life of Moses, the transportation of the ark in the desert, Samson and Delilah, David, Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, Ezekiel, Belshazzar’s feast, and Esther and Ahasuerus. This appetite for scenes from Jewish scripture is all the more noteworthy in a very religious Catholic artist, working during the Counter-Reformation, who was twenty-seven when the Council of Trent introduced much more stringent guidelines for religious art; even so, he mysteriously managed to create many fewer saintly martyrdoms than did his colleagues.

And Tintoretto would also inspire Rembrandt (1606-1669), whose connections to Amsterdam’s Jewish community and whose extensive illustrations of the Hebrew Bible are well known to readers of Mosaic. And this poses a question: to what extent, if any, was Tintoretto a proto-Rembrandt: that is, one who brought contemporary Venetian Jewish culture and practice to bear on his art as Rembrandt would do in the next century with contemporary Amsterdam Jewish culture and practice?

Like the identities behind the masks at the annual pre-Lent Carnival of Venice, the answer is far from intuitive, and there are more questions than answers.

 

At the exhibition, I raised the issue of Tintoretto’s extensive exploration of Jewish scripture with the show’s co-curators, the independent scholar Robert Echols and Frederick Ilchman of Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts.

Ilchman thought it was pushing things to say Tintoretto was unusually sensitive to Jews or Jewish culture; rather, the artist simply sought to tell a wide range of secular, classical, and religious stories. Nor was it likely that he had ever been commissioned by Jewish patrons. Moreover, in Ilchman’s view, unlike most Venetian painters with their “deep reverence” for the Hebrew prophets and their tendency to treat some of them as Christian saints, “Tintoretto saw Moses as a heroic figure, a precursor of Christ but also a kind of muscular leader. He . . . wanted to tell dramatic stories with dynamic protagonists.” To this Echols added that it’s hard to imagine an equivalent figure in Tintoretto’s life to the role played in Rembrandt’s life by his close connection to Menasseh ben Israel.

The Prado Museum in Madrid also downplays the significance of Tintoretto’s Old Testament canvases. Of its seven pictures in this genre, all dating to the 1550s—Joseph and Potiphar’s Wife, Esther and Ahasuerus, The Queen of Sheba and Solomon, Moses Saved from the WatersThe Purification of the Midianite Virgins (Tintoretto workshop), and, from the Apocrypha, Judith and Holofernes and Susannah and the Elders—the Prado’s website states that all were intended for a secular rather than religious setting, one in which “[t]he biblical themes have lost their dramatic character and are little more than an excuse to depict exotic clothing, courtly ceremonies, and nude flesh.”

Is there nothing more to Tintoretto’s biblical pictures than lecherousness? Scholars have connected his Moses and the Brazen Serpent (1575-76) to the plagues that decimated Venice, one of which would kill 50,000 Venetians (including Titian) during the time when Tintoretto was working on the picture and the year afterward. The painting was installed at Scuola Grande di San Rocco, a building devoted to the saint whose heavenly influence is sought especially against the plague.

Clearly, Tintoretto was assimilating what was occurring around him and was informing his work with echoes of current events—and with something else. Even if there’s no Jewish smoking gun, so to speak, behind his summoning of the episode in Numbers 21 of the plague of serpents stopped by the prophet Moses, it is not far-fetched to speculate that there might be more to his Jewish subjects.

Let’s dig a little deeper.

 

In paintings of the crucifixion, Jews have usually been depicted, in demonizing detail, in the act of leering at Jesus on the cross or torturing him during the passion. Hieronymus Bosch’s Ecce Homo (c. 1490) shows a particularly fierce mob with torches and spears—the figures have hooked noses and angry expressions—reaching toward Jesus on a platform. Stereotypical-looking Jews surface in Jan van Eyck’s Crucifixion (c. 1440-41) and in Venetian paintings like Jacopo Bellini’s Crucifixion (1450) and Titian’s Ecce Homo (1543). The trope is very nearly a cliché.

Tintoretto’s Ecce Homo (1566-67), which is also at San Rocco, is different. The bloodied Jesus, hands and feet bound and a crown of thorns on his head, sits atop a staircase surrounded by only four figures. No hostile Jewish mob surges toward him. Instead, as Echols and Ilchman note in the National Gallery catalog, spectators looking up at the painting hung high on the wall were themselves placed in the position of culprits needing to repent. Even in the painting itself, everyone, including the wealthy Catholic faithful sitting beneath, is at fault for the torture and murder of Jesus.

As the curators note, a prior Ecce Homo (c. 1525-30) by Correggio, in the collection of London’s National Gallery, also omits the jeering mobs. But, for Tintoretto, this seems to be something of a specialty. In Christ Mocked (c. 1548-49), shown in 2011 at the now-defunct Museum of Biblical Art, we are given a lone Jesus bleeding from the crown of thorns but otherwise utterly unaccompanied by tormentors. Nor, unlike his peers, does Tintoretto paint the mocked Jesus either weeping or looking away from the viewer. The catalog to the 2011 show notes: “He and the faithful gaze upon each other, Christ asking them to accept responsibility for his suffering and impending death.” In like manner, a Latin verse inscribed below a crucifixion painted (not by Tintoretto) at the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, and inscribed as well in an early relief of the “man of sorrows” (also not by Tintoretto) in the northern Italian town of Cividale del Friuli, states: “You who go this way were the cause of my woe.” The catalog authors note that Tintoretto’s piece, whether informed by either or both of those works, “seeks to cast the same tragic indictment.”

Another extremely unusual treatment of a biblical scene surfaces in Tintoretto’s The Making of the Golden Calf (c. 1559/60) at Madonna dell’Orto in Venice. The title should be a tip-off; this isn’t a worship of the Golden Calf—there’s one of those by Tintoretto’s workshop in the National Gallery’s collection—but a depiction of its incipient creation. Aaron, in flowing robes, sits in the bottom right corner talking to a sculptor holding his calipers for measuring distances and pointing to what must be a clay model of the idol borne by burly men (one bare-chested). Golden coins and jewelry already pile up around the idol and on the ground while, up atop the painting, Moses, nude from the waist up, is preparing to receive a rounded tablet of the law inscribed with pseudo-Hebraic text.

Earlier treatments of the idol’s creation are highly infrequent and less ambitious; one in the Utrecht Bible (c. 1430) by Alexander Master shows the sculpture emerging, seemingly magically, from the flames. But Tintoretto isn’t absolving anyone of sin. In the painting’s foreground, a balance for weighing the loot lies not far from Aaron’s feet. He and nearly everyone around him, to borrow the English translation of a famous passage in the biblical book of Daniel, “has been weighed in the balance and found wanting.”

At the same time, this painting focuses on the golden calf as, in itself, a supreme work of art. Tintoretto, who scholars say didn’t work for Jewish patrons, here casts the Jewish high priest Aaron as the patron, having commissioned the architect who, before the work begins, has presented him with the clay model. And remember: this painting, too, was done during the Counter-Reformation, at a time when religious image-making had become a highly contested activity.

Rembrandt didn’t paint a Golden Calf, but had he tackled the subject, this is the sort of thing one would expect him to have devised.

 

Seeking Jewish influences in other aspects of Tintoretto’s work turns up more material bearing further study. As in the Golden Calf painting, pseudo-Hebraic inscriptions seem to crop up elsewhere as well: on an obelisk in the background of The Presentation of the Virgin (c. 1556), in several open books (including one that appears to sport a real aleph) in Christ Among the Doctors (c. 1540/41), and on the floor in two versions of Christ and the Adulteress (c. 1547 and c. 1546-48).

The scholar Flora Cassen (“From Iconic O to Yellow Hat: Anti-Jewish Distinctive Signs in Renaissance Italy”) notes that northern Italian governments began requiring Jews to wear circular yellow badges in the 15th century. By the following century—that is, Tintoretto’s lifetime—the badge had given way to yellow hats, “thereby,” she writes, “moving the mark of the Jews from their chests to a more conspicuous location on their heads.” Yellow hats appear on the heads of onlookers, perhaps Jewish, in Tintoretto’s Presentation of the Virgin (1551/56), Christ Before Pilate (1566-67), Moses Striking the Rock (1577), two Crucifixions (1565 and 1557/58), Conversion of St. Paul (c. 1544), Solomon and the Queen of Sheba (c. 1540/45), and one of the Christ and the Adulteress pictures (c. 1547).

In 1496, some 22 years before Tintoretto was born, the Venetian senate ruled that Jews must wear yellow berets, since they had previously been hiding their “O”-shaped badges. Confusion arose, however, about the precise colors, and Cassen records at least one instance in which one Leone Segele, arrested for wearing the wrong-colored hat, was said variously to have headgear that was “orange-golden” and “silver and golden.” Although Tintoretto painted many red hats as well, it seems more of a stretch to connect them to Jewish Venetians.

Extensive research (by me), zooming in on every inch of digital versions of hundreds of Tintoretto’s works, turns up no yellow “O” badges. But there’s enough circumstantial evidence here, plus a sufficiently gaping hole in the intersection of Tintoretto research and study of 16th-century Venetian Jewry, to merit further investigation.

In his groundbreaking book The Artless Jew, Kalman Bland cites the claim by the literary scholar Geoffrey Hartman that although both literature and visual art have transmitted Catholic tradition “with an extraordinary power of illustration,” there is “no Jewish Dante or Tintoretto.” Maybe there was no Jewish Tintoretto, and maybe Tintoretto wasn’t exactly a proto-Rembrandt, but it seems plausible that there’s a good deal more to say about him and his Jewish neighbors.

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More about: Arts & Culture, Old Masters, Rembrandt, Renaissance, Tintoretto