The profusion of great art in Venice was an incentive not just to look but also to get out my own sketch pad and have a go. There is no better way to appreciate Tinotretto’s very physical approach to the human body than to try to emulate his work. The individuals in Tintoretto’s paintings are very muscular and are presented in dynamic poses, depicting images from the Bible, early Christian mythology or Venetian history. Tintoretto makes great use of light and shade and, also, continues Titian’s experiments with colour. Simply looking at images such as Cain and Abel in the Accademia reminds us that artists such as Tintoretto were as highly trained in anatomy as the doctors of the day. Indeed, artists could actually use their anatomical knowledge more productively than surgeons in an era when active interventions through operating were likely to lead to painful deaths from subsequent infections.
Sketches based on Tintoretto’s paintings in the Accademia and Scuola Grande di San Rocco, Venice, September 2014.
Following the maze of small streets in Venice from the Accademia brought me to Scuola Grande di San Rocco, where walls and ceilings are covered by Tintoretto’s work. It is hard to fully appreciate Tintoretto without developing a crick in the neck as some of his most technically sophisticated work consists of ceiling panels. Look up at the ceiling and you see an image of St Roch (“San Rocco”, much loved in Venice for his intercessions during a plague) in full single-point perspective. The ceiling is roughly ten metres above the ground yet the impression is that St Roch’s head is twelve metres above us and that there is open sky far above him. Think about the steps needed to create this image: first, you work out the sketches on paper, then you have to scale up these working images and transfer the outlines to the ceiling. When you were actually painting you would be crammed between the top of the scaffolding and the ceiling, constantly bent at uncomfortable angles and unable to step back, as most artists like to do, to check that the perspective that you worked out so carefully on paper, is working in practice. You will not see your work from a distance that allows you to check the perspective until the scaffolding has been removed. And, as you travel around Venice, you see that Tintoretto painted many, many of these technically-challenging ceiling panels over the course of his career. His achievement is – and please permit me the use of a sorely-overworked adjective here – awesome.
Still reeling from the visual feasts in the Accademia and elsewhere in the city, I sat myself down on a step at the point where the Rio di Palazzeo joins the Canale Grande to make some of my own experiments in capturing human form. A short distance along from here is the famous [bridge of sighs] so it is a popular route for the gondolas that carry tourists around the city. Sitting here with a sketch book gave me the opportunity to observe a sequence of gondoliers as they swung their boats into the canal towards the Ponte dei Sospiri (Bridge of Sighs) and to capture their movements with a pencil. Capturing the relative position of hands, arms and legs at same point in the stroke was not easy and, after the first few attempts, I realised how much I drew upon experience as much as on reality. I captured the basic form of the scene – relative positions of gondolier, boat and horizon – then filled in details with stock shapes that I had drawn before, underpinned by the very shaky knowledge of anatomy that a modern fine art graduate posseses. Then I looked back and adjusted these to fit the reality that I saw in front of me. This was all before I started to think about colour (surely a capital crime in Titian’s home town?). The result probably says more about my lack of practice at figure drawing than it does about the verité of modern Venice but, after a day of admiring the energy that fills Tintoretto’s canvases, the awe that I experienced in the Accademia is tempered by plenty of humility.
Sketches of gondoliers, from close to Ponte di Paglia, Venice, September 2014.
A watercolour sketch of a gondolier close to Ponte di Paglia, Venice, September 2014.