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Art, Faith and Medicine in Tintoretto’s Venice, G. Matino, C. Klestinec eds.

Lucia Randone
Notizia bibliografica:

Gabrile Matino, Cynthia Klestinec eds., Art, Faith and Medicine in Tintoretto’s Venice, Marsilio, Venice, 2018, p. 136. ISBN: 9788831729475, € 21,00.

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1Those familiar with Tintoretto’s deep religious devotion, as well as with his attentive research on the human body, may be surprised by the almost complete absence of the artist from the Art, faith and medicine in Tintoretto’s Venice exhibition held at the Scuola Grande di San Marco . It is Venice itself, the city in which Tintoretto displayed his entrepreneurial spirit, that is the focus of the exhibition. In those days, Venice was the capital of medical publishing. Its churches and buildings were the testing ground for ambitious, visionary architects and artists, and its government stood out for a strong interest in public health.

2Organized as part of the celebrations for the 500-year anniversary of Jacopo Tintoretto’s birth, the exhibition boasts two major achievements.

3The first is that it has encouraged the undertaking of some important restorations. Eighteen books and manuscripts have been restored in the build up to the exhibition. In addition to this, paintings commissioned to Domenico Tintoretto and Jacopo Palma the Younger have been returned to their own original place for the first time since their removal from the chapel of the Scuola Grande in 1806.

4The second achievement is that of bringing together several types of objects, such as paintings, books, instruments and documents. These show that the Scuola Grande di San Marco – at once a lay confraternity, a space for tending to the ill, a monument of Renaissance art and architecture and now the abode of the History of Science Library – qualifies as the privileged site from which the complexity and liveliness of the sixteenth-century scientific revolution can be observed.

5The catalogue is a precious instrument that articulates the themes of ‘art’, ‘faith’ and ‘medicine’ while promoting a dialogue between the exhibition display cases and, in turn, between these and the paintings (otherwise not so obvious). In light of the catalogue, one returns with new eyes to the majestic painting placed in the centre of the exhibition. The old Sala Capitolare was originally decorated with a series of paintings begun by Jacopo Tintoretto and finished by his son Domenico. The author of the devotional painting Venice Supplicating the Virgin to Intercede with Christ to End the Plague (1631) that is situated at the centre of the room is Domenico Tintoretto himself.

6The manifold remedies with which the Serenissima faced the several plague outbreaks are analysed in the contributions by Michelle Laughran and Jennifer Gear. At the time, Venice was at the forefront of scientific advancements. It was one of the first cities to build, in 1348, special public committees called Provveditorati alla Sanità intended to organise the resistance to the epidemics. The Provveditorati became permanent starting from 1486. Their role was to regulate public hygiene, coordinate the Quarantine periods (which were first applied in Dubrovnik, a Venetian city), and offer shelter to the poor (as it happened during the 1528 plague). Every year, some 600,000 pounds of teriaca (theriac) were produced by licensed Venetian chemists. There was a reason why theriac, which was considered the strongest antidote against the plague, became known in England as ‘Venetian Treacle’.

7Among remedies believed to be beneficial against plague outbreaks, the commissioning of artworks representing the religious faith of Venetian citizens went hand in hand with measures regulating public hygiene, the preparation of medicaments, and the remedies that even lay-readers could find in the increasingly available books in vernacular. In fact, divine intervention was believed to be the most effective of these. To oppose the Black Death, the members of the Scuola Grande di San Marco chose to flog themselves. In 1486, the San Rocco confraternity was pushed to the point of acquiring the relics of their patron saint to ensure protection against contagion. In 1576, even the Venetian Senate begged for divine help, vowing to build a church for Cristo Redentore (what would then become the Basilica del Redentore on the Giudecca island). It is in this context that Venice Supplicating the Virgin to Intercede with Christ to End the Plague finds its meaningfulness. This artwork was commissioned to Domenico Tintoretto by the members of the San Francesco della Vigna congregation during the 1631 outbreak. Considering that the year before Venetian people had marched in procession every week, reciting litanies composed by then-Maestro of the St Mark’s Basilica Claudio Monteverdi, and that the text at the centre of the painting is the vulgarized version of one such litany, it is safe to assume that the painting was used as an insignia during the religious processions that took place in the city.

  • 1 The exhibition “Tintoretto 1519-1594”, held at the Doge’s Apartments in Palazzo Ducale, was curated (...)

8In their analysis of the painting, Jennifer Gear and Gabriele Matino compare the final artwork with the initial sketch. Their contribution is situated within the increasingly important research field that studies preparatory materials. This is a central aspect of the main exhibition for the 500th anniversary of the birth of Tintoretto, that was celebrated at the Palazzo Ducale, where a whole room was devoted to display the stages in Jacopo Tintoretto’s method of work, from the study of the site to the project stage to, at last, the act of drawing1. In the case of Venice Supplicating the Virgin to Intercede with Christ to End the Plague, the differences between the final artwork and the preparatory model are remarkable. On the former, the background offers a glimpse of the desolate city, with the pizzigamorti (body clearers) taking away the diseased. In the latter, however, there are piles of infected bodies that occupy no less than a third of the picture. According to Matino, these bodies – which, in their being revolting, bring to mind the ephemerality of life – are an example of how Domenico took distance from the aesthetic canons of his father. These bodies may be compared to the sketches, preserved in the Metropolitan Museum (Inv. 1975.1.533-539) and at the Fondation Custodia in Paris (Inv. 1362), in which the hand and the eyes of Domenico investigate the unattractive sides of the female body, particularly skinny bodies, awkward poses, balding foreheads and swollen groins. According to Matino, this interest in the imperfections of the human body owes much to Tintoretto’s acquaintance with Agostino and Annibale Caracci. In 1582, the Caracci brothers, together with their cousin Ludovico, founded the Accademia degli Incamminati in Bologna. In this academy, models were required to assume Michelangelo-inspired poses. Differently from what happened in the workshop of Jacopo Tintoretto, however, the grandeur of Buonarroti was then transposed back to the natural sphere.

9Jacopo Tintoretto’s depiction of bodies was based not only on live observation, but also on the superhuman figures of Michelangelo. That of Domenico, by contrast, was more oriented towards realism. Yet, in what way were bodies depicted in the anatomy texts that Venetian publishing houses released during the sixteenth century?

10The contribution by Cynthia Klestinec reminds the reader that the study of anatomy – the study of the parts of the human body and of both their sacred and scientific meaning – had many functions and was promoted not only by universities but also by the civic and religious institutions of the cities in which the dissections took place. Those who aimed at exploring the philosophical dimension of anatomy did not need a constant, direct contact with the corpses because they could accompany their reading with the anatomical tables. The plates by Vesalius were a visual synthesis of different body manipulations and, in the oil paintings of the anatomical studies of Fabrici, different colours were employed to distinguish each part of the human body.

11As Ilaria Andreoli notes in her article, starting from the mid-sixteenth century pictures become more beautiful and accurate. These were drawn by artists of high calibre, such as Jan Steven van Calcar, an apprentice to Titian and believed to be the illustrator of the works of Vesalius, and Gaspare Becerri. After working with Michelangelo on the Sistine Chapel, Becerri drew the original illustrations of Valverde’s Historia de la composicion del cuerpo humano. The finesse of the artists’ drawings were related to the needs of the users, who were not only physicians, but also clerics, lawyers and middle-class people interested in the new developments in anatomy and in new ways of looking at the real.

12A similar degree of accuracy distinguished the surgery handbooks in the second half of the sixteenth century. While the anatomical tables were mostly taken from Vesalius, more and more detailed illustrations depicted surgical instruments, as well as models for artificial limbs. As Paolo Savoia contends, precision in drawing was a way to promote the dialogue with the world of artisans. This goes a long way to show that, at the time, surgeons were considered as the expert of medicine most prone to innovation and experimentation. The ideal surgeon, as the Venetian Giovanni Andrea della Croce describes it, is an “inventor of new instruments” (100). Willing to separate themselves from both learned physicians and barber-surgeons, surgeons emphasized that they were able not only to use, but also to invent, new instruments that could readily restore the health of their patients.

13Tommaso Rangone, on whom the contribution of Sabrina Minuzzi is focused, was also well aware that promotional strategies could grant access to the important social and institutional sites of the Venetian Republic. A physician and astrologer, Rangone relocated to Venice at the beginning of the 1530s and there readily appreciated the recent developments of scientific knowledge. He published several texts in Latin and vernacular, wrote regimen sanitatis (health regime) specifically for the city of Venice and authored texts how to treat syphilis, at the time a prominent scourge. He studied how to make therapeutic use of plants from the New World and explored solutions on how to purify the air of Venice. Moreover, Rangone was skilled in using the arts and the publishing industry to create his self-image as that of a physician investigating the macro- and microcosm to extend the human lifespan, namely a physician both modern and charitable. This is the depiction that emerges from the coin that Rangone asked Matteo Pagano to manufacture in 1562. In this year, Rangone established that a yearly revenue was to be given to destitute girls. He was also honoured with the title of Knight of Saint Mark, and was elected Guardian Grande (chief officer) of the Scuola di San Marco. The coin is an illustration of the myth of Zeus leaning Heracles against the breast of a sleeping Hera. Suddenly awaken, Hera sprays a few drops of milk in the sky, thus creating the Milky Way. A few more drops, falling to the ground, make three lilies blossom, together with three birds.

14Notwithstanding this particular Pagan subject, the ideal role Rangone is depicted in is that of the physician who, in imitation of Christ and his compassion, medicates the wounds inflicted upon humankind by the original sin. The theme of charity becomes central from the fifteenth century onwards, modifying the very nature of the Scuola Grande di San Marco. Paola Benussi’s contribution shows that once the original communitarian interests towards religious atonement were set aside (the Scuola Grande di San Marco had initially been founded as a confraternity of flagellants), the School became a lay confraternity with a clear-cut division between social classes. The more affluent members managed the money destined to the poor—that is, they administered the alms, the grazie (gratuities) as dowries for destitute girls, the maintenance of the houses for the impoverished, and the healthcare for those who could not afford it. The poor themselves were in charge of more modest tasks, mainly religious and penitential activities directed to preserve the spiritual health of the whole confraternity.

15The exploration of the intriguing tension between “art”, “faith” and “medicine” has been already recognized as central to the scholarly study of the sixteenth-century scientific revolution. By focusing on how scientific and religious ideas were rooted into the social fabric of the Serenissima, and how artists, surgeons, and civil and religious institutions choose to put to the test or innovate traditional procedures, the exhibition and the catalogue examine the iridescent cultural life of Venice with the aim of showcasing, even to a non-specialist audience, the crucial role of urban communities in the history of ideas—a critical, yet rarely attempted feat.

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1 The exhibition “Tintoretto 1519-1594”, held at the Doge’s Apartments in Palazzo Ducale, was curated by Robert Echols and Frederick Ilchman, under the consultative direction of Gabriella Belli.

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Notizia bibliografica digitale

Lucia Randone, « Art, Faith and Medicine in Tintoretto’s Venice, G. Matino, C. Klestinec eds. »Journal of Interdisciplinary History of Ideas [Online], 14 | 2018, online dal 31 décembre 2018, consultato il 03 août 2020. URL:

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