Tintoretto Paints for the Scuola di San Rocco Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Completed in 1587, Tintoretto’s three monumental pictorial cycles in the Scuola di San Rocco illustrate the Passion of Christ, the life of the Virgin and various biblical scenes that involved a complex iconography. Beyond exemplifying the artist’s mature painting style, these paintings represent one of the most complex pictorial cycles ever completed.

Summary of Event

Established only in 1478, the Scuola di San Rocco was the last born of the great scuole, brotherhoods or confraternities, of Venice. In only a few decades, however, it became one of the most important institutions of charity in the city. Its main building, a grandiose structure, was completed in 1560, and only then were its interior decorations undertaken. Jacopo Robusti, known as Tintoretto, was the Venetian painter who undertook this task, and he presented his first painting for the building in June of 1564. In the course of three distinct painting campaigns (1564-1567, 1576-1581, and 1582-1587), he decorated the main halls—respectively, the Albergo Hall (Sala dell’Albergo), the Upper Hall (Sala Superiore), and the Lower Hall (Sala Terrena). Including more than sixty canvases, often very large, the three pictorial cycles are unprecedented in both their iconographic complexity and their artistic creativity. Indeed, they mark a high point not only of Tintoretto’s career but also of Renaissance art. Scuola di San Rocco Painting;Italy Tintoretto Vasari, Giorgio Titian Tintoretto (Jacopo Robusti)

In art literature, there is a famous anecdote about the awarding of the commission to decorate the Albergo Hall to Tintoretto. According to the famous art biographer Giorgio Vasari in Le vite de’ piÙ eccellenti architetti, pittori, et scultori italiani, da cimabue insino a’ tempi nostri (1550, 2d ed. 1568; Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects (Vasari) , 1855-1885), Tintoretto won the commission over his competitors by installing the large painting representing Saint Roch in Glory Saint Roch in Glory (Tintoretto) on the ceiling of the Albergo Hall. The other artists participating in the competition—including Giuseppe Salviati, Paolo Veronese, Federico Zuccari, and Andrea Schiavone—simply submitted their finished sketches, as required by the rules of the competition. Surviving documents corroborate this story: The competition was announced on May 31 and annulled on June 29, 1564, the month in which the Scuola accepted Tintoretto’s painting as a donation.

In spite of the fact that the painter donated the painting, the decision to award him the commission was a matter of great debate among the members of the confraternity. Aside from the artist’s breach of the terms of the competition, they were probably more preoccupied by the controversial reputation of Tintoretto, who was known for his daring compositions and furious brushwork. These were properties that imbued his paintings with a distinctive energy but were also unconventional and were therefore criticized. Tintoretto most likely won the commission for two reasons: Titian, the Venetian painter who rivaled Michelangelo in fame, was not available; conversely, the confraternity included many members of Tintoretto’s guild, the cloth dyers (tintori).

In 1565, Tintoretto completed the enormous (536-by-1,124-centimeter) Crucifixion Crucifixion (Tintoretto) and laid to rest all lingering doubts about his artistic merit. This powerful painting captures the beholder’s heart and mind at first sight. Although the modern viewer first marvels at the painter’s ability to create a deep space for a scene populated by numerous figures often admirably depicted in very difficult and unusual poses (such as the soldiers playing dice or the man digging with a shovel), Tintoretto’s achievement lies in the successful rendering of the intense pathos of the event. The mood of the scene is dominated by the stark contrast between the peaceful Christ rising over the group of the Marys at the foot of the Cross and the dozens of detached onlookers, participants and men busy preparing and hoisting the crosses of the two thieves. The compositional solutions and interplay of lighting effects, together with figural postures that guide the beholder’s eye and emotional response, form an eloquent testimony to Tintoretto’s artistic genius.

Covering a similar amount of space, on the opposite wall the painter completed three scenes of the Passion of Christ. Like the Crucifixion, Tintoretto’s three paintings of Christ Before Pilate Christ Before Pilate (Tintoretto) , Ecce Homo Ecce Homo (Tintoretto) , and Way to Calvary Way to Calvary (Tintoretto) also propose daring compositions, radical spatial divisions, and dramatic use of highlights and illumination effects. They too are scenes charged with an intense pathos that invites a pious response from the faithful beholder.

Before the completion of the Albergo Hall (1567), Tintoretto became a member of the confraternity. In 1575, he began the cycle decorating the Upper Hall, again by donating the ceiling’s largest painting, The Brazen Serpent Brazen Serpent, The (Tintoretto) , which was in place by August, 1576. Subsequently, he proposed to the confraternity that he produce all of the decorations that the Scuola requested, in exchange for the expense of his materials and a yearly provision of one hundred ducats to provide for his retirement. The confraternity officially accepted Tintoretto’s proposal on December 2, 1577.

For the Upper Hall, the artist painted thirty-three paintings that explore themes and connections between the Old and the New Testaments, such as The Fall of the Manna Fall of the Manna, The (Tintoretto) and The Last Supper Last Supper, The (Tintoretto) . The themes chosen concern sacrifice and redemption, the sacraments of Baptism and Eucharist, and divine cleansing and feeding. The latter was a theme particularly dear to the Scuola because of its charitable mission. However, more than the subject, the influence of the confraternity’s values is best seen in Tintoretto’s emphasis on the sanctity of poverty, articulated in the various appearances of the Holy Family. An innovative aspect of Tintoretto’s interpretation of a pictorial cycle is the fact that, rather than appear side by side, works addressing the same theme are visually separated; if this solution forgoes the canonical continuity between paintings in a narrative cycle or those addressing a related subject, it succeeds in providing each painting with a separate identity.

After completing the paintings for the Upper Hall in 1581 and despite the many commissions that Tintoretto had accepted in these years (including very large paintings for the Ducal Palace), he started working on the cycle of the Lower Hall in 1582. The last payment for the painting materials dates from August 12, 1587, when the artist was seventy-eight years old—he would die on May 31, 1594. The cycle of the Lower Hall focuses on the life of the Virgin and the infancy of Christ, including the Annunciation, Adoration of the Magi, Flight into Egypt, Massacre of the Innocents, and Assumption of the Virgin.

The canvases suggest two trends in Tintoretto’s stylistic progression in the later stages of his career. The painter becomes particularly interested in the landscape element while reducing the size of the figures with respect to the pictorial field available. This is readily evident in the Flight into Egypt Flight into Egypt (Tintoretto) , in which the Holy Family is relegated to the lower left, occupying about one-sixth of the canvas; the rest features vegetation and a distant view of a landscape populated by peasants at work set under the pinkish sky of a setting sun. The active role assigned by the artist to the flora reappears even more forcefully in two scenes, the subject of which has been debated by scholars. Placed on opposite sides of the altar, each of these two paintings features a woman (representing either saints or Ecclesia and Sinagoga) reading by a stream and set in luxuriant vegetation while offering an expansive landscape and sky, elements that create a poetic mood of great intensity.


Tintoretto’s paintings for the Scuola di San Rocco constitute one of the largest pictorial cycles ever created. From the perspective of Renaissance art, these paintings not only document the stylistic evolution of one of the period’s most important painters but also epitomize many of the contributions of the Venetian tradition to the discourse and development of painting. Tintoretto offered many exemplary interpretations of dramatic highlights and compositional solutions that both problematize and expand on the established notions of perspectival space, natural light, and narrative temporality. While exemplifying Mannerist elegance, his elongated figures display the artist’s famous brushwork and its mimetic potential. In his accomplished search for the pictorial elements that define pathos and mood in a painting, Tintoretto helped establish the goals pursued by artists for the next century.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Nichols, Tom. Tintoretto: Tradition and Identity. London: Reaction Books, 1999. This monograph on Tintoretto dedicates two substantial chapters to the artist’s work at the Scuola di San Rocco, paying particular attention to issues of patronage and to the cultural context.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Romanelli, Giandomenico. Tintoretto: La Scuola Grande di San Rocco. Milan: Electa, 1994. The most complete monographic study of Tintoretto’s work at San Rocco. The volume is accompanied by a full bibliography and more than two hundred color plates illustrating the artist’s paintings in all their glorious details. In Italian.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rosand, David. Painting in Sixteenth-Century Venice: Titian, Veronese, Tintoretto. Rev. ed. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997. In this selective introduction to Venetian Renaissance painting, the author offers insightful formal analyses. Particularly commendable are the pages on Tintoretto’s paintings in the Albergo Hall.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Tietze, Hans. Tintoretto: The Paintings and Drawings with Three Hundred Illustrations. New York: Phaidon, 1948. Although old, a very good study of Tintoretto.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Valcanover, Francesco. Jacopo Tintoretto and the Scuola Grande of San Rocco. Venice: Edizioni Storti, 1991. A concise volume that explores each painting separately, indicating its subject while offering some insightful artistic comments. Includes many color illustrations and a brief introduction to the building and the brotherhood’s history.

1469-1492: Rule of Lorenzo de’ Medici

1477-1482: Work Begins on the Sistine Chapel

c. 1478-1519: Leonardo da Vinci Compiles His Notebooks

1495-1497: Leonardo da Vinci Paints The Last Supper

c. 1500: Netherlandish School of Painting

c. 1500: Revival of Classical Themes in Art

1508-1520: Raphael Paints His Frescoes

1508-1512 and 1534-1541: Michelangelo Paints the Sistine Chapel

Nov. 3, 1522-Nov. 17, 1530: Correggio Paints the Assumption of the Virgin

1532: Holbein Settles in London

Dec. 23, 1534-1540: Parmigianino Paints Madonna with the Long Neck

1563-1584: Construction of the Escorial

Categories: History