Renaissance Florence is legendary. Dominating the global art scene of the late middle ages from the 14th century, its extensive legacy is still evident everywhere in the old section of modern-day Florence.
But as they say, “all good things must end” and by the early 16th century, Venice had surpassed Florence as the center of the Renaissance. Was it because power, greatness and the resulting fame and fortune lulled the Florentines into preserving the status quo? In Venice, on the other hand, Titian was innovating. Now thought of as the greatest Venetian artist of the period, he adopted and perfected oil techniques that Flemish artists had preferred since Jan Van Eyck explored and refined its use about 100 years earlier.
So in 1592, when Tintoretto painted his Last Supper for the Santa Maria Maggiore in Venice, he used oil on canvas. His choice of medium was a significant step away from the frescoes by Castagno whose traditional buon or wet fresco technique used water-based tempera. Leonardo did use oil, experimenting with oil tempera on dry intonaco (the last, thin layer of platter usually painted while still wet). Oil helped Leonardo intensify the drama in his cenacolo. He could deepen chiaroscuro (stronger contrasts in light and shadow) and apply a hazy, smoky effect (sfumato). . Unfortunately, the result of Leonardo’s innovation turned out disastrous.
By the Late Renaissance, oil had become the preferred medium for the Italians because of its ability to capture limitless nuances of light, detail, and even color. It also proved durable on canvases that were more easily stored and transported. Artists like Tintoretto had broken with the tenets of the High Renaissance or pushed its techniques farther. Tintoretto’s version of the Last Supper takes Leonardo’s chiaroscuro to dramatic heights. Bright highlights on an overhead lamp and the halos of disciples clearly delineate figures in an otherwise dark scene.
Beyond the use of deep chiaroscuro to create drama, Tintoretto also seems to have disregarded most of the artistic conventions in previous cenacolos. The table is plunged on the diagonal into the picture (instead of a stable horizontal) and many more figures that include mortals and angels now inhabit a smaller canvas of 12 feet high by 19 feet wide. Jesus is no longer the obvious focus. You can pick him out in the group only because he has a much larger halo on his head. He is portrayed offering the eucharist, the bread and wine that signifies communion with God.
Tintoretto had other tricks up his sleeves. His tableau has a complexity, even mystery not found in earlier cenacolos. It depicts a scene of ordinary daily life—a few mortals prepare and serve food, a dog rests at an apostle’s feet, and a cat sniffs the contents of a basket. Before Tintoretto, Italian Renaissance art rarely included the common man. Its subject usually were religious figures, mythical deities, saints and rich, illustrious figures able to pay an artist.
Despite situating his Last Supper in a scene of everyday life, Tintoretto pulls you back. Angels bathed in celestial light float near the coffered ceiling and figures are elongated, in effect, idealizing them even more. He doesn’t play up the individuality of figures apparent in Castagno’s and Leonardo’s versions. Tintoretto, thus, reminds you that this painting is still about faith in higher beings. About religion.
Tintoretto’s Last Supper expresses intense spirituality through the Mannerist style devices of elongated figures and strong contrasts through deep colors and bright highlights. They give the painting an otherworldly aspect. But what pulls you into the drama of the painting is the fluid movement of figures, especially the swirl of angels. They form a serpentine pattern that exudes energy and urgent action that your eyes naturally follow.
Tintoretto not only broke the renaissance art rules of symmetry and stability, he might have muddled the presentation of a conventional instructional “istoria,” compelled, perhaps, by religious events of the period. Leaders of the counter-reformation (the revival of Catholicism after its erosion in the Protestant reformation) had become interested in using art to renew the faith of wavering believers. Including genre themes of mortals and animals would support the central and spiritual theme of man’s communion with God. Even the presence of the angels begins to make more sense as exulting in this communion. Tintoretto’s cenacolo tells its “istoria” using new or refined techniques calculated to elicit intense emotions in an audience that, by then, questioned its faith.
Italian Renaissance art, as you can see in the three paintings in this series of articles, was never stagnant. Starting as a revival of Classical art forms that resonated with the new philosophy of humanism (the intrinsic worthiness and ennobling of human beings), it absorbed the influences of Northern innovations in art, the events of two centuries, and the originality of individual artists. By the Late Renaissance, it had begun to include the flowing lines and dramatic tonalities that characterize the exuberance of subsequent Baroque art.