Tintoretto: A Rebel in Venice review – the rock'n'roll Renaissance master?

The 16th-century artist is painted – not quite convincingly – as a glamorous bad boy in this high-brow documentary portrait

Trying just a bit too hard to get some rock-star glamour to rub off on what’s a quintessentially high-brow package, this documentary about the Venetian Renaissance painter mentions twice that David Bowie owned a Tintoretto. He even named his record label after the painter, it seems.

Although that makes for a fun pub-quiz fact, it doesn’t necessarily strengthen the case, as claimed by the title, that Jacopo Tintoretto (1518-94) was the rebel, rebel of the lagoon. He did compete aggressively with contemporaries such as Titian and Veronese, and shocked some of the burgers at the time by placing low-born characters at the centre of his compositions instead of in spatial subsidiary to Christ, the saints and the seraphim of heaven who were the ostensible subjects of his work.

Director Giuseppe Domingo Romano assembles an articulate gallery of art historians and restoration experts who help to explain and illustrate what was so significant about Tintoretto’s work, and, although his argumentativeness, ambition and ruthless pursuit of commissions sort of supports the “rebel” thesis, just as much emphasis is laid on his deep immersion in the religious culture of the day.

The voiceover (by Helena Bonham Carter, who pronounces the Italian names and terms with delicious precision) contextualises Tintoretto’s era and home town, through his childhood as the son of a fabric dyer, to the confraternities that he longed to be accepted by, and the constant threat of plague. A lively interlude calls in film director Peter Greenaway, among others, to celebrate the “cinematic” freeze-frame quality of Tintoretto’s compositions, while another scholar compares it to the deep-focus style of Orson Welles.

Elsewhere, Tintoretto’s devotion to his daughter, Marietta, whom he trained to be a painter, is warmly celebrated and while no one tries to claim this 16th-century figure was a proto-feminist, a case is convincingly made that he was keen to paint women in a way that differed from the norm. So, yeah, maybe he was a bit rock’n’ roll.

• Tintoretto: A Rebel in Venice is released in the UK on 26 February for one day only.


Leslie Felperin

The GuardianTramp

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