Travel: Lured by the light of Tintoretto's venice 500 years after the artist's birth
Sarah Marshall explores the timeless Italian city where avant-garde Renaissance superstar Jacopo 'Tintoretto' Robusti spent his life
EYES greedily fixed on leftovers from the night before, seagulls swoop along narrow, brick-walled canals, their wings casting monstrous shadows as dawn begins to break. Reflected in the water, golden prows of gondolas look doubly resplendent and a gentle glow illuminates halos crowning marble saints bowing from church facades.
Along Fondamente Nove, two artists peer from behind their easels, working with swift brushstrokes to capture waves lapping wooden bricole and racing to beat the sun's syrupy ascent above gravestones on Poveglia, an island of the dead.
For centuries, writers and painters have been captivated by Venice. Grandiose art, elaborate architecture and seductive courtesans have all contributed to its allure. But above all, it's the light that makes this floating city so special – a quality shining just as brightly as it did during the Renaissance.
Of all the grand masters who lived in this history-strewn labyrinth, only one can be called a true son of the city, starting and finishing his life in this network of 118 islands erected on wood pilings in the Adriatic Sea. And with celebrations for the 500th anniversary of his birth starting this month – and continuing into 2019, Jacopo 'Tintoretto' Robusti should receive the mainstream international attention he deserves.
"We're certain of very little about the artist's personal life," explains Paola Marini, director of the Accademia Gallery, as we walk through new exhibition Il Giovane Tintoretto, a project linked with a second display of works in the Doge's Palace focusing on his later years. But she hopes the new shows will communicate his "modernity, mental freedom and use of light".
Not since 1937 has Venice hosted a solo exhibition on Tintoretto, and there have been only a handful of monographic displays around the world – largely due to the challenge of transporting his expansive canvases, which measure up to 22 metres wide.
The son of a dyer, he grew up in an environment dominated by Titian, Raphael and Michelangelo. Muscular figures in oversized proportions float, fight and prostrate in his paintings – a style clearly inspired by Michelangelo's revered Florentine sculpture, David.
Bursting with energy and movement, many of Tintoretto's epic narratives are snapshots, and his use of what would now be described as cinematic techniques – such as reflections and symmetry – prompted French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre to call him the "first film director of our time".
"This is an artist who invites you to jump inside the painting," enthuses Marini, citing Miracle of the Slave, Tintoretto's breakthrough work and a highlight of the show, as the perfect example. "He was completely involved. No day of his life was spent without painting."
Another suspended moment is depicted in Tarquin and Lucretia – on display in the Doge's apartments usually closed to the public – where a string of pearls crashes to the floor in an act of rape.
This second exhibition, Tintoretto 1519-1594, features many portraits, including a self-study showing the 77-year-old man with hollowed cheeks and heavy eyes, described by Manet as one of the most beautiful portraits in the world. It also illustrates the artist's mastery of light and shade, a technique way ahead of its time.
"Tintoretto wasn't really bothered with colours," explains museum guide Giulia Pasdera. "He preferred to have a workshop without windows and would move a candle around a tableau of small sculptures to study the effects of light."
Although scholars speculate over details of the grand master's biography and even the exact date of his birth (thought to be 1518-1519), pictorial evidence of his life is plastered all over Venice. Dedicated, determined and prolific, his works appear in more than 25 churches and confraternities. The grandest of all found can be found in the Scuola Grande di San Rocco, dubbed the Sistine Chapel of Venice thanks to its neck-craning ceiling of monumental biblical scenes.
Although guided by religion, Tintoretto was hugely inspired by his city. Elbowing my ways past cruise ship crowds and overloaded gondolas, I'm keen to find where that magic exists today.
It's true Venice is suffering the blight of overtourism; traditional bacari (taverns) are closing, out-priced Venetians are leaving, and the world's greatest al fresco museum is at risk of becoming a relic – a shell without any soul.
But away from the honeypots of St Mark's Square and Rialto Bridge, there are quiet canals, campos, and calles – most notably in the sestiere of Cannaregio. Arching protectively over the top of the city, where seawater washes long promenade Fondamente Nove, this humble residential district was Tintoretto's home.
In recent years, bohemian bars and restaurants have opened along Fondamenta della Misericordia, which turns into an impromptu street party on a summery Saturday night. Ordering a glass of velvet-red barolo and a plate of codfish and meatball cicchetti (the Venetian equivalent of tapas) from Vino Vero, I sit cross-legged along the canal and listen to chatter clipped and sliced by the distinctive razor-edged Venetian dialect.
One of the most exciting additions to the area is Hotel Heureka, which opened in a renovated 16th century house in October 2017. A passion project funded by an Austrian couple who fell in love with the city, it's a paean, featuring just 10 rooms in a space that could easily host twice as much.
The piece de resistance is a garden filled with sprawling olive trees and an ancient well – a rarity in Venice where green spaces are usually locked away.
Close by, on Fondamenta dei Mori, a plaque recognises the house Tintoretto purchased in 1574.
I'm struck by the notion that centuries ago, these windows would have opened on to the same view of tethered row boats and humped bridges; although far from being static, some things in Venice never change.
Because beyond the wild brushstrokes decorating apses and altars, Tintoretto's inspiration still ripples through watery reflections and lingers in shadows cast by candyfloss sunsets.
Get lost and take a wrong turning. You'll probably find it there.
THREE MORE WAYS TO SAMPLE TINTORETTO IN VENICE
EAT... at Vecio Fritolin (veciofritolin.it), a cavernous restaurant in the belly of Santa Croce, with original 18th century features. Albanian chef Najada Frasheri modernises Venetian classics, and attentive owner Irina insists insists on democratic prices for dishes worthy of high praise. A set three-course lunch menu costs €38.
DRINK... at Paradiso Perduto (ilparadisoperduto.wordpress.com), where off-kilter artists have dined at communal tables and listened to jazz for 20 years. If there's no space inside, order a paper plate of fried fish and sit on the pavement.
SHOP... at The Merchant Of Venice (themerchantofvenice.it), a family-run perfumery with flagship stores in former apothecaries in San Marco and Cannaregio. Inspired by the former Republic's trading prowess, scents are created using ingredients from international destinations once connected to the city.
:: Hotel Heureka offers a Venice With Tintoretto package from €740 (£660), including two nights in a Junior Suite with breakfast, two tickets for the Tintoretto exhibition at the Doge's Palace and two tickets to visit the Church of Madonna dell'Orto. Available until December 21; hotel-heureka.com
:: Gilda Zaffagnini from Nexa Events & Travel Designers (nexave.org) can organise visits to the two Tintoretto exhibitions (running until January 6, 2019) and other sites connected to the artist.