At the rear of the Frari is a place you should on no account miss: the Scuola Grande di San Rocco. St Rocco (St Roch) was attributed with the power to cure the plague and other serious illnesses, so when the saint’s body was brought to Venice in 1485, this scuola began to profit from donations from people wishing to invoke his aid. In 1515 it commissioned this prestigious building, and soon after its completion in 1560, work began on the decorative scheme that was to put the Scuola’s rivals in the shade – a cycle of more than fifty major paintings by Tintoretto.
The Tintoretto paintings
To appreciate the evolution of Tintoretto’s art you have to begin in the smaller room on the upper storey, the Sala dell’Albergo. In 1564 the Scuola held a competition for the contract to paint its first picture. Tintoretto won the contest by rigging up a finished painting in the very place for which the winning picture was destined – the centre of the ceiling. The protests of his rivals, who had simply submitted sketches, were to no avail. Virtually an entire wall of the Sala is occupied by the stupendous Crucifixion. As Ruskin’s loquacious guide to the cycle concludes: “I must leave this picture to work its will on the spectator; for it is beyond all analysis, and above all praise.”
In the main upper hall, the Old Testament subjects depicted in the three large panels of the ceiling, with their references to the alleviation of physical suffering, are coded declarations of the Scuola’s charitable activities: Moses Striking Water from the Rock, The Miracle of the Brazen Serpent and The Miraculous Fall of Manna. The paintings around the walls, all based on the New Testament, are an amazing feat of sustained inventiveness, in which every convention of perspective, lighting, colour and even anatomy is defied. A caricature of the irascible Tintoretto (with a jarful of paint brushes) is incorporated into the trompe-l’oeil carvings by the seventeenth-century sculptor Francesco Pianta.
Displayed on easels, either in the sala or main hall – they are often moved – are a handful of paintings that are easy to miss, given the competition. Christ Carrying the Cross is now generally thought to be an early Titian, though some still maintain Giorgione’s authorship; Titian’s Annunciation is similarly influenced by the earlier master. Two early Tiepolo paintings, also on easels, relieve the eyes with a wash of airy colour.
The paintings on the ground floor were created between 1583 and 1587, when Tintoretto was in his late 60s. The turbulent Annunciation is one of the most original images of the event ever painted, and there are few Renaissance landscapes to match those of The Flight into Egypt and the small paintings of St Mary Magdalen and St Mary of Egypt.