Tintoretto’s “Il Paradiso,” painted with his son Domenico, in the Doge’s Palace in Venice. (Sala del Maggior Consiglio/Venezia, Palazzo Ducale)
Art and architecture critic

In April, a critic for the National Review took the National Gallery of Art to task for its Tintoretto exhibition, arguing that it was an insufficiently comprehensive overview of the great 16th-century Venetian painter’s work. Given that the best of Tintoretto’s paintings are in Venice, and that many are too large or too integral to specific institutions to move, the author questioned whether an adequate retrospective of his work could be mounted in the United States. “There doesn’t have to be a Tintoretto retrospective in the United States,” Brian T. Allen wrote. “Sometimes it’s not possible to show an artist here in all of his splendor.”

I spent a week in Venice shortly after the March opening of the Tintoretto exhibition in Washington, and decided to test the merits of this old truism: To understand Tintoretto, you have to see his work in the places for which it was made. I made two trips to the church of Madonna dell’Orto, where he is buried and for which he made some of his splashiest early work, and three trips to Scuola Grande di San Rocco, a confraternity building for which Tintoretto painted dozens of works, integrated into one of the greatest fusions of architecture and art of the Renaissance.

I sought out minor works in badly lit chapels; major works that are the pride of the city’s great art museum, the Accademia; and works he made with his son Domenico, which are almost always a little disappointing. I tramped through the Doge’s Palace with the tourist hordes to see the giant painting of paradise that covers one entire wall of the Sala del Maggior Consiglio, and then walked to the other end of the city’s main square to enjoy the artist’s rendering of philosophers on the walls of the Biblioteca Marciana, with its spectacular Renaissance reading room almost empty of visitors.

Tintoretto was a creature of Venice. He was born and died there, and he made his career in the middle of the 16th century, competing with the older Titian and the younger Veronese. He was ferociously ambitious and productive, and he brought to painting a virtuoso theatricality that makes his work utterly distinctive.

I am quite certain I didn’t see every Tintoretto in Venice, but I am confident I saw all of the major ones, except for those that were in conservation or in Washington for the National Gallery show, which closes July 7. And after all that, I can say two things: While it is invaluable to see Tintoretto’s art in the buildings for which it was made, it is also worth the effort to exhibit his art in shows like the one at the National Gallery. Seeing art in its architectural context is enlightening, but so is seeing it with the proper lighting, and in the illuminating context of the full spectrum of an artist’s career.

Tintoretto’s “The Madonna of the Treasurers,” 1567, oil on canvas, on view at the National Gallery of Art through July 7. (Gallerie dell'Accademia, Venice/Scala/Ministero per i Beni e le Attivita culturali/Art Resource, New York)

On my first day in Venice, jet-lagged and overcaffeinated, I went to the church of San Moise to see a painting of Christ washing the feet of his disciples. It is a long, rectangular canvas that hangs on the wall of a deeply recessed chapel, a painting format known as a “laterale,” because it was meant to be seen obliquely, from one side. When placed on a wall directly in front of the viewer, as it would be in a museum, a laterale can sometimes feel unfocused or distended, a long painting without a center of gravity. Reproductions of this painting show Tintoretto’s brilliant imagination at play, with Jesus at the far end, looking into the picture space, and deeply engaged in his work. His sleeves are rolled up, and he is bent over the feet he scrubs; this is no symbolic foot washing, and the piece has the earthy intensity characteristic of Tintoretto’s best work.

But the painting was difficult to see, and key details were almost illegible in the context of San Moise. I put a euro coin in the metered light box, and things only got worse. When the lights came on, much of the painting was lost in a glare of reflected artificial light.

Two of the great paintings Tintoretto made for Madonna dell’Orto are almost as difficult to enjoy. Early in his career, he offered a deal to the leaders of the rather dour brick church on the northern edge of Venice’s Cannaregio district: For merely the cost of his materials — canvas and paint — he would cover its Gothic choir walls with two enormous paintings, almost 50 feet high. One of them was “The Making of the Golden Calf”; the other “The Last Judgment.” The audacity of their scale, and the boldness of Tintoretto’s offer — he was young, ambitious and working for free — makes them essential for anyone on a Tintoretto tour.

But they are underwhelming when seen in the low light of the church. “The Last Judgment” is particularly difficult to make sense of, a cluttered work that rises in thick bands of tormented souls up to a relatively tiny figure of Christ sitting in judgment. Both works are dramatically tall, but it’s hard to find a place in the church from which they can be easily comprehended. They face each other on opposite walls of the narrow choir, and you feel a bit like you’re trying to read a billboard while standing only a few feet away from its base.

Tintoretto made other paintings for Madonna dell’Orto, including one of his finest early works, “The Presentation of the Virgin,” which hangs above an inner door on the side of the church. At first, it seems to be a perfect example of Tintoretto’s brilliant understanding of how paintings relate to architectural space. The image shows the young Mary ascending a steeply recessed flight of stairs, with her tiny figure brilliantly lit against a dramatic sky. The painting’s architecture is depicted from a low vantage point, a dramatic device that is accentuated by seeing it hanging above a door. But this work was, in fact, originally two paintings used as the doors of the organ shutters. It is happily now one painting and well placed in the church, but this isn’t how the painter conceived it.

Tintoretto’s “Presentation of the Virgin.” (Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

The artist’s work at Madonna dell’Orto was, however, sufficiently impressive to Tintoretto’s contemporaries that it helped make his reputation. Tintoretto was a controversial figure in Venetian artistic life, applauded for the boldness of his vision but not universally admired. His work seemed to some too frenetic, slightly unfinished and lacking the polish and reserve of other painters in the mid-16th century. When a competition was held to decorate the Sala dell’Albergo at the Scuola Grande di San Rocco, Tintoretto was said to have resorted to chicanery. Instead of submitting a paper “modello” as his entry, he produced a finished painting and had it installed in the ceiling of the confraternity’s governing board room. This was playing very loose with the rules, but Tintoretto got the commission and, over the coming decades, would produce a monumental series of paintings for the scuola’s giant Chapter Room and ground-floor hall.

This career-defining project was one of the greatest achievements of the age, comparable to Michelangelo’s painting of the Sistine Chapel, and like the Sistine Chapel, it can be experienced only on-site, in the rooms for which the work was made (though two of the San Rocco paintings that had been removed for conservation did travel to Washington). Part of their impact is the scale, and the repetitive iteration of one man’s style and vision over a vast series of spaces. But there also are architectural details that make sense only when seen in the context of the scuola.

On the ground floor, a cycle of paintings about the Virgin Mary and the young Christ places the Annunciation — the appearance of the angel Gabriel to Mary — next to the main door to the building. Most artists depict the Annunciation as a moment of gentle surprise: The Virgin looks up from a book to learn news that is both dreadful and soul-filling — that she will bear the son of God. But Tintoretto rarely took his cues from other painters, and in this case, the Annunciation is a moment of great tumult, as the angel flies in horizontally while a band of putti (cherubs) stream in through an open window above. It is an invasion as much as it is a telegram from God, and the Virgin looks slightly traumatized by the experience.

Its placement by the door not only echoes the idea of entering a space, a division between secular external and quasi-sacred internal space, but also invites the viewer to put the outside world behind him. Venice can be a noisy city, not just because of the tourists, but also because its streets are narrow and sound seems to bounce off everything. On a sunny day, entering a building is a full-body experience, with a change in light, temperature and acoustics, and this painting emphasizes the drama of crossing a threshold.

In the smaller Sala dell’Albergo upstairs, the architectural drama is in the placement and dialogue of the paintings. Along one wall is a giant rendering of the Crucifixion that, rather like the choir paintings at Madonna dell-Albergo, is too large to be seen easily given the size of the space. But in this case, Tintoretto has breathed air into his giant vision, clustered his figures into meaningful groups and structured the whole thing around a series of diagonals that converge on Christ on the cross.

But there’s something else going on, too, and it didn’t become clear until I had made my third visit. A luminous triangle of light-colored earth is seen with its lower corner at the base of the cross. Turn around, and you see a triangle of similar size and lightness: the white pediment of carved stone above the entrance door. The painted triangle is inverted, but the shapes are essentially the same, almost as if the door’s architectural ornament is reflected on the wall opposite.

That sort of thing will make you say, yes, you have to see Tintoretto in Venice. But even more important than the thrill of small moments of recognition and discovery is the cumulative impact of seeing Tintoretto again and again.

The longer you keep looking, and the farther you walk, the more magisterial Tintoretto’s mind becomes. On my last day in Venice, I poked into the Church of the Gesuati to look for one last Tintoretto, another depiction of the Crucifixion — a smaller, tighter drama than the one at the Sala dell’Albergo. It was the third or fourth version I had seen in a matter of a few days, and it was as powerful as the others, especially one detail: the way Christ looks down from the cross at his mother, who has fainted. Unlike the muscular, triumphant figure of Christ in the Sala dell’Albergo, this Christ, at the moment of his agony, manifests only sympathy for his mother.

Tintoretto’s “The Deposition of Christ,” c. 1562, oil on canvas. (Gallerie dell'Accademia, Venice)

The cumulative power of these multiple depictions opens up theological space and options for the believer. No one Christ is absolute, no one vision definitive. It invites the viewer to go beyond the imaginative space of the paintings themselves, and invent yet more Christs, perhaps ones that are more meaningful and useful.

Would any of this come through in a museum exhibition? In fact, much of it does. I would love to see the Gesuati Crucifixion under the same ideal conditions that makes a masterful circa 1562 rendering of the Deposition (in which Jesus is taken from the cross) so powerful at the National Gallery. And I would have made sense of Tintoretto far more quickly if Venice offered what the National Gallery does, which is a mostly chronological overview, with the portraits gathered together rather than spread out across an entire city.

I have to confess that my strongest memories of Tintoretto will probably have nothing to do with Venice. Rather, it was encountering, in Madrid, the Prado’s “Washing of the Disciples’ Feet” that made me realize the thunderous power of Tintoretto’s art. In Venice, you often see Tintoretto surrounded by lesser figures, including artists such as Palma il Giovane, who clearly admired Tintoretto but never quite equaled his bravura. Yet at the Prado, Tintoretto is seen among the best of the best, and still he triumphs. So, yes, go see Tintoretto in Venice, but never slight the power of a museum to present art with a clarity and care one rarely finds in the ordinary world in which that art was made.