At nearly five metres long and brimming with spectacular details, this lot is a rare example of a great Venetian telero appearing on the market. The tradition of using oversize, usually horizontal, canvas supports, or teleri, for grand narrative pictures and decorative cycles began in the city in the 15th century, when canvas was favoured over fresco, given the tendency of the latter to degrade in the humid air of the lagoon. An influential such telero, Vittorio Carpaccio’s The Arrival of the Ambassadors (c. 1495) in the Gallerie dell’Accademia, set the tone for the type of pictures that would be made in increasing number throughout the 1500s for the city’s churches and scuole. These commissions were dominated by the three leading artists of the period: Titian, Tintoretto and Veronese.
By its very nature, the tradition of the telero invited the artist to be ambitious: compositions had to captivate and feed a sense of the epic in both narrative content and painterly execution. It was a challenge that Tintoretto, in particular, embraced, not only producing some of the greatest teleri of the period but actively exploiting the medium to dazzle potential patrons, and snap up lucrative commissions. For, as the 2009-10 exhibition in Boston and the Louvre colourfully demonstrated, mid-16thcentury Venice was a place of tremendous rivalry, with each of the major three names in active competition at different stages. In this landscape of one-upmanship, Tintoretto is shown to have thrived on his wit and skill: whether working at alarming speed, undercutting others on price, or upstaging rivals in competitions (such as the notorious episode for the Scuola di San Rocco), Tintoretto and his workshop succeeded in producing more pictures for the Venetian state than any other artist.
He was also extremely effective at publicising his talent, prepared to undertake daring, not to mention willingly provocative, feats of artistic endeavour so as to assert his position in the city. He dared to tackle improbably grand canvases and frescoes, where the latter were still painted, with the precise intent to showcase his skill to potential patrons. His biographer Claudio Ridolf recorded how in 1559-60 he undertook two monumental teleri in the church of the Madonna dell’Orto, so that he would ‘make himself known as the most daring painter in the world’. Ridolf also relates how Tintoretto impressed his fellow painters when he frescoed the façade of a house near the bridge of Sant’Angelo with a battle scene – a genre that appears to have appealed to him from a young age. Yet compared to his religious oeuvre, he executed far fewer such secular compositions, and some have not survived: one of his great masterpieces of this type, the Battle of Lepanto of 1571 for the Sala dello Scrutinio, Palazzo Ducale, was destroyed in the fire of 1577. Other notable battle scenes provide instructive points of comparison to the present lot: the Gonzaga cycle, circa 1580, in the Alte Pinakothek in Munich and the Battle of Zara, circa 1585, in the Sala del Collegio, Palazzo Ducale, though these are considerably later in date.
On loan to the National Museum in Poznan, Poland, from 2002, this telero depicts two different episodes and moments in time relating to the history of the town of Asola, then part of the Republic of Venice, but now in present day Lombardy. In the background, and left and centre foreground, Tintoretto shows the town under siege from Austrian troops, under the command of Maximilian I, Holy Roman Emperor, in March 1516. Asola, nestled on the Chiese river between Cremona and Mantua, was a strategically important town, and became the focus of a struggle between the Venetian Republic and the Duchy of Milan, who were allied with the King of Naples and Federico Gonzaga. The town, though small, was besieged on two previous occasions, in 1483 and 1509. (For more on these battles for Asola see A. Pelizza, ‘Gli assedi di Asola nel 1483, 1509 e 1516 nella documentazione dell’Archivio di Stato di Venezia’, M. Vignoli (ed.), Castelli, guerre, assedi. Fortifcazioni mantovane, bresciane e cremonesi alla prova del fuoco (XIII-XVIII secolo), Asola, 2008, pp. 165-201). The city remained loyal to Venice, despite the defeat at the battle of Agnadello in 1509, and though it did in fact fall into the hands of the Gonzaga, it swiftly came under Venetian control again in 1515. At that point Francesco Contarini was sent from Venice to serve as provveditore, or governor, of Asola, with the Brescian Gottardo Brigio appointed as podestà. A period of relative calm and stability followed before Maximilian set siege to the city, in an attempt to gain control of Lombardy, as part of the so-called War of the League of Cambrai. Maximilian eventually turned back, having failed to reach Milan and by the end of 1516 he had ceded claims to Lombardy, ushering in a period of peace. Contarini, as provveditore, valiantly defended the city and his critical role was recognised when he was presented with the standard of Asola, as a mark of the city’s gratitude. That ceremony, which took place some time after the battle itself, is depicted here on the right foreground, with Contarini being delivered the standard by a committee of dignitaries from Asola-Andrea Troiano, Antonio Marascoto, Bertolin Daino and Brion di Rosi – each shown here: the picture celebrates at once the loyalty of Asola and a triumphant episode in the history of the Venetian Republic.
Tintoretto himself was not yet born when the events took place that he records here. The work has been dated to the mid-1540s, probably shortly before Tintoretto painted his revolutionary masterpiece, The Miracle of the Slave, for the Scuola Grande di San Marco (now in the Gallerie d’Accademia). When Suida published the work as a composition by Jacopo in 1939, in the process refuting the suggestion by Thode (1901 and 1904) that it was by Domenico, he proposed it be dated after the Conversion of Saint Paul in Washington; Pallucchini and Rossi (1982), for their part, believed both of these works belonged to the same period, at a time when the infuence of Andrea Schiavone was most evident. Berenson (1957) dates it to the more youthful period.
Engrossing and full of imagination, the picture provides a seemingly endless well of narrative details – of charging troops, canon-firing battalions, cavalry skirmishes – all expressed with typical bravura and executed without restraint, in characteristic earth colours. Tintoretto’s freedom of execution is evident in the zigzag folds of the drapery of the group to the right and in the rapid, almost cursory, brushstrokes that describe some of the troops: they seem barely corporeal, appearing as so many ghostly ranks of soldiers. It is Tintoretto’s striking capacity to relate multiple happenings at the same time, with a great economy of means: he shapes up as a storyteller capable of arresting one’s attention, and creating a work here so thick in plot and subplot that it becomes hard to stop looking. In the recent exhibition in Rome, Vittorio Sgarbi labelled Tintoretto a regista: a director, both theatrical and cinematographic (see V. Sgarbi, ‘Tintoretto regista’, Tintoretto, exhibition catalogue, Rome, 2012, pp. XVII-XXI). Indeed, in this grand telero he harnesses just such a protocinematic effect, using the broad canvas to narrate multiple events, and to give the modern day viewer a sense of a picture in motion, a film reel unravelling to his design, evoking the sights and sounds of an event almost 500 years past.