The American Scholar

The Fantastical Little Dyer

OF THE THREE GREAT ARTISTS who dominated Venetian painting for much of the 16th century, Tintoretto was the wildest and most avant-garde. In 1568, the Tuscan artist and biographer Giorgio Vasari, who had met Tintoretto in Venice and liked him, reported that aside from the artist’s musical talent and pleasant company, “he was extravagant, capricious, swift, and resolute, the most formidable brain that painting has ever known”—this from someone who had also written a biography of Leonardo da Vinci. From March to July of this year, the National Gallery in Washington is hosting an ambitious exhibition devoted to Tintoretto and what Vasari called “the novel and capricious inventions and strange whims of his intellect”— that is, his paintings. “Whims” is really too pale a translation for Vasari’s colorful term, ghiribizzi, which the Elizabethan writer and lexicographer John Florio defined as “sudden, humorous, fantasticall, toyish conceits,” a description that seems to come close to Vasari’s sense of Tintoretto’s playfulness and unfathomable oddity. Viewers who take in the nearly 50 ghiribizziand 12 drawings on paper that make up “Tintoretto: Artist of Renaissance Venice” might scarcely believe that so fresh and inventive an artist has been with us for half a millennium.

The painter’s father would have handled cloth from the far reaches of the Silk Road,

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