Tintoretto, or, you may know him by his given name, Jacopo Robusti, born in 1518 or 1519, nobody is quite sure. He died in 1594 at 75 years, living a few years past the average age of 71. I’m writing about him because I was awe struck by his paintings, seeing them for the first time in person in Venice at the Scuola San Rocco. It was how they say my “Come to Jesus” moment, seeing for the first time his incredible work first hand, not a part of a slide show lecture in art history or in a boring glossy coffee table book.
I admit that I was overwhelmed by it. I tried to take it all in as we all did, but honestly, I’m still processing and it’s just now gelling after several weeks in my back brain.
So much compressed in the space. Every surface a story, a narrative, with focal points and side players with meanings and depth. I could have spent a week on the staircase alone.
His work is magnificent, andI am hard pressed to think of another that could match it today using the same tools and techniques. I was drawn into the moment, the wealth and purpose of the patrons and the churches commitment to educate and recruit the masses. His ability and passion to paint, to create at this ongoing extraordinary level. I can’t find the words.
I took many photos that do not do these masterpieces justice, all they really do is prove is that I was there.
What really surprised me though, was when I went past his home.
Before we travelled, we committed to a kayak tour on the canals one evening. I was all for it. But the day of the trip I was tired and not nearly as enthusiastic.
Six of us walked to the kayak rental in the Jewish Ghetto area of Venice. Our time slot was 6:00 PM for a one-hour tour. When we arrived, the sun was high on the old buildings and the area was very quiet. The tour office was rough, ancient stone, kayaks hanging from the ceiling and old posters hung on the walls. It was narrow, maybe 15 yards across at the most, and deep, stretching from the front walkway to the canal.
Our guide was the owner’s daughter, well versed in the history and the canals, and she gave us our instructions quickly. No waivers to sign here, very simple: Stay in a single line behind me, know that the boats view you as cars view bicycles in your country – a nuisance. Only here it's worse, they believe that a kayak is not an acceptable watercraft based on tradition, so they are not pleased to see us.
She was very serious when she said, “You all must wear this red light on your life vest so the boats can see you, and if you see a boat coming toward you get as far left as possible in the canal so they can pass by.”
As we moved to board our kayaks, I realized that there was no “shore” that they are pulled up on, that we are standing on the dock about 5 feet above the water level in the canal. We line up single file and one by one grab a thick, frayed, blue nylon rope that is anchored to the top of the dock bay door, and lower ourselves into the kayaks below.
Our guide is encouraging and positive, and while I was successful, I didn’t earn any style points.
Once at water level and secure with paddle I pushed off and tucked in line behind the others before me. I was preoccupied with not flipping over, wondering how polluted the water is, did I remember how to paddle one of these things and all that stuff. The water did not smell like anything but the sea, and like all the streets of Venice there was no trash to be seen anywhere.
We formed up behind our guide and went around the corner from the small narrow canal onto one of the larger ones. We were all awkward for a hundred yards or so and then got we in the groove.
That’s when I could look all around me and see Venice from a totally different perspective. There was something, not quite sure, but seeing the town from the water’s perspective gave me new insight. Here the town felt like it was the uninvited guest and not the water that was here first.
These canal stones are ancient, and I bumped into them often giving me a face-to-stone look. They were resolute, returned my gaze and I heard them say “I am eternal, but you my new friend, are just passing through.”
I felt like every building I paddled past looked down on me and smiled, thanking me for seeing their city from its foundation, recognizing its power and grace, and going with the current to discover more of it.
Our guide told us the horrifying truth about the Jewish Ghetto, the world’s first, established in in Venice in 1516. She pointed out the original bridges that provided the Jewish population access to the city, and the remnants of the gates that were all locked at night to keep them out of it.
The cities unparalleled beauty has underpinnings of racism that sadly are as ancient as the stones they rest on.
But when we passed Tintoretto’s home I was struck by the awesome moment. All week I have been walking the same streets the masters walked, seeing their brushstrokes a few feet from my nose, and now I am floating in front of the home of Tintoretto, Jacopo Robusti, the most important artist of the late Renaissance.
For some reason this spoke to me with as much power as his paintings. He was a man, who lived in a small home, who had the same issues that we all do with daily living. And this man rose every day to create art that would stand as masterpieces for centuries.
One man, two hands, paint and passion.
When we got back to the dock, we lined up to get out of the kayaks and I’m glad it was dark. Pulling myself up that rope and flopping onto the stone floor was not artistic or graceful in any way, but it was successful.
We thanked our guide and took group photos to remember the moment, but it is an evening that I will have in my memory for a long time.
While the blue molded plastic kayak seemed out of place with all the history surrounding it, I give it a pass for what it allowed me to see and feel and be changed by. Like the water and the kayak, I was new, flowing past this beautiful, rich, sometimes tragic history, being in the moment and carried along by the endlessly moving current.
I sketch and write to keep as much as I can with me, active and influencing what I do today and tomorrow. I feel like I need to wear a red light on my jacket now so people will see me, so I can wave hello, and try to make a difference while I’m passing through.