A Procurator of Saint Mark’s is one of Jacopo Tintoretto’s largest portraits and has increasingly come to be recognized as one of the most distinctive and imposing of his later career. Especially in his official portraits, Tintoretto tended to paint his subjects in three-quarter view and roughly half-length. Here, in contrast, the subject is presented frontally and almost full-length. Although seated, he is seen from a lowered point of view, the folds of his garment sweeping upward in an unbroken line, suggesting that the picture was intended to hang fairly high on a wall. Typically for Tintoretto, the face and hands are rendered with care, while the drapery is conveyed more broadly. X-radiography reveals how the artist began the portrait by sketching in the basic structural forms of the head, including the eye sockets. The costume is disproportionately bulky in relation to the head, emphasizing the sense of authority and grandeur. The summary execution and flowing rhythms of the garment, however, keep the forms from appearing ponderous and, as Miguel Falomir has noted, the vibrancy of the illumination on the subject’s head and the foreshortening of the right arm and hand projecting toward the viewer give the painting a dynamism that is usually absent in Tintoretto’s institutional portraits. Given the Venetian penchant for conformity in official portraiture, which reflected a system of government in which the cult of personality was rigidly suppressed, this portrait was almost certainly created for a private setting. Some critics, among them Peter Humfrey and Falomir, have found that the sense of majesty conveyed by the painting comes at the cost of psychological penetration. It is true that the subject here lacks the poignant combination of dignity and frailty that characterizes Tintoretto’s greatest portraits of old men, the category in which his genius as a portraitist was most fully realized. But the Gallery’s portrait presents a somewhat different personality: careworn and pensive, but stoical and still vigorous.
As is typical for Tintoretto’s finest portraits, the format is minimalist. The shadowy background shows only a simple architectural form—perhaps the high plinth of a column or pier—barely sketched in. Aside from the sitter’s robe of office and the chair on which he sits, there are no further accoutrements. Nothing distracts from the emphasis on the sitter’s face, and in particular on his gaze, directed out at the viewer.
Since the portrait entered the Gallery’s collection, the subject has been identified as a procurator of Saint Mark, one of the most prestigious offices in Venice. This was based on the understanding that the costume he wears—specifically the robe with voluminous manege dogali (ducal sleeves), open at the wrist, rather than tapered, to reveal the rich ermine lining, and the becho or stole—was limited to procurators and a few other high-ranking officials. However, David S. Chambers argued that procurators wore no special garments, but dressed like all other Venetian nobles holding high office; he noted that Cesare Vecellio, in his Degli habiti antichi et moderni di diverse parti del mondo (Venice, 1590) did not illustrate a procurator, as he would have been likely to do if they had worn a distinctive costume; rather, Vecellio simply stated that procurators and a few other high officials could wear the grand robes of high office for life, not just during their period of job tenure. Visual evidence from the paintings of the period suggests that the use of costumes like that of the sitter here by Venetian officials may have been somewhat broader than has previously been supposed. Numerous official group portraits by Tintoretto and his studio show officials who are not procurators wearing similar garments. For example, in Tintoretto’s Saint Giustina and Treasurers and Three Secretaries of 1580 (Museo Correr, Venice), all three treasurers have robes with open, ermine-lined sleeves and wear embroidered stoles the same color as their robe, like the subject in the Gallery’s painting. Thus the sitter here may not in fact be a procurator, but rather some other official or simply a senator.
Attempts to identify the sitter by name have not been successful. In 1930, Wilhelm R. Valentiner suggested that the sitter was Francesco Duodo (1518–1592), an important commander of the Venetian fleet in the battle of Lepanto (1571). His hypothesis was based on a supposed resemblance to a bust by Alessandro Vittoria that originally decorated the Duodo tomb (now Ca’ d’Oro, Venice). However, as Falomir and Frederick Ilchman have noted, the sitter’s nose, eyebrows, and cranium are different from those of Duodo as represented in that bust and other secure likenesses.
Another identification has been proposed on the basis of a weaker replica of the Gallery’s portrait, first noted by Lionello Venturi in 1931 (once in the Kende collection, Vienna; now private collection, Austria), bearing the inscription “Gio. Donato padre del Ser.mo Nic.o 1560” (Giovanni Donato, father of the Serenissimo Nicolò). Nicolò Donato was doge for only 35 days in 1618. His father, Giovanni Donato, or Donà, was born around 1487 and died in 1571. He was never a procurator. In the 1520s and 1530s, he held several positions that would have entitled him to wear the robes of a high official, but no mention of his having held office after 1531 has been located in the archives. It seems unlikely that he would be depicted wearing official robes in a portrait of some four decades later. Moreover, the painting seems to depict a man in his fifties or sixties, not his eighties, as Giovanni Donato would have been around 1570 (a date of 1560 is certainly too early for the Gallery’s picture).
The attribution of the painting to Tintoretto is uniformly accepted, with a dating to the later decades of his career. While there are no directly comparable portraits in Tintoretto’s oeuvre, it is generally analogous to the portrait of Marco Grimani of 1576–1583 (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna) in the treatment of the face, hands, and garment. Given the absence of any clear year-by-year progression in the chronology of Tintoretto’s portraits, as well as the unique characteristics of the Gallery’s painting and the absence of information about the sitter, a date somewhere in the later 1570s or early 1580s seems best.
March 21, 2019