“La Tintoretta:” Searching for Marietta Robusti

‘Self-Portrait/Portrait of a Woman,’ Attributed to Marietta Robusti. 1580.

The growth of the feminist art history movement has lead to the emergence of works by women artists from the early modern period from the depths of archives and museum collections. With the unearthing of lost women artists, works have undergone reattribution as academics have eagerly worked to locate the art of these lost women. One such woman who has gained the attention of scholars is Marietta Robusti, the daughter of infamous Venetian artist, Jacopo Robusti, also known as Tintoretto. There is written evidence of her profound art career during the middle of the 16th century but very little to attribute to her name. This has made her of interest to art historians who have been working to locate her works and attribute them to their rightful author. Yet the process of reattribution is fraught with obstacles, especially when dealing with works from the early modern period. Art historians must be detectives, working to piece together historical accounts and compare them to existing works. Art historians have grappled with the limited information available about Robusti, working to wade through contemporary biographies and museum inventories to try to rediscover her. The information available has made scholars eager to locate works by the artist. The search to identify Robusti’s works has provided many possible attributions. One of the most widely discussed is the 1580 Self-Portrait depicting a young woman standing in front of a spinet, is accepted as a self-portrait of the artist. In the last decade, art historians have pushed back against this attribution, providing evidence for why this work may not actually be by the hand of Robusti. While the desire to uncover works by Robusti is admirable, it has led to questionable attributions which require a closer analysis. The 1580 Self-Portrait is incorrectly attributed to Marietta Robusti, but examining and deconstructing the attribution reveals the complexity of authorship in the Renaissance Period and the difficulties of the attribution process.

Tintoretto, “Self-Portrait”
Domenico Tintoretto, “Tancred Baptizing Clorinda”

One of the first written records of Marietta Robusti’s life is Carlos Ridolfi’s The Life of Tintoretto, and his Children Domenico and Marietta. The book focuses on the life of Tintoretto with short additions about his two eldest children. The last three pages of the book are dedicated to Marietta, detailing the limited information about her life as well as information about her career as an artist in her father’s studio. This is the first reference we have to works created by Robusti. Art historians and collectors have used these descriptions as verification for later attributions of work to Robusti. The descriptions of the works note the subjects painted, but do not provide sufficient details to identify a painting. Despite the vague description of Robusti’s work, scholars have cited Ridolfi’s biography throughout the years in their desperate attempts to uncover Robusti’s lost works. Studies about Robusti and her life are still relatively limited, but scholars in the last decade have worked with the early biographies to piece together the artist’s short life. Yet, the lack of documentation nor clear attributions to Robusti have plagued the scholarship surrounding the artist, but the process of attribution can unveil the complicated place Robusti held in Tintoretto’s workshop and currently holds in the art historical canon.

Marietta Robusti - THE HISTORY OF PAINTINGREVISITED

Marietta Robusti was born in Venice to Tintoretto and an unnamed woman during the 1550s, speculated to be between 1551 and 1554. Robusti was born illegitimately and raised by her father and step-mother, Faustina Episcopi, whom Tintoretto married in approximately 1559. While illegitimate births in Venice were not uncommon, her status as illegitimate may have accounted for the strange upbringing she received. In Carlos Ridolfi’s biography of Robusti’s life, he records that “being small, she dressed like a boy and her father took her with him wherever he went.” By disguising his daughter as a young boy, Tintoretto was able to travel around Venice and complete commissions with his young daughter in tow while the young aspiring artist learned about painting firsthand with her father.  As women caught wearing men’s clothing were subject to severe punishment in violation of sumptuary laws, Tintoretto was taking a considerable risk dressing his daughter in masculine attire. With little options other than to bring his young daughter with him while he worked, Tintoretto made his daughter his little assistant.

Ridolfi goes on to record that Tintoretto “trained [Robusti] in design and color, whence later she painted such works that men were amazed by her lively talent” and her special gift was her ability to paint portraits. She learned in her father’s workshop and was eventually made a workshop assistant. She aided in creating her father’s large scale works as well as putting her artistic skill to use painting portraits of Venetian noble men and women. As her notoriety in Venice grew, Robusti gained the attention of several European leaders who sought out such a novelty for their courts. Throughout her life, Robusti received requests from King Philip II of Spain, Holy Roman Emperors Maximilian II, and Ferdinand I to join their courts, but her father encouraged her to stay in Venice as he could not bear to be apart from “the dearest delight of his soul.” In a further attempt to keep his daughter near at hand, Tintoretto arranged Robusti to marry Marco Augusta, a wealthy jeweler, in 1578. He insisted the young couple remain in his home until Tintoretto passed away so Robusti could continue to work within the family workshop. Unfortunately, they never had the opportunity to build a home outside of Tintoretto’s as Robusti’s passed away prematurely. She is believed to have passed away in 1590. There is no death certificate or record to verify the cause or the exact date of her death, but most research records that she died in childbirth. Tintoretto was distraught after the death of his eldest daughter,  he “wept bitterly, taking it as the loss of a part of his own inner being.” Robusti was buried in Santa Maria dell’Orto, where several Tintoretto paintings are located and where Tintoretto would be buried next to her four years later.

It was common for artists to train their children in painting and drawing so they could assist in the family studio, but Robusti’s gender hindered her ability to reach the levels of fame that her father and her brother, Domenico, enjoyed. Artistic production was understood to be a predominantly male field and women were discouraged from achieving success within the vocation due to the accepted beliefs about feminine inferiority. It was believed that women’s inferiority affected everything they did, including their artistic practices. For this reason, women artists typically worked on portraiture as it required less invensione (invention/creativity) than the large scale paintings typically created in a Venetian Renaissance workshop. Despite her position in a workshop, Robusti’s gender dictated the type of works she could create and Ridolfi records that Robusti primarily created portraits, typically of Venetian nobles as well as many of her husband’s associates. While we have a record that these portraits were created, locating and identifying these works has proven difficult without any surviving documentation or a clear signature by Robusti. These difficulties have not stopped collectors and scholars from making attributions. One of the few paintings with an attribution to Robusti is the aforementioned Self-Portrait, which is currently located at the Uffizi Gallery. The attribution is suspect, but before exploring what makes it so, an analysis of the painting may explain how the work was attributed to Robusti in the first place.

Autoportrait de Marietta Robusti avec un madrigal, 1580 ...

The portrait depicts a young woman with blond hair, parted down the middle and pulled away from her face. Her cheeks are rosy against her pale porcelain skin and she is dressed nicely in a white gown with a simple pearl necklace. The woman stands before a keyboard instrument, one hand hovering over the keys while the other holds a book of music. The book of music is held open to display the musical notation for a song and accompanied by the words, “Madonna, per voi ardo,” translated as “My Lady, for you I burn.” Portraiture of women shown at the spinet or harpsichord were not uncommon during this period and the subject was popular for self-portraits by other women artists such as Lavinia Fontana and Sofonisba Anguissola.

Sofonisba Anguissola, “Self Portrait at Spinet.”
Lavinia Fontana, “Self Portrait at Spinet”

The keyboard instrument was associated with chastity and status among the noble classes and including them in portraits of young women imbued the subject with purity and class. The theme of purity is furthered by the subject’s likeness to St. Cecilia, the patron saint of music. Typical depictions of St. Cecilia feature her in a white dress, adorned with a crown of flowers, and clutching an instrument which parallels the appearance of the subject of the Self-Portrait. The multitude of associations between music and purity made portraits such as these popular ways of depicting young women. This may explain a reason for the current attribution to Robusti as a self-portrait of herself at the harpsichord. Yet Fontana and Anguissola are depicted as active players at the spinet or harpsichord, while the woman in the 1580 portrait stands static before the instrument. Robusti was a talented harpsichord player and entertained guests with her musical skill so it is plausible that Robusti would choose to depict herself as a musician. The composition is conventional for a posed portrait; the subject shown at three-quarts length, turned with her gaze directed towards the viewer. The duality of Robusti’s identity as a talented artist and musician is a major factor in the attribution of the painting to the young woman artist.

The original attribution to Robusti was made in 1675 during the sale of the painting by Marco Boschini, a Venetian painter and engraver, to Cardinal Leopoldo de’ Medici, the brother of the Grand Duke Ferdinando II. Boschini originally purchased the painting from the collection of Francesco Fontana, who attributed the piece to Titian. Works by women artists were considered a rare spectacle and many collectors sought out these miraculous works for their own collections. It is likely that Boschini knew about the Cardinal’s own growing interest in women artists and reattributed the painting to Robusti in an attempt to satisfy the Cardinal’s interests in adding a woman artist’s self portrait to his collection. This negotiation for the sale of the painting reveals how easily manipulated attributions were during the early modern period and how attributions were changed by collectors and merchants to suit the desires of potential buyers. The Self-Portrait’s original attribution to Robusti was conceived by dubious means and closer analysis of the painting reveals discrepancies which support the inaccuracy of the attribution.

Tintoretto, “Portrait of a Woman”

One argument against the attribution has to do with the style of the painting. Robusti was trained directly by Tintoretto and executed works within his workshop her entire life, and Alicia Savage argues that the 1580 Self-Portrait appears less naturalistic than the typical portraiture that came out of Tintoretto’s studio. In comparison with another portrait from the studio around the same time, Portrait of a Woman (1580) which is attributed to Tintoretto, the lines of the Self-Portrait are harsher and the subject appears stiff and disproportional. While this does not disqualify the attribution, it is expected that Robusti’s own painting style would reflect his influence and the knowledge he passed on to her. 

A more compelling argument against the attribution to Robusti deals directly with the portrayal of the subject and the objects around her. Savage makes note that the title of the song displayed in the musical book, Madonna, per voi ardo (My Lady, for you I burn), is likely a declaration of love for the sitter. She posits the painter was likely a man creating a painting of his lover. Earlier scholars remark that the inscription hints at the painting being a self-portrait for her husband as a way to support the attribution to Robusti.  However, the message is for “ma donna,” which indicates the song and the painting are directed towards a woman. More important is the keyboard upon which the subject leans. Sarah Pyle notes that the keyboard displayed includes a highly unusual combination of white and black keys. While this could simply be a small mistake, it would be peculiar for a woman with a well-established reputation as a musician to make such an error. She would be familiar with the appearance of a harpsichord and if she created the painting to show herself as a talented musician, she would be discrediting her abilities by incorrectly portraying the instrument. Based upon the evidence presented by previous scholars, I do not believe the Self-Portrait was created by Robusti. The exact identity of the painter will likely never be known, but it is plausible the artist was a lesser known artist training in or near Tintoretto’s workshop who was influenced by Tintoretto’s portraiture. 

While the painting probably was not created by Robusti, it may still have been created within her father’s workshop. Tintoretto’s workshop was typical of the Venetian bottega in that it was a family organization and he made space in the bottega for all his children who displayed artistic talent, including Marietta. Marietta served as a chief assistant for her father along with her half-brothers, Domenico and Marco. Assistants worked under the supervision of Tintoretto on large scale paintings which came out of the workshop. Tintoretto was responsible for any works that came out of it and placed an emphasis on uniformity to ensure the works conformed to his style and standard of quality because the works would be displayed under his name. Without proper documentation or signatures on works that came out of the artist’s studio, telling works by assistants apart is nearly impossible. If the Self-Portrait was painted in Tintoretto’s studio by an assistant, determining an exact identity is difficult without a signature on the piece and without clear documentation of it’s creation. Determining the artist in the studio is impossible, but another way to connect the Self-Portrait to Tintoretto’s studio is by comparing the subject of the portrait to other possible portraits of Marietta Robusti.

Portrait of a Woman in Red, 1550s
Venetian Woman, 16th Century

Aside from the 1580 attributed self portrait, there are other works believed to be self-portraits of Robusti. Two possible attributions appear in Self-Portraits by Women Painters (2000), but the attributions lack strong evidence. Portrait of a Woman in Red (1550s, fig. 5), currently attributed to Tintoretto, depicts a subject with many similarities to the subject of the 1580 self-portrait with rosy red cheeks and a similar pulled-back hairstyle. The latest dating of the portrait places its creation during the 1550s, which disqualifies Robusti as a potential artist and subject due to her estimated date of birth. Venetian Lady (16th century) is currently attributed to Robusti and is said to be an idealized self-portrait in which the artist disguises herself as a noble woman. The appearance of the woman differs from other possible depictions of Robusti. Additionally, there is no evidence to support the identification of Marietta as the woman in the painting. Other scholars have attributed self-portraits to Robusti throughout the last few decades, but a majority of these attributions are circumstantial or have been disproven. It is beneficial to understand the 1580 Self-Portrait by attempting to determine the subject of the Self-Portrait in connection to confirmed attributions. This can be done by comparing the subject in the painting with possible portraits of Robusti that came out of Tintoretto’s workshop and contemporary Venetian portraits of beautiful young women.

As the only known woman in Tintoretto’s workshop, Robusti may have also served as model for her father. In Louise Arizzoli’s 2016 essay, “Marietta Robusti in Jacopo Tintoretto’s Workshop,” she analyzes several works by Tintoretto and Domenico Robusti in an attempt to discover Robusti’s likeness amongst the painted figures. It was common for studio assistants to serve as models for paintings as they were readily available to artists. Using his daughter as a model would have been more acceptable than other artist’s use of prostitutes as models during the period. In Arizzoli’s initial attempt to locate a definitive portrait of Robusti, she does address the 1580 Self-Portrait and expresses her own doubts about the attribution. After identifying the portrait as not a depiction of Robusti, Arizzoli turns back to the works of Tintoretto in hopes to locating Robusti. The young women seen in the works she examines have specific physiognomic features that she argues share similarities with Tintoretto’s own features depicted in his self-portraits. The definitive image we have of Robusti is an engraving found in Ridolfi’s biography. The engraving is based on a lost portrait of Robusti and displays a woman with a bulbous nose, full lips, a large forehead, and wide dewy eyes. Arizzoli verifies the presence of Robusti in other paintings by comparing the appearances with the Ridolfi engraving. She notes the similarities between the nose in the engraving and Tintoretto’s in his self-portraits to make a familial connection between the two subjects. 

Arizzoli cites three examples of women with the physiognomic features identified as Robusti: the maid in Tintoretto’s Danaë (1570, left), Saint Agnes in the Miracle of St. Agnes (1577, middle), and Domenico Robusti’s Penitent Magdalene (circa 1580-1585, right). The similarities between these three figures are significant and Arizzoli remarks that the realism of the figures, or rather the lack of idealization, leads one to believe they were painted from life. The young woman in the Self-Portrait shares some of the same features as the women in Tintoretto’s works, but she does not share the larger bulbous nose that Arizzoli highlights as a defining feature of Robusti’s physiognomy. The woman in the Self-Portrait also exhibits other distinctive features that are not typical of accepted portraits of Robusti such as a prominent cleft chin. As the subject of the portrait can not be identified as Robusti, she can be compared with a larger category of portraiture in Venice, the Venetian Beauties, to understand her place in the Venetian history of art. 

Venetian Beauties, portraits of idealized women, were made in Venice during the 16th century by artists such as Titian, Veronese, and Giorgione. The Venetian Beauty was typified by the Petrarchan standards of beauty; the idealized woman with blond hair, fair skin, and rosy pink cheeks like those of Petrarch’s Laura. While not the idealized woman seen in the works of Titian and Giorgione, the subject of the Self-Portrait exhibits many of the key qualities for the Venetian Beauty. Sarah Pyle notes in her essay on the Self-Portrait that the blond subject in the painting corresponds with earlier paintings of similar looking women by Veronese and Titian. The white dress worn by the subject in the Self-Portrait even shares a similar appearance to the gown worn by the subject in Titian’s Portrait of a Young Lady in White (1561).

Portrait of a Lady in White, 1555 - Ticiano Vecellio ...
Titian, “Portrait of a Young Lady in White”

The blond-haired women with round rosy cheeks in these works of Titian and Veronese all display a similar expression and direct gaze also seen in the Self-Portrait. While the subject of the Self-Portrait does display distinct facial features, it is unlikely to be a portrait of Robusti when compared to other depictions of her and instead aligns with generalized ideal portraits of women during the 16th century. Paintings are subject to variance in skill of artist, lighting, and other external factors which may cause inconsistencies amongst portraits of the same person and the practice of attempting to identify subjects in paintings based on physiognomy is not perfect. The Self-Portrait may be an image of Marietta Robusti, but I would argue it is unlikely without documentation and due to the already established issues with attribution. Attribution is never a perfect science and the practice is only further muddled when documentation is lost or was never made in the first place. While the evidence above shows why the painting is not by Robusti, the investigation creates a space in which information about Robusti and her short career can be explored and the difficulties of attribution during the Renaissance period can be addressed. Due to the workshop setting in Venice, accurately attributing works to artists is complicated even with documents as the individual authorship of a work is overlooked in favor of a community identity. While works by Marietta Robusti decorate the walls of museums and churches around Venice and the world under her father’s name due to her role as a chief assistant in her father’s studio, locating her individual work is difficult. The desire to unearth great works by Robusti is admirable and her name should be remembered alongside her father and brother as she was an important member of the workshop, but her place within that studio makes attribution difficult. Perhaps if Robusti had taken the opportunity to travel to one of the royal courts who sought her out her oeuvre would be more abundant, but her short life within the workshop leaves little room for clear attributions and an individualized career beyond the bottega. That does not mean the search for Marietta Robusti should end there, it simply means there’s much more work to be done.

-Claire Sandberg


Resources:

Arizzoli, Louise. “Marietta Robusti in Jacopo Tintoretto’s Workshop,” Studi di Storia dell’Arta 27, no. 26059 (2016): 105-114.

Bull, Duncan. “A Double-Portrait Attributable to Marietta Tintoretto.” The Burlington Magazine 151, no. 1279 (2009): 678-81.

Cheney, Liana, Alicia Craig Faxon, and Kathleen Lucey Russo. Self-Portraits by Women Painters. Aldershot, Hants, England. Ashgate: 2000.

Fortune, Jane and Linda Falcone. Invisible Women. 2nd ed. Florence, Italy: The Florentine Press: 2010.

Hill, Judith. “Words, Pictures, Songs and Society: Women in the Arts of Early Modern Venice”. MA Thesis, Empire State College State University of New York: 2016.  

Ridolfi, Carlo. The life of Tintoretto, and of his children Domenico and Marietta (1642). University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1984.

Piccinelli, Roberta. “Female Painters and Cosimo III de’ Medici’s Art Collecting Project,” in Women Artists in Early Modern Italy, ed. Sheila Barker. (Turnhout: Brepols, 2016): 29-38.

Pyle, Sarah. “Interdisciplinary Approaches to Musical Portraiture of the Late Renaissance and Early Baroque: Reading Musical Portraits as Gendered Dialogues.” M.A. Thesis, University of Oregon: 2014.

Savage, Alicia. “Marietta Robusti, La Tintoretta: A Critical Discussion of a Venetian Pittrice”. M.A. Thesis, Texas Christian University, 2018.

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