Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
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Monday, May 31, 2021

Marietta Robusti, Tintoretto's Daughter

Marietta Robusti, la Tintoretta (death of her father, 31 May 1594)

Marietta Robusti was the daughter of a famous father, the Venetian painter Jacopi Robusti, more commonly known by his nickname, Tintoretto ("little dyer," from the Italian tintore--his father had been a dyer by trade).

A "self-portrait" long attributed 
to Marietta Robusti,
Uffizi Gallery
For all that Marietta Robusti was the daughter of a famous father, few details of her life are certain, not even the year of her birth. 

The earliest reference to her is found in Raffaelo Borghini's Il Riposo, published in 1584. The Florentine writer and art critic knew Tintoretto and his family, and in his discussion of art, artists, and art collectors, he includes a brief paragraph about the painter's daughter, Marietta, claiming that she is "known to all" as la Tintoretta. 

Borghini also indicates that, at the time of his writing, Robusti is some twenty-eight years old, which would make her year of birth about 1556.

The second early source for the life of Marietta Robusti is a brief chapter (just two pages) in Carlo Ridolfi's Le Maraviglie dell'arte: overo le vite de gl'illustri pittori veneti, e dello stato, published in 1648. 

Though he was writing decades after the death of both Tintoretto and his daughter, Ridolfi knew members of the Robusti family, from whom he obviously gained information about both Tintoretto and Marietta. According to Ridolfi's account, "the daughter of the famous Tintoretto" was thirty years old at the time of her death, in 1590, which suggests that her year of birth was 1560. 

But there seems little to support Ridolfi's claim. In his recent study of Tintoretto, published in 2018 to commemorate the five-hundredth anniversary of the Venetian painter's birth, scholar and curator Robert Echols claims that Marietta Robusti was born about the year 1554. 

And despite their references to Marietta Robusti, these works are really about her father, not Robusti herself. She rates a few small paragraphs or a couple of pages, no more. The most extended study of Marietta Robusti that I have found--and the only one dedicated to Robusti herself, rather than to her father--is Alicia Savage's 2018 M.A. thesis, "Marietta Robusti, la Tintoretta: A Critical Discussion of a Venetian pittrice" (available here); Savage indicates that Robusti was born in the early 1550s, probably in 1553 or 1554. 

Such discrepancies may not seem all that important, but they do show how little is known about Robusti. Her parentage is not entirely clear either--she was Tintoretto's eldest child, but her mother is unknown. While Tintoretto married a woman named Faustina de Episcopi about 1559, and while the couple had seven children, Marietta Robusti was not Faustina's child. 

Indeed, the circumstances of Robusti's birth may explain one of the more unusual aspects of her life, noted by Ridolfi--"Being small of stature she dressed like a boy. Her father took her with him wherever he went and everyone thought she was a lad" (translated by Savage). In Echols's view, the circumstance of Robusti's birth "probably helps explain" not only the cross-dressing but the fact that her father "trained her as an artist."

Description of "Marietta la Tintoretta,"
Il riposo di Raffaello Borghini (1584)
But Marietta Robusti's training at her father's hand was not unique, and the circumstances of her birth may have had nothing to do with her place in his workshop, for she shared that experience with most of the women painters I have written about in this blog. 

Female painters in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries regularly began their careers under their father's tutelage, working with and alongside members of the family--there were few other options for a girl who might have dreamed of being an artist. 

Like at least two of her brothers, Robusti was taught how to draw and paint, especially portraits in the manner of Tintoretto himself; Ridolfi compares her "brilliant mind" to her father's, claiming that she "also painted other works of her own invention" (translated by Savage). 

Aside from work she completed in the family bottega, she is also likely to have have assisted her father in some of his public commissions, for example in the program of decoration at the Robusti family's parish church, the Madonna del Orto. (The church contains eleven paintings by Tintoretto, including a "monumental pair" that were "probably painted in situ".)

In addition to painting, Robusti was a musician. Borghini notes that she played the harpsichord, the lute, and other instruments. According to Ridolfi, her singing and playing were very pleasing to those whom she painted. In addition to her musical accomplishments, Borghini mentioned Robusti's beauty and her grace. About her art, he says that she "paints very well" and that she has "done many beautiful works"--though he cannot say more about them, because he has "no detailed knowledge of her works" (translated by Savage).

But whether he has personally seen her work or not, Borghini indicates that Robusti had earned something of a reputation as an artist: 
And she did, among others, the portrait of Jacopo Strada, antiquarian of Emperor Maximilian II, and the portrait of she herself that, as a rare thing, His Majesty keeps in his room. And [Maximilian], as also King Phillip and Archduke Ferdinand, did everything to have this excellent woman with him and sent to ask her of her father. But [Tintoretto], greatly loving her, did not want her taken from his sight.

One of the few certainties of Marietta Robusti's life is her marriage. In 1578, she married a goldsmith and jeweler known as Marco-Augusta; German-born, he was living in Venice. For Ridolfi, the groom's residence in Venice is critical; Tintoretto chose his daughter's husband "so that she may always be nearby" because he did not want to "be deprived of her.” Notably, unlike most women painters who stopped working after their marriage, Robusti continued to paint. In Borghini's words, "having married, she enjoys its virtues and she does not fail continuously to paint."

The discussion of Marietta Robusti, in 
Carlo Ridolfi's Le Maraviglie dell'arte (1648)

For all of the uncertainties about Marietta Robusti's life--the identity of her mother, the year of her birth, even the date of her death (aside from Robusti's claim, there is no documentary evidence that she died in 1590), the greatest uncertainty surrounds the body of her work. 

The title of Rebecca Ann Hughes's very recent essay says it all: "The Lost Paintings of Marietta Robusti Are a Maddening Renaissance Mystery." As Hughes writes, "A black-and-white chalk drawing of the head of a portly man was recently sold at a Christie’s auction as the only work firmly attributed to Marietta Robusti, daughter of the Venetian master Jacopo Robusti, perhaps better known as Tintoretto." (On Marietta Robusti and the Christie's auction of "Head of a Man, after the Antique," click here.) According to the description, posted by Christie's, the drawing "bears a large inscription, likely her father’s, stating that 'this head is by the hand of madonna Marietta.'" (The drawing, also known as "The Head of Vitellius," sold for €100,000.)

And that's it. The painting most commonly attributed to Robusti is the "self"-portrait, reproduced in this blog post. Although the Uffizi labels this as her work, that attribution is questioned--not only based on the provenance of the portrait but, to quote Hughes, on "the mediocrity of the painting," with its "rudimentary foreshortening" and "poor anatomy." (Another art historian has recently called the portrait a "feeble work.") 

Perhaps the most poignant comment about Robusti's "lost" oeuvre was made by Germaine Greer in The Obstacle Race, her 1979 exploration of "the fortunes of women painters and their work: "Modern scholars attribute none of the work in the Tintoretto bottega to her, although she worked there more or less full time for fifteen years."

As the search for the surviving work of early women artists continues, many paintings have been hopefully identified as long lost work by Marietta Robusti. A quick online search will turn up quite a few example of such attributions, from popular sources (like WikiArt Visual Encyclopedia), general-audience publications (like The Florentine), and museum publications (like the Museo del Prado's online catalogue), to scholarly art-history journals (like Duncan Bull's "A Double-Portrait Attributable to Marietta Robusti" in  The Burlington Magazine). The best summary of the search for works by Robusti is in Savage, "Attributions and Collection History."

While attempts "to restore Marietta's reputation" are on-going, Hughes indicates that, without more "physical evidence" of Robusti's accomplishment, the effort cannot succeed. "For the moment," she concludes, "La Tintoretta, the legendary woman artist, remains just that--a legend."