‘In 1590... when she was 30 years old, envious death cut short her life, depriving the world of such a noble ornament. Her father wept bitterly, taking it as a loss of his own inner being.’
So wrote Carlo Ridolfi in his 17th-century biography of Tintoretto in a passage about the death of the Venetian master’s beloved daughter, Marietta.
An artist of talent herself, Marietta was the eldest of Tintoretto’s eight children and worked alongside two of her siblings — Domenico and Marco — as assistants in their father’s busy workshop. (She is sometimes referred to by the patronymic nickname Tintoretta, but here we will stick to Marietta.)
She was almost certainly the workshop’s only female and is believed to have helped her father on a number of public commissions, including the decoration of their local church, the Madonna dell’Orto.
According to another of Tintoretto’s early biographers, Raffaello Borghini, the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian II owned one of Marietta’s paintings and — like Archduke Ferdinand of Austria and King Philip II of Spain — asked her to join him as a court artist.
Tintoretto rejected the advances of all three rulers. ‘Greatly loving his daughter, he did not want her taken from his sight,’ Borghini wrote.
She was renowned above all as a portraitist, but precious few of Marietta’s works survive with a secure attribution.
Probably the best-known painting attributed to her is Self-Portrait with Madrigal (above), now in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, in which the artist portrays herself leaning against a harpsichord, brushing its keys with her right hand, while holding a musical score in her left.
In recent years, there have even been questions about the attribution of this work to Marietta — though it is, at least, consistent with various accounts of her as a keen musician. Ridolfi claimed she used to entertain subjects with music and song during portrait sittings.
The only image that can categorically be regarded as Marietta’s own is the drawing being offered in Figures d’exception, a single-owner sale of Old Master drawings on 24 March at Christie’s in Paris. It bears a large inscription, likely her father’s, stating that ‘this head is by the hand of madonna Marietta’.
The head in question is that of a portly man, drawn after a cast of an ancient marble bust presumed to represent the Roman emperor Vitellius. Ruling from April to December 69 AD, Vitellius was the third of four emperors in that tumultuous year — before the end of which he would be dragged through the streets, killed and thrown into the River Tiber by supporters of his successor, Vespasian.
Following its rediscovery in Rome in 1505, the bust was brought to Venice by its owner, Cardinal Domenico Grimani, in the 1520s — with Tintoretto later obtaining a copy of it for his workshop.
Marietta’s drawing appears as the verso of a double-sided sheet of paper. On the recto is a drawing by a different member of Tintoretto’s workshop, capturing the handsome face of Giuliano de’ Medici, as per Michelangelo’s sculptural depiction of the Florentine ruler on his tomb. The draughtsman presumably worked from a replica of the Michelangelo rather than travelling to Florence to see the real thing.
The artist’s identity is unknown — though there is a tantalising chance it might have been Domenico or Marco, meaning that brother and sister worked on two sides of the same paper. Given Tintoretto’s plethora of assistants, and given his workshop’s association with more than 100 extant drawings, this should be regarded as possible rather than probable. But what a possibility it is.
‘The two drawings complement each other nicely,’ says Hélène Rihal, head of Christie’s Old Master Drawings department in Paris. ‘Where the recto is mostly a study of light and shadow, the verso focuses on the distinctive features of Vitellius’s face — true to Marietta’s gifts as a portraitist.’
Marietta was one of a handful of female contemporaries who entered the male-dominated art world under their father’s wing, Lavinia Fontana, Chiara Varotari and Artemisia Gentileschi being others.
Last year, a drawing by the Bolognese artist Elisabetta Sirani (1638-1665) sold at Christie’s in New York for $43,750 (more than six times its high estimate). ‘That was a special work, insofar as drawings by 17th-century women are quite rare,’ Rihal says. ‘But to have a drawing by a 16th-century woman coming to auction, such as we do with Marietta now, is of incredible rarity.’
‘Marietta had a brilliant mind like her father. She painted such works that men were astonished by her talent’ — Carlo Ridolfi
As already noted, the artist’s career was tragically cut off in its prime. Marietta died — possibly in childbirth — aged just 30.
After Tintoretto himself passed away in 1594, Domenico took over the workshop. Ridolfi was in little doubt, however, as to which sibling was the finer artist.
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‘Marietta had a brilliant mind like her father,’ he wrote. ‘She painted such works that men were astonished by her talent.’