We say it to kids all the time, but it isn’t true: cheaters very often do prosper. Case point, Venice in 1564. Back then, rich dudes would donate money to build social clubs dedicated to popular saints, which in Venice meant a saint whose body had been stolen and brought to Venice. (Check out my post Conspiracy, Theft and Sin for the outrageous manner in which St. Mark’s body was smuggled into Venice.) These clubs were places where rich folks could pretend to be pious while patting themselves on the back for arranging to have been born into rich families.
The Scuolo Grande di San Rocco (The Confraternity of Saint Roch) was one of these clubs. In 1564 artwork was needed to cover the interior of a massive newly completed clubhouse gaudy enough to please Donald Trump. Venice overflowed with great artists, so the board of directors did what many organizations do when they want free ideas before settling on what they really want—they held a contest.
Painters in good standing with Venice’s Art Guild were invited to submit a single sketch for a painting to fill the massive oval opening in the ceiling just inside the Scuolo’s new entrance. The theme of the sketch: the Glorification of St. Roch. (Yes, the body of St. Roch was brought to Venice under suspicious circumstances.) A young painter named Jacopo Robusti (better known by his nickname Tintoretto) wanted this commission badly. To win it, he did something no other competitor had the nerve to do. He cheated.
A day had been set aside for artists to come to the Scuolo to present their sketches and have them judged. The artist with the winning sketch would be awarded the job of creating the final ceiling painting. Competition for this project was heavy and many great sketches were presented. Tintoretto was last to show his work. But he didn’t present a sketch. He pulled a cord rigged to the side of the entryway and a tarp slid to the ground, revealing his Glorification of St. Roch, a completed oil painting. Tintoretto and a few of his drunken buddies had snuck into the Scuolo the night before and installed the finished painting in the ceiling.
The other artists cried foul since only a sketch had been asked for.
Tintoretto claimed this was the way he sketched—fast and furious with a paint brush—although he finally admitted to cheating. But he’d done his homework well, studying the Scuolo’s bylaws and discovering that no gift to the Scuolo could be rejected. History didn’t record his exact words, but Tintoretto must have said something like this to his angry fellow artists and the board of directors: “You are all correct; I have cheated and don’t deserve to win this contest. As my punishment, I give the Scuolo my painting. Pay me nothing.”
The board of directors must have rubbed their chins and thought this quite a deal. Instead of awarding an expensive commission they were receiving a magnificent painting for free. And didn’t it look great already installed in the ceiling? To the irritation of the other contestants, the board of directors happily accepted Tintoretto’s painting. To this day it can be viewed where Tintoretto and his drunken buddies hung it in 1564.
Tintoretto may have not played by the rules, but for the next twenty years he painted scores of masterpieces to cover the walls and ceilings of this massive building. The Scuolo never considered hiring another artist because it was felt that all paintings needed to match the Tintoretto in the entryway. And who could match Tintoretto’s style better than Tintoretto himself. The artist had played his cards well.
One of the Scuolo's many rooms decorated by Tintoretto.
If you believe cheaters should never prosper and your sense of fairness outweighs your interest in great art, the next time you’re in Venice I suggest avoiding The Scuolo Grande di San Rocco. In addition to being a repository of some of the finest examples of Renaissance painting in Italy, it’s also a monument to cheating.