The Archbrotherhood of St Roch was the richest of the six scuole grandi in 15th-century Venice. Its members came from the top end of the mercantile and professional classes. It was dedicated to Venice's other patron saint, the French plague protector and dog-lover St Roch (also known as St Rock or San Rocco), whose body was brought here in 1485.
To celebrate the feast day of St Roch (16 August), admission to the scuola is free on that day.
The scuola operated out of rented accommodation for many years, but at the beginning of the 16th century a permanent base was commissioned. The architecture, designed by Bartolomeo Bon and Scarpagnino, is far less impressive than the interior decoration, which was entrusted to Tintoretto in 1564 after a competition in which he stole a march on his main rivals - Salviati, Zuccari and Veronese - by presenting a finished painting rather than the required sketch.
In three intensive sessions spread out over the following 23 years, Tintoretto went on to make San Rocco his epic masterpiece. Fans and doubters alike should start here; the former will no doubt agree with John Ruskin that paintings such as the Crucifixion are 'beyond all analysis and above all praise,' while the latter may well find their prejudices crumbling. True, the devotional intensity of his works can shade a touch too much into kitsch for the 21st-century soul; but his feel for narrative structure remains timeless.
To follow the development of Tintoretto's style, pick up the free explanatory leaflet and the audio guide and begin in the smaller upstairs hall - the Albergo. Here, filling up the whole of the far wall, is the Crucifixion (1565). More than anything it is the perfect integration of main plot and sub-plots that strikes the viewer; whereas most paintings are short stories, this is a novel. Note that some restoration work was underway as this guide went to press.
Tintoretto began work on the larger upstairs room in 1575, with Old Testament stories on the ceiling and a Life of Christ cycle around the walls, in which the artist experimented relentlessly with form, lighting and colour. Below the canvases is a characterful series of late 17th-century wooden carvings, including a caricature of Tintoretto himself, just below and to the left of his painting of The Agony in the Garden.
Finally, in the ground-floor hall - which the artist decorated between 1583 and 1587, when he was in his sixties - the paintings reach a visionary pitch that has to do with Tintoretto's audacious handling of light and the impressionistic economy of his brush strokes. The Annunciation, with its domestic Mary surprised while sewing, and Flight into Egypt, with its verdant landscape, are among the painter's masterpieces.