My website, MyGiorgione, now includes my interpretations of Giorgione's "Tempest" as "The Rest on the Flight into Egypt"; his "Three Ages of Man" as "The Encounter of Jesus with the Rich Young Man"; Titian's, "Sacred and Profane Love" as "The Conversion of Mary Magdalen"; and Titian's "Pastoral Concert" as his "Homage to Giorgione".

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Giorgione: "Discovery of Paris" ***


        A “lost” Giorgione painting which has been misidentified for almost 500 years can shed new light on the work and career of the most mysterious and perhaps the greatest of all Venetian Renaissance painters.

In 1525, fifteen years after the death of Giorgione, Marcantonio Michiel noticed a painting in the home of Venetian patrician, Taddeo Contarini, and described it as a “picture on canvas, representing the birth of Paris, in a landscape, with two shepherds standing.…” Michiel noted that it was one of Giorgione’s “early works.”[i]

This painting has been lost, but copies exist from the seventeenth century. The editor of the 1903 translation of Michiel’s notes cited a description in an “old manuscript catalog of the time.”
A landscape on canvas, in oil, where there are on one side, a half nude woman and an old man, seated, with a flute.[ii]

One of the copies, made by David Teniers around 1655, is currently in a private collection but was discussed in two recent catalogues. The authors of both catalogues agree that it is a copy of an early Giorgione and also accept, although with some puzzlement, Michiel’s identification of the painting as “the birth of Paris.”[iii] However, details in this early Giorgione indicate that it has quite a different subject than the one imagined by Michiel.

The subject of this “lost” Giorgione comes from a legendary episode on the flight of the Holy Family into Egypt. Here is the version from the apocryphal “Arabic Gospel of the Infancy.”
Joseph and the lady Mary departed and came to a desert place, and when they heard that it was infested with raids by robbers, they decided to pass through this region by night. But behold, on the way they saw two robbers lying on the road, and with them a crowd of robbers who belonged to them, likewise sleeping. Now these two robbers, into whose hands they had fallen, were Titus and Dumachus. And Titus said to Dumachus: ‘I ask you to let these (people) go free, and in such a way that our companions do not observe them.’ But Dumachus refused and Titus said again:
‘Take from me forty drachmae and have them as a pledge.’ At the same time he reached him the girdle which he wore round him, that he might hold his tongue and not speak.[iv]

       In Legends of the Madonna Anna Jameson called the encounter with the robbers an “ancient tradition,” and added another detail. After the acceptance of his offer, “the merciful robber led the Holy Travellers to his stronghold on the rock, and gave them lodging for the night.”[v]

The landscape in the background of the painting is commonplace in depictions of the Flight into Egypt. The stream is often seen in versions of the “Rest.” It was used by the Madonna to either bathe, or to wash the swaddling clothes of her Son.

Bathing might explain Mary’s exposed leg and arms but the disarray of her clothing could also be Giorgione’s way of representing her obvious danger from the robbers. In a painting now in the Hermitage Giorgione exposed the thigh of Judith, the famous Jewish heroine whose virtue was also threatened.[vi] In any case Mary sits with her back to Joseph with her eyes intent on her Son, her real protector. Joseph is portrayed as an elderly graybeard as in Giorgione’s well-known Nativities. The infant Christ lies on a white cloth and returns his mother’s imploring look. The white cloth recalls the corporale, the cloth used to cover the altar on which the Eucharist is placed.[vii]

The two men on the right side are not shepherds but robbers. A Giorgione shepherd would be kneeling or bending over the Child in adoration. The one with the red jacket has just convinced the other to leave the Holy Family in peace. He has taken off his “girdle” leaving himself somewhat exposed and given it to the other who is in the process of fixing it around his waist. The band of robbers can be seen lounging in the middle ground. Joseph’s flute recalls the well-known verse from Juvenal: “A wanderer who has nothing can sing in a robber’s face.”[viii]

In “The Encounter with the Robbers in the Desert” Giorgione did not attempt to hide the subject of that early work. If no one has recognized its subject from Michiel’s time to ours, it is because the very popular apocryphal legends have largely been forgotten. Early in his career Giorgione was working not on a pagan subject derived from the legend of Paris but on a depiction of an apocryphal legend based on the Flight into Egypt. Moreover, he showed an inclination, even at this early stage in his brief career, to depict the Madonna in a very unusual way.


*** The above is part of a post that was one of the first to appear at Giorgione et al... back in 2010. I reproduce it here for new readers. It can also be found at MyGiorgione with my other major papers on Giorgione, Titian and the Venetian Renaissance. In the past seven years I have seen or read nothing that would make me want to change my interpretation of this lost Giorgione.

[i] The Anonimo, Notes on Pictures and Works of Art in Italy made by an Anonymous Writer in the Sixteenth Century, ed. George C. Williamson, London, 1903. p. 104.

[ii] ibid. note 1.

[iii] Jaynie Anderson, Giorgione, 1997, p. 317; and Wolfgang Eller, Giorgione Catalog Raisonne, Petersburg, 2007, pp. 171-173.

[iv] Extract from the Arabic Infancy Gospel in Edgar Hennecke, New Testament Apocrypha, edited by Wilhelm Schneemelcher, English translation edited by R. McL. Wilson, Volume One, Philadelphia 1963. p. 408. On the web a search for the First Gospel of the Infancy of Jesus, Chapter. VIII, will give the story with slightly different wording.

[v]  Jameson, Legends of the Madonna, Boston, 1885. pp. 361-362. Mrs. Jameson noted that the encounter with the robbers has been “seldom treated” as an artistic subject but did indicate that she had seen two representations. “One is a fresco by Giovanni di San Giovanni, which, having been cut from the wall of some suppressed convent, is now in the academy at Florence. The other is a composition by Zuccaro.” In a later edition she provided a sketch of the Zuccaro “Encounter,” which shows Joseph assisting the Madonna down from the Ass at the behest of the armed robber.

[vi] In Judith’s famous prayer she recalled her ancestor Simeon who took vengeance on the foreigners “who had undone a virgin’s girdle to her shame, laid bare her thigh to her confusion…” Judith 9:2, Jerusalem Bible.

[vii] For the corporale see the discussion of Titian’s Pesaro Altarpiece in Rona Goffen,  Piety and Patronage in Renaissance Venice, Yale, 1986, p. 114.

[viii] Juvenal, Satires, X, 22. I thank Dr. Karin Zeleny of the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna for the Juvenal reference.

Monday, October 30, 2017

Renaissance Journey: Giorgione,Titian, and Michelangelo

My wife and I just returned from a two week visit to Italy to see some of the paintings that I have written about over the past few years. It was a very meaningful trip for us since it will probably be the last time we ever travel out of the USA. The high point was our visit to the Accademia in Venice where we were surprised to find that Giorgione's Tempest had been given pride of place in a great hall that also featured a small Bosch exhibition.

Giorgione: Tempest on Display

Below is an abstract of my paper on the Tempest delivered in April, 2010 at the annual meeting of the Renaissance Society of America, held that year in Venice. The full paper itself can be found on my website, MyGiorgione.

Giorgione: The Tempest

Abstract: This paper identifies the subject of Giorgione’s "Tempest" as "The Rest on the Flight into Egypt." This interpretation is the only one that identifies all the major elements in the painting. The nude woman nursing an infant is the Madonna. The man standing at the left functioning as an “interlocutor” is St. Joseph with his staff. The broken columns featured so prominently are commonplace in depictions of the Rest on the Flight into Egypt. The city in the background is Judea from where the Holy Family has fled but could also be equated with Padua during the Cambrai war. The scraggly plant in the foreground is identified as a “belladonna” a plant associated with witchcraft and the Devil. No other interpretation of this painting has even attempted to identify the plant.

The great difficulties of this interpretation, the “nude Madonna” and the “young” Joseph, are dealt with in the paper. The nude Madonna is Giorgione’s idiosyncratic way of depicting the concept of Mary’s Immaculate Conception, a doctrine of great importance at the time, especially in Venice. If the association with the War of Cambrai is correct, this interpretation dates the painting in 1509, a year before Giorgione’s death.

The paper also does discuss the relevance to the “Tempest” of a heretofore misidentified copy by David Teniers of a “lost” Giorgione. This painting is usually identified as “The “Discovery of Paris,” but it is actually Giorgione’s depiction of an apocryphal episode on the Flight of the Holy Family into Egypt which I call "The Encounter with the Robbers on the Flight into Egypt." ###

David Teniers; Copy of a lost Giorgione

The first stop on our Italian journey was Rome primarily to visit the Borghese Gallery and see once again its most famous possession, Titian's Sacred and Profane Love. I have interpreted the subject of that painting as "The Conversion of Mary Magdalen." Below is an abstract of a paper that was presented at the annual meeting of the South Central Renaissance Conference in New Orleans in 2012. The full paper can be found at MyGiorgione.

Titian: Sacred and Profane Love


This paper identifies the subject of Titian’s Sacred and Profane Love as the Conversion of Mary Magdalen. This interpretation identifies all the major elements in Titian’s famous painting. The finely dressed Woman is Mary Magdalen as a Venetian courtesan contemplating a life changing decision. The nude Woman is the converted Magdalen in the process of throwing off her worldly finery as a prelude to a life of fasting and mortification. In her hand she holds the jar of ointment that is found in practically every depiction of the great sinner/saint.

Seeing Mary Magdalen in the painting opens the way for the interpretation of the other iconographical elements in the painting. Wild roses, red garments, and flowing red hair are commonly associated with Mary Magdalen. Even the landscape can be related to her story.

The sarcophagus like fountain that connects the two women is a symbol of the new life of the convert through Baptism. An angel, not Cupid, stirs the waters. The antique relief, which so far has eluded explanation, can now be seen to depict three great sinners. Adam and Eve stand around the tree to the right. Toward the center Cain murders his brother, Abel. At the left, St. Paul falls from his horse on the road to Damascus.

Next to the Madonna, Mary Magdalen was the most popular female saint of the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Titian became the most prolific painter of the Magdalen during his long career. He even admitted that he viewed her as an intercessor. The patron of the Sacred and Profane Love, like most Venetians, was of the same mind. ###

After Rome we traveled to Florence to visit the Pitti Palace and the Uffizi for the last time. At the Pitti we wanted to see a painting by Giorgione that is usually called the Three Ages of Man.  I have interpreted its subject as "The Encounter of Jesus with the Rich Young Man." The paper can also be found at MyGiorgione. Many paintings in the Pitti Palace are difficult to see because of their placement and lighting, but the Giorgione is placed very nicely between a doorway and a window. On the other side of the doorway is Raphael's La Donna Veleta, a nice juxtaposition since the careers of both of these young artists were cut short by early deaths.

Giorgione: Three Ages of Man

At the Uffizi we especially wanted to see, along with everyone else in the crowd on Saturday morning, Michelangelo's Doni Tondo. Just last year I posted on this site a series of essays on that famous painting and ultimately posted a full paper at MyGiorgione. I argued that Mary is actually elevating her Child in the same way that a priest elevates the Host at the Consecration of the Mass. The multitude of tourists straining to see the painting seemed like so many worshippers.

After Florence it was on to Venice to see the Tempest, and then to Milan to see the beautifully renovated Brera. Raphael's Sposalizio, his depiction of the engagement of Mary and Joseph, is beautifully displayed. In that painting Raphael portrayed Joseph as a virile young man just as Giorgione's did five years later in the Tempest. Neither of these young artists chose to portray Joseph as a vecchio.

Raphael: Sposalizio detail

Of course, our Italian journey included much more but that can wait for subsequent posts.


Note: Dr. Francis P. DeStefano holds a PhD in History from Fordham University but he is not associated with any educational institution. Although early in his career he taught History at a university in Fairfield, CT, he left teaching to build a financial planning practice. He retired in 2008 and now devotes himself to writing and lecturing on History, especially Art History.

Dr. DeStefano currently resides in Fairfield, Ct. His email address is