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".

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Giorgione Scholarship

In 2003 the Council of the Frick Collection published an extended lecture by Charles Hope entitled “Giorgione or Titian? History of a Controversy.” * Hope’s essay was the inaugural lecture in a projected series of annual talks to be given by eminent art historians. At the time Charles Hope was director of the Warburg Institute in London, and one of the world’s leading Titian scholars.

The lecture was published in pamphlet form with many illustrations and I believe it is still available in the Museum’s bookshop. It should be required reading for any student of Giorgione or Titian.

Titian: Man with a Red Cap
Frick museum, NY

Hope used the Frick’s own “Portrait of a Man with a Red Cap” as the starting point for a critique of practically all previous Giorgione scholarship and connoisseurship.  He concentrated mainly on the history of Giorgione attributions and argued that the great majority involve pure guesswork. He believed that only a handful of paintings, including the Tempest, the Three Philosophers, and the Laura, could definitely be attributed to Giorgione.

After a very thorough review of the attribution controversies, he concluded,
we are faced here with a failure of connoisseurship, which, after more than a century of effort, has not produced a solution  that commands general assent, or indeed makes visual sense. All that we can say with complete certainty is that the overwhelming majority of the proposals that have been advanced must be wrong, because at most only one can be correct. (37)
How could so many distinguished scholars and critics have been wrong or have based their conclusions on such flimsy evidence? Here is Hope’s answer.
In one important respect the problem of Giorgione is paradigmatic of much modern discussion of Renaissance art. It is normally supposed, even if tacitly, that the history of art is a cumulative process, with each generation of scholars adding a little more knowledge to what had previously been discovered. Yet with Giorgione it is clear that nothing of this kind happened. Far from supposing themselves ignorant, scholars have always believed that they know a great deal about him and his Venetian contemporaries. Over the past couple of centuries some of the certainties inherited from earlier generations have had to be discarded, but there has been an almost universal reluctance to examine in a consistent way the basis on which our understanding of this artist and his circle was established. To do so would be to question the competence of most of those who have written on the subject, and this is something that no one, it seems, wants to do. As a result, the views of nineteenth century critics such as Crowe and Cavalcaselle, which were often based on the flimsiest evidence, have colored everything that has been written subsequently and the longer those views have gone unchallenged the greater the authority that they have acquired. (38)
Despite their well-known political inclinations, it would appear that most scholars are inherently conservative, especially when it comes to their own fields. They often will give lip service to “thinking outside the box,” but their devotion to traditional academic orthodoxies is pervasive. In my own experience I have found art history to be a very insular world.

I had never even heard of Giorgione at the time of the Hope lecture. It was two years later that by chance I noticed a black and white reproduction of the Tempest while preparing for a trip to Venice. I remember wondering why the nursing woman was nude, and also whether the couple had left the city in the background or were on their way to the city. An intuition led me to see the painting as a version of the Rest of the Holy Family on the Flight into Egypt.

After almost 35 years as a financial advisor, I was getting close to retirement and the painting fascinated me. Many years before, I had received my PhD in History, and had taught European history for seven years at a local Connecticut college. I dusted off the old academic shelves and began to do some research on Giorgione and the Tempest. Fortunately, the Accademia in Venice and the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna had just sponsored a ground breaking Giorgione exhibition, and produced a magnificent catalog.

One of the first things I discovered was that not only did scholars fail to agree about Giorgione attributions, but also they could not agree on the subject matter of most of his paintings. It was just as Hope had claimed in his lecture. Each interpretation had been challenged by subsequent interpretations. The field was open to new interpretations that would not need to be based on the erroneous guesses of the past but on a fresh look at the paintings through eyes that had not been trained in the prevailing orthodoxy.

Since my interpretation of the Tempest as the “Rest on the Flight into Egypt,” I have been able to also identify the subjects of a number of other mysterious Renaissance paintings. These include Giorgione’s so-called “Three Ages of Man” (Pitti Palace) as “The Encounter of Jesus with the Rich Young Man”; Titian’s “Sacred and Profane Love” (Borghese Gallery) as “The Conversion of Mary Magdalen”; and Titian’s “Pastoral Concert” as his “Homage to the Recently Deceased Giorgione.” These papers can be found on my website.

Coincidentally, in 2005 I discovered that I had glaucoma. The young surgeon who examined me said that without surgery to relieve the pressure, I would be blind in three years. Fortunately, he is a genius and the surgery was successful. My vision is not the best but I can still see.

I put this post up today because it is the fifth anniversary of Giorgione et al…. I started the blog five years ago at the urging of Hasan Niyazi, the creator of the popular art history blog, Three Pipe Problem. Unfortunately, Hasan passed away last October but I will never forget our friendship and the debt I owe to him for guiding me through the intricacies of the blogosphere. Hasan’s site is currently down but there is hope that his friends will revive it. In the weeks to come I will reproduce some articles of mine that appeared on Three Pipe Problem over the past four years. ###

Hasan Niyazi

*Charles Hope: Giorgione or Titian? History of a Controversy, The council of the Frick Collection Lecture Series, NY, 2003.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Titian: Assumption of Mary

Titian’s huge altarpiece of the Assumption of Mary into Heaven is by far the most well-known and spectacular painting of that subject. The painting is more than 22 feet  high and 11 feet wide and was designed to fit behind the main altar of Santa Maria Gloriosa, commonly known as the Frari, in Venice. It still dominates the Frari, then as now the Franciscan center in Venice. It was begun in 1516 and completed in 1518 and was a sign that Titian had become not only the premier painter in Venice but also, one of the greatest in Europe. However, Titian was only one of many Italian masters who turned their attention to this subject in the sixteenth century. To give one example, a few years later Correggio painted a kind of Baroque version in the cathedral of Parma.

Depictions of the actual Assumption were a relatively new phenomenon in the early sixteenth century. In earlier times artists and patrons seemed to prefer depictions of what is known as the Dormition of Mary. This was a legendary event that supposed that at the end of her stay on earth, Mary fell into her last sleep. Then the Apostles were miraculously transported from their labors all over the world to be at her bedside. They were joined by her Son who took her soul directly to Heaven. Artists like Duccio depicted an infant that represented the soul of Mary in the arms of Christ.*
In the sixteenth century Titian and others would still retain the Apostles in the scene but would show Mary as a full grown beautiful woman rising up on her own to meet the Trinity. Her traditional red dress is a sign of her humanity, but the blue cloak that billows around her is a sign that she has been covered or cloaked by the Almighty. The primitive image of an infant in the arms of her Son would be discarded.
I believe that the change must have reflected the increased interest in the idea of the Immaculate Conception that had been developing since the beginning of the fifteenth century. If Mary was conceived without original sin, then Mary would not, following the words of St. Paul, be subject to death. It was Sin that ushered Death into the world. Therefore, the  Assumption of Mary is a corollary to the Immaculate Conception.
Significant developments in the 15th century had brought the idea of the Immaculate Conception to prominence by the end of the century. In the first place, the century witnessed a continued increase in devotion to the Madonna, which naturally led to an increased interest on the part of the populace in the "Conception." This interest was fostered by religious orders, most notably the Franciscans. Secondly, controversy about the doctrine between the Franciscans and the Dominicans, the two great preaching orders, contributed to the development of the doctrine.
This controversy brought to a head a debate about the "Conception" which had been going on among theologians during the previous two centuries. The Franciscans based their support not only on the great devotion to Mary on the part of their founder but also on the theological opinion of their great scholar, John Duns Scotus. Although no less devoted to Mary, Dominican theologians argued that since Christ had come to free all from sin, His own Mother should not be excluded. Their position was based on St. Paul, the early Church fathers, and even St. Thomas Aquinas, the greatest Dominican theologian, who had expressed reservations about the doctrine.[i]
 In 1438 the Council of Basel, no doubt responding to the upsurge of devotion to Mary, affirmed the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception but only after Papal legates and others had left the Council. Without Papal support the Council and its decrees could not become binding on the Church. Nevertheless, the concept of the Immaculate Conception had been given tremendous impetus, especially in France and the Iberian peninsula. Nowhere, however, did it receive greater support than in Venice.
Rona Goffen, in Piety and Patronage in Renaissance Venice, argued that Venice itself became identified with the Immaculate Conception by the end of the Quattrocento.[ii] By mid-century there were 20 churches and 300 altars dedicated to the Madonna. By the end of the century, churches like S. Maria dei Miracoli and S. Maria della Carita were dedicated specifically to the "Immaculata." In 1498, the Confraternity of the Immaculate Conception was founded in Venice, and it worshipped at the Frari's famous Pesaro altar, itself dedicated to the Immaculate Conception.
 Two great figures had a tremendous impact on the spiritual life of Venice in the 15th century. St. Bernardino of Siena, a Franciscan Observant, had preached in Venice before his death in 1443. His impact must have been significant since he was made a  patron saint of the Republic in 1470.  Although unwilling to embroil himself in the controversy over the doctrine, he was devoted to Mary and known as an advocate of the Immaculate Conception. Even more importantly, the saintly first Patriarch of Venice, Lorenzo Giustiniani, was a staunch advocate of the doctrine. Giustiniani died in 1453 but his sermons, especially on Marian subjects like the Annunciation and the Assumption, were well known and circulated widely after his death. Finally, his collected sermons were published in Venice in 1506 by which time he had come to enjoy almost beatified status. Referring to the sermons of these two giants Rona Goffen noted,

In these and other similar passages, Bernardino and Giustiniani declared their belief in the Immaculacy of the Madonna. Their influence on Venetian piety must have been as pervasive during the Renaissance as it is difficult today to gauge in any precise way. Nonetheless, their thoughts and writings constitute part--a very important part--of the original context of sacred art in Renaissance Venice. One must attempt to reconstruct that context in the historically informed imagination.[iii]

The Papacy also played a role. Francesco della Rovere, the Vicar-General of the Franciscan order and a leading Franciscan scholar was elected Pope Sixtus IV in 1471. In the previous year he had written a treatise on the Immaculate Conception in which he had tried to reconcile the differing opinions of supporters and opponents. In 1476 he responded to increased rancor among the contending orders with a Bull calling for an end to the controversy. Subsequently, he added the feast of the Immaculate Conception to the liturgy for the entire Western Church, and ordered new offices to be composed for the Feast. One was even composed especially for Franciscan use. Nevertheless, the controversy continued and both sides intensified their efforts, especially in Venice where the Frari, became a virtual shrine to Mary's Immaculate Conception.
Even though Marian beliefs like the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption are little understood and even mis-understood today by both believers and non-believers, students of the Renaissance must try to understand their importance in Italy and elsewhere on the eve of the Protestant reformation. Otherwise, it would be hard to understand the animus of Protestant reformers to Marian shrines and devotions.  ###

* For the Dormition of Mary see the nice discussion at  in the section entitled Life of the Virgin

[i] For a comprehensive discussion of the doctrine and the controversy surrounding it see The Dogma of the Immaculate Conception, History and Significance, ed. Edward Dennis O’Connor, University of Notre Dame Press, 1958, c. VI. See also the article on the Immaculate Conception in “The Catholic Encyclopedia,” 1910.

[ii]Rona Goffen,  Piety and Patronage in Renaissance Venice,  Yale, 1986, p. 154.

[iii]Goffen, op. cit.  p. 79.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Lorenzo Lotto: Crucifixion

Italian Renaissance master Lorenzo Lotto was born in Venice around 1480 but spent most of his long career working in provincial towns. Perhaps this is why he is not as well known as Giorgione and Titian, both of whom were born outside of Venice but did most of their work there.

Lotto’s most powerful and dramatic work was a Crucifixion* that still stands in its original site in the little church of Santa Maria in Telusiano in the small out of the way hill town of Monte San Giusto in the Marche. It is not too far from Loreto, the religious center where Lotto eventually spent the last years of his life.

Lotto’s Crucifixion shows that he could hold his own with the greatest of Renaissance masters. My wife and I saw the painting a few years ago as we traveled down the Adriatic coast. Our old guidebook described it as the "most dramatic and powerful" of all Lottos's large scale works, and so we decided to take a side trip out of our way in hope of finding it.  Although we are very thankful for the wonderful works of art preserved today in Italian museums, it is always special to see a work “in situ”, where it was originally meant to be seen.

It was not easy to find Santa Maria in Telusiano and we finally had to go into a local bank where a patron kindly offered to lead us there through the curvy narrow streets of the town. We parked outside a long stone staircase that went up and up between stone buildings packed closely together on each side.

It was hard to immediately recognize the church but we finally found a door that led into what was no more than a large chapel. It was dark inside and the church was empty except for a couple of ladies who seemed to be cleaning. We could hardly see the painting behind the only altar but one of the ladies pointed to a little box. We put a coin in and immediately the great magnificent painting (450x250cm) that took up almost the whole back wall was revealed.

Revealed is an understatement. The light, color, movement, physicality, and dramatic intensity virtually jumped out at us. In the foreground, the disciple John seems to lead the grieving blessed Mother right out of the picture. Behind them red-haired Mary Magdalene dressed in blue stretches out her arms in grief. A crowd of guards and onlookers stand beneath and around the three crosses that reach high into a dark sky. Jesus is in the middle flanked by the two thieves.

Standing in Santa Maria it is hard to examine the huge painting closely because the impression is so overwhelming. But on reflection we can say that Lotto has depicted the moment right after the death of Jesus. We can see the Roman centurion Longinus on his white horse immediately after he has placed the point of his lance in the side of Jesus to verify his death. He has released the lance and it is about to fall. He reaches both hands toward Jesus in the act of shouting, “truly, this man was the Son of God.”

The death of Jesus is also marked by a great wind that causes the garments of the thieves to billow as well as the Roman banner on the right where one can just make our the first letters of the name of Caesar Augustus. It would appear then that John is taking the Mother of Jesus away from the scene of horror.

Today, it is hard to imagine what churchgoers back in an obscure provincial town must have thought when they beheld this magnificent painting. They could never have seen anything like it before and must have known that a great master had been in their midst. Going to Mass in Santa Maria in Telusiano would never be the same. At the Consecration, as the priest at the altar raised high the consecrated host, their eyes would also behold the sacrificial victim raised high on Calvary in the dramatic and breathtaking altarpiece behind.


*Lorenzo Lotto: Crucifixion, 1531. Santa Maria in Telusiano, Monte San Giusto, Macerata, Marche. (oil on wood, 450x250 cm). See detail below.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Giorgione and Morto da Feltro

Example of grotesque

In his brief life of Lorenzo Luzzo, commonly known as Morto da Feltro, Giorgio Vasari wrote that Morto worked with Giorgione on the Fondaco dei Tedeschi. Morto was from Feltre in the Veneto, not too far from Giorgione’s hometown of Castelfranco. Although born about the same time as Giorgione, their lives took different paths before they met up again in Venice in 1507-8. Giorgione went to Venice as a young man but Morto wound up in Rome. Vasari says that he arrived there when “Pinturicchio was painting the papal chambers for Alexander VI.”

It was in Rome that Morto developed an interest in antiquities that led him to devote himself to a particular form of the painter’s craft. Vasari writes:

Being a melancholy man he was always studying antiquities, and on seeing some arabesques which pleased him, he devoted his attention to them, while in his treatment of foliage in the ancient style he was second to none. He made earnest search in Rome among the ancient caves and vaults. In the villa of Hadrian at Tivoli he remained many months, designing all the pavements and grottoes… Hearing that at Pozzuolo, ten miles from Naples, there were walls full of grotesques in relief, with stuccos and ancient paintings, he went to study there for several months. At Campana, hard-by, a place full of old tombs, he drew every trifle, and at Trullo, near the sea, he drew many of the temples and grottoes. He went to Baia and Mercato di Saboto, places full of ruins, endeavouring thus to increase his skill and knowledge.*

When Vasari calls Morto “melancholy”, he does not necessarily mean sad or depressed.  Melancholia was one of the famous four humors Renaissance humanists believed formed the essence of any human being. Although all these humors were present in every individual, one would inevitably be prominent. So a person could be characterized as sanguine, choleric, phlegmatic or melancholic.

Albrecht Durer: Melencholia

In his long study of Albrecht Durer’s famous engraving of Melencholia, Erwin Panofsky noted that melancholy had come to be regarded as the characteristic of most great men.

as Aristotle admirably puts it, they may still be subject to depression and overexcitement, but they outrank all other men: “All truly outstanding men, whether distinguished in philosophy, in statecraft, in poetry or in the arts, are melancholics…” ** 

Like many of the artists that Vasari wrote about, Morto has largely been forgotten. Their biographies are often overlooked and even omitted in shortened editions of the “Lives of the Painters.” Nevertheless, Vasari placed Morto on a very high plane and credited him for his studies of the images in ancient Roman caves and grottoes. Morto used this knowledge of the grotesque to become a master of ornamental decorative art.

During the Renaissance grotesque also had a different meaning than it does today. It did not mean ugly or hideous but just referred to the kinds of images found in these newly rediscovered grottoes. As Vasari points out, Morto used these strange devices to decorate or trim the walls of modern buildings. I suspect that Morto did not go to Venice by accident but that he was called there by Giorgione to assist in the decoration of the walls of the Fondaco dei Tedeschi. Giorgione would do the figures but leave the decorative elements to Morto.

Vasari indicates that like most Renaissance craftsmen, Morto did aspire to do traditional subjects but quickly realized that he could not match the work of Leonardo or Raphael. Nevertheless, Vasari notes that he did try his hand at some Madonnas. He might have even been inspired by Giorgione while working together on the Fondaco dei Tedeschi. Below is a Madonna and Child that does look Giorgionesque.

In his history of Italian painting during the Cinquecento S. J. Freedberg discussed a painting done by Morto shortly after Giorgione’s death in 1510.

In 1511, at Feltre, Morto signed and dated an altar of the Madonna with St. Stephen and St. Liberale (now Berlin Dahlem). Its style is more advanced than anything on the contemporary Venetian scene except for Titian and Sebastiano…this painting reflects the density of form and something of the tenor of emotion of Giorgione’s later art. ***

Morto came to a sad end. Perhaps his melancholic nature led him to give up painting and seek fame as a soldier in the service of Venice. Without any military experience he was hired as a captain of a 200-man contingent but died in a skirmish outside of Zara in Sclavonia in 1524.

Here is Vasari’s summation.

In his arabesques Morto approached more nearly to the ancient style than any other painter, and therefore he deserves great praise. What he began was continued by Giovanni da Udine and other artists with great beauty. But their success does not dim the renown of Morto, who was the originator…

* Giorgio Vasari: The Lives of the Painters, Sculptors and Architects, in four volumes, translated by A. B. Hinds, ed. With introduction by William Gaunt, London, Everyman Library, 1927, last reprinted, 1970. V. 3, pp. 1-2. Vol. III, Part III, Morto da Feltro, Painter, and Andrea di Cosimo of Feltro (c. 1474—after 1522; 1490=1554)

** Erwin Panofsky, The Life and Art of Albrecht Durer, Princeton, fourth edition, 1955, p. 165.

*** S. J. Freedberg:  Painting in Italy, 1500-1600, Yale, third edition 1993, first published 1971, pp. 164-5.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Giorgione and Marcantonio Michiel

The notes on paintings in sixteenth century Venetian homes made by Venetian patrician and art collector Marcantonio Michiel are perhaps the most important primary source for the works of Giorgione. However, Michiel’s notes indicate how even the testimony of a contemporary eyewitness must be used carefully.

Around 1800 Abate Don Jacopo Morelli discovered the notes among a manuscript collection in Venice’s Marciana library. Written in the early part of the sixteenth century the notes, made by an anonymous writer, concerned “pictures and other treasures contained in various houses, and monuments and works of art in churches, schools and other ecclesiastical buildings in the cities which the writer had visited.” *

Abate Morelli published the notes in 1800 under the title, “The Anonimo, Notes on Pictures and Works of Art in Italy.” Morelli used “Anonimo” because he could not be sure of the author. Today, scholars believe that the notes were the work of Michiel.
The cities visited by Marcantonio Michiel were Padua, Cremona, Milan, Pavia, Bergamo, Crema, and Venice. In Venice the notes recorded visits to fourteen homes of Venetian patricians as well as visits to the church and school of the “Carita” which is now the site of the famed Accademia. The publication of the Notes provided a look into the artistic preferences of some of the greatest families in Renaissance Venice but also shed much light on the artists, especially Giorgione. For example, the notes provided the first mention of the “little landscape on canvas,” now called the “Tempest”, that in 1800 remained largely out of sight in a private home.

Altogether Michiel mentioned 18 works in the homes of seven collectors that were either by Giorgione, possibly by Giorgione, or copies by others based on Giorgione. In an earlier post I provided a list in chronological order. I used the 1903 English translation edited by George C. Williamson and included some of the editors notes.
While Michiel’s observations are invaluable for purposes of attribution, his brief notes rarely attempt interpretation or analysis. For the most part, he seems to be content to point out identifying markers. Even there he can be mistaken about the subjects of the paintings he saw with his own eyes.

A few years ago famed Venetian art historian Jaynie Anderson noted Michiel’s deficiencies in her Giorgione catalog. For example, she believed that in his discussion of a St. Jerome by Antonello da Messina,

Michiel appears to be the passive communicator of received opinions, which he is unable to verify…The fanciful absurdity of his suggestion throws doubt on Michiel’s canonical status in similar statements about other pictures…. **

She also argued that his eyes deceived him when it came to Giorgione’s most famous painting seen in the home of Gabriele Vendramin in 1530.

What are we to make of the famous description of the Tempesta, where a nude female, suckling her infant in an open landscape, is identified as a gypsy—‘la cingana’. …Yet Giorgione’s gypsy looks less like a gypsy than those of other artists;…nor is she engaged in any of the traditional activities associated with gypsies,…What did Michiel mean by his use of the word? Like all connoisseurs, he was not as interested in subject matter as we would like him to have been…Michiel, alas, chose to record only the briefest of impressions. ***

Despite her caveats, even Anderson was led astray by Michiel’s description of a Giorgione in the home of Taddeo Contarini. Here is his note.

In the House of Messer Taddeo Contarini. 1525. The picture on canvas, representing the birth of Paris, in a landscape, with two shepherds standing, was painted by Giorgio di Castelfranco, and is one of his early works.

David Teniers: Copy of a lost Giorgione

This painting has been lost but seventeenth century copies still exist. It gives us a very good illustration of Michiel’s limitations as an observer. He knows that the painting is an early Giorgione but his description does not even mention the two prominent figures on the left: an elderly man with a flute or pipe, and the young woman with arm and leg shockingly exposed.

In my paper on the Tempest I have shown that Michiel’s brief identification of this lost painting was indeed incorrect. The subject of the painting is a “sacred” one: “The Encounter of the Holy Family with Robbers on the Flight into Egypt.” A popular legend of the time explains every detail in the painting including the lounging figures in the middle distance.

Nevertheless, his identification has stuck and led scholars to draw some fanciful conclusions. Anderson, for one, was surprised that Michiel had not seen in Contarini’s home the “notte” mentioned in correspondence between Isabella d’Este and her Venetian agent after Giorgione’s death in 1510. Anderson could only conclude that the “notte” or night scene must have been in the home of another member of the Contarini family. Yet, it is very likely that this lost Giorgione was the “notte.” After all, the sun is setting in the distance.


*The Anonimo: Notes on Pictures and Works of Art in Italy Made by an Anonymous Writer in the Sixteenth Century, translated by Paolo Mussi, edited by George C. Williamson, London, 1903. Facsimile copy by Kessinger Publishing.
** Anderson, Jaynie: Giorgione, 1997, p. 57.
***op.cit., p. 60.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Giorgione: Three Philosophers

Giorgione’s so-called “Three Philosophers,” that now hangs in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, is one of a handful of paintings universally attributed to him. If there was ever any doubt, it was settled in the year 1800 with the discovery of the notes of Venetian patrician Marcantonio Michiel, a contemporary of Giorgione’s. Michiel had visited the homes of many patricians in Venice and the Veneto and jotted down brief notes and descriptions of the art works he saw.  In 1525 he saw a painting in the home of Taddeo Contarini that he described as follows:

The canvas picture in oil, representing three Philosophers in a landscape, two of them standing up and the other one seated, and looking up at the light, with the rock so wonderfully imitated, was commenced by Giorgio di Castelfranco and finished by Sebastiano Veneziano. *

This description settled the question of attribution and gave the painting its current label, but it did not settle the question of subject or interpretation. Most scholars have accepted Michiel’s identification of the three men in the painting, and have spent much time and effort trying to identify which philosophers they might be. Others believe that Michiel’s identification was mistaken and that the three men are the  biblical "three Kings" or “Magi” as they first behold the Star of Bethlehem.

In earlier posts I added my two cents to the controversy and argued that the colors of the garments of the three men are symbolic of the gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh offered by the Magi. I know that while gold is almost invariably the color of the eldest of the Magi, there is a no one color scheme for the other two. However, I would like to post here another depiction of the Magi attired in gold, red, and green.

Francia: Adoration of the Magi, c. 1499
Oil on panel, 16x23 inches

This one is by Francesco Raibolini (c. 1450-1517 Bologna) known simply as Francia to his contemporaries. It is a small "Adoration of the Magi" from about 1499 that I believe is in the Dresden Gemaldegalerie. Largely forgotten today, Francia was one of the most famous and respected painters of the late Quattrocentro. Please excuse the poor quality of the image but it is clear that the eldest Magi is clothed in gold, the middle-aged one in red, and the youngest in green. Perhaps Giorgione was not as innovative in this respect as I originally thought. As I mention in my essay, these colors could have been worn by the Magi in the frequent plays and processions that Venetians never seemed to tire of attending.

Giorgione: "Three Ages of Man", Pitti Palace

I also believe that “The Three Philosophers” was not the only instance in which Giorgione used colors symbolically to identify his religious figures rather than resorting to stock symbols. In the so-called “Three Ages of Man” that now hangs in the Pitti Palace, the colors of the garments of the three men are more than enough to identify them as Jesus, St. Peter, and the rich young man. St. Peter, in particular, is identified by his bright red robe, red being the color of martyrdom. Giorgione also used red for the tunic of the young man in the so-called “Boy with an Arrow.” That color should help to identify this mysterious figure holding an arrow as the martyr, St. Sebastian.

Giorgione: "Boy with an Arrow".

  For convenience I append my original essay on the "Three Philosophers" below.

*The Anonimo, Notes on Pictures and Works of Art in Italy made by an Anonymous Writer in the Sixteenth Century: ed. By George C. Williamson, London, 1903, p. 102.


                              Giorgione's "Three Philosophers."

The "Three Philosophers" is one of only a handful of paintings that scholars definitively attribute to the great Venetian Renaissance master, Giorgione. It was one of the highlights of the magnificent exhibition, "Bellini, Giorgione, Titian: The Renaissance in Venetian Art," which recently ended at the National Gallery in Washington.

At the symposium which ended the exhibition, one scholar entitled his talk, "The Moment of Giorgione." Another scholar who was given the task of summing up said that despite the greatness of the works by Titian and Bellini, the exhibition was all about "Giorgione." What did they mean?

Besides the universally acknowledged quality of the works attributed to Giorgione, there is an air of mystery about the painter. His death in Venice in 1510 at about the age of thirty cut short an incredibly promising career. Although Giorgio Vasari in his famous work on Renaissance painters devoted a whole chapter to Giorgione, there is little biographical data. Scholars think that he apprenticed in the workshop of the prolific Giovanni Bellini, but then went off on his own. He was either a mentor, colleague, or rival of the younger Titian who apparently completed some of Giorgione's unfinished paintings after his untimely death.

Giorgione was one of the first Italians to work with oil, a medium which enabled him to break new ground especially in landscape. His style, often called Giorgionesque, influenced Titian to such an extent that scholars often attribute the same paintings to one or the other, or sometimes to both. Moreover, there is an enigmatic quality about the works of Giorgione that is part of his fascination. He is the master of what is called "the hidden subject."

The "Three Philosophers" is a good example. This painting depicts three men standing on a hilltop overlooking a beautiful valley with the sun setting in the West behind a range of mountains. They are dressed in colorful Oriental robes and face a dark rock formation or cave. They and the cave are illuminated by another source of light. Who are they and what are they doing there?

In 1525 Marcantonio Michiel, a Venetian patrician and connoisseur, catalogued the paintings in the collection of Taddeo Contarini, another Venetian aristocrat, and described this one as "three philosophers in a Landscape." Two hundred and fifty years later the painting had found its way to the Kunsthistorische Museum in Vienna, its current home. In a 1783 catalog it was called, "Three Magi." Since them scholars have debated whether the men are philosophers, astronomers, surveyors, representatives of the three ages of man, representatives of three religions, or the Wise Men or Magi of the Biblical account.

Today, most scholars accept the "philosopher" interpretation even though they find it difficult to identify which ones. Indeed, the catalog of the National Gallery exhibition and the audio commentary dismissed the "Magi" interpretation. Nevertheless, recent findings suggest that the Magi are making a comeback.

In the catalog of the unprecedented Giorgione exhibition in 2004, a collaboration of the  Kunsthistorische Museum and the Accademia in Venice, one scholar argued that in this painting Giorgione depicted the Magi not at end of their journey but at the beginning, that is, when they first saw the Star of Bethlehem.. His most compelling point had to do with the lighting of the painting. If we look carefully, we can see the sun setting in the West behind the mountains, but the three men and the rock formation in the foreground are being illuminated by another source. According to the medieval legend which Giorgione apparently followed, the light of the Star which rose in the East was even brighter than the sun at midday.

Moreover, at the conclusion of the Symposium which ended the exhibition in the National Gallery another scholar offered a striking piece of evidence in support of the Magi. The exhibition itself had done an excellent job of educating the public on the value of using scientific techniques to evaluate the "underpainting" of some of these Renaissance masterpieces. X-rays and other techniques show many "pentimenti" or changes of mind on the part of the artists. When working with oils, the artists would frequently alter their paintings by painting over the original.

In the original version the old man on the right dressed in gold is wearing an elaborate headpiece crowned with a kind of solar disk. For some reason Giorgione decided to discard it in favor of a simple hood. Nevertheless, when the scholar projected an image on the huge screen of a painting by Vittore Carpaccio of the arrival of the Magi in Bethlehem, the old man in that painting was wearing the kind of headpiece discarded by Giorgione.

Perhaps both Carpaccio and Giorgione took their inspiration from the elaborate public processions honoring the Magi which were common in the later Medieval world. No where were they more elaborate than in Venice. More than any other city, Venice was aware of the styles and costumes of the Orient.

Finally, I believe that there is one more piece of evidence that so far has eluded scholars but will help to make the case for the Magi. The most obvious feature in the painting is the brilliant color of the costumes. In the ancient legend the gifts of the Magi were gold, frankincense, and myrrh. In the medieval legend, the oldest of the Magi was the bearer of the gold; the middle aged man carried the myrrh; and the youngest brought the frankincense. The golden garment of the oldest man needs no explanation. In my encyclopedia the color of myrrh is a dark red,  while the color of frankincense can be white or green, the colors of the sitting young man.

Could it be that Giorgione hid his subject by making it obvious? I think it more likely that most Venetians in 1506 would have certainly seen the Magi in this great masterpiece. 



Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Giorgione: Lost Discovery of Paris

In his massive 2009 study of Giorgione, Enrico Maria dal Pozzolo attached great importance to a  seventeenth century copy by David Teniers of a now lost Giorgione painting. Dal Pozzolo accepted the traditional identification of the painting as the discovery of the infant Paris on Mt. Ida, and paired it with another lost Giorgione, the meeting of Aeneas and his father, Anchises, after the fall of Troy.

as we previously stated, the Birth of Paris and the probable flight of Aeneas and Anchises from Troy constitute the beginning and the end of the Trojan saga. These specific subjects had seemingly never been represented in Venetian painting before Giorgione; but they were afterwards, and also in paintings by artists (both anonymous and identifiable) who were bound with the master of Castelfranco’s activity…. (Dal Pozzolo, Giorgione, 2009, p. 264)

I also believe that the Teniers copy is very important but more for its relationship to the "Tempest." The subject of the lost Giorgione has been misunderstood from the time Marcantonio Michiel saw the original in the home of Taddeo Contarini two decades after Giorgione's death to the present. Below see my 2010 essay that claims that the subject of the painting is "The Encounter of the Holy Family with Robbers on the Flight into Egypt." 

David Teniers: Copy of a lost Giorgione
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 17th 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, 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-know 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.

             Marcantonio Michiel may not have been the first to describe this painting. In 1510, the year of Giorgione’s death, Isabella D’Este, the Marchioness of Mantua and a noted collector, was trying to acquire a work by Giorgione for her camerino. When she was informed by Taddeo Albano, her agent in Venice, that Giorgione had just died, she urged him to try to acquire a “Notte” from his estate:[ix]

we hear that among the possessions left by Zorzo da Castelfranco, the painter, there is a picture of a Notte, very beautiful and original. If this is the case, we wish to have it, and beg your Lorenzo da Pavia or any other person of taste and judgment to go and see if it is a really excellent thing. If it is, I hope you will endeavor to secure this picture for me, with the help of our dearest compare the Magnifico Carlo Valerio, or of any one else you may think fit. Find out the price and let us have the exact sum; but if it is really a fine thing, and you think well to clench the bargain for fear others should carry it off, do what you think best…”

Albano replied,
I have spoken in your interests to some of my friends who were very intimate with him, and they assure me that there is no such picture among his possessions. It is true that the said Zorzo painted a Notte for M. Taddeo Contarini, which, according to the information which I have, is not as perfect as you would desire. Another picture of the Notte was painted by Zorzo for a certain Vittore Beccaro, which, from what I hear, is finer in design and better finished than that of Contarini. But Beccaro is not at present in Venice, and from what I hear neither picture is for sale, because the owners have had them painted for their own pleasure, so that I regret I am unable to satisfy Your Excellency’s wish.

According to Michiel’s notes the only painting in the home of Taddeo Contarini that could be a “notte” would be the “discovery of Paris,” or as we have called it, “The Encounter with the Robbers on the Flight into Egypt.” Scholars have never agreed about what Isabella D’Este could have meant by “Notte.” Some think she was referring to a Nativity but Isabella knew a Nativity when she saw one, or when she requested one from Giovanni Bellini. No, the “Encounter with the Robbers,” indicates that a “Notte” was an evening scene where the sun was setting over a landscape at the end of day.

What about the other “notte”? It is certainly possible that the one done for Vittore Beccaro, the one finer in design and better finished; the one described by Isabella as “very beautiful and original” could have been the Tempesta. In the “Encounter with the Robbers” Giorgione was “stretching the envelope” with a presentation of a disheveled and partially nude Madonna. Later he would go even further in the “Tempesta.” But that is another story.[x]


[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.

[ix] The correspondence is in Julia Cartwright, Isabella d’Este, Marchioness of Mantua, 1474-1539. London, 1932. Pp. 390-391.

[x] See Francis P. DeStefano, “Giorgione’s Tempesta,” website address