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, May 3, 2016

The Age of Giorgione: Three Landscapes

“In the Age of Giorgione”, the exhibition currently at the Royal Academy of the Arts in London, has generated much discussion about the attribution of many of the paintings on display. Giorgione, in particular, never signed his work, and there is little documentary evidence given his early death in 1510 at about the age of 33. 

The London Review of Books recently featured a long review of the exhibition by renowned art historian Charles Hope. Hope entered the attribution debate and argued that less than half the paintings in the exhibition have certain attributions. In particular, as he has done in the past, Hope questioned the attributions of many paintings usually given to Giorgione, the star of the show. Hope went so far as to suggest that since only a handful of paintings can definitely be attributed to the young master from Castelfranco, it is almost impossible to assess Giorgione’s impact on the Venetian Renaissance.

Nevertheless, even Hope agreed that some paintings can definitely be attributed to Giorgione, among which are the Accademia’s Tempest, and the Kunsthistorisches Museum’s Three Philosophers, both of which depict figures in a landscape. Hope did not mention a lost Giorgione painting of figures in a landscape that we have in a seventeenth century copy by David Teniers. It is usually called the Discovery of Paris, and its attribution to Giorgione is certain because, like the other two, it was briefly described in the notes of contemporary Venetian patrician and art collector, Marcantonio Michiel. Here are his brief descriptions of the three paintings. *

The Tempest: “The little landscape on canvas, representing stormy weather and a gipsy woman with a soldier, is by Giorgio di Castelfranco.” [123]

The Three Philosophers: “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. [102]

The Discovery of Paris: “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.” (104) 
In a footnote the editor of Michiel’s notes provided a fuller description of the Discovery of Paris from a manuscript catalogue of the mid-seventeenth century.

“A landscape on canvas, in oil, where there are on the one side two shepherds standing; on the ground a child in swaddling-clothes, and on the other side, a half nude woman and an old man, seated, with a flute. It is seven spans and one inch and a half wide, and nine spans and seven inches and a half long.”

What are we to make of these three landscapes with figures in the foreground? What do they tell us about Giorgione and his age? Anyone familiar with the Venetian Renaissance would know that there has never been any agreement about the subject of the Tempest. An incredible number of interpretations have been put forward and all have been shot down. Hardly anyone accepts Michiel’s description of the man and woman in the painting as a soldier and a gypsy.

Scholars are also divided about the subject of the Three Philosophers. Before the discovery of Michiel’s notes in 1800, the three men in the painting were regarded as the Three Magi, but Michiel’s description has not only given the painting its current name, but also has sent scholars searching for the particular philosophers represented. Today, it would appear that the Magi are making a comeback.

However, there has never been any disagreement on the subject of the Discovery of Paris. Scholars have been unanimous in accepting Michiel’s description although they usually prefer the “discovery” or “finding” of Paris, rather than the “birth” of the Trojan prince.

In my interpretation of the Tempest as The Rest on the Flight into Egypt, I included a discussion of the so-called Discovery of Paris in which I argued that the unanimous opinion of art historians was wrong. The painting bears little resemblance to the mythological story of the birth of Paris, but is almost a literal depiction of one of the popular apocryphal legends of the time: the encounter of the Holy Family with robbers on the Flight into Egypt.

The interpretations of the Tempest and the Discovery of Paris may be found at my website, MyGiorgione. Here I just offer a short passage from the 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. **

The painting is a night scene with the sun setting in the background. The band of robbers is shown sleeping in the mid-ground. In the foreground there is an old man playing a pipe, a reclining woman with arms and leg exposed, and an infant lying on the ground upon a white cloth. To the right are two men whose clothing is in disarray. One of the men has obviously removed his “girdle”, and given it to the other who is wrapping it around his waist.

All of these details are explained in my paper and they indicate that the Discovery of Paris has a sacred subject. If so, not only are all previous opinions fanciful, but also the conclusions drawn from the painting about Giorgione and his age are also fanciful. Although not as famous as the Tempest and the Three Philosophers, scholars have attached great importance to the lost Giorgione painting.

In an essay in the Frick Museum’s recent exhaustive study of Giovanni Bellini’s St. Francis in the Desert, Susannah Rutherglen examined the actual manuscript of Michiel’s notes and discovered that the Discovery of Paris and the St. Francis were not only in the home of Venetian patrician Taddeo Contarini but that they were hung together in the same private inner room.  Rutherglen puzzled over the incongruity of an obviously devotional work like the St. Francis next to a painting of a scene from ancient mythology, and came up with a fanciful conclusion.

In a third chamber, Michiel encountered St. Francis together with a painting by the youthful Giorgione, Finding of the Infant Paris, now lost but known through a copy by David Teniers the Younger. The pairing of Bellini’s religious masterpiece with this mythological work—at first glance surprising—suggests that both pictures were recognized as large-scale achievements by masters in the vanguard of Venetian painting, sharing inventive subject matter and mountainous landscape settings. ***

Rutherglen was following in the footsteps of Enrico dal Pozzolo, a Giorgione specialist, who attached great importance to the Discovery of Paris and another lost Giorgione, described by Michiel as “Aeneas and Anchises”.

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 went even further and argued that the Discovery of Paris provided a window into Taddeo Contarini’s interest in classical antiquity. Contarini, he said,

judged the artist to be capable of painting on canvases that were not of the usual size…episodes that were not found in other Venetian houses, and that in all likelihood reflected the patron’s very personal interest in classical antiquity, an interest which he somehow passed on to the painter….But, if we look even more closely, the most singular feature of the Paris is that the entire composition revolves around the small, naked body placed at the centre of the scene, much akin to a Child Jesus adored by an extended “sacred family of shepherds.” The child is displaying his virile member which, more than any other detail, could evoke—the sexual prowess that would at first lead to his passion for Helen, and then to the ruin of Troy. #

If it actually is the Child Jesus “placed at the centre of the scene"in Giorgione’s lost painting, what conclusions should we draw?  The interpretation would then lend weight to those who believe that the Three Philosophers is a depiction of the Three Magi when they first beheld the Star of Bethlehem, another apocryphal legend. Both would then lend weight to my interpretation of the Tempest as Giorgione’s idiosyncratic depiction of the traditional and popular story of the Rest of the Holy Family on the Flight into Egypt.

*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. All references to Michiel are from this edition of his notes with page numbers in parentheses.

**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.

***Susannah Rutherglen and Charlotte Hale: In a New Light, Giovanni Bellini’s St. Francis in the Desert. The Frick Collection. New York, 2015, p. 56.

# Enrico Maria dal Pozzolo: Giorgione, Milan, 2009, p. 264.

Friday, April 15, 2016

Royal Academy Exhibition: Three Ages of Man

In the Age of Giorgione, currently on exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts in London, has attracted a lot of attention in the British press. Questions of interpretation and attribution have inevitably arisen, and some critics have complained that Giorgione is hardly represented. The curators of the exhibition admit that “complex questions of attribution” have always surrounded Giorgione and his work, but argue that the current exhibition is really an attempt to explore Giorgione’s world by featuring the works of a kind of brotherhood of artists working in Venice in the first decade of the sixteenth century.
In the Age of Giorgione brings together works by a number of artists who lived in Venice at the time: Giovanni Bellini, Giorgione, Titian, Sebastiano del Piombo, Lorenzo Lotto and less well-known figures such as Giovanni Carianni among others. Through a consideration of the city’s artistic context at the turn of the century, this exhibition explores Giorgione’s visual identity in depth, examining how his significant contribution helped shaped the exciting new generation of artists.
Questions of attribution are of great importance not only to art historians, dealers, and collectors, but also to the general public. Museumgoers will flock to see a genuine Raphael, but will show little interest in a similar Madonna by some member of Raphael’s studio. However, I would like to argue that interpretation of paintings matters more that attribution when it comes to understanding the age of Giorgione.

A good example can be found in a small pamphlet, “Exhibition in Focus,” that the Royal Academy has produced for visitors. The exhibition has been divided into four sections: Portraits, Landscape, Devotional Works, and Allegorical Portraits. In the Allegorical Portrait section, devoted to “portraits of individuals depicted in mythological or religious guises,” the curators discussed Cariani’s Judith, and Giorgione’s La Vecchia. They also believed that Giorgione’s Three Ages of Man, which apparently had not arrived from the Pitti Palace in time for the opening of the exhibition, was an allegorical portrait representing the passage of time in its depiction of three men of different ages.

His Three Ages of Man, c. 1500, depicts a youthful boy flanked by a grown man and an older gentleman. The older man is looking over his shoulder at us, thereby establishing a direct connection with viewers. The painting is generally interpreted as an allegory of the three stages of life: boyhood, adulthood and old age. Like the old woman in La Vecchia, whose gaze gives that painting a startling immediacy, the three men depicted in this painting communicate its message with brutal honesty.
Nevertheless, I have argued that the Three Ages of Man is as much a devotional work as Titian’s Christ and the Adulteress, and as such provides great insight into the world of Giorgione and his contemporaries. Although it is usually called the Three Ages of Man because of the obvious disparity in the ages of the men, scholars disagree on the subject or meaning of this painting. Today, most reject the three ages label. Some call it a “music lesson” while others prefer to see it as the education of a figure from antiquity like Marcus Aurelius. But, once it is pointed out, I believe that any ordinary person would be able to see that it is a depiction of the encounter of Jesus with the rich young man from the nineteenth chapter of the gospel of St. Matthew.  Here is an excerpt from my paper that can be found at my site, MyGiorgione.

In Matthew’s account the young man asked Jesus what he could do to attain eternal life.  Jesus told him to keep the Commandments, and specifically named the most important. The man replied that he had done so but still felt that something was wanting. Jesus then uttered the famous words,If thou wilt be perfect, go, sell what thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” The gospel relates that the young man went away sad for he had many possessions.

How has Giorgione depicted this story and who is the third man? The most spectacular elements in this mysterious painting are the colors of the garments of the three men. Nothing in a Renaissance painting is there by accident or whim. The colors in this painting provide a major clue to its real subject.

The man in the middle is obviously young and the golden lapels of his garment as well as his fashionable hat indicate that he is well to do. He is holding a piece of paper or parchment that contains some indecipherable writing.

On the right, despite the inability of art historians to see, any Christian, Venetian or otherwise, would immediately recognize the visage of Jesus. There is no halo or nimbus but Giorgione never employed that device. The pointed finger is certainly characteristic of Jesus. Here he points at the Commandments, which the gospel passage has just enumerated. Jesus wears a green garment or vestment, certainly an unusual color for him. In fact, it looks like the robe or chasuble worn by a priest during Mass. At the hand of Jesus we can also see the white sleeve of the “alb,” a long white robe always worn under the chasuble. Green is the color used by the Catholic Church during Ordinary time, that part of the Church year not identified with any of the great feasts.

The third man is St. Peter. He is the only other person identified in Matthew’s account of this incident.  He stands on the left, head turned toward the viewer. Giorgione uses Peter as an interlocutor, a well-known Renaissance artistic device designed to draw the viewer into the painting and encourage emotional participation.  The old man’s face is the traditional iconographical rendering of Peter with his baldhead and short stubby beard.  Artists often portrayed Peter as a robust old man, with a broad forehead, and coarse features. 

The color of Peter’s robe is also liturgically significant. Peter is rarely shown wearing red, but Giorgione has chosen to show him wearing the color reserved for the feast days of the martyrs. In the gospel account immediately after the young man went away sad Peter, speaking for the other disciples as well as for the viewer of Giorgione’s painting, had asked, “Behold we have left all and followed thee: what then shall we have?”

In the first decade of the 16th century Venice was at the apex of its glory. It would suffer a great defeat at the end of the decade during the War of the League of Cambrai but until that time it was arguably the wealthiest and most powerful of all the European nations. It was certainly the only one that dared confront the mighty Ottoman Empire.  

Nevertheless, some young Venetian patricians were wondering whether the whole life of politics, commercial rivalry, and warfare was worthwhile. One of them, Tommaso Giustiniani, a scion of one of the greatest families, did actually sell all his possessions, including his art collection, in order to live as a hermit in a Camaldolensian monastery. He had come to believe that Venetian life was agitated, completely outward, and continually dominated by ambition.

Tommaso Giustiniani and other rich young men like him could have been patrons and even friends of Giorgione and Titian in the first decade of the sixteenth century. The Encounter of Jesus with the Rich Young Man, the name we can now give to the painting, is a window into their age.

I like to think that another painting featured in the Royal Academy exhibition might portray Tommaso Giustiniani. It is the Giustiniani Portrait, a portrait of a young man who has become the poster boy for the whole exhibition. I know that it is impossible to prove a connection, but the painting was originally in the possession of a branch of the Giustinani family, one of the great Venetian Patrician families.

Giorgione: Giustiniani Portrait


Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Royal Academy Exhibition: In the Age of Giorgione

The Royal Academy of Arts exhibition, "In the Age of Giorgione" opened on March 12 to mixed reviews. Searching on line I found one reviewer who claimed that rather than restoring Giorgione's reputation, the exhibition showed his inferiority to the more famous Titian. It's hard to understand how such a judgment could be made given the fact that masterpieces like the Accademia's Tempest, the Kunsthistorisches Museum's Three Philosophers, and the Dresden Sleeping Venus are not included in the exhibition.

Giorgione: The Tempest

Giorgione: Three Philosophers

Giorgione: Sleeping Venus

However, a reviewer at The Guardian praised Giorgione and the exhibition but regarded the painter as a sex-addict whose work is riddled with eroticism.

Nothing pleased this artist like escaping the noisy city and wandering the countryside, lute in hand, a woman on his arm. And what he really loved was to get the woman to strip off in some tranquil glade. Giorgione revolutionized the female nude. Before him, Renaissance artists were quite decorous in approaching the goddess Venus. Giorgione made nudity carnal, hedonist. He was quickly imitated by other Venetian artists, including his younger friend Titian, who followed him out into the meadows with wine, music, and courtesans.
Titian: Pastoral Concert or Homage to Giorgione

I think this is balderdash and just reflects the reviewers own desires. Despite the Pastoral Concert pictured above, there is absolutely no evidence that Giorgione or Titian liked to wander about in the countryside with wine, music, and courtesans. Moreover, I fail to see anything erotic in any one of the paintings attributed to Giorgione. Is there eroticism in the nursing mother in the Tempest?

I am not alone in this opinion. Famed art historian Kenneth Clark claimed that Giorgione invented "the classic Venetian nude," but he did not see eroticism in Giorgione's work. Instead he found in the Sleeping Venus,  “an appetite for physical beauty more eager and more delicate than had been bestowed on any artist since fourth-century Greece.”

Here is a link to one of the earliest and most popular posts on Giorgione et al... that discusses the Sleeping Venus and Clarks opinion more fully.


Saturday, March 5, 2016

Giorgione: Portrait of a Young Man (Giustiniani)

This year London's Royal Academy of Arts is hosting an exhibition entitled, “In the Age of Giorgione,” from March 12 to June 6. The exhibition will bring together a number of paintings attributed to Giorgione and some of his contemporaries. The expressed goal of the exhibition is to raise awareness of Giorgione and his great contribution to the Venetian Renaissance.

Portrait of a Young Man
Oil on Canvas, 58x46 cm
Staatliche Museen, Berlin

Although held in the highest regard by professional art historians, Giorgione has not attained the public iconic status of Titian, Raphael, or Michelangelo. Giorgione died tragically of the plague in 1510 at about the age of 33. Although acknowledged as a master by his contemporaries, little is known about the young master from Castelfranco in the Veneto. He did not sign his works and left no letters or documents behind.

For centuries his major works have mystified scholars and led to countless and contradictory interpretations. Moreover, given the paucity of evidence questions of attribution have persisted from his death to the present. The Royal Academy website has a very good discussion of the attribution history.

Indeed, the Royal Academy has brought together two world class Venetian Renaissance scholars, Peter Humfrey and Paul Joannides, to debate online the attribution of a portrait of a young man variously given to Giorgione or the young Titian. The RA is even asking the public to participate by indicating its preference on social media. The portrait is often called the Giustiniani portrait from the Venetian family of that name. 

Below are excerpts from the assessments of the two scholars that not only give the gist of their position, but also demonstrate the methods used in scholarly analysis. First, here is Peter Humfrey arguing for Giorgione.
The Giustiniani Portrait is one of the very few paintings that continue to be widely accepted as by Giorgione – to my mind correctly – despite its lack of any early history. Significantly, it is always seen as an early work, close in style to the Castelfranco Altarpiece which is now usually dated to the very beginning of the 16th century, c. 1500. Indeed, despite their completely different subjects, the two works take as their starting point compositional models by Giovanni Bellini, while also revolutionising them. In both works the figures are dreamily introspective, absorbed in thought. Their poses are also passive, with only the slightest indication of movement, and their physiognomies remain slender. Very similar is the way that the left hand of the Virgin and the right hand of the young man are represented in somewhat delicate and tentative foreshortening on top of an almost abstract ledge.

On the other hand, Paul Joannides makes a strong case for Titian.

But the essential quality that reveals Titian’s authorship is the symphonic interaction of flesh, hair, fingernails, chemise and the astonishing quilted jacket, which itself takes on the palpability of flesh. This interplay of forms and textures and the manner in which those textures – which vary internally as well as between one another – are constructed is characteristic of the young Titian’s pictorial tactility, which surpasses anything seen in Giorgione. Thus the gullies in the jacket and the complex forms of the ties are created not by continuous modelling, but by juxtaposed components of purple, applied in streaks and touches of the brush.

It should be noted that Joannides’ attribution would require a later date for the painting than Humfrey’s date of circa 1500. Indeed in his study of the early Titian, Joannides had argued that Titian only taught himself to draw after the death of Giorgione in 1510.

The Royal Academy website gave the public three voting options, Giorgione, Titian, or Neither. I would like to suggest that there should be another option. It is not unimaginable to think that both Giorgione and Titian worked on this portrait. It is possible that both Humfrey and Joannides are correct and that there are elements of both Giorgione and Titian in this painting. It is well known that some of Giorgione’s unfinished works were completed by Titian and Sebastiano Veneziano, later called Sebastiano del Piombo.

In 1510 Giorgione was at the height of his craft. Titian was just coming into his own and had just recently worked for Giorgione on the exterior frescoes of the Fondaco dei Tedeschi. I have come to believe that both Titian and Sebastiano worked for Giorgione as colorists. It would not have been unusual for a Renaissance master to leave mundane details like clothing to a member of his shop.

Humfrey sees Giorgione details in the Portrait of a Young Man, and Joannides sees Titian details. Maybe they both see correctly. I would like to respond to the Royal Academy survey by answering, "Both".


Saturday, January 23, 2016

Edward Hutton on Giorgione

I first discovered Giorgione and the Tempest in Edward Hutton's, Venice and Venetia, originally published in 1911.* The book was one of many that Hutton came to write on Italy, its regions, cities, culture and history. I had first encountered Hutton in his enchanting book on Lombardy and soon began to collect as many of his books as I could. In preparation for a trip to Venice in 2005 I opened Venice and Venetia and found this passage in his account of the Palazzo Giovanelli, at that time the home of the Tempest. 

In 1560 Jacopo Sansovino restored the Palace, which, however, did not remain in the hands of the Urbino Dukes but passed to the Dona family by purchase; they in the seventeenth century passed it on to the Giovanelli, who still hold it and its treasures, undoubtedly the greatest of these is the picture by Giorgione, which has passed under various names—the family of Giorgione, or simply the Gipsy and the Soldier—which in itself sums up all that we mean by the Giorgionesque in painting. There we see, in a delicious landscape of green and shady valley, of stream and ruin and towered country town, a woman nude but for a cape about her shoulders giving her breast to her child in the shadow of the trees by a quiet stream. On the other side of this jeweled brook a young man like a soldier—or is it a shepherd?—stands resting on a great lance or crook and seems to converse with her. Close by are ruins of some classical building overgrown by moss and lichen, and half hidden in the trees, and not far off up the stream in the sunset we see the towers and walls and roofs and domes of a little town with its bridge across the stream leading to the great old fortified gate of the place. But what chiefly attracts us in the work is something dreamlike too, though wholly of this our world, an air of music which seems to come to us from the noise of the brook or the summer wind in the trees, or the evening bells that from far off we seem to hear ring Ave Maria. One of the golden moments of life has been caught here for ever and perfectly expressed. Heaven, it seems, the kingdom of Heaven, is really to be found in our midst, and Giorgione has contrived a miracle the direct opposite of that of Angelico; for he found all the flowers of Tuscany and the byways of the world in far-off Paradise, but Giorgione has found Paradise itself here in our world. And we must remember that such a work as this was the true invention of Giorgione. [121]

Hutton understood Giorgione's significance.

For with Giorgione (1478-1510), the pupil of Giovanni Bellini…we have a new creation in Art; he is the first painter of the true “easel picture,” the picture which is neither painted for church not to adorn a great public hall, but to hang on the wall of a room in a private house for the delight of the owner. For Giorgione the individual exists, and it is for him, for the most part, he works, and thus stands on the threshold of the modern world….In these short thirty-two years, however, he found time to re-create Venetian painting, to return it to its origins, and to make the career of his great fellow-pupil, Titian, whom he may be said to have formed, possible.[160]

For the truth is that Giorgione, Titian, and Tintoretto are each an absolutely new impulse in painting. Fundamentally they owe nothing, accidentally even very little, to their predecessors; and if, as we have said, Titian and Tintoretto were able to find full expression because of the work of Giorgione, it is only in the way that Shakespeare and Milton may be said to owe something…to Spencer;…the work of Giorgione, Titian, and Tintoretto are absolutely new things in the world, the result of a new impulse and a new vision, individual and personal to the last degree, owing little to any school and making little of tradition. [149]

Hutton was a student of Roman and Italian history and art but he also made it a point to see everything he wrote about. He used every means of conveyance to get about and often covered the ground on foot. His descriptions of his walking tours in both town and country are charming and informative. Here is his description of Giorgione's home town of Castelfranco, and its most prized possession.

This little city…is the happy possessor of what will ever remain, I suppose, the work that is most certainly his very own—I mean the altarpiece of the Madonna enthroned with her little Son between S. Francis and S. Liberale. This glorious picture…is one of the very few Venetian pictures…which possess that serenity and peace, something in truth spellbound, that is necessary to and helps to make what I may call a religious picture. For something must be added to beauty, something must be added to art, to achieve that end which Perugino seems to have reached so easily, and which almost every Sienese painter knew by instinct how to attain. That quality is serenity, the something spellbound we find here. And Giorgione is the last Venetian master to possess that secret. [233-4]
Although a British subject, Hutton seems to have spent most of his life in Italy. During World War II he was with the British army as it made its way up the Italian peninsula. He was an artistic advisor whose role was to point out important cultural sites that should not be bombed. As the armies approached his beloved Florence, he warned that the whole city should be considered a museum and not be bombed at all. Fortunately, the Germans evacuated and the city was spared.

A list of his many books can be found on Wikipedia.

*Edward Hutton, Venice and Venetia,  London, third edition, 1929, first published 1911.

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Friday, December 18, 2015

Giorgione: Adoration of the Shepherds

Giorgione: Adoration of the Shepherds (Allendale Adoration)
National Gallery, Washington
96.8cm x 110.5 cm, 35.7" x 43.5"

Note:The following is a slightly modified version of an earlier post. I present it today as a Christmas greeting to all followers of Giorgione et al...

Scholars have expended more time dealing with the controversy that has surrounded the attribution to Giorgione of the so-called “Allendale Adoration of the Shepherds” than they have in trying to understand what is actually going on in the painting. Here I would like to deal with the subject and meaning of this famous Nativity scene that is now in Washington’s National Gallery.

The subject of the painting seems so obvious. It is a depiction of the adoration of the shepherds who have left their flocks to seek out the newborn Savior after hearing the angels’ announcement.

Now when the angels had gone from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “let us go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened which the Lord has made know to us..” So they hurried away and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger.

Luke’s account of the angelic appearance to the shepherds is the traditional gospel at the midnight Mass on Christmas . The actual arrival of the shepherds at the stable in Bethlehem is the passage used for the gospel reading for the Christmas Mass at dawn.

The relatively small size of the painting indicates that it was done not as an altarpiece but for private devotion. Although the subject is clear, there is a deeper meaning.* Why is the infant Jesus lying on the rocky ground and not in a manger or feeding trough? Why is he naked? Where are the swaddling clothes?

Actually the newborn infant is lying on a white cloth that just happens to be on the ends of Mary’s elaborate blue robe that the artist has taken great pains to spread over the rocky ground. Giorgione is here using a theme employed earlier by Giovanni Bellini and later by Titian in their famous Frari altarpieces. The naked Christ is the Eucharist that lies on the stone altar at every Mass. The altar is covered with a white cloth that in Rona Goffen’s words “recalls the winding cloth, ritualized as the corporale, the cloth spread on the altar to receive the Host of the Mass.” In Franciscan spirituality Mary is regarded as the altar.

Clearly, the viewer-worshipper is meant to identify the Madonna with the altar and the Child with the Eucharist. Bellini's visual assertion of this symbolic equivalence is explained by a common Marian epithet. The Madonna is the "Altar of Heaven." the Ara Coeli, that contains the eucharistic body of Christ” Ave verum Corpus, natum de Maria Virgine.**

The “Adoration of the Shepherds” represents the first Mass. This was not an unusual concept. Many years ago I attended a talk on the famous Portinari altarpiece that now hangs in the Uffizi. The speaker was Fr. Maurice McNamee, a Jesuit scholar, who argued that Hugo van der Goes had also illustrated a Mass in that Netherlandish altarpiece around the year 1475. His argument centered on the spectacular garments of the kneeling angels that he identified as altar servers wearing vestments of the time. He called them “vested angels,” and they are the subject of his 1998 study, “Vested Angels, Eucharistic Allusions in Early Netherlandish Painting.”

Hugo van der Goes: Portinari Altarpiece

His Eucharistic interpretation explained the naked infant on the hard, rocky ground. The infant Christ is the same as the sacrificial Christ on the Cross and on the altar at every Mass. In a study of Mary in Botticelli’s art Alessandra Galizzi Kroegel referred to this connection.

it needs to be pointed out first of all that the Renaissance era saw the spread of practices of individual devotion to be carried out primarily in the home…From the theological perspective attention should then be drawn to the emergence of a new trend that…tended to identify the mystery of the Incarnation with the Redemption itself, focusing on the Passion with much less fervour than in the past: whence the growing popularity of  ‘incarnational’ iconographies celebrating the word made flesh, such as pictures of the Infant Jesus in his mother’s arms…while the demand for images with Christ on the Cross, very common in the fourteenth century was drastically reduced.***

It would appear that Giorgione has used the same motif although his angels have become little putti who hover around the scene. The shepherds represent participants in the Mass who kneel in adoration. 

There are many other iconographical details in this painting that could be discussed. Joseph’s gold robe indicates royal descent from the House of David. The ox and ass in the cave are symbols of the old order that has been renewed with the coming of Christ. So too would be the tree trunk next to the flourishing laurel bush in the left foreground. The laurel is a traditional symbol of joy, triumph, and resurrection.

Giorgione has moved the main characters off to the right away from their traditional place in the center. Rather than diminishing their importance this narrative device serves to make all the action flow from left to right and culminate in the Holy Family.  Giovanni Bellini had done the same thing in his “St. Francis in the Desert,” and later Titian would use this device in his Pesaro altarpiece in the Frari.

Finally, art historian Mario Lucco has suggested that the long hair of the one indicates a Venetian patrician in shepherd’s clothing.* That may be so but I like to think Giorgione indicated that the Savior, whether present on the ground before the shepherds as a newborn King, or on the altar at Mass, is accessible to all. This King is not protected by armed guards. There is no need to bribe or otherwise court influence with bureaucrats acting as intermediaries. Anyone, even the simplest and the humblest, can approach this King directly and in his or her own fashion. 


*Two recent catalogs have offered interpretations. See Mario Lucco’s entry in Brown, David Alan, and Ferino-Pagden, Sylvia, Bellini, Giorgione, Titian, and the Renaissance of Venetian Painting, Washington, 2006. Also see the very strange interpretation of Wolfgang Eller in Giorgione Catalog Raisonne, Petersberg, 2007.
**Rona Goffen, Piety and Patronage in Renaissance Venice, Yale, 1986. P. 53.

***Alessandra Galizzi Kroegel, “The Figure of Mary in Botticelli’s Art.” Botticelli: from Lorenzo the Magnificent to Savonarola, 2003. (ex. cat), p. 56.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Giorgio Vasari on Giorgione

In his famous Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Giorgio Vasari included a brief account of the life and work of Giorgione, and featured it prominently right after the biography of Leonardo da Vinci.  Born in 1511 Vasari was not a contemporary of Giorgione’s, whose life had been tragically cut short the year before by the plague. Although brief, the Giorgione biography was given much prominence because of Vasari’s high opinion of Giorgione’s work and importance. It began with this introduction.

At the same time when Florence was acquiring so much renown from the works of Leonardo, the city of Venice obtained no small glory from the talents and excellence of one of its citizens, by whom the Bellini, then held in such esteem, were very far surpassed, as were all others who had practiced painting up to that time in that city. This was Giorgio, born in the year 1478, at Castelfranco, in the territory of Treviso… Giorgio was, at a later period, called Giorgione, as well from the character of his person as for the exaltation of his mind…. [227]*

Vasari credited Giorgione with the development of a new style or manner of painting from nature.

He was endowed by nature with highly felicitous qualities, and gave to all that he painted, whether in oil or fresco, a degree of life, softness, and harmony (being more particularly successful in the shadows), which caused all the more eminent artists to confess that he was born to infuse spirit into the forms of painting; and they admitted that he copied the freshness of the living form more exactly than any other painter, not of Venice only, but of all other places. [227]

What was the basis for Vasari’s evaluation?  We know that he visited Venice on at least two occasions, and it is clear that he saw Giorgione’s work on the Fondaco dei Tedeschi. He said that in an Ascension Day procession he saw a Giorgione portrait of Leonardo Loredano as Doge that he believed himself “to behold that most famous Prince himself.” He also saw and attributed to Giorgione the famous painting of Christ Carrying the Cross that is still displayed in the Scuola of S. Rocco in Venice.

It is hard to determine what other works of Giorgione’s he might have actually seen with his own two eyes. Most of Giorgione’s work was done for the homes of private aristocratic patrons, and it is hard to determine if Vasari had access to those homes. Vasari often relied on others for descriptions of paintings he had not seen. For example, here is his description of three Giorgione paintings in the home of the Venetian Cardinal Grimani, an avid patron and collector.

In his youth, Giorgione painted, in Venice, many very beautiful pictures of the Virgin, with numerous portraits from nature, which are most life-like and beautiful. Of this we have proof in three heads of extraordinary beauty, painted in oil by his hand, and which are in the possession of the Most Reverend Grimani, Patriarch of Aquileia. One of these represents David (and according to common report, is a portrait of the master himself). He has long locks, reaching to the shoulders, as was the custom of that time, and the colouring is so fresh and animating that the face appears to be rather real than painted; the breast is covered with armour, as is the arm with which he holds the head of Goliath.  The second is much larger, and is the portrait of a man taken from the life. In the hand this man holds the red barret cap of a commander; the mantle is of furs, and beneath it appears one of those tunics after the ancient fashion, which are well known; this is believed to represent some leader of armies. The third picture is a boy with luxuriant curling hair, and is as beautiful as imagination can portray. [228]

Vasari’s sources might have included Titian and Sebastiano Luciani, later called Sebastiano del Piombo. Both of these painters had worked with Giorgione at the outset of their careers. Vasari visited Titian in his studio in Venice, and also in Rome, in the company of Michelangelo, during Titian’s brief sojourn in that city. After Sebastiano left Venice for Rome shortly after Giorgione’s death, he developed a working relationship with Michelangelo. Given Vasari’s close friendship with Michelangelo, he must have had frequent contact with Sebastiano. So, although not a contemporary of Giorgione’s, Vasari had seen some of his works and talked with at least two contemporaries who knew the master at the height of his brief career.

In addition to the descriptions of others, Vasari had some drawings by Giorgione in his own collection.

In my book of drawings, also, there is a head painted in oil by his hand, wherein he has portrayed a German of the Fugger family, who was one of the principal merchants then trading in Venice, and had his abode at the Fondaco, or Cloth Magazine of the Germans. This head is wonderfully beautiful; and I have, besides, in my possession other sketches and pen-and-ink drawings of this master. [231]

Finally, it is certain that Vasari saw Giorgione’s famous exterior frescoes on the Fondaco dei Tedeschi with his own two eyes. He saw it more than three decades after Giorgione’s death but it still retained its brilliant colors and original designs. Nevertheless, Vasari confessed that he could not understand the subject or the meaning of much of the work. Giorgione, he wrote,

thought only of executing fanciful figures, calculated for the display of his knowledge in art; and wherein there is, of a truth, neither arrangement of events in consecutive order, nor even single representations, depicting the history of known or distinguished persons, whether ancient or modern. I, for my part, have never been able to understand what they mean; nor, with all the inquiries I have made, could I ever find anyone who did understand, or could explain them to me. [229]

La Nuda: Remnant of a Fondaco fresco

Vasari was an accomplished painter and a skilled observer but by the time he visited Venice, Giorgione had already become a mystery.

Despite these first hand observations and excellent sources, scholars today tend to take Vasari with a grain of salt. Nevertheless, Vasari is the source of most of what we know about Giorgione. He related the story of Giorgione’s tragic death of the plague. He gave us the well-know “paragone” story in which Giorgione rebuffed the advocates of sculpture by showing how he could represent all the sides of the human body on a flat surface.  Vasari also gave us the account of the friction between Giorgione and Titian after their collaboration on the Fondaco dei Tedeschi.

After Vasari there is no other contemporary source for the life and work of Giorgione. To fill out the story we will have to look at the paintings and try to solve the mysteries by trying to see them as a contemporary Venetian would have seen and understood them. The paintings are the best primary sources for Giorgione.

* All quotes are from Giorgio Vasari, Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, selected, edited, and introduced by Marilyn Aronberg Lavin, Volume II, New York, 1967.