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".

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.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Hasan Niyazi Correspondence

Hasan Niyazi, the creator of the very popular art history blog "Three Pipe Problem,"passed away at the end of October 2013. He was only in his early thirties. Hasan's family were Turkish Cypriots who migrated to Australia when Hasan was just a boy. I first encountered Hasan in July of 2010 when I came across a blog post he had written about a video analysis of Giorgione's famous and mysterious painting, "The Tempest." The video was by a well known and popular art history personality in England
Hasan Niyazi in Florence

Earlier that year I had presented my paper on the "Tempest" at the annual meeting of the Renaissance Society of America which was held that year in Venice on the 500th anniversary of Giorgione's death.    After reading his post and watching the accompanying video, I felt the video analysis was superficial and off the mark. I commented on Hasan's post and it led to an extensive back and forth. At first, he found it difficult to accept my interpretation of the painting but, characteristically, he was open to it and willing to engage in discussion, especially if the arguments were based on sound evidence and not just feelings.

Eventually, we began to correspond privately. Hasan proved to be a real art history pioneer on the web and his blog would become one of the most popular art history sites online. He was a real believer in the value of the Internet. Here is one of his first emails dated 11/3/2010. As usual, he just signed it "H".

Hi Frank 
I have been working on something that will make it easier for those interested in art and history to find other sites. I myself am disappointed by having to find others sites by image searches and luck. Typing 'Giorgione Tempest' into google doesn't reveal your site straight away because it is based on popularity, not content. 
I have been working on a custom search engine/page/site listing which will be open to anyone to view and search. I would invite you to have a look/try - eg., type 'giorgione tempest' into the search engine on the home page and see your site appear much earlier in the listings than in google, which gets crammed with sites offering posters and reproductions, online galleries etc.

If you like the idea, and want others to be able to find your site by a topic search, please fill in the very simple registration form, which collects no private info. I could have easily done this myself but wanted to give you a chance to have a sneak peek at the site.

I must stress that it isn't directly related to what I am working on with Alexandra but I have a feeling it will come in handy for that in future :)
This is the temporary address of the site - its not publicly listed yet until I change its web address to something easy like
what do you think??
A voluminous correspondence ensued. We did not always see eye to eye and he was not reluctant to criticize, often heatedly. But he was always quick to answer and thorough-going in his responses. He was always a great help in navigating the intricacies of blogging. It is only now, two years after his sudden and tragic death at such an early age, that I have come to realize how much he meant to me. I was more than twice as old as him but it didn't seem to matter that we were of a different generation. His words and comments were an incredible stimulus to a senior citizen inclined to get sloppy or goof off.

More than that, I believe we became good friends. I admired his love of the Renaissance, especially Raphael, and his great energy and enthusiasm. Often, he would respond when I knew it must have been the wee hours of the morning in Australia. I like to think that we learned a lot from each other. We never met in person but he was as good a friend as I have ever had.

One of his last letters to me spoke of his continued admiration for Raphael but now I see that there was also a hint of trouble. Here is an excerpt dated August 28, 2013.

Greetings Frank, 
I hope to find you well. I am doing OK, in case you are curious. I am adjusting to life on my own - but am also meeting with pleasing success with regards to my work, so I am endeavoring to focus on that. Emotionally, things do get a little fraught at times, but contemplating the sublime grace of a Raphael Madonna often has a calming effect. All will be well I sense, I just need to keep working, and allow some time...

He ended his last post at 3PP with words affirming the importance of the Internet fro art history.

The future of art history and the internet is a very exciting prospect. This goes beyond the fact that more art historians and institutions are engaging online, but also expands to include an increased public participation and interest in learning about art and history outside of an institutional and pedagogical content. The web allows quality knowledge, and fascinating images and video to be accessible everywhere, and by everyone—hence the potential for art history online is essentially limitless.


Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Giorgione: Contemporary Sources

Giorgione is the most mysterious and perhaps the greatest of all Venetian Renaissance artists. Mysterious not only because so little is known about his short life, but also because no other great painter’s work has led to so many questions of attribution and interpretation.
Giorgione: Self Portrait?
Giorgione was a “nickname” and contemporary documents refer to the painter as Zorzo da Castelfranco. Castelfranco is a walled town west of Treviso, about an hour away from Venice via modern commuter rail. We do not know how or when the young Giorgione arrived in Venice. In those days it is likely that he traveled down the Brenta to Padua and then on to Venice by canal. We do know that by the time of his death in 1510 at about the age of 33, he had become the favorite painter of the Venetian aristocracy.

The year of his death is one of the few things we know for sure about Giorgione.  On October 25, 1510 Isabella d’Este, Marchioness of Mantua, asked Taddeo Albano, her agent in Venice, to acquire a Giorgione painting only to be informed that the young master had just died during a recurrence of the plague. The indefatigable collector was not deterred by the news. She told Albano that she had heard that there might be a beautiful “notte” among the late painter’s possessions, and that Albano should do all he could to get it.

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,… 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…[i]

On November 8 Albano informed the Lady that it was too late.

Most illustrious and honoured Madama mia,--
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.

This brief exchange not only tells us the approximate date of Giorgione’s death, but also hints at his status as a painter. Like most Venetian painters of his time Giorgione worked by commission, and his patrons appear to have come from the highest circles of Venetian society. Vittore Beccaro has disappeared from the view of history but Taddeo Contarini was a scion of one of the greatest patrician families. For centuries scholars have disagreed about what Isabella meant by a “Notte” but, whatever it was, it was painted for a leading Venetian citizen and art collector.

Scholars have only found a handful of documents concerning Giorgione in Venetian archives. These documents indicate the works involved and payment details. Most important is the commission to do the exterior fresco work on the newly rebuilt Fondaco dei Tedeschi, the home and commercial center for the German merchants and travelers in Venice. This commission alone indicates Giorgione’s elevated status in the Venetian art world. Only a fragment of his work on the Fondaco remains today.

Giorgione: Fondaco fragment

Recently a scholar working in the Venetian archives discovered an official inventory of Giorgione’s estate. The inventory, done in 1511, revealed that Giorgione left very little behind after his sudden death. Like other victims of the plague he apparently spent his last days in quarantine on the Lazaretto, a small island in the Venetian lagoon. No artworks, drawings, or possessions of much value were found. One would suspect that they were removed by friends or family before the inventory. The inventory also confirmed that Giorgione died without wife or legitimate children. Apparently, his stepmother was putting in the claim for his estate. Finally, the inventory appeared to indicate that Giorgione’s family in Castelfranco was the Gasparini family, and not the Barbarelli, as was long claimed by later generations of that family.[ii]

The above is all the contemporary, first hand information on Giorgione. However, around the year 1800 a collection of notes by an anonymous writer was discovered in Venice’s Marciana library by Abate Don Jacopo Morelli. The notes, made by an anonymous writer in the third and fourth decades of the sixteenth century, 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.”[iii]

Morelli was not sure of the name of the author of the notes, but later scholars identified him as Marcantonio Michiel, himself a Venetian patrician and collector. In addition to Venice, Michiel visited homes and religious institutions in Padua, Cremona, Milan, Pavia, Bergamo, and Crema. 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 Michiel’s notes provided a look into the collections of some of the greatest families in Renaissance Venice and also shed much light on the artists, especially Giorgione. Altogether Michiel mentioned eighteen works in the homes of seven collectors that were either by Giorgione, possibly by Giorgione, started by Giorgione but completed by another, or copies by others based on Giorgione.

However, there is little biographical information about Giorgione in Michiel’s notes. Only when he mentions a “birth of Paris,” does Michiel indicate that it was done early in Giorgione’s career. Still, his attributions and brief descriptions are one of the bases on which Giorgione scholarship must rest.

For example, in 1530, only twenty years after Giorgione’s death, Michiel saw the painting that would later be called the “Tempest” in the home of Gabriele Vendramin. He attributed it to Giorgio di Castelfranco and described it simply as, “ The little landscape on canvas, representing stormy weather and a gipsy woman with a soldier.” (123) Despite Michiel’s typically laconic description, this painting has been regarded ever since by artists, connoisseurs, poets, and novelists as one of the most beautiful and mysterious paintings in the history of Western art.
Giorgione: Tempest
Almost as famous is the “Sleeping Venus”, now in Dresden, a painting that led famed art historian Kenneth Clark to claim that Giorgione was the creator of the Venetian nude. Michiel saw it in the home of Jeronimo Marcello in 1525, and described it as ”representing Venus, nude, sleeping in a landscape with Cupid.” (105) Although he attributed the painting to Giorgione, Michiel claimed that it was completed by Titian. The Cupid is no longer visible.

Giorgione: Sleeping Venus

In the same year Michiel saw three paintings by Giorgione in the home of the above-mentioned Taddeo Contarini. The best known was an oil painting that he described as “three Philosophers in a landscape”. This brief description of the “Three Philosophers”, now in Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum, is characteristic of Michiel. He did not label paintings but provided a description and an attribution whenever he could. (103)

Giorgione: Three Philosophers

We have practically no other contemporary information about Giorgione. Giorgio Vasari, whose Lives of the Painters is the great source for much of what we know about the Renaissance, was born in 1511, the year after Giorgione’s death. His brief biography of Giorgione was published in the first edition of the Lives in 1558. We will turn to Vasari’s account next.

[i] Isabella’s correspondence with Taddeo Albano can be found in Julia Cartwright, Isabella d’Este, Marchioness of Mantua, 1474-1539. London, 1932. For the Italian text see Jaynie Anderson, Giorgione, The Painter of Poetic Brevity, 1997, p. 362.

[ii] Segre, Renata: “A Rare Document on Giorgione”, Burlington Magazine, June, 2011, 383-386.

[iii] 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. Page numbers for citations are in brackets.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Giorgione and Titian: Renaissance Mysteries

 This month marks the fifth anniversary of Giorgione et al... I created the blog at the suggestion of the late Hasan Niyazi, an Australian, whose blog, Three Pipe Problem, was becoming one of the most popular art history sites on the web. Hasan argued that "blogspot" would reach a much wider audience than a website of my own. He was correct and so far Giorgione et al... has attracted over 200000 page views. It is difficult to assess how many of these views represent real interest but it is heartening to see that the site has attracted readers from all over the world.

I originally interpreted the subject of Giorgione's Tempest as "The Rest on the Flight into Egypt" five years earlier back in 2005. In my naivete I sent copies of my interpretation to various institutions, journals, and most of the leading scholars in the field. Only a handful chose to even acknowledge receipt and of those only one offered any criticism. Miraculously, in May of 2006 the Masterpiece column of the Wall Street Journal published a short version of the Tempest interpretation but that was it until 2010.

In that year my paper was accepted by the Renaissance Society of America for its annual conference to be held in Venice in 2010, the five hundredth anniversary of the death of Giorgione. The conference was a large one and there were many panels devoted to Italian Renaissance art, especially the art of the Venetian Renaissance. My paper was included in one of the many panels lumped under the generic title, "Italian Art." 

I'd like to say it was a great success but it wasn't. Although most of the leading scholars on the Venetian Renaissance were at the conference, none attended my panel, which also included a presentation by two engineers from Turin on sixteenth century drawings of machines. There were only about 15 people present to hear my revolutionary interpretation. They listened politely and asked a couple of questions. Even the moderator of the panel seemed more interested in the machines.

Fortunately, after the conference in Venice, my wife and I traveled to Rome where we had to extend our stay when the eruption of a volcano in Iceland shut down air travel to and from Italy. As a result, we were able to visit the Borghese Gallery where one look at Titian's "Sacred and Profane Love" convinced me that the women were Mary Magdalen.

On our return to the USA I decided to use the web as a means to get my discoveries out there. I created MyGiorgione for the actual papers and then, thanks to Hasan, Giorgione et al... Today, I reproduce the first post on Giorgione et al...


 Below is an abstract of a paper delivered in April, 2010 at the annual meeting of the Renaissance Society of America in Venice. Subsequently, the paper was also delivered at the 2011 annual meeting of the South Central Renaissance Conference in St. Louis. The paper itself can be found on my website, MyGiorgione by using the link on the right.

Giorgione: The Tempest

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

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

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

David Teniers; Copy of a lost Giorgione

My research on the "Tempest" has led to a number of other discoveries. For example:

1. The Giorgione painting in the Pitti Palace sometimes called the "Three Ages of Man" can now be identified as "The Encounter of Jesus with the Rich Young Man." See the  essay on MyGiorgione.

Giorgione: Three Ages of Man

2. A painting attributed to Palma Vecchio that is now in storage in the Philadelphia Museum bears a marked resemblance to the "Tempest," but it has usually been identified simply as "Allegory." This painting is now identified as "the Encounter of the Holy Family with the Infant John the Baptist on the Return from Egypt. See blog post dated November 21, 2010.

Palma Vecchio: Allegory
3. Titian's famous painting the "Sacred and Profane Love" is now identified as "The Conversion of Mary Magdalen." This paper was presented at the annual meeting of the South Central Renaissance Conference held in 2012 in New Orleans. See the full paper at My Giorgione.

Titian: Sacred and Profane Love

4. The "Pastoral Concert" that now hangs in the Louvre has been variously attributed to Giorgione and Titian. Not only do I agree with those who attribute it to Titian but I also believe that it is Titian's "Homage to the Recently Deceased Giorgione." All the Giorgionesque elements in the painting were Titian's way of honoring his deceased friend. For the full paper see MyGiorgione. 

Titian: Pastoral Concert

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

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

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Michelangelo Doni Tondo: A Further Note on the Nudes

Michelangelo: Doni Tondo

In three previous posts on Michelangelo’s Doni Tondo I have argued that in the foreground the Madonna elevates her child in the same manner as the priest elevates the Host at the Consecration of the Mass. Joseph, who represents the Church, participates in the Eucharistic sacrifice by genuflecting or kneeling at the moment when Renaissance Christians believed the Host was changed into the Body of Christ. The young John the Baptist is there, not so much as a symbol of Baptism, but as the one who announced the mission of Jesus years later on the banks of the Jordan, where he exclaimed, “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world.” In the background, I suggested that the five nude young men were the Nephilim or Giants whose sins were believed to have been the cause of the Flood at the time of Noah.

The biblical account only mentions these, but Christian and Jewish legends both claimed that the Nephilim were the offspring of angels and wicked women descended from Cain. Indeed, the Jewish legends seemed to contain more detail than the Christian and I speculated that, given the interest in Hebrew language and lore in Renaissance Florence, Michelangelo might have been aware of the Jewish legends.

Since that post I have found some very relevant information in David Whitford’s study, The Curse of Ham in the Early Modern Era, published by Ashgate in 2009. In his analysis of the impact of the story of the drunkenness of Noah, and Noah’s subsequent curse of his son Ham, Whitford devoted a chapter to the Giants or Nephilim whose sins were thought to have been the cause of the Flood.

In particular, Whitford discussed the Commentaria of Annius of Viterbo, a Dominican friar. Here is the Wikipedia notice on Annius.

He is best known for his Antiquitatum Variarum, originally titled the Commentaria super opera diversorum auctorum de antiquitatibus loquentium (Commentaries on the Works of Various Authors Discussing Antiquity) and often known as the Antiquities of Annius. In this work, he published alleged writings and fragments of several pre-Christian Greek and Latin profane authors, destined to throw an entirely new light on ancient history.

Alleged is a nice way of saying that the Antiquitatum Variarum or Commentaria was an outright forgery. Nevertheless, even though contemporary humanists suspected a forgery, the Commentaria, originally published in 1498, became very popular in its time. Annius claimed linguistic knowledge that he did not possess, and even planned a fake archaeological discovery. The book was reprinted in 1515 with only minor corrections.

Here is Whitford’s account of Annius on the Nephilim.

Book One begins by stating that before the “famous catastrophe of the waters, by which the entire world perished, many ages passed.” In these ages, giants ruled the world from their great city, Enos. The giants were corrupt and prone to tyranny, lechery, and debauchery. They devoted themselves to sexual immorality such that, “they had intercourse with their mothers, their daughters, their sisters, with other men and with wild beasts.” They also despised religion and the gods. Despite warnings and prophecies that the world would be destroyed because of this wickedness, the giants continued their impiety. Only one giant, who was more “reverential to the gods and wiser than the rest,” paid any attention to the prophecies; because of this he survived. His name was Noa “and he had three sons, Samus, Japetus, and Chem.” Noa (or Noah) survived because he could read the stars and foresaw the deluge to come. Thus, beginning 78 years before the Flood, he built an ark. When the floods came, the whole human race was drowned, except for Noa and his family. From this family sprang all the peoples of the earth. (50-51)

Despite the spurious nature of the Commentaria, it would appear that the story of the Nephilim was in the air even before its publication in 1498, and that the Commentaria of Annius only added to its popularity.
Signorelli: Medici Madonna

Scholars have often seen a resemblance between the nudes in Michelangelo’s Doni Tondo, and those in Luca Signorelli’s Medici Madonna. In both paintings the postures of the young men remind me of lazy idlers or street-corner troublemakers. Moreover, in the Signorelli painting the four scantily clad young men seem quite oversized and they tower over the horse that seems to occupy the same plane. Maybe I fail to understand the use of perspective but the men do appear to be gigantic. ###

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Doni Tondo Revision III: The Nudes in the Background

In recent years the five nude young men in the background of Michelangelo’s Doni Tondo have received as much, if not more, attention than the Holy Family in the foreground. There would appear to be no agreement as to who they are or what they represent. Among other things, they have been variously interpreted as angels without wings, sinners, penitents awaiting Baptism, figures from pagan antiquity, or figures from the Old Testament.

In a paper, entitled “Michelangelo’s Doni Tondo: Holy Family and Family Myth,” Andree Hayum concentrated on the scene in the background. [i] She noted the many different interpretations offered for the five nude men, but found the source in the Old Testament account of the drunkenness of Noah. She saw an obvious connection between the young men and Michelangelo’s famous depiction of the Noah story on the ceiling of the Sistine chapel.

But if one thinks of them as a constellation of three, the figures they recall are Michelangelo’s sons of Noah in the Sistine fresco of Noah’s Drunkenness. The most notable feature of Michelangelo’s sons of Noah is their nudity.[ii]
Michelangelo: Drunkenness of Noah

In her interpretation the three men on the viewer’s right in the Doni Tondo would be Noah’s sons Ham, Seth, and Japheth before the incident of their father’s humiliating drunkenness. After drinking of the fruit of the vine, Noah had fallen naked into a stupor in his tent. Ham looked upon his father’s nakedness but the other two averted their faces and covered him. When Noah awoke and realized what had happened, he cursed Ham. Hayum argued that the two innocent or sinless sons are therefore depicted after the episode on the viewer’s left.

There is a connection between the young John the Baptist in the midground of the Doni Tondo and the story of Noah. Not only did theologians and artists see the Baptist, the last and greatest of the Hebrew prophets, as a link between the Old and New Covenants, but also they had related the story of Noah to Baptism.

In the First Letter of St. Peter the saving of Noah and his family are seen as prefiguring Baptism. Just as the waters of the Flood wiped away sin, so too do the waters of Baptism. There can be no doubt of the prominence of the Noah story during Michelangelo’s time. Savonarola, his favorite preacher, had given perhaps his most famous series of sermons on Noah and the Flood right before the French invasion of Italy in 1494. A couple of years after the completion of the Doni Tondo Michelangelo featured the Noah story on the ceiling of the Sistine chapel.

Nevertheless, I have some questions about Hayum’s hypothesis. In the first place, where is Noah in the Doni Tondo? For Hayum this question was not a problem because she saw Noah in the figure of St. Joseph.

As in the sacrifice of Noah, the Holy Family alludes to Noah and his sibylline daughter-in-law. They have come to rest holding up the future male child. Like the ritual of sacrifice, the thanksgiving and the gift are one, and a sense of celebration prevails.[iii]

Noah’s daughter-in-law was reputed to be a sibyl and given the sibyls in the Sistine chapel, it was easy for Hayum and others to recognize a sibyl in Mary’s posture. Nevertheless, I believe it would be impossible to find another reference to Joseph as Noah. If anything, Noah is a type of Christ, not of St. Joseph. Noah’s salvation of mankind from destruction at the time of the Flood prefigured the salvation effected by Christ on the Cross.

My second question relates to the postures of the nude figures in the Doni Tondo. Rather than participating in the scene of their father’s drunkenness, they lounge about like modern Italian men on a street corner ogling passing young women. A similar posture can be seen in an earlier devotional tondo by Luca Signorelli that is usually called the Medici Madonna. Hayum and others have seen a connection between the five nudes in Michelangelo’s tondo and the four practically nude young men in Signorelli’s painting.

Luca Signorelli: Medici Madonna

In the foreground of Signorelli’s painting the Madonna sits on the ground while her son appears to be taking his first step. St. Joseph and John the Baptist are absent but a bust of the Baptist as a man appears in the fictive frame above the tondo with a banner reading “Ecce Agnius Dei”. However, the four young men in Signorelli’s tondo also appear to be idlers. It is hard to see how they could be the sons of Noah either before or after the incident of his drunkenness.

I would like to suggest that the nudes in both paintings are related to the story of Noah but that they are not his sons. In the Book of Genesis there is a brief reference to giants upon the earth. Here is an English translation of the Vulgate Latin.

Now giants (gigantes) were upon the earth in those days. For after the sons of God went in to the daughters of men, and they brought forth children, these are the mighty men of old, men of renown. [Genesis 6:4]

The Golden Legend embellished the biblical account of the time of Noah.

This time men began to multiply upon the earth, and the children of God, that is to say of Seth, as religious, saw the daughters of men, that is to say of Cain, and were overcome by concupiscence and took them to their wives. This time was so much sin on earth in the sin of lechery, which was misused against nature, wherefore God was displeased…

A fuller account can be found in the apocryphal legends of the Jews. 

Unlike Istehar, the pious maiden, Naamah, the lovely sister of Tubal-cain, led the angels astray with her beauty, and from her union with Shamdon sprang the devil Asmodeus. She was as shameless as all the other descendants of Cain, and as prone to bestial indulgences. Cainite women and Cainite men alike were in the habit of walking abroad naked, and they gave themselves up to every conceivable manner of lewd practices. Of such were the women whose beauty and sensual charms tempted the angels from the path of virtue. The angels, on the other hand, no sooner had they rebelled against God and descended to earth than they lost their transcendental qualities, and were invested with sublunary bodies, so that a union with the daughters of men became possible. The offspring of these alliances between the angels and the Cainite women were the giants, known for their strength and their sinfulness…[iv]

The legends of the Jews ascribed a number of names to these giants but one was Nephilim, “because bringing the world to its fall, they themselves fell.” The modern Jerusalem bible does use the word Nephilim instead of giants to describe these troublemakers whose sins were so great that it took a flood to wipe them out. In addition to walking about naked, the Nephilim were noted for their arrogance and wantonness.
They knew neither toil nor care, and as a consequence of their extraordinary prosperity they grew insolent. In their arrogance they rose up against God…. It was their care-free life that gave them space and leisure for their infamies.[v]
The description of the Nephilim in the Jewish legends fits the depiction of the nude young men in the background of both Signorelli’s Medici Madonna and Michelangelo’s Doni Tondo. The painter of the ceiling of the Sistine chapel certainly had knowledge of the Book of Genesis. Scholars have demonstrated that he could have read the text in Italian because of the publication of the Malerbi bible in 1490 in the vernacular. He obviously used the Malerbi woodcuts in his work in the Sistine chapel.

Could he have been familiar with the folklore and legends of the Jews? Michelangelo grew up in a Florence that was a center of Hebraic studies.  Michelangelo trained at the Medici court where Pico della Mirandola was known for his knowledge of the Hebrew lore and traditions that were all lumped together under the heading of Cabala.  Most of Savonarola’s sermons were based on the books of the Old Testament. Also, Sante Pagnini, who succeeded Savonarola as Prior of San Marco, was a Dominican specialist in Hebrew language and grammar. He spent practically his entire career    translating the Hebrew Scriptures into Latin.

Why would Michelangelo place the proud giants or Nephilim in the Doni tondo? I can only offer the following guess. The painting is a devotional image. The Madonna elevates her infant Son in the way a priest elevates the Host at Mass. John the Baptist looks at the Host and utters the words of the Agnus Dei: Behold the Lamb of God…. But the full version of the ancient prayer is “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, have mercy on us.”

The Nephilim represent the sins of the world. I suggest that they are the nudes in the background of both the Doni Tondo and Signorelli’s Medici Madonna. In both paintings the Madonna and Child have turned their backs to the nudes in the background. Instead of a Flood, the Lord has sent his only Son to take away the sins of the world.


[i] Andree Hayum, Michelangelo’s Doni Tondo: Holy Family and Family Myth. Reprinted in Michelangelo, Selected Scholarship in English, edited with Introduction by William E. Wallace, New York and London, 1995, V. 1.Life and Early Works, p. 421.

[ii] Hayum, op. cit. p. 424.

[iii] Hayum, op. cit., p. 427.

[iv] Louis Ginzberg, The Legends of the Jews, 1909, V. 1, c. 4. Available online at

[v] ibid.