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".

Friday, August 10, 2018

Giorgione: Review of Scientific Examination

In 2004, two famous museums, the Accademia in Venice and the Kunsthistorisches in Vienna, worked together to mount a ground-breaking Giorgione exhibition. The Kunsthistorisches agreed to send it’s Giorgione collection that included the “Three Philosophers”, the “Laura”, and the “Boy with an Arrow” to the Accademia. In return the Accademia allowed the Tempest to leave Italy for the first time for the subsequent Viennese showing.  

The exhibition produced a beautiful and valuable catalog with essays and catalog entries by most of the world’s leading Giorgione scholars. In addition, the catalog included two appendices on the scientific or technological examination of some of Giorgione’s works that contained some valuable information that so far has been little noticed.*

The first study, “Giorgione’s Materials and Painting Technique: Scientific Investigation of Three Paintings,” was a joint effort by Elisa Campani, Antonella Casoli, Enrico Fiorin, and Stefano Volpin. The authors examined the newly restored “Castelfranco Altarpiece”, the “Tempest”, and the portrait of an old woman usually called “La Vecchia”. Acknowledging Giorgione’s fame as an innovator, the authors declared that:

The goal of this diagnostic campaign was to determine the extent to which Giorgione’s inventiveness manifested itself in a desire to experiment with new materials and techniques.

Those interested in the very full discussion of the variety of scientific techniques used will have to read the article. In brief, I would just like to highlight some of their results and conclusions. The authors believed that their investigation enabled a “complete reconstruction of Giorgione’s palette in the three masterpieces.” Moreover,

The choice of materials seems to depend on the result which the artist wished to achieve in each work, adapted to his expressive requirements and the evolution of his style. (256)

This conclusion only seems to confirm what everyone has thought of Giorgione and other Venetian painters but it is good to have it confirmed scientifically. Not only does his palette vary significantly but so too does his choice of binding medium. One of the results of the technical examination highlighted,

a significant difference in the painting technique of the three examined works; the choice of egg tempera to apply colour in the Castelfranco altarpiece and of a mixed technique, using walnut oil mixed with egg for La Tempesta and La Vecchia. (260)

The authors draw the following conclusion that so far does not appear to have penetrated the Giorgione world.

Even given the limited number of works investigated, the artist emerges as a figure with a great knowledge of materials and techniques rather than as an innovator and experimenter. One could say that the artistic revolution caused by Giorgione does not necessarily translate into strictly technological innovation. In fact, from this point of view, the analyses have not highlighted any novel resolutions in the three works. Instead there is clear evidence of an ability to utilize the extensive materials available in Venice and of a sound knowledge of the painting techniques accumulated by Venetian workshops during the 15th century.

Sandra Rossi and Paolo Spezziani collaborated on the second technical essay, “Examination via X-Ray and Infrared Reflectography, and Restoration of the Castelfranco Altarpiece.” Although mainly a discussion of the altarpiece, the authors did report on a  2001 infrared reflectography examination of both the “Tempest” and “La Vecchia” in preparation for the 2004 exhibition. This examinination confirmed a pentimento in the "Tempest" that the catalog still regarded as inexplicable:

 investigation enabled a more precise characterization of the figure on the bridge, who wears a long garment and is seen proceeding to the right. The figure holds a staff in his left hand; on his right shoulder is a second stick, from which hangs a container.

Although this figure cannot be seen even in the infrared image provided in the text, Dr. Rossi confirmed the existence of the man on the bridge to me as we both stood in front of the painting in the Accademia in 2010. A man with a staff and a pilgrim’s sack flung over his shoulder fits no other interpretation of the painting than “The Rest on the Flight into Egypt.” As so many other painters did, both before and after, Giorgione originally must have intended to portray the actual flight in the background with the “Rest” in the foreground. Why he changed his mind, we will never know. ###

Gerard David: "Rest on the Flight into Egypt" with flight in background.
Metropolitan Museum, NY

*Ferino-Pagden, Sylvia, and Nepi-Scire, Giovanna: exh. Cat. Giorgione, Myth and Enigma, Vienna, 2004.

Saturday, July 28, 2018

Giorgione, Titian, and a Venetian Humanist***

In my interpretation of Titian’s “Sacred and Profane Love” as “The Conversion of Mary Magdalen” I noted that most scholars believe that Niccolo Aurelio, a future Grand Chancellor of Venice, commissioned the painting to commemorate his marriage to Laura Bagarotto,  a young widow from Padua.


Aurelio’s coat of arms can be seen in the relief on the fountain above the spigot. Apparently the wedding raised eyebrows. Aurelio held one of the highest position in the state that could be filled by a non-patrician. Although the year of his birth is not recorded, Aurelio must have been in his fifties and had never been married before. He had, however, sired a natural son, Marco.

On the other hand, Laura Bagarotto was a woman with a checkered past. Her father, Bertuccio Bagarotto, a professor at the famed university of Padua, as well as her husband, Francisco Borromeo, had been accused of treason by the Venetian government for collaboration with the enemy during the War of the League of Cambrai. The husband most likely died during the war and later in 1509 the father was publicly hanged in the Piazza di San Marco, an execution that his wife and daughter were forced to witness.
Laura’s goods, including her substantial dowry, were confiscated. Subsequently, she maintained her father’s innocence and campaigned for the restoration of the family’s good name as well as for the restoration of her dowry, estimated at over 2000 ducats. Her marriage to Niccolo Aurelio in 1514 must have been an important step in her rehabilitation since her dowry was only restored the day before the marriage. One would like to think that Niccolo was honoring his new wife, or seeking to aid in her rehabilitation with a painting depicting Mary Magdalen as both a courtesan seeking to mend her ways, and as a repentant sinner. 
Some think that Aurelio married Laura for her money but I think that there was more to it than that. In her contribution to the catalog, “Titian 500” the late Rona Goffen reproduced the last will and testament of Niccolo Aurelio along with two codicils.* Reading the will gives the impression that Aurelio married the much younger widow not for her money but in an attempt to perpetuate his family’s name. [portions of the Will are reproduced below]
Despite the prominence of his position, little is known about the life of Niccolo Aurelio, but a look at his father, Marco Aurelio, a prominent Venetian humanist, might help to shed some light on his illustrious son.
In “Venetian Humanism in an Age of Patrician Dominance”, a 1986 study published by Princeton University, Margaret L. King examined the correspondence and writings of practically every prominent Venetian humanist of the Fifteenth century.**  Not only did she give a brilliant overview of the nature of the Venetian movement but she also provided profiles of all the humanists. One of the most prominent was Marco Aurelio, the father of Niccolo.
The Aurelio family seems to have been originally from the Venetian colony at Negropont in Greece. It would appear that they left Negropont early in the Fifteenth century before the Turkish conquest of Constantinople in 1453 and the subsequent fall of Negropont in 1470. Here is King’s brief summary.
Aurelio’s family stemmed ultimately from Negropont….Marco and his brothers Paolo and Pietro were sons of Niccolo Aurelio and a daughter of Niccolo Sagundino. “The emigration had seemingly been recent, as our Sagundino refers to himself (foreign-born) along with the native-born Marco as ‘new men.” The Aurelio family had with Marco’s father already established itself in the Venetian bureaucracy. Marco’s brother Paolo was also a secretary, as was his father Niccolo and his son of the same name, subsequently grand chancellor;… (p. 315)
King makes clear that humanists in Venice were not merely scholars. They constituted a caste employed by the Republic to serve its civic purposes. In other words a secretary was a civil servant, scribe, or lawyer employed in the service of the Republic. They were a separate class definitely barred from entrance into the exclusive patrician class but well above the ranks of the lower orders. The word “mandarin” comes to mind when reading King’s analysis.
Although a class unto themselves, they associated and corresponded with similar humanists in other cities and countries. King notes correspondence between Marco Aurelio and Marsilio Ficino who dedicated six opuscula to Marco. In addition,
Learned men addressed works to him Giovanni Calfurnio his editions of Horace and of Plutarch’s Problemata…and his commentary on Terence…Francesco Diedo his translation from Boccaccio; Janus Pannonius his translation of Plutarch’s De capienda ex hostibus utilitare and De curiositare; …poems by Sebastiano Bursa…Christophorus Lanfranchinus…and Aurelius Trebanus…Domizio Calderini wrote in the dedicatory letter to Giuliano de’ Medici that Aurelio had urged him to publish his commentary on Juvenal…Aurelio borrowed Gregory of Nyassa’s Life of Moses, translated by George of Trebizond, from the library of Girolamo Molin in 1458… (pp. 315-316)
Marco Aurelio introduced his son Niccolo into the Doge’s chancery at an early age. By the time of his marriage in 1514 Niccolo was one of the four Secretaries to the Council of Ten. In addition to his other duties, it appears that he was responsible for the public building programs so important in Venice. We know that he signed the contract with Giorgione for the frescoes on the Fondaco dei Tedeschi. Eventually, in 1523 he became Grand Chancellor, the official head of the caste of humanist scribes, and one of the leading figures in the Venetian government. As such he would be present alongside the Doge at all meetings of the Senate and Council. He would function as a kind of Attorney General. 
As long as he held these important positions Niccolo Aurelio would have had no financial worries. His will is evidence that only when he somehow lost the position of Grand Chancellor, normally a lifetime appointment, in 1525 did his finances become precarious. Until then he was a well-placed civil servant of the cittadino class. Neither he nor his descendants would have dreamed of entering or marrying into the patrician class. On the other hand, it would have been unseemly for them to marry beneath themselves. They were like characters in a Jane Austen novel whose range of marital partners was severely limited.
Niccolo Aurelio’s marriage to Laura Bagarotto in 1514 would appear then to have little to do with her dowry. By 1523 his Will indicates that her dowry was completely intact. He allocated 1500 ducats of his own money for the dowry of their young daughter, and had even made substantial improvements to Laura’s properties in Padua at his own expense. Moreover, in his home he also supported his natural son, Marco, as well as the two children of his deceased brother.
Why hadn’t Aurelio married before?  He loved his natural son, but Marco does not appear to have been the result of a long-term relationship with a mistress. After providing for Laura and their daughter, Niccolo left the balance of his possessions to Marco who,
even if illegitimate [naturali], I do not consider or hold to be otherwise than if he were my legitimate son, because he has always been obedient to me; and I am most certain that he comes from my viscera, as can be seen clearly from his appearance and habits…
I suspect that given his elevated status in the narrow caste of humanist scribes and lawyers Aurelio had deliberately avoided marriage until Laura Bagarotto came along. She was a different story. Her father, Bertuccio Bagarotto, had been a renowned professor at the University of Padua. Despite his death in the hysteria following the loss of Padua in the aftermath of the military defeat at Agnadello, the end of the war had led some to believe that his execution had been a travesty of justice. 
Bagarotto’s name was finally cleared and in 1519 the Venetian government admitted that his execution had been a mistake. Even so, Venetian humanists believed that character, status and ability were inherited.  The daughter of a famous professor would certainly be a suitable match for Niccolo Aurelio. I expect that one day a student will discover a relationship between Bertuccio Bagarotto and Niccolo's father, the humanist Marco Aurelio.
Subsequent events caused Aurelio to amend his will. In 1525 he was somehow disgraced and lost his position. Despite the drastic change in his fortunes, he still would not touch Laura’s dowry but only stipulated that now most of it would have to be used to dower their daughter. Two years later Laura provided Niccolo with a male heir and wholesale changes were made. According to custom the new son became the principal beneficiary not only of his estate but also of his humanist heritage.
I wish that he, Antonio, be the residual heir of all my property, whether personal or real estate…And being open to learning letters, appearing thus to his mother, have him study either in this land or in Padua…so that he not fall from his [condition] and that he make himself a worthy man, having a great many books as he will find at home. (p. 138)

 *Goffen, Rona: “Titian’s Sacred and Profane Love: Individuality and Sexuality in a Renaissance Marriage Picture ,” in Titian 500. ed. Joseph Manca, Washington, 1993. Pp. 121-147.
**Margaret L. King, Venetian Humanism in an Age of Patrician Dominance, Princeton, 1986.

*** This article was originally posted on this site on 12/23/2011.
Below are excerpts from the Will taken from "Titian 500"
 Holograph will of Nicolo Aurelio, dated 20 January 1523, with codicils of 26 April 1525 and 28 June 1527.
Jesus Mary. 1523 January 20 in Venice.
I Nicolo Aurelio, Grand chancellor of Venice…have deliberated…that this be my testament and last will. And first, recommending my soul to God Most High and to his glorious mother, the Madonna, Blessed Mary Immaculate Virgin, and to all the celestial court, I want my body to be interred in San Giorgio Maggiore in our [family] tomb,…
I leave to my most dear and beloved consort [Laura] and daughter [Giulietta], aside from her [Laura’s] dowry fund of the property in Lissaro and of Villa Torta in the Padoana, on which property I have spent no small sum of money in buildings and other improvements,…all these buildings and improvements made by me are to be hers [Laura’s] freely, and she can dispose of these as her own, if she does not wish to remarry, and remains a widow, as I deem she would be for doing, given her most honest life, such as she has always led, and the great love she bears for Giulietta, our one and only child. Aside from this, I bequeath her [Laura] all her garments, whether of silk, as of wool, and others which I have had made, and her gold chain, which likewise I have had made, and 100 ducats from my estate, that she have to use and to do with as she pleases. I leave her likewise her pearls that she brought with her when she came to my household….
In the event that my said consort wishes to marry, I want her to have her entire dowry, that is, the property of Lissaro and Villa Torta, in the condition in which they were consigned to me, that is, without walled buildings of any sort, and her pearls, and further that she have all her garments of silk and other which I have had made for her: these I give her. But the stone buildings [constructed] by me…are to remain in my estate, and likewise the gold chain and the 100 ducats, which are to be for Giuietta, my most gentle and only child, for her dowry…Declaring and thus it is my wish that my said consort, remaining a widow, and wishing to remain in this land in company with Marco, my son, in the house where we live, she, my consort, is to have possession of said house together with the said Marco, in that part which belongs to me, as though it were her very own, and she may use all my personal property as she does ands may do while I am alive.
In addition, I leave to the said Giulietta,…1500 ducats of the monies in my estate for her dowry…But because I am most certain, since her mother has no other child but this, she is not going to be found wanting in dowering her honorably…
if he, Francesco, is willing to remain in company with Marco, my son, and with my consort, whom I should have mentioned first, and Giulietta, my most gentle daughter, he and Marietta, his sister, are to have their expenses, as at present, and I want them treated in every regard as though they were my own children, leaving the burden to my most cherished consort to dower Marietta,…if her brother [Francesco] does not have the means to do so.
the balance of my possessions,…I likewise bequeath entirely to the said Marco, my son, whom, even if illegitimate [naturali], I do not consider or hold to be otherwise than if he were my legitimate son, because he has always been obedient to me; and I am most certain that he comes from my viscera, as can be seen clearly from his appearance and habits;…And I order him always to hold my most beloved consort in greatest reverence and respect, being as good a companion to her as if he had been born of her;… 
Codicil: Jesus Mary. 1525 on 26 April in Venice.
It having been my hard lot, and not because of any failing on my part, that my fortune has changed and that in a moment I have lost all my efforts and vigilance sustained by me since I was a child in serving this most excellent state,…
Codicil: 1527 on June 28.
Because it has pleased our Lord God to concede to me a little son by my wife, to whom I have given the name Antonio in memory of my deceased brother Antonio, 137
[to Marco] I wish that every year of thy life…that thou will have this office, that thou must give half of the earnings that thou will receive from that office to my said consort and to my other children for their subsistence…138…knowing my said consort to be prudent and wise and that she knows very well how to submit to the adversities of this world…
I wish that he, Antonio, be the residual heir of all my property, whether personal or real estate…And being open to learning letters, appearing thus to his mother, have him study either in this land or in Padua…so that he not fall from his [condition] and that he make himself a worthy man, having a great many books as he will find at home.
Goffen, Rona: “Titian’s Sacred and Profane Love: Individuality and Sexuality in a Renaisance Marriage Picture ,” in Titian 500. ed. Joseph Manca, Washington, 1993. Pp. 121-147.

Friday, July 13, 2018

Margaret King: Venetian Humanism

I do not know how Margaret L. King’s, Venetian Humanism in an Age of Patrician Dominance was received when it first appeared in 1986, but it was a real eye opener for me more than 25 years later. I originally looked into it for the profiles in the last section of her study of all the ninety-two humanists that she found in Venice in the fifteenth century.*

Ninety-two was not a capricious or arbitrary number. Although a literary scholar, King’s methodology resembled that of a trained sociologist.  She studied the three generations of fifteenth century Venetian humanists and developed specific criteria for inclusion in the group. Speaking of her study, she wrote,

It has not argued that Venetian humanism mimicked humanism elsewhere, but that a particular society will generate a characteristic form of any intellectual movement. It…has spoken of ninety-two concrete personalities named by plausible guidelines as members of the humanist circle. It has not simply asserted that social origin affected the behavior and production of intellectuals engaged in humanism, but has pointed to documented cases of such influence. It has not put faith in conclusions drawn from the reading of a few works but has tested them in many drawn from the whole of humanist production. (245)

She found a remarkable unanimity through the three generations; the first born between 1370-1400, the second from 1400-1430, and the third from 1430-1460.  In the first place, the great majority (64 of 92) were patricians.

Not only are the patricians the largest social group among the society of Venetian humanists. They also come overwhelmingly from the most privileged sector of that class. (277)

It is hard not to stress the importance of this finding. Although titles of nobility had never been permitted in the Venetian republic, the Venetian patriciate was the most exclusive class of nobility in all of Europe. Except for one exception in the fourteenth century no new members or families were ever admitted to this class. Unlike England where the King could grant titles, the Venetian Doge or government had no such power.

As a result of this patrician involvement Venetian humanism developed along quite different lines than elsewhere. King’s first chapter is titled “Unanimitas,” and it develops three distinct and characteristic traits of Venetian humanism. In the first place, practically every fifteenth century humanist was involved either directly or indirectly in service to the State. Many of the patricians, of course, held some of the highest offices in the Republic, and even the non-patricians either served the patricians or were employed by the government as secretaries. Not only did they work for the state but their writings also reflect a concern to glorify and perpetuate the Serenissima.

Secondly, in the fifteenth century there was no philosophical disagreement. The Aristotelianism propounded in the nearby University of Padua reigned supreme. Even though Venice had conquered Padua, intellectually Padua had conquered Venice.

Aristotelian political, metaphysical thought provided, in brief, legitimation for Venice’s highly stratified, rigid, and authoritarian society. The humanists, who in large measure profited from that social order, happily wedded their humanism to that philosophical vision. (184)

After a thorough examination of seven major humanist works, as well as a host of minor ones, King found no hint of Neo-Platonism throughout the fifteenth century.

Thirdly, she did not find any hint of secularism or deviation from religious orthodoxy. What she writes about the second generation applied to the others.

At the same time, they defended orthodoxy, religious and philosophical, respected the authority of the church, feared and respected outsiders, feared and condemned immorality. This conservative component of Venetian humanism coexisted with its other main purpose: the celebration of Venice. (230)

King cites many individual examples of Venetian piety and orthodoxy and concludes with this summary.

Concerned, even anxious, about the welfare of their souls and of their city, these humanists selected from the writings of antiquity not those values which displaced, but those which complimented a traditional piety. (37)

Not only did these humanists compose and copy many religious works, but sometimes their devotion could see strange meanings in some of the ancient pagan texts they studied. In his Concordance of Poetry, Philosophy and Theology, Giovanni Caldiera found moral or spiritual analogues in many ancient myths.

Where Paris, asked to judge among three goddesses, awards the golden apple to Venus, Caldiera sees the apostle Paul presented with the three theological virtues, choosing love…Jove’s seduction of Leda, wife of King Tyndar, is seen as Christ’s wresting of the holy church of God from its union with the Old Law. (114)

To summarize, there was no conflict between faith and reason in fifteenth century Venetian patrician humanist circles. Christianity and Aristotelian philosophy went hand in hand in support of the Venetian state and its hierarchical class system. King notes one historian’s very apt comparison of Florence and Venice. Florence is Athens and Venice is Sparta.

Initially, I wondered why King confined her study to the three generations of fifteenth century scholars. Didn’t humanism flourish and grow right into the next century? It could be that she had more than enough material here, and that she planned future studies. However, it soon became clear that she believed that a striking development took place in the fourth generation of humanists, those born between 1460 and 1490. At the very outset of what we call the High Renaissance, Venetian humanism developed offshoots that would challenge and weaken the old unanimity.

King’s statistical analysis showed a swelling of the ranks at the dawn of the sixteenth century caused in large part by the remarkable growth of the printing industry in Venice.

Humanists and related members of Venice’s intellectual circles born in the generation immediately following the third of our core group…are multitudinous; for the ranks of humanist circles are swelled by amateurs, patrons, collectors, printers’ assistants editors, translators, teachers of all kinds in the last decade of the century. (270)

Much of this activity centered on the press opened by Aldo Manutius after his arrival in Venice in 1491. It quickly became a center for humanist activity.

Around him and his assistants flocked the humanists of Venice, pedagogues and secretaries, university professors and physicians, young or leisured noblemen. (238)

The synthesis of humanism and the values of the Venetian aristocracy was weakened by this development as scholars focused more on their texts and translations. For many of them involvement in the affairs of the Republic was replaced by a sterile philological pedantry. 

Nor was that movement fully successful; it lacked not energy but a moral dimension. There seemed to be embedded in the intellectual movement of those dissectors and correctors of words no broad conception of the world, of society, of the place and depths and stature of the human being. Though they produced useful work…their zeal was sterile. Their words, bloodless, do not live. (236)

Other humanists began to drop out in order to find personal religious and philosophical fulfillment. Venice was not immune to the great religious reform movement that was sweeping over Europe in the fifteenth century decades before the Protestant Reformation.

King tells the tragic story of Ermolao Barbaro, a humanist from one of the most prominent patrician families, who was ostracized for accepting a bishopric from the Pope that the Signoria wanted for its own candidate. Barbaro was not interested in being a prince of the Church but defied his city because he believed that as a Bishop he would be free to lead a quiet life of study and contemplation.

Another scholar wrote a treatise advocating celibacy, not for religious reasons but as a means of detaching oneself from the cares of the world. A wife and children meant a family, and a family inevitably in Venice involved participation in the political and economic life of the City. How could someone be free to study and learn with such concerns? 

Some dropped out for purely religious concerns. The most striking example is that of Tommaso Giustiniani who, like the rich young man in the Bible, gave up all his possessions, including his art collection, to live as a hermit in a Camoldolensian monastery.

In her concluding chapter, King describes the decline of Venetian humanism and the coincident rise of its artistic renaissance. 

Thus patrician humanism survived into the sixteenth century, marked by its peculiarly Venetian balance of the universal vision and local civic responsibility, and by its expression of the themes of unanimitas fundamental to the city’s myth. Yet it constituted but one tendency of sixteenth-century humanism, which included, as well, the technical and routinized culture of the philologists and encyclopedists, the mediocre classicism of teachers and secretaries, the book talk and trading generated by the presses. And it constituted but one strand of Venice’s intellectual culture…and neither the primary nor most characteristic one. For the foci of Venice’s culture in the sixteenth century, and perhaps the true glories of her Renaissance, were not in humanism at all, but in vernacular literature and the arts. (242)

In King’s analysis Venetian patricians who came to maturity around 1500 did not share the outlook of their fathers.

They shed at the same time other restraints operative in Quattrocentro humanism. The sensuality prohibited by humanist arbiters of taste exploded into view. A diversity of themes and sentiments appeared that had not been possible within the contours of humanist culture neatly dictated by the assumptions of scholastic philosophy and Christian orthodoxy….In a parallel development, the visual arts at about this time abandoned the conservative canons of form followed strictly during most of the fifteenth century and embraced the language of color. (243)

One of the prominent humanists profiled by King was Marco Aurelio, the father of Niccolo Aurelio, who would succeed his father in the Venetian secretariat and go on to become Grand Chancellor, the highest rank that a non-patrician could hold. Niccolo’s coat of arms can be seen on Titian’s famous “Sacred and Profane Love,” a striking example of the Venetian language of color. ###

*All quotes are from Margaret L. King, "Venetian Humanism in an Age of Patrician Dominance," Princeton, 1986. Page numbers in parentheses. This review article was originally published at Giorgione et al... on 1/12/2013.

Friday, June 29, 2018

Historical Imagination

In my interpretation of Giorgione's Tempest I argued that the famous painting has a "sacred subject,"  "The Rest on the Flight into Egypt."  Since my initial discovery back in 2005, subsequent reading has led me to see that an increasing number of scholars are coming to understand the role that religion played in the life and art of Renaissance Venetians. Nevertheless, it is still hard to overcome the view that has prevailed for centuries that the Renaissance turned its back on Christianity in favor of the world of pagan Greece and Rome.

Titian: Vendramin family worshipping a relic of the Cross

For example, scholars sometimes point to the passage in the will of Gabriele Vendramin, the owner of the Tempest, where he directed that his collection not be dispersed or sold upon his death. He said that the collection had given him great consolation in moments of quiet contemplation. Scholars assume that he was contemplating the works of antiquity but the paintings in his collection were mainly "sacred" or devotional subjects. [Notice Titian: "Gabriele Vendramin with Brother and Nephews Venerating a Relic of the True Cross"] Indeed, the great majority of paintings found in the homes of Venetian patricians were of sacred subjects, including many versions of the "Rest on the Flight into Egypt."

In our modern world it takes a great amount of "historical imaginaton" to see things as Renaissance Venetians saw them.

Below find selections from two great scholars on the need for “historical imagination” for a correct understanding of the past. The first is from Piety and Patronage in Renaissance Venice, by the late Rona Goffen. Her small book is one of the best monographs ever written about the Venetian Renaissance. Referring to the importance of the sermons of Bernardino of Siena, and Lorenzo Giustiniani, the saintly first Patriarch of Venice, she wrote of the need for an historically informed imagination.

 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. Nevertheless, 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. [p.79]

Goffen stressed the need to see Renaissance Venice, especially its art, through the eyes of contemporary Venetians. She wrote,

 No Venetian--and no Venetian Franciscan--could have been unaware of the rich associations, both political and spiritual, of the Madonna in Venice, and indeed of the identification of the one with the other. after all, Venice, too, was apostrophized as a Virgin, always safe in the embrace of her beloved Evangelist St. Mark... [p. 145]

The second selection on the need for historical imagination comes from C.S. Lewis, whose greatness as a scholar is somewhat obscured today by the extraordinary success of his popular Narnia stories. Nevertheless, he was one of the greatest twentieth century students of Medieval and Renaissance literature. The following excerpt is taken from his small but brilliant study of Milton’s "Paradise Lost." In chapter IX of  A Preface to Paradise Lost,  Lewis discussed the need to see things through Milton’s eyes.

"Now when we read Paradise Lost,…Milton is on his own ground, and it is we who must be the learners... 
"Our whole study of the poem will then become a battle between us and the author in which we are trying to twist his work into a shape he never gave it, to make him use the loud pedal where he really used the soft, to force into false prominence what he took in his stride, and to slur over what he actually threw into bold relief. The older modern reading of Dante, with its disproportionate emphasis on the Inferno, and, within the Inferno, on the episode of Paolo and Francesca, is an example of this…." 
"Fortunately there is a better way. Instead of stripping the knight of his armour, you can try to put his armour on yourself; instead of seeing how the courtier would look without his lace, you can try to see how you would feel with his lace; that is, with his honour, his wit, his royalism, and his gallantries out of the Grand Cyrus. I had much rather know what I should feel like if I adopted the beliefs of Lucretius, than how Lucretius would have felt if he had never entertained them. The possible Lucretius in myself interests me more than the possible C.S. Lewis in Lucretius…." 
"You must, so far as in you lies, become an Achaean chief while reading Homer, a medieval knight while reading Malory, and an eighteenth century Londoner while reading Johnson. Only thus will you be able to judge the work ‘in the same spirit that its author writ’ and to avoid chimerical criticism…." 
"We must therefore turn a deaf ear to Professor Saurat when he invites us ‘to study what there is of lasting originality in Milton’s thought and especially to disentangle from theological rubbish the permanent and human interest.’…Our plan must be very different—to plunge right into the ‘rubbish’, to see the world as if we believed it, and then, while we still hold that position in our imagination, to see what sort of poem results…." 
"I myself am a Christian, and that some (by no means all) of the things which the atheist reader must ‘try to feel as if he believed’ I actually, in cold prose, do believe. But for the student of Milton my Christianity is an advantage. What would you not give to have a real, live Epicurean at your elbow while reading Lucretius?"

Let me just add a personal footnote.

A few years ago I attended a Giorgione symposium at Princeton on a cold Saturday in December.  Next day, my wife and I got up early to go to Mass at the Catholic church just across the street from the campus. It was December 12, the feast day of Our Lady of Guadalupe, but still we were surprised to find a good sized congregation in attendance at the 7:00 a.m. Mass. Even more surprising was the display that filled one of the two side altars. There was an image of Our Lady of Guadalupe along with an incredible array of flowers that even included a colorful working fountain. Catholic churches are usually somewhat bare during the season of Advent.

Before beginning Mass the presiding priest, obviously Mexican, was on fire as he told the congregation of the story of Juan Diego and the miraculous appearance of Mary at Guadalupe almost 500 years ago. Most surprising was his announcement that 3 hours earlier, at 4:00 a.m., the church had been packed with over 600 worshippers gathered for prayers on the morning of this great feast. Afterwards, we discovered that there was a substantial community of Latino workers in Princeton.

I relate this story because it occurred to me that even the greatest and wealthiest of Renaissance Venetian patricians would have been closer in spirit to these 600 Latino worshippers than he would have been to the 100 or so learned art historians who had attended the Princeton symposium. To put it another way it would take a great deal of imagination for an ordinary American to understand the mentality that could get up at 4:00 a.m. on a dark, rainy, morning to go to church and fill it with beautiful flowers in honor of the Madonna.

In a dozen years of lecturing on Giorgione's famous painting I have found that ordinary Catholics have no difficulty in seeing the Madonna nursing her child in the Tempest.


Friday, June 15, 2018

Giorgione's Tempest: the Storm:

In my paper on Giorgione’s Tempest I looked at all the iconographical elements in the famous painting and tried to not only identify them correctly but also to put them together in a coherent whole. I understood that no piece could be left out of the puzzle or forced into place. Here I repeat a post that originally appeared on February 7, 2013 about the storm in the background, the last piece of the puzzle.

Years ago I was an avid fan of jigsaw puzzles, especially landscapes. My method was to put all the end pieces together first as a kind of frame. Then, I would proceed to do the prominent figures in the foreground and put them in their appropriate spaces. Finally, the background landscape would be filled in with the usually blue sky saved for last.

In the past few posts I have been going through the process of re-examining the pieces of the Tempest puzzle. First, I discussed the broken columns in the mid-ground and showed that they were commonplace in depictions of the Rest of the Holy Family on the Flight into Egypt. In subsequent posts I elaborated on my discussion of the prominent figures in the foreground. In my paper I had claimed that the young man on the left holding a pilgrim’s staff is St. Joseph watching over the Madonna and Child, and in two posts I presented other contemporary examples of young, virile Josephs. I then discussed the nursing Woman and showed that the white cloth draped over her shoulders and the mysterious plant in front of her helped to identify her as the Madonna.

Now, only the city and stormy sky in the background remain in order to complete the puzzle. In my paper I discussed both city and storm and I agreed with those who have seen that the city in the background could be Padua under siege in 1509 during the War of the League of Cambrai. 

Yet, Renaissance paintings are known for having many levels of meaning. The subject of the painting is the “Rest on the Flight into Egypt,” and so the city in the background must be Judea from where the Holy Family had fled after Joseph had been warned to flee the murderous designs of King Herod. The storm would then represent the Massacre of the Holy Innocents.

In his great work on Medieval iconography, Emile Male discussed the liturgical importance of the Massacre.

The Massacre of the Innocents, which might seem to be an episode of secondary importance, is closely linked with the Christmas feast. In fact, during the three days following Christmas, the Church celebrates the Massacre of the Innocents along with the feasts of St. Stephen and St. John the Apostle. The liturgists tell us that the Church desired to gather around Christ’s cradle the innocent children and the proto-martyr who were the first to shed their blood for the faith; *

Many artists depicted the actual slaughter. Giotto and Duccio provided prominent early examples, and the subject was not uncommon in the Renaissance. Nineteenth century art maven Anna Jameson saw many depictions of the distasteful subject, on her many travels, but also noted that the Massacre could even be hinted at in versions of the Flight into Egypt.

In pictures of the Flight into Egypt, I have seen it introduced allusively into the background; and in the architectural decoration of churches dedicated to the Virgin Mother, as Notre Dame de Chartres, it finds a place, but not often a conspicuous place; it is rather indicated than represented. **

In my paper I argued that the storm clouds and lightning in the background of the Tempest can indicate the massacre of the Holy Innocents, a martyrdom that the Church had always regarded as intimately connected with the passion and death of Christ. I tried to show that storm clouds and lightning were not mere emblems but actual symbols of death and destruction. For example, Joachim Patenir, a Giorgione contemporary, darkened the sky above the city in the background of his depiction of the Rest on the flight into Egypt. 

Joachim Patenir: Rest on the Flight into Egypt

Here is Carlo Ridolfi’s description of a storm in a lost painting describing a scene of death and destruction by the early Titian.

It was then decreed by the senate that he should paint for the Sala del Gran Consiglio the armed encounter at Cadore between the imperial troops and the Venetians. In this work, he imagined the natural site of his hometown with the castle situated above on a high mountain where the flash from a lightning bolt in the form of an arrow is suspended and misty globes in the manner of clouds are forming, mixed among the terrors of the unexpected tempest; meanwhile the battlefield is obstructed by the horrible conflict of knights and foot-soldiers, some of whom were defending with their rapiers the imperial flag, stirred by the wind and boldly moving in the air. ***

Although not in a painting, Pietro Aretino gave a very vivid image of the scene of the Crucifixion in his “Humanity of Christ.”

Meanwhile the darkness which had lasted from the sixth hour to the ninth, grew so black that it seemed day had hidden beneath the cloak of night. The clouds driving through the air and obscuring vision resembled a thousand banners of vast size arrayed against the eye of the sun. The sky itself groaned in unprecedented horror. The pallid lightning flashed. The very globe appeared about to dissolve in mist. #

Finally, in my work on the Tempest I came to realize that the solitary bird on the rooftop in the painting comes from the Psalms and refers to Rachel lamenting her lost children. In the passage of Matthew’s gospel where Joseph is warned to flee to Egypt, the evangelist records the plight of the ”Holy Innocents,” and recalls the prophecy of Jeremiah,

A voice was heard in Ramah, sobbing and loudly lamenting: it was Rachel weeping for her children,…because they were no more. 

The solitary bird on the rooftop in the background of the “Tempest” has hardly been noticed or discussed in all the scholarly literature but it recalls the lamentation of Rachel.The source for the bird can be found in Psalm 102, one of the seven Penitential psalms. (Jerusalem Bible 102, v.7-8).

I live in a desert like the pelican,
In a ruin like the screech owl
I stay awake, lamenting
Like a lone bird on the roof 

There is a version of the “Rest on the Flight into Egypt” by Nicholas Poussin that now can be found in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. It is actually a depiction of the encounter with the young John the Baptist on the return of the Holy Family from Egypt. The Museum notes that they are surrounded by many cherubs. It is true that those in the trees have little wings but the ones on the ground do not. These I believe to be the Holy Innocents. They all look to be the same age as the infant Christ. 

 Poussin: Rest on the Flight into Egypt
Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY

Edit: English Poussin scholar David Packwood has kindly supplied this information about the Poussin Rest.

Storm clouds do appear in Poussin's paintings of the Flight into Egypt, usually clouds and cross in a symbolic cluster surrounded by cherubs, who represent the Holy Innocents. See NP's Dulwich Flight and Cleveland one. I covered the New York "Rest on the Flight" in my Phd. It's possible that ALL the children represent the Innocents. There's a putto high up on the tree who has his arms outstretched in an "orans" gesture- and I think Poussin might have been alluding to the cross here, The iconography is very complex in this picture. Did you see the butterflies? I think these are symbols of the infants' soul. Some scholars think that the lake behind the children could allude to baptism. Diana di Grazia wrote a long article about it for the Poussin Cleveland conference way back in the 90s.There's lots of stuff on the Innocents in that. It's also significant that the children are the same age of Christ in the New York picture. According to Counter-Reformation doctrine and debates on infant baptism, Christ was the saviour of infants. Finally, I think the NY picture has a Neapolitan provenance. Significant because one of Poussin's patrons- the poet Marino- came from Naples and wrote a poem about the Massacre of the Innocents, which heavily influenced Poussin.

*Emile Male: Religious Art in France, the Thirteenth Century, Princeton, 1858, p. 186.
**Anna Jameson: Legends of the Madonna, Boston, 1885, p. 353.
*** Carlo Ridolfi: the Life of Titian, Penn State, 1996, p. 75.
# James Cleugh:The Divine Aretino. NY, 1966, 99. 196-7

Saturday, May 26, 2018

Giorgione: Marian Symbols in the Tempest

If it wasn’t for the nudity of the Woman in Giorgione’s Tempest, we would easily recognize the painting as a version of “The Rest on the Flight into Egypt.” The broken columns in the mid-ground are commonplace in versions of the Rest. At the beginning of the sixteenth century St. Joseph was also being portrayed as younger and more virile than in earlier depictions. We also know that a nursing mother will almost always be the Madonna.

Besides the fact that the woman in the Tempest is nursing, there are two other elements that help to identify her as the Madonna. First, there is the white cloth that extends over her shoulders and even envelopes her son. Second, there is the plant featured so prominently in front of the woman. 

First, let’s consider the cloth. Although some have called it a shirt, it is obvious that it is not an article of a woman’s clothing. It is much too large. No only does it cover the child, but it also covers the woman’s shoulders and back, and then overflows onto the ground. What is it? In my interpretation of the Tempest I identified the cloth as the corporale, the white cloth that covers the altar at every Mass. In Franciscan spirituality Mary was identified as the altar on which the Eucharist was placed. 

In “Piety and Patronage in Renaissance Venice” the late Rona Goffen, one of the most prolific Venetian Renaissance scholars, noted the connection between the Madonna and the Eucharistic altar. For example, in Giovanni Bellini’s famed Pesaro altarpiece in the Frari, 

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."* 

Later Titian would utilize the corporale in his famed Pesaro altarpiece. Goffen identified the white cloth on Mary’s head in that famous painting as the corporale:

the Madonna's veil recalls the winding cloth, ritualized as the corporale, the cloth spread on the altar to receive the Host of the Mass.**

Titian: Pesaro Altarpiece, Frari

There are other examples. In the so-called “Allendale Adoration of the Shepherds”, variously attributed to Giorgione or Titian, the infant Christ lies on a white cloth that is placed on the stony ground. Many nativity scenes such as this one were actually depictions of the first Mass. The infant Christ, the Eucharist, lies on the white cloth that covers the stony ground.

A lost Giorgione painting that only exists in a seventeenth century copy was once thought to depict the story of the discovery of the infant Paris on Mt. Ida. It is actually a depiction of an encounter of the Holy Family with robbers, an apocryphal episode associated with the flight into Egypt. In that painting the infant Christ lies on a white cloth spread on the stony ground. 

Examples could be multiplied but the fact remains that no other explanation of the Tempest has tried to explain the significance of the white cloth.

Despite countless studies and interpretations, scholars have also avoided discussion of the plant in front of the woman. Some think that it is there to cover the woman’s nakedness although it is obviously doing a very poor job. Most interpretations don’t even mention it. If you take another look at the "Allendale Adoration" above, you will see that a plant (probably a bay laurel) also features prominently in that painting.

When I first saw the “Tempest” I wondered about the plant and thought that it might be one of the plants that are commonly associated with the Madonna. Knowing little about plants, I consulted my younger brother, a high school science teacher and master botanist. It is incredible to walk through the woods with him and hear him name every tree and plant and discuss their characteristics. Without flowers it is hard to identify, but he suggested that the root structure and the way it is growing indicate a nightshade.

Even I knew that the most well known nightshade was the deadly nightshade or belladonna, a plant that I subsequently found out was associated with witchcraft and the devil. Although poisonous, Italian women in Giorgione’s time commonly used belladonna extract to dilate and beautify their eyes. The belladonna plant became another piece of the Tempest puzzle that fit so easily into place. What else could explain the fact that the part of the plant below the heel of the woman had withered and died than the famous quote from Genesis 3:15? God speaks to the serpent about Eve and her offspring. 
I will make you enemies of each other:
You and the woman,
Your offspring and her offspring.
It will crush your head
And you will strike its heel. 
Modern scholars use either “he” or “it” to indicate that it is the offspring that will crush the head of the serpent. During the Renaissance the Latin Vulgate used “she” indicating the popular belief that it was the Woman who would strike at the serpent's head while it struck at her heel.


*Rona Goffen, Piety and Patronage in Renaissance Venice, Yale, 1986, p. 53.

Goffen, op. cit., p. 114.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Giorgione: Maria Lactans

In 2006, when I first interpreted Giorgione’s Tempest as the “Rest on the Flight into Egypt”,  I acknowledged that the nudity of the Woman in the painting was a great difficulty. A nude Madonna is so unique that it is unimaginable. Nevertheless, when I first saw the painting, I think the fact that the woman was nursing her child must have led me to see the Madonna. *

Giorgione: Tempest detail

If Giorgione had clothed the woman, or even just exposed one breast, no one would ever have failed to see the Madonna in this painting. The nursing Madonna or "Maria Lactans" was an extremely popular subject during this era. Usually she is depicted in a landscape with indications that the artist is representing a legendary episode on the flight into Egypt.

Here are some examples. First, we’ll look at two painters from the Netherlands who practically made a living by depicting this subject over and over again. 

Joaquim Patenier: Rest on the Flight into Egypt

Joaquim Patenier painted many versions of the Rest on the Flight into Egypt. In this version the Madonna sits squarely in the center draped in her traditional blue cloak with a white cloth on her head. One breast is exposed as she nurses her Child. St. Joseph's staff and pilgrim's basket are in front of her while off to the left he searches for food. Behind is a large stone ball atop what remains of the Egyptian temple that according to legend crumbled at the approach of the infant Jesus. In the background there is a depiction of a wheat field that is associated with another legend of the flight. In the left background storm clouds cover a city just as in Giorgione's Tempest.

Gerard David: Rest on the Flight into Egypt

Gerard David and his workshop also turned out many versions of the "Rest." In these the Madonna is often just holding her Son on her lap but in the above painting in New York's Metropolitan Museum the Madonna's breast is exposed as she nurses her child. In the right background David depicted the Holy Family on their way into Egypt. A casual tour of the Met or most any museum will disclose other versions of the nursing Madonna by Netherlandish artists.

Italian artists also painted many versions of the nursing Madonna no doubt responding to the demands of patrons. Here are some examples by contemporaries of Giorgione. The Italian versions tended to be more naturalistic than those from the Netherlands and often omitted obvious apocryphal details. Here are examples by Bernardino Luini, Correggio, and Antonio Solario.

Bernardino Luini
Antonio Solario

In addition to the above five, a simple image search for "Maria Lactans" will reveal dozens of nursing Madonnas done by contemporaries of Giorgione. On the other hand, it is very difficult to find a pagan goddess or nymph nursing her child. Therefore, whenever we see a nursing mother, we should immediately think Virgin Mary. As far as the Tempest is concerned the question should not be, "Who is the Woman?" but "Why did Giorgione want a nude Madonna in this painting.?"

I have dealt with that question in my paper and in earlier posts on this site. I will reproduce these posts in the following weeks.


* A short essay appeared in the Masterpiece section of the Wall Street Journal on May 13, 2006. The full paper can be found on my website, MyGiorgione, along with other interpretations that followed upon the realization that this mysterious painting could be a "sacred" subject. I delivered the paper at the annual meeting of the Renaissance Society of America in 2010, held that year in Venice on the five hundredth anniversary of Giorgione's death.