In my interpretation of Giorgione’s “Tempest” as “The Rest on the Flight into Egypt” I did not include a discussion of the "pentimenti"or “changes of mind” in the painting. I believed that the painting should be evaluated on what Giorgione finally decided he wanted the viewer to see.
I add a discussion here because much has been written about the “pentimenti” and their significance. While not necessary in supporting an interpretation of the painting as "The Rest on the Flight into Egypt," the "pentimenti" do not contradict it, especially the heretofore inexplicable little man on the bridge. See the following essay (slightly revised) that originally appeared at Giorgione et al…. in 2010 after I had presented my paper at the annual meeting of the Renaissance Society of America held that year in Venice on the 500th anniversary of Giorgione’s death in 1510.
In "Giorgione, Myth and Enigma," the catalog for the ground breaking 2004 Giorgione exhibition, the essay on the "Tempesta" by Giovanna Nepi-Scire included a discussion of “pentimenti” or “changes of mind” revealed by the scientific exploration of what lies beneath the surface of the famous painting.*
X-ray and radiographic technology did shed some light on the techniques of the painter and the materials he used but the results were inconclusive when it came to the meaning and subject of the painting. The "pentimenti" did not reveal much of Giorgione's original intention. Or did they?
One of the discarded figures in the underpainting had already received much attention from scholars. Originally, the canvas included a nude woman dipping her legs in a stream at the lower left hand corner. The catalog article indicated that some scholars believe that this figure provides an important clue even though the radiographic image is so indistinct that it is impossible to say whether the figure was even part of the original painting, or whether it was even painted by Giorgione.
For some, however, the “bathing woman” indicates that Giorgione originally intended the painting to contain two women. This contention would necessarily send the hunt for a “subject” into an entirely different direction.
However, the size of this bathing figure in relation to the nursing woman led the author of the catalog entry to reject the theory that Giorgione had originally intended to place two women in the painting.
In addition, the proportions appear slightly larger than those of the man and the nursing woman in the final version. If this figure really was part of the initial version, then there must have been a male figure on the right… [p. 192]
Interestingly, a “bathing Madonna” would not be out of place in a depiction of the “Rest on the Flight into Egypt.” One of the apocryphal legends refers to a fountain near the Egyptian village of Matarea that sprang up to nourish the Madonna and her child. In his “Madonna della Scodella,” Correggio painted a version of the Rest on the Flight into Egypt with Mary dipping a bowl into a stream.
|Correggio: Madonna della Scodella|
But, in my opinion, there is a much more telling pentimento. The Catalog indicated that the radiographic technology revealed,
the presence of a figure walking across the bridge in a long robe and carrying over his right shoulder a stick with a suspended load. (p. 192)
According to the Catalog this discovery contributed “nothing to the deciphering of the painting,” and there has been very little discussion of the little man since. I do not have an image of the man, but in the Accademia one day one of the authors of the Catalog article pointed out to me where the little man stood on the bridge.
A walking man with a stick bearing a sack over his shoulder is easily recognizable as a pilgrim. St. Joseph’s sack is commonplace in depictions of the Flight into Egypt. Often in depicting the “Rest on the Flight into Egypt,” artists used a narrative format, which included the actual journey in the background and the resting figures in the foreground.
|Gerard David: Rest on the Flight|
In Gerard David’s version of the “Rest on the Flight into Egypt” in New York’s Metropolitan Museum, the Madonna sits in the foreground nursing her Son while in the background she rides atop the Ass with Joseph trailing behind on foot carrying over his shoulder a stick with a suspended load.
This piece of evidence fits no other interpretation of the "Tempest." Why would a pilgrim be in a mythological or classical setting? It is only explicable in reference to the “Flight into Egypt.” Because the man is on the bridge, he must have been in the original painting but then Giorgione changed his mind. I can only guess that he realized he didn’t need it or that it would have been cumbersome to also include a miniature animal and rider.
To argue that Giorgione depicted a traditional subject in the Tempesta should in no way detract from his greatness. Another article in the Catalog [“Giorgione’s Materials and Painting Technique: Scientific Investigation of Three Paintings,”] indicated that in technique Giorgione was more traditional than commonly believed.
One could say that the artistic revolution caused by Giorgione does not necessarily translate into strictly technological innovation….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….This demonstrates how the greatness of an artist is in no way bound by ‘vile matter.’ [p. 260]
Scientific analysis has its value but there are two problems with attempts to get below the surface of any painting. First, what scholar would be happy with criticism of his or her work based on a discarded first draft of an essay? Wouldn't any of us want analysis and criticism to based solely on the finished product? Why should it be any different for a universally acknowledged master like Giorgione? Second, there is the danger that in looking beneath the surface we might divert our attention from the actual finished product and fail to see what the painter finally wanted the viewer to see.
* Giorgione, Myth and Enigma, edited by Sylvia Ferino-Pagden and Giovanna Nepi-Scire, Vienna, 2004