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, November 26, 2010

Giorgione, "Tempest": Gypsy Madonna


In 1530, 20 years after the death of Giorgione, Marcantonio Michiel saw the painting that would become known as the "Tempesta" in the home of Venetian patrician, Gabriele Vendramin. In his notes Michiel wrote, "the little landscape on canvas, representing stormy weather and a gipsy woman with a soldier, is by Giorgio di Castelfranco." Since that time most scholars have argued that Michiel's descriotion was off the mark. The man is not a soldier and the woman nursing a child is not a gypsy. Today, only a few diehards call the woman a gipsy. (See the end of this post for an analysis of Paul Holberton's hypothesis).

Why did Marcantonio Michiel mistakenly identify the nude woman and the man in the “Tempesta” as “a gipsy woman with a soldier”? After all, the nude woman nursing an equally nude infant does not resemble a gypsy. Moreover, the young man’s posture might resemble that of a soldier but he is neither armed nor armored.

It seems obvious that Michiel’s notes were hastily drawn and fragmentary but why did he guess “a gipsy woman with a soldier” for the two characters in the famous landscape? I would like to offer the following as an hypothesis.

In one of his sermons Savonarola criticized the artists of his time for depicting the Madonna dressed in splendor and finery. He said, “think ye that the Virgin should be painted, as ye paint her? I tell ye that she went clothed as a beggar.”

This quotation from Savonarola’s “Prediche sopra Amos e Zaccaria,” is found in Professor Pasquale Villari’s monumental biography of Savonarola, originally published in 1888 after years of research in original sources, many of which he discovered hidden in Florentine archives. In his work Professor Villari devoted a few pages to the famous or infamous Dominican friar’s views on art and poetry.

Villari disputed the notion, popular in his time and even more popular in ours, that Savonarola was a reactionary opponent of Art, Poetry, and Learning. Although known to popular history as the moving force behind the “Bonfire of the Vanities,” Savonarola was respected and admired by contemporary artists and philosophers.

Villari mentions Fra Bartolommeo, the whole Della Robbia family, and Lorenzo di Credi, who according to Vasari was “a partisan of Fra Girolamo’s sect.” Vasari also wrote of Cronaca, “that he conceived so great a frenzy for Savonarola’s teachings, that he could talk of nothing else.” Even Sandro Botticelli was an ardent admirer “who illustrated the Friar’s works with beautiful engravings."

Finally, to prove his point Villari argued that ‘it is enough to mention the name of Michelangelo Buonarotti, known to be one of his most constant hearers, and who, in his old age, constantly read and reread the Friar’s sermons, and never forgot the potent charm of that orator’s gestures and voice.”

In the beginning of the 16th century it would appear that attempts were made to portray the Madonna as a poor beggar especially in paintings depicting the Rest on the Flight into Egypt. In these paintings Joseph will be depicted as an armed protector of the Madonna and Child. Edgar Wind in “Giorgione’s Tempesta” referred to two unusual, almost inexplicable images of a soldier standing guard over a woman and child. Both of these paintings bore a striking resemblance to the "Tempest".

In the first attributed by Wind to a “Follower” of Giorgione, there are three figures in a landscape. In the foreground a fully clothed plainly dressed woman sits on the ground with her infant son standing beside her supported by her arm. She is left of center and looks to the right in the direction of an armored soldier standing guard. He leans not on a staff but on a formidable looking halberd, a weapon associated with the Swiss soldiers imported into Italy by Julius II during the Cambrai war. For Wind the subject of the painting was an allegory, “Fortezza and Carita,” the same subject he claimed for the "Tempest". This painting which I consider to be a version of the Rest on the Flight into Egypt could easily be described as a soldier and a gypsy.

The second painting Wind called “The Peaceable Warrior (ex bello pax).” He attributed it to Palma Vecchio, a contemporary of Giorgione. It is now in the Philadelphia Museum of Art where it is identified as an “Allegory.” This painting is obviously a depiction of the encounter of the Holy Family with the young John the Baptist on their return from Egypt. In the center a young nude Jesus stands and embraces his equally nude elder cousin. A heavily armed Joseph stands off to the right watching over the Madonna and the children. A plainly dressed Madonna sits on the ground observing the children. She wears the headscarf or turban associated with gypsy women!

So even though Giorgione did not paint a “gypsy” woman or a soldier in the "Tempest", the similarity of his painting with depictions of a Madonna dressed like a beggar in the desert with a protector standing guard might have led to Michiel’s mistake 20 years later.

Below find my analysis of Paul Holberton's "gypsy" hypothesis. See Paul Holberton: “Giorgione’s Tempest”, Art History, vol. 18, no. 3, September 1995. (Holberton has posted the article on his website with a slide show.)

In a paper published in 1995 Paul Holberton argued that Marcantonio Michel’s original description of the woman depicted in Giorgione’s "Tempest" is indeed correct. He wrote, “the fact remains that although they differ in their descriptions of the man, both Michiel and the 1569 inventory [of the estate of Gabriele Vendramin] identify the woman as a gypsy.”

For Holberton the "Tempest" has a subject and it is a gypsy family wandering on the outskirts of society about to be engulfed by a storm. He pursues this thesis even though both Michiel and the 1569 inventory do not identify the man as a gypsy. For Michiel, he was a soldier but by 1569 he had become a shepherd.

Holberton provided some very useful information on gypsies and the way they began to be depicted in art at the end of the 15th century but his thesis is full of holes. In the first place, he never really explained the nudity of the woman in Giorgione’s painting. He argued that gypsies were depicted as “primitives” but they still are not depicted in the nude. Certainly, there is nothing primitive about the woman of the Tempesta. Look at her hair, for example. If she is a primitive, than you would also have to call the Dresden "Sleeping Venus" a primitive.

Secondly, the handsome young man of the "Tempest", dressed in the garb of a Venetian patrician, can hardly be called a primitive or a gypsy. There is no relationship between his finery and the nudity of the woman and child. How can they belong to the same family? None of the plates that Holberton presented in his paper shows such a striking dis-similarity in the clothing of the major figures.

Next, he confesses that he has no explanation for the broken columns and ruins in the painting. “What does the column symbolize? In my opinion it is no more symbolic than the trees…” Neither does he attempt to identify the plant featured so prominently in the foreground, nor does he see any significance in the city in the background.



Nevertheless, Holberton came so close. If he could only have seen the "Tempest" as Giorgione’s version of the "Rest on the Flight into Egypt", so much of his evidence would have fallen easily into place. Instead of claiming that identifications of images of the Madonna were mistaken, he should have asked why the Madonna came to be depicted wearing a gypsy headdress in some of the paintings he describes. At one point he argued that a de’ Barbari drawing could not be a Holy Family because of the gypsy headpiece of the woman. Yet, Correggio painted a Madonna and Child where the Madonna appears with a similar headpiece, and it is commonly called La Zingarella.

Correggio, "La Zingarella."

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Giorgione: "Tempest" Followers

There is a painting, identified as "Allegory", in the Philadelphia Museum of Art that bears a striking resemblance to Giorgione’s “Tempest,” even though there is no trace of a storm.

Palma Vecchio: Allegory

Edgar Wind, who identified the subject of the “Tempest” as “Fortezza e Carita,” pointed out the resemblance in his 1969 study, "Giorgione’s Tempesta."

This subject. Fortezza e Carita, was trivialized, inevitably, by some of Giorgione’s disciples. A Giorgionesque painting in the collection of the Marquess of Northampton and a painting by Palma Vecchio in the Philadelphia Museum omit the ominous character of the storm-swept landscape but retain the easy contrast between a soldier leaning on his lance and a woman seated on the ground, with a child or two. (p. 3)
In a footnote, Wind elaborated.

In Palma Vecchio’s tame conversation piece, which might be called ‘The Peaceable Warrior (ex bello pax)’, the children play like Eros and Anteros, whose mythological parents were Mars and Venus....The lethargic guardsman in this picture is a surprisingly weak invention, particularly if compared with the fine paraphrase of Giorgione's s soldier in the altarpiece for Santo Stefano in Vicenza... (p, 21, n.13).

In the Philadelphia Museum website the painting is given the title “Allegory,” and is attributed to “a follower of Palma il Vecchio.” It is dated 1510. It is not currently on view. Upon request a curator at the Museum very kindly allowed my wife and I to view this spectacular painting last year. It is a very large canvas, much larger than the Tempest, and despite the need for restoration it is still a beautiful painting.

It seems obvious that this painting is a version of the “Rest on the Flight into Egypt.” The man is St. Joseph, dressed as a young Venetian patrician, standing watch over the Madonna who is seated on the left. The two children are the Christ child and John the Baptist, who is also identified by the lamb in the background. John is often introduced into the Flight into Egypt legend when he meets the Holy Family in the desert on their return.

The other painting mentioned by Wind is now on loan to the Fogg Art Museum. Attributed by Wind to a “Follower” of Giorgione, there are three figures in a landscape. In the foreground a fully clothed plainly dressed woman sits on the ground with her infant son standing beside her supported by her arm. She is left of center and looks to the right in the direction of an armored soldier standing guard. He leans not on a staff but on a formidable looking halberd. For Wind the subject of the painting was an allegory, “Fortezza and Carita,” the same subject he claimed for the Tempesta.

Follower of Giorgione: Rustic idyll
This painting also should be recognized as "The Rest on the Flight into Egypt." After all, wasn't it originally an altarpiece? The only objections would be the plainly dressed Madonna and the armed virile Joseph.

In each painting Joseph’s staff has become a halbred, the weapon of choice of the famed Swiss soldiers who had been introduced into Italy a few years earlier by Pope Julius II. Why is Joseph now being presented as a heavily armed and armored protector of the Madonna and Child? Perhaps the Cambrai war required Joseph to take on a more martial aspect. It seems that it would be easier to answer that question than to try to fit these two paintings, which bear a striking resemblance to the "Tempest" into an "allegorical " interpretation.

Another question arises about the plainness of the woman's attire in each painting. It is so plain that viewers have argued that the women are gypsies. More on that in another post. ###

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Giorgione and Paris Bordone: St. Joseph

In interpreting the "Tempest" as "The Rest on the Flight into Egypt," I discussed the reasons for Giorgione's unusual portrayal of St. Joseph as young and virile. I also provided another example in the "Sposalizio," Raphael's immediately popular depiction of the marriage of Joseph and Mary. There are other examples such as the one by Giorgione's Venetian contemporary, Paris Bordone, which is now in a private collection. In the essay below I discover the source of Joseph's muscular bare foreleg, as well as a stunning trick that Bordone used to display Catherine's bare inner thigh.

Paris Bordone: Mystic Marriage of St. Catherine, c. 1524

“Joseph...is shown as young and virile, with a muscular bare leg, instead of as a frail and slightly foolish old man.” Bellini, "Giorgione, Titian, and the Renaissance of Venetian Painting", 2007. Catalog entry #13.

The highlight of the 2006 art world must surely have been the magnificent exhibition of Venetian Renaissance painting jointly sponsored by the National Gallery of Art in Washington, and the Kunsthistorische Museum in Vienna. The exhibition, "Bellini, Giorgione, Titian and The Renaissance of Venetian Painting," also produced a beautiful catalog. Although the works of the three great masters named in the title were the focus of the exhibition, paintings by a few lesser known artists like Lorenzo Lotto and Paris Bordone were also included.

Indeed, one of Bordone's paintings, "The Mystic Marriage of St. Catherine," was a real eye stopping crowd pleaser in both locations. Painted around 1524, this extremely colorful and dramatic painting which measures about 58 by 102 inches tells the story of the legendary marriage of Saint Catherine of Alexandria to the Christ child.

According to the medieval legend which Crusaders brought back from the East, Catherine was a Queen of Alexandria around the middle of the fourth century. In the story Catherine, even as a young girl, was enamored of philosophy. By her teens she was a student of Plato and Socrates and surpassed all the philosophers of Egypt in knowledge and wisdom. At the death of her father she became Queen of Alexandria but resisted all efforts by her nobles to impel her to marry. Eventually she converted to Christianity in order to marry Christ for she regarded Him as the only one greater than her in status, knowledge and wealth. Subsequently, when Catherine rebuffed the overtures of the Roman emperor in Egypt to have her for his own, he had her put to death. Initial attempts to break her on a wheel failed and she was finally beheaded. The wheel would become the symbol by which she can easily be identified in Medieval and Renaissance art.

Next to Mary Magdalen, Catherine became the most popular female saint in the Middle Ages. She was "venerated by men as the divine patroness of learning," and by women as "the type of female intellect and eloquence, as well as of courageous piety and chastity." Her "mystic marriage" became a favorite subject for painters especially in convents where the nuns could look to her "mystic marriage" to Christ as a prototype of their own. This was especially true among the Dominicans whose favorite daughter, Catherine of Siena, was often paired in paintings with her namesake from Alexandria.

The most common way to depict the "mystic marriage" was to tie it in with the biblical account of the Flight into Egypt. Even though Catherine was supposed to have lived about 350 years after the birth of Christ, artists were not so much interested in historical accuracy as they were in an allegorical rendition of a soul's spiritual union with Christ. So Catherine is usually depicted meeting the Holy Family as they are about to return to Judea from Egypt. We know that it is the return from Egypt because we see the young John the Baptist in the painting. According to another legend the Holy Family met the future Baptist, who had fortunately escaped the massacre of the Innocents, on their return from Egypt.

Paris Bordone's depiction of "The Mystic Marriage of St. Catherine" is one of the most dramatic and unusual representations of this episode. Like other Venetian painters of the early 16th century, Bordone has chosen to move the Madonna and Child out of the center of the painting. They are at the left side with the cloth representing their throne hanging from a tree. The Madonna looks down and away from her Child at the Baptist who is depicted as a young boy clothed in his desert garb and leading a lamb. John looks at the infant Jesus and invites us to "behold the Lamb of God."

More than anything else it is the portrayal of St. Joseph which is most dramatic and unusual in Bordone's painting. In a striking departure from traditional representations Joseph is portrayed as a virile young man. Moreover, he has been taken out of the background where we usually find him and placed right in the center of the painting. His powerful and uncovered foreleg is prominently displayed. As the beautiful Catherine approaches from the right, Joseph places his hand on her wrist and directs her outstretched finger to the wedding ring held out by the infant Christ.

As devotion to St. Joseph grew throughout the Quattrocento, he began to figure more prominently in representations of the Holy Family. His role as spouse, father, worker, and protector had a special appeal in the Renaissance. Nevertheless, in this painting there is something else going on that explains the central role of Joseph. In this painting Joseph is acting as a "proxy" for the marriage between Catherine and the infant Christ.

In marriages where the parties, usually royalty, were separated by distance, it was common to celebrate a marriage by proxy. Such a marriage was considered to be a real marriage, and not just a contract for some future event. In theory and practice both parties did not have to be present for a legal marriage to occur. It only required the consent of both even if one of the parties gave a written consent. It was not necessary for a clergyman to be present.

One particular way of "consummating" this marriage by proxy is alluded to in this painting. I don't know where or how it began, or how extensive it was, or when it ceased to be used but the practice was common in the 16th century. An ambassador or proxy would be sent to the court of the bride to perform the ritual. In the presence of notable witnesses, the young woman would be conducted to the nuptial bed wearing a loose fitting gown. The "proxy" would then remove his shoe and stocking from one leg before entering the bed. Apparently, he would then expose a part of her leg and touch it with his own to consummate the marriage.

Here is Hester Chapman's description of the "proxy" marriage of Mary Tudor, the beautiful 18 year old younger sister of Henry VIII to the elderly Louis XII of France in August 1514 at Greenwich. The Duc de Longueville acted as proxy.
After High Mass and a Latin sermon preached by the Archbishop of Canterbury, the marriage vows were exchanged and the ring was placed on the Princess's finger. The ceremonies did not end there. To make assurance doubly sure, Henry had arranged that symbolic intimacy should take place. Surrounded by his court and the foreign ambassadors...he talked informally with de Longueville, while Mary left to change her dress for a robe giving the effect of a nightgown. When she reappeared, Katherine and her ladies led her to a state bed, on which she lay down. De Longueville then advanced, pausing at the foot of the dais to take off one of his scarlet boots, thus revealing a bare leg. Lying beside the Princess, he touched one of her legs with his naked foot. His gentlemen then replaced his boot, and he came down into the hall, while Mary retired again to change into a ball-dress.

De Longueville acted as Louis XII. It was as if the King of France had really been there. From that moment Mary Tudor could call herself Queen of France.

Why did Paris Bordone choose to depict the "mystic marriage" of St. Catherine as a marriage by proxy? Countless paintings of the same subject during this era take a much more traditional approach. Catherine is usually shown in her regal robes kneeling before the Holy Family. Usually she is gazing lovingly at the infant Christ. Sometimes she will touch Him, and sometimes she will even cradle Him in her arms. Often, He is about to place a ring on her finger.

In fact, in another version of the "mystic marriage" Bordone also used the "proxy" theme. This painting hangs in the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg and appears to have been painted about the same time. In this version we again see the young, virile Joseph with his powerful foreleg exposed. However, now Joseph is placed on the right side and remarkably holds the infant Christ in his hands! Madonna, who has released her Child from her grasp, leans backward to hear Catherine's proposal. In this picture there is no John the Baptist.


Scholars date both paintings between 1520 and 1524. We are still in the High Renaissance but we are also in the beginnings of the Reformation. Perhaps after a century of growing devotion Joseph has come to be seen as not only the protector of Madonna and Child but also as the protector of the Church. In these paintings does he represent the Church, the intermediary between God and man? In a "proxy marriage" the proxy was the representative of the King, and union with the proxy was union with the King. After Martin Luther's assault on the role of the Church as mediator, was Bordone or his theological advisor reaffirming the role of the Church?

In both paintings the Infant Jesus is moving away from the Madonna. Perhaps Bordone is recalling Christ's words about marriage. "For this reason a man will leave father and mother and cleave to his wife." But the painting could also refer to another biblical passage. "Did you not know that I must be about my Father's business?" In Franciscan spirituality the nude infant Jesus is equated with the naked Christ on the Cross and with the Eucharist on the Altar. Marriage is the sacrament of love, the complete giving of one's life for another. On the return to Judea, Christ would begin his journey to Calvary. The legendary Catherine would stay in Egypt and give her life for Him.

Finally, a word about Catherine. Her gown is pink, almost matching the color of her skin. Has Bordone exposed a part of her right thigh? It is almost impossible to notice in a reproduction. Even standing in front of the painting it is not immediately obvious. But looking closely her gown appears to have parted to reveal a dark band across her exposed thigh. Bordone has played a masterful eye-catching trick here leaving it to the beholder to make up his or her own mind. This painting certainly deserves modern scientific treatment to discover if there is anything in the underpainting that would indicate that Catherine bared her leg in the same manner as Mary Tudor. ###

Friday, November 5, 2010

Giorgione Tempest: The Solitary Bird





In my interpretation of Giorgione's "Tempest" as "The Rest on the Flight into Egypt" I identified the nude Woman nursing the Child; the Man holding the staff; the broken columns; the City in the background; and even the plant in front of the Woman. I must confess that until a recent discussion at the popular art history blog, Three Pipe Problem, I had not seen the need to identify the solitary bird on the rooftop in the City.

See here for the discussion on 3PP.

See below for the identification of the solitary bird on the rooftop.

The source of the bird barely visible on a rooftop in the background of Giorgione's "Tempest" can be found in Psalm 102, one of the seven penitential psalms. Here are the verses from the Jerusalem Bible (102, v.7-8), and the Latin Vulgate (101, 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;


101:7} Similis factus sum pellicano solitudinis: factus sum sicut nycticorax in domicilio.

{101:7} I have become like a pelican in solitude. I have become like a night raven in a house.

{101:8} Vigilavi, et factus sum sicut passer solitarius in tecto.

{101:8} I have kept vigil, and I have become like a solitary sparrow on a roof.

Latin Vulgate, Psalm 101.

It is difficult to identify the solitary bird hardly visible on a rooftop in the city in the background of Giorgione’s famous painting. In his 2007 catalog Wolfgang Eller was one of the few to take notice but he could neither make a positive identification nor offer an explanation.

“A white bird with a long neck sits on the ridge of this roof. The depicted bird is probably neither a heron nor a cormorant, since both of these have a straight neck when they are seated;” Wolfgang Eller: “Giorgione, Catalogue Raisonee,” p. 95.

Never mind that the bird appears to be standing, this was all Eller had to say.

In 2004 Waldemar Januszczak identified the bird as a crane to support his rather fanciful BBC TV interpretation of the Tempesta as the story of Demeter and Iasion taken from one sentence in Homer’s Odyssey. He argued that a crane is often shown with the goddess, Demeter. He paid a lot of attention to this little figure in the background but failed to explain why Demeter is nursing one child although she had twins by Iasion.

I was led to the Psalm interpretation after browsing the web for images of various crane like birds. The innumerable images available made it difficult, especially when trying to distinguish between cranes, herons, bitterns, storks, and even pelicans. Despite it’s curved beak even an ibis seemed possible.


Then I recalled that Giovanni Bellini had depicted a Grey Heron in his "St. Francis in the Desert", now in New York’s Frick Museum. John Fleming’s study of this famous painting provided the answer. Here is his explanation of Bellini’s pelican.

“In ornithological terms, the “pelican” seems to be any large bird, especially any large water bird. In poetic terms, the pelican is almost any desert bird, so that the pelican and the passerus are treated as equivalents in monastic texts….”

Of course, Fleming was discussing Bellini’s "St. Francis" and not Giorgione’s "Tempest". Nevertheless, a solitary bird on a roof lamenting the massacre of the Holy Innocents symbolized by the storm is certainly appropriate in a depiction of the “Rest on the Flight into Egypt.” Even more if it is a large water bird associated with the desert and the Nile Delta. Finally, there is the obvious connection with Franciscan spirituality.

Below are some notes from Fleming’s study, "From Bonaventure to Bellini, an Essay in Franciscan Exegesis."

Giovanni Bellini’s desert is the Tuscan mountain called La Verna, but we must be prepared to discover that its flora and fauna are those of the Levant. That is to say, while the artist’s command of animal anatomy and vegetable forms reveals a close empirical observation, his vision of animal ecology would seem to reflect the literary sourcesof the Scriptures, and his desert wildlife gives visual form to the poetic diction of the Psalms, Isaiah, and Job. P. 35.

[Desert hermits] “By their aspirations and deeds they join voice with the Psalmist: “I am become like to a pelican of the wilderness, I have watched, and I have become as a sparrow, all alone on the house top’” [Ps. 101: 7-8] p. 37.

[Desert birds] “ In the famous passage of Cassian’s history of the monastic life, that life’s highest form, eremitic anchoritism, is betokened not merely by a desert beast, but also by desert birds….So masterful is Bellini’s technique that we can identify them with certainty as a grey heron and a bittern, as we would name them today. P. 40-41.

The iconological difficulty presented by the pelicanus solitudinis is…the offspring of the word’s lexical familiarity. Unlike the unfamiliar nycticorax, a rara avis indeed, a pelican is both well known and highly distinctive. …But a pelican is not a heron; so how can his grey heron be considered a pelicanus solitudinis?

The simple answer is that pelicanus/ pelican are false cognates….A cursory iconographic survey of the well-known emblem of the “Pious Pelican” in the Middle Ages and Renaissance will reveal an entire aviary, birds we would be disposed to call pelicans, egrets, herons, eagles, storks, and swans, not to mention many that we would be hard pressed to give a name to at all. In ornithological terms, the “pelican” seems to be any large bird, especially any large water bird. In poetic terms, the pelican is almost any desert bird, so that the pelican and the passerus are treated as equivalents in monastic texts…. (p. 42)

It is Augustine who underscored for us these associations of the pelican that are most poetically appropriate for Bellini. The pelican is a dweller of the Nile, a water bird and an Egyptian bird. Bellini gives us a wonderful rendition of a large and solitary water bird, an ancient symbol of the eremitic life…
(p. 44)

John Fleming, "From Bonaventure to Bellini, an Essay in Franciscan Exegesis", Princeton, 1982.