Rainer Metzger’s essay, “Everyday Life and Allegory, An Attempt to Understand Giorgione’s Tempesta” was one of four separate and contradictory attempts to interpret the Tempest in the 2004 Giorgione exhibition catalog, “Giorgione, Myth and Enigma.” *For Metzger the key to understanding the painting can be found in the young man who stands off to the side looking back at the nursing Woman.
“the gentiluomo has come from the background, from the town, a bridge has helped him abandon his urban life. On the far bank of the stream an ambience loaded with sentiment awaits him, dominated by ruins apparently left behind by antiquity and by now overgrown by nature….But it seems that the gentleman in his elegant breeches and the very latest fashion in codpieces has found a way to fight his way through to the promised land in the foreground. In this he has been supported by a shepherd’s crook, which is clearly only a prop and not an attribute, indicating not the beau’s profession but rather his obsession”….(114)
The young man has no relationship with the Woman—she is a product of his imagination, an imagination based on his reading of the pastoral literature that was becoming popular in Venice around the year 1500. He is having a vision in the same way that Chancellor Rolin imagined the Madonna and Child in Van Eyck’s famous painting.
The nursing Mother is a personification of fertile nature.
“Here he observes nature in her freedom, and he sees her personified, in the shape of a nymph nursing a child. He sees her as he knows her, as he knows her from the writings that first caused him to take the path to the holy place of nature. It is perfectly obvious that she does not see him, living as she does in a different sphere.” (116)
For Metzger “there is no text, no single text alone, irrespective of its origins, able to explain the painting and its details motif by motif…”(115) The attempts of other interpreters to find the source in Plato, Virgil, Lucretius, or an ancient myth are futile. The city and storm in the background refer to no specific place or event; the broken columns are just antique ruins; and there is no mention of the prominent plant in front of the woman.
He does however attach much importance to one of the pentimenti revealed by technological examination—the nude woman dangling her feet in a stream at the lower left. Although the catalog entry argued that Giorgione never intended to place two women in the painting, Metzger believes otherwise and that the man was a later addition thereby creating a major problem with his interpretation. If the Man is the key figure in the painting, and if the painting represents his vision, why wasn’t he in the original version?
Moreover, like every other interpreter Metzger omitted a discussion of another pentimento discussed in the catalog—the little man on the bridge carrying a pilgrim’s sack. How does that fit into his interpretation?
The examples he uses are also problematic. In Van Eyck’s painting Chancellor Rolin kneels in an attitude of prayer facing the Madonna and Child. Giorgione’s Man faces the viewer but looks back over his shoulder at the Woman. Metzger can provide no image of a nursing nymph because they are never depicted lactating. He can only supply a crude reclining nude being ogled by an aroused satyr from the “Hypnerotomachia Poliphilo”.
Strangely enough, Metzger sees the Christian origins of the painting but since he can’t imagine that Giorgione would depict the Holy Family in this manner, he argues that the painter imposed a classical framework on the old model in order to suit his sophisticated patron.
“more important than any text is the painting, one painting, the Allegoria Sacra. Giorgione subjects it before the highly demanding level of Venetian aristocracy to a comparable reinterpretation from the Christian into the classical….But the vocabulary, the figures and the construction principles of the official route and of the sacred space with its location “somewhere” were Christian.” (115)
“Bellini’s Madonna is replaced, secularized, naturalized by the mythologically derived mother figure, and the holy quarter is a sacred grove.” (115)
He sees the Madonna and Child in the Tempest but cannot bring himself to believe his own eyes.
*Ferino-Pagden, Sylvia, and Nepi-Scire, Giovanna: exh. Cat. Giorgione, Myth and Enigma, Vienna, 2004. This catalog was the result of the historic 2004 joint exhibition sponsored by the Accademia in Venice and the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. Historic, because for the first time the “Tempest” left Italy for the Vienna showing. The copious catalog entry did not take sides on the interpretation of the Tempest but left that to the four scholars. I have already reviewed Bernard Aikema’s essay in a previous post.