Commentators have always regarded Giorgione’s “Castelfranco Altarpiece” as a unique and original work of art. It is Giorgione’s only known altarpiece, and although he used a traditional subject, he characteristically brought it to a new level. In their 1999 Giorgione catalog Teriseo Pignatti and Filoppo Pedrocco pointed to the extraordinary color scheme compared to other contemporary works.
These are all objective pieces of evidence, but they do not explain the unmistakable uniqueness of Giorgione’s altarpiece, which we feel constitutes the first attempt to convey true atmospheric effects through pure vibrations of color, both in the figures and in the distant landscape. There is a profusion of velvet crimsons in the figures, grass greens and gilded damascenes, the likes of which had never before been seen in Emilia or Venice. This consistent development and reshaping of Bellini’s premises and skilled application of Carpaccio’s fracturing of color is fundamental to Giorgione’s extremely personal work.* (128)
In a 2009 study of Giorgione, written in conjunction with the exhibition in Giorgione’s home town of Castelfranco Veneto that commemorated the 500th anniversary of the painter’s death, Enrico Maria dal Pozzolo wrote:
it would be unjust to diminish the importance of the very personal reworking that this young talent dared to express when he found himself standing before the great blank spaces of the panel,…[His] lifting the Madonna up to the highest possible height…but at the same time using that ‘emblematic” green cloth to tie them together and taking the back out of the chapel so that a preponderant landscape element might be added…is indicative of an approach that was totally original and free of conditioning.** (167)
My wife and I saw the Altarpiece in the spring of 2010. We had attended the annual meeting of the Renaissance Society of America that had been held that year in Venice, and decided to take the train to Castelfranco to see if we could get into the Giorgione exhibition. That Sunday was the closing day and the exhibition was sold out but we were able to see the Altarpiece on display in the Cathedral next door.
The first thing I noticed was the relatively small size of this extraordinarily beautiful painting that had been so carefully cleaned and restored in Venice only a few years before. It would certainly be dwarfed by Giovanni Bellini’s famed Venetian altarpiece in the church of S. Zaccaria that was also completed in 1505. The small size of the “Castelfranco Altarpiece” stems from the fact that it was meant not for the high altar in the Cathedral but for a small funerary chapel.
The whole story of the altarpiece is told best by Salvatore Settis in an extremely well researched essay that appeared in the exhibition catalog for the 2004 Giorgione exhibition that had been jointly sponsored by the Accademia in Venice and the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. For obvious reasons the Altarpiece was not included in the exhibition, but the essay by Settis was one of the highlights of the catalog.***
Settis related the history of Tuzio Costanzo, a Sicilian adventurer, in the service of the King and Queen of Cyprus toward the end of the 15th century. After the death of the King the threat of succession problems led the Venetian Signory to recall the Queen, the famed Caterina Cornaro, to the Veneto and take the government of the island into its own hands. She established herself in Asolo where her home became a humanist center. Always faithful to Caterina, Tuzio Costanzo became a Venetian condotierre and established his residence in Castelfranco.
In 1504 the death of his son, Matteo, himself serving with Venetian forces in Ravenna, led Tuzio to establish a funerary chapel in the Castelfranco cathedral for Matteo, and eventually for himself. Settis agrees with those who believe that the death of Matteo occasioned Giorgione’s commission.
Not only does the death of Matteo help to establish the dating of the Altarpiece, but it also helps to solve some of the mystery that has surrounded this unusual altarpiece. For example, Settis argued that that the large rectangular box at the bottom with the Costanzo coat of arms was a “Sarcophagus of Porphyry,” a material that had “symbolic connotations that were markedly funerary.” Moreover, such sarcophagi were extremely rare. “In Italy they were found only in Rome and in Sicily, especially in the cathedrals in Monreale…and in Palermo...” (142).
The Sicilian connection also helps to establish the identity of the armored saint. It’s neither St. George nor St. Liberalis, the patron saint of the Cathedral, but St. Nicasius, a popular Sicilian saint holding the banner of the Order of Jerusalem.
“In this case, the only candidate is St. Nicasius, venerated in Palermo and Messina, where his cult is associated with that of St. Francis (exactly as in the Altarpiece).” (p. 144).
The Sicilian heritage and connections of Tuzio Costanzo explain the rare appearance of St. Nicasius so far from home.“The St Nicasius of the Castelfranco Altarpiece is one of those described by Fabio Bisogni as “displaced saints (santi fouri posto)”, common only in one part of Italy and very rare (and therefore very difficult to recognize) in others…” (144).
Above the sarcophagus the very unusual direction of the gazes of both Madonna and Child derives from the nature of the composition.
But the sad gaze of the mourning Madonna from Castelfranco: is not directed at the Son…, and the Son is not looking at the shining armor of the warrior saint. Both mother and child focus on the sarcophagus with the Costanzo coat of arms, and their gazes are the only visual link between the upper and lower parts of the painting; their sad and self-absorbed attitude must be related to a recent death, and the coat of arms on the sarcophagus reveals whose death they mourn, in a reference to the tombstone on the wall close by that bears the name of Matteo Costanzo. (146)
I would just like to add an observation that has been inspired by Settis’ study. Above the sarcophagus there is a white marble altar on which the Madonna’s throne rests. But Franciscan spirituality regarded the Madonna herself as an altar on which her Son, the Eucharist, is placed. For confirmation we need only look at the white cloth underneath the Infant that also covers Mary’s head. It is the corporale that always covers an altar. Giorgione would later use the corporale in his famous “Tempest” where it winds around Mother and Child in much the same way.
But why two altars? On occasion, a funerary chapel is opened for Mass. At the height of the Mass, immediately after the consecration, the priest utters an ancient formula: “Lord, let your angel take this sacrifice to your Altar in Heaven.” At every Mass the sacrifice offered at the earthly altar would be merged with the eternal sacrifice of the Heavenly Altar. In Giorgione’s painting we see the Heavenly Altar (Mary) right on top of the earthly altar.
This concept, that seems so strange to viewers today, is reinforced by Giorgione’s artistic genius. Where is the viewer in this painting? We are not at floor level with the saints. We seem to look down on them. How is it possible for us to see the landscape in the background behind the curtain? The landscape in which we live is in the background. The figures in the foreground are in another world.
*Pignatti, Terisio, and Pedrocco, Filippo: Giorgione, Rizzoli, NY, 1999.
** Enrico Maria dal Pozzolo: Giorgione, Milan, 2009.
***Salvatore Settis: “Giorgione in Sicily–On the Dating and Composition of the Castelfranco Altarpiece.” In Ferino-Pagden, Sylvia, and Nepi-Scire, Giovanna: exh. Cat. Giorgione, Myth and Enigma, Vienna, 2004.