Scholars have given a great deal of attention to the “dating” of Giorgione’s Castelfranco Altarpiece. In her 1997 catalog Jaynie Anderson agreed with those who gave it a very early date of 1500. She claimed that the painting was commissioned that year by Tuzio Costanzo, a condotierre, who wanted to prove to the Venetian government that he had no intention of returning to Cyprus.*
In his essay that appeared in the 2004 Giorgione exhibition catalog, Salvatore Settis argued for a 1504-5 date since Tuzio’s son, Matteo, had just died that year.** In a 2007 catalog Wolfgang Eller also argued for the 1504 date although his argument that Giorgione used the hand of St. Francis and the knots on his belt to indicate the date of composition is unconvincing.*** Earlier some scholars had even suggested a late date between 1508 and 1510.
Why is the dating so important? We know that Giorgione never dated or signed his paintings. If we can date a painting then we might get some insight into the circumstances that led to its creation. This insight might then help to interpret the work. But there is another even more important reason. Dating the innovative and accomplished Castelfranco altarpiece as early in Giorgione’s career as 1500 would then leave ten whole years for the rest of Giorgione’s work. Dating it in 1504 or later compresses the rest of his career into a much shorter span.
A shorter time span would create great difficulty for those who try to date Giorgione’s work on stylistic grounds. Indeed, it would also make it very difficult for those who see a kind of stylistic evolution during Giorgione’s career. In his 2004 essay Salvatore Settis pointed out the problems involved in stylistic analysis.
“The construction of a "stylistic development" or a "pictorial biography" of an artist often seems to me to take something for granted that is anything but, that is, that a painter's art and style must inevitably develop via a preordained route, growing in accordance with an evolutionary parable that the historian is able to predict with the use of his books.” (147)
“A difference in style may have been occasioned in and by either of these circumstances; certainly it is possible that one and the same painter may have consciously adopted different stylistic registers depending upon the nature of the commission and the intended final location of his pictures.” (148)
Such caution seems eminently reasonable.
As far as interpreting a painting is concerned I would go even further than Settis and argue that the most important primary source is the painting itself. I know that this sounds like a truism but in my work on Giorgione I have found that Art historians sometimes neglect this basic principle and because of their training as graduate students tend to spend more time examining obscure texts or boxes of municipal records than they do actually looking at the painting itself.
For example, in her Giorgione catalog Jaynie Anderson devoted most of her discussion to her findings on the background of the Castelfranco Altarpiece but she said very little about what was actually going on in the painting.
In his essay on the painting Salvatore Settis provided an extended description of the Altarpiece from an article in the “Quotidiano Veneto” of 1803.
“Above a floor covered in square tiles of marble of different colours rises a Sarcophagus of Porphyry, on which is painted the coat of arms of the noble family Costanzo. Tuzio, famous warrior, disconsolate because of the death of his son, having ordered the erection of the Altar, it appears that the painter has delicately tried to alleviate his pain, placing behind the Tomb in an elevated position, a throne of whitish marble, on which sits Our Lady, on her knees her small Divine Child, with his head turned to observe the Sarcophagus itself. Behind the Virgin and supporting her on one side is a piece of inlaid marble. The entire base of the Throne is covered by a most beautiful tapestry, which hangs down a little…so far as to cover the sarcophagus, emerging from beneath the folds of the rich crimson robe,…Behind the Sarcophagus and at the height of the Throne the picture is framed by a most beautiful crimson velvet, descending to the floor, which gives a pyramidal layout and artificially divides the upper part of the foreground of the painting. On the right…stands St. George…Of his feet, the right rests on the floor, the left on a small step leading up to the Sarcophagus,…St. Francis stands with both feet on the lowest level of the floor…” (135)
Some scholars dismiss the importance of such an observation 300 years after the painting but Settis placed much stock in it because he believed that the observer saw correctly, especially when calling the rectangular box at the base a sarcophagus. He also noted that the journalist employed a systematic way of looking at a painting.
I wish there had been contemporaries of Giorgione who had had the patience and diligence to record their observations of his work in such a systematic way as the journalist from the “Quotidiano Veneto.”
*Anderson, Jaynie: Giorgione, 1997.
**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.
***Eller, Wolfgang: Giorgione Catalog Raisonne, Petersberg, 2007.