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".

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Giorgione's Tempest: The Young Man, Part II




One of the major pieces in the puzzle that is Giorgione’s “Tempest” is the young man prominently featured in the left foreground. In my interpretation of the famous painting as “The Rest on the Flight into Egypt” I argued that the virile young man must be St. Joseph. In my previous post I provided examples of other virile young Josephs from contemporaries of Giorgione. In this post I would like to bring together some other young Josephs that have gone unrecognized in the scholarly literature.

Lorenzo Lotto: Mystic Marriage of St. Catherine

First, shortly after the death of Giorgione, Lorenzo Lotto painted a version of the “Mystic Marriage of St. Catherine”. Entitled, “Virgin and Child with Saints Catherine of Alexandria and Thomas”, it is in the Kunsthistorische Museum in Vienna where it was featured in the Bellini, Giorgione, Titian exhibition of 2006/7. Here St. Joseph, sporting a full dark beard, kneels next to St. Catherine who gazes at him and not at the infant Christ. They are obviously exchanging vows. Just as in another version of the Mystic Marriage by Paris Bordone that was featured in the same exhibition, Joseph acts a proxy for the marriage of the infant Child and the legendary Queen. Joseph is shown with his traditional pilgrim’s staff but his virile good looks and the spear-point at the end of the staff have led scholars astray.

In his work on Lotto, Bernard Berenson identified the kneeling man as St. James the Greater but provided no explanation. In the catalog of the 1997/1998 Lotto exhibition at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, Peter Humfrey accepted the identification as St. Thomas because of the spear-point. A decade later in the Bellini, Giorgione, Titian exhibition in Vienna, however, the man was still called St. James.

There is no good reason for either St. James or St. Thomas to be in the desert participating in the mystic marriage of St. Catherine. During that era if any male saint is in a Mystic Marriage, he is invariably St. Joseph. True, Lotto does not depict him as a doddering old man but during the Renaissance, as the role and status of St. Joseph became more important, artists followed the lead of theologians and preachers and began to depict younger and more virile Josephs. Perhaps Joseph’s role as protector of the Madonna and Child as well as protector of the Church led artists to give him a more martial aspect. This might explain the spear-point at the end of his traditional staff.

An armed Joseph can also help to explain two other paintings that have long been associated with Giorgione’s “Tempest”. I have discussed both paintings in a post dated Nov. 21, 2010 but will just present brief descriptions here.

Follower of Palma il Vecchio: "Allegory"

In the first painting, now in storage at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, scholars have recognized a striking resemblance to Giorgione’s “Tempest,” even though there is no trace of a storm. On the Museum website the painting is simply given the title “Allegory,” and is attributed to “a follower of Palma il Vecchio.” It is dated 1510. Upon request a curator at the Museum very kindly allowed my wife and I to view this spectacular painting. It is a very large canvas, much larger than the “Tempest”, and despite the need for restoration it is still a beautiful painting.

I have interpreted this painting as a depiction of the Encounter of the Holy Family with the young John the Baptist on the return from the sojourn in Egypt. This subject, featuring four figures in a landscape, was very popular. Whether taking a small cross from His slightly older cousin or embracing him, the infant Savior is accepting his destined role. In this painting there is even a lamb in the background to help identify the Lamb of God. 

In my opinion it is the attire of Mary and Joseph that has led scholars astray. Mary’s humble garb makes her resemble a gypsy woman, and St. Joseph is dressed as a heavily armed young Venetian patrician.  He is standing watch over the woman and children and his staff has changed into a halberd.

Follower of Giorgione: Rustic Idyll

A similar painting, now on loan to the Fogg Art Museum in Boston, was attributed by Edgar Wind to a “Follower” of Giorgione. As in the Tempest" 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 another formidable looking halberd. For Wind the subject of the painting was also an allegory, “Fortezza and Carita,” the same subject he claimed for the “Tempest”.

It would seem that scholars invariably call something an allegory when they can think of no other subject. I agree that the painting has the same subject as the “Tempest” but the subject is “the Rest on the Flight into Egypt,” and the armed soldier must be St. Joseph.


Titian: Mystic Marriage of St. Catherine

Finally, I would like to point to a depiction of the “Mystic Marriage of St. Catherine” done by Titian while he was still in what scholars call his Giorgione phase. The painting is most commonly known as the “Madonna of the Rabbit.”

This small oil on canvas (71 x 87 cm) in the Louvre was discussed extensively by the Louvre’s Jean Habert in a 1990 exhibition catalog . Like every other observer Habert identified the man on the right as a shepherd, but no ordinary shepherd. “The noble shepherd in contrapposto on the right is composed of the same hues, diminutively mimicking the main group.” Moreover, Habert pointed out that scientific examination of the painting indicated that the Madonna’s face was originally turned toward the man.
In an earlier version the Virgin turned her face toward the shepherd, which would tend to confirm the elevated status of this figure who from the beginning was crowned with laurel.*
The shepherd mimics the main group, the Madonna originally gazed in his direction, he wears a laurel wreath, and has an exalted status.

Some questions arise. What is a shepherd doing in a mystic marriage in the first place? Why does he have such a prominent position? Why give him an exalted status?

Although depicted without his staff, Titian’s man is very likely a young, virile St. Joseph. We have seen in other contemporary versions of the Mystic Marriage that Joseph plays an important, even a central role. More to come on the “Madonna of the Rabbit” in a subsequent post. ###

*Titian. Prince of Painters, Venice, 1990. p. 210.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Giorgione's Tempest: The Young Man



In my interpretation of Giorgione’s "Tempest" as “The Rest on the Flight into Egypt” I identified the young man situated so prominently in the left foreground as St. Joseph. In Giorgione's famous painting the young man stands at the left side of the painting holding a staff. The staff alone should be enough to recognize Joseph but in my interpretation I also discussed his pose and placement in the painting. I acknowledged that the youth and obvious virility of the man was a difficulty, but subsequent investigation has only confirmed my initial intuition.

In recent years scholars have documented the tremendous increase in devotion to St. Joseph that took place in the fifteenth century, a development that continued right through the Reformation. The increasing devotion, that included the establishment of the Saint’s feast day by Pope Sixtus IV in 1479, naturally made St. Joseph an  important figure in the art of the Renaissance.

In this artistic development the image of St. Joseph began to change to accommodate the thought of theologians like Jean Gerson, the sermons of preachers like Bernardino of Siena, and the demands of patrons and devotees. A new Joseph began to appear. Instead of as a sleepy old man, he began to be depicted as younger and virile: strong enough to protect the Madonna and Child especially on their arduous and potentially dangerous flight into Egypt.

Here I would like to present some other images of Joseph by contemporaries of Giorgione that I discovered in my search for a young Joseph. None are as a young as Giorgione’s man but still they appear strong and vigorous enough to protect the Madonna and Child. 

Raphael's "Sposalizio" is perhaps the most striking example. Raphael's version of the marriage of the Virgin became immediately popular after its completion in 1504. The differences between Raphael's version and the one by his old mentor Perugino have long been noted, but it is obvious that Raphael took pains to make his Joseph younger and more vigorous than Perugino's. Raphael's version is on the left and Perugino's on the right. Click on image to enlarge.




















Below is a Raphael version of the "Rest on the Flight into Egypt". This Joseph sports grey hair and beard but he is certainly no more than middle-aged and looks vigorous enough. Moreover, he is dressed in royal purple and gold and has been brought into the center of the picture. He carries the legendary staff or rod that always identifies St. Joseph.





After painting the Sposalizio, Raphael moved to Florence in 1504 where he became associated with Fra Bartolommeo, a painter who had become a Dominican friar after the death of Savonarola. Both painters must have influenced each other. In a version of the encounter of the Holy Family with the young John the Baptist on the return from Egypt  Fra Bartolommeo depicted a young, beardless Joseph.


Fra Bartolommeo: Encounter with the Baptist


Fra Bartolommeo did travel to Venice in 1508 to work in the Dominican house on Murano but I don't think it is necessary to posit a direct influence on Giorgione. The idea of a younger, virile Joseph was in the air, especially since his protection of the Madonna had long been seen as implying protection of the Church. After Giorgione's death in 1510 contemporary Venetian painters continued to portray a young, virile Joseph. Paris Bordone, for example, provided striking examples in versions of the Mystic Marriage of St. Catherine, an event that was usually placed in the desert of Egypt.

One of Bordone's versions is in a private collection but was featured prominently in the 2006 Bellini, Giorgione, Titian exhibition jointly sponsored by Washington's National Gallery and the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. In the exhibition catalog we can see a well-built Joseph in the center with his bare muscular leg prominently displayed. I have argued elsewhere that this scene represents a "proxy"marriage where Joseph stands in for the infant Jesus who is obviously too young to marry.

Paris Bordone: Mystic Marriage of St. Catherine

Bordone used the same device in a depiction of the "Mystic Marriage" now in Leningrad. Once again, a young, virile Joseph displays his powerful leg. He is not an old man.

Paris Bordone: Mystic Marriage of St. Catherine

No one has done more to document the increasing devotion to Joseph and its resulting influence on pre-Reformation art than American scholar, Carolyn Wilson. In a paper presented as the 1998 annual Joseph lecture at St. Joseph's University in Philadelphia, her description of Joseph in a 1566 version of the Rest on the Flight into Egypt by Santi di Tito could well be used to describe Giorgione's man in the Tempest.

Artists in our period sought in innumerable ways to convey Joseph’s protectorship of Mary, and, of course, her Child. These efforts are apparent not only when we observe expressions of Joseph’s strenuous exertions in scenes of the Flight into Egypt or of his tender solicitude in examples of the rest on the Flight but also when we note the inclusion in Nativity scenes of the accoutrements that signal his preparedness for the imminent escape from Bethlehem and from Herod. The latter include, for example, in Santi’s altarpiece the walking staff that the virile figure grips…
Looking still at this picture, we observe, too, that the placement of Joseph at the lower left foreground puts him near the devout spectator of the work…as his or her mediator. St. Joseph is also in position to stand guard, as he does with confidence and elegance, over the Virgin and Infant…*
The Man in Giorgione's "Tempest"  exhibits the same confidence and elegance.



In the next post I will discuss other images that have heretofore gone unrecognized as St. Joseph.###

*Wilson, Carolyn: “St. Joseph as Mary’s Champion: Examining the Distinctive Connection between the ‘Madonna del Giglio’ the ‘Compagnia di San Giuseppe,’ and the Church of San Giuseppe in Florence,”  1998 St. Joseph lecture given at St. Joseph’s University, printed in Joseph of Nazareth, ed. By Joseph F. Chorpenning, O.S.F.S., Philadelphia, 2011. p. 90. In that same volume see the fine essay on Jean Gerson's influence by Brian Patrick McGuire : “Becoming a Father and a Husband: St. Joseph in Bernard of Clairvaux and Jean Gerson.”  

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Giorgione's Tempest: Broken Columns

Giorgione: "Tempest" 


When I first saw Giorgione’s Tempest in a black and white image in an old travel book, I wondered whether the man and woman in the foreground had left the city in the background, or whether they were on a journey to the city. It was only after I sensed that in the “Tempest” Giorgione had depicted the Holy Family on the flight into Egypt that I understood that the Man and Woman had fled from the city in the background.

The famous and mysterious painting can be viewed as a narrative. The Holy Family has fled from the stormy city in the background; crossed the bridge and river that represented the dividing line between Judea and Egypt; encountered the ruins and broken columns so prominently depicted in the mid-ground; and finally found a place of rest and safety in the foreground.

Like many Renaissance narratives Giorgione’s “Tempest” begins in the left background, proceeds through the mid-ground, and culminates in the figures in the right foreground. The man in the left foreground acts as an interlocutor drawing the viewer’s attention to the woman and child. Although the viewer’s eye is directed toward the woman, her gaze deflects the action back to the viewer.

I knew that my initial intuition had great difficulties. Even though she was nursing, a nude Madonna was unimaginable and a young, virile St. Joseph was certainly unusual. My first thought was to look into the work of Emile Male, still the greatest source for Medieval iconography. The Flight into Egypt is based on a single verse in the gospel of Matthew but over the centuries legends had accumulated around the journey, and artists had delighted to depict them.*

I turned to “Religious Art in France, the Thirteenth Century”, the second volume of Male’s magisterial study, and found that of all the legends surrounding the arrival of the Holy Family in Egypt, artists “scarcely used any other than the Fall of Idols….” Male gave a brief description of the event.

Many medieval writers told that when Jesus entered the temple of Sotinen, called Hermopolis by others, he caused the idols to fall, in fulfillment of Isaiah’s words: “Behold the Lord will ascend upon a swift cloud and will enter into Egypt. And the idols of Egypt shall be moved at his presence”…When the governor of the town, Affodosius, heard of the miracle, he went to the temple; when he saw that all the statues were broken, he worshiped Jesus….

The Church adopted the story of the Fall of the Idols, which like many apocryphal legends, grew out of a desire to justify a prophetic text, and it authorized the artists to represent it….The thirteenth century gave an abridged, almost hieroglyphic form to the legend. There are neither town, temple nor priests…two statues falling from their pedestals and breaking in two suffice to recall the miracle.

Idols falling from a pedestal are the way the incident is depicted in the Biblia Pauperum. The two broken columns, standing right in the middle of Giorgione’s mysterious painting, giving an “abridged, almost hieroglyphic form to the legend,” provided the first initial confirmation of my intuition. Giorgione embellished the scene somewhat by including some nearby ruins.

During the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries these ruins were often seen in depictions of the Rest of the Holy Family on the Flight into Egypt. Flemish artists led the way in meeting the devotional demands of their patrons for this subject. One of Joachim Patenir’s most well known versions depicted the entire flight from the storm-shrouded city in the background to the nursing Madonna in the foreground. Behind the Madonna are the remains of a broken structure. A large, round, stone ball sitting atop a block of stone seems to be all that remains of the ruined idols. 

Joachim Patenir: Rest on the Flight into Egypt

In Washington’s National Gallery Gerard David’s most famous depiction of the Rest on the Flight into Egypt shows the Madonna resting with her Child who holds a bunch of grapes in his hand. She sits atop what looks like the remains of a building foundation that is now just covered with dirt calling to mind the words of Isaiah: "the lofty city He brings down; He tumbles it to the ground, levels it with the dust." 

Gerard David: Rest on the Flight into Egypt

Among Italian artists Cima da Conegliano would also depict the Madonna and her child atop a rocky foundation that would appear to be the remains of a structure. The fallen temple has become an outdoor throne for the Madonna and her Child.

Cima da Conegliano: Rest on the Flight into Egypt

No Italian, however, liked to depict the ruins as much as Fra Bartolommeo, who became associated with Raphael in 1504 and then traveled to Venice shortly before Giorgione worked on the “Tempest”. His ruins are really elaborate.

Fra Bartolommeo: Rest on the Flight into Egypt

Giorgione could have been familiar with the work of any of these artists but I believe that his depiction of the fall of idols came from another source. In my paper on the “Tempest” I pointed out that Giorgione’s truncated columns are similar to those employed by Luca Signorelli in his 1504 depiction of the “End of the World” in Orvieto’s S. Brisio chapel. Domenico Grimani, the famous Venetian Cardinal and art collector, acted as one of Signorelli’s advisors on the project. Grimani had a summer residence near Orvieto.

Luca Signorelli: detail of "End of the World".

I know that other examples of broken columns have been found in emblem books and interpreted variously. Nevertheless, Giorgione’s columns and adjacent ruins were a piece of the “Tempest” puzzle that fit quite easily into a “Rest on the flight into Egypt” interpretation. ###


*The Flight of the Holy Family into Egypt is only recorded in the Gospel of St. Matthew.

After they had left, the angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, ‘Get up, take the child and his mother with you, and escape into Egypt, and stay there until I tell you, because Herod intends to search for the child and do away with him.’ So Joseph got up and, taking the child with his mother with him, he left that night for Egypt, where he stayed until Herod was dead. This was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken through the prophet:

I called my son out of Egypt

**Emile Male, Religious Art in France, The Thirteenth Century: A Study of Medieval Iconography and Its Sources, Princeton, 1984. p. 220.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Giovanni Bellini and Giorgione: From Padua to Venice


The following is a review of Roger Fry's, "Giovanni Bellini", a study first published in London in 1899. It was republished in New York in 1995 with an introduction by David Alan Brown of Washington's National Gallery. Cited pages are in parenthesis)

Giovanni Bellini: Agony in the Garden

Giovanni Bellini’s “Agony in the Garden” represented a major turning point in his career. In his classic 1899 study, "Giovanni Bellini" Roger Fry asserted that the “Agony and the Garden” marked the transition from Bellini’s early “Paduan” style to the “Venetian” style that would characterize the remainder of his long career.

Although the Bellini family was Venetian, Giovanni’s early work had been done in Padua as an assistant to his father, Jacopo, on their work in a chapel in the Santo, the church dedicated to St. Anthony. Working in the Santo at the same time was Squarcione, the famous teacher who was reputed to have trained over 100 painters including Andrea Mantegna, who would eventually marry into the Bellini family. Squarcione and his school were the leading exponents of what Fry characterized as a distinct Paduan style.

For Fry the “Paduan style” involved a system of linear design that was based on a complexity of outlined forms, and that utilized an old Paduan tempera technique “in which light and shade were put on by small hatched strokes with the point of the brush….” (35) Andrea Mantegna, who never departed from the Paduan style, did a version of the “Agony in the Garden” at about the same time as Giovanni, and Fry argued that the contrast between the two was becoming evident.

Andrea Mantegna: Agony in the Garden

Bellini, in fact, shows in his version of the subject how little the Paduan mannerisms were really congenial to him, for he does not carry their system of linear design consistently throughout the whole picture. The broad unbroken spaces of the hill on which Christ kneels, and of the distant valley, and the more flowing drapery of the S. Peter, all break with the linear convention which he still adopts in the figure of Christ, and to some extent in the hill to the right. (26)

In summary Fry stated that “Bellini shows already that perception of the emotional value of passing effects of atmosphere, which is often supposed to be a peculiarity of the art of this century…he has broken with literal accuracy…”(27)

The change in Bellini’s technique also represented a change in substance and feeling that even moved Giovanni away from his father’s own style. It involved a religious transformation influenced by the preaching of the famed Bernardino of Siena.

The outward change, at all events, from the mundane art of Jacopo’s sketches, which often treated religious subjects with surprising levity, is sufficiently striking. The reaction of Giovanni’s generation was not only towards a new technique, it was a reaction of feeling as well; a revulsion from the premature paganism which had sprung up in the courts of Rimini and Ferrara….it may have received greater impetus from the revivalist propaganda of S. Bernardino. In 1443…S. Bernardino preached the Lenten course at Padua. It was the climax of a lifetime spent in itinerant preaching. He had never before had such an amazing success; and his sermons, preached in the open air, were attended not only by the whole of the population, but by the magistrates representing the sovereign state of Venice, the professors, lecturers, and students of the University. (28)

After his great success in Padua, Bernardino went on to Venice where he received equal acclaim. Fry noted that “he counted among his friends the Doge Foscari, the Blessed Lorenzo Giustiniani, the first patriarch of Venice, and most of the leading senators and distinguished men of the day.”  In Fry’s opinion this visit “may well have been a contributory cause of the more religious attitude to life expressed by Giovanni’s generation.”

It certainly showed a marked influence on Giovanni Bellini and his work. Fry saw the change in Bellini’s famous “Pieta” now in the Brera in Milan.

Giovanni Bellini: Pieta

For here at last Bellini has shaken of the uncongenial intricacy of Paduan design; he has begun to find his own personal scheme, in which form is defined rather by the opposition of broad, scarcely modeled planes, than by multiplicity of contours. (31)

Bellini returned to Venice after 1460 and the following decade marked a “climax” in his life.

At last truly himself, free from all outside influence, he expresses with an intensity which never infringes on the claims of pure beauty, the profoundest sentiment of Christianity, pity, and love….at this period Bellini’s works are confined to two subjects—the Virgin and Child, and the Pieta. (32)

The transition would become complete in 1472 with the arrival of Antonello da Messina in Venice. Antonello brought a new technique “which admitted of a perfect fusion of tones.”

This technique consisted in part in the superposition of thin layers of opaque colour mixed with oils. From this time onward, all the most advanced artists of Venice succeeded in obtaining fusion, and dispensed with hatching, except in rare cases…(35-6)

By the 1480s Bellini had succeeded in the perfection of “that treatment of form as enveloped in atmosphere,” that became one of “the chief distinctions of cinquecento painting in Venice” and which led inexorably to Giorgione.  (41)

The group of pictures we have just considered closed the second stage of Bellini’s artistic career. During this period his aim was to obtain perfectly modulated transitions of tone within a precise contour. In the S. Giobbe altarpiece…a new idea begins to be felt—the conception of enveloping the forms in atmosphere by means of a subtle variation of the quality of the limiting contours of the figures. (43)

S. Giobbe Altarpiece

Reading Fry one is led to conclude that rather than a revolutionary departure from Bellini’s work, the work of Giorgione was based on the principles and technique that Giovanni Bellini had developed over his lifetime. In Fry’s words Giovanni kept alive his father’s tradition that involved “free composition” and “lyrical fancy,” a tradition “of which Giorgione was so soon to find the highest possible expression.”  (47)

In addition, recent studies have shown a close affinity between the techniques used by Giovanni and Giorgione. Fry’s description of Giovanni’s mature style could well apply to Giorgione.

For the atmospheric quality is obtained here largely by the use of oil glazes upon a tempera ground; it is by these that the shimmer of vibrating air is communicated to the whole, by these that the contours, on which the design is still built, are broken down, so that the eye is no longer arrested, as in earlier art, by the impassable barriers they present. (48)

In the first decade of the sixteenth century, at the very height of the Renaissance, Giovanni Bellini, the elderly master who had begun his career in Padua half a century before, and Giorgione, the young master from Castelfranco, were working in Venice. We cannot be sure of their relationship but there certainly seems to have been a close affinity of style. Roger Fry compared Giorgione’s Castelfranco altarpiece with Bellini’s  S. Zaccaria altarpiece.


S. Zaccaria altarpiece

Between this altarpiece, dated 1505, and those of the ninth decade of the previous century, Giorgione’s genius had matured; and the revolution in art, which Bellini had so long prepared, was proclaimed by his Castelfranco Madonna of 1504. In that work Bellini’s great pupil had shown that the new command of atmospheric tone and rich chiaroscuro were consistent with, and even demanded an entirely new simplification of design, and a new feeling for large and spacious disposition of masses. (52)

Giorgione: Castelfranco Altarpiece

Both paintings were done at about the same time but even today it is hard to say who influenced whom. Both are sacred subjects where the traditional “sacra conversazione” has been raised to a new level. ###

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Giorgione: Scientific Examinations


In 2004, two famous museums, the Accademia in Venice and the Kunsthistorisches in Vienna, worked together to mount a ground-breaking Giorgione exhibition. The Kunsthistorisches agreed to send it’s Giorgione collection that included the “Three Philosophers”, the “Laura”, and the “Boy with an Arrow” to the Accademia. In return the Accademia allowed the Tempest to leave Italy for the first time for the subsequent Viennese showing. 

The exhibition produced a beautiful and valuable catalog with essays and catalog entries by most of the world’s leading Giorgione scholars. In addition, the catalog included two appendices on the scientific or technological examination of some of Giorgione’s works that contained some valuable information that so far has been little noticed.*

The first study, “Giorgione’s Materials and Painting Technique: Scientific Investigation of Three Paintings,” was a joint effort by Elisa Campani, Antonella Casoli, Enrico Fiorin, and Stefano Volpin. The authors examined the newly restored “Castelfranco Altarpiece”, the “Tempest”, and the portrait of an old woman usually called “La Vecchia”. Acknowledging Giorgione’s fame as an innovator, the authors declared that:

The goal of this diagnostic campaign was to determine the extent to which Giorgione’s inventiveness manifested itself in a desire to experiment with new materials and techniques.





Those interested in the very full discussion of the variety of scientific techniques used will have to read the article. In brief, I would just like to highlight some of their results and conclusions. The authors believed that their investigation enabled a “complete reconstruction of Giorgione’s palette in the three masterpieces.” Moreover,

The choice of materials seems to depend on the result which the artist wished to achieve in each work, adapted to his expressive requirements and the evolution of his style. (256)

This conclusion only seems to confirm what everyone has thought of Giorgione and other Venetian painters but it is good to have it confirmed scientifically. Not only does his palette vary significantly but so too does his choice of binding medium. One of the results of the technical examination highlighted,

a significant difference in the painting technique of the three examined works; the choice of egg tempera to apply colour in the Castelfranco altarpiece and of a mixed technique, using walnut oil mixed with egg for La Tempesta and La Vecchia. (260)

The authors draw the following conclusion that so far does not appear to have penetrated the Giorgione world.

Even given the limited number of works investigated, the artist emerges as a figure with a great knowledge of materials and techniques rather than as an innovator and experimenter. One could say that the artistic revolution caused by Giorgione does not necessarily translate into strictly technological innovation. In fact, from this point of view, the analyses have not highlighted any novel resolutions in the three works. 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.

Sandra Rossi and Paolo Spezziani collaborated on the second technical essay, “Examination via X-Ray and Infrared Reflectography, and Restoration of the Castelfranco Altarpiece.” Although mainly a discussion of the altarpiece, the authors did report on a  2001 infrared reflectography examination of both the “Tempest” and “La Vecchia” in preparation for the 2004 exhibition. This examinination confirmed a pentimento in the "Tempest" that the catalog still regarded as inexplicable:

 investigation enabled a more precise characterization of the figure on the bridge, who wears a long garment and is seen proceeding to the right. The figure holds a staff in his left hand; on his right shoulder is a second stick, from which hangs a container.

Although this figure cannot be seen even in the infrared image provided in the text, Dr. Rossi confirmed the existence of the man on the bridge to me as we both stood in front of the painting in the Accademia in 2010. A man with a staff and a pilgrim’s sack flung over his shoulder fits no other interpretation of the painting than “The Rest on the Flight into Egypt.” As so many other painters did, both before and after, Giorgione originally must have intended to portray the actual flight in the background with the “Rest” in the foreground. Why he changed his mind, we will never know. ###


Gerard David: "Rest on the Flight into Egypt" with flight in background.
Metropolitan Museum, NY

*Ferino-Pagden, Sylvia, and Nepi-Scire, Giovanna: exh. Cat. Giorgione, Myth and Enigma, Vienna, 2004.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Giorgione's Apprenticeship at Padua?


In my interpretation of Giorgione’s "Tempest" as the "Rest on the Flight into Egypt", I argued that the city in the background represented Judea from where the Holy Family had fled to escape the massace of the Innocents. However, on another level I also agreed with those scholars who have argued that the city in the background of the painting is Padua. On a metaphorical level the city could represent Padua under siege in 1509 during the war of the League of Cambrai. In my paper, I wrote:

There is a faint emblem of Padua's Carrara family on one of the buildings, and the domed building (which could be Jerusalem's Dome of the Rock) could be Padua's Carmine. There is no agreement on a date for the painting, but in the spring of 1509 the forces of the League of Cambrai inflicted a disastrous defeat on Venice at the battle of Agnadello. As a result the Republic lost all of its possessions on the mainland, which it had worked so hard to acquire over the preceding hundred years. Padua, its crown jewel, fell but then was retaken two months later only to be besieged over the summer by the forces of the enemy. Just as in Giorgione's painting storm clouds were raging over Padua, 25 miles in the distance.


Could Giorgione have had first hand knowledge of Padua? Other than the Tempest there is no document linking him with the city, but during his short career, he could easily have traveled by canal to the city with its famed churches and outstanding university. I would like to speculate, and it is only speculation, that Giorgione might have served his apprenticeship in Padua.

Two years ago when my wife and I were in Venice on the occasion of the 500th anniversary of Giorgione’s death, we took a commuter rail trip to Castelfranco Veneto, Giorgione’s hometown. It was a short easy trip of about one hour by modern rail. But how would Giorgione have gotten from Castelfranco to Venice in the late fifteenth century? I would like to propose a journey that as yet is still only a product of an informed imagination.

The Brenta

Perhaps escorted by some family member, he walked the 14 kilometers to nearby Cittadella, and then boarded a barge downriver on the Brenta. Travel along inland waterways was common. On the way he would have passed the large Contarini estate at Piazzola sul Brenta. The Contarinis were one of the great patrician merchant families in Venice and although the magnificent villa that still exists today was only constructed in 1546, they had taken possession of the huge estate almost a hundred years before. We know that Taddeo Contarini, one of the scions of the family, owned Giorgione’s “Three Philosophers” as well as a lost painting that has been known as the “Discovery of Paris”.

Giorgione: Three Philosophers


A few kilometers downriver Padua would certainly be a likely spot to disembark. The city’s relation to Venice was similar to the relationship of Oxford and Cambridge to London. It has been said that although Venice conquered Padua, Padua and its famed university had conquered Venice. There was no university in Venice but patrician families ordinarily sent their young scholars to Padua to study. I’m not saying that Giorgione studied at the university but I am saying that he was just as likely to apprentice in Padua as in Venice.

Why go to the “Big Apple” of Venice when there was plenty of opportunity for a young man to apprentice in Padua? In mid-century the artist  Squarcione had established his school in Padua. Andrea Mantegna was his most famous pupil and even Giovanni Bellini was influenced by the Paduan style. Padua was also the home of Giotto's work in the famed Scrovegni chapel, a veritable school for many of the great artists of the Renaissance.

Scholars have often assumed that Giorgione apprenticed in the Bellini workshop but in his biography of Giovanni Bellini, Vasari only reported as hearsay that Giorgione served an apprenticeship under Giovanni. In the  biography of Giorgione Vasari only said that the young painter from Castelfranco quickly surpassed the dry and arid style of Giovanni Bellini and his brother, Gentile.

Padua could lay claim to being the home of Venetian humanism but it was also a major artistic center. Below find a list of works seen in Padua by Marcantonio Michiel in the early part of the sixteenth century.*

In the Church called “Chiesa del Santo.”


In the “Chiesa del Santo,” above the main altar, the four bronze figures in high relief surrounding Our Lady, and Our Lady herself, are by Donatello,…(3)

The design for the six figures of saints in the Sacristy were prepared by Francesco Squarcione, though the actual work was executed by the Canozzi….the many pictures executed for this church by that talented Paduan artist (5 note)
The Coronation of Our Lady, a fresco on the first pillar at the left, on entering the church and above the altar of Our Lady, is by Fra Filippo. (7. n.1) (1434) 
 “the altarpiece is by Giacomo Bellini and Giovanni and Gentile, his sons, as shown by the signatures.” (7)


Above the portal of the church the picture representing St. Francis and St. Bernardino kneeling and upholding the monogram of Jesus is by Mantegna, as shown by his signature. [12. n. 3. Early work 1452]

In the School of the Third Order in the churchyard of the Basilica “del Santo—,” Montagna, and Titian painted there… (13)
Note 1. The first floor of this building is decorated with sixteen frescoes, representing the life and miracles of St. Anthony by Montagna, Titian, and Campagnola.

Church of San Francesco

The main altarpiece was made byBartolommeo and Antonio (Vivarini) of Murano, brothers, in 1451, and it contains in the center niche St. Francis;… (16)

In the House of Messer Pietro Bembo.

The small picture on two panels representing on the one side St. John the Baptist dressed, seated, with a lamb, in a landscape; and on the other side, Our Lady with the Child, also in a landscape, was painted by John Memlinc, probably about the year 1470. (21)
Note 2. In the Royal Gallery of Munich, there is a small panel representing St. John, seated, with the lamb, in a landscape, which is ascribed to Memlinc…

The picture, on canvas, representing St. Sebastian, over life size, fastened to a column and shot at with arrows, is by Mantegna. (24)

The two miniatures, on vellum, are by Giulio Campagnola: one represents a woman, nude, lying down with her back turned, and is from a picture by Giorgione:…


*The Anonimo: Notes on Pictures and Works of Art in Italy Made by an Anonymous Writer in the Sixteenth Century, translated by Paolo Mussi, edited by George C. Williamson, London, 1903.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Giorgione's World



After years of gathering dust in my bookshelves I finally read “Once to Sinai”, H.F.M. Prescott’s account of the pilgrimage to the Holy Land undertaken by Friar Felix Fabri, a Dominican brother from Ulm, Germany. Hilda Frances Margaret Prescott is best known for her epic story of the tragic Pilgrimage of Grace in the England of Henry VIII. “Once to Sinai”, however, is an account of a delightful but dangerous pilgrimage recorded by an equally delightful pilgrim who was an assiduous recorder of practically everything he saw of this journey undertaken in 1483.

St. Katherine, Mt. Sinai

Prescott takes up the story in Jerusalem where Fabri and his fellow pilgrims begin the extremely difficult trip through the Sinai desert to the famed monastery of Saint Katherine on Mt. Sinai. The monastery contained the bones of the legendary Queen of Alexandria, and the importance of the journey to Fabri and his fellow pilgrims helps us understand the great popularity of Catherine in the art of the Renaissance. On the journey back we encounter Moslem Cairo and Alexandria; the Greek isles; fabulous Venice; and finally the passage across the Alps back to the beloved monastery in Ulm. 

Many of the details in Renaissance paintings that seem so strange and puzzling to modern eyes were seen and described by friar Fabri. For example, only in our time did John Fleming see the animal in Giovanni Bellini’s St. Francis in the Desert as an Onager or Wild Ass of the desert, and not as the domestic donkey that carried St. Francis to La Verna. On the way back from Mt. Sinai Fabri saw the fabled beast.  
The pilgrims had the good fortune to get a close view of the handsome wild ass of the mountain country, concerning which “naturalists say many things”…(99)
Giovanni Bellini: St. Francis and Onager

Moreover, Fabri actually stayed in the village of Matariya, a virtual resort oasis marking the end of the desert and the entrance to Egypt. In 1483 Christian and Moslem alike still venerated Matariya as the resting place of the Holy Family on the flight into Egypt.
“Like to paradise” the village of Matariya may well have seemed to men fresh from the parched loneliness of the desert, for here rose that famous and holy spring, known to Christians as the well of the Virgin,…whose waters were almost unique among the brackish springs of Egypt. But there was another and more important reason for the fame of Matariya. To Christian and Moslem both, the place was known for its Garden of Balm, the precious product of whose bushes was all the Sultan’s own, and a very considerable asset; while for Christians, and to a lesser degree even for Moslems, the association of both well and garden with the Holy Family during the Flight into Egypt, made the place one of the venerated sites of Egypt. (115)
After the long arduous pilgrimage, Fabri and his companions were finally able to get passage at Alexandria in a Venetian spice convoy. The Captain general of the armada was Sebastian Contarini, “one of the merchant princes of Venice,” a formidable figure who stood high over all. Contarini’s son sailed with him as well as his brother Bernardo, who captained another galley. Even by 1483 the family was wealthy and had already acquired a great estate in the Veneto on the Brenta outside of Padua. In the sixteenth century they would build the magnificent Contarini villa.  A scion of the family, Taddeo Contarini, was an avid art collector who owned Bellini's St. Francis as well as Giorgione's "Three Philosophers".

Contarini Villa

Felix Fabri had great respect for the Venetians and their accomplishments: the Venetian desire peace, yet daily they prepare for war by land and sea.” The knowledge and the experience of the Captain and his crew brought them through a very hazardous and stormy two-month return voyage to Venice. Fabri remained in Venice for some time and gave a very detailed account of the famed Fondaco dei Tedeschi and its workings. He marveled at the city but had reservations about the decoration of its magnificent churches. He was somewhat taken aback by the mixture of pagan and Christian figures in St. Giovanni e Paolo.
Within the walls were lined with the princely tombs of many Doges, enriched with marble, silver and gold, and a profusion of sculpture. Friar Felix admired but could not approve these monuments. There was in them a lack of theological discrimination; Christ, Our Lady, apostles and martyrs appeared indeed, but surrounded by a mixed company of ancient gods, monsters and heroes….here Hercules appeared,…the hydra was here too,…and, more reprehensibly, naked warriors and boys, so many pagan stories, in fact, mixed up with those of Christianity, that Felix feared lest the ignorant should be confused, and render the honour due to Samson and the Magdalen to Hercules and Venus. (259)
Titian: Venus or Mary Magdalen?

Is it any wonder that today so many scholars now call so many Venetian paintings enigmatic and mysterious?  I have interpreted the two women in Titian’s “Sacred and Profane Love” as Mary Magdalen in two guises, but most scholars have seen them as personifications of Venus. It would appear that the ancient figures of pagan legends were just as real during the Renaissance as the figures of Christian scripture and legend. Here is Prescott’s account of tourist Felix Fabri’s exploration of Cyprus, the legendary birthplace of Venus.

Though the friar in registering all this registers disapproval of plebian taste and behaviour, he yet takes pride in adorning his own work with flowers culled from the stories of the ancient gods. …it is in his account of Cyprus that they fill the foreground of his picture, so that the Apostle Paul yields place to the Cytherean, and it almost seems as if this devout, cheerful, Bible-reading celibate has become subject to the enchantment of the Queen of Love herself. Certainly the Friar could never forget that Cyprus was the birthplcace of her who, in the jumble of grotesque tales which he reports, is now the daughter of Saturn, now a mortal, “dead and certainly damned,” yet always the foam-born; though what was dark in the medieval monastic imagination added blood to the foam.She might be  half-devil, but she was still “a most beautiful virgin,” and the Friar could no more ignore than he could approve that creature “of unequalled loviliness.” While in the island he visited the places associated with hername as assiduously as if they were legitimate objects of pilgrimage. From Nicosia he went out all the way to Dali, the old Idalia, where he climbed the solitary hill which “the shameless Venus had made dedicate to herself.” He visited both old and new Paphos: he sat upon the Venus rocks, the great cliffs which thrust themselves out into the glitter of the bright sea near Kouklia. “All these,” he says, “I explored and inspected pretty thoroughly and carefully.” Even in the cathedral of Nicosia he was able to discover a memorial of the wanton goddess…In the Chapel of St. Dominic,…having first studied the frescoes of the Saint’s life around the walls,…Felix turned his attention to a great tomb which stood in the centre of the chapel….The bell was ringing for vespers, and some of the canons were walking up and down in the cathedral waiting for its last note; the Friar approached them and asked for information upon the “incomparable tomb.” The canons obligingly accompanied him and told him “a long and very pleasing story” of how Mars, who figured in it as the injured husband of Venus, in despite of the gryphons which guarded it, had procured this great block of jasper, a stone much conducive to the virtue of chastity, and had presented it to his wife for her bed. “And,” the Friar concludes, “ though I never read that story in any book, nor heard it elsewhere, yet I believe the words and put down what I was told…and if the truth is not as I wrote, yet it is what I heard, and as I heard in innocence, so I have written in innocence, and in innocence it may be read, and without any damage to the faith may be believed by the devout.” 
Fabri saw many wonderful things on his pilgrimage. Despite all he saw of the world of the fabulous East and of Renaissance Venice he was happy to get back to Germany. There was no place like Ulm. ###

H.F.M. Prescott: Once to Sinai, the further pilgrimage of Friar Felix Fabri, NY, 1958. Prescott supplemented her account with reports of travel to the Holy Land as late as the nineteenth century. Not much had changed over the centuries and most of Friar Felix Fabri's observations were verified.