In his famous “Lives of the Most Eminent Painters” Giorgio Vasari claimed a connection between Leonardo da Vinci and Giorgione.
Giorgione had seen certain works from the hand of Leonardo, which were painted with extraordinary softness, and thrown into powerful relief, as is said, by extreme darkness of the shadows, a manner which pleased him so much that he ever after continued to imitate it, and in oil painting approached very closely to the excellence of his model.*[i]
Vasari elaborated on this claim in his biography of Titian which only appeared in the second edition of his “Lives”. He contrasted Giorgione’s work with the work of the Bellini brothers.
But about the year 1507, Giorgione da Castelfranco, not being satisfied with that mode of proceeding, began to give to his works an unwonted softness and relief, painting them in a very beautiful manner; yet he by no means neglected to draw from life, or to copy nature with his colours as closely as he could. And in doing the latter, he shaded with colder or warmer tints as the living object might demand, but without first making a drawing, since he held that to paint with the colours only, without any drawing on the paper, was the best mode of proceeding and more perfectly in accord with the true principles of design.[ii]
Leonardo briefly visited Venice early in the year 1500 after he had been forced to flee Milan following the fall of the House of Sforza. Vasari did not claim that the fifty year old Leonardo met the young Giorgione on that visit or even that they might have seen each others work on that occasion. He traced the influence to about 1507 when Giorgione only saw “certain works from the hand of Leonardo.”
Practically everything Vasari wrote must be taken with a grain of salt. He certainly recognized the genius of Giorgione and claimed that he was one of the inventors of the “modern manner”, but it would have been typical for him to claim that the young Venetian had been influenced by Leonardo, a Florentine.
Nevertheless, Vasari was a painter more than a historian and we must credit him with the ability to detect stylistic similarities in the work of the two masters. But what paintings “by the hand of Leonardo” could Giorgione have seen? Here I would like to discuss the subjects that Leonardo and Giorgione depicted.
In his study of Leonardo, Martin Kemp included a picture gallery of paintings.[iii] It is surprising to find how few works Leonardo actually produced in his long career. Kemp lists twenty-two independent paintings starting with the famous “Annunciation” of 1473-4 done in the Verrocchio studio, to the last painting, “Madonna, Child, St. Anne and a Lamb,” started by Leonardo in 1508 but only completed by 1517.
Interestingly, Vasari’s words about the early Giorgione, that he was a painter of Madonnas and portraits also apply to Leonardo. Obviously both masters worked to satisfy their patrons’ demands for portraits. Leonardo’s portraits of women from Ginerva de Benci (c. 1476-8) to Mona Lisa (c. 1503-1516) are world famous, but the majority of his other works deal with the Madonna.
Around 1475-6, not long after the Annunciation in the Verrocchio workshop, Leonardo completed the so-called “Madonna and Child with a Carnation.” According to Kemp, this painting “shows Leonardo’s first steps in reanimating the genre of the Virgin and Child.” Madonna and Child sit alone inside a room with a landscape perceived through windows. The landscape, according to Kemp, “may reflect his interest in Netherlandish art.”
In 1479-80 Leonardo depicted another Madonna and Child, the so-called Benois Madonna, now in the Hermitage. In this small painting “Leonardo has endowed the relationship between mother and child with new complexity, energy, and intensity of emotional reaction.” Madonna and child are still in an enclosed room. Although there is a window, it is impossible to detect a landscape.
Around the same time Leonardo also began work on a Madonna in profile (“the Madonna Litta”) which would appear to have been completed by his pupil Boltraffio by 1497. In this work the Mother is nursing the child and both are in an enclosed room with a landscape dimly perceived through windows.
|Virgin of the Rocks, Louvre|
In 1483 the Milanese confraternity of the Immaculate Conception negotiated a commission with Leonardo “for the large sculpted altarpiece in their chapel in San Francesco Grande in Milan, as part of a series of painted components and polychroming by Leonardo and the brothers Evangelista and Giovanni da Predis.” Two versions of this famous painting now known as the “Virgin of the Rocks" are still in existence: one in England’s National Gallery and the other in the Louvre. Kemp described the revolutionary nature of this painting.
the treatment of light, shade, and colour shows how Leonardo reformed their relationship in painting, using tonal description (i.e. the scale between white and black) as the basis of the definition of form.
However, the painting also marked a departure in subject. Madonna and Child have been taken our of the enclosed room and placed right within the landscape with two other figures, the infant John the Baptist and an angel. Rocks is not the right word for this landscape. Leonardo has placed his figures in a cave.
Instead of “Virgin of the Rocks” this painting should be called the “Encounter of the Holy Family with the Infant John the Baptist on the Return from Egypt,” or more simply, “Behold the Lamb of God.” Among the apocryphal legends that grew up around the scriptural mention of a flight into Egypt, was the very popular story of a meeting in the desert between the Holy Family and the Baptist who had also escaped the murderous designs of King Herod. Here is Anna Jameson’s account.
Thus, it is related that among the children whom Herod was bent on destroying, was St. John the Baptist; but his mother Elizabeth fled with him to a desert place, and being pursued by the murderers, “the rock opened by a miracle, and closed upon Elizabeth and her child;” which means, as we may presume, that they took refuge in a cavern, and were concealed within it until the danger was over.[iv]
The story became very popular in the fifteenth century and many artists depicted the meeting that centered around the two young children, a meeting that foreshadowed the meeting years later at the Jordan River when John would announce the beginning of the public ministry of the Christ.
Why was this subject chosen for a Franciscan chapel dedicated to the Immaculate Conception? As the doctrine of Mary’s Immaculate Conception became more popular in the fifteenth century, artists had to grapple with ways to depict the concept. One of the ways was to identify Mary with the Woman from the Apocalypse or Book of Revelation, clothed with the Sun, with the stars in her crown, and with the Moon at her feet. After giving birth to her Child the Woman fled into the desert pursued by the great dragon or devil.
Until a text is found my best guess is that any depiction of Mother and Child in a landscape could be taken to represent Mary’s Immaculate Conception. In my interpretation of Giorgione’s Tempest I argued that Giorgione had not only put the nursing Madonna in a landscape but also had actually painted her nude to depict her Immaculate Conception.
It is possible that the “Virgin of the Rocks,” could have been seen by Giorgione. Another candidate could be the “Virgin of the Yarnwinder,” c. 1501-7. Kemp attributes both extant versions of this painting to Leonardo with pupils, and notes that technical examination of underdrawings indicates “Leonardo’ s direct involvement in making two pictures of this subject.” He also noted that in both versions underdrawings revealed “Joseph making a baby walker for Christ,” [v]a pentimento that would indicate another reference to the flight into Egypt.
Finally, there is the Mona Lisa. Kemp states that the “basis for the picture was established in Florence around 1503-4, where it was seen by Raphael amongst others, but it appears to have been finished much later.” It’s hard to believe that Giorgione could have seen it. Is this famous painting only a portrait or does it have some mysterious subject?
Of course, there is always the possibility that Vasari could have been wrong and that Giorgione never saw any of Leonardo’s paintings, and that both artists developed their revolutionary styles independently of each other. Nevertheless, it would appear that both were painters of Madonnas and portraits, and that both depicted scenes from the apocryphal legends concerning the flight into Egypt.
[i] Giorgio Vasari, Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, selected, edited, and introduced by Marilyn Aronberg Lavin, NY, 1967, v. II, p. 227.
[ii] Op. cit, p. 235.
[iii] Martin Kemp, Leonardo, Oxford, 2005. Pp. 247-254. Except otherwise noted all the following quotes are from Kemp’s Gallery.
[iv] Anna Jameson, Legends of the Madonna, Boston, 1885, p. 356.
[v] Kemp, op.cit., p. 41.