In the past two years I have written much about the works of Giorgione and other Renaissance masters but little about Giorgione himself. Last month I provided a background sketch of Venice in the time of Giorgione, and last week I discussed a possible self-portrait in a Budapest Museum.
This week I would like to offer some comments, both old and new, about the painter's reputation. In the Preface to the 2004 Giorgione exhibition catalog Wilfrid Seipel, the Director of Vienna's famed Kunsthistorisches Museum, wrote about Giorgione's reputation among his contemporaries.
Already a few years after his death in 1510 Giorgione was considered one of Venice’s greatest painters and the revolutionary forerunner of the northern style of painting, whose focus was firmly fixed on the structural significance of colour. His intensity of colour, light and mood bewitched nearly all his Venetian contemporaries.*
Vasari devoted only a short biography to Giorgione but ranked the Venetian right up there with the greatest painters of the Renaissance. He placed Giorgione's biography right after Leonardo's and credited him with the creation of the "modern manner." In the 2004 catalog Sylvia Ferino Pagden, the curator of the Vienna exhibition, noted that Giorgione's fame is just as great in our time.
Today Giorgione is regarded as a unique phenomenon in the history of art: no other Western painter has left so few secure works and enjoyed such fame for almost five hundred years….His legend is fed not only by the mystery that still surrounds him, both as a man and as a painter, but also by the subtle inscrutability he was able to infuse into his paintings. …*
The mystery that surrounds Giorgione stems from the paucity of details about his brief life; difficulties about attribution; and most importantly, questions about interpretation. In his "Lives of the Painters", Vasari called Giorgione a painter of Madonnas, and works like the Castelfranco Altarpiece, and the Allendale Adoration of the Shepherds are well known, but he is not regarded primarily as a painter of “sacred” subjects. However, I claim that his Tempest, “one of the most enigmatic and famous paintings in the world,” is a “sacred” subject": that it is Giorgione’s version of a popular legend, “The Rest on the Flight into Egypt.” In addition, I argue that a lost Giorgione, usually called The Discovery of Paris, also represents an apocryphal episode on the flight into Egypt. If we can view Giorgione through a “sacred” subject lens, then we can see many of his other works in a new light. Added weight would be given to those who regard the Three Philosophers as the Three Magi; the Laura as Mary Magdalen; and the Boy with an Arrow as St. Sebastian. We will even be able to identify the subject of the so-called Three Ages of Man in the Pitti Palace. Finally, seeing Giorgione through a sacred subject lens, has led to an equally startling discovery, an interpretation of Titian’s famous Sacred and Profane Love as The Conversion of Mary Magdalen.
About 100 years ago Edward Hutton waxed enthusiastic about Giorgione in "Venice and Venetia." Although he couldn't see Giorgione as a painter of religious subjects, he felt there was something sacred about the Tempest.
Undoubtedly the greatest of these is a picture by Georgione, which has passed under various names--the Family of Georgione, or simply the Gipsy and the soldier--and which in itself sums up all that we mean by the Georgionesque in painting. There we see, in a delicious landscape of green and shady valley, of stream and ruin and towered country town, a woman nude but for a cape about her shoulders giving her breast to her child in the shadow of the trees by a quiet stream. On the other side of this jewelled brook a young man like a soldier--or is it a shepherd? --stands resting on a great lance or crook and seems to converse with her. Close by are the ruins of some classical building overgrown by moss and lichen and half hidden in the trees, and not far off up the stream in the sunset we see the towers and walls and roofs and domes of a little town with its bridge across the stream leading to the great old fortified gate of the place. But what chiefly attracts us in the work is something new we find there, an air of golden reality, something dreamlike too, though and wholly of this our world, an air of music which seems to come to us from the noise of the brook or the summer wind in the trees, or the evening bells that from far-off we seem to hear ring Ave Maria. One of the golden moments of life has been caught here for ever and perfectly expressed. Heaven, it seems, the kingdom of Heaven, is really to be found in our midst, and Giorgione has contrived a miracle the direct opposite of that of Angelico; for he found all the flowers of Tuscany and the byways of the world in far off Paradise, but Georgione has found Paradise itself here in our world. And we must remember that such a work as this was the true invention of Georgione. Before him there was nothing but church pictures. It is to him we owe these pieces which have nothing directly to do with religion, that were painted to light up the rooms we live in, to bring the sun, if you will, into a cabinet and all the sunset and the quiet out-of-doors into a rich man's study. Here, in truth, we have humanism and its essence, and for once perfectly understood and expressed. (p. 122-3). ###
* Giorgione, Myth and Enigma, An Exhibition of the Kunsthistorisches Museum and the Soprintendenza Speciale per il Polo Museale Veneziano, Exhibition catalog ed. By Sylvia Ferino Pagden and Giovanna Nepi Scire, Vienna, 2004.