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".

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.

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