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".

Friday, January 27, 2012

Giorgione, Titian and Venetian Humanism


I do not know how Margaret L. King’s, Venetian Humanism in an Age of Patrician Dominance was received when it first appeared in 1986, but it was a real eye opener for me 25 years later. I originally looked into it for the profiles in the last section of her study of all the ninety-two humanists that she found in Venice in the fifteenth century.*

Ninety-two was not a capricious or arbitrary number. Although a literary scholar, King’s methodology resembled that of a trained sociologist.  She studied the three generations of fifteenth century Venetian humanists and developed specific criteria for inclusion in the group. Speaking of her study, she wrote,

It has not argued that Venetian humanism mimicked humanism elsewhere, but that a particular society will generate a characteristic form of any intellectual movement. It…has spoken of ninety-two concrete personalities named by plausible guidelines as members of the humanist circle. It has not simply asserted that social origin affected the behavior and production of intellectuals engaged in humanism, but has pointed to documented cases of such influence. It has not put faith in conclusions drawn from the reading of a few works but has tested them in many drawn from the whole of humanist production. (245)

She found a remarkable unanimity through the three generations; the first born between 1370-1400, the second from 1400-1430, and the third from 1430-1460.  In the first place, the great majority (64 of 92) were patricians.

Not only are the patricians the largest social group among the society of Venetian humanists. They also come overwhelmingly from the most privileged sector of that class. (277)

It is hard not to stress the importance of this finding. Although titles of nobility had never been permitted in the Venetian republic, the Venetian patriciate was the most exclusive class of nobility in all of Europe. Except for one exception in the fourteenth century no new members or families were ever admitted to this class. Unlike England where the King could grant titles, the Venetian Doge or government had no such power.

As a result of this patrician involvement Venetian humanism developed along quite different lines than elsewhere. King’s first chapter is titled “Unanimitas,” and it develops three distinct and characteristic traits of Venetian humanism. In the first place, practically every fifteenth century humanist was involved either directly or indirectly in service to the State. Many of the patricians, of course, held some of the highest offices in the Republic, and even the non-patricians either served the patricians or were employed by the government as secretaries. Not only did they work for the state but their writings also reflect a concern to glorify and perpetuate the Serenissima.

Secondly, in the fifteenth century there was no philosophical disagreement. The Aristotelianism propounded in the nearby University of Padua reigned supreme. Even though Venice had conquered Padua, intellectually Padua had conquered Venice.

Aristotelian political, metaphysical thought provided, in brief, legitimation for Venice’s highly stratified, rigid, and authoritarian society. The humanists, who in large measure profited from that social order, happily wedded their humanism to that philosophical vision. (184)

After a thorough examination of seven major humanist works, as well as a host of minor ones, King found no hint of Neo-Platonism throughout the fifteenth century.

Thirdly, she did not find any hint of secularism or deviation from religious orthodoxy. What she writes about the second generation applied to the others.

At the same time, they defended orthodoxy, religious and philosophical, respected the authority of the church, feared and respected outsiders, feared and condemned immorality. This conservative component of Venetian humanism coexisted with its other main purpose: the celebration of Venice. (230)

King cites many individual examples of Venetian piety and orthodoxy and concludes with this summary.

Concerned, even anxious, about the welfare of their souls and of their city, these humanists selected from the writings of antiquity not those values which displaced, but those which complimented a traditional piety. (37)

Not only did these humanists compose and copy many religious works, but sometimes their devotion could see strange meanings in some of the ancient pagan texts they studied. In his Concordance of Poetry, Philosophy and Theology Giovanni Caldiera found moral or spiritual analogues in many ancient myths.

Where Paris, asked to judge among three goddesses, awards the golden apple to Venus, Caldiera sees the apostle Paul presented with the three theological virtues, choosing love…Jove’s seduction of Leda, wife of King Tyndar, is seen as Christ’s wresting of the holy church of God from its union with the Old Law. (114)

To summarize, there was no conflict between faith and reason in fifteenth century Venetian patrician humanist circles. Christianity and Aristotelian philosophy went hand in hand in support of the Venetian state and its hierarchical class system. King notes one historian’s very apt comparison of Florence and Venice. Florence is Athens and Venice is Sparta.

Initially, I wondered why King confined her study to the three generations of fifteenth century scholars. Didn’t humanism flourish and grow right into the next century? It could be that she had more than enough material here, and that she planned future studies. However, it soon became clear that she believed that a striking development took place in the fourth generation of humanists, those born between 1460 and 1490. At the very outset of what we call the High Renaissance, Venetian humanism developed offshoots that would challenge and weaken the old unanimity.

King’s statistical analysis showed a swelling of the ranks at the dawn of the sixteenth century caused in large part by the remarkable growth of the printing industry in Venice.

Humanists and related members of Venice’s intellectual circles born in the generation immediately following the third of our core group…are multitudinous; for the ranks of humanist circles are swelled by amateurs, patrons, collectors, printers’ assistants editors, translators, teachers of all kinds in the last decade of the century. (270)

Much of this activity centered on the press opened by Aldo Manutius after his arrival in Venice in 1491. It quickly became a center for humanist activity.

Around him and his assistants flocked the humanists of Venice, pedagogues and secretaries, university professors and physicians, young or leisured noblemen. (238)

The synthesis of humanism and the values of the Venetian aristocracy was weakened by this development as scholars focused more on their texts and translations. For many of them involvement in the affairs of the Republic was replaced by a sterile philological pedantry.

Nor was that movement fully successful; it lacked not energy but a moral dimension. There seemed to be embedded in the intellectual movement of those dissectors and correctors of words no broad conception of the world, of society, of the place and depths and stature of the human being. Though they produced useful work…their zeal was sterile. Their words, bloodless, do not live. (236)

Other humanists began to drop out in order to find personal religious and philosophical fulfillment. Venice was not immune to the great religious reform movement that was sweeping over Europe in the fifteenth century decades before the Protestant Reformation.

King tells the tragic story of Ermolao Barbaro, a humanist from one of the most prominent patrician families, who was ostracized for accepting a bishopric from the Pope that the Signoria wanted for its own candidate. Barbaro was not interested in being a prince of the Church but defied his city because he believed that as a Bishop he would be free to lead a quiet life of study and contemplation.

Another scholar wrote a treatise advocating celibacy, not for religious reasons but as a means of detaching oneself from the cares of the world. A wife and children meant a family, and a family inevitably in Venice involved participation in the political and economic life of the City. How could someone be free to study and learn with such concerns?

Some dropped out for purely religious concerns. The most striking example is that of Tommaso Giustiniani who, like the rich young man in the Bible, gave up all his possessions, including his art collection, to live as a hermit in a Camoldolensian monastery.

In her concluding chapter, King describes the decline of Venetian humanism and the coincident rise of its artistic renaissance.

Thus patrician humanism survived into the sixteenth century, marked by its peculiarly Venetian balance of the universal vision and local civic responsibility, and by its expression of the themes of unanimitas fundamental to the city’s myth. Yet it constituted but one tendency of sixteenth-century humanism, which included, as well, the technical and routinized culture of the philologists and encyclopedists, the mediocre classicism of teachers and secretaries, the book talk and trading generated by the presses. And it constituted but one strand of Venice’s intellectual culture…and neither the primary nor most characteristic one. For the foci of Venice’s culture in the sixteenth century, and perhaps the true glories of her Renaissance, were not in humanism at all, but in vernacular literature and the arts. (242)

In King’s analysis Venetian patricians who came to maturity around 1500 did not share the outlook of their fathers.

They shed at the same time other restraints operative in Quattrocentro humanism. The sensuality prohibited by humanist arbiters of taste exploded into view. A diversity of themes and sentiments appeared that had not been possible within the contours of humanist culture neatly dictated by the assumptions of scholastic philosophy and Christian orthodoxy….In a parallel development, the visual arts at about this time abandoned the conservative canons of form followed strictly during most of the fifteenth century and embraced the language of color. (243)

One of the prominent humanists profiled by King was Marco Aurelio, the father of Niccolo Aurelio, who would succeed his father in the Venetian secretariat and go on to become Grand Chancellor, the highest rank that a non-patrician could hold. Niccolo’s coat of arms can be seen on Titian’s famous “Sacred and Profane Love,” a striking example of the Venetian language of color. ###


*All quotes are from Margaret L. King, "Venetian Humanism in an Age of Patrician Dominance," Princeton, 1986. Page numbers in parentheses.














Friday, January 13, 2012

Giorgione: Allendale Adoration of the Shepherds

Giorgione: Adoration of the Shepherds, National Gallery Washington

Scholars have expended more time dealing with the controversy that has surrounded the attribution to Giorgione of the so-called “Allendale Adoration of the Shepherds” than they have in trying to understand what is actually going on in the painting. A recent post at Three Pipe Problem gave a very good summary of the controversy, but here I would like to deal with the subject and meaning of this famous Nativity scene that is now in Washington’s National Gallery.

The subject of the painting seems so obvious. It is a depiction of the adoration of the shepherds who have left their flocks to seek out the newborn Savior after hearing the angel’s announcement.

Now when the angels had gone from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “let us go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened which the Lord has made know to us..” So they hurried away and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger.

Luke’s account of the angelic appearance to the shepherds is the traditional gospel at the midnight Mass on Christmas. The actual arrival of the shepherds at the stable in Bethlehem is the passage used for the gospel reading for the Christmas Mass at dawn.

The relatively small size of the painting indicates that it was done not as an altarpiece but for private devotion. Although the subject is clear, there is a deeper meaning.* Why is the infant Jesus lying on the rocky ground and not in a manger or feeding trough? Why is he naked? Where are the swaddling clothes?

Actually the newborn infant is lying on a white cloth that just happens to be on the ends of Mary’s elaborate blue robe that the artist has taken great pains to spread over the rocky ground. Giorgione is here using a theme employed earlier by Giovanni Bellini and later by Titian in their famous Frari altarpieces. The naked Christ is the Eucharist that lies on the stone altar at every Mass. The altar is covered with a white cloth that in Rona Goffen’s words “recalls the winding cloth, ritualized as the corporale, the cloth spread on the altar to receive the Host of the Mass.” In Franciscan spirituality Mary is regarded as the altar.

Clearly, the viewer-worshipper is meant to identify the Madonna with the altar and the Child with the Eucharist. Bellini's visual assertion of this symbolic equivalence is explained by a common Marian epithet. The Madonna is the "Altar of Heaven." the Ara Coeli, that contains the eucharistic body of Christ” Ave verum Corpus, natum de Maria Virgine.**

The “Adoration of the Shepherds” represents the first Mass. This is not such an unusual concept. Many years ago I attended a talk on the famous Portinari altarpiece that now hangs in the Uffizi. The speaker was Fr. Maurice McNamee, a Jesuit scholar, who argued that Hugo van der Goes had also illustrated a Mass in that Netherlandish altarpiece around the year 1475. His argument centered on the spectacular garments of the kneeling angels that he identified as altar servers wearing vestments of the time. He called them “vested angels,” and they are the subject of his 1998 study, “Vested Angels, Eucharistic allusions in early Netherlandish Painting.”



His Eucharistic interpretation explained the naked infant on the hard, rocky ground. The infant Christ is the same as the sacrificial Christ on the Cross. In a study of Mary in Botticelli’s art Alessandra Galizzi Kroegel referred to this connection.

it needs to be pointed out first of all that the Renaissance era saw the spread of practices of individual devotion to be carried out primarily in the home…From the theological perspective attention should then be drawn to the emergence of a new trend that…tended to identify the mystery of the Incarnation with the Redemption itself, focusing on the Passion with much less fervour than in the past: whence the growing popularity of  ‘incarnational’ iconographies celebrating the word made flesh, such as pictures of the Infant Jesus in his mother’s arms…while the demand for images with Christ on the Cross, very common in the fourteenth century was drastically reduced.***

It would appear that Giorgione has used the same motif although his angels have become little putti who hover around the scene. The shepherds represent participants in the Mass who kneel in adoration. Mario Lucco has suggested that the long hair of the one indicates a patrician in shepherd’s clothing.*

There are many other iconographical details in this painting that could be discussed. Joseph’s gold robe indicates royal descent from the House of David. The ox and ass in the cave are symbols of the old order that has been renewed with the coming of Christ. So too would be the tree trunk next to the flourishing laurel bush in the left foreground. The laurel is a traditional symbol of joy, triumph, and resurrection.

Finally, it has been noticed that Giorgione has moved the main characters off to the right away from their traditional place in the center. Rather than diminishing their importance this narrative device serves to make all the action flow from left to right and culminate in the Holy Family.  Giovanni Bellini had done the same thing in his “St. Francis in the Desert,” and later Titian would use this device in his Pesaro altarpiece in the Frari. ###

*Two recent catalogs have offered interpretations. See Mario Lucco’s entry in Brown, David Alan, and Ferino-Pagden, Sylvia, Bellini, Giorgione, Titian, and the Renaissance of Venetian Painting, Washington, 2006. Also see the very strange interpretation of Wolfgang Eller in Giorgione Catalog Raisonne, Petersberg, 2007.

**Rona Goffen, Piety and Patronage in Renaissance Venice, Yale, 1986. P. 53.

***Alessandra Galizzi Kroegel, “The Figure of Mary in Botticelli’s Art.” Botticelli: from Lorenzo the Magnificent to Savonarola, 2003. (ex. cat), p. 56.






Thursday, January 5, 2012

Giorgione and Paris



Recently art history blogger, Art History Today, has been reporting on an attempt to attribute the so-called “Malmesbury Judgment of Paris” to Raphael.  In the past the painting has been variously attributed to Giorgione or a follower of Giorgione.  I am content to leave attribution questions to others but I would like to add a piece of evidence here that might be of interest.


The clothing of the young Paris who sits on the ground surveying the charms of the three nude goddesses bears a remarkable similarity to the clothing of another young man in a mysterious painting that has also been variously attributed to Giorgione or a follower of Giorgione.



According to Teriseo Pignatti and Filippo Pedrocco, two of the most renowned Italian art historians, the earliest existing Giorgione painting is the so-called “Rustic Idyll.” Actually, they argued in their 1999 catalog that it was one of four small panels for a cassone done at the very outset of Giorgione’s brief career. They listed the “Rustic Idyll” as number 1 in their catalog. One of the other panels is obviously “Leda and the Swan.” The other two are harder to identify and are called “the Astrologer,” and “Venus and Cupid in a Landscape.”

Since each painting is about 12x 19 cm and depicts figures in a landscape, the two scholars call them a “homogeneous group,” and argue that they “were originally part of a decorative scheme for a piece of furniture or a jewel box.” Pignatti and Pedrocco did point out the disagreements among scholars about attribution, dating, and subject matter. Some relegate the paintings to Giorgione’s workshop, or even to “an anonymous painter of furniture.”*

Ten years later Wolfgang Eller argued strongly against a Giorgione attribution of the “Rustic Idyll,” and dated it c. 1525.
Both the painterly execution of the figures and the composition of the painting are of weak quality; it cannot even be attributed to Campagnola. The light effects are too rough and unsophisticated for Giorgione. The seated position of the young man appears tense and unnatural like that of a football fan that experiences the sixth goal against his team. The artist was an anonymous furniture painter under the influence of Giorgione.**
Eller said much the same thing about the three other panels.

However, two years later Enrico Maria dal Pozzolo argued on stylistic grounds that the “Rustic Idyll” and the “Leda” were by Giorgione, and that the other two were by a follower who might have been working alongside of him. Pozzolo assumed that since the other three panels represented classical subjects, the mysterious “Rustic Idyll” must also have such a subject.***

Despite the disagreement about attribution it seems obvious that the young man in the “Rustic Idyll” is wearing the same clothing as the young man in the “Malmesbury Judgment of Paris." He wears a red top over a white undershirt. His pants are also white. His hair is similar in length and style to the young Paris in the Judgment. If the young man in the “Rustic Idyll” is Paris, then the woman must be the nymph Oenone, and the infant must be their child. Later, Paris would desert Oenone and the child after being awarded the beautiful Helen of Troy as his prize for choosing Venus in the famous beauty contest known as the Judgment of Paris.

The similarity between the two men in the “Rustic Idyll” and the “Malmesbury Judgment of Paris” should be taken into consideration by scholars and students when trying to settle the questions of attribution, dating, and subject. It would appear that either the same person did both paintings, or that both followed a common model.

Let me add one more note of confusion to this controversy. In Margaret King’s study of Venetian humanism she devoted considerable attention to the prolific Fifteenth century humanist, Giovanni Caldiera, one of whose most well known works was the “Concordance of the Poets, Philosophers, and Theologians.” She noted that the “first book of the Concordance presents a series of mythological images and episodes drawn ultimately from ancient poetry, and translates them into analogous Christian images and doctrines."****The story of Paris provided one episode.


In many other cases, moral and spiritual analogues of ancient myths jar strangely with the originals. Where Paris, asked to judge among three goddesses, awards the golden apple to Venus, Caldiera sees the apostle Paul presented with the three theological virtues, choosing love. 

Strange as this concept appears to our eyes, Caldiera could even Christianize the rape of Leda by Jove in the guise of a swan.


Jove’s seduction of Leda, wife of King Tyndar, is seen as Christ’s wresting of the holy church of God from its union with the Old Law. He appears as a swan, to signify that his nature was at once wholly spiritual (like a bird) yet joined to the pure principle (symbolized by whiteness) of humanity. 


Hopefully some student will look into Caldiera’s "Concordance" and perhaps decipher the meaning of the four cassone panels.

I apologize for the poor quality of the cassone images. Very good reproductions can be found in the Pignatti and Pedrocco catalog, as well as in dal Pozzolo's 2009 study. ### 

*Pignatti, Terisio and Pedrocco, Filippo: Giorgione, Rizzoli, NY, 1999.
**Eller, Wolfgang, Giorgione, Petersberg, 1997. pp. 198-9.
***Enrico Maria dal Pozzolo: Giorgione, Milan, 2009. p. 145.
****Margaret L. King, Venetian Humanism in an Age of Patrician Dominance, Princeton, 1986. pp. 113-114. King provided the following biographical information:

Giovanni Caldiera, c. 1400-d. by 1474. Born to a wealthy and established Venetian family, Caldiera first studied , then taught medicine at Padua in the 1420s and 1430s. He subsequently returned to Venice to undertake the practice of medicine, achieving in later years the dignity of prior of the Venetian College of Physicians. ( p. 345)