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".

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Giorgione and Marcantonio Michiel


The notes on paintings in sixteenth century Venetian homes made by Venetian patrician and art collector Marcantonio Michiel are perhaps the most important primary source for the works of Giorgione. However, Michiel’s notes indicate how even the testimony of a contemporary eyewitness must be used carefully.

Around 1800 Abate Don Jacopo Morelli discovered the notes among a manuscript collection in Venice’s Marciana library. Written in the early part of the sixteenth century the notes, made by an anonymous writer, concerned “pictures and other treasures contained in various houses, and monuments and works of art in churches, schools and other ecclesiastical buildings in the cities which the writer had visited.” *

Abate Morelli published the notes in 1800 under the title, “The Anonimo, Notes on Pictures and Works of Art in Italy.” Morelli used “Anonimo” because he could not be sure of the author. Today, scholars believe that the notes were the work of Michiel.
The cities visited by Marcantonio Michiel were Padua, Cremona, Milan, Pavia, Bergamo, Crema, and Venice. In Venice the notes recorded visits to fourteen homes of Venetian patricians as well as visits to the church and school of the “Carita” which is now the site of the famed Accademia. The publication of the Notes provided a look into the artistic preferences of some of the greatest families in Renaissance Venice but also shed much light on the artists, especially Giorgione. For example, the notes provided the first mention of the “little landscape on canvas,” now called the “Tempest”, that in 1800 remained largely out of sight in a private home.

Altogether Michiel mentioned 18 works in the homes of seven collectors that were either by Giorgione, possibly by Giorgione, or copies by others based on Giorgione. In an earlier post I provided a list in chronological order. I used the 1903 English translation edited by George C. Williamson and included some of the editors notes.
While Michiel’s observations are invaluable for purposes of attribution, his brief notes rarely attempt interpretation or analysis. For the most part, he seems to be content to point out identifying markers. Even there he can be mistaken about the subjects of the paintings he saw with his own eyes.

A few years ago famed Venetian art historian Jaynie Anderson noted Michiel’s deficiencies in her Giorgione catalog. For example, she believed that in his discussion of a St. Jerome by Antonello da Messina,

Michiel appears to be the passive communicator of received opinions, which he is unable to verify…The fanciful absurdity of his suggestion throws doubt on Michiel’s canonical status in similar statements about other pictures…. **


She also argued that his eyes deceived him when it came to Giorgione’s most famous painting seen in the home of Gabriele Vendramin in 1530.



What are we to make of the famous description of the Tempesta, where a nude female, suckling her infant in an open landscape, is identified as a gypsy—‘la cingana’. …Yet Giorgione’s gypsy looks less like a gypsy than those of other artists;…nor is she engaged in any of the traditional activities associated with gypsies,…What did Michiel mean by his use of the word? Like all connoisseurs, he was not as interested in subject matter as we would like him to have been…Michiel, alas, chose to record only the briefest of impressions. ***


Despite her caveats, even Anderson was led astray by Michiel’s description of a Giorgione in the home of Taddeo Contarini. Here is his note.

In the House of Messer Taddeo Contarini. 1525. The picture on canvas, representing the birth of Paris, in a landscape, with two shepherds standing, was painted by Giorgio di Castelfranco, and is one of his early works.

David Teniers: Copy of a lost Giorgione


This painting has been lost but seventeenth century copies still exist. It gives us a very good illustration of Michiel’s limitations as an observer. He knows that the painting is an early Giorgione but his description does not even mention the two prominent figures on the left: an elderly man with a flute or pipe, and the young woman with arm and leg shockingly exposed.

In my paper on the Tempest I have shown that Michiel’s brief identification of this lost painting was indeed incorrect. The subject of the painting is a “sacred” one: “The Encounter of the Holy Family with Robbers on the Flight into Egypt.” A popular legend of the time explains every detail in the painting including the lounging figures in the middle distance.

Nevertheless, his identification has stuck and led scholars to draw some fanciful conclusions. Anderson, for one, was surprised that Michiel had not seen in Contarini’s home the “notte” mentioned in correspondence between Isabella d’Este and her Venetian agent after Giorgione’s death in 1510. Anderson could only conclude that the “notte” or night scene must have been in the home of another member of the Contarini family. Yet, it is very likely that this lost Giorgione was the “notte.” After all, the sun is setting in the distance.

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*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. Facsimile copy by Kessinger Publishing.
** Anderson, Jaynie: Giorgione, 1997, p. 57.
***op.cit., p. 60.

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