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, June 9, 2014

Giorgione: Three Philosophers





Giorgione’s so-called “Three Philosophers,” that now hangs in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, is one of a handful of paintings universally attributed to him. If there was ever any doubt, it was settled in the year 1800 with the discovery of the notes of Venetian patrician Marcantonio Michiel, a contemporary of Giorgione’s. Michiel had visited the homes of many patricians in Venice and the Veneto and jotted down brief notes and descriptions of the art works he saw.  In 1525 he saw a painting in the home of Taddeo Contarini that he described as follows:

The canvas picture in oil, representing three Philosophers in a landscape, two of them standing up and the other one seated, and looking up at the light, with the rock so wonderfully imitated, was commenced by Giorgio di Castelfranco and finished by Sebastiano Veneziano. *

This description settled the question of attribution and gave the painting its current label, but it did not settle the question of subject or interpretation. Most scholars have accepted Michiel’s identification of the three men in the painting, and have spent much time and effort trying to identify which philosophers they might be. Others believe that Michiel’s identification was mistaken and that the three men are the  biblical "three Kings" or “Magi” as they first behold the Star of Bethlehem.

In earlier posts I added my two cents to the controversy and argued that the colors of the garments of the three men are symbolic of the gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh offered by the Magi. I know that while gold is almost invariably the color of the eldest of the Magi, there is a no one color scheme for the other two. However, I would like to post here another depiction of the Magi attired in gold, red, and green.

Francia: Adoration of the Magi, c. 1499
Oil on panel, 16x23 inches

This one is by Francesco Raibolini (c. 1450-1517 Bologna) known simply as Francia to his contemporaries. It is a small "Adoration of the Magi" from about 1499 that I believe is in the Dresden Gemaldegalerie. Largely forgotten today, Francia was one of the most famous and respected painters of the late Quattrocentro. Please excuse the poor quality of the image but it is clear that the eldest Magi is clothed in gold, the middle-aged one in red, and the youngest in green. Perhaps Giorgione was not as innovative in this respect as I originally thought. As I mention in my essay, these colors could have been worn by the Magi in the frequent plays and processions that Venetians never seemed to tire of attending.

Giorgione: "Three Ages of Man", Pitti Palace

I also believe that “The Three Philosophers” was not the only instance in which Giorgione used colors symbolically to identify his religious figures rather than resorting to stock symbols. In the so-called “Three Ages of Man” that now hangs in the Pitti Palace, the colors of the garments of the three men are more than enough to identify them as Jesus, St. Peter, and the rich young man. St. Peter, in particular, is identified by his bright red robe, red being the color of martyrdom. Giorgione also used red for the tunic of the young man in the so-called “Boy with an Arrow.” That color should help to identify this mysterious figure holding an arrow as the martyr, St. Sebastian.

Giorgione: "Boy with an Arrow".

  For convenience I append my original essay on the "Three Philosophers" below.

*The Anonimo, Notes on Pictures and Works of Art in Italy made by an Anonymous Writer in the Sixteenth Century: ed. By George C. Williamson, London, 1903, p. 102.


   

                              Giorgione's "Three Philosophers."

The "Three Philosophers" is one of only a handful of paintings that scholars definitively attribute to the great Venetian Renaissance master, Giorgione. It was one of the highlights of the magnificent exhibition, "Bellini, Giorgione, Titian: The Renaissance in Venetian Art," which recently ended at the National Gallery in Washington.

At the symposium which ended the exhibition, one scholar entitled his talk, "The Moment of Giorgione." Another scholar who was given the task of summing up said that despite the greatness of the works by Titian and Bellini, the exhibition was all about "Giorgione." What did they mean?

Besides the universally acknowledged quality of the works attributed to Giorgione, there is an air of mystery about the painter. His death in Venice in 1510 at about the age of thirty cut short an incredibly promising career. Although Giorgio Vasari in his famous work on Renaissance painters devoted a whole chapter to Giorgione, there is little biographical data. Scholars think that he apprenticed in the workshop of the prolific Giovanni Bellini, but then went off on his own. He was either a mentor, colleague, or rival of the younger Titian who apparently completed some of Giorgione's unfinished paintings after his untimely death.

Giorgione was one of the first Italians to work with oil, a medium which enabled him to break new ground especially in landscape. His style, often called Giorgionesque, influenced Titian to such an extent that scholars often attribute the same paintings to one or the other, or sometimes to both. Moreover, there is an enigmatic quality about the works of Giorgione that is part of his fascination. He is the master of what is called "the hidden subject."

The "Three Philosophers" is a good example. This painting depicts three men standing on a hilltop overlooking a beautiful valley with the sun setting in the West behind a range of mountains. They are dressed in colorful Oriental robes and face a dark rock formation or cave. They and the cave are illuminated by another source of light. Who are they and what are they doing there?

In 1525 Marcantonio Michiel, a Venetian patrician and connoisseur, catalogued the paintings in the collection of Taddeo Contarini, another Venetian aristocrat, and described this one as "three philosophers in a Landscape." Two hundred and fifty years later the painting had found its way to the Kunsthistorische Museum in Vienna, its current home. In a 1783 catalog it was called, "Three Magi." Since them scholars have debated whether the men are philosophers, astronomers, surveyors, representatives of the three ages of man, representatives of three religions, or the Wise Men or Magi of the Biblical account.

Today, most scholars accept the "philosopher" interpretation even though they find it difficult to identify which ones. Indeed, the catalog of the National Gallery exhibition and the audio commentary dismissed the "Magi" interpretation. Nevertheless, recent findings suggest that the Magi are making a comeback.

In the catalog of the unprecedented Giorgione exhibition in 2004, a collaboration of the  Kunsthistorische Museum and the Accademia in Venice, one scholar argued that in this painting Giorgione depicted the Magi not at end of their journey but at the beginning, that is, when they first saw the Star of Bethlehem.. His most compelling point had to do with the lighting of the painting. If we look carefully, we can see the sun setting in the West behind the mountains, but the three men and the rock formation in the foreground are being illuminated by another source. According to the medieval legend which Giorgione apparently followed, the light of the Star which rose in the East was even brighter than the sun at midday.

Moreover, at the conclusion of the Symposium which ended the exhibition in the National Gallery another scholar offered a striking piece of evidence in support of the Magi. The exhibition itself had done an excellent job of educating the public on the value of using scientific techniques to evaluate the "underpainting" of some of these Renaissance masterpieces. X-rays and other techniques show many "pentimenti" or changes of mind on the part of the artists. When working with oils, the artists would frequently alter their paintings by painting over the original.

In the original version the old man on the right dressed in gold is wearing an elaborate headpiece crowned with a kind of solar disk. For some reason Giorgione decided to discard it in favor of a simple hood. Nevertheless, when the scholar projected an image on the huge screen of a painting by Vittore Carpaccio of the arrival of the Magi in Bethlehem, the old man in that painting was wearing the kind of headpiece discarded by Giorgione.

Perhaps both Carpaccio and Giorgione took their inspiration from the elaborate public processions honoring the Magi which were common in the later Medieval world. No where were they more elaborate than in Venice. More than any other city, Venice was aware of the styles and costumes of the Orient.

Finally, I believe that there is one more piece of evidence that so far has eluded scholars but will help to make the case for the Magi. The most obvious feature in the painting is the brilliant color of the costumes. In the ancient legend the gifts of the Magi were gold, frankincense, and myrrh. In the medieval legend, the oldest of the Magi was the bearer of the gold; the middle aged man carried the myrrh; and the youngest brought the frankincense. The golden garment of the oldest man needs no explanation. In my encyclopedia the color of myrrh is a dark red,  while the color of frankincense can be white or green, the colors of the sitting young man.

Could it be that Giorgione hid his subject by making it obvious? I think it more likely that most Venetians in 1506 would have certainly seen the Magi in this great masterpiece. 

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