Giorgione is the most mysterious and perhaps the greatest of all Venetian Renaissance artists. Mysterious not only because so little is known about his short life, but also because no other great painter’s work has led to so many questions of attribution and interpretation.
Giorgione was a “nickname” and contemporary documents refer to the painter as Zorzo da Castelfranco. Castelfranco is a walled town west of Treviso, about an hour away from Venice via modern commuter rail. We do not know how or when the young Giorgione arrived in Venice. In those days it is likely that he traveled down the Brenta to Padua and then on to Venice by canal. We do know that by the time of his death in 1510 at about the age of 33, he had become the favorite painter of the Venetian aristocracy.
The year of his death is one of the few things we know for sure about Giorgione. On October 25, 1510 Isabella d’Este, Marchioness of Mantua, asked Taddeo Albano, her agent in Venice, to acquire a Giorgione painting only to be informed that the young master had just died during a recurrence of the plague. The indefatigable collector was not deterred by the news. She told Albano that she had heard that there might be a beautiful “notte” among the late painter’s possessions, and that Albano should do all he could to get it.
we hear that among the possessions left by Zorzo da Castelfranco, the painter, there is a picture of a Notte, very beautiful and original. If this is the case, we wish to have it, and beg your Lorenzo da Pavia or any other person of taste and judgment to go and see if it is a really excellent thing. If it is, I hope you will endeavor to secure this picture for me,… Find out the price and let us have the exact sum; but if it is really a fine thing, and you think well to clench the bargain for fear others should carry it off, do what you think best…[i]
On November 8 Albano informed the Lady that it was too late.
Most illustrious and honoured Madama mia,--
I have spoken in your interests to some of my friends who were very intimate with him, and they assure me that there is no such picture among his possessions. It is true that the said Zorzo painted a Notte for M. Taddeo Contarini, which, according to the information which I have, is not as perfect as you would desire. Another picture of the Notte was painted by Zorzo for a certain Vittore Beccaro, which, from what I hear, is finer in design and better finished than that of Contarini. But Beccaro is not at present in Venice, and from what I hear neither picture is for sale, because the owners have had them painted for their own pleasure, so that I regret I am unable to satisfy Your Excellency’s wish.
This brief exchange not only tells us the approximate date of Giorgione’s death, but also hints at his status as a painter. Like most Venetian painters of his time Giorgione worked by commission, and his patrons appear to have come from the highest circles of Venetian society. Vittore Beccaro has disappeared from the view of history but Taddeo Contarini was a scion of one of the greatest patrician families. For centuries scholars have disagreed about what Isabella meant by a “Notte” but, whatever it was, it was painted for a leading Venetian citizen and art collector.
Scholars have only found a handful of documents concerning Giorgione in Venetian archives. These documents indicate the works involved and payment details. Most important is the commission to do the exterior fresco work on the newly rebuilt Fondaco dei Tedeschi, the home and commercial center for the German merchants and travelers in Venice. This commission alone indicates Giorgione’s elevated status in the Venetian art world. Only a fragment of his work on the Fondaco remains today.
|Giorgione: Fondaco fragment|
Recently a scholar working in the Venetian archives discovered an official inventory of Giorgione’s estate. The inventory, done in 1511, revealed that Giorgione left very little behind after his sudden death. Like other victims of the plague he apparently spent his last days in quarantine on the Lazaretto, a small island in the Venetian lagoon. No artworks, drawings, or possessions of much value were found. One would suspect that they were removed by friends or family before the inventory. The inventory also confirmed that Giorgione died without wife or legitimate children. Apparently, his stepmother was putting in the claim for his estate. Finally, the inventory appeared to indicate that Giorgione’s family in Castelfranco was the Gasparini family, and not the Barbarelli, as was long claimed by later generations of that family.[ii]
The above is all the contemporary, first hand information on Giorgione. However, around the year 1800 a collection of notes by an anonymous writer was discovered in Venice’s Marciana library by Abate Don Jacopo Morelli. The notes, made by an anonymous writer in the third and fourth decades of the sixteenth century, 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.”[iii]
Morelli was not sure of the name of the author of the notes, but later scholars identified him as Marcantonio Michiel, himself a Venetian patrician and collector. In addition to Venice, Michiel visited homes and religious institutions in Padua, Cremona, Milan, Pavia, Bergamo, and Crema. 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 Michiel’s notes provided a look into the collections of some of the greatest families in Renaissance Venice and also shed much light on the artists, especially Giorgione. Altogether Michiel mentioned eighteen works in the homes of seven collectors that were either by Giorgione, possibly by Giorgione, started by Giorgione but completed by another, or copies by others based on Giorgione.
However, there is little biographical information about Giorgione in Michiel’s notes. Only when he mentions a “birth of Paris,” does Michiel indicate that it was done early in Giorgione’s career. Still, his attributions and brief descriptions are one of the bases on which Giorgione scholarship must rest.
For example, in 1530, only twenty years after Giorgione’s death, Michiel saw the painting that would later be called the “Tempest” in the home of Gabriele Vendramin. He attributed it to Giorgio di Castelfranco and described it simply as, “ The little landscape on canvas, representing stormy weather and a gipsy woman with a soldier.” (123) Despite Michiel’s typically laconic description, this painting has been regarded ever since by artists, connoisseurs, poets, and novelists as one of the most beautiful and mysterious paintings in the history of Western art.
Almost as famous is the “Sleeping Venus”, now in Dresden, a painting that led famed art historian Kenneth Clark to claim that Giorgione was the creator of the Venetian nude. Michiel saw it in the home of Jeronimo Marcello in 1525, and described it as ”representing Venus, nude, sleeping in a landscape with Cupid.” (105) Although he attributed the painting to Giorgione, Michiel claimed that it was completed by Titian. The Cupid is no longer visible.
|Giorgione: Sleeping Venus|
In the same year Michiel saw three paintings by Giorgione in the home of the above-mentioned Taddeo Contarini. The best known was an oil painting that he described as “three Philosophers in a landscape”. This brief description of the “Three Philosophers”, now in Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum, is characteristic of Michiel. He did not label paintings but provided a description and an attribution whenever he could. (103)
|Giorgione: Three Philosophers|
We have practically no other contemporary information about Giorgione. Giorgio Vasari, whose Lives of the Painters is the great source for much of what we know about the Renaissance, was born in 1511, the year after Giorgione’s death. His brief biography of Giorgione was published in the first edition of the Lives in 1558. We will turn to Vasari’s account next.
[i] Isabella’s correspondence with Taddeo Albano can be found in Julia Cartwright, Isabella d’Este, Marchioness of Mantua, 1474-1539. London, 1932. For the Italian text see Jaynie Anderson, Giorgione, The Painter of Poetic Brevity, 1997, p. 362.
[ii] Segre, Renata: “A Rare Document on Giorgione”, Burlington Magazine, June, 2011, 383-386.
[iii] 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. Page numbers for citations are in brackets.