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, May 13, 2016

Giorgione: The Tempest

Today marks the tenth anniversary of the publication in the Masterpiece section of the Wall Street Journal of my interpretation of Giorgione's Tempest as The Rest on the Flight into Egypt. The editor gave it the equivocal headline, "A Renaissance Mystery Solved?" I reproduce the brief essay below while a larger and more recent interpretation can be found at my website, MyGiorgione.


I cannot say that my interpretation has taken the world by storm. I've sent it to most of the leading scholars in the field and only a handful have had the courtesy to even reply or acknowledge receipt. Academic publications have turned it down but I did get a chance to read it at the annual meeting of the Renaissance Society of America held in Venice in 2010, the five hundredth anniversary of Giorgione's death. It was a huge conference but only about fifteen people turned up to hear a paper by an unknown independent scholar. 

The experience in Venice led me to turn to the web as a means of publishing my work. I created MYGiorgione as an archive, and then began, with the great help of my late friend, Hasan Niyazi, to create this blog which by last month has received over 250000 page views. The website contains subsequent discoveries like my interpretation of Giorgione's 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 the Recently Deceased Giorgione.

A Renaissance Mystery Solved?, Wall St. Journal, May 13, 2016.



No great work of art has mystified art historians and critics more than Giorgione’s “Tempesta,” one of a handful of paintings definitively attributed to the Venetian Renaissance master. After his untimely death in 1510 of the plague at about the age of 30, most of his paintings were either lost or completed by others, especially his colleague, Titian.


Although little is known of his life, Giorgione was apparently apprenticed to the great Giovanni Bellini at the outset of his career, and certainly was a major influence on Titian. In June the National Gallery in Washington will be hosting a Bellini, Giorgione, Titian exhibition.


While the “Tempesta” is universally admired as a pioneering work of landscape art because of its dramatic use of color and shadow, art historians have not been able to agree on the subject matter of this masterpiece of the High Renaissance. More than the painting itself, it was the mystery about its subject matter that first attracted me to it, and which prompted a trip to Venice last year.


This relatively small painting (82x73cm.) currently hangs in the Accademia in Venice. Over a hundred years ago my favorite travel author, Edward Hutton, described it as “a delicious landscape of green and shady valley, of stream and ruin and towering country town.” The town is visible in the background and above it, clouds and a flash of lightning indicate that a storm is raging. In the middle distance, separated from the town by a bridge, are overgrown ruins and two broken columns. In a glade in the foreground, a nude woman nursing an infant sits on the right, while on the left, a young man dressed in contemporary Venetian clothing holds a long staff.


Although never named by Giorgione himself, the painting is usually called “La Tempesta” because of the storm. Sometimes it is called “The Soldier and the Gypsy,” even though critics have pointed out that the man is not a soldier and the nude woman is not a gypsy.


One tends to accept works of art at face value, particularly when they are as famous as this one. But one question struck me: Why is the woman nude? Other than a white cloth draped around her shoulder, there is no sign of any clothing. After all, it isn’t necessary for a woman to completely undress to nurse a baby. I believe that if the nursing woman were clothed, the subject would be immediately recognizable for what it is: a “Flight of the Holy Family into Egypt.”


The “Flight” is a common subject in the history of art. It illustrates a passage from the Gospel of St. Matthew in which Jesus, Mary and Joseph, escaping from the deadly designs of King Herod, find an idyllic rest stop upon arrival in Egypt. Giorgione’s painting has all the elements common to a “Flight” image: Mary holding or nursing the baby Jesus; Joseph standing off to the side or in the background; a town in the distance; and ruins.


Why ruins? Emile Male, the great French art historian, pointed out that it was common for medieval artists to draw on the legend of the “Fall of Idols” when painting the “Flight.” According to it, when the infant Jesus entered Egypt, all the idols crumbled. Artists commonly used broken columns to represent this episode.


Giorgione was a master of artistic narrative. In this painting the Holy Family has left Judea and its dangers, symbolized by the storm, behind. They have crossed the bridge and stream representing the border between Judea and Egypt. They have entered Egypt and the idols, symbolized by the broken columns, lie broken behind them. We notice that the tempest is raging in the distance. The glade in which they rest is serene. Now they rest in safety.


It is only the depiction of the man and the woman that has deterred experts from recognizing this painting as the ”Flight into Egypt.” Joseph is usually portrayed as an old man by Medieval artists. Nevertheless, in the 15th century he began to be depicted as a young, virile carpenter. In Raphael’s depiction of the marriage of Joseph and Mary, the ”Sposalizio,” Joseph appears to be about the same age as Giorgione’s man. Italians especially found it unseemly to show Mary being married to an old man.


But why the nude Madonna? The explanation lies in the Catholic doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, a doctrine of which every Venetian would have been aware. Simply put it was the belief that Mary from the first moment of her existence had been created free from the stain of original sin which every other descendant of Adam and Eve had inherited.


The concept of Mary’s Immaculate Conception had been vigorously debated by theologians during the previous 250 years. The great advocates of the doctrine were the Franciscans; whose center in Venice, the “Frari” became a virtual shrine to the Immaculate Conception. Special impetus to the belief had been given by Pope Sixtus IV, himself a Franciscan, in 1476 when he added the feast of the Conception to the liturgy of the entire Western Church.


Theologians called Mary the new or second Eve. Artists had difficulty in expressing this increasingly popular doctrine. By Giorgione’s time they had not yet come up with the now familiar image of the “Woman Clothed with the Sun” from the Book of Revelation. Giorgione had the unprecedented audacity to portray a nude Madonna as Eve would have appeared in the Garden of Eden before the Fall.


Nothing is in Giorgione’s painting by accident. The white cloth on which the Madonna sits is a symbol of the winding sheet or burial cloth of Christ. Franciscans regarded Mary as the altar on which the Eucharist rested. The altar was always covered with a white cloth.


Finally, in front of the Madonna a scraggly bush rises out of bare rock. Artists frequently used plants or flowers symbolically to identify characters. From the way it is growing, the plant could be a member of the nightshade family, a common plant found in Italy at the time. The most well known form of nightshade is the aptly named “belladonna.” This plant is associated with witchcraft and the Devil. Is that why the plant below the heel of the Woman has withered and died?


Francis P. DeStefano


5/13/2006

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