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".

Saturday, November 28, 2020

Titian: Presentation of the Virgin

Today I republish my review article on David Rosand's magisterial interpretation of Titian's  Presentation of the Virgin. This article originally appeared here in September 2017 but I inadvertently deleted it. Despite the depth and comprehensiveness of Rosand's interpretation, I did disagree with him on one point. Back in 2012, I argued that the old woman featured prominently in the foreground was  Anna, the prophetess, who appeared in the biblical account of the Presentation of Mary's infant son. I include my opinion at the end of this review.  


David Rosand’s essay, “Titian’s Presentation of the Virgin in the Temple and the Scuola della Carita” appeared in the Art Bulletin in March, 1976. * It would be hard to imagine a more thorough and better researched paper than this one by the late Columbia professor who during his long career became one of the leaders in the field of the Venetian Renaissance.

In his essay Rosand proposed to “take a new look at Titian’s painting, to consider it on its own terms, the details of the composition as well as its broader contexts….” He examined the patronage, the social function of the picture, the position of the image within the history of its type, the relationship of the picture to its physical site, as well as the conditions under which it was to be seen. 

He stressed that he was departing from the traditional nineteenth and early twentieth century view of the painting as an example of Renaissance naturalism with little attention to its iconography. Rosand’s study is primarily iconographical. He demonstrated that practically every detail in the painting is important, and that all the details fit together to form a unified whole. 

In this brief review I would like to highlight some of the most significant iconographic details that Rosand explored as a guide to viewing the painting. I would also like to disagree with his analysis on one significant point.  

Titian’s painting is still in the place in which it was originally meant to be seen although the nature of the site has changed around it. Venice’s Accademia, its famous art museum, was originally the church of S. Maria della Carita, the home of the Confraternity della Carita, one of the leading social and charitable organizations in sixteenth century Venice. 

Around 1534 the confraternity commissioned Titian to do a painting of the Presentation of the Virgin for a particular wall in one of its rooms. The Presentation was a very popular subject in Renaissance Venice both before and after the Reformation. The subject was based on the legendary story of Joachim and Anne, the parents of Mary. Giotto had immortalized the story back in the thirteenth century on the walls of the Scrovegni or Arena chapel in nearby Padua.


According to the legend Joachim was a prosperous sheep raiser whose offering was rejected by the priests of the Temple because he and his wife were childless, a sign of divine disfavor. Banned from the Temple, Joachim left his wife and went to live in the fields with his shepherds and flocks. However, he made an offering in the wilderness and not only was it accepted by God, but he was also told to return home to his wife, Anne, who had also been given a sign that they will be blessed with a child.  They met at the Golden Gate of the city, exchanged a kiss, and Anne conceived and bore a daughter Mary. In thanksgiving the joyous couple resolved to offer their child to service in the Temple.

The offering of the child is the focal point of Titian’s painting although Titian depicts her ascending the steps seemingly on her own volition in much the same way that she appears to rise on her own in his earlier Assunta. Rosand noted that Titian surrounded the young Mary with “a full mandorla of golden light”, something unprecedented and full of meaning.

the Virgin does indeed rival and outshine the natural light entering through the windows of the room; she is the light beyond the light of nature, a radiance more brilliant than the sun….The wisdom texts, the basis of the Marian celebration, afford then a means of reading Titian’s Presentation, allowing us to determine the significance of many of its supposedly merely picturesque details within the context of a controlling thematic structure. [68]


Instead of mere naturalistic, pictorial details, the sunlight, the clouds, and the mountains in the background all relate to the theme of the painting: “the diffusion of … divine light into the world. “

Rising behind the pyramid is a great cumulus cloud, its luminous shape dominating the left side of the canvas….one ought to expect this form, moving so majestically over the landscape, to assume a meaning beyond its obvious naturalistic function. And I would suggest that this meaning derives from the same wisdom texts with which Titian was so evidently familiar. {Ecclesiasticus 24: 5-7} “as a cloud I covered all the earth: I dwell in the highest places, and my throne is a pillar of cloud.” In this form the divinity presides over Titian’s landscape, becoming with the pyramid a monumental hieroglyph of the divine immanence, while on the opposite side of the picture the Virgin’s radiance speaks of its ultimate incarnation for the salvation of mankind. [70]

In a section entitled “Dramatis Personae”, Rosand identified the various onlookers to the Virgin’s ascent up the steps of the Temple. He rejected the opinion of Vasari and others that these were merely portraits of contemporaries including Titian himself. The main characters relate to the theme of the painting and derive from scriptural sources.

Oddly enough Joachim and Anne, the parents of Mary, while centrally placed, are somewhat obscured. Joachim stands with his back to the viewer with his hand on his wife’s shoulder. Anne wears a little cap and certainly does not stand out as do other women in the painting.


Rosand followed the lead of Leo Steinberg in identifying the young woman dressed in gold and white at the foot of the steps as Mary’s elder cousin, Elizabeth, the future mother of John the Baptist.  

 

The beautiful young woman at the foot of the stairs, so often carelessly identified as Anna, acquires by her prominence within the composition a rather distinctive significance…. care has been taken to distinguish her from the rest of the procession. Dressed in gold and white, stately yet modest, seen in pure profile, she seems to reflect in her larger person the figure of the Virgin herself, and this connection is made explicit by the indication of her companion. [73-4]


Again following Steinberg’s suggestion, Rosand identified the younger priest at the top of the stairs as another major figure in the Infancy narrative, Zacharias, the future husband of Elizabeth. 

At the top of the stairs stands the second priest, receiving special focus by the upturned glance of the young acolyte; he too is in profile, but facing left. These two figures…are isolated as a couple within the composition, formally responding to one another across the distance of the staircase. 

Rosand departed from earlier guesses and argued that the figures at the left of the painting, dressed mainly in black, must be the patrons. “The eight obvious portraits in Titian’s picture must surely represent the chief officers of the Carita…” In particular, the one in red must be the Guardino Grande who for solemn feasts would be dressed in “crimson robes and ducal sleeves.” [74]


The woman at the left holding a baby and stretching out her hand is a mendicant, a personification of Charity, the primary work of the confraternity. “Titian elevates her, or rather the entire action to the status of a personification, or enactment, of Caritas…”


Finally, at the outset of his paper Rosand admitted that the old woman looking on besides the steps has perhaps been the greatest single mystery of the painting. 

The old egg-seller in front of the stairs has inspired more comment than any other single figure in the composition. [56]

 He noted that most interpreters see her as a mere “pictorial detail” but argued that she represented much more. Panofsky had seen her as a personification of Judaism but Rosand was more specific. 

Instead of a representatives of the Jews as such, we have here, then, a personification of Synagogue. And it is to this tradition that Titian’s old egg-seller, as the unreconstructed Synagogue, belongs. [72]

However, his description of the traditional appearance of Synagogue does not fit his explanation.

an old woman dressed in tattered black garments. In her right hand she holds, inverted, the Tablets of the Law; in her left is the broken Roman vexillum, a red banner emblazoned with the gold letters S.P.Q.R [73]

Actually, the figure in black behind the two priests at the top of the stairs fits the description better. 

The egg-seller is old but her clothing indicates an elevated, even exalted status. Her gown is the same blue as the young Virgin’s and her head is covered with a white shawl that Titian had sometimes used in depictions of the Madonna. Rosand had argued that the gold and white of Elizabeth’s garments indicated her status but why ignore the garments of the old woman. Cima da Conegliano in an earlier version of the Presentation, that is often compared with Titian’s, also clothed the egg seller in blue and white. 


I believe that the old woman could very well be Anna the Prophetess, who appeared in the gospel account of the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple. Scripture records that she had been a Temple denizen for years and it is not hard to imagine that Venetian artists would have wanted to also depict her attendance at the Presentation of Mary. 

It is true that she does not look at the young Mary ascending the steps. But her back is turned to the Temple and she looks toward or perhaps past the assembled figures who are also illuminated by the divine light that comes from the left. 

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*David Rosand: Titian’s Presentation of the Virgin in the Temple and the Scuola della Carita. The Art Bulletin, Vol. 58. No. 1 (Mar., 1976), pp. 55-84.

Thursday, November 12, 2020

Lorenzo Lotto: Mystic Marriage of St. Catherine



In my interpretation of Giorgione's Tempest as "The Rest on the Flight into Egypt" I explained the reasons why Giorgione chose to portray St. Joseph as a virile, young man. Shortly after Giorgione's death, contemporaries like Paris Bordone, and Lorenzo Lotto also painted virile, youthful St. Josephs in depictions of the Mystic Marriage of St. Catherine. Here is a discussion of Lotto's version.



A painting by Lorenzo Lotto of the Mystic Marriage of St. Catherine provides another example of a young, virile St. Joseph by a contemporary of Giorgione. The painting is in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna where the man is still identified as St. James. Here St. Joseph kneels next to St. Catherine who gazes at him and not at the infant Christ. They are obviously exchanging vows. Joseph acts a proxy for the marriage of the infant Child, and the legendary Queen of Alexandria. Joseph is shown with his staff but his virile good looks and the spear-point at the end of the staff have led scholars astray.

In his work on Lotto, Bernard Berenson identified the kneeling man as St. James the Greater but provided no explanation. In the catalog of the 1997/1998 Lotto exhibition at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, Peter Humfrey identified the man as St. Thomas because of the spear.* A decade later in the Bellini, Giorgione, Titian exhibition in Vienna, however, the man was still identified as St. James. There is no good reason for either St. James or St. Thomas to be in the desert participating in the mystic marriage of St. Catherine.

On at least two occasions, and at about the same time as Lotto, Paris Bordone painted the mystic marriage of Catherine with a rustic-looking, vigorous Joseph playing a prominent role.




One of Bordone’s versions was featured in the same Bellini, Giorgione, Titian exhibition. In that painting Joseph’s muscular, bare foreleg is evidence of his role as the proxy for the mystic union of Catherine with the Christ child. The other version is at the Hermitage and also features the muscular, bare leg. In that version the Madonna has already passed the infant Christ to Joseph.

In Lotto’s painting the Madonna holds the child out to observe the ceremony. In the Lotto catalog Peter Humfrey noted that the painting “is first recorded by Marco Boschini in his 1660 Venetian dialect poem La Carts del Navigar Pittoresco.” Boschini identified the man as St. Joseph. "The majesty to be found in the venerable and devout old St. Joseph is for me expressed by only one brush: a brush that is most singular and memorable!" 

Boschini’s description of Joseph as old, “vechiarelo,” is belied by the saint’s dark beard, full head of hair, and robust physique. In Humfrey’s opinion Boschini’s “accurate evocation of the pictorial qualities of the work is remarkable,” but he claimed that the identification of St. Joseph was “mistaken.” Humfrey believed that it was unlikely that Boschini had actually seen the painting in person, and that the spear-point told against St. Joseph. It is true that a point on the end of Joseph’s spear must be explained but on the whole it is much easier to explain that small item than it is to explain the presence of either St. James or St. Thomas at the marriage of Catherine, or the absence of St. Joseph from this familiar scene.

Years after writing this post in 2011, I can only guess that Joseph's protective role had assumed a martial aspect. The Man in the Tempest was called a "soldier" by a Venetian observer two decades after Giorgione's death mainly, I believe, because of his pose. But he carried a staff, a tradition associated with St. Joseph. For some reason, followers of Giorgione added a spear point to the staff, or even turned it into a halberd.**

Palma Vecchio or follower
Philadelphia Museum



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 *Lorenzo Lotto, Rediscovered Master of the Renaissance, New Haven, 1997. Catalog #31. “Virgin and Child with Saints Catherine of Alexandria and Thomas,” c. 1528-1530, oil on canvas, 113.5 x 152, Kunsthistorische Museum, Vienna.

** See the discussion of this painting in the previous post at Giorgione et al...


Saturday, October 31, 2020

Palma Vecchio: Allegory, or Sacred Subject

 There is a painting, identified as Allegory, in the Philadelphia Museum of Art that bears a striking resemblance to Giorgione’s Tempest, even though there is no trace of a storm.


Palma Vecchio: Allegory

Edgar Wind, who identified the subject of the Tempest as “Fortezza e Carita,” pointed out the resemblance in his 1969 study, "Giorgione’s Tempesta."

This subject. Fortezza e Carita, was trivialized, inevitably, by some of Giorgione’s disciples. A Giorgionesque painting in the collection of the Marquess of Northampton and a painting by Palma Vecchio in the Philadelphia Museum omit the ominous character of the storm-swept landscape but retain the easy contrast between a soldier leaning on his lance and a woman seated on the ground, with a child or two. (p. 3)
In a footnote, Wind elaborated.

In Palma Vecchio’s tame conversation piece, which might be called ‘The Peaceable Warrior (ex bello pax)’, the children play like Eros and Anteros, whose mythological parents were Mars and Venus....The lethargic guardsman in this picture is a surprisingly weak invention, particularly if compared with the fine paraphrase of Giorgione's soldier in the altarpiece for Santo Stefano in Vicenza... (p, 21, n.13).

In the Philadelphia Museum website the painting is given the title “Allegory,” and is attributed to “a follower of Palma il Vecchio.” It is dated 1510. About 10 years ago, a curator at the Museum very kindly allowed my wife and I to view this spectacular painting that was in a basement studio under restoration. It is a very large canvas, much larger than the Tempest, and despite the need for restoration it is still a beautiful painting. The Museum's website indicates that it is still not on public view.

I believe that this painting is a version of an episode deriving from the brief scriptural account of the   "Flight into Egypt.” The man is St. Joseph, dressed as a young Venetian patrician, standing watch over the Madonna who is seated on the left. The two children are the Christ child and John the Baptist, who is also identified by the lamb in the background. John is often introduced into the Flight into Egypt legend when he meets the Holy Family in the desert on their return from Egypt, a very common subject at the time.

The other painting mentioned by Wind is now on loan to the Fogg Art Museum. Attributed by Wind to a “Follower” of Giorgione, there are three figures in a landscape. In the foreground a fully clothed plainly dressed woman sits on the ground with her infant son standing beside her supported by her arm. She is left of center and looks to the right in the direction of an armored soldier standing guard. He leans not on a staff but on a formidable looking halberd. For Wind the subject of the painting was an allegory, “Fortezza and Carita,” the same subject he claimed for the Tempesta.

Follower of Giorgione: Rustic Idyll

This painting should be recognized as a version of "The Rest on the Flight into Egypt." The only objections would be the plainly dressed Madonna and the armed virile Joseph.

In each painting Joseph’s traditional staff has become a halberd, the weapon of choice of the famed Swiss soldiers who had been introduced into Italy a few years earlier by Pope Julius II. Why is Joseph now being presented as an armed and armored protector of the Madonna and Child? Perhaps the Cambrai war required Joseph to take on a more martial aspect. It seems that it would be easier to answer that question than to try to fit these two paintings, which bear a striking resemblance to the Tempest, into an allegorical interpretation.

Another question arises about the plainness of the woman's attire in each painting. It is so plain that viewers have argued that the women are gypsies. When Marcantonio Michiel, a Venetian patrician and art collector, saw the Tempest in 1530 in the home of patrician Gabriele Vendramin, he described it as "the little landscape on canvas, representing stormy weather and a gipsy woman with a soldier..."* 

Giorgione Tempest

Of course the woman in the Tempest is nude but in the twenty years following Giorgione's death in 1510, paintings like the two discussed above might have led to Michiel's faulty description. 

Why did Marcantonio Michiel mistakenly identify the nude woman and the man in the Tempest as “a gipsy woman with a soldier”? After all, the nude woman nursing an equally nude infant does not resemble contemporary descriptions of a gypsy. Moreover, the young man’s posture might resemble that of a soldier but he is neither armed nor armored.

It seems obvious that Michiel’s notes were hastily drawn and fragmentary but why did he guess “a gipsy woman with a soldier” for the two characters in the famous landscape? I would like to offer the following as an hypothesis that would also apply to the two paintings mentioned above..

In one of his sermons Savonarola criticized the artists of his time for depicting the Madonna dressed in splendor and finery. He said, “think ye that the Virgin should be painted, as ye paint her? I tell ye that she went clothed as a beggar.”

This quotation from Savonarola’s “Prediche sopra Amos e Zaccaria,” is found in Professor Pasquale Villari’s monumental biography of Savonarola, originally published in 1888 after years of research in original sources, many of which he discovered hidden in Florentine archives. In his work Professor Villari devoted a few pages to the famous or infamous Dominican friar’s views on art and poetry. **

Villari disputed the notion, popular in his time and even more popular in ours, that Savonarola was a reactionary opponent of Art, Poetry, and Learning. Although known to popular history as the moving force behind the “Bonfire of the Vanities,” Savonarola was respected and admired by contemporary artists and philosophers including Botticelli and Michelangelo, "who, in his old age, constantly read and reread the Friar’s sermons, and never forgot the potent charm of that orator’s gestures and voice.”

In the beginning of the sixteenth century it would appear that attempts were made to portray the Madonna as a poor beggar especially in paintings depicting scenes from the Flight into Egypt. So even though Giorgione did not paint a “gypsy” woman or a soldier in the Tempest, the similarity of this painting with depictions of a Madonna dressed like a beggar in the desert with a protector standing guard might have led to Michiel’s mistake 20 years later.

Although most art historians have rejected Michiel's description, in 1995 Paul Holberton argued that the woman in the Tempest really was indeed a gypsy and offered a number of arguments and illustrations to prove his point. He went so far as to argue that some images, usually taken for the Madonna, were actually gypsy women. **

Holberton came so close. If he could only have seen the Tempest as Giorgione’s version of the "Rest on the Flight into Egypt", so much of his evidence would have fallen easily into place. Instead of claiming that identifications of images of the Madonna were mistaken, he should have asked why the Madonna came to be depicted wearing a gypsy headdress in some of the paintings he describes.

De' Barbari: Holy Family

For example, at one point he argued that a de’ Barbari drawing could not be a Holy Family because of the gypsy headpiece of the woman. Yet, Correggio painted a Madonna and Child where the Madonna appears with a similar headpiece, and it is commonly called La Zingarella.

Correggio: Madonna and Child

Edgar Wind was correct to see the similarity between the Tempest and the "Allegory" in the Philadelphia Museum, and "The Rustic Idyll" in the Fogg Art Museum, but we can now see them all as derived from the Flight into Egypt, one of the most common sources in the art of the Venetian Renaissance.

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*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. 123.

**Professor Pasquale Villari, Life and Times of Girolamo Savonarola, New York, tenth edition, 1909. pp. 495-499.

***Paul Holberton: “Giorgione’s Tempest”, Art History, vol. 18, no. 3, September 1995. (Holberton has posted the article on his website with a slide show.)