In my interpretation of the Tempest as the "Rest of the Holy Family on the Flight into Egypt," I identified the nude Woman nursing her infant as the Madonna, and the colorfully dressed man on the side as St. Joseph watching over his family. I explained the nudity of the Woman as Giorgione's attempt to depict Mary as the Immaculate Conception. In offering this interpretation, I understood that there were many others but felt encouraged back in 2005 by the fact that there was no agreement on the subject of the famous painting. This year I have been revisiting my reviews of some of the other interpretations. Below is a review of an interpretation that finds the subject in Plato's Symposium.
In 2008 Regina Stefaniak published her interpretation of the Tempest based on her reading of Plato's Symposium. Despite her obvious erudition and exhaustive notes, Stefaniak’s interpretation is a torturous attempt to fit the pieces of the painting into a puzzle that only an art historian could imagine. Her paper, “On Founding Fathers and the Necessity of Place, Giorgione’s Tempesta,” appeared in Artibus and Historiae, (XXIX, No. 58, 2008, pp. 121-155).
Before we get into her thesis I would like to note a couple of points. One is immediately alerted by her description of the child in the painting when she calls it ”newly-born.” In another place she uses the term “post-partum” to describe the woman. A new born baby could never hold its head erect as does the nursing child in the Tempest. The child is obviously supporting itself while it nurses at the mother’s breast. Secondly, like some others she claims that the storm in the background is about to engulf the figures in the foreground, despite the laws of perspective that would place the storm miles away. She sees the winds of the storm blowing in the trees.
Next, she introduces the figure of Gabriele Vendramin, the owner of the painting when it was seen by Marcantonio Michiel in 1525, but doesn’t quite say that he was the original patron. Nevertheless, as her argument progresses it becomes clear that she assumes that Vendramin was the original patron, and by the end of her paper much of her thesis rests on that assumption. A good case can be made for Vendramin but there is no direct proof that he was the patron. We know that paintings were bought and sold and traded during this period. In his will Vendramin, himself, had to urge his executors not to break up or sell his collection.
Speaking of Vendramin’s collection, a glance at Michiel’s notes shows that with the exception of a few contemporary portraits and the "little landscape" that we now call the Tempest, all the paintings and drawings were of sacred subjects, including a Flight into Egypt.
Let’s turn to her description of the painting. For Stefaniak the Man and the Woman represent Wealth and Poverty, a theme derived from a story in Plato’s Symposium. The story deals with the seduction of the drunken god of wealth, Poros, by the impoverished nymph, Poenia. The child of their union is Eros. The Man then is a Venetian patrician who appears as a kind of country gentleman: a shepherd who does not have to work, whose staff is not exactly a crozier, and who has no flock. The Woman is a kind of earth mother. Actually, it is impossible to do justice to all the intricacies of Stefaniak’s interpretation for even though she rightly critiques other theories, she winds up including many of them in her own complex presentation. Indeed, at one point she says that Giorgione must have had a humanist advisor in order to depict all the different levels of meaning. She also suggests that Vendramin must have been pleased to know that he was the only one who knew the real subject of the painting.
Stefaniak includes a discussion of the mysterious bathing woman that Giorgione painted over. However, like all the others who conjecture about this pentimento, she declines to discuss or even mention the other, pentimento; the little man on the bridge carrying a pilgrim’s staff and bundle. Is there a pilgrim in Plato? Finally, she omits to discuss the plant prominently placed in front of the nursing woman. What is it? Why is it there?
Finally, it is interesting to note that Stefaniak draws a comparison between the Tempest and Leonardo's Madonna of the Rocks. Although the latter painting was done for a chapel of the Immaculate Conception, she believes the depiction of the Madonna in an underground cave also derives from a passage in Plato. Actually, the subject of either version of the so-called Madonna of the Rocks is actually the Meeting of the Madonna and Child with the young John the Baptist on the Return from Egypt, a subject very popular at the time.