Since 2010 I have been using this site to discuss my interpretations of famous Renaissance paintings including 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"; Titian's "Pastoral Concert" as his "Homage to Giorgione", and Michelangelo's"Doni Tondo." The full papers can now be found at

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Giorgione: Madonna and Child

For 500 years the universal admiration of Giorgione's Tempest has gone hand in hand with the universal disagreement about the "subject " and meaning of the painting. In my paper I identified the subject of the Tempest as "The Rest of the Holy Family on the Flight into Egypt." Even though no one has seen the Madonna and Child in this painting before, there is evidence that some gifted observers have caught a glimpse of the meaning of the Tempest without being aware of its real subject.

Timothy Verdon in a study of the spiritual world of Piero della Francesca offered a clue to the understanding of symbols and symbolism.

"For, as Marcia Eliade's studies of symbolism confirm, 'symbols address themselves not only to the awakened consciousness, but to the totality of the psychic life. Consequently, we do not have the right to conclude that the message of symbols is confined to the meanings of which a certain number of individuals are fully conscious....Depth psychology has taught us that the symbol delivers its message and fulfills its function even when its meaning escapes awareness.'" [Timothy Verdon, "The Spiritual world of Piero's Art," The Cambridge Companion to Piero della Francesca, edited by Jeryldene M. Wood, Cambridge, 2002, pp. 44-45]

It is certainly a mark of Giorgione's greatness as an artist that the three viewers quoted below came close to the true meaning of the Tempest without being aware of the actual "subject" of the painting.

First, George Gordon Lord Byron, the famous English Romantic poet, saw the Tempest while it was still in private hands, and described it as the family of Giorgione. The woman of the Tempest appears to have impressed him more profoundly than the others he met on his sojourn in Venice.

Beppo: A Venetian Story. (1818)

(a picture by Giorgione)


"Whose tints are truth and beauty at their best;
And when you to Manfrini's palace go,
That picture (howsoever fine the rest);
Is loveliest to my mind of all the show;
It may perhaps be also to your zest,
And that's the cause I rhyme upon it so:
'T is but a portrait of his son, and wife,
And self; but such a woman! love in life!


Love in full life and length, not love ideal,
No, nor ideal beauty, that fine name,
But something better still, so very real,
That the sweet model must have been the same;
A thing that you would purchase, beg, or steal,
Were 't not impossible, besides a shame:
The face recalls some face, as 't were with pain,
You once have seen, but ne'er will see again.


One of those forms which flit by us, when we
Are young, and fix our eyes on every face;
And, oh! the loveliness at times we see
In momentary gliding, the soft grace,
The youth, the bloom, the beauty which agree,
In many a nameless being we retrace,
Whose course and home we knew not, nor shall know
Like the lost Pleiad seen no more below.

Early in the next century Edward Hutton, another Englishman who fell in love with Italy and who spent practically the whole of his life there, came across the Tempest in the home of Prince Giovanelli. In "Venice and Venetia", one of his many books on Italian history, art, and culture, Hutton described the treasures of the Palazzo Giovanelli:

"the greatest of these is the picture by Giorgione, which has passed under various names—the family of Giorgione, or simply the Gipsy and the Soldier—which in itself sums up all that we mean by the Giorgionesque in painting. There we see, in a delicious landscape of green and shady valley, of stream and ruin and towered country town, a woman nude but for a cape about her shoulders giving her breast to her child in the shadow of the trees by a quiet stream. On the other side of this jeweled brook a young man like a soldier—or is it a shepherd?—stands resting on a great lance or crook and seems to converse with her. Close by are ruins of some classical building overgrown by moss and lichen, and half hidden in the trees, and not far off up the stream in the sunset we see the towers and walls and roofs and domes of a little town with its bridge across the stream leading to the great old fortified gate of the place. But what chiefly attracts us in the work is something dreamlike too, though wholly of this our world, an air of music which seems to come to us from the noise of the brook or the summer wind in the trees, or the evening bells that from far off we seem to hear ring Ave Maria. One of the golden moments of life has been caught here for ever and perfectly expressed. Heaven, it seems, the kingdom of Heaven, is really to be found in our midst, and Giorgione has contrived a miracle the direct opposite of that of Angelico; for he found all the flowers of Tuscany and the byways of the world in far-off Paradise, but Giorgione has found Paradise itself here in our world. And we must remember that such a work as this was the true invention of Giorgione."

The Tempest is the centerpiece of Mark Helprin’s epic novel of WW I, "A Soldier of the Great War." Helprin is a modern day authority on global politics and warfare, who also happens to be a gifted novelist. In the following passage Alessandro, the protagonist, grieving over the loss of his lover returns to Venice to view the painting that somehow had expressed their love.

Alessandro turned away and walked through the wide portals from room to room, until he was in the presence of Giorgione's painting.

"That is La Tempesta," the guard said, having stuck right by him.

"I see," Alessandro said.

“It's very beautiful, and no one knows what it means."

"What do you think it means?" Alessandro asked.

"I think it's going to rain and that guy is wondering why she's going to take a bath."

"Probably that's it."

"They say no one will ever know."

"It was to have been the story of my life," Alessandro said with the kind of affection that one devotes to defeat that has come so close to victory as to be able to kiss it. "I was a soldier, the world was battered in a storm, and she was under a canopy of light, untouched, the baby in her arms." ...

.. Alessandro could feel the high wind coming and hear the tattle of the leaves in the trees as they shuddered and swayed. As the rain approached the light seemed both tranquil and doomed. The soldier was serene because he had been through many a storm, and the woman was serene because she had at her breast the reason for all history and the agent of its indefatigable energy. Between them floated a bolt of lightning that joined and consecrated them.

"Sometimes," the guard said, "people come in here and stare at this painting for a long time, and they cry."

Mark Helprin, "A Soldier of the Great War," New York, 1991. pp. 701-702.

Byron, Hutton, Helprin--three wise men.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Giorgione Princeton Symposium

"Giorgione and His Times: Confronting Alternate Realities." A symposium honoring Patricia Fortini Brown on the 500th anniversary of the death of Giorgione.

Below find my report of this Symposium held at Princeton University on December 11, 2010. Please bear in mind that it is only my recollection of the Giorgione Symposium, I did not have access to any of the papers beforehand, and it was difficult to take notes in the often darkened auditorium.

As the title indicated the Princeton symposium had a dual purpose. In the first place, it was designed to honor Patricia Fortini Brown, Professor Emeritus of Art and Archaeology at Princeton, on her retirement this year after 27 years at Princeton. During those years it would appear that she had been largely responsible for making Princeton a center of Venetian Renaissance studies.

The symposium featured talks by four major scholars but all twelve respondents were either former or current students of Professor Brown. They gave quite an impressive display of their indebtedness to their mentor.

The second purpose of the Symposium was to commemorate the 500th anniversary of Giorgione’s death in 1510. As far as I know this was the only such event in the United States this year.

In Italy two exhibitions had been mounted to honor the anniversary. The first was in Giorgione’s home town of Castelfranco Veneto about an hour by train from Venice. It featured the “Tempest”, on loan from the Accademia in Venice, and included an extraordinary catalog representing a lifetime of work by Enrico Maria Dal Pozzolo. The Castelfranco exhibition ended last April.

This Fall the city of Padua mounted a Giorgione exhibition that also included the “Tempest”. Remarkably, this exhibition, which will end in January, produced a video that argued very persuasively that the city in the background of Giorgione’s most famous painting was indeed Padua.

The Princeton commemoration was much more modest. The Princeton Museum mounted ten paintings and prints by Giorgione contemporaries including a fragment of a painting sometimes attributed to Giorgione himself. This severely trimmed painting depicts a nude infant alone on a hillside. It looks like an infant Christ but without other figures, it is impossible to say. The Museum card accepted the traditional title of the exposed “Paris on Mount Ida.”

The Symposium produced some thoughtful and even provocative sessions. There were two sessions in the morning and two after lunch. Each session featured a paper followed by a panel of responders, and questions from the audience which numbered about 100. The people at Princeton had assembled an all star cast.

The four main speakers, Bernard Aikema, professore ordinario of Art History at the University of Verona; Deborah Howard, Professor of Architectural History in the Faculty of Architecture and History of Art and a Fellow of St. John’s College, Cambridge; Sarah Blake McHam, Professor of Italian Renaissance Art at Rutgers University; and Salvatore Settis, Chair of Art History at the Museo del Prado in Madrid and Director of the Scuola Normale Superiore di Pisa, all have international reputations.

I was particularly interested to hear Aikema and Settis both of whom have written extensively on the Tempest. As it turned out most of the fireworks at the symposium were produced by these two speakers, but first I would like to briefly touch on some thoughts raised by the presentations of Howard and Mc Ham.

Howard’s topic, “Space, light and ornament in Venetian architecture in the time of Giorgione,” argued that Venetian architecture, much of it contemporary with the age of Bellini, Giorgione, and Titian, was as much a “window” into the imaginative world of Renaissance Venice as poetry and painting. She concentrated on Pietro Lombardo, whose work, she said, is unfairly compared with that of Mauro Codussi. In the Q and A she indicated that one of the reasons for Lombardo’s bad rep was due to 20th century renovations that obscured the meaning and purpose of his work. In particular, she pointed to S. Maria dei Miracoli where the removal of lower altars, and devotional images had left behind a “sterilized” church.

Sarah Blake McHam’s topic, “Antiquity and Cultural Capital in the Age of Giorgione,” argued that sculptors like Tullio Lombardo used antique Roman models in their contemporary decorative sculptural works, and that these models had an influence on painters like Giorgione and Titian. Robert Glass, one of the responders to McHam, argued very persuasively that the nine statues in the Mocenigo tomb derived from late Medieval court culture, and not from contemporary humanist sources.

Finally, let’s get to the Aikema/Settis papers. Both tried to deal with a very basic question. What can explain the obvious differences in the works attributed to Giorgione, differences in style, technique, size, and subject?

Aikema indicated at the outset of his paper, “Giorgione: Myth and Reality” that he planned a very provocative presentation. He divided his talk into two sections. In the first, he presented a long analysis of Carlo Ridolfi’s seminal 17th century study of Venetian Renaissance artists, "Le maraviglie dell’ Arte ovvero, Le vite degli Illustri Pittori Veneti and dello Stato." Aikema claimed that Ridolfi was largely responsible for the myth of Giorgione.

Ridolfi, Aikema argued, saw a dramatic change in Venetian art from Giovanni Bellini to Titian. It was a change from an old, traditional manner to a new or modern manner. Ridolfi then made Giorgione the pivotal link or transition between the two manners.

To establish his claim Ridolfi had to attribute an extraordinary number of paintings, about 65, to the short-lived Giorgione. These works fell into four major areas: fresco, portraits, mythological, and large figures like the "Three Ages of Man."
Aikema agreed with those scholars who have over the last century whittled Ridolfi’s attributions down to a handful. Nevertheless, the myth of Giorgione persists. He also argued that Ridolfi was wrong in seeing Giorgione as the bridge between the old and the new manner. Giorgione represented the “end of an epoch.”

In the second part of his talk Aikema pointed out that Ridolfi did not mention the Tempest because it did not fit into his elaborate scheme. The Tempest with its finely painted figures in a landscape was omitted by Ridolfi because of what Aikema considered its obvious “northern” influences.

In this section Aikema went over much the same ground that he had covered in a 2004 paper, “Giorgione: Relationships with the North and a New Interpretation of La Vecchia and La Tempesta,” published in Giorgione, Myth and Enigma, the catalog of the well known exhibition jointly sponsored by the Accademia in Venice and the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. In that catalog Aikema’s was one of three different interpretations of the Tempest.

For Aikema there are obvious “northern” influences in Giorgione’s work, especially in a small landscape like the Tempest with its carefully depicted figures in the foreground. In particular, Aikema believes that a group of artists from various centers along the Danube, the so-called “Donauschule”, holds the key to the Tempest. In 2004 he wrote,“ the Giorgionesque innovations share quite a few correspondences with the landscapes formulated around 1500 in the drawings and paintings of a group of artists, including Lucas Cranach the Elder, Albrecht Altdorfer, Wolf Huber, as well as Durer, who all were active in various centers of the Danube valley and whose work is known as the Donauschule.” [88]

Although Aikema pointed to some sacred subjects depicted by these Danube artists, he believed that Giorgione was mainly interested in their depictions of primitives living in the wilds. Indeed, he argued that the subject of the Tempest is a deliberate response to these German primitives. His view has not changed since 2004.

“ If our hypothesis is correct,…the painting presents itself as a kind of Venetian reaction to the images of a primitive German world, which claimed superiority to the Mediterranean one…” [96]

In Aikema’s opinion it would be useless to search for an underlying text for the Tempest or to attempt to identify any of the iconographical elements. The Woman could be a gypsy but there is no need to explain her nudity. The Man is not a soldier but so what. The broken columns refer to nothing else than the classical world. Why they are broken doesn’t matter. The city in the background refers to no specific event, certainly not the Cambrai war. He doesn’t even consider the prominent plant in the foreground.

Finally, Aikema maintains his hypothesis even though he himself has pointed out the obvious differences between the Danubian works and the Tempest. Giorgione was just reacting against them. Nevertheless, he also admitted in 2004 that there was no evidence that any of these Danube “primitives” ever found their way into Venetian homes.

Nevertheless, as Aikema wrote in 2004, the Tempest is “the most original artistic expression of the fundamental historical-philosophical and ideological debate about the origins of humanity and the superiority of the Mediterranean civilizations and, more specifically, that of the Veneto….”

Stylistically, the Tempest, a “unicum, a work effectively without successor in Venetian painting…”, is a finely executed landscape which marks the end of an era and which has no impact on the future of painting. “In the final analysis it seems particularly significant that the painting presents itself as a work sui generis that cannot be classified in any of the conventional typological categories.”

Settis, the last speaker of the day, would have none of Aikema’s thesis. He attributed the obvious differences in Giorgione’s work to the traditional process of negotiation between painter and patron. The title of his presentation, “Format and Purpose in Giorgione’s Paintings,” says it all. The differences in format that are obvious in Giorgione’s work can be attributed to the purpose for which they were done. He also said nothing about “northern’ influence tacitly suggesting that Aikema was trying to concoct a myth of his own. In the Q and A that followed it was obvious that no consensus would be reached between the “northerner”, Aikema, and the Italian, Settis.

Finally, I would just like to say that Aikema failed to mention three paintings with similarities to the Tempest that he had mentioned in his 2004 essay.

“ It must be noted that the figurative elements in the Tempesta somehow resemble those we can discover in a painting by David Teniers the Younger…depicting “the birth of Paris.”… The question of the nature of the relationship between this lost painting by Giorgione…and the Tempesta cannot feasibly be resolved except by pure speculation.” [p, 102, n. 80.

“ Only two paintings from the early 16th century inequivocably reflect the Tempesta; one is on loan to the Fogg Art Museum in Cambridge, Mass., while the other is preserved at the Philadelphia Museum of Art….”[p. 103, n.99]

On my website I have presented my interpretation of the Tempest as "The Rest on the Flight into Egypt." I have also discussed the three paintings mentioned by Aikema. The first, formerly called, "Allegory," is actually "The Encounter with the Robbers on the Flight into Egypt." The second with three figures in a landscape by a "follower" of Giorgione is a "Rest on the Flight into Egypt," with Joseph's staff replaced by a halbred. The third depicts the meeting of the Holy Family with the young John the Baptist on their return from Egypt. If these three paintings are all "sacred" subjects what does that say about the Tempest, and what does it do to Aikema’s thesis?

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Giorgione, Michelangelo and Renaissance Nudity

Michelangelo: "Risen Christ" S. Maria Sopra Minerva, Rome.

In his controversial and ground-breaking study Leo Steinberg explored the theological basis for the use of nudity in depictions of the infant Jesus as well as the crucified Saviour. In all honesty I must acknowledge that Steinberg never believed that his arguments could extend to the Virgin Mary. Neither did he ever see the nude Woman of the "Tempest" as the Madonna.

Nevertheless, in my paper on the "Tempest" I argue that the nude Woman nursing her child is the Madonna, and I fail to see how the following passages from Steinberg's study cannot apply to Giorgione's Woman.

My third consideration concerns Christ in the character of Redeemer. His manhood differs from that of all humankind in one crucial respect, which once again involves the pudenda: he was without sin—not only without sins committed, but exempt from the genetically transmitted stain of Original Sin. Therefore, applied to Christ’s body, the word “pudenda”…is a misnomer…For the word derives from the Latin pudere, to feel or cause shame. But shame entered the world as the wages of sin. Before their transgression, Adam and Eve, though naked, were unembarrassed; and were abashed in consequence of their lapse. But is it not the whole merit of Christ, the New Adam, to have regained for man his prelapsarian condition? How then could he who restores human nature to sinlessness be shamed by the sexual factor in his humanity? And is not this reason enough to render Christ’s sexual member, even like the stigmata, an object of ostentatio? [p. 17]

We are faced with the evidence that serious Renaissance artists obeyed imperatives deeper than modesty—as Michelangelo did in 1514, when he undertook a commission to carve a Risen Christ for a Roman church. The utter nakedness of the statue, complete in all parts of a man, was thought by many to be reprehensible….But the intended nudity of Michelangelo’s figure was neither a licentious conceit, nor a thoughtless truckling to antique precedent. If Michelangelo denuded his Risen Christ, he must have sensed a rightness in his decision more compelling that inhibitions of modesty; must have seen that a loincloth would convict these genitalia of being “pudenda,” thereby denying the very work of redemption which promised to free human nature from its Adamic contagion of shame….
We must…credit Michelangelo with the knowledge that Christian teaching makes bodily shame no part of man’s pristine nature, but attributes it to the corruption brought on by sin. [p. 18]

The candor of Michelangelo’s naked Redeemer consummates a development traceable through two and a half centuries of devotional art. I reproduce a sampling of representative instances. But I should feel defeated were these works taken as illustrations of texts, or as theological arguments. On the contrary: the pictures set forth what perhaps had never been uttered. They are themselves primary texts,…[p. 23]

The pictures tell us to reverse the priorities. Their chronology demonstrates that the conspicuous display of the privates, instead of resulting incidentally from the Child’s total nudity, is more likely the motive that prompted this nudity. [p. 28]

No longer was it conceivable that Christianity had once, during the Renaissance interlude, passed through a phase of exceptional daring, when the full implications of Incarnational faith were put forth in icons that recoiled not even from the God-man’s assumption of sexuality. [p. 45]

And because Renaissance culture not only advanced an incarnational theology…, but evolved representational modes adequate to its expression, we may take Renaissance art to be the first and last phase of Christian art that can claim full Christian orthodoxy. Renaissance art…harnessed the theological impulse and developed the requisite stylistic means to attest the utter carnality of God’s humanation in Christ. It became the first Christian art in a thousand years to confront the Incarnation entire, the upper and lower body together, not excluding even the body’s sexual component.
[p. 72]

Leo Steinberg, The Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art and in Modern Oblivion, NY, 1983.

Dr. Francis P. DeStefano

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Giorgione Tempest: A Gypsy Woman

Francesca Alexander (1837-1917), "The Encounter of the Holy Family with the Gypsy woman on the Flight into Egypt.

Francesca Alexander, a friend and collaborator of John Ruskin's, was an artist as well as an authority on old Italian songs. In the image she shows a gypsy woman in traditional costume reading the palm of the infant Christ. The scene is based on a Medieval song that was still being sung in Italy in the 19th century. These songs are as much a primary source for Renaissance Italy as Sannazaro or Colonna.

As I noted last week, when Marcantonio Michel saw the "Tempest" in the collection of Venetian patrician, Gabriele Vendramin, in 1530, he described it as “the landscape on canvas with the storm, the gypsy and the soldier, made by the hand of Giorgio da Castelfranco.” Since that time, however, most scholars have noted that the man lacks the arms and armor of a soldier and that the woman does not resemble a gypsy.

Last week I tried to show why Michiel might have made his mistake. In my paper on the Tempest I argue that the nude Woman in the Tempest is the Madonna nursing the Infant Jesus on the "Rest on the Flight into Egypt." Coincidentally, there is an appearance of a gypsy or zingara in the legendary account of the Rest on the Flight into Egypt.

Here is the account by Anna Jameson in “Legends of the Madonna,” a book published in 1885 and available online.

"Before quitting the subject of the Riposo, I must mention a very pretty and poetical legend…

The religious ballad I allude to must have been popular in the sixteenth century; it exists in the Provencal dialect, in German, and in Italian;… The theme is, in all these versions, substantially the same. The Virgin, on her arrival in Egypt, is encountered by a gypsy (Zingara or Zingarella), who crosses the Child’s palm after the gypsy manner…

An Italian version which lies before me is entitled, Canzonetta nuova, sopra la Madonna quando si parto in Egitto col Bambino Gesu e San Giuseppe…

It begins with a conversation between the Virgin, who has just arrived from her long journey, and the gypsy-woman, who thus salutes her:--


God save thee, fair Lady, and give thee good luck
Welcome, good old man, with this thy fair Child!


Well met, sister mine! God give thee grace, and of
His infinite mercy forgive thee thy sins!


Ye are tired and drooping, poor pilgrims, as I think,
Seeking a night’s lodging. Lady, will thou choose to alight?


O sister mine! Full of courtesy, God of his infinite goodness reward thee for thy charity. We are come from Nazareth, and we are without a place to lay our heads, arrived in a strange land, all tired and weary with the way!

The Zingarella then offers them a resting place, and straw and fodder for the ass, which being accepted, she asks leave to tell their fortune, but begins by recounting, in about thirty stanzas, all the past history of the Virgin pilgrim; she then asks to see the Child—

Ora tu, Signora mia,
Che sei piena di cortesia,
Mostramelo per favore
Lo tuo Figlio Redentore!

And now, O Lady mine, that art full of courtesy, grant me to look upon thy Son, the Redeemer!

The Virgin takes him from the arms of Joseph—

Datemi, o caro sposo,
Lo mio Figlio grazioso!
Quando il vide sta meschina
Zingarella, che indovina!

Give me, dear husband, my lovely boy, that this poor gypsy, who is a prophetess, may look upon him.

The gypsy responds with becoming admiration and humility, praises the beauty of the Child, and then proceeds to examine his palm; which having done, she breaks forth into a prophecy of all the awful future, tells how he would be baptized, and tempted, scourged, and finally hung upon a cross—

Questo Figlio accarezzato
Tu lo vedrai ammazato
Sopra d’una dura croce
Figlio bello! Figlio dolce!

But consoles the disconsolate Mother, doomed to honour for the sake of us sinners—

Sei arrivata a tanti onori
Per noi altri Peccatori!

And ends by begging an alms…But not alms of gold or of silver, but the gift of true repentance and eternal life.

Vo’una vera contrizione
Per la tua intercezione,
Accio st’alma dopo morte
Tragga alle celesti porte!

And so the story ends."

Mrs. Jameson, "Legends of the Madonna", Boston, 1885, Pp. 370-375.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Giorgione, "Tempest": Gypsy Madonna

In 1530, 20 years after the death of Giorgione, Marcantonio Michiel saw the painting that would become known as the "Tempesta" in the home of Venetian patrician, Gabriele Vendramin. In his notes Michiel wrote, "the little landscape on canvas, representing stormy weather and a gipsy woman with a soldier, is by Giorgio di Castelfranco." Since that time most scholars have argued that Michiel's descriotion was off the mark. The man is not a soldier and the woman nursing a child is not a gypsy. Today, only a few diehards call the woman a gipsy. (See the end of this post for an analysis of Paul Holberton's hypothesis).

Why did Marcantonio Michiel mistakenly identify the nude woman and the man in the “Tempesta” as “a gipsy woman with a soldier”? After all, the nude woman nursing an equally nude infant does not resemble 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.

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.

Villari mentions Fra Bartolommeo, the whole Della Robbia family, and Lorenzo di Credi, who according to Vasari was “a partisan of Fra Girolamo’s sect.” Vasari also wrote of Cronaca, “that he conceived so great a frenzy for Savonarola’s teachings, that he could talk of nothing else.” Even Sandro Botticelli was an ardent admirer “who illustrated the Friar’s works with beautiful engravings."

Finally, to prove his point Villari argued that ‘it is enough to mention the name of Michelangelo Buonarotti, known to be one of his most constant hearers, and 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 16th century it would appear that attempts were made to portray the Madonna as a poor beggar especially in paintings depicting the Rest on the Flight into Egypt. In these paintings Joseph will be depicted as an armed protector of the Madonna and Child. Edgar Wind in “Giorgione’s Tempesta” referred to two unusual, almost inexplicable images of a soldier standing guard over a woman and child. Both of these paintings bore a striking resemblance to the "Tempest".

In the first 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, a weapon associated with the Swiss soldiers imported into Italy by Julius II during the Cambrai war. For Wind the subject of the painting was an allegory, “Fortezza and Carita,” the same subject he claimed for the "Tempest". This painting which I consider to be a version of the Rest on the Flight into Egypt could easily be described as a soldier and a gypsy.

The second painting Wind called “The Peaceable Warrior (ex bello pax).” He attributed it to Palma Vecchio, a contemporary of Giorgione. It is now in the Philadelphia Museum of Art where it is identified as an “Allegory.” This painting is obviously a depiction of the encounter of the Holy Family with the young John the Baptist on their return from Egypt. In the center a young nude Jesus stands and embraces his equally nude elder cousin. A heavily armed Joseph stands off to the right watching over the Madonna and the children. A plainly dressed Madonna sits on the ground observing the children. She wears the headscarf or turban associated with gypsy women!

So even though Giorgione did not paint a “gypsy” woman or a soldier in the "Tempest", the similarity of his 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.

Below find my analysis of Paul Holberton's "gypsy" hypothesis. See 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.)

In a paper published in 1995 Paul Holberton argued that Marcantonio Michel’s original description of the woman depicted in Giorgione’s "Tempest" is indeed correct. He wrote, “the fact remains that although they differ in their descriptions of the man, both Michiel and the 1569 inventory [of the estate of Gabriele Vendramin] identify the woman as a gypsy.”

For Holberton the "Tempest" has a subject and it is a gypsy family wandering on the outskirts of society about to be engulfed by a storm. He pursues this thesis even though both Michiel and the 1569 inventory do not identify the man as a gypsy. For Michiel, he was a soldier but by 1569 he had become a shepherd.

Holberton provided some very useful information on gypsies and the way they began to be depicted in art at the end of the 15th century but his thesis is full of holes. In the first place, he never really explained the nudity of the woman in Giorgione’s painting. He argued that gypsies were depicted as “primitives” but they still are not depicted in the nude. Certainly, there is nothing primitive about the woman of the Tempesta. Look at her hair, for example. If she is a primitive, than you would also have to call the Dresden "Sleeping Venus" a primitive.

Secondly, the handsome young man of the "Tempest", dressed in the garb of a Venetian patrician, can hardly be called a primitive or a gypsy. There is no relationship between his finery and the nudity of the woman and child. How can they belong to the same family? None of the plates that Holberton presented in his paper shows such a striking dis-similarity in the clothing of the major figures.

Next, he confesses that he has no explanation for the broken columns and ruins in the painting. “What does the column symbolize? In my opinion it is no more symbolic than the trees…” Neither does he attempt to identify the plant featured so prominently in the foreground, nor does he see any significance in the city in the background.

Nevertheless, 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. 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, "La Zingarella."

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Giorgione: "Tempest" Followers

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 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. It is not currently on view. Upon request a curator at the Museum very kindly allowed my wife and I to view this spectacular painting last year. It is a very large canvas, much larger than the Tempest, and despite the need for restoration it is still a beautiful painting.

It seems obvious that this painting is a version of the “Rest on 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.

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 also should be recognized as "The Rest on the Flight into Egypt." After all, wasn't it originally an altarpiece? The only objections would be the plainly dressed Madonna and the armed virile Joseph.

In each painting Joseph’s staff has become a halbred, 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 a heavily 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. More on that in another post. ###

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Giorgione and Paris Bordone: St. Joseph

In interpreting the "Tempest" as "The Rest on the Flight into Egypt," I discussed the reasons for Giorgione's unusual portrayal of St. Joseph as young and virile. I also provided another example in the "Sposalizio," Raphael's immediately popular depiction of the marriage of Joseph and Mary. There are other examples such as the one by Giorgione's Venetian contemporary, Paris Bordone, which is now in a private collection. In the essay below I discover the source of Joseph's muscular bare foreleg, as well as a stunning trick that Bordone used to display Catherine's bare inner thigh.

Paris Bordone: Mystic Marriage of St. Catherine, c. 1524

“ shown as young and virile, with a muscular bare leg, instead of as a frail and slightly foolish old man.” Bellini, "Giorgione, Titian, and the Renaissance of Venetian Painting", 2007. Catalog entry #13.

The highlight of the 2006 art world must surely have been the magnificent exhibition of Venetian Renaissance painting jointly sponsored by the National Gallery of Art in Washington, and the Kunsthistorische Museum in Vienna. The exhibition, "Bellini, Giorgione, Titian and The Renaissance of Venetian Painting," also produced a beautiful catalog. Although the works of the three great masters named in the title were the focus of the exhibition, paintings by a few lesser known artists like Lorenzo Lotto and Paris Bordone were also included.

Indeed, one of Bordone's paintings, "The Mystic Marriage of St. Catherine," was a real eye stopping crowd pleaser in both locations. Painted around 1524, this extremely colorful and dramatic painting which measures about 58 by 102 inches tells the story of the legendary marriage of Saint Catherine of Alexandria to the Christ child.

According to the medieval legend which Crusaders brought back from the East, Catherine was a Queen of Alexandria around the middle of the fourth century. In the story Catherine, even as a young girl, was enamored of philosophy. By her teens she was a student of Plato and Socrates and surpassed all the philosophers of Egypt in knowledge and wisdom. At the death of her father she became Queen of Alexandria but resisted all efforts by her nobles to impel her to marry. Eventually she converted to Christianity in order to marry Christ for she regarded Him as the only one greater than her in status, knowledge and wealth. Subsequently, when Catherine rebuffed the overtures of the Roman emperor in Egypt to have her for his own, he had her put to death. Initial attempts to break her on a wheel failed and she was finally beheaded. The wheel would become the symbol by which she can easily be identified in Medieval and Renaissance art.

Next to Mary Magdalen, Catherine became the most popular female saint in the Middle Ages. She was "venerated by men as the divine patroness of learning," and by women as "the type of female intellect and eloquence, as well as of courageous piety and chastity." Her "mystic marriage" became a favorite subject for painters especially in convents where the nuns could look to her "mystic marriage" to Christ as a prototype of their own. This was especially true among the Dominicans whose favorite daughter, Catherine of Siena, was often paired in paintings with her namesake from Alexandria.

The most common way to depict the "mystic marriage" was to tie it in with the biblical account of the Flight into Egypt. Even though Catherine was supposed to have lived about 350 years after the birth of Christ, artists were not so much interested in historical accuracy as they were in an allegorical rendition of a soul's spiritual union with Christ. So Catherine is usually depicted meeting the Holy Family as they are about to return to Judea from Egypt. We know that it is the return from Egypt because we see the young John the Baptist in the painting. According to another legend the Holy Family met the future Baptist, who had fortunately escaped the massacre of the Innocents, on their return from Egypt.

Paris Bordone's depiction of "The Mystic Marriage of St. Catherine" is one of the most dramatic and unusual representations of this episode. Like other Venetian painters of the early 16th century, Bordone has chosen to move the Madonna and Child out of the center of the painting. They are at the left side with the cloth representing their throne hanging from a tree. The Madonna looks down and away from her Child at the Baptist who is depicted as a young boy clothed in his desert garb and leading a lamb. John looks at the infant Jesus as if to say "behold the Lamb of God."

More than anything else it is the portrayal of St. Joseph which is most dramatic and unusual in Bordone's painting. In a striking departure from traditional representations Joseph is portrayed as a virile young man. Moreover, he has been taken out of the background where we usually find him and placed right in the center of the painting. His powerful and uncovered foreleg is prominently displayed. As the beautiful Catherine approaches from the right, Joseph places his hand on her wrist and directs her outstretched finger to the wedding ring held out by the infant Christ.

As devotion to St. Joseph grew throughout the Quattrocento, he began to figure more prominently in representations of the Holy Family. His role as spouse, father, worker, and protector had a special appeal in the Renaissance. Nevertheless, in this painting there is something else going on that explains the central role of Joseph. In this painting Joseph is acting as a "proxy" for the marriage between Catherine and the infant Christ.

In marriages where the parties, usually royalty, were separated by distance, it was common to celebrate a marriage by proxy. Such a marriage was considered to be a real marriage, and not just a contract for some future event. In theory and practice both parties did not have to be present for a legal marriage to occur. It only required the consent of both even if one of the parties gave a written consent. It was not necessary for a clergyman to be present.

One particular way of "consummating" this marriage by proxy is alluded to in this painting. I don't know where or how it began, or how extensive it was, or when it ceased to be used but the practice was common in the 16th century. An ambassador or proxy would be sent to the court of the bride to perform the ritual. In the presence of notable witnesses, the young woman would be conducted to the nuptial bed wearing a loose fitting gown. The "proxy" would then remove his shoe and stocking from one leg before entering the bed. Apparently, he would then expose a part of her leg and touch it with his own to consummate the marriage.

Here is Hester Chapman's description of the "proxy" marriage of Mary Tudor, the beautiful 18 year old younger sister of Henry VIII to the elderly Louis XII of France in August 1514 at Greenwich. The Duc de Longueville acted as proxy.
After High Mass and a Latin sermon preached by the Archbishop of Canterbury, the marriage vows were exchanged and the ring was placed on the Princess's finger. The ceremonies did not end there. To make assurance doubly sure, Henry had arranged that symbolic intimacy should take place. Surrounded by his court and the foreign ambassadors...he talked informally with de Longueville, while Mary left to change her dress for a robe giving the effect of a nightgown. When she reappeared, Katherine and her ladies led her to a state bed, on which she lay down. De Longueville then advanced, pausing at the foot of the dais to take off one of his scarlet boots, thus revealing a bare leg. Lying beside the Princess, he touched one of her legs with his naked foot. His gentlemen then replaced his boot, and he came down into the hall, while Mary retired again to change into a ball-dress.

De Longueville acted as Louis XII. It was as if the King of France had really been there. From that moment Mary Tudor could call herself Queen of France.

Why did Paris Bordone choose to depict the "mystic marriage" of St. Catherine as a marriage by proxy? Countless paintings of the same subject during this era take a much more traditional approach. Catherine is usually shown in her regal robes kneeling before the Holy Family. Usually she is gazing lovingly at the infant Christ. Sometimes she will touch Him, and sometimes she will even cradle Him in her arms. Often, He is about to place a ring on her finger.

In fact, in another version of the "mystic marriage" Bordone also used the "proxy" theme. This painting hangs in the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg and appears to have been painted about the same time. In this version we again see the young, virile Joseph with his powerful foreleg exposed. However, now Joseph is placed on the right side and remarkably holds the infant Christ in his hands! Madonna, who has released her Child from her grasp, leans backward to hear Catherine's proposal. In this picture there is no John the Baptist.

Scholars date both paintings between 1520 and 1524. We are still in the High Renaissance but we are also in the beginnings of the Reformation. Perhaps after a century of growing devotion Joseph has come to be seen as not only the protector of Madonna and Child but also as the protector of the Church. In these paintings does he represent the Church, the intermediary between God and man? In a "proxy marriage" the proxy was the representative of the King, and union with the proxy was union with the King. After Martin Luther's assault on the role of the Church as mediator, was Bordone or his theological advisor reaffirming the role of the Church?

In both paintings the Infant Jesus is moving away from the Madonna. Perhaps Bordone is recalling Christ's words about marriage. "For this reason a man will leave father and mother and cleave to his wife." But the painting could also refer to another biblical passage. "Did you not know that I must be about my Father's business?" In Franciscan spirituality the nude infant Jesus is equated with the naked Christ on the Cross and with the Eucharist on the Altar. Marriage is the sacrament of love, the complete giving of one's life for another. On the return to Judea, Christ would begin his journey to Calvary. The legendary Catherine would stay in Egypt and give her life for Him.

Finally, a word about Catherine. Her gown is pink, almost matching the color of her skin. Has Bordone exposed a part of her right thigh? It is almost impossible to notice in a reproduction. Even standing in front of the painting it is not immediately obvious. But looking closely her gown appears to have parted to reveal a dark band across her exposed thigh. Bordone has played a masterful eye-catching trick here leaving it to the beholder to make up his or her own mind. This painting certainly deserves modern scientific treatment to discover if there is anything in the underpainting that would indicate that Catherine bared her leg in the same manner as Mary Tudor. ###

Friday, November 5, 2010

Giorgione Tempest: The Solitary Bird

In my interpretation of Giorgione's "Tempest" as "The Rest on the Flight into Egypt" I identified the nude Woman nursing the Child; the Man holding the staff; the broken columns; the City in the background; and even the plant in front of the Woman. I must confess that until a recent discussion at the popular art history blog, Three Pipe Problem, I had not seen the need to identify the solitary bird on the rooftop in the City.

See here for the discussion on 3PP.

See below for the identification of the solitary bird on the rooftop.

The source of the bird barely visible on a rooftop in the background of Giorgione's "Tempest" can be found in Psalm 102, one of the seven penitential psalms. Here are the verses from the Jerusalem Bible (102, v.7-8), and the Latin Vulgate (101, v. 7-8).

I live in a desert like the pelican,
In a ruin like the screech owl,
I stay awake, lamenting
Like a lone bird on the roof;

101:7} Similis factus sum pellicano solitudinis: factus sum sicut nycticorax in domicilio.

{101:7} I have become like a pelican in solitude. I have become like a night raven in a house.

{101:8} Vigilavi, et factus sum sicut passer solitarius in tecto.

{101:8} I have kept vigil, and I have become like a solitary sparrow on a roof.

Latin Vulgate, Psalm 101.

It is difficult to identify the solitary bird hardly visible on a rooftop in the city in the background of Giorgione’s famous painting. In his 2007 catalog Wolfgang Eller was one of the few to take notice but he could neither make a positive identification nor offer an explanation.

“A white bird with a long neck sits on the ridge of this roof. The depicted bird is probably neither a heron nor a cormorant, since both of these have a straight neck when they are seated;” Wolfgang Eller: “Giorgione, Catalogue Raisonee,” p. 95.

Never mind that the bird appears to be standing, this was all Eller had to say.

In 2004 Waldemar Januszczak identified the bird as a crane to support his rather fanciful BBC TV interpretation of the Tempesta as the story of Demeter and Iasion taken from one sentence in Homer’s Odyssey. He argued that a crane is often shown with the goddess, Demeter. He paid a lot of attention to this little figure in the background but failed to explain why Demeter is nursing one child although she had twins by Iasion.

I was led to the Psalm interpretation after browsing the web for images of various crane like birds. The innumerable images available made it difficult, especially when trying to distinguish between cranes, herons, bitterns, storks, and even pelicans. Despite it’s curved beak even an ibis seemed possible.

Then I recalled that Giovanni Bellini had depicted a Grey Heron in his "St. Francis in the Desert", now in New York’s Frick Museum. John Fleming’s study of this famous painting provided the answer. Here is his explanation of Bellini’s pelican.

“In ornithological terms, the “pelican” seems to be any large bird, especially any large water bird. In poetic terms, the pelican is almost any desert bird, so that the pelican and the passerus are treated as equivalents in monastic texts….”

Of course, Fleming was discussing Bellini’s "St. Francis" and not Giorgione’s "Tempest". Nevertheless, a solitary bird on a roof lamenting the massacre of the Holy Innocents symbolized by the storm is certainly appropriate in a depiction of the “Rest on the Flight into Egypt.” Even more if it is a large water bird associated with the desert and the Nile Delta. Finally, there is the obvious connection with Franciscan spirituality.

Below are some notes from Fleming’s study, "From Bonaventure to Bellini, an Essay in Franciscan Exegesis."

Giovanni Bellini’s desert is the Tuscan mountain called La Verna, but we must be prepared to discover that its flora and fauna are those of the Levant. That is to say, while the artist’s command of animal anatomy and vegetable forms reveals a close empirical observation, his vision of animal ecology would seem to reflect the literary sourcesof the Scriptures, and his desert wildlife gives visual form to the poetic diction of the Psalms, Isaiah, and Job. P. 35.

[Desert hermits] “By their aspirations and deeds they join voice with the Psalmist: “I am become like to a pelican of the wilderness, I have watched, and I have become as a sparrow, all alone on the house top’” [Ps. 101: 7-8] p. 37.

[Desert birds] “ In the famous passage of Cassian’s history of the monastic life, that life’s highest form, eremitic anchoritism, is betokened not merely by a desert beast, but also by desert birds….So masterful is Bellini’s technique that we can identify them with certainty as a grey heron and a bittern, as we would name them today. P. 40-41.

The iconological difficulty presented by the pelicanus solitudinis is…the offspring of the word’s lexical familiarity. Unlike the unfamiliar nycticorax, a rara avis indeed, a pelican is both well known and highly distinctive. …But a pelican is not a heron; so how can his grey heron be considered a pelicanus solitudinis?

The simple answer is that pelicanus/ pelican are false cognates….A cursory iconographic survey of the well-known emblem of the “Pious Pelican” in the Middle Ages and Renaissance will reveal an entire aviary, birds we would be disposed to call pelicans, egrets, herons, eagles, storks, and swans, not to mention many that we would be hard pressed to give a name to at all. In ornithological terms, the “pelican” seems to be any large bird, especially any large water bird. In poetic terms, the pelican is almost any desert bird, so that the pelican and the passerus are treated as equivalents in monastic texts…. (p. 42)

It is Augustine who underscored for us these associations of the pelican that are most poetically appropriate for Bellini. The pelican is a dweller of the Nile, a water bird and an Egyptian bird. Bellini gives us a wonderful rendition of a large and solitary water bird, an ancient symbol of the eremitic life…
(p. 44)

John Fleming, "From Bonaventure to Bellini, an Essay in Franciscan Exegesis", Princeton, 1982.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Luca Signorelli and Giorgione

The broken columns and ruins in Giorgione's "Tempest" must be discussed in any plausible interpretation. In my paper I showed that they were commonplace in depictions of the "Rest on the Flight into Egypt." After delivering the paper in Venice last April, my wife and I stopped over in Orvieto before proceeding on to Rome. We wanted to revisit the famous cathedral of the beautiful hill-top city. In particular, we wanted to see the St. Brisio chapel with its incredible frescoes by Fra Angelico and Luca Signorelli. Imagine my surprise when I noticed the columns depicted in the nearby image. Please see the discussion below. Sorry for the poor quality of the image.

Scholars have pointed out the connection between the work of Luca Signorelli in the S. Brisio chapel in Orvieto and the work of Michelangelo and Raphael. Perhaps, there is also a connection between Signorelli and Giorgione.

Begun in the middle of the 15th century by Fra Angelico, the frescoes of the famous chapel were completed by Signorelli between 1499 and 1504. The “outer bay” of the chapel contains Signorelli’s version of the end of the world.

Among the many iconographical details in this section are three prominent broken columns that bear a striking resemblance to the broken columns in the "Tempest". Here is Creighton Gilbert’s description of this section:

“One may take these to be the tribulations that Luke had described just before in the same chapter, where people are told to flee and are led away as captives, while no stone is left on another. These are precisely the motifs Signorelli shows us, with people running from a ruined colonnade, a nearby building showing cracks, and soldiers tying people up.” p.139.

The ruined colonnade is actually three truncated white columns standing erect surrounded by rubble. In his book on the "Tempest" Salvatore Settis provided a number of broken column images but none were as similar to Giorgione’s or as close in time as the ones in the S. Brisio chapel. Signorelli’s use of the broken columns could not be clearer. It indicates the destruction of the World.

In "How Fra Angelico and Signorelli Saw the End of the World" Creighton E. Gilbert tried to identify the sources for Signorelli’s whole iconographic scheme in the S. Brisio chapel. He argued that two prominent churchmen, both associated with Orvieto, might have played pivotal roles. One was the young Cardinal Alessandro Farnese, the future Pope Paul III, and the other was a famous Venetian cardinal.

"In this scenario a second powerful name should be mentioned, that of Cardinal Grimani, whose connection both with connoisseurship and with the Borgia group in control of Orvieto have been observed. It would be logical to see him seconding a proposal by Farnese." p. 115.

Domenico Grimani was the son of the famous Doge as well as the Patriarch of Aquileia. He was also an avid art collector who is perhaps most well known for the magnificent illustrated Grimani Breviary. Gilbert points out that Grimani had strong ties to Orvieto.

"Grimani too visited Orvieto in 1493 and 1495 with Farnese, Borgia, and the rest. More of interest is that in 1505 he built himself a vacation house below the city walls, at the abbey of Santa Trinita." p. 81.

Signorelli’s work was completed in 1504 and the Tempesta painted in 1509. It is not difficult to imagine Grimani describing Signorelli’s justly famous frescoes to eager Venetian hearers. Certainly, Giorgione’s use of the broken columns to symbolize the Fall of the Egyptian Idols on the Flight into Egypt is strong evidence for the Grimani connection. On the other hand, the idea could have been conveyed to Signorelli by Grimani.

Another sign of the connection between Signorelli and Giorgione is in the use of nudity. The following quotes from Gilbert’s work point out the novelty of Signorelli’s approach to nudity,

“These saved are innovative in their nudity, surely unlike what Angelico had projected. All previous Judgments in this tradition contrasted the clothed saved with the naked damned,…This innovation, as such, seems not to have interested writers. Perhaps they found it only what one would expect in 1500, in the emerging High Renaissance, especially from a painter praised as an anatomist. Yet a closer look is surely warranted. At this period the saved appeared nude, outside a High Renaissance context, in the great sequence of Judgment paintings in northern Europe. …This was a time when the theme did not flourish in Italian painting. The nudity was logical in that the souls were regularly seen emerging naked from their tombs… Mainstream theology always affirmed that they would then be perfect bodies…." p. 80.

"The nude saved do appear in Italy before Signorelli in various less noticeable contexts, presumably under northern influence…. The saved appear nude more conventionally in a large Venetian woodcut around 1500, possibly later than Signorelli…" p. 81.

In the S. Brisio chapel Signorelli also depicted a nude Judith. This famous Jewish heroine was commonly regarded as a precursor of the Virgin Mary. Gilbert noted this unique portrayal as well as a northern equivalent.

"Also about 1508, he [Niccolo Rosex da Modena] engraved a nude Judith, inscribed with her name. She is the only one in Italy of this period other than Signorelli’s monochrome found in this same outer bay of the chapel." p. 147.

Gilbert, Creighton E.: How Fra Angelico and Signorelli Saw the End of the World, Penn State, 2003.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Tempesta "Pentimenti"

I did not include a discussion of the "pentimenti" in the "Tempesta" in my original paper because I believed that the painting should be evaluated on what Giorgione finally decided he wanted the viewer to see. I append a discussion here because much has been written about the underpainting. While not necessary in supporting an interpretation of the painting as "The Rest on the Flight into Egypt," the "pentimenti" do not contradict it, especially the heretofore inexplicable little man on the bridge. See the following.

In "Giorgione, Myth and Enigma," the catalog for the ground breaking 2004 Giorgione exhibition, the essay on the "Tempesta" by Giovanna Nepi-Scire included a discussion of “pentimenti” or “changes of mind” revealed by the scientific exploration of what lies beneath the surface of the famous painting.

X-ray and radiographic technology did shed some light on the techniques of the painter and the materials he used but the results were inconclusive when it came to the meaning and subject of the painting. The "pentimenti" did not reveal much of Giorgione's original intention. Or did they?

One of the discarded figures in the underpainting had already received much attention from scholars. Originally, the canvas included a nude woman dipping her legs in a stream at the lower left hand corner. The catalog article indicated that some scholars believe that this figure provides an important clue even though the radiographic image is so indistinct that it is impossible to say whether the figure was even part of the original painting, or whether it was even painted by Giorgione.

For some, however, the “bathing woman” indicates that Giorgione originally intended the painting to contain two women. This contention would necessarily send the hunt for a “subject” into an entirely different direction.

However, the size of this bathing figure in relation to the nursing woman led the author of the catalog entry to reject the theory that Giorgione had originally intended to place two women in the painting. “In addition, the proportions appear slightly larger than those of the man and the nursing woman in the final version. If this figure really was part of the initial version, then there must have been a male figure on the right…” [p. 192]

Interestingly, a “bathing Madonna” would not be out of place in a depiction of the “Rest on the Flight into Egypt.” One of the apocryphal legends refers to a fountain near the Egyptian village of Matarea that sprang up to nourish the Madonna and her child. In his “Madonna della Scodella,” Correggio painted a version of the Rest on the Flight into Egypt with Mary dipping a bowl into a stream.

But, in my opinion, there is a much more telling pentimento. The Catalog indicated that the radiographic technology revealed,

"the presence of a figure walking across the bridge in a long robe and carrying over his right shoulder a stick with a suspended load." (p. 192)

According to the Catalog this discovery contributed “nothing to the deciphering of the painting,” and there has been very little discussion of the little man since.

However, a walking man with a stick bearing a sack over his shoulder is easily recognizable as a pilgrim. St. Joseph’s sack is commonplace in depictions of the Flight into Egypt. Often in depicting the “Rest on the Flight into Egypt,” artists used a narrative format, which included the actual journey in the background and the resting figures in the foreground.

In Gerard David’s version of the “Rest on the Flight into Egypt” in New York’s Metropolitan Museum, the Madonna sits in the foreground nursing her Son while in the background she rides atop the Ass with Joseph trailing behind on foot carrying over his shoulder a stick with a suspended load.

This piece of evidence fits no other interpretation of the "Tempesta." Why would a pilgrim be in a mythological or classical setting? It is only explicable in reference to the “Flight into Egypt.”

Because the man is on the bridge, he must have been in the original painting but then Giorgione changed his mind. I can only guess that he realized he didn’t need it or that it would have been cumbersome to also include a miniature animal and rider.

To argue that Giorgione depicted a traditional subject in the Tempesta should in no way detract from his greatness. Another article in the Catalog [“Giorgione’s Materials and Painting Technique: Scientific Investigation of Three Paintings,”] indicated that in technique Giorgione was more traditional than commonly believed.

“One could say that the artistic revolution caused by Giorgione does not necessarily translate into strictly technological innovation….Instead, there is clear evidence of an ability to utilize the extensive materials available in Venice and of a sound knowledge of the painting techniques accumulated by Venetian workshops during the 15th century….This demonstrates how the greatness of an artist is in no way bound by ‘vile matter.’” [p. 260]

Dr. Francis P. DeStefano

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Titian: Vendramin Family

Titian's depiction of Gabriele Vendramin and his brother Andrea venerating (along with Andrea's seven children) a relic of the True Cross is as much a primary source for the owner of Giorgione's "Tempesta" as any written document. Scholars are unsure which of the two men is Gabriele but nevertheless, he must have made it clear to Titian that he wanted to be depicted in an attitude of religious devotion.

In 1530 Marcantonio Michiel saw the Tempesta in the “portego” or Salon of Gabriele Vendramin. It is the first historical reference to the painting. In his notes Michiel described the Tempesta in this way.

“ The little landscape on canvas, representing stormy weather and a gipsy woman with a soldier, is by Giorgio di Castelfranco.”

We cannot be certain that Vendramin initially commissioned the painting although a strong case can be made. I believe that it is more likely that he acquired it as he did other works of art by trade or purchase, perhaps after the death of the original owner. (See previous blog entry for "the Discovery of Paris" Sept. 13, 2010.) We do know that he prized his collection highly and insisted that it not be broken up or sold.

However, other than the portraits listed in the inventory below, all of Vendramin's other paintings are of sacred subjects. Right after the “Tempesta” entry, note the description of a version of a Flight into Egypt by Jan Scorel of Holland.

Michiel’s notes were originally discovered in the early 19th century without an indication of the author. That is why the initial publication of the notes attributed them to the “anonimo.” The English translation of 1903 has recently been reissued in paperback. References below are to the page numbers in the paperback.

The Anonimo: Notes on Pictures and Works of Art in Italy Made by an Anonymous Writer in the Sixteenth Century, translated by Paolo Mussi, edited by George C. Williamson, London, 1903.

In the House of Messer Gabrieli Vendramino: 1530.

122. The portrait of the same Messer Gabriel in half length, life size, in oil, on canvas, was painted by Giovannini del Comandador. The gold foliage decoration all around it was executed by the Priest Vido Celere.

123. The little landscape on canvas, representing stormy weather and a gipsy woman with a soldier, is by Giorgio di Castelfranco.

The picture representing Our Lady with St. Joseph in the desert, is by John Scorel of Holland.

The dead Christ in the Sepulchre, with the Angel supporting Him, is by Giorgio di Castelfranco, but was repainted by Titian.

The three small portraits in tempera, one representing Messer Filippo Vendramino in a three-quarter view, and the others two young gentlemen in profile, are by Giovanni Bellini.

The small oil picture on panel representing St. Anthony, with the portrait of Messer Antonio Siciliano in full length, is by…a Flemish master, and it is an excellent work, specially in the painting of the heads.

124. The small oil picture on panel representing Our Lady standing up, crowned, with the Child in her arms, in a Flemish church, is by Roger of Bruges, and is a perfect work.

The portrait of Francesco Zanco Bravo, in chiaroscuro, with black ink, is by Giacometto.

The large book of drawings, executed with a lead pencil on bombasin paper, is the work of Jacopo Bellini….

The two drawings in pen-and-ink, the one on vellum containing the history of Attila, and the other on bombasin paper representing the Nativity, are by Raphael.

Note: Even the abovementioned “history of Attila” deals with St, Peter and St. Paul.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Manchester Madonna

In my interpretation of Giorgione's La Tempesta as the "Rest on the Flight into Egypt," I admitted that the great difficulty was the nude woman. A "nude" Madonna is, as one scholar said, "unimaginable." Even though I argued that Giorgione stretched the envelope further than anyone else, there is evidence that the imagination of another great artist might have been moving in the same direction.

The contract for Michelangelo’s famous Pieta has strange wording which is usually overlooked.

“che ci faccia una pietra di marmo, cioe una Vergine Maria vestita con Christo morto, nudo in braccio, per ponere in una certa Capella.”

The strange wording is “Vergine Maria vestita.” Why would the contract call for a “dressed” or “clothed” Virgin Mary? Wouldn’t that go without saying? In 1497 was the young Michelangelo considering a “nude” Madonna for the Pieta?

It seems unimaginable but then there is the unfinished "Manchester Madonna" in the National Gallery in London. The Painting is a depiction of the return from the flight into Egypt since Mary and her Child have met up with the young John the Baptist who announces the mission of Christ.

Some have doubted the attribution to Michelangelo but it would appear that most scholars today accept it, Nevertheless, Augusto Gentili argued that the Michelangelo attribution is difficult precisely because of the Madonna’s exposed breast. Here is his description of the "Manchester Madonna".

“The general theme is the announcement of the Passion…In this context, it is entirely implausible that Mary should expose her breast, and even more implausible that she should expose it in such a way, having apparently snatched it abruptly from within her robe. Those wishing to support the controversial attribution to Michelangelo must take these disturbing anomalies into account.” P. 154.

"Painting in the National Gallery London," Augusto Gentili, William Barcham, Linda Whitely, Boston, New York, London, 2000.

What could have prompted Michelangelo to consider this dissheveled Madonna?

Monday, October 4, 2010

Giorgione: "Laura"

Could Giorgione's famous "Laura" be Mary Magdalen? Scholars have not been able to agree on the subject of this painting of a partially nude young woman. Most agree that the name is a misnomer and that the painting has nothing to do with Petrarch's lover. I believe that I am not the first to suggest Mary Magdalen but recent catalogs do not even consider the possibility. All do point out the paradoxical iconographic symbols. On the one hand, the dress of a Venetian courtesan and the bared breast, but on the other, symbols of chastity and conjugal love such as the laurel leaves and head scarf.

Only one person fits this description and that is Mary Magdalen. This most famous female saint of the Middle Ages was generally regarded in the Renaissance as a prostitute who after her encounter with Jesus became a true and virtuous bride of Christ. After her conversion she is often portrayed with breasts bared.

Correggio's version of the saint bears a striking similiarity to Giorgione's, "Laura." Her breasts are bared but the rest of her is covered with a sumptuous blue robe, She is easily recognized by her jar of precious oil, a stock symbol that Giorgione characterisically omitted.

See below for comments on the Laura from the 2004 exhibition catalog, Giorgione, Myth and Enigma.

"Her sumptuous fur-lined red garment is, more than an item of male attire, the winter dress of Venetian women of pleasure…However, as noted by Goffen (1997), the thin white veil that partly covers her hair and falls over her breast is a typical accessory of married women….

The paradox that accompanies the interpretation of this painting lies in the fact that laurel is also a symbol of conjugal virtue…

Giorgione’s Laura—regardless of whether she is a learned courtesan or a virtuous wife—is characterized by the extraordinary charge of sensuality and eroticism that makes this image unique in the painting of the early 16th century."

Giorgione, Myth and Enigma: edited by Sylvia Ferino-Pagden and Giovanna Nepi Scire, Vienna, 2004, pp/ 197-8.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Boy with an Arrow

The similarity between the young St. Joseph in Raphael’s “Sposalizio,” and the young St. Joseph in Giorgione’s “Tempesta” is matched by the similarity between Raphael’s, “St. Sebastian,” and Giorgione’s  “Boy with an Arrow.”

Giorgione: Boy with an Arrow
Both depict a soulful young man, head tilted to the side, holding a single arrow in his hand. Raphael’s version is dated around 1501 and scholars guess that Giorgione’s dates around 1508. Both are small paintings of about the same size.

Raphael St. Sebastian

The halo in Raphael’s version leaves no doubt about the subject but there is no agreement about Giorgione’s, “Boy with an Arrow.” The catalog entry of the 2004 Giorgione exhibition listed a number of different interpretations, including St. Sebastian, but favored a more metaphorical interpretation. The absence of a halo was one objection but Giorgione never used that device.

Starting with Vasari scholars have speculated on the possible influence of Leonardo on Giorgione, but it is interesting to speculate on the degree to which Giorgione was aware of Raphael’s work, especially after the sojourn of Fra Bartolommeo in Venice in 1508. The following description of Raphael’s painting could easily fit the “Boy with an Arrow.”
“the St. Sebastian in the Accademia Carrara at Bergamo, so Peruginesque at first glance, reveals on further analysis the distance that exists between Raphael and his master from his very earliest paintings. Perugino painted many such studies of young men and women, their heads tilted, viewed full-face. However several subtle differences—a firmer chin, a more finely modeled mouth, the very well structured nose whose bridge appears to join the arch of the eyebrow, a greater sense of volume—show this painting to be far removed from him….
The highly embroidered robe, the pattern on the shirt like notes of music, the slashed velvet of the jerkin…point to a love of ornamentation which comes from Pinturicchio but the saint’s neck-chain, clearly copied from a real example…is close to northern painting and has no equivalent in the work of Perugino or Pinturicchio. The saint grasps the fragile arrow of his martyrdom like a scepter; it is a marvelous image, a tour de force. The subtle treatment of the head, slightly tilted away from the spectator, is close in style to the Madonna with St. Jerome and St. Francis in spite of the difference in scale and like that painting, striking in its icon-like character and lack of three-dimensionality, it can be dated a little later in the same year, 1501."*
* Jean-Pierre Cuzin, Raphael, His Life and Works, 1985, p.20.