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

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.