My website, MyGiorgione, now includes my interpretations of Giorgione's "Tempest" as "The Rest on the Flight into Egypt"; his "Three Ages of Man" as "The Encounter of Jesus with the Rich Young Man"; Titian's, "Sacred and Profane Love" as "The Conversion of Mary Magdalen"; and Titian's "Pastoral Concert" as his "Homage to Giorgione".

Friday, 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."


  1. Very interesting Frank! I'm perplexed that Holberton would be so closed-minded in his approach - being dismissive of deliberately placed iconographical markers!

    Any student of Giorgione would concede that he enjoyed the dynamic interpretative nature of symbolism, at once providing multiple meaning and a sense of mystery. Holberton dismissing this for a very 'black and white' reading makes no sense in the context of Renaissance art, particularly Giorgione!

    I recently posted a Raphael clip presented by UK Art Historian Tim Marlow. He highlighted one of Raphael's Madonnas as wearing a turban as well - would you say this is an extension of this 'gypsy' or outsider theme?

    The iconography of the turban in that instance would seem to locate Mary as being in the eastern wilderness, which would seem to correlate nicely with the "Rest/Flight from Egypt" reading.

    My other question is about the amazing background you supplied about Savonarola. We know from many sources what a profound influence he had on Botticelli and Michelangelo(both strongly tied to Florence). I'm curious as to whether there is anything more concerete linking Savonarola to Giorgione.

    I know I am being led by my sketchy Vasari description, but Michelangelo and Botticelli being swayed by Savonarola makes sense, whereas this is seemingly less evident for Giorgione - whom we are told charmed courts with his lute and verse - not exactly the picture of someone consumed with soul wracking religious zeal!

    Even Raphael seemed to be less consumed with this - particualarly when he got to Rome. His jesting at Michelangelo's personality being the equivalent of an executioner seems to indicate that we was less troubled by that type of fervour. Indeed, not many of his Madonnas look like beggars so he must not have found great solace in Savonarola's words??


  2. H:

    Thanks for a very thoughtful comment. I'm halfway through Marlow's excellent Raphael video and I see why you like him. In my opinion, most of the Madonnas that have been called "Madonna of Humulity" have been incorrectly identified. I believe that any depiction of the Madonna sitting on the ground with a landscape background is a representation of the sojourn in Egypt.

    About Savonarola, how's this for a connection between the Dominican friar, Raphael and Giorgione? A Florentine painter, Jacopo della Porta, was so moved by the martyrdom of Savonarola that he decided to become a Dominican friar himself. He took the name Fra Bartolommeo. In 1504 when Raphael came to Florence, he and Fra Bartolommeo became close associates. Four years later, Raphael set out for Rome but Fra Bartolommeo went to Venice to work on the decoration of a Dominican house in Murano. During this period he painted a number of versions of the Rest on the Fflight into Egypt.

    Finally, Catholics, especially Venetian ones, were not Puritans. It is certainly very likely that they could be charmed by the lute and verse but still be concerned with their immortal souls.


  3. Thank you for the response Frank.

    That's absolutely fascinating to hear about Fra Bartolommeo. He does indeed seem to fit the bill nicely for a link between Savonarola, Raphael and Giorgione... although I'm still not as convinced that the amorous Raphael had much fear for his mortal soul - especially if what Michelangelo said about him was any guide!