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.