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".

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?


  1. I cant think of a more appropriate way to say it - Aikema is nuts. There are more holes in his theory than cheese from the Northern regions which he is referring to!

    The fact that he was allowed to take the floor on such a hallowed occasion astounds me.

    Between your amazing paper and my wayward stork observations, I think we have the jump on all of these folks Frank ;) They are so wildly clouded by their own parochial view of what should be there.. not a an historical consideration of what actually was happening at the time!

    I really think some art historians live in a bubble of their own delusions sometimes....


  2. H:

    I don't believe that Aikema is nuts. His work demonstrates that he is a fine scholar. His analysis of Ridolfi's work was very insightful. Like many others his inability to see the Tempest for what it is, has led him into a fantastic interpretation.