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

Friday, December 23, 2011

Giorgione, Titian, and a Venetian Humanist

In my interpretation of Titian’s “Sacred and Profane Love” as “The Conversion of Mary Magdalen” I noted that most scholars believe that Niccolo Aurelio, a future Grand Chancellor of Venice, commissioned the painting to commemorate his marriage to Laura Bagarotto,  a young widow from Padua.


Aurelio’s coat of arms can be seen in the relief on the fountain above the spigot. Apparently the wedding raised eyebrows. Aurelio held one of the highest position in the state that could be filled by a non-patrician. Although the year of his birth is not recorded, Aurelio must have been in his fifties and had never been married before. He had, however, sired a natural son, Marco.

On the other hand, Laura Bagarotto was a woman with a checkered past. Her father, Bertuccio Bagarotto, a professor at the famed university of Padua, as well as her husband, Francisco Borromeo, had been accused of treason by the Venetian government for collaboration with the enemy during the War of the League of Cambrai. The husband most likely died during the war and later in 1509 the father was publicly hanged in the Piazza di San Marco, an execution that his wife and daughter were forced to witness.
Laura’s goods, including her substantial dowry, were confiscated. Subsequently, she maintained her father’s innocence and campaigned for the restoration of the family’s good name as well as for the restoration of her dowry, estimated at over 2000 ducats. Her marriage to Niccolo Aurelio in 1514 must have been an important step in her rehabilitation since her dowry was only restored the day before the marriage. One would like to think that Niccolo was honoring his new wife, or seeking to aid in her rehabilitation with a painting depicting Mary Magdalen as both a courtesan seeking to mend her ways, and as a repentant sinner.
Some think that Aurelio married Laura for her money but I think that there was more to it than that. In her contribution to the catalog, “Titian 500” the late Rona Goffen reproduced the last will and testament of Niccolo Aurelio along with two codicils.* Reading the will gives the impression that Aurelio married the much younger widow not for her money but in an attempt to perpetuate his family’s name. [portions of the Will are reproduced below]
Despite the prominence of his position, little is known about the life of Niccolo Aurelio, but a look at his father, Marco Aurelio, a prominent Venetian humanist, might help to shed some light on his illustrious son.
In “Venetian Humanism in an Age of Patrician Dominance”, a 1986 study published by Princeton University, Margaret L. King examined the correspondence and writings of practically every prominent Venetian humanist of the Fifteenth century.**  Not only did she give a brilliant overview of the nature of the Venetian movement but she also provided profiles of all the humanists. One of the most prominent was Marco Aurelio, the father of Niccolo.
The Aurelio family seems to have been originally from the Venetian colony at Negropont in Greece. It would appear that they left Negropont early in the Fifteenth century before the Turkish conquest of Constantinople in 1453 and the subsequent fall of Negropont in 1470. Here is King’s brief summary.
Aurelio’s family stemmed ultimately from Negropont….Marco and his brothers Paolo and Pietro were sons of Niccolo Aurelio and a daughter of Niccolo Sagundino. “The emigration had seemingly been recent, as our Sagundino refers to himself (foreign-born) along with the native-born Marco as ‘new men.” The Aurelio family had with Marco’s father already established itself in the Venetian bureaucracy. Marco’s brother Paolo was also a secretary, as was his father Niccolo and his son of the same name, subsequently grand chancellor;… (p. 315)
King makes clear that humanists in Venice were not merely scholars. They constituted a caste employed by the Republic to serve its civic purposes. In other words a secretary was a civil servant, scribe, or lawyer employed in the service of the Republic. They were a separate class definitely barred from entrance into the exclusive patrician class but well above the ranks of the lower orders. The word “mandarin” comes to mind when reading King’s analysis.
Although a class unto themselves, they associated and corresponded with similar humanists in other cities and countries. King notes correspondence between Marco Aurelio and Marsilio Ficino who dedicated six opuscula to Marco. In addition,
Learned men addressed works to him Giovanni Calfurnio his editions of Horace and of Plutarch’s Problemata…and his commentary on Terence…Francesco Diedo his translation from Boccaccio; Janus Pannonius his translation of Plutarch’s De capienda ex hostibus utilitare and De curiositare; …poems by Sebastiano Bursa…Christophorus Lanfranchinus…and Aurelius Trebanus…Domizio Calderini wrote in the dedicatory letter to Giuliano de’ Medici that Aurelio had urged him to publish his commentary on Juvenal…Aurelio borrowed Gregory of Nyassa’s Life of Moses, translated by George of Trebizond, from the library of Girolamo Molin in 1458… (pp. 315-316)
Marco Aurelio introduced his son Niccolo into the Doge’s chancery at an early age. By the time of his marriage in 1514 Niccolo was one of the four Secretaries to the Council of Ten. In addition to his other duties, it appears that he was responsible for the public building programs so important in Venice. We know that he signed the contract with Giorgione for the frescoes on the Fondaco dei Tedeschi. Eventually, in 1523 he became Grand Chancellor, the official head of the caste of humanist scribes, and one of the leading figures in the Venetian government. As such he would be present alongside the Doge at all meetings of the Senate and Council. He would function as a kind of Attorney General. 
As long as he held these important positions Niccolo Aurelio would have had no financial worries. His will is evidence that only when he somehow lost the position of Grand Chancellor, normally a lifetime appointment, in 1525 did his finances become precarious. Until then he was a well-placed civil servant of the cittadino class. Neither he nor his descendants would have dreamed of entering or marrying into the patrician class. On the other hand, it would have been unseemly for them to marry beneath themselves. They were like characters in a Jane Austen novel whose range of marital partners was severely limited.
Niccolo Aurelio’s marriage to Laura Bagarotto in 1514 would appear then to have little to do with her dowry. By 1523 his Will indicates that her dowry was completely intact. He allocated 1500 ducats of his own money for the dowry of their young daughter, and had even made substantial improvements to Laura’s properties in Padua at his own expense. Moreover, in his home he also supported his natural son, Marco, as well as the two children of his deceased brother.
Why hadn’t Aurelio married before?  He loved his natural son, but Marco does not appear to have been the result of a long-term relationship with a mistress. After providing for Laura and their daughter, Niccolo left the balance of his possessions to Marco who,
even if illegitimate [naturali], I do not consider or hold to be otherwise than if he were my legitimate son, because he has always been obedient to me; and I am most certain that he comes from my viscera, as can be seen clearly from his appearance and habits…
I suspect that given his elevated status in the narrow caste of humanist scribes and lawyers Aurelio had deliberately avoided marriage until Laura Bagarotto came along. She was a different story. Her father, Bertuccio Bagarotto, had been a renowned professor at the University of Padua. Despite his death in the hysteria following the loss of Padua in the aftermath of the military defeat at Agnadello, the end of the war had led some to believe that his execution had been a travesty of justice.
Bagarotto’s name was finally cleared and in 1519 the Venetian government admitted that his execution had been a mistake. Even so, Venetian humanists believed that character, status and ability were inherited.  The daughter of a famous professor would certainly be a suitable match for Niccolo Aurelio. I expect that one day a student will discover a relationship between Bertuccio Bagarotto and Niccolo's father, the humanist Marco Aurelio.
Subsequent events caused Aurelio to amend his will. In 1525 he was somehow disgraced and lost his position. Despite the drastic change in his fortunes, he still would not touch Laura’s dowry but only stipulated that now most of it would have to be used to dower their daughter. Two years later Laura provided Niccolo with a male heir and wholesale changes were made. According to custom the new son became the principal beneficiary not only of his estate but also of his humanist heritage.
I wish that he, Antonio, be the residual heir of all my property, whether personal or real estate…And being open to learning letters, appearing thus to his mother, have him study either in this land or in Padua…so that he not fall from his [condition] and that he make himself a worthy man, having a great many books as he will find at home. (p. 138)

 *Goffen, Rona: “Titian’s Sacred and Profane Love: Individuality and Sexuality in a Renaissance Marriage Picture ,” in Titian 500. ed. Joseph Manca, Washington, 1993. Pp. 121-147.
**Margaret L. King, Venetian Humanism in an Age of Patrician Dominance, Princeton, 1986.
Below are excerpts from the Will taken from "Titian 500"
 Holograph will of Nicolo Aurelio, dated 20 January 1523, with codicils of 26 April 1525 and 28 June 1527.
Jesus Mary. 1523 January 20 in Venice.
I Nicolo Aurelio, Grand chancellor of Venice…have deliberated…that this be my testament and last will. And first, recommending my soul to God Most High and to his glorious mother, the Madonna, Blessed Mary Immaculate Virgin, and to all the celestial court, I want my body to be interred in San Giorgio Maggiore in our [family] tomb,…
I leave to my most dear and beloved consort [Laura] and daughter [Giulietta], aside from her [Laura’s] dowry fund of the property in Lissaro and of Villa Torta in the Padoana, on which property I have spent no small sum of money in buildings and other improvements,…all these buildings and improvements made by me are to be hers [Laura’s] freely, and she can dispose of these as her own, if she does not wish to remarry, and remains a widow, as I deem she would be for doing, given her most honest life, such as she has always led, and the great love she bears for Giulietta, our one and only child. Aside from this, I bequeath her [Laura] all her garments, whether of silk, as of wool, and others which I have had made, and her gold chain, which likewise I have had made, and 100 ducats from my estate, that she have to use and to do with as she pleases. I leave her likewise her pearls that she brought with her when she came to my household….
In the event that my said consort wishes to marry, I want her to have her entire dowry, that is, the property of Lissaro and Villa Torta, in the condition in which they were consigned to me, that is, without walled buildings of any sort, and her pearls, and further that she have all her garments of silk and other which I have had made for her: these I give her. But the stone buildings [constructed] by me…are to remain in my estate, and likewise the gold chain and the 100 ducats, which are to be for Giuietta, my most gentle and only child, for her dowry…Declaring and thus it is my wish that my said consort, remaining a widow, and wishing to remain in this land in company with Marco, my son, in the house where we live, she, my consort, is to have possession of said house together with the said Marco, in that part which belongs to me, as though it were her very own, and she may use all my personal property as she does ands may do while I am alive.
In addition, I leave to the said Giulietta,…1500 ducats of the monies in my estate for her dowry…But because I am most certain, since her mother has no other child but this, she is not going to be found wanting in dowering her honorably…
if he, Francesco, is willing to remain in company with Marco, my son, and with my consort, whom I should have mentioned first, and Giulietta, my most gentle daughter, he and Marietta, his sister, are to have their expenses, as at present, and I want them treated in every regard as though they were my own children, leaving the burden to my most cherished consort to dower Marietta,…if her brother [Francesco] does not have the means to do so.
the balance of my possessions,…I likewise bequeath entirely to the said Marco, my son, whom, even if illegitimate [naturali], I do not consider or hold to be otherwise than if he were my legitimate son, because he has always been obedient to me; and I am most certain that he comes from my viscera, as can be seen clearly from his appearance and habits;…And I order him always to hold my most beloved consort in greatest reverence and respect, being as good a companion to her as if he had been born of her;… 
Codicil: Jesus Mary. 1525 on 26 April in Venice.
It having been my hard lot, and not because of any failing on my part, that my fortune has changed and that in a moment I have lost all my efforts and vigilance sustained by me since I was a child in serving this most excellent state,…
Codicil: 1527 on June 28.
Because it has pleased our Lord God to concede to me a little son by my wife, to whom I have given the name Antonio in memory of my deceased brother Antonio, 137
[to Marco] I wish that every year of thy life…that thou will have this office, that thou must give half of the earnings that thou will receive from that office to my said consort and to my other children for their subsistence…138…knowing my said consort to be prudent and wise and that she knows very well how to submit to the adversities of this world…
I wish that he, Antonio, be the residual heir of all my property, whether personal or real estate…And being open to learning letters, appearing thus to his mother, have him study either in this land or in Padua…so that he not fall from his [condition] and that he make himself a worthy man, having a great many books as he will find at home.
Goffen, Rona: “Titian’s Sacred and Profane Love: Individuality and Sexuality in a Renaisance Marriage Picture ,” in Titian 500. ed. Joseph Manca, Washington, 1993. Pp. 121-147.


Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Giorgione: "Virgilian" Tempest 2

Recently I received a response from Dr. Rudolph Schier to my critique of his interpretation of the Tempest. Instead of showing it as a comment to my original post of 1/11/2011, I have decided to reprise the original post here and follow with his full list of itemized comments. His remarks will appear in italics.

In my interpretation of Giorgione's "Tempest" as the "Rest on the Flight into Egypt," I did not address the many other interpretations. Not only did I want to concentrate on the actual painting, but also I believed that all the other interpretations had already been demolished by other learned scholars. As I said in my paper, not one interpretation remains standing. However, I decided to use "Giorgione et al" to post critiques of a few recent interpretations.

Below find my critique of Dr. Schier's interpretation that appeared in "Renaissance Studies" in 2008.

In Rudolf Schier’s “Giorgione Tempesta, a Virgilian Pastoral,” (Renaissance Studies, 22, Issue 4, 2008, pp. 476-506) we have another attempt to find the subject of the Tempesta in the writings of a Roman poet. Schier argues that the source of the Tempesta can be found in the Eclogues of Virgil, specifically the 1st and the 4th.

In his paper Schier takes issue with other scholars but his own interpretation has serious omissions. Most importantly, Schier fails to explain the nudity of the Woman of the Tempesta. He also does not even attempt to discuss the white cloth draped over her shoulder, or the plant prominently featured right in front of her.

Schier’s interpretation centers on the Man in the painting who he claims is the poet/shepherd of the Eclogues. For him the disparity between the simple shirt and jacket of the Man, and his fancy leggings indicates that Giorgione was making reference to the poet/shepherd represented in the Eclogues. I don’t think he does such a good job in this respect. First of all, it has been pointed out that the leggings are the dress of contemporary young Venetian patricians, and not that of a poet. Moreover, the Man is holding a staff and not a shepherd’s crook. Also, the Man in the Tempesta is young and virile but, as Schier himself points out, the shepherd of the 1st Eclogue is an old man.

Schier maintains that the Woman and Child represent a “vision” of the poet based on the famous reference in the 4th Eclogue to a virgin giving birth to a son destined for great things. To portray the vision Giorgione “deconstructs” the traditional image of the Madonna of Humility into a Pagan virgin. Like others he sees the Madonna in the painting but can’t believe that Giorgione would actually portray her in such fashion.

Besides his failure to deal with the “nudity” of the Woman, Schier seems to imply that in the poet’s “vision” she has just given birth. Yet the Child in the Tempesta is obviously not a newborn. He supports himself upright, something a newborn could not do, while nursing at his mother’s breast.

Schier views the other elements in the painting in a similar complex fashion. The broken columns are first a sign that the poet is in “Arcadia,” but later come to symbolize the passing of the Pagan world and the coming of the Christian. He disputes Paul Kaplan’s identification of the city in the background and claims it is Jerusalem rather than Padua. But what does Jerusalem have to do with Virgil? He also disputes Kaplan’s dating of 1509 on questionable stylistic grounds.

Finally, Schier includes a long discussion of the bathing woman in the underpainting. He regards her as a Roman fertility goddess mentioned in the Eclogues but removed by Giorgione because the Woman in the painting had already given birth. It is strange that he gives such attention to this “pentimento” while completely omitting any discussion of the other “pentimento,” the man on the bridge carrying a pilgrim’s sack over his shoulder.

Schier is obviously well versed in his Virgil but his whole essay is based on the “assumption” that Giorgione’s knowledge of the Roman classic was as good as his own. Like so many other scholars, Schier views the young Giorgione more as an art historian or humanist scholar than as an artist. There is no evidence that Giorgione knew Virgil or Lucretius.

Below find Dr. Schier's response.

I appreciate your interest in my article, though I find it disappointing that you concentrate exclusively on omissions and unexplained items. I don't think that there exists a single interpretation of any painting (including yours on your website which of course I have seen) where one could not find items that were left unexplained for the sake of conciseness and readability. Nevertheless, I shall respond at least briefly to each one of the items you list, though some would need a more detailed reply. In some cases the explanation is already in the article itself, and I shall then only refer you to the page of the article.

-- Nudity: Giorgione's picture derives its strength from the contrast between the young man and the nearly naked female. I argue that she is a vision which the young man has, and the maximum disparity between them is intended to make this clear. The poet-shepherd is located in reality and dressed accordingly, the woman is not. Moreover, in visions, as in dreams, especially when young men are dreaming or having a vision of a woman, they more often than not see them in the nude.

-- White cloth: Common to visions and dreams is the fact that elements of the seer's reality are incorporated in them. The white cloth mirrors and contrasts with the young man's red cloak: it has the same shape and is draped over the woman's shoulders in the same way his cloak is on his shoulders. It reinforces the fact that she is the poet-shepherd's vision.

-- As for the remark that she would have had enough time to get some better clothes: the ten months of weariness refer to the woman's pregnancy, not to the months after the birth.

-- In the fourth eclogue the vision is of a child at several stages of development, and not of a newly born baby. Even new-born babies at the time were rarely depicted the way a new-born baby looks in reality..

-- The plant has its origin in lines 18-20 of the fourth eclogue and is either a valerian or hog weed. Its function is to cover the woman's private parts, common in paintings of this and other periods, e.g. Masaccio's Expulsion of Adam and Eve.

-- Leggings: I discuss this in detail on p. 483, second paragraph.

-- Staff without crook: See footnote 24 and also several pictures in Settis's book.

-- Young and virile man vs. the old shepherd in eclogue one. I specifically explain that the painting does not relate to the first eclogue but to the fourth. The first illustrates the setting and the structure (see p. 492). The poet-shepherd of eclogue four is young; see line 53.

-- Pentimento "pilgrim" on the bridge. This man is not a pilgrim but goes back to Meliboes of the first eclogue, who was forced into exile. He was eliminated when Giorgione moved from the first to the fourth. (This would need a more detailed explanation).

-- Kaplan: I do not dispute Kaplan on stylistic gounds but for historical reasons (see p. 490).

-- Arcadia and the passing to Christianity: there is no contradiction here. The point is that the Arcadian columns are disintegrating.

-- Jerusalem ties in with the half-Christian allusions in the picture, especially with the birth of the Christ child.

-- As for Giorgione's knowledge of Virgil, see p. 479.

I believe this responds to all of the items you list and I hope that you will be convinced by these answers.


Rudolf Schier

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Giorgione, Titian and the Fondaco dei Tedeschi

In a paper that I put on my website on September 9, 2011, I argued that the two woman in Titian’s famous “Sacred and Profane Love” are both Mary Magdalen but in two separate guises.The “Sacred and Profane Love” might not have been Titian’s first attempt to portray Mary Magdalen in her two guises. In 1508-9 the young Titian worked with Giorgione on the exterior frescoes of the Fondaco dei Tedeschi, the vital center of the German commercial community in Venice that had been recently rebuilt after a fire in January of 1505.

Titian: 'Sacred and Profane Love' (probably 1514-5). Oil on canvas, 118x 279 cm. Rome, Galleria Borghese.

In 2001 Paul Joannides noticed the similarity of one of Titian's frescoes, now lost, to the "Sacred and Profane Love." Joannides thought it strange that a 17th century copy made by Antonio Zanetti of the Fondaco figures was related to a depiction of Judith,

"This seems to mean that the two figures, one certainly, the other probably, nude were placed above the Judith, and thus above the cornice. Zanetti's wording is ambiguous since his print contains at least part of the second figure... Indeed, it may be that this passage has been confused by some misprint. If, however, the two women were placed directly above the Judith it is evident that significant figural decoration continued into the storey above her-if only in the center, of the fa├žade-and it is probable that the figures embodied some meaning, since they would have been seen in conjunction with Judith. The nude, apparently pointing upwards, might have represented hope; the other, looking down perhaps to children, possibly Charity--but this is to reach the limits of the speculative."*

If the two women in the “Sacred and Profane Love” are seen as Mary Magdalen, there would be little need to speculate about the reason why one of the most famous woman of the Old Testament might have been placed below a famous one of the New Testament. Moreover, just like Mary Magdalen, Judith dressed herself in her most alluring garb in order to seduce her victim.

In the "Sacred and Profane Love" The fully clothed woman is Mary Magdalen depicted as a Venetian courtesan in the process of contemplating the spiritual opportunity that Jesus has presented to her.

The semi-nude woman is the penitent Magdalen perhaps in the first moments of her conversion. She holds in her hand the jar of oil or ointment that is the almost universal sign of Mary Magdalen. Once the two women are identified all the other pieces in this puzzling painting fall into place.

The two heads in Zanetti’s etching do resemble the two women in the “Sacred and Profane Love.” It would also be interesting to speculate on the contribution of Giorgione and the Fondaco frescos to Titian’s painting. Giorgione did the section that faced the Canal but Titian did the section that faced the Merceria. Years later Vasari related the story of Giorgione’s chagrin when friends told him that his work on the Merceria side was even better than his work on the Canal section. There might have been more than jealousy behind Giorgione’s chagrin.

In his study of Titian’s early years, Joannides argued that in 1508/9 the young Titian still was deficient in drawing skills. As a result it is hard to imagine him with the skill necessary for the intonaco work of a fresco cycle. Despite the praise heaped on Titian’s section, I believe that Giorgione was responsible for the whole iconographical scheme of the Fondaco and did the necessary drawings either of the cartoons or the actual intonaco. Titian merely had to do the final painting, a task often left to assistants.

The Fondaco project was a huge success. Today we have only a few remnants as well as some later engravings, but the large classical figures depicted in brilliant colors must have awed and inspired artists and spectators for years. A panel of distinguished elder painters agreed that the parsimonious Venetian government should pay Giorgione the full 150 ducats he had contracted for. Titian was never mentioned in the contract. It would appear that he was a sub-contractor hired by Giorgione.

Titian’s painting and the Fondaco figures might have had the same patron. The discovery of the coat of arms of Niccolo Aurelio on the sarcophagus/fountain in the 19th century definitely established the connection of that Venetian official to the “Sacred and Profane Love.” According to Paul Joannides, Niccolo Aurelio

was also involved, naturally, with the Serenissima's artistic policies: he signed the payment order to Giorgione for the frescoes on the Fondaco dei Tedeschi. It could be that he had some responsibility for planning Giorgione's (and Titian's) schemes, but whether or not this is so, Niccolo must have been in contact with both Giorgione and Titian and would have been in a position to order works from them.

I discuss Niccolo Aurelio and his bride, Laura Bagarotto, in the paper referenced above. A very full account of the couple can be found in Rona Goffen's "Titian's Women."

*Paul Joannides: Titian to 1518, 2001, pp. 66-67. All quotes from Joannides are from this source.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Giorgione and Titian: Mystery and Enigma

In September I placed on my website a new interpretation of Titian's "Sacred and Profane Love" that identified the subject as "The Conversion of Mary Magdalen." Last week a condensed version of the paper was featured on the popular Art history blog, Three Pipe Problem. Here is a brief abstract of the interpretation.

“Titian’s Sacred and Profane Love” interprets the painting in Rome’s Borghese Gallery as “The Conversion of Mary Magdalen.” The finely dressed Woman is Mary Magdalen in the guise of a Venetian courtesan. The nude Woman is the converted Magdalen in the process of throwing off her worldly finery. In her hand she holds the jar of ointment that is found in practically every depiction of the great sinner/saint. The antique relief on the sarcophagus-like fountain, which so far has eluded explanation, can now be seen to depict three great sinners: Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, and St. Paul falling from his horse.

This new interpretation followed upon two other major interpretive discoveries of works by Giorgione. Over five years ago I saw the "Tempest" for the first time and immediately hypothesized that it depicted the Holy Family on the flight into Egypt. Here is a brief abstract of my paper that attempted to identify all the iconographic elements in the painting.

“Giorgione’s Tempest.” This paper identifies the subject of the “Tempesta” as “The Rest on the Flight into Egypt.” The nude woman nursing an infant is the Madonna. The man is St. Joseph with his staff. The broken columns are commonplace in depictions of the “Rest.” The city in the background is Judea from where the Holy Family has fled but could also be Padua during the Cambrai war. The scraggly plant in the foreground is “belladonna” a plant associated with witchcraft and the Devil. The paper included a new interpretation of a “lost” Giorgione heretofore mistakenly called “The Discovery of Paris.”

Seeing the "Tempest" as a "sacred" subject led to a number of other discoveries. For example, I was able to see Giorgione"s heretofore inexplicable "Three Ages of Man" as the "Encounter of Jesus with the Rich Young Man." Here is an abstract of the painting that now hangs in the Pitti Palace in Florence.

“Giorgione’s Three Ages of Man” identifies this famous depiction of three half-length figures that now hangs in the Pitti Palace as the “Encounter of Jesus with the Rich Young Man.” The subject derives from an episode in the Gospel of Matthew. The young man in the center, whose clothing indicates his wealth, has just asked how he can achieve eternal life. On the right, Jesus dressed in a green vestment commonly worn by priests at Mass points to the commandments that he has directed the man to follow. On the left, an aging, bald Peter, dressed in martyr’s red, invites the viewer to enter the scene.

I'd like to mention the methodology employed in the three above discoveries especially since it was remarkably similar. I am not a professional Art historian. I hold a doctorate in History but my specialty was 18th century British politics. I say "was" because I left academe 40 years ago to become a financial advisor. I never gave up my interest in history but it was on the back burner. About 15 years ago my wife and I began to travel in Italy and I became more and more interested in the art of the Renaissance. My wife and I are both Catholic and we shared an interest in religious art.

So when I first looked at the "Tempest" in 2005, maybe because I was an outsider, or maybe because of my interest in religious art, I immediately guessed that Giorgione had depicted a scene from the Flight into Egypt. My historical training made me understand that there were obvious problems with this interpretation. I realized that every major element in the painting would have to fit or else the hypothesis would fall to the ground. It would not do, as some have done, to ignore things that didn't fit the interpretation. For example, most interpretations of the "Tempest" have made no attempt to explain the "plant" in front of the Woman.

I proceeded with trepidation knowing that one inconvenient 'fact" could bring down the whole hypothesis. A good example would be the "bird on the rooftop" in the background of the painting. I had initially ignored it as being insignificant but when challenged on it last year, I was able to discover the source in the Psalms.

It was the same way with the "Three Ages of Man," and now with the "Sacred and Profane Love." An initial intuition that stemmed from seeing the paintings in Florence and Rome preceded the research. My wife and I were stranded in Rome last year because of the volcano eruption in Iceland. We decided to go to the Borghese gallery. When I first beheld Titian's magnificent canvas, I turned to Linda and said that the two women were Mary Magdalen.

On returning home the work of verification began. Each major element in the painting had to be explained. The work of all the leading scholars in the field had to be examined. To my surprise no one had ever seen the Magdalen in the painting. I didn't give up at this point because I quickly saw that there was no agreed upon interpretation of this famous painting. Moreover, some, like the late Rona Goffen, one of the most perceptive students of Venetian art, had provided great research findings that could support a Magdalen hypothesis even though they themselves could not see it.

My grandchildren tell me that in most video games the obstacles or enemies get more and more formidable as the game proceeds, and that at the end there is often an insurmountable obstacle. However, in the three paintings noted above the giants in the field had all demolished each other and the way was open for an amateur to use their discarded weapons and proceed to the goal.

These three paintings, one in Rome, one in Venice and the other in Rome, are prime examples of what Art historians mean when they refer to Renaissance paintings as enigmatic or mysterious. When such terminology is used it often means that there is no agreement in Art historical circles about the subject matter of the work involved. Finally, many of these interpretations often seem to ignore the actual paintings. Why, for example, has no one ever commented on the colors of the garments of the three men in Giorgione's "Three Ages of Man."

If an interpretation can explain all the elements in a painting and show how they relate to one another, can the painting be called enigmatical or mysterious?

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Veronese: Mary Magdalen

Paolo Veronese: The Conversion of Mary Magdalen, c. 1548, oil on canvas, 117.5x163.5 cm (National Gallery, London).

Famed Venetian art historian David Rosand contributed an essay on a Veronese painting in the same June 2011 edition of the Burlington Magazine that featured Renata Segre’s discovery of the inventory of Giorgione’s estate. Segre’s archival find attracted much attention but Rosand’s essay could provide much more insight into the work of Giorgione and other Venetian Renaissance artists.*

Rosand discussed a work by the twenty-year-old Paolo Veronese that London’s National Gallery currently labels “Christ addressing a kneeling woman.” Rosand noted that the painting has variously been thought to depict Christ with the woman taken in adultery; Mary Magdalen laying aside her jewels; or Christ and the woman with the issue of blood. Actually, a recent National Gallery catalog leans toward the “Woman with the issue of blood” but its website still calls her only a kneeling woman.

Not only does Rosand agree with those who see Mary Magdalen in the painting but he also has found a source text for Veronese’s depiction. The National Gallery catalog rejected the Magdalen interpretation because there is no mention of a scene like this one in either the gospels or the apocrypha. However, Rosand discovered that Pietro Aretino, the notorious scoundrel and self-promoter who was also a close friend of Titian’s, had written a popularization of the gospels that provided a fourteen page description of the events surrounding the conversion of Mary Magdalen.

Written in 1535 the name of the work was "Humanita di Christo" and it was extremely popular until it and other works like it were banned by the Church after the Council of Trent. Today it is almost impossible to find. A search of the New York Public Library’s vast online catalog found nothing. Rosand’s extensive quotes were from a 1539 Italian edition. **

In Rosand’s words Aretino’s text provided an “imaginative expansion of the generally laconic text of the Gospels ” that his artist friends were quick to exploit. Aretino gave artists “a new novelistic gospel replete with pictorial possibilities.”

Aretino’s description of the conversion of the Magdalen begins the evening before her meeting with Christ. Her sister Martha had persuaded her to go to the Temple but the courtesan decides to throw a party and have one last fling. She puts on a sumptuous banquet “to celebrate her hedonistic life.” Aretino dwells on her worldly beauty and her “fine linen gown trimmed in gold and studded with pearls.”

The next morning Mary Magdalen sets out for the Temple looking like a “rising sun” and followed by a great multitude “drawn to this vision of splendid beauty.” Nevertheless, the meeting with Jesus is life changing.
Jesus addresses her in an intimate tone…and then proceeds to inflect her worldly beauty to a spiritual one, her eroticism to divine love: her splendour can only have a higher source, a gift from heaven.

Afterwards, Martha leads her contrite sister home where she locks herself in her room and “throws her jewels to the ground.”

Bernardino Luini: Martha and Mary Magdalen

In the Burlington essay Rosand does not spend much time discussing the other figures in the painting. He doesn’t even call the modestly dressed woman supporting the Magdalen by name even though it must be Martha. He doesn’t mention the man in the foreground with the red cap who appears to be dropping a small notebook. Could this be the Magdalen’s procurer discarding her client list? What about the man clutching the column on the left? Is he suffering from the previous evening’s celebration? There is also a nude youth and a dog. Were they normal parts of a courtesan’s retinue?

There is no doubt that Rosand has found the source of Veronese’s painting in Aretino’s gospel popularization. However, one question remains. What was the source of Aretino’s account? Did he just make up his embellishment of the conversion of the Magdalen or did he draw from an already existing tradition?

Pietro Aretino was born in 1492 into a poor family in Arezzo. At about the age of fourteen he left his hometown to make his own way in the world. He didn’t journey to nearby Florence but for reasons unknown walked the 50 miles to Perugia. According to James Cleugh’s biography, “The Divine Aretino,” Pietro probably arrived in Perugia around 1506 and stayed for about six years.

In those years he tried his hand at a number of things and even studied painting. He achieved some competence but realized early that he would go nowhere as a painter. Nevertheless, there is one incident concerning Aretino that throws light on Veronese’s painting. Cleugh relates a prank attributed to the young Aretino.***

According to the Perugian poet Caporali he had been offended by the sight of a mediocre fresco in the Piazza Grande depicting Mary Magdalene at the feet of Christ. Her arms outspread in an absurdly awkward attitude of adoration and the two conspicuous tears rolling down her cheeks lent in Pietro's view an utterly incongruous aspect to the buxom citizeness who had been used as a model. He decided to correct this artistic impropriety and call the perpetrator to order in the only way he could be expected to understand--pictorially.

One morning, early risers were horrified to find that the pious Magdalene had been transformed overnight into the courtesan she was said to have been before her conversion. A lute had appeared in her hands and she was gazing at Jesus with a far from sorrowing expression. Pietro had spent a couple of hours the night before with his brushes and palette, and a discrete torch, on a ladder propped against the wall….

The joke, however, did not amuse the clergy or the ruling Baglioni family or the municipality of Perugia. Pietro could usually talk himself out of trouble, but this time his laughing apology did not help him. While the picture was being restored he was sternly given to understand that if he did not remove himself forthwith from the precincts of the city he could expect an examination by the Holy Inquisition.

Cleugh warns that practically anything by or about Pietro can be taken with a grain of salt but it would be impossible to doubt that there was a painting on a wall in Perugia that depicted a kneeling, penitent Magdalen at the feet of Christ, a scene only implied in the gospels. Moreover, it is not hard to imagine that this “Conversion of Mary Magdalen” by an unknown artist was not the only one in Perugia. Indeed, it is more than likely that such depictions could have been found all over Italy.

Faded image over door in Piazza S. Stefano, Venice
This incident should make us realize that what we have left of Renaissance art is but the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Time, weather, vandalism, and the efforts of Church reformers have left us only a very small percentage of the art that graced both the interior and exterior of churches, palaces, and homes over the entire peninsula. Of course, exceptional painters took these common devotional subjects to unprecedented heights but most must have been of the mediocre variety that Aretino playfully sought to improve.

Aretino’s scandalous writings have survived but Rosand noted in the Burlington Magazine that the Church banned works like his gospel popularization after the Council of Trent. Professor Rosand was correct to remind the National Gallery that there was more to the religious art of the Renaissance than could be found in the gospels or the apocrypha.

*David Rosand: “Veronese’s Magdalen and Pietro Aretino,” Burlington Magazine, 153, June 2011, pp. 392-395.

**All quotations from Aretino are taken from Rosand's article.

***James Cleugh, "The Divine Aretino", NY, 1966. p. 28.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Giorgione and the Young Titian 2

Shortly after the death of Giorgione in the fall of 1510, Sebastiano Luciani and Tiziano Vecellio, the two young painters most likely to succeed him as the favorite of Venetian patrons, left Venice to pursue their careers elsewhere.

Sebastiano del Piombo, organ shutters,
Saint Louis of Toulouse and Sinibaldus.
(probably 1510-11), oil on canvas,
each 293 x 137 cm, Academia, Venice

Sebastiano, later known as Sebastiano del Piombo, could not refuse the offer made him by the wealthy Sienese banker Agostino Chigi to work for him in Rome. One of the reasons why Chigi chose Sebastiano over Titian might have been the fact that the former was considered to be the superior painter.

In “Titian to 1518” Paul Joannides discussed Sebastiano’s standing in the ranks of Venetian painters.*
Sebastiano seems to have been further advanced in his career than Titian before mid-1511, and his work more controlled and mature….It is notable, and an inherent quality of Sebastiano's work, that he always possessed a more severe, solid and sculptural sense of form than either Giorgione or Titian, qualities that later attracted Michelangelo to him. (129)

None of his contemporaries bettered Sebastiano's organ shutters and it is worth pausing to consider what this implies. It seems certain that all three of the major paintings... were commissioned from Sebastiano before the death of Giorgione and, perhaps, against Titian. If so, it would imply that Sebastiano was widely seen as the leading young painter in Venice, in preference to either of the others. But why, if by 1511 Sebastiano was in so commanding a position, with Giorgione dead and with little to fear from Titian in major commissions, did he accept Agostino Chigi's invitation to Rome? (136)
Whatever the reason for Sebastiano’s departure Titian was left with a practically open playing field. Only the aged but active Giovanni Bellini stood in his way. However, Titian decided to accept a commission to paint a fresco cycle in Padua’s Scuola del Santo. This commission, negotiated in December 1510, provides the first recorded documentary evidence of Titian’s existence.

Joannides devoted considerable attention to this cycle that depicted three of the miracles attributed to St. Anthony of Padua, and did his best to point out traces of the skill that would characterize Titian’s later work. Nevertheless, if Titian had died after completing this cycle no one today would regard him as more than a second or third-rate painter.

After the completion of the Paduan cycle, Titian returned to Venice late in 1511 and, according to Joannides, decided to take his work to a new level.
"A double effort was required: self-discipline and self-education. Self-discipline consisted largely in reduction: in attempting less within his paintings Titian was able to achieve more. Self-education made Titian a more effective figure-draughtsman. For self-discipline Titian looked to his great target, Giovanni Bellini, reconsidering the principles of his art; for self-education, he studied the art of Central Italy in a more intense and focused way than hitherto." (141)

In the next four years Titian would produce a remarkable series of oil paintings that raised him to the highest level. Joannides noted that these works are difficult to date precisely but I follow his probable dating. (Page numbers in parenthesis refer to "Titian to 1518")

“Pastoral Scene ('The Concert Champetre')” (probably 1511). Oil on canvas, 110 x 138 cm. Louvre. (99)

“Virgin and Child with Saints Anthony and Roch” (probably 1511). Oil on canvas, 92 x 133 cm. Madrid, Prado. (123)

“Virgin and Child (‘The Gypsy Madonna’)” (probably 1511. Oil on panel, 66 x 84 cm. Vienna. (141)

“The Virgin and Child” (‘The Bache Madonna’) (probably 1512). Oil on panel, 40 x 56 cm. NY, MMA. (144)

“Holy Family with an Adoring Shepherd” (probably 1512). Oil on canvas, 99 x 117 cm. London, NGA. (145)

“Saint Mark Enthroned with Saints Cosmas, Damian, Sebastian and Roch” (probably 1512). Oil on panel, 230 x 149 cm. Venice, Santa Maria della Salute. (149)

“Jacopo Pesaro Presented to Saint Peter by Pope Alexander VI” (probably 1513). Oil on canvas. 145 x 184 cm. Antwerp, Musee Royale des Beaux-Arts. (152)

“Unknown Donor Presented to the Virgin and Child by St. Dominic, with Saint Catherine Attendant” (probably 1513-14). Oil on canvas. 138 x 185 cm. Parma, Fondazione Magnum Rocca. (158)

“Rest on the Flight into Egypt” (probably 1512). Oil on (paper laid down on) panel, 46.3 x 61,5 cm. Longleat, Wiltshire, Marquess of Bath Collection (stolen 6 January 1995). (161)

“Tobias and the Angel Raphael” (probably 1514). Oil on panel, 179 x 146 cm. Venice, Accademia. (167)

“Baptism of Christ” (probably 1514). Oil on panel, 115 x 89 cm. Rome, Museo Capitolino. (172)

“Noli Me Tangere” (probably 1514). Oil on canvas, 109 x 91 cm. London, National Gallery. (173)

“Sacred and Profane Love” (probably 1515). Oil on canvas, 118 x 279 cm. Rome, Galleria Borghese. (186)

Titian: "Noli Me Tangere"

Joannides dealt with Titian’s portraits in a separate chapter but looking at the list above we must say that until Titian painted the “Sacred and Profane Love” in 1514-5, he was primarily a painter of “sacred” subjects.

The sole exception would be the controversial and mysterious “Pastoral Concert”: controversial because scholars still cannot agree on whether to give it to Titian or Giorgione, and mysterious because there is no agreement on the subject of the painting.

Moreover, Joannides noted Hourticq’s opinion that “although the ‘Concert’ was laid in by Titian around 1511, he completed it only around 1530…” He confessed that the temptation to accept Hourticq’s view is “considerable.” (p. 100)

In the five years after Giorgione’s death Titian became one of the greatest painters of the Renaissance but on the eve of the Reformation he and his patrons were still interested primarily in “sacred” subjects.

*Paul Joannides, "Titian to 1518" Yale,2001.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Giorgione: "Three Ages of Man"

Giorgione’s “Three Ages of Man” is another one of his paintings that has so far eluded identification. The name of the painting that now hangs in the Pitti Palace is pure guesswork stemming only from the obvious disparity in ages of the three men. One appears to be about 60, another in his early thirties, and the last a young man in his teens.

Giorgione: Three Ages of Man
Pitti Palace, Florence
Oil on wood, 62 cm  x 77.5 cm

Scholars today object to the popular title. Some think it represents a music lesson and that the man on the viewer’s right is pointing to musical notes on the paper held by the young man. Others claim that it represents the education of the young emperor/philosopher Marcus Aurelius. Others just throw up their hands and claim that it contains, like other Giorgione works, multiple levels of meaning.

However, the most spectacular element in this mysterious painting has so far received little notice. Venetian painters were known for their coloration. Just look at the garments of the three men. Nothing in a Renaissance painting is there by accident or whim. The colors in this painting provide a major clue to its real subject.

As far as I know no one has suggested that the painting has a “sacred” subject, but yet, it appears that Giorgione has depicted a scene from the 19th chapter of the Gospel of St. Matthew. It is the story of the encounter of Jesus with the young man of great wealth. (See below for full text)

In Matthew’s account the young man asked Jesus what he could do to attain eternal life. Jesus told him to keep the Commandments, and specifically named the most important. The man replied that he had done so but still felt that something was wanting. Jesus then uttered the famous words, “If thou wilt be perfect, go, sell what thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” The gospel relates that the young man went away sad for he had many possessions.

How has Giorgione depicted this story and who is the third man? The man in the middle is obviously young and the golden lapels of his garment as well as his fashionable hat indicate that he is well to do. He is holding a piece of paper or parchment that contains some indecipherable writing that under magnification hardly looks like Renaissance musical notation.

On the right any Christian, Venetian or otherwise, would immediately recognize the visage of Jesus. There is no halo or nimbus but Giorgione never employed that device. The pointed finger is certainly characteristic of Jesus. Here he points not at a sheet of music but at the Commandments, which the gospel account has just enumerated.

Jesus wears a green garment or vestment, certainly an unusual color for him. In fact, it looks like the robe or chasuble worn by a priest during Mass. At the hand of Jesus we can also see the white sleeve of the “alb,” a long white robe always worn under the chasuble. Green is the color used by the Catholic Church during Ordinary time, that part of the Church year not identified with any of the great feasts.

The third man is St. Peter. He is the only other person identified in Matthew’s account of this incident. He stands on the left, head turned toward the viewer. Giorgione uses Peter as an interlocutor, a well-known Renaissance artistic device designed to draw the viewer into the painting and encourage emotional participation. The old man’s face is the traditional iconographical rendering of Peter with his baldhead and short stubby beard. As Anna Jameson noted many years ago, Peter is often portrayed as ”a robust old man, with a broad forehead, and rather coarse features.”*

Giovanni Bellini and Albrecht Durer, both Giorgione contemporaries, depicted Peter’s head in this fashion. About a hundred years later Caravaggio still used it in striking fashion in the "Martyrdom of St. Peter" in S. Maria del Popolo in Rome, and in the "Denial of Peter" now in New York’s Metropolitan Museum.

The color of Peter’s robe is also liturgically significant. Peter is rarely shown wearing red, but Giorgione has chosen to show him wearing the color reserved for the feast days of the martyrs. In the gospel account immediately after the young man went away sad, Peter, speaking for the other disciples as well as for the viewer of Giorgione’s painting, had asked, “Behold we have left all and followed thee: what then shall we have?”

In the first decade of the 16th century Venice was at the apex of its glory. It would suffer a great defeat at the end of the decade during the War of the League of Cambrai but until that time it was arguably the wealthiest and most powerful of all the European nations. It was certainly the only one that dared confront the mighty Ottoman Empire.

Nevertheless, some young Venetian patricians were wondering whether the whole life of politics, commercial rivalry, and warfare was worthwhile. One of them, Tommaso Giustiniani, a scion of one of the greatest families, did actually sell all his possessions, including his art collection, in order to live as a hermit in a Camaldolensian monastery. At one point he wrote to a few friends, who were also considering a similar move, about the futility of their daily lives. He argued that Venetian life was agitated, completely outward, and continually dominated by ambition. It was the reason for all their worry.

“If, then, a Stoic philosopher appeared to free their minds from all these disturbances, his efforts would be in vain, so completely does agitation dominate and enfetter their whole lives. How can anyone not feel disgust for such an empty existence.”?**

Peter and the other disciples were shocked when Jesus said that it would be harder for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven, than for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle. “Who then can be saved,” they asked? The response of Jesus was full of hope: “With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” Green, the liturgical color used throughout the Church year, is also the color of hope.

“The Encounter of Jesus with the Rich Young Man,” the name we can now give to the painting in the Pitti Palace, would certainly appear to have an historical context in Giorgione’s time. Five hundred years after the death of this short-lived genius perhaps we can begin to understand that Giorgione was a unique and original painter of sacred subjects. ###

Full text of Matthew 19:16-27.

And behold, a certain man came to him and said, “Good Master, what good work shall I do to have eternal life?” He said to him, “Why dost thou ask me about what is good? One there is who is good, and he is God. But if thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments.” He said to him, “Which?” And Jesus said,

Thou shalt not kill,
Thou shalt not commit adultery,
Thou shalt not steal,
Thou shalt not bear false witness,
Honor thy father and mother, and,
Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.”

The young man said to him, “All these I have kept; what is yet wanting to me?” Jesus said to him, “If thou wilt be perfect, go, sell what thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” But when the young man heard the saying, he went away sad, for he had great possessions.

But Jesus said to his disciples, “Amen I say to you, with difficulty will a rich man enter the kingdom of heaven. And further I say to you, it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.” The disciples hearing this, were exceedingly astonished, and said, “who then can be saved?” And looking upon them, Jesus said to them, “With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”

Then Peter addressed him, saying, “Behold we have left all and followed thee: what then shall we have?”

* Anna Jameson, "Sacred and Legendary Art," Boston, 1896, Vol. 1, p. 191.

** Dom Jean LeClercq, "Camaldolese Extraordinary, The Life, Doctrine, and Rule of Blessed Paul Giustiniani," Bloomingdale, Ohio, 2003, pp. 61-62.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Giorgione: "Boy with an Arrow" 2

Giorgione: Boy with an Arrow, c. 1508, Poplar, 48x42 cm, Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum.

As far as I know the most important iconographical detail in Giorgione’s “Boy with an Arrow” has never been discussed. I must confess that in an earlier post on the painting, I also failed to see it. It is the color of the young man’s tunic. Why did Giorgione deliberately choose to clothe him in red?

In that earlier post I agreed with those who identified Giorgione’s “Boy with an Arrow” as St. Sebastian. I was struck especially by the resemblance of Giorgione’s boy to a St. Sebastian painted earlier by Raphael.

A recent exchange with H. Nyazi and his subsequent blog post on St. Sebastian in art at Three Pipe Problem prompted me to look again at Giorgione’s painting. The exhibition catalog for the 2004 Giorgione exhibition jointly held in Venice and Vienna provided a full discussion of the interpretive history of the “Boy with an Arrow.”*

Marianne Koos, the author of the catalog entry, noted that the painting was not always attributed to Giorgione and that his authorship was only generally accepted after 1955. She also noted “it is usually dated to his mature period, between 1506 and 1508.”

“Boy with and Arrow” is another of Giorgione’s mysterious paintings and a number of different interpretations have been put forward. Koos, whose essay derived from her own doctoral dissertation, did a very nice job of summarizing and analyzing the different views.
While there is general agreement on the painting’s attribution and dating, its subject…remains controversial. Marcantonio Michiel described it as a “boy with an Arrow” in his inventory…compiled in 1531,…Nevertheless, to this day art historians are dissatisfied with the title “Boy with an Arrow”. Thus the figure is alternatively interpreted as “St. Sebastian”, “Apollo” or even “Eros”, respectively to identify the boy as a figure from Christian iconography or classical mythology.…Joannides recently suggested the identification of the boy as “Paris”, who would grow up to slay Achilles with his arrow.
She indicated that Bernard Berenson accepted the Sebastian identification in 1957 but that most scholars since have supported the Apollo or Eros readings. She then proceeded to point out the shortcomings of each interpretation.
None of these interpretations, however, is totally convincing. Against the boy’s identification as “Sebastian” there is the fact that in the art of the early modern period the saint is depicted either as a male nude pierced with arrows, or as a young man in courtly dress….Also absent are the saint’s halo and the contemplative sideways glance, which—as in Raphael’s Sebastian, Accademia Carrara, Bergamo—manifests the painting’s religious content. On the other hand, the classical god Apollo, iconographically related to St. Sebastian via his function as a protector against pestilence is represented in Renaissance art as a blond male nude with laurel wreath, bow and quiver or with a lyre….In 16th century iconography the god of love, Eros, is depicted as a mischievous boy with wings, bow and arrows—not as a melancholy, self-absorbed youth. And in the iconography of the early modern period, Paris, the son of the king of Troy, is depicted holding the apple of Eris rather than an arrow.
Koos believed that some more recent “metaphorical interpretations” pointed in the right direction and proceeded to devote the lion’s share of the catalog entry to her own.
The metaphorical interpretation of the arrow is—both here and in the context of Giorgione’s broader oeuvre—a most promising shift of perspective…which has the advantage of corresponding to Michiel’s description as “Boy with an Arrow”, while simultaneously taking into consideration the iconographic connotations of love and pain proposed for the painting.
Her own conclusion was pretty much what one would expect from a contemporary Art historian.
Giorgione’s youth remains primarily a subject in the discourse of love, an ideal male figure, with whom the male observer may also form an alliance in thought. The ideal-boy picture is not only a painting of…desire, but also of narcissistic identification and a homosocial avowal of brotherhood. 186
I’ll leave her objections to the mythological figures to their supporters, but I do not believe that her argument against the St. Sebastian interpretation is very strong. It is certainly true that most depictions of the martyr show a full-length nude figure riddled with arrows. Yet it is also true, as the recent post on Three Pipe Problem demonstrated, that a fully clothed, half-length figure of a doleful young man holding an arrow was popular at the time. Moreover, Giorgione never used a halo even in his obvious religious images.

Personally, I believe that the similarities between Raphael’s “St. Sebastian” and Giorgione’s “Boy with an Arrow” greatly outweigh the dissimilarities. Typically, Giorgione removes an obvious iconographical sign like the halo and replaces it with something that I have come to believe characterizes much of his work. He uses color to identify the subject.

Red is the symbol of martyrdom. It is the color of the vestment of the priest at every Mass that commemorates a martyr. In an essay on Giorgione’s “Three Ages of Man” I have argued that the color of the garments of the three figures in that mysterious painting now in the Pitti Palace identifies them as Jesus, Peter, and the rich young man of the Gospel of Matthew. Peter’s robe is bold red , a symbol of his eventual martyrdom. Christ is shown in green, in what looks like the vestment that a priest commonly wears on most Sundays of the liturgical year.

I have argued in another post on this site that the colors of the garments worn by the three men in Giorgione’s “Three Philosophers” support those who interpret that mysterious painting as the Three Magi. The color of their garments refers to their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.

Giorgione dressed the young man in the “Boy with an Arrow” in the color of a martyr. There is perhaps an insight contained in the metaphorical interpretation of Marianne Koos. Neoplatonic discussions of love and desire were not regarded as antithetical to Christian belief. On the contrary, in many respects they brought Christian beliefs, if only for a brief moment, to a new level on the eve of the Reformation.

Where it had been common to invoke St. Sebastian as a protector against the plague, now it would appear that Giorgione and others were seeing him again in his original guise; as one who gave his life for his fellow man. In this respect, he was truly a symbol of Christ-like love. No wonder his story inspired Christians throughout the Middle Ages, the Renaissance and even beyond.

In his inventory of the collection of the humanist scholar, Pietro Bembo, Marcantonio Michiel noted a picture by Mantegna, "representing St. Sebastian, over life size, fastened to a column and shot at with arrows."


*Ferino-Pagden, Sylvia, and Nepi-Scire, Giovanna: exh. Cat. Giorgione, Myth and Enigma, Vienna, 2004. pp. 184-7.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Giorgione: Sleeping Venus

Kenneth Clark claimed that Giorgione invented the “classic Venetian nude.” He noted some antecedents but found in Giorgione “an appetite for physical beauty more eager and more delicate than had been bestowed on any artist since fourth-century Greece.”*

Giorgione: Sleeping Venus
Dresden, oil on canvas
108x175 cm

Giorgione’s discovery opened the way for others.
It is because he suddenly found the shape and color of those desires which had been floating half formed in the minds of his contemporaries that Giorgione's work has reached us inextricably confused with that of other artists. He had no sooner found the password then all could enter at the same door, and one or two may have pushed past him.
Clark did not refer to the young woman in the “Laura” with one breast exposed, or even to the nude nursing woman in the “Tempest.” He had in mind the nudes on the Fondaco dei Tedeschi and, above all, the “Sleeping Venus” now in Dresden.
In the nude we can be sure that he was the real inventor. Engravings of his vanished masterpiece, the frescoes of the Fondaco dei Tedeschi, show nude figures of women used for almost the first time as units in a decorative scheme; and a nude woman is the subject of the picture in which his peculiar graces are most clearly apparent, the Dresden Venus.
Like most of Giorgione’s paintings the “Dresden Venus” has raised questions of attribution and interpretation. In 1525 Marcantonio Michiel, a Venetian patrician, saw the painting that most scholars believe to be the “Dresden Venus” in the home of Messer Jeronimo Marcello at San Tomado.
The canvas, representing Venus, nude, sleeping in a landscape with Cupid, is by Giorgio di Castelfranco; but the landscape and the Cupid were finished by Titian.**
The editor of Michiel’s notes also claimed that Carlo Ridolfi saw the painting in Marcello’s house over a century later.
Ridolfi in 1646, saw it in Marcello’s house, and described it in his book as a work of Giorgione in the following words: ‘In Marcello’s house there is a lovely nude Venus sleeping, with Cupid at her feet holding a bird in his hand, which (cupid) was finished by Titian.’ The Venus is now alone in the landscape, for the Cupid was so badly damaged that it had to be effaced. (note 3)**
Both observers mention that the painting had been left unfinished by Giorgione and completed by Titian. They also mention the Cupid that can no longer be seen because of a later overpainting. X-rays have revealed the presence of the Cupid but it is impossible to say if it was painted by Giorgione, Titian, or someone else.

In the past, despite Michiel’s words, some have attributed the entire painting to Titian but now most agree on Giorgione. Still, there is much controversy about the extent of Titian’s contribution. While the nude is universally given to Giorgione, some claim that Titian did the landscape, and others claim that he was responsible for the fine materials on which the Venus reclines. In a recent catalog Wolfgang Eller argued that most of the painting is by Giorgione’s hand and that Titian did little more than a final touch up.***

I do not possess the expertise or tools to deal with questions of attribution, and I would not even attempt to hazard a guess at the meaning of this painting at this time. I would just like to point out that I agree with most commentators that there is nothing erotic or pornographic in the “Dresden Venus.” In 1958 Kenneth Clark wrote:
The Venus of Georgione is sleeping, without a thought of her nakedness, in a honey-colored landscape: but her outline forbids us to identify her as Venus Naturalis. Compared to Titian's Venus of Urbino, who seems, at first, so closely to resemble her, she is like a bud, wrapped in it's sheath, each petal folded so firmly as to give us the feeling of inflexible purpose.*
Fifty years later Wolfgang Eller observed:
The sleeping figure does not realize that she is being observed and in contrast to Titian’s later depiction, she is not consciously displaying her nudeness. Giorgione rendered the beauty of the nude female female body with noble delicacy, and there is no indication of rawness or lasciviousness.***
Clark, Eller and most scholars agree that Giorgione represented a brief moment in time. In the first decade of the 16th century Giorgione took the lead along with Michelangelo in the depiction of the nude body with no trace of shame. Titian, especially in his early work, reflected Giorgione’s greatness and influence. Writing about the nude in the “Sacred and Profane Love,” Rona Goffen noted,

“as female nudes go, this one is modest; her sex is covered not by a coy gesture but by the unambivalent means of a white drapery. Moreover, her legs are firmly locked together,…there is nothing prurient about her presentation, and her turning away from us to glance at her counterpart underscores the nude’s purity.” ****
Not too long after after Giorgione’s death in 1510 a new element would enter into the picture and eventually bring to an end this brief moment in time. Reformation reformers, both Catholic and Protestant, would direct their efforts against lewd images, but the process took some time. At the same time, lewd images would begin to proliferate. In the 19th century Mark Twain described Titian's "Venus of Urbino" as not even fit for a bagnio. Carlo Ginzberg referred to a study of manuals for confessors that showed that images were not of primary concern in the first decades of the 16th century.
The minute analyses of the sin of lust concentrate on the senses of touch and sound well into the sixteenth century. Sight is hardly mentioned. The social occasions that abet the transgression…are principally dancing and singing….He did not warn against immoral images, simply because their diffusion must have been minimal or nil, except among the upper classes. Only later in the century did sight emerge slowly as a prominent erotic sense, immediately after touch.# 
For the time of Giorgione the words of Kenneth Clark are still apt.
In European painting the Dresden Venus holds almost the same place as is held in antique sculpture by the Knidian Aphrodite. Her pose is so perfectly satisfying that for four hundred years the greatest painters of the nude…continued to compose variations on the same theme… Her pose seems so calm and inevitable that we do not at once recognize its originality. Giorgione's Venus is not antique... how un-Gothic she is in the cylindrical smoothness of every form.
Yet this isolation on the nude from the vegetable life that surrounded it could not be maintained for long: it resulted from a moment of balance as delicate as that which produced Botticelli's Primavera. And in the culmination of the Georgionesque, the Concert Champetre, the bodies have lost all sense of Gothic virginity. Far from being buds, they have the opulent maturity of an Italian summer. We have entered the realm of Venus Naturalis.

Titian: Detail of "Venus of Urbino," Uffizi, Florence. Repeated attempts to put up the full image of the "Venus of Urbino" have been blocked. Anyone interested can find the full image with a simple search. In a way, I guess it just confirms the point made above about the modesty of early nudes by Giorgione and Titian.

*Kenneth Clark: The Nude, A Study in Ideal Form, Princeton, 1956, pp. 114-5.

**The Anonimo, Notes on Pictures and Works of Art in Italy made by an Anonymous Writer in the Sixteenth Century: ed. by George C. Williamson, London, 1903, p. 105.

***Wolfgang Eller: Giorgione, Catalog Raisonne, Petersberg, 2007, p.126.

****Rona Goffen: Titian’s Women, Yale, 1997, pp. 37-8.

#Carlo Ginzberg, 'Titian, Ovid, and Sixteenth-Cntury Codes for Erotic Illustration', inTitian's "Venus of Urbino," ed. Rona Goffen, Cambridge, 1999, p. 33.