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

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Giorgione: Grimani Breviary

Grimani Breviary
Immaculate Conception

Grimani Breviary
Rest on the Flight into Egypt

In my interpretation of the "Tempest" as "The Rest on the Flight into Egypt" I argued that Giorgione depicted the Madonna as nude because of her Immaculate Conception. In researching I was surprised and emboldened when I discovered that the last two images in the famous "Grimani Breviary" juxtaposed the Immaculate Conception with a version of the Rest on the Flight into Egypt. There they are. On the left the artist has placed the "Woman, Clothed with the Sun" from the Book of Revelation in the sky, and symbols of the "Woman, without stain or blemish" from the Song of Songs on the ground below. In the next image the Madonna sits with her child in a landscape always used in depictions of the Rest. Joseph and the Ass can be seen in the background.

The Grimani Breviary is famous for its depictions by Northern Renaissance miniaturists of ordinary life. Nevertheless, the last two images depart from that scheme and depict Mary. The owner of the Breviary was Cardinal Domenico Grimani, not only an important figure in the life of Venice and the Church but also one of the greatest art collectors of the early 16th century. Was there a connection between the owner of the Breviary and Giorgione? The editor of the beautiful facsimile edition of the Breviary recently published by Levenger Press raised the possibility.

"Outside Flanders this manuscript could not have found a more suitable home than Venice. The natural world is depicted in the Grimani Breviary with a care paralleled only in Venetian painting, which at this time was turning to an ever deeper study of nature, and this Flemish masterpiece must have aroused the curiosity of the Venetian painters, whose formation and sensitivity were quite different from those of their Tuscan counterparts. Certain of it meticulous landscapes must have aroused the interest of masters such as Giorgione and the young Titian…" ["The Grimani Breviary": Levenger Press, DelRay Beach, Florida, 2007, p. 38.]

In the recent catalog of the 2010 Giorgione exhibition in the artist's hometown of Castelfranco Veneto, Enrico dal Pozzolo also speculated about the connection between Grimani and Giorgione. After summarizing Cardinal Grimani's collection, Pozzolo wrote:

"here we have a number of elements that would lead us to wonder whether behind this manifest connection between Cardinal Grimani’s interests and some of the themes developed by the artist there were an actual, if unrecorded, patron-artist relationship—which might have been at the root of the mix of cultures that defined the young artist."[Enrico Maria dal Pozzolo: "Giorgione", Milan, 2009. pp. 210-212]

In an earlier post I have written about the connection between the work of Luca Signorelli in the S. Brisio chapel in Orvieto's cathedral and Giorgione's Tempest. On a recent visit to Orvieto I discovered that Signorelli's broken columns in his depiction of the end of the world bore a close resemblance to the ones Giorgione depicted in the Tempest.

In a study of the S. Brisio chapel Creighton Gilbert argued that Grimani played a key advisory role in its iconography.

"Grimani too visited Orvieto in 1493 and 1495 with Farnese, Borgia, and the rest. More of interest is that in 1505 he built himself a vacation house below the city walls, at the abbey of Santa Trinita.”
[Gilbert, Creighton E.: "How Fra Angelico and Signorelli Saw the End of the World", Penn State, 2003. p. 81.]

Below find notes from the introduction to the Levenger Press beautiful facsimile edition of the Grimani Breviary.

p. 10. The Breviary is for Franciscan use and consists of some 832 parchment folios.

p. 10. Some hold that work on the manuscript started some time after 1480 and continued until about 1520; as far as we can see, however, it was completed in about a decade.

p. 13. The naturalism in the Grimani Breviary clearly derives from the Ghent and Bruges masters of the latter half of the fifteenth century.

p. 23. …the last miniature in the manuscript, the symbols of the Virgin.

p. 27. …while in the penultimate miniature in the manuscript the Madonna and Child are akin to the graceful figures of David’s Von Pannwitz Virgin and the landscape recalls the later manner of the first illuminator.

p. 29. Later the broad dating of 1481 to 1520 was narrowed down to the decade 1510 to 1520, and the predominant presence of three major illuminators was clarified.

p. 35. …the Breviary is the product and the expression of a stage in the history of Flemish miniature-painting, a lofty synthesis between the school of Ghent…and the school of Bruges.

In the opening pages of this introduction we emphasized how exceptional was the fact that the Grimani Breviary had been purchased in Italy by an Italian, even though the purchaser was a member of an illustrious family and himself high up in the Church….So Flemish paintings found their way into Italy to embellish the castles and palaces of the various ruling families…In addition, rare works came to decorate bourgeois homes—especially in Piedmont, Liguria, and Venice.

Levenger Press, fascimile edition published in 2007, Delray Beach, Florida.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Giorgione: "Lucretian" Tempest

In 2003 Stephen J. Campbell argued that the Tempesta was “a portrait of didactic or philosophical poetry,” whose source could be found in the “De Rerum Natura,” the most famous work of the Roman poet and philosopher, Lucretius.
Five years later in separate papers both Rudolf Schier and Regina Stefaniak gave little credence to Campbell’s interpretation and argued that the source of the Tempest could be found in their own favorite Classical authors, Virgil and Plato respectively. All three pointed to the popularity of their favorites during the Renaissance but then had to undertake the arduous task of making the pieces of the Tempest puzzle fit.

Campbell’s interpretation, entitled “Giorgione’s Tempesta, Studiolo Culture and the Renaissance Lucretius,” appeared in 2003 in Renaissance Quarterly, 56-2 (Summer, 2003). He examined most of the major iconographical elements in the painting. Let’s look at them one by one.

In the first place, he did not believe that there was any relationship between the Man and the nursing woman in the painting. He wrote, “the figures appear not only spatially but psychologically isolated; it is by no means apparent that they are aware of each other.” (309) Like others he ignored the fact that the Man is looking right at the Woman in the same way that he does in two other paintings that Campbell notes bear a resemblance to the Tempest but that do constitute a family group.

The Tempest “could be classed with a series of depictions of family-like groups in landscapes from around 1510-15, such as the Landscape with Halbardier, Woman and Two Children from the Palma Vecchio circle and the Nursing Mother with Halbardier in a Landscape attributed to Titian. However, while these other Venetian works correspond in some formal respects to Giorgione’s picture, there is no consequent basis for the assertion that they reproduce its subject and its meaning.” (307)

In fact, even though the Man in each of these paintings carries a halberd, they are both depictions of episodes in the sojourn of the Holy Family in Egypt. If it weren’t for the halberd, no one would take the one with two nude children embracing as anything other that the meeting of the Infant Jesus with John the Baptist on the return from Egypt.

If they are not a family, who are they? For Campbell the answer lies in Lucretius. “All of the crucial elements of Giorgione’s painting—wanderer, nursing nude female, ruined columns, and, most importantly, the lightning bolt—can be accounted for through Lucretius’ poem…Nonetheless, the painting is not an illustration of Lucretius: it is an imitation…” (316)

What about the Man in the Tempest? For Campbell he is the “epicurean philosopher in Lucretius’ poem… characterized throughout as a wayfarer; this includes both Epicurus and the poet, his disciple...”(319) He could be Epicurus or Lucretius, or just “the wanderer figure, whose clothing bears the signs of urban sophistication, [who] has embarked on a literal ‘marching beyond the walls’…he could be a contemporary “epicurean” who has left the city to pursue truth at the point where civilization gives place to nature.“ (320)

In short the Man is the “Epicurean poet contemplating his materia.” …”Standing apart to the left, the man like the viewer, calmly surveys the entire spectacle, in its totality: the gathering clouds, the bolt of lightning which renders the city walls below incandescent, perhaps also the mother and child. Both he and she see the storm for what it is, not as a portent or as the raging of a deity, but as the indifferent motion of the elements….”(319)

Given that by the rules of perspective the storm is far in the distance, and that the trio are bathed in sunlight, and that the Man has turned his back on the storm, and that he appears totally unconcerned, it seems that Campbell is reading an awful lot into Giorgione’s painting.

This brings us to the nursing Woman. The wandering poet has stumbled upon Venus or a Venus de-mythologized. “In other words, she is not Venus, but a mortal body in which a certain natural property of living things—the ability to arouse desire, to generate and to nurture, a property to which poets and superstitious people had given the name “Venus”—has manifested itself.” 325

He even brings in the Madonna. “Giorgione has made every effort to humanize, even de-mythologize the figure of the divina genitrice…removing her from her shrine and trappings of divinity, accentuating her nudity, and placing her upon the earth like a Madonna of Humility.” [325]

But she might also represent Wisdom. “Once again, however, in the Tempest we see not wisdom, but wisdom, as it were, incarnate, in a singularly undivine manifestation.” 325.
Campbell devoted much attention to the lightning since Lucretius took such pains to de-mystify this natural phenomenon. Even though the broken columns are not near the storm they are a symbol of how the temples of the gods are not impervious to the forces of nature. He spent little time on the city in the background even though it suffers the brunt of the storm. He mentioned the connection to the Cambrai war discussed earlier by Deborah Howard and Paul Kaplan but tends to downgrade any historical context.

Like all others he ignored the prominent plant in the foreground.

Finally, let many others he believed that Gabriele Vendramin was the original owner of the painting and made much of Vendramin’s interest in classical antiquity. “Giorgione’s painting will be identified with a humanist theory and practice of poesia around 1500, but a conception of which would also have been meaningful for the first owner of the picture, the Venetian patrician and collector Gabriele Vendramin (1484-1552).” (301)

Furthermore, “Vendramin…was one of several patricians who sought to associate himself, as patron and collector, with the world of classical scholarship and antiquarianism,…Among other paintings by Giorgione, Vendramin owned a work known as The Education of Marcus Aurelius, again suggesting that Vendramin found affirmation of his own morally rigorous outlook in the ethical and pedagogical legacy of the ancient philosophers.“(304)

This reference to “The Education of Marcus Aurelius” is problematical. The painting which is in the Pitti Palace is usually called “The Singing Lesson,” or “The Three Ages of Man” and was only identified as Marcus Aurelius in an inventory of 1666. I have argued on my website that it is really a depiction of a “sacred” subject, “The Encounter of Jesus with the Rich Young Man.”

In any event, we know that when Vendramin, whether or not he was the original owner of the Tempest, went into his camerino to contemplate, his walls were covered primarily with “sacred” subjects. It was not for nothing that Titian would later depict him and his family venerating a relic of the True Cross.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Giorgione: "Platonic" Tempest

Last week I discussed Rudolf Schier's 2008 interpretation of the Tempest derived from his reading of the Eclogues of Vergil. In 2008 Regina Stefaniak also published her interpretation based on her reading of Plato's Symposium. Obviously, both of them cannot be correct. See the following for a review of Stefaniak's interpretation.

Regina Stefaniak turns to Plato to discover the subject of Giorgione’s Tempest. Despite her obvious erudition and exhaustive notes, Stefaniak’s interpretation is a torturous attempt to fit the pieces of the painting into a puzzle that only an art historian could imagine. Her paper, “On Founding Fathers and the Necessity of Place, Giorgione’s Tempesta,” appeared in Artibus and Historiae, (XXIX, No. 58, 2008, pp. 121-155) Before we get into her thesis let’s just note a couple of points.

One is immediately alerted by her description of the child in the painting when she calls him ”newly-born.” In another place she uses the term “post-partum” to describe the woman. A new born baby could never hold his head erect as does the nursing child in the Tempesta. The child is obviously supporting himself while he nurses at his mother’s breast.

Secondly, like some others she claims that the storm in the background is about to engulf the figures in the foreground, despite the laws of perspective that would place the storm miles away. She sees the winds of the storm blowing in the trees.

Next, she introduces the figure of Gabriele Vendramin, the owner of the painting when it was seen by Marcantonio Michiel in 1525, but doesn’t quite say that he was the original patron. Nevertheless, as her argument progresses it becomes clear that she assumes that Vendramin was the original patron, and by the end of her paper much of her thesis rests on that assumption.

A good case can be made for Vendramin but there is no direct proof that he was the patron. We know that paintings were bought and sold and traded during this period. In his will Vendramin, himself, had to urge his executors not to break up or sell his collection. Speaking of Vendramin’s collection, a glance at Michiel’s notes shows that with the exception of a few contemporary portraits and the “Tempesta,” all the paintings and drawings were of sacred subjects, including a Flight into Egypt.

Let’s turn to her description of the painting. For Stefaniak the Man and the Woman represent Wealth and Poverty, a theme derived from a story in Plato’s “Symposium.” The story deals with the seduction of the drunken god of wealth, Poros, by the impoverished nymph, Poenia. The child of their union is Eros.

The Man then is a Venetian patrician who appears as a kind of country gentleman: a shepherd who does not have to work, whose staff is not exactly a crozier, and who has no flock. The Woman is a kind of earth mother. Actually, it is impossible to do justice to all the intricacies of Stefaniak’s interpretation for even though she rightly critiques other theories, she winds up including many of them in her own complex presentation.

Indeed, at one point she says that Giorgione must have had a humanist advisor in order to depict all the different levels of meaning. She also suggests that Vendramin must have been pleased to know that he was the only one who knew the real subject of the painting.

Stefaniak includes a discussion of the mysterious bathing woman that Giorgione painted over. However, like all the others who conjecture about this “pentimento,” she declines to discuss or even mention the other, “pentimento;” the little man on the bridge carrying a pilgrim’s staff and bundle. Is there a pilgrim in Plato?

Finally, she omits to discuss the plant prominently placed in front of the nursing woman. What is it? Why is it there?

Dr. Francis P. DeStefano
Faifield, CT

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Giorgione: "Virgilian" Tempest

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. Yet in the next few weeks I will try to address some of the other theories, especially those not discussed in the comprehensive survey found in the book on the Tempest by Salvatore Settis.

Below find an analysis of a relatively recent interpretation by Rudolf Schier.

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.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Giorgione: Historical Imagination

My interpretation of Giorgione's Tempest as "The Rest on the Flight into Egypt" claims that this famous painting has a "sacred" or "religious" subject. In researching, I discovered that most scholars have been unable to understand the role that religion played in the life and art of Renaissance Venetians.

For example, scholars invariably point to the passage in the will of Gabriele Vendramin, the owner of the Tempest, where he directed that his collection not be dispersed or sold upon his death. He said that the collection had given him great consolation in moments of quiet contemplation. Scholars assume that he was contemplating the works of antiquity but the art works in his collection were mainly "sacred" subjects. [Notice Titian: "Gabriele Vendramin with Brother and Nephews Venerating a Relic of the True Cross"] Indeed, the great majority of paintings found in the homes of Venetian patricians were of sacred subjects, including many versions of the "Rest on the Flight into Egypt."

In our modern world it takes a great amount of "historical imaginaton" to see things as Renaissance Venetians saw them.

Below find selections from two great scholars on the need for “historical imagination” for a correct understanding of the past. The first is from “Piety and Patronage in Renaissance Venice,” by the late Rona Goffen. Her small book is one of the best monographs ever written about the Venetian Renaissance. Referring to the importance of the sermons of Bernardino of Siena, and Lorenzo Giustiniani, the saintly first Patriarch of Venice, she wrote of the need for an historically informed imagination.

"In these and other similar passages, Bernardino and Giustiniani declared their belief in the Immaculacy of the Madonna. Their influence on Venetian piety must have been as pervasive during the Renaissance as it is difficult today to gauge in any precise way. Nevertheless, their thoughts and writings constitute part--a very important part--of the original context of sacred art in Renaissance Venice. One must attempt to reconstruct that context in the historically informed imagination." [p.79]

Goffen stressed the need to see Renaissance Venice, especially its art, through the eyes of contemporary Venetians. For example,

"No Venetian--and no Venetian Franciscan--could have been unaware of the rich associations, both political and spiritual, of the Madonna in Venice, and indeed of the identification of the one with the other. after all, Venice, too, was apostrophized as a Virgin, always safe in the embrace of her beloved Evangelist St. Mark..." [p. 145]

The second selection on the need for historical imagination comes from C.S. Lewis, whose greatness as a scholar is somewhat obscured today by the extraordinary success of his popular Narnia stories. Nevertheless, he was one of the greatest 20th century students of Medieval and Renaissance literature. The following excerpt is taken from his small but brilliant study of Milton’s "Paradise Lost." In chapter IX of “A Preface to Paradise Lost,” Lewis discussed the need to see things through Milton’s eyes.

"Now when we read Paradise Lost,…Milton is on his own ground, and it is we who must be the learners..."

"Our whole study of the poem will then become a battle between us and the author in which we are trying to twist his work into a shape he never gave it, to make him use the loud pedal where he really used the soft, to force into false prominence what he took in his stride, and to slur over what he actually threw into bold relief. The older modern reading of Dante, with its disproportionate emphasis on the Inferno, and, within the Inferno, on the episode of Paolo and Francesca, is an example of this…."

"Fortunately there is a better way. Instead of stripping the knight of his armour, you can try to put his armour on yourself; instead of seeing how the courtier would look without his lace, you can try to see how you would feel with his lace; that is, with his honour, his wit, his royalism, and his gallantries out of the Grand Cyrus. I had much rather know what I should feel like if I adopted the beliefs of Lucretius, than how Lucretius would have felt if he had never entertained them. The possible Lucretius in myself interests me more than the possible C.S. Lewis in Lucretius…."

"You must, so far as in you lies, become an Achaean chief while reading Homer, a medieval knight while reading Malory, and an eighteenth century Londoner while reading Johnson. Only thus will you be able to judge the work ‘in the same spirit that its author writ’ and to avoid chimerical criticism…."

"We must therefore turn a deaf ear to Professor Saurat when he invites us ‘to study what there is of lasting originality in Milton’s thought and especially to disentangle from theological rubbish the permanent and human interest.’…Our plan must be very different—to plunge right into the ‘rubbish’, to see the world as if we believed it, and then, while we still hold that position in our imagination, to see what sort of poem results…."

"I myself am a Christian, and that some (by no means all) of the things which the atheist reader must ‘try to feel as if he believed’ I actually, in cold prose, do believe. But for the student of Milton my Christianity is an advantage. What would you not give to have a real, live Epicurean at your elbow while reading Lucretius?"

Let me just add a personal footnote.

The day after the Princeton Giorgione symposium (described in an earlier post) my wife and I got up early to go to Mass at the Catholic church just across the street from the campus. It was December 12, the feast day of Our Lady of Guadalupe, but still we were surprised to find a good sized congregation in attendance at the 7:00 a.m. Mass. Even more surprising was the display that filled one of the two side altars. There was an image of Our Lady of Guadalupe along with an incredible array of flowers that even included a colorful working fountain. Catholic churches are usually somewhat bare during the season of Advent.

Before beginning Mass the presiding priest, obviously Mexican, was on fire as he told the congregation of the story of Juan Diego and the miraculous appearance of Mary at Guadalupe almost 500 years ago. Most surprising was his announcement that 3 hours earlier, at 4:00 a.m., the church had been packed with over 600 worshippers gathered for prayers on the morning of this great feast. Afterwards, we discovered that there was a substantial Latino community in Princeton.

I relate this story because it occurred to me that even the greatest and wealthiest of Renaissance Venetian patricians would have been closer in spirit to these 600 Latino worshippers than he would have been to the 100 or so learned art historians who had attended the Princeton Giorgione symposium. To put it another way it would take a great deal of imagination for an ordinary American to understand the mentality that could get up at 4:00 a.m. on a dark, rainy, morning to go to church and fill it with beautiful flowers in honor of the Madonna.