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

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.


  1. Very interesting connections Frank. It is not unfathomable to think that Giorgione or his contemporaries were aware of these works - but one must be careful in being selective in which speculation is permissable and which is not!

    From an evidential perspective, we are no more definite saying Giorgione "may have seen the Breviary" than he "may have been aware of Roman authors" which you have spent the last few posts vehemently suggesting he didn't!

    What can be sure is that whether he saw the breviary or not, the symbolic elements of Tempesta are not uncommon in and of themselves, but perhaps uncommon in their mode of depiction, which is why a sacred reading has always been dismissed by some.

    I am curious as to why you are looking at these external sources, is not the truest mystery with Giorgione why he is so deliberately playful and ambiguous?


  2. H:

    Thanks for the comment. As usual, you get to the heart of the matter. My main objection to the "classical" interpretations of the Tempest is that the authors seem not to be looking at the painting. Their interest is in the classical texts and they often ignore significant details in the painting or twist them to fit their interpretation.

    Some call the child a "newborn" when he is obviously not. Others see the storm about to engulf the couple when it is threatening the city far in the distance. Some claim to see no relationship between the Man and the Woman even though he looks right at her. Others call the Woman a "primitive" despite her elegant hairdo.

    Secondarily, I do argue that there is no evidence that Giorgione was familiar with classical authors like Plato, Lucretius, and Virgil. It is true that these works might have ben read by his patrons. I will discuss the patron painter relationship in a future post.

    I don't think that it would have been necessary for Giorgione to have actually seen the Breviary to be aware of ideas circulating in Venice at the time about the Immaculate Conception and the Rest on the Flight. But I think it is possible that Cardinal Grimani could have been a patron/advisor to Giorgione. Scholars have tried to establish such a relationship between the painter and Gabriele Vendramin and Taddeo Contarini. I believe they should look more in Grimani's direction.