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

Saturday, 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.


  1. Interesting comments Frank! From when I first encountered your work, a great sense of your faith reverberated through it.

    I think this is an aspect of one's individual journey we must be careful about when we are describing others experience of it in a negative manner.

    Many readers in the modern age will indeed have no idea "what it felt like" to live in the Renaissance. This does not mean they can not approach the study of history or art in a rational way. Do we need to be violent religious zealots to properly study the Spanish Inquistion? Of course not!

    I was raised in an Islamic community - yet write mostly about famous Christian artists. I can easily explain why - it is no mystery and not tangled in emotion and spirituality.

    These people were great innovators and thinkers - this is what appeals to us down the ages. This is what Saurat was getting at. Regardless of what their personal and patrons' motivations were - this can not be taken away from those of us who enjoy the study of this period, whilst frankly admitting a lack of spiritual connection!

    Lewis expertly used pagan mythology in his own books - mixing them in with Christian motifs to push his very Anglo-Centric Christian views. Scholars are all aware of this, yet his work endures mainly because of its remarkable escapism and fantastical creatures - watching the modern adaptations of The Narnia Chronicles, most of the religious barrow-pushing is gone - though traces are still there to the discerning viewer.

    For more on this aspect of Lewis, read Juliette Harrisson's amazing article The Domestication of Classical Mythology in The Chronicles of Narnia.

    If anything, the ability of some fervently spiritual people to be rational is something that is a cause for concern. People who see images of the Madonna in a piece toast or woodgrain patterns will see strange things in paintings too - and study of history and art most definitely does not need that to further its cause!

    Your reading of Tempest makes sense historically, given what other artists were doing at the time and what was happening in the Wars of the Holy League. Whether it gave solace to Vendramin, Hutton or anyone else is interesting - but does not strengthen the great historical foundation of your work.

    What would be more interesting to investigate was why Giorgione was so deliberately ambiguous in the Tempest, and why no records exist of Vendramin or any other contemporary viewer more clearly acknowledging Tempest as a spiritual work. It's not like 'the Rest' was a forbidden topic!

    Kind Regards

  2. H:

    Thanks as always for your very thoughtful comments. Although we share a common interest in Renaissance art, I also appreciate your willingness to engage in battle.

    I have reread my post and your comment and do not think that either I or the selections I used indicated that one has to be a "believer" in order to appreciate the art we both love. I do not think I can improve on the words of Goffen or Lewis but I can give an example of what I was getting at.

    Last year I waded through the "Hypneromachia Poliphilo." I found a scholarly, annotated, modern English translation of this incredibly boring and tedious tract in the library of a nearby Jesuit University. I certainly would not argue that this book should not have a critical modern edition or be in a Catholic library.

    But I don't know of any English edition of the sermons of Lorenzo Giustiniani, the influential first Patriarch of Venice. I don't even know if they are available in Italian. His influence on contemporary Venetians was certainly greater than any humanist tract.

    Also, what about the sermons of Savonarola? Where are they? Who is working on them? Yet, who can understand the florentine revolution without them?

    I have been pleasantly surprised in the last few years to find that many modern scholars, unlike their predecessors, are trying to see things through Venetian eyes. Most of them are not believers but they understand that the key to understanding the great works of the Renasissance lies in understanding the religion of the time. Ingrid Rowland's article on Raphael's Stanze is a good example.

    I'm surprised that you disagree with Lewis. I certainly enjoy having an Epicurean like you as my guide to the Ancient world.


  3. Thank you for your considered reply Frank.

    It is difficult to engage in this discussion without venturing into emotive territory, but as we are not entirely strangers, I felt comfortable enough to share the above :)

    I definitely haven't considered that I was Epicurean before - always thinking that aspects of Stoicism rung more true to my outlook - however on deeper reflection I dont think it's easy to take part in a materialistic Western society without indulging in aspects of Epicureanism!

    Savonarola's sermons must be available somewhere - happening across a book on exactly that was how Rab Hatfield deciphered Botticelli's Mystic Nativity!