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 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.


  1. Fascinating post Frank!

    This is one of the readings I am more familiar with as the full text of this piece is freely available.

    The fact that 'Three Ages' was Campbell's 'evidence' as another example of a classical piece really highlights the conjectural premise of his argument.

    I've stood with my eyeballs milimeters from the glass in front of that painting in the Pitti and there is not one ounce of it that hints at a classical subject.

    Furthermore, how any art historian can insist on a classical source, be it Plato, Homer, or a Roman author, and then go on to dismiss the history of the present is remarkably selective.

    If Giorgione was so unaffected with the excommunication pronounced by Julius II on Venice, and thought it more appropriate to revel in the writers of antiquity, there simply *must* be a some more convincing evidence or documentation to support it - not just 'Three Ages!'

    There is no conclusive evidence that the Vendramin or Giorgione were so enamoured of classical learning in the same sense that one gets looking when examining the Medici and early Botticelli for example.

    If anything, the Vendramin as a prominent family in the sacred and political life of Venice is evident, particularly with reference to the legend of the Vendramin that saved a relic of the True Cross indicated in the Titian portrait above.

    If the Vendramin were as obsessed with antiquity as the Medici, there would be more evidence of it, be it in works of art or contemporary documents. Whilst a paucity of evidence is of course not conclusive - it also weakens the premise of any classical reading - a fact that anyone who has attempted a classical reading has profoundly ignored!

    Classical readings of other Venetian works that closely link the piece to known translated volumes, or popular titles that espoused the virtue of classical learning(such as that by Manutius or Sanazzaro) are a more likely source for the 'classical inspiration', if present at all.

    Kind Regards

  2. H:

    Thanks for the insightful comment. You know I agree with you about the importance of the historical background.

    About Vendramin, the inventory of his collection indicates that he had some antique statuettes but I believe that those were the only ones available in Venice at the time. Venice did not seem to produce sculptors and had to import them to do the decorative facades of their palazzos. Still, most of his paintings were "sacred" subjects.