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 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


  1. I'm stunned! Artibus et Historiae is such an elusive journal that I always imagined there was something magical and special about its contents - if that is a sample of what they carry then I'm glad I do not subscribe to it!

    Stefaniak is hedging great parts of her reading on conjecture. Whilst speculation is unavoidable with Giorgione, she borrows heavily on things that simply haven't been historically verified, whether through primary documents, or other analogous works.

    If there was a primary document from said humanist saying how he often conversed with Giorgione(or Venetian artists in general) on Plato, then it would be allowable. Yes, Giorgione likely did move in the same circles as people who did know much about Plato, but we must always be cautious to temper any assumptions with context.

    The most important query: Why is it a Platonic painting? I am not as familiar with the Vendramin as the Medici, but from the description of Michiel's inventory - they seem less likely to go for an overtly classically themed work than their Florentine counterparts.

    At least the Paduan readings have maps that support elements of their reading, which is separate from Kaplan's work - also looking at symbolic markers in depictions of Maximillian I.

    Was there any mention of any link with the huge political events engulfing Venice?

    It is interesting that some readings consider the pentimenti so throughly - even if it clearly showed a classical or sacred female figure(which it doesn't) the fact that Giorgione painted over it for the final product indicates that he did not consider it relevant to his final statement on the theme.

    This makes even the diminuitive bird more important than the hidden woman or pilgrim, because for Giorgione it must have fit in with everything else he was wanting to show in the conetxt of the combined sacred/historical reading.

    I'm a bit more nitpicky with the tree - there is insufficient detail to make a prounced botanical identification(as per a Botticelli). As such, it is at the very least a symbol of fertility and fragility of new life(it is essentially a precariously positioned sprout), part allegory, part modesty screen. I'd be interested to know if this plant was actually mentioned in early descriptions, may be it was painted in later??

    I think someone well versed with Renaissance literature, particularly Sanazzarro could probably wring a more coherent classical reading out of Tempest - but Stefaniak is not that person. Even then, a sound analysis will look at many readings at once, as well as openly acknowledge its own limiting factors. None of these dialectical factors seem to be present here, which is a shame.


  2. In discussing the weaknesses of Stefaniak's interpretation, I did not want to cast doubt on her enormous erudition. She knows her Plato and her Tempest interpretive history. Like others, hers is an imaginative attempt to squeeze the Tempest pieces into the wrong puzzle.

    I agree with you about the pentimenti. Let's look at the painting that Giorgione wanted us to see. But, if you discuss pentimenti, be consistent.

    About the plant (not a tree) I consulted a learned botanist (my brother), and he called it a nightshade. I then came up with belladonna since it is the most famous variety and certainly suitable. No one else has tried to identify it, so I'll stick to belladonna. I'm concerned that it looks similar to the prominent one in the "Sacred and Profane Love."