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 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.


  1. Interesting points Frank!

    I'm curious as to why you chose Schier - I'd be more interested in seeing the juxtaposition of two spiritual readings, like yours and Settis, as we can already guess the outcome of Schier's as soon as he mentions Virgil!

    Whilst these artists were not scholars of antiquity, we do know they moved in the same circles as the prominent writers and publishers of the Renaissance.

    Do you really think Giorgione would never have met Pietro Bembo? They seem like two peas in a pod! Their mutual fondness for the lute and entertaining noble ladies suggest they likely came across each other at some stage.

    The same applies for prominent Venetian publishing houses - for Giorgione to not have been aware of them and the works of antiquity being produced by the Aldine Press and others seem a great stretch.

    Titian's close links with Venetian publishers are better established - and it is not unnatural to assume Giorgione would have had some knowledge of what was out there due to this exciting new medium.

    Hence, while none of that adds to Schier's reading, saying there was "no evidence" he knew Virgil or Lucretius is a tad short sighted. There is just as much a lack of evidence supporting his intention to paint the rest or the setting is Padua! This does not mean these readings should be immediately dismissed!

    We are extrapolating based on other known sources.

    From the Divine comedy, everybody knew Virgil, and through the printing press, they came to know his works as well. Sanazzaro is another obvious link people need to pay more attention to. Virgil's Eclogues and Varro's De Re Rustica played an important part in influencing his Arcadian poem.


  2. H:

    Titian is a good example since we do know that he had no Latin. Like Giorgione he was a country boy and there is no evidence of a formal education for either one. The Aeneid is one thing but the Eclogues are another. Either way there is no evidence for Giorgione's knowledge of the Eclogues.

    I believe that Manutius published in the original Latin, and not in the vernacular.

    The evidence for his knowledge of the Flight into Egypt is in the Tempest itself, as well as in "the Encounter with the Robbers."

    Thanks as always for your comment.


  3. H;

    You may like to know that Isabella d'Este as a 14 year old princess in Ferrara "repeated the Eclogues of Virgil and the Epistles of Cicero by heart." She could also construe the Aeneid with "rare grace and fluency."

    However, Isabella followed the career of Savonarola (a native of Ferrara) with great interest. "A volume of Savonarola's sermons was in her library, and six months after his death, she sent to Ferrara for a copy of the Miserere, a commentary on the Fifty-first Psalm, which he had written in prison before his execution."


  4. In a post on December 14, 2011 I printed Dr. Schier's comments on my critique of his paper.