Since 2010 I have been using this site to discuss my interpretations of famous Renaissance paintings including 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"; Titian's "Pastoral Concert" as his "Homage to Giorgione", and Michelangelo's"Doni Tondo." The full papers can now be found at

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Giorgione: "Due Notte"

a "notte", "not as perfect as you would desire"

a "notte" "very beautiful and original"

Late in 1510 Isabella D’Este , Marchesa of Mantua and renowned art patron, tried to acquire a Giorgione painting only to discover that the young master had just died.

Nevertheless, the indefatigable collector persisted. On October 25th she wrote to Taddeo Albano, her agent in Venice:

“we hear that among the possessions left by Zorzo da Castelfranco, the painter, there is a picture of a Notte, very beautiful and original. If this is the case, we wish to have it, and beg your Lorenzo da Pavia or any other person of taste and judgment to go and see if it is a really excellent thing. If it is, I hope you will endeavor to secure this picture for me,… Find out the price and let us have the exact sum; but if it is really a fine thing, and you think well to clench the bargain for fear others should carry it off, do what you think best…”

Albano replied on the 8th of November:

“Most illustrious and honoured Madama mia,--
“I have spoken in your interests to some of my friends who were very intimate with him, and they assure me that there is no such picture among his possessions. It is true that the said Zorzo painted a Notte for M. Taddeo Contarini, which, according to the information which I have, is not as perfect as you would desire. Another picture of the Notte was painted by Zorzo for a certain Vittore Beccaro, which, from what I hear, is finer in design and better finished than that of Contarini. But Beccaro is not at present in Venice, and from what I hear neither picture is for sale, because the owners have had them painted for their own pleasure, so that I regret I am unable to satisfy Your Excellency’s wish."

Since that time scholars have not been able to agree on the identity of the two paintings mentioned in Albano’s letter. Neither have they been able to agree on what Isabella or Albano meant by “notte” since the word hardly appears elsewhere in descriptions of paintings.

However, from the correspondence we can say that both paintings were commissioned: “the owners have had them painted for their own pleasure.” The one that was not as “perfect” as Isabella would have desired was done for Venetian patrician, Taddeo Contarini. The other “notte”, the one “finer in design and better finished,” was done for Vittore Beccaro, of whom nothing else is known. Not only was Beccaro out of town at the time of Isabella’s inquiry, but he seems to have completely disappeared from history.

Some scholars have argued that Isabella used “notte” or night scene to mean a Nativity or “presepio.” They have suggested that the Adoration of the Shepherds now in the National Gallery in Washington is the more perfect version, and that the same painting in the Kunsthistorisches Museum is the less perfect one since it is obviously unfinished. This explanation hardly seems plausible since it is impossible to imagine that a patron like Taddeo Contarini would have prized an incomplete painting. Moreover, Isabella knew a Nativity when she saw one. A few years earlier when she corresponded with Giovanni Bellini about a Nativity, she never called it a “notte.”

In 1525 Marcantonio Michiel saw a painting in the house of Taddeo Contarini that could be called a night scene. Michiel noted that it represented “the birth of paris in a landscape, with two shepherds standing.” He said it was by Giorgio di Castelfranco,” and indicated that it was one of his “early works.” Recently, Enrico dal Pozzolo suggested that this painting, of which only copies remain, was the one mentioned by Albano. He also suggested that the “more perfect” “notte” might be a “Hell with Aeneas and Anchises,” a painting that is now completely lost but which had somehow found its way into Contarini’s home by 1525.

Pozzolo noted that a discovery of Paris coupled with an Aeneas and Anchises would mark the beginning and the end of the whole Trojan saga. However, this hypothesis is based on a misinterpretation of the “Discovery of Paris.” I have argued elsewhere that this lost Giorgione is a depiction of an episode on the flight of the Holy Family into Egypt. It is clear that in this early work Giorgione relied on a text from the apocryphal Arabic gospel of the Infancy.

Even from the copy of the “Discovery of Paris” done by David Teniers in 1655, we can see that it is not one of Giorgione’s most perfect works. This early effort seems crude in comparison with his later work. Since I have argued that Giorgione’s most perfect painting, La Tempesta, is also a depiction of the Rest on the Flight into Egypt, I believe it is safe to say that it was also the “notte”, “very beautiful and original,” that Isabella unsuccessfully sought to acquire right after Giorgione’s death in 1510."

Isabella’s correspondence with Taddeo Albano can be found in Julia Cartwright, Isabella d’Este, Marchioness of Mantua, 1474-1539. London, 1932. For the Italian text see Jaynie Anderson, “Giorgione, The Painter of Poetic Brevity”, p. 362. For Pozzollo see his “Giorgione”, 1999, pp. 33-35.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Giorgione: Patrons and Painters

Giulio Romano: "Isabella d' Este"

Scholars have speculated for years about Giorgione’s patrons. Who were they and what was his relationship with them? Unfortunately, there is very little information. We know that some of his paintings wound up in the homes of various Venetian patricians but we don’t know if they were commissioned, bought, or traded.

Nevertheless, it might be good to look at the relationship of some other painters with one of the most famous patrons of the era, Isabella d’Este, the Marchesa of Mantua.Isabella was born in 1474 into the ruling family of the Duchy of Ferrara. At the age of six she was engaged to Francesco Maria, heir to the Marquisate of Mantua, whom she eventually married in 1490 at the age of sixteen.

Isabella was educated by humanists at the court of Ferrara. In a biography replete with excerpts from Isabella’s extensive correspondence, Julia Cartwright wrote that as a young teenager, Isabella “repeated the Eclogues of Vergil and the Epistles of Cicero by heart…” Her tutor also claimed that “she construed the Aeneid with rare grace and fluency.”

In the first decade after her marriage she began to furnish and decorate her camerino, a room that she obviously intended to fill with paintings by the great artists of the day.First of these was her own court painter, Andrea Mantegna, whose interest in antiquity matched her own. Mantegna was related by marriage to the Bellini family in Venice but was a great painter in his own right. Although an employee of the young Marchesa his status seemed to give him a certain degree of independence. Still, she wanted to fill her camerino with works based on antique or classical subjects and Mantegna was just the man to start her collection. Indeed, he set such a high standard that it had the effect of discouraging others from showing their work next to his.

Despite being on the Mantua payroll for most of his career, Mantegna apparently died penniless. Indeed, shortly before his death he was forced to sell a prized antique statuette that Isabella purchased after some unseemly haggling.

Even before Mantegna’s death Isabella turned to other painters to fill her camerino. First was Leonardo da Vinci. In 1501 Isabella wrote to a mutual acquaintance after hearing that Leonardo was back in Florence.

“Your reverence might find out if he would undertake to paint a picture for our studio. If he consents, we would leave the subject and the time to him; but if he declines, you might at least induce him to paint us a little picture of the Madonna, as sweet and holy as his own nature.” [318]

There was no question of telling the great man what to do. She would even settle for a little Madonna that apparently Renaissance artists could turn out easily. However, Leonardo was preoccupied with the famous St. Anne cartoon, and Isabella was only able to extract a promise of a portrait that had still not been kept three years later. She offered to compromise and wrote directly to Leonardo.

“we beg you to keep your promise by converting our portrait into another figure, which would still be more acceptable to us; that is to say, a youthful Christ of about twelve years, which would be the age he had attained when he disputed with the doctors in the temple, executed with all that sweetness and charm of atmosphere which is the peculiar excellence of your art.” [324]

Leonardo had earlier done a drawing of Isabella but never kept his promise to do her portrait. So, she decided to try her luck with Perugino. She wrote to a go-between that “she desired to obtain a poesia for her studio from Perugino.” The response was not encouraging.

(Perugino) “would be sure to raise difficulties as to the subject of the picture, and did not care to paint compositions of this kind.” [329]

She tried another source.

“Since we desire to have in our camerino paintings of allegorical subjects by the best painters in Italy, among whom Il Perugino is famous, we beg you to see him and find out,…if he is willing to accept the task of painting a picture on a storia or invention which we will give him, with small-sized figures, such as those you have seen in our camerino. …we will send him the measurements of the picture with our fantasia….”[329]

Mantegna: "Parnassus" (example of a poesia, storia,fantasia)

We should notice that she uses the words poesia, storia, invention, and fantasia almost interchangeably to describe what she wants for her camerino. At last, Perugino “promised to paint a fantasia for her studio…on any subject that she liked to choose.” [330] Isabella then provided the painter with an incredibly detailed set of instructions drawn up by her favorite humanist, Paride da Ceresara. It was to be “the Battle of Love and Chastity—that is to say, Pallas and Diana fighting against Venus and Love.” (See the full quote appended at the end of this post).

The artist was given a little leeway but was forbidden “to introduce anything of your own invention.” Perugino got to work but when Isabella heard that he “had represented Venus as a nude figure,” she was disturbed. “If one single figure were altered, the whole meaning of the fable would be ruined.” [332]Perugino completed the work but Isabella did not like it and refused to place it in her camerino.

In the case of Leonardo she did not dare to give instructions but in the case of Perugino she presented a complete program with preliminary drawing. At about the same time she turned to Giovanni Bellini, the acknowledged master of Venetian artists.
Bellini’s status gave him artistic independence. Isabella’s agent told her that Bellini “seems most anxious to serve your Signory, but does not like the idea of the Storia you propose, and is unwilling to paint this, because, if this picture is to be a companion to M. Andrea’s work, he would like to do his best, and is sure that he cannot make anything good out of such a subject. “

Isabella gave in. “If Zuan Bellini objects so much to this Storia, I am content to leave the subject to his judgment, as long as he paints a story or fable of his own invention, representing something antique, which has a fine meaning.”

Bellini took an advance payment but then failed to deliver despite her repeated requests. He liked the money but not the idea. He would certainly not be bound by the kind of instructions she gave to Perugino. Isabella was told by her agent in Venice that Bellini:

“does not care to have his imagination fettered by innumerable instructions, but prefers to arrange his composition according to his own ideas, being confident that in this way he can produce the best effect.” [357-8]

She finally gave up but since she had already given an advance payment, asked for a Nativity, which she could hang not in her camerino but in her bedroom. For those who look for elaborate explanations of Renaissance paintings, Isabella’s request is very instructive.

“We desire this Nativity should contain the Madonna and Our Lord God and St. Joseph, together with a St. John Baptist, and the usual animals…”[347]

Later she had another idea and here we catch a rare glimpse of the interplay between patron and painter. She suggested the addition of St. Jerome to the group but was told that Bellini,

“ will not hear of St. Jerome being introduced in my Nativity but I did not choose the subject…so let him do as he pleases….As for the medium and material, canvas or panel, he may do as he likes, as long as he keeps to the measurements supplied. [347]

After haggling about price and frame, everything turned out well. She got the Nativity and claimed that it “was as dear to us as anything we possess.”

Her letters show Isabella as an employer, a patron, and a buyer. In 1510 she even tried to purchase a “notte” by Giorgione only to discover that the famous young artist had died. But that is another story.

All the above quotes are from Julia Cartwright: Isabella D’Este, Marchioness of Mantua, 1474-1539, A Study of the Renaissance, London,1932. Page numbers are in brackets. See below for the full text of her instructions to poor Perugino.

“ My poetic invention, which I wish to see you paint, is the Battle of Love and Chastity—that is to say, Pallas and Diana fighting against Venus and Love. Pallas must appear to have almost vanquished Love. After breaking his golden arrow and silver bow, and flinging them at her feet, she holds the blindfold boy with one hand by the handkerchief which he wears over his eyes, and lifts her lance to strike him with the other. The issue of the conflict between Diana and Venus must appear more doubtful. Venus’s crown, garland and veil will only have been slightly damaged, while Diana’s raiment will have been singed by the torch of Venus,…behind these four divinities, the chaste nymphs…with the lascivious troop of fauns, satyrs, and thousands of little loves….the olive tree sacred to Pallas will rise out of the ground at her side, with a shield bearing the head of Medusa, and the owl, which is her emblem, will be seen in the branches of the tree. At the side of Venus, her favourite myrtle tree will flower, and to further the beauty of the picture, a landscape should be introduced with a river or the sea in the distance. [much more detail]…I send you these incidents in a small drawing…If you think there are too many figures, you can reduce the number, as long as the chief ones remain…but you are forbidden to introduce anything of your own invention.” [331-2]

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Giorgione: The Madonna in Art

In my interpretation of the “Tempest” as the “Rest on the Flight into Egypt,” I argued that the nudity of the Woman was Giorgione’s attempt to portray Mary as the Immaculate Conception. Although theologians had debated the dogma for centuries, it was only its resurgence in the 15th century that led artists to finally attempt to treat the subject.

Emile Male’s classic three volume study of Medieval iconography included a brilliant discussion of the evolution of the Madonna’s depiction in Medieval art. Princeton University published the three volume set in 1986. Below are excerpts from the second and third volumes that trace the evolution from Virgin Queen in the 13th century to Virgin Mother and Mater Dolorosa in the 14th and 15th centuries and to Immaculate Conception in the 16th century.

Emile Male: “Religious Art in France, The Thirteenth Century,” Princeton, 1986. Pp. 234-240. This volume has been printed in paperback as “The Gothic Image.”

234-5. The cult of the Virgin that grew up in the twelfth century spread during the thirteenth. The bells of Christendom began to ring the Angelus. The Office of the Virgin was recited daily. Our most beautiful cathedrals were dedicated to her. The idea of the Immaculate Conception began to take form in the minds of Christians who for centuries had meditated on the mystery of a Virgin chosen by God. …New religious orders—the Franciscans and the Dominicans—were true knights of the Virgin and spread her cult among the people….

235. In all the books written to glorify the Virgin, perhaps the idea that recurs most often is that Mary is Queen….

235-6. Among the many ideas and feelings that clustered around the Virgin in this period, the idea of royalty was the one best understood and most strongly expressed by artists. The Virgin of the twelfth and early thirteenth centuries is a queen….Mary is a queen who holds the King of the world. At no other period were artists able to confer such majesty upon the image of the mother of God.

239. Toward the end of the thirteenth century, the Virgin of the theologians, as majestic as pure idea, seemed too remote from man. All the miracles attributed to her in the thirteenth century, all the times she appeared to sinners, merciful and smiling, had brought her closer to mankind. It was then that the artists, faithfully interpreting the feelings of the people, conceived the Virgin of the north portal of Notre-dame of Paris as a mother radiating maternal pride…the virgin had grown to womanhood; she is a mother.

In the fourteenth century, the Virgin and Child group, represented with such solemnity a century before, has only intimacy left. The theological ideas represented by the Virgin, became less and less accessible to artists. They did not comprehend…’that it was the desire of the Infinite god to unite with a Virgin’…they could no longer recreate the superhuman Virgins of the past. They were satisfied to represent a mother smiling at her child.

Soon they would bring the Virgin even closer to humanity through her grief. But the Mater Dolorosa that inspired so many masterpieces in fifteenth-century art, the Virgin old before her time who wept over the bleeding forehead of her son, does not belong to the century under study. [13th]…artists did not yet dare to express her grief….

If the artists liberated themselves fairly early from the ideas of theologians, they remained on the contrary faithful to the legends. They borrowed almost all the episodes in the life of Mary from the apocryphal Gospels….

239-240. It did not occur to thirteenth-century artists, as it would to those of the late Middle Ages, to represent the Virgin before her birth. The thirteenth century left this to the sixteenth. It was shortly after 1500 that the young girl with long hair, surrounded by the rose, the star, the mirror, the fountain, and the closed garden appeared in stained glass windows, tapestries, and Books of Hours. This Virgin—a pure concept, anterior to time, an eternal thought of god—did not yet exist. Such a lofty idea, and one imminently suited to serve as inspiration to artists contemporary with St. Bonaventura and Dante, was however unknown to them….

Neither did thirteenth-century artists go back to the father and mother of St. Anne in the genealogy of the virgin….the artists dealt only with the story of St. Anne and St. Joachim, her first husband….

The meeting at the golden Gate is the subject most frequently depicted. The artists of the late Middle Ages had a marked predilection for it. In fact, it was the only way that had been devised to represent the Immaculate Conception. Although the error had been condemned by the Church Doctors, it was repeated that Mary had been conceived at the moment when Anna and Joachim kissed.

The following excerpts are from the third volume in the series,
“Religious Art in France, the later Middle Ages,” Princeton, 1986.

197. toward the end of the fifteenth century, a mysterious idea that had been secretly germinating in man’s soul for more than five hundred years, suddenly blossomed. It now seemed clear to theologians that the Virgin could not have partaken of original sin, being especially exempted from the law by divine decree. Mary, the perfect model of newly created humanity, like Eve at the time she was created by the hands of God, had come into the world free of the burden of sin.

The dogma of the Immaculate Conception was an ancient idea that already had its followers in England and Normandy as early as the eleventh century.

198. This doctrine, supported by the Synod of Basel in 1439, approved by Pope Sixtus IV in 1476, and accepted as dogma by the Sorbonne in 1496, would inevitably have found its expression in art….

199. The task was difficult. How was one to represent the Virgin as a pure concept? How convey her creation without sin, by God’s decree, her existence in his thought before the creation of time?

From the fifteenth century on, artists tried to resolve the problem. They first thought of the woman spoken of so mysteriously in the Apocalypse. She has the moon beneath her feet, stars on her head, and the sun envelops her; she seems older than time, no doubt conceived before the universe….

In the fifteenth century, in fact, we find manuscripts containing a half-length figure of the Virgin, who seems to rise out of a crescent moon and to shine like the sun….there can be no doubt that the Virgin of the crescent moon was the first symbolic representation of the Immaculate Conception

200. In the early years of the sixteenth century, a most poetic figure of the Virgin appeared in France. She is a young girl, almost a child; her long hair covers her shoulders…The young virgin seems to be suspended between heaven and earth. She floats like an unexpressed thought, for she is only an idea in the divine mind. God appears above her, and seeing her so pure, pronounces the words of the song of songs: Tota pulchra es, amica mea, et macula non est in te (Thou art all fair, O my love, and there is not a spot in the). And to express the beauty and purity of the betrothed chosen by God, the artist chose the most pleasing metaphors of the Bible: around her he placed the closed garden, the tower of David, the fountain, the lily of the valleys, the star, the rose, the spotless mirror.

202. Such an image no doubt answered the innermost feelings of Christians, for it was soon repeated ad infinitum….

204. Images of the Immaculate Conception usually appeared alone. Their numbers increased due to the confraternities of the Virgin which celebrated her Conception,…

205. Thus, the Tree of Jesse was considered a sort of symbol of the Immaculate Conception….the true reason for the presence of the Tree of Jesse in so many churches lies, I believe, in the cult of the Virgin, and, especially, in the cult of her Conception.

209. Thus the era of the Middle Ages ended. For more than a thousand years it had worked to fashion the image of the Virgin; this was its ever-abiding thought, its secret and profound poetry. And it might be said that the Middle Ages came to an end at the exact moment when it had made this cherished image as perfect as its dream.

Of course, Male’s work centered around France and its cathedrals but the cult of the Immaculate Conception was certainly not limited to France. In “Piety and Patronage in Renaissance Venice,” Rona Goffen argued that Venice itself became identified with the Immaculate Conception by the end of the Quattrocento.

Here is an image of the Immaculate Conception as the Woman from the Book of Revelation (Apocalypse) in a stained glass window of Our Lady of the Assumption church in Fairfield, Connecticut. The church was built in 1939 and Mary has an "art deco" look.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Giorgione and Correggio

Correggio: Rest on the Flight into Egypt with St. Francis.

My interpretation of the Tempest as the “Rest on the Flight into Egypt” explained the “nudity” of the Woman as Giorgione’s way of depicting Mary’s Immaculate Conception. Was there something going on at the time that would conflate the iconography of the “Rest” with that of the “Immaculate Conception”?

In discussing the famed Grimani Breviary last week I wondered if it was more than a coincidence that the last two images in that extraordinary collection of images should be “The Rest on the Flight into Egypt,” and the “Immaculate Conception.”

The editor of the Levenger press modern facsimile edition noted in his introduction the Franciscan influence in the whole collection. Is there any other evidence that the Rest and the Immaculate Conception were somehow linked in Franciscan spirituality?

In 1975 Sheila Schwartz’s doctoral dissertation, “The Iconography of the Rest on the Flight into Egypt,” was the first and maybe the only full study of the subject. It was a brilliant, exhaustive study, done at NYU under the guidance of Colin Eisler. Unfortunately, it was never published and Dr. Schwartz subsequently went on to other things.

Nevertheless, she was also struck by the incongruity of the “Rest” iconography and the “Immaculate Conception” Of a work by Correggio, she wrote,

“With Correggio’s “Rest on the Flight with St. Francis…of ca. 1516-18, painted for the Church of San Francisco at Correggio, we have the first documented altarpiece with the “Rest” as its subject.” p. 140.

But she was puzzled by its placement in a chapel dedicated to the Immaculate Conception.

“ why should Munari (or anyone else) have commissioned an altarpiece of the “Rest on the Flight” for a Chapel dedicated to the Immaculate Conception? There was never a theological association made between the two themes and the traditional relationship between chapel dedication and altarpiece is not easily ignored. It seems most likely that Correggio’s “Rest” was painted for another part of San Francesco and only later moved to the Cappella della Concezione, perhaps during the sixteenth-century alterations of the Church or the restoration of the Chapel in 1572.” pp. 142-143.

Almost 20 years later David Ekserdjian referred to Schwartz’s discussion of the Munari chapel and tried to offer another solution.

“There remains the problem of whether there is any way in which the Immaculate Conception can be regarded as logically illustrated by the Rest…”

“It is as well to admit that I have no theological justification to put forward to explain why a Rest should serve as an illustration of the Immaculate Conception, but there are grounds for at least considering the possibility. The Immaculate Conception was a distinctively Franciscan iconography at this time, and there is no reason why San Francesco should not have a chapel dedicated to the Immaculate Conception. What is more, the iconography of the Immaculate Conception was far from fixed at this time.”

David Ekserdjian, “Correggio”. Yale, 1997. pp. 70-75

Ekserdjian did not precisely date this painting but gave it to Correggio’s “early period.” Schwartz put it between 1516 and 1518. Correggio, Cardinal Grimani, and Giorgione were contemporaries. Again, at this time was there something in Franciscan spirituality that linked the iconography of the “Rest on the Flight into Egypt” with the “Immaculate Conception”?

Perhaps someday a student will discover a text that provides such a link. For now, I would like to hazard a guess.

The twelfth chapter of the Book of Revelation (Apocalypse) begins with “a great sign” that appeared in heaven. It was the image of “a woman, adorned with the sun, standing on the moon, and with the twelve stars on her head for a crown.” The woman was pregnant and gave birth to a son “who was to rule all the nations.” Both mother and child were threatened by the “dragon” but the son “was taken straight up to God and to his throne, ‘while the woman escaped into the desert, where God had made a place of safety ready…”

As David Ekserdjian noted the iconography of the “Immaculate Conception” was far from fixed at the time of Giorgione but the image of the “woman, clothed with the sun” was becoming identified with Mary and beginning to be used in depictions of her “Immaculate Conception.” The Grimani Breviary contained such an image.

In the Book of Revelation the Woman flees into the desert where she is pursued and threatened by the dragon who has been cast down to earth. We are told “she was given a huge pair of eagle’s wings to fly away from the serpent into the desert, to the place where she was to be looked after for a year and twice a year and half a year.”

Despite some obvious discrepancies, there is enough imagery in the Book of Revelation to provide a source for linking the “Immaculate Conception” with the flight of the Holy Family into the Egyptian desert.

Here is another depiction by Correggio of the "Rest on the Flight into Egypt," sometimes called the "Madonna della Scodella" from the little dish she holds in her hand.