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.


  1. Great post! I'm very interested in Isabella d'Este, and I wasn't too familiar with her interest in acquiring a work by Giorgione. You have put forth an interesting argument for what could be her "notte."

    Your post also made me curious about how many paintings by Giorgione may have been lost or destroyed. Do scholars have any idea?

  2. H:

    Wolfgang Eller's, "Giorgione, Catalogue Raisonne" breaks down possible Giorgione attributions to 7 categories. He lists 8 "Lost and Extant Works in Painted Replicas:" 26 "Lost and Extant works in Printed Replicas:" and 12 "Lost Works in Drawn Replicas." All these are discussed in the catalog.

    I don't know if anyone has compiled a list of completely lost works.


  3. Great post Frank!

    It is one of those fascinating tibits - reading about these works Isabella refers to but not actually knowing for sure which. It's similar to reading Pliny's Natural History, arguably the earliest surviving art historical document - reading his descriptions of the great painters from Antiquity, and having nothing surviving of those works makes them all the more tantalising.

    I'm curious to know the standard of evidence Eller and others use to decide on lost and extant works/replicas etc. Is it primary documents, surface analysis, dating evidence?

    It is one of the brutal realities of art history and of museum collections - were a more thorough classification system to be applied to levels of provenance and attributions, many of the labels sitting alongside famous masterpieces would need to be removed or altered.


  4. M:

    Sorry for confusing you with H but thanks much for your comment.


    Thanks also for your comment. I believe that Eller and the others have used all the methods you mention but I plan a post on Eller's catalog in the future and will try to address the issue.

    I agree with you about the labels. Still, even though I believe that the Tempest is the Rest on the Flight into Egypt, I would hate to see it called anything else but "La Tempesta." Anyway, I'll be long dead before the people at the Accademia would ever think of changing the name.


  5. OK; Good post and good to see that given attributions can be challenged (responsibly) at last! Hooray for the internet!

    The Contarini/Beccaro affair interests me as i have arrived at an entirely different conclusion in regard to the paintings attribution. Should you find the time, please check out my 'Titian's Sacred and Profane Love' - or more directly go to Again, good post, interesting conclusion. PDD

  6. Paul:
    I took a glance at your site and will look at it more carefully tomorrow. How's this for a coincidence? I have been working on a new interpretation of the "Sacred and Profane Love," and hope to put it on my website next week. Don't worry, it's quite different than yours.

    I am very interested in your attribution to Giorgione. If you attribute the SAPl to Giorgione, you must explain the Aurelio coat of arms. Personally, I believe that the SAPL was done by Titian but from a Giorgione cartoon.