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, 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]


  1. Fascinating post Frank. It is interesting to see how the artists were quite staunch about having terms dictated so thoroughly by their patrons.

    It raises the interesting question as to how much influence the artist had on the allegories and symbols used. In many instances the subject of the painting was expressed in contracts, but the specific composition and selection of how to depict the theme was left to the artist. It seems in some instances Isabella wanted to go a step beyond this.

    I'm curious as to whether Raphael was in tow when Perugino did that piece for her - when is it dated?

    At least she found a willing portrait painter in Titian..


  2. H: Thanks for the comment. Isabella first contacted Perugino in Sept. 1502. By that time I believe Raphael was on his own. In 1504 Raphael's "Marriage of the Virgin" (Sposalizio) was an attempt to outdo his old master.


  3. Cheers Frank, had Raphael been around it may have smoothed Peugino's ability to communicate with Isabella. Most accounts state that Raphael was always admired for his charm in such circumstances.

    For those interested, I did a side by side composite of the two paintings you mention. I may be biased, but I think Raphael - at this stage but 21 years of age - most certainly outdid Perugino - who was approaching 60!


  4. H;

    You're in agreement with most scholars who believe that Raphael far outdid Perugino in the Sposalizio. Just compare the use of perspective. The temple in Perugino's seems to be on top of the heads of the figures in the foreground.

    Anyway, did you like Isabella's request to Bellini to include "the usual animals" in the Nativity.