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

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Giorgione and Mantegna: Exceptional Painters

Andrea Mantegna, Madonna and Child, Berlin.

In “The Art of Devotion” Henk van Os argued that Andrea Mantegna deliberately sought to be an “exceptional painter.” As court painter of Mantua, Mantegna worked for an exclusive and well-to-do clientele. Even when his patrons wanted common subjects like a Madonna and Child for their homes, they would not be satisfied with a stock or second-rate work.

"There are quite a few extant pictures showing devotional scenes in bedrooms and they make it clear that such small paintings on a wall had a different function from the diptychs or triptychs which were opened when one wanted to pray. A Virgin and Child on the wall was more remote. It sanctified the room as a whole, as well as serving if necessary as a focal point for prayer. It had become one of the norms for interior decoration. A second-rate Madonna would have been out of place in a sumptuous room…."

Mantegna used not only his technical virtuosity but also his uncommon knowledge of antiquity to become an “exceptional” painter.

"As an authority on antiquity, and mixing as he did with princes, he regarded each new commission as a new artistic challenge. Whatever he painted…the result was always something entirely and unmistakably his own."

Everything that van Os said about Mantegna can be applied to Giorgione. If Mantegna, working in Mantua, had a difficult and demanding clientele, what can we say about the young Giorgione working in Venice in the first decade of the 16th century? I like to compare the big three of Renaissance Italian cities to three current day American cities. Florence is Boston, Rome is Washington but Venice is New York, the cultural and financial capital of the world.

For the past five years I have been working on my interpretation of Giorgione’s Tempest as “The Rest on the Flight into Egypt.” I have concentrated on explaining what Giorgione did in this painting. So far I have not paid too much attention to the “why” of this painting. Why did Giorgione choose to depict this familiar subject in such an unusual and seemingly mysterious manner?

There has been much speculation about the “why” of the Tempest in the scholarly literature. Some have argued that Giorgione deliberately chose to “hide” the subject so that only his patron would be in on the secret. More than just enjoying the painting, his patron would also be able to show off in front of his wealthy and influential friends.

Even though the small size of the Tempest indicates that it was designed to be hung in a private study or bedroom, some have argued that Giorgione deliberately tried to create a feeling of ambiguity and even discomfort in the mind of the viewer.

I cannot agree with the advocates of “hidden subject” or ambiguity. Where is the ambiguity in the “lost” Giorgione mistakenly called the “Discovery of Paris?” In my paper on the Tempest I demonstrate that this painting was an almost literal depiction of an episode on the flight into Egypt taken from the apocryphal “Arabic Gospel of the Infancy.” A Venetian patrician, Marcantonio Michiel, simply mis-identified it in 1525 and scholars have fallen in line ever since.

I would like to speculate that it was the desire to become an “exceptional” painter that motivated Giorgione. All commentators have agreed that his technical skills were exceptional. If you look at the “Three Ages of Man” in the Pitti Palace, you can literally count the hairs in the beard of the elderly man in red.

But Giorgione was also exceptional in what contemporaries called “invention.” To possess a Giorgione was to possess a work entirely his own. In my paper on the Tempest I wrote that Giorgione was “stretching the envelope” with his depiction of a nude Madonna. Giorgione stretched the envelope in practically all of his paintings. He used traditional sacred subjects and took them to a new and daring level, not to hide their subject but to enhance its artistic quality as well as its devotional power.
I agree with those who see the so-called “Laura” as Mary Magdalene, and the so-called “Boy With an Arrow” as St. Sebastian. I agree with those who see the “Three Philosophers” as the Magi, not at the end of their journey but at its very beginning.

Giorgione: Three Philosophers or Three Magi. Vienna.

Even his Nativities depart from the conventional, stock images. He has moved the Madonna and Child out of the center and placed them in the right foreground where they become the focus of the narrative.

Giorgione: Adoration of the Shepherds. Washington.

Giorgione lived in the greatest city of his time. Even if he did not apprentice in the famous Bellini workshop, he must have been familiar with its work and resources. Vasari claimed that he learned much from Leonardo but he must also have been familiar with the work of Mantegna and Antonello da Messina. There is even evidence Indicating an awareness of the work of Raphael, and Luca Signorelli. Giorgione’s patrons must also have been aware of these great painters, but we know the great value that they placed on the work of the young master from Castelfranco.

Speaking about patrons, when Isabella d’Este, the Marchesa of Mantua, tried to add to her collection she only contacted the best painters of the day. Even though she expected them to use their “invention,” she usually specified the “subject” she wanted them to depict. No ambiguity for her. She never wanted the “subject” to be hidden.

The quotes in italics above are taken from Henk van Os, "The Art of Devotion, 1300-1500." Princeton, 1994, pp. 132-135. Below are additional notes from this study which could apply to Giorgione as well as to Mantegna. Van Os is discussing Mantegna's Madonna and Child (Berlin)

Mantegna’s Berlin Virgin and Child

"One of the most beautiful ‘paintings on a wall’ for private devotion is Andrea Mantegna’s Virgin and Child of ca. 1465/70 in the Staatliche Museum in Berlin. Mantegna was the greatest Early Renaissance painter of northern Italy. As an authority on antiquity, and mixing as he did with princes, he regarded each new commission as a new artistic challenge. Whatever he painted…the result was always something entirely and unmistakably his own. That conscious, erudite communion with the past in order to achieve new creations is one of the most remarkable aspects of his career…."

"The innovative nature of the work is immediately apparent from the technique employed. It is not on panel, but canvas, and the medium used was not egg or oil, but glue. Mantegna painted directly on to the canvas, with no intermediate ground. …So even with the technique Mantegna was proclaiming his originality. He wanted to be different, exceptional, although that desire should not be associated with romantic notions of artistry. Mantegna broke with accepted craft practice because he served patrons who sought exceptional artists partly in order to enhance their social status…."

"Renaissance artists who wanted to display their exceptional qualities often did so by a radical individualization of stereotypes, in this case the Virgin. She does not follow the fixed type, nor does she present her Child in accordance with the rules developed in Byzantine art. There was a programme for the Virgin cheek to cheek with the Child, the so-called eleousa Madonna, but Mantegna leaves it so far behind that it becomes almost irrelevant. The spatial conception gives both figures a new presence. The rectangular format is turned into a window at which Mary displays her baby, but without making a point of presenting it to the viewer. Her relationship with Jesus brings them very close to us. The Mother of God is an ordinary girl who has no need of a halo to idealise her. She gazes pensively ahead, caressing her sleeping Child…."

"With his Virgin and Child, Mantegna brought the veneration of the famous Padua Madonna into the home. By an artifice he removes the costly cloth, revealing Mary displaying her sleeping baby wrapped in swaddling bands. Art exposes Salvation. The essential feature is still the proximity of the sacred, but the ingenuity of the artist has taken on a different dimension. From craftsmanlike fabricator he has manifestly become a creator."

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Giorgione: Renaissance Conference, March 2011, St. Louis

My wife and I recently attended the annual meeting of the Society for Renaissance Art History. The Society meets every year in conjunction with the meeting of the South Central Renaissance Conference. This year this relatively small conference was held at the University of St. Louis. Here is a report of one day, Friday, March 4.

The conference featured two panels in the morning and two in the afternoon following a break for lunch. Each panel featured three or four papers usually accompanied by illustrative slides. At the end of the day there was a plenary session with a featured speaker.

I presented my paper on Giorgione’s Tempest at the 10:00 session. The panel was simply titled, “ Reconsiderations” and featured four papers. Even if I had not been presenting my paper, I would have attended since the titles of the papers sounded very interesting.

William Levin, a recently retired professor from Centre College, was to discuss Ghiberti’s famous Gates of Paradise. Brian Steele, a professor from Texas Tech and current President of the Society, was going to discuss Giovanni Bellini’s famous Frari Triptych. My paper on the Tempest was about one of the most famous and enigmatic paintings of all time. Ryan Gregg of Webster University would end the session with a paper on Sangallo’s Reclining Pan, now in the St. Louis Museum of Art.

Levin’s paper, entitled “Towards a Fuller Understanding of Ghiberti’s Gates of Paradise,” was a real eye opener. Ghiberti could have chosen any number of scenes from the Old Testament but what was the reason for the ten he finally chose? Levin argued that the theme in each scene represented reconciliation, whether it be the obvious meeting of Solomon and Sheba, or the not so obvious scene of Abraham’s attempted sacrifice of his son, Isaac. The doors then were an attempt to aid in the process of reconciliation between Eastern and Western Christians as they faced a growing threat from Islam. It was very persuasive although I did wonder if the doors might also be an attempt to reconcile the contending factions in Florence itself.

Brian Steele’s, “Reframing the Context: Giovanni Bellini’s Frari Triptych as Salvific Wisdom,“ was equally well argued. Steele looked at not only the painting itself but also at the surrounding framework to show how every element related to the central theme. The central theme he found in a close examination of the page in the book held open by St. Benedict. In addition, Steele showed how the actual dimensions of parts of the Triptych fit into a unified whole. Marvelous!

In my paper I discussed the Tempest as the “Rest on the Flight into Egypt.” It was basically the same paper that I gave at the RSA conference in Venice last year but with the addition of some new material on the “solitary bird on the rooftop.” I have placed the paper with the PowerPoint slides on my website.

Frankly, I wasn’t expecting much from Ryan Gregg’s, “The St. Louis Art Museum’s Reclining Pan as Eclogue,” but was pleasantly surprised. Gregg argued that the sculpture was Sangallo’s homage to the recently deceased Michelangelo, and that every element in the sculpture brought Michelangelo to mind. I have to be continually reminded that every element in a Renaissance work of art is there for a reason. Very little was done by caprice or fancy.

Earlier in the day we attended a panel entitled, "Nuns as Patrons of Art and Theatre in Renaissance Italy." I was particularly interested in hearing a paper by Cynthia Stollhans on a 13th century fresco cycle about the legendary life of St. Catherine of Alexandria. Stollhans, a professor from the host university, is probably the world’s greatest authority on Catherine, the most popular female saint of the Middle Ages after Mary Magdalen.

Stollhans argued that cloistered nuns like those attached to the Church of St. Agnese in Rome could express and identify themselves through their patronage of the interior decoration of the church. Marilyn Dunn of Loyola University made much the same point about the nuns responsible for the decoration of the Church of S. Silvestro in Capite in Rome in the 17th century. In a paper entitled, “Theater and Music in the Florentine convent of San Girolamo,” Elissa Weaver of the University of Chicago argued that nuns were not only patrons of art but also creators and performers. She described the remarkable career of Maria Clemente Ruoti who in the early part of the 17th century entered the convent at the age of 9 but went on to write, produce, and perform two major plays before the Medici court.

It is an interesting sociological fact that the great majority of art history teachers and students today are women. Among them there would appear to be a great interest in exploring the role of religious orders of nuns during the Renaissance. Maybe it is even an identification with these extremely creative women who for various reasons spent their whole lives toiling in obscurity.
After hearing these three fine papers, it occurred to me that maybe women during the Renaissance were better able to explore their creativity inside the convent than outside its walls.

After an afternoon siesta, I went back for the plenary session held in the University’s beautiful art gallery. Diane Cole Ahl of Lafayette College presented the annual Louis L. Martz lecture, “This Splendid, Noble Art,” : Re-viewing Fifteenth-Century Painting in Italy.”

In effect her talk was a preview of her forthcoming book on 15th Century Art. Taking her cue from Giovanni Santi’s encomium on 15th century art, she described the great achievements of the Quattrocento throughout Italy, from Venice and Milan to Sicily. She demonstrated that the three themes, Classical Antiquity, Sacred Art, and depictions of love and pleasure, were certainly well established in the 15th.

She blamed Vasari for the undue emphasis placed upon Florence, Rome, and Venice in the 16th century. Vasari was motivated, she said, not just by personal conviction but also by his position as court artist to the Medici. Still, I cannot help but feel that Vasari had a point. He wasn’t the only one to discern a remarkable advance in art during the “High Renaissance.” I’m sure that Raphael, for example, felt that his work far surpassed anything that his father or even his master, Perugino, had ever done. Moreover, when opportunity beckoned, Raphael did not hesitate to leave Umbria for Florence and Rome.

Nevertheless, Diane Cole Ahl is certainly right to draw attention to artists living outside the big three major cities. Not only are they significant in their own right, but also they can throw considerable light on what was going on in Florence, Venice and Rome.

The day ended with a dinner at a local restaurant attended by most of the presenters. It was great to sit and talk on an informal basis. Sadly many of these art historians and educators are feeling the pain of the economic downturn that is forcing many schools to close down Art history programs. I heard of a major university in the South that is dropping its whole graduate program.

One final note about Dr. Jill Carrington of Stephen F. Austin University in Texas. She organized and hosted the dinner as well as chaired the Reconsiderations panel. From our first meeting she made this “independent” and “unaffiliated” scholar feel right at home.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Giorgione and Cima da Conegliano

In the Tempest Giorgione raised the iconography of the Rest on the Flight into Egypt to a new level. He took the Madonna off of her interior throne and placed her outside on the ground nursing her infant Son. Both her pose and the setting are very naturalistic.

Giorgione’s depiction of a nude Madonna was unprecendented but his placement of her in a landscape can find an antecedent in the work of Cima da Conegliano. At least two works by Cima can be considered as versions of the Rest on the Flight into Egypt. Each portray a Madonna in a landscape with St. Joseph and other figures. In the first, the Madonna dell' Arancia, Joseph is barely visible in the background with the Ass. In the second, now in the Calouste Gulbenkian collection, Joseph has a much more prominent role. In both cases the Madonna sits on a rocky earthern throne that could well be Cima's way of depicting the remains of the Egyptian idols and temples that crumbled after the arrival of the infant Jesus into Egypt. In his study of Correggio, David Ekserdjian noted the innovative character of Cima's work.

Giovanni Battista Cima da Conegliano
Madonna dell' Arancio
Accademia, Venice

The North Italian who comes nearest to the concept of the sacra conversazione in a pure landscape is Cima da Conegliano… the two monumental examples in his work are not straight forward Madonnas with Saints, but rather Rests on the Flight into Egypt. The earliest is probably Cima’s famous Madonna dell’Arancio. It is evidently an altarpiece, and the earliest reference to it records its presence in the church of the Franciscan convent of Santa Chiara on Murano, presumably its original location,…It departs radically from what was by this time the accepted way of showing the Virgin and Saints in Venice, to which Cima normally adhered. …this innovation is linked with the fact that the painting is strictly speaking a Rest on the Flight into Egypt. Although he is generally ignored, the figure of Joseph with the ass is included in the background, and alerts us to the fact. The rejection of the usual architectural surround for the saints is a notable step forward, and the Virgin’s throne has become a rocky knoll with the tree behind her providing a strong vertical accent.*

Giovanni Battista Cima da Conegliano
Sacra Conversazione (Rest on the Flight into Egypt)
ca. 1500

Rona Goffen described a later "Rest" by Cima in her study of the Calouste Gulbenkian collection. She noticed that Cima again used the rocky throne for the Madonna, and that Joseph now has been brought prominently into the foreground. Also, note that the two angels standing on either side of the Madonna are often portrayed in versions of the Rest as guides and providers.

Cima’s Sacra Conversazione is set in an expansive mountain landscape, evoking his native city of Conegliano (on the mainland near Venice), suffused with light and air, and permeated with a sense of the harmonious existence of man in nature. The Madonna is enthroned, so to speak, on a platform of rocks. Above her, a tree punctuates her central position and suggests the canopy of an earthly monarch’s throne. Thus Cima represents at once two apparently contradictory themes: the Virgin enthroned as Queen of Heaven and also as the Madonna of Humility, seated upon the rocky ground. Graciously, and yet with an air of abstraction, Mary inclines her head to her right, toward St. John the Baptist with his cross. The saint closes the composition at the left by turning inward and pointing toward Christ, that is, identifying Him as the Lamb of God. Meanwhile, the Infant bends in the opposite direction, toward his left and St. Lucy, identified by her martyr’s palm (in her left hand) and by her burning lamp.

Cima’s famous altarpiece, the Madonna dell’Arancio (Venice, Accademia), dating from the mid- 1490s, is the prototype of his Madonna in the Gulbenkian collection. There are several significant changes, however. The vertical emphasis of the altarpiece is replaced in the Gulbenkian panel by the horizontal format favored by Venetian artists in the early sixteenth century, and suggests a date of around 1500. Moreover, in translating his compositional ideas from a large altarpiece to a small image for private devotion, Cima appropriately represented a more intimate scene of the Holy Family, in which Joseph appears with Mary and the Child, rather than in the background. Such a representation of the complete group very likely appealed to the personal piety of the private household for which Cima would have painted this image. **

I question the contradiction that Goffen pointed out between a Queen of Heaven and a Madonna of Humility. I don't believe that a Renaissance artist ever set out to portray a Madonna of Humility. This phrase is a later invention that was employed to describe a Madonna sitting outdoors in a landscape. It would be better if every so-called Madonna of Humility were understood as some episode from the flight into Egypt.

*David Ekserdjian, Correggio, Yale, 1997. p.200.

**Rona Goffen, Museums Discovered: The Calouste Gulbenkian Museum, 1982. p. 60.