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, July 30, 2011

Giorgione and the Young Titian

Titian: "The Flight into Egypt." (probably 1507-8), Saint Petersburg, State Hermitage Museum.

In his 2001 study, “Titian to 1518, the Assumption of Genius,” Paul Joannides provided an exhaustive analysis of Titian’s early career that also happened to shed a great deal of light on Giorgione. Joannides included an introductory chapter that covered practically all we know about the life and work of Giorgione. More importantly, his discussion of Titian provided insights that applied to both painters.*

Since we know so little about Giorgione, it is useful to approach him through his contemporaries. What if we were to conduct a little experiment? Suppose that Titian, for example, had died in 1510, at the same time as Giorgione. What would we say about him? What would we say about his work up to that time?

In 1510 Giorgione was about 33 while Titian would only have been about 21. If Titian had been taken by the same plague that claimed Giorgione’s life, today he would be regarded as a second-rate or maybe even a third-rate painter of sacred subjects. According to Joannides,

“Sebastiano [del Piombo] seems to have been further advanced in his career than Titian before mid-1511, and his work more controlled and mature.” (p. 129)

Here is a list of Titian’s early work compiled from Joannides who stressed that attributions are difficult and that dates are usually approximate.

Titian, Flight into Egypt ( probably 1507-8, retouched c. 1510) Oil on canvas 206x336 cm. St. Petersburg, Hermitage Museum (p. 36, figure 25).

Titian, Visitation (probably 1507-8), Oil on canvas, 212x150 cm. Venice, Museo Correr. (p. 41, figure 29).

Titian, re-worked by Francesco Vicellio, Adoration of the Shepherds (probably 1507 and 1524). Oil on canvas, 221x174 cm. Houston. (p.44, figure 30).
Antonio Zanetti after Titian, Judith/Justice (1760). Rome, Biblioteca Herziana. (p. 50, figure 33). [From the Fondaco dei Tedeschi]

Antonio Zanetti after Titian, Standing Compagno della Calza (1760). Rome. Biblioteca Herziana. (p. 62, figure 46). [From the Fondaco dei Tedeschi]

Francesco Molo after Titian, Standing Nude Woman (C. 1650). (p. 64, figure 48). [From the Fondaco dei Tedeschi]

Page 66. Figure 51. Antonio Zanetti after Titian, Two Nude Women (1760). Rome. Biblioteca Herziana. (p.66, figure 51). [From the Fondaco dei Tedeschi]

Titian, Virgin and St. Joseph, Adoring the Child (probably 1507–8). Oil on panel, 19.1x16.2 cm. North Carolina Museum of Art. (p. 74, figure 55).

?Titian, St. Jerome (probably 1508). Oil on panel, 45.2x78.4 cm. Formerly Vienna, private collection; present whereabouts unknown. (p.74, figure 58).

Titian, Story of Myrrah and Cinyras and the Birth of Adonis (probably 1509). Oil on panel, 35x106 CM. Padua, Museo Civico. (p.78, figure 62). [Actually figure 63]

Titian, Story of Erischthon (probably 1509), Oil on panel, 35x106 cm. Padua, Museo Civico. (p. 78, figure 63). [Actually figure 62]

Titian, Unidentified Subject (probably 1509). Oil on panel, 46x44 cm. Private Collection, on loan to Cambridge, Massachusetts, Fogg Museum of Art. (p. 80, figure 66). [Three figures in a landscape]

Titian, Risen Christ (probably 1509) Oil on panel, 131x 81.5 cm. (p. 84, figure 70). [private collection]

Titian, Circumcision (probably 1509), 37.5x79.3 cm, Yale. (p. 87, figure 77).

Titian, Christ and the Adulteress (probably 1510). Oil on canvas, 139.2 x 181.7 cm (cut down), Glasgow. (p.88, figure 78).

Titian, Bust of a Young Woman (the 'Courtesan') (probably 1510). Oil on canvas transferred from panel, 31.7x 24.1 cm. Pasadena. (p. 95, figure 83).

Titian, Virgin and Child ('The Lochis Madonna') (probably 1510). Oil on panel, 38x 47 cm. Bergamo. (p. 97, figure 85).

Altogether Joannides attributed 17 different works from 1507 through 1510 and practically all were sacred subjects.

The first one on the list is very interesting because it indicates that Titian’s first painting was a version of the “Flight into Egypt” with the Madonna and Child being followed by Joseph through a wooded landscape. Even more interesting is the fact that x-rays in 2000 revealed that this oil had been painted over a scene of the Madonna and Child with St. Joseph that Joannides at one point called a “Thanksgiving” but then later called, “The Rest on the Flight into Egypt.”

Not only does this discovery show that the subject of the “Rest” was popular, but it also provides a note of caution for those who make much of pentimenti or changes of mind. Joannides wrote,

“it demonstrates that the artist's habit of superimposing one composition upon another, amply documented from his later work, is a constant from the very beginning of his career....” (p. 39)

If the young Titian painted over an old canvas in the first decade of the 16th century, shouldn’t we suspect that Giorgione might have done the same thing in the Tempest?

Following the “Flight” we have a “Visitation” and an “Adoration of the Shepherds” that Joannides believed was started by Titian in 1507 but only completed by his brother in 1524. Then we get to a series of later drawings and etchings done from Titian’s fresco work on the famed Fondaco dei Tedeschi.

The story of the Fondaco frescoes, on which both Giorgione and Titian worked, is well known. Vasari saw the frescoes before they were ruined but even then he confessed that he could not decipher their subject. Even today scholars scratch their heads especially since the Venetian weather eventually ruined the frescoes. Today, we have a couple of fragments, and the 17th and 18th century etchings in Joannides list. The prominent place of a Judith with the head of Holofernes certainly indicates a sacred subject.

Venetian records show that Giorgione was commissioned to do the work on the Fondaco, and no mention is made of Titian. Despite Vasari’s story about the popularity of Titian’s contribution, my guess is that Giorgione created the whole iconographic scheme and even did the drawings, and that he employed the much younger Titian as a painting sub-contractor. Joannides argued that even in 1511 when Titian did frescoes in Padua, he lacked basic drawing skills.

Sacred subjects dominate the remainder of the list. In addition to the obvious ones, Joannides speculated that the so-called Bust of a Young Woman (the 'Courtesan') might be Mary Magdalen.

“Perhaps more likely is that she is a Magdalene in a Mary and Martha, the subject represented in Milan in the work of Bernadino Luini and his circle and one that would certainly have appealed to Titian, allowing him to contrast female types. But without further evidence no suggestion can be more than speculative.”
(p. 96)

Finally, Joannides expressed puzzlement about a painting that he could only call an “Unidentified Subject.”

“This little–seen painting, which represents a Standing Soldier and a Seated Woman with a Child,…has been given to various hands, but the attribution to Titian, first proposed and then discarded by Berenson was cogently restated by Hilliard Goldfarb after the panel had been cleaned and restored. It is wholly convincing…. The complex building at the left rear is very similar in type to that which dominates the Visitation and the successive planes of the landscape and the juxtaposition resemble those of the Gypsy Madonna." (p. 78)

Joannides pointed out the similarity of this painting, as well as another one of a soldier standing guard over a woman and children in the Philadelphia Museum, to Giorgione’s famous “Tempest,” and noted that it was also mysterious.

“It too could well be arboreal in its concerns--the woman and child sit under a substantial tree--but until the subject--which cannot be found in the Metamorphoses--has been identified, this cannot be taken as certain.” (p. 79)

Years ago Edgar Wind also noted the resemblance to the “Tempest” but gave this painting to a follower of Giorgione and called it “Fortezza and Carita.” Rather than a follower Joannides claimed that Titian’s painting; as well as the one in Philadelphia; might all share a common ancestor with the “Tempest.”

“in fact since the Philadelphia and the ex-Northampton paintings are inseparable in subject matter, one might wonder whether their relation to the Tempest should be reformulated. Might it not be the case that Giorgione, aware of the narrative illustrated in those two paintings, merely adapted it to his own purposes from some visual model common to both?” (p.82)**(See below for a longer excerpt)

I have argued that the “Tempest” is a depiction of “The Rest on the Flight into Egypt,” Given their similarity, Titian’s “Unidentified Subject” could also be a version of the “Rest.” We have a man, woman, and child in a landscape. We only have to try to discover why Joseph is portrayed as a young, virile, armed soldier.

"Allegory" Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Despite the compositional similarity no one has ever claimed that the Titian “Rest” is in the same league as the “Tempest.” Even the more impressive Philadelphia version, labeled “Allegory” and cautiously attributed to Palma Vecchio, is hidden away in storage. If Titian had died in 1510 no one would have ever compared him to Giorgione. Even though Joannides found traces of Titian’s later genius in these early works, they are only of interest today because of what we know of the later Titian.

According to Joannides it was only after Giorgione’s death that Titian began to appreciate and study the craftsmanship of Giovanni Bellini and Central Italian painters like Raphael. Only then would Titian work on the Gypsy Madonna and the Concert Champetre. Indeed, Joannides dated the Concert Champetre to 1511 but agreed with those who claimed that Titian only finished it in 1530.

Joannides believed that the brief period during which Giorgione and Titian both worked in Venice constituted a special moment in time.

“It is evident that around 1500 a fashion arose in Venice for the visual representation of novel literary and mythological subject matter. This fashion was relatively short-lived and, since many of the subjects treated at this time were not taken up by later artists, it has left behind a number of paintings that are inherently difficult to identify. (p. 81)

Neverheless, the period also saw novel attempts to represent traditional sacred subjects. During this time Giorgione was in his prime and led the way in bringing sacred subjects to a new level; something that Titian would eventually build on to become the greatest painter of the 16th century.

*Paul Joannides, Titian to 1518, the Assumption of Genius, Yale, 2001.

**"this consideration might return us for a moment to the ex-Northampton panel. It is immediately obvious that, although their styles differ, there is a close compositional relation between it and Giorgione's Tempest. In the former the male figure clad in a breastplate and carrying a halberd, is clearly a soldier. The corresponding male figure in the Tempest carries no weapon and wears no armor, although he too is described as a soldier by Michiel. But perhaps Michiel, aware of works such as the ex-Northampton panel or another, larger, painting in Philadelphia which is very similar in arrangement, simply jumped to the conclusion that the man in the Tempest was also a soldier. in fact since the Philadelphia and the ex-Northampton paintings are inseparable in subject matter, one might wonder whether their relation to the Tempest should be reformulated. Might it not be the case that Giorgione, aware of the narrative illustrated in those two paintings, merely adapted it to his own purposes from some visual model common to both?… But it might be, in contrast, that the Tempest represents an eccentric utilization of a compositional formula devised for some quite unrelated subject." (p. 82)

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Giorgione: Paintings and Patricians

In 1800 Abate Don Jacopo Morelli discovered a series of notes among a manuscript collection in Venice’s Marciana library. Made by an anonymous writer in the early part of the 16th century, the notes concerned “pictures and other treasures contained in various houses, and monuments and works of art in churches, schools and other ecclesiastical buildings in the cities which the writer had visited.”

Abate Morelli published the notes in 1800 under the title, “The Anonimo, Notes on Pictures and Works of Art in Italy.” Morelli used “Anonimo” because he could not be sure of the author. Today, scholars believe that the notes were the work of Marcantonio Michiel, himself a Venetian patrician and collector.

The cities visited by Michiel were Padua, Cremona, Milan, Pavia, Bergamo, Crema, and Venice. In Venice the notes recorded visits to fourteen homes of Venetian patricians as well as visits to the church and school of the “Carita” which is now the site of the famed Accademia. The publication of the Notes provided a look into the collections of some of the greatest families in Renaissance Venice but also shed much light on the artists, especially Giorgione. For example, the notes provided the first mention of the “little landscape on canvas,” now called the “Tempest” but still in 1800 hidden in a private collection.

Altogether Michiel mentioned 18 works in the homes of seven Venetian collectors that were either by Giorgione, possibly by Giorgione, or copies by others based on Giorgione. Here is a list in chronological order. I have used the 1903 English translation edited by George C. Williamson and included some of the editors notes.***

In the House of Messer Taddeo Contarini. 1525.

[1] "The canvas picture in oil, representing three Philosophers in a landscape, two of them standing up and the other one seated, and looking up at the light, with the rock so wonderfully imitated, was commenced by Giorgio di Castelfranco and finished by Sebastiano Veneziano." (p.102)

This brief description of the “Three Philosophers” now in Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum is characteristic of Michiel. He does not name paintings but provides a description and an attribution whenever he can.

[2] "The large oil picture on canvas, representing Hell with Aeneas and Anchises, is by Giorgio di Castelfranco." (p.103)

This painting has been lost although scholars today still speculate about its subject. The Italian for Hell is l’inferno but when Aeneas meets his father in Hell the setting is more a peaceful glade than a fiery inferno.

[3] "The picture, representing Christ carrying the Cross on his shoulders, is by Giovanni Bellini."

In a footnote, the editor of the English edition wrote: “This picture may be the one representing the same subject, which was in the house of Countess Loschi dal Verme at Vicenza, but now belongs to Mrs. Gardner of Boston, and is generally attributed to Giorgione.” (103) Today, the Isabella Stuart Gardner Museum claims that this painting is by a follower of Giovanni Bellini. They also mention that it was Mrs. Gardner’s favorite painting.

[4] "The picture on canvas, representing the birth of Paris, in a landscape, with two shepherds standing, was painted by Giorgio di Castelfranco, and is one of his early works." 104.

This painting has also been lost but copies exist from the 17th century as the editor noted.

Note 1. “A copy of a fragment of this picture, containing only the two shepherds, who are looking at something which is missing, is to be seen in the Royal Gallery of Buda-Pesth…The value of this fragment is proved by an engraving of Th. Van Kessel recently discovered in Vienna, which represents the whole of the picture, such as it was in the year 1660, when it formed part of the collection of the Archduke Leopold William in Brussels. The picture is thus described in the old manuscript catalogue of the time: “A landscape on canvas, in oil, where there are on the one side two shepherds standing; on the ground a child in swaddling-clothes, and on the other side, a half nude woman and an old man, seated, with a flute. It is seven spans and one inch and a half wide, and nine spans and seven inches and a half long.”

In my paper on the Tempest I have shown that Michiel’s brief identification of this painting was incorrect. The subject of the painting is a “sacred” one: “The Encounter of the Holy Family with Robbers on the Flight into Egypt.”

In the House of Messer Jeronimo Marcello, at San Tomado. 1525.

[5] "The portrait, in half-length, of the same Messer Jeronimo armed, back view, with his head turned, is by Giorgio di Castelfranco." (105)

Note 2. It is not known what has become of this picture. Despite the editor's note, some think it might be the image to the left now in Vienna.

[6] "The canvas, representing Venus, nude, sleeping in a landscape with Cupid, is by Giorgio di Castelfranco; but the landscape and the Cupid were finished by Titian." (105)

“Note 3. Ridolfi in 1646, saw it in Marcello’s house, and described it in his book as a work of Giorgione: ‘In Marcello’s house there is a lovely nude Venus sleeping, with Cupid at her feet holding a bird in his hand, which (cupid) was finished by Titian.’ The Venus is now alone in the landscape, for the Cupid was so badly damaged that it had to be effaced.”

[7] "The half-length picture of St. Jerome, reading, is by Giorgio di Castelfranco." (106)
A missing "sacred subject."

In the House of Messer Giovanantonio Venier. 1528.

[8] "The half-length of the soldier, armed, but without his helmet, is by Giorgio di Castelfranco." (114)

In the House of Messer Giovanni Ram at S. Stefano. (1531)

[9] "The head of the young shepherd holding a fruit in his hand was painted by Giorgio di Castelfranco." (121)

[10] "The head of the boy holding an arrow in his hand is by Giorgio di Castelfranco." (121)

Note. 2. This last picture has already been mentioned amongst the objects of art in the house of Messer Antonio Pasqualino.

In the House of Messer Gabrieli Vendramino. 1530

11] "The little landscape on canvas, representing stormy weather and a gipsy woman with a soldier, is by Giorgio di Castelfranco." (123)

This is the painting that everyone now calls the “Tempest.” Practically all scholars agree that Michel was wrong in calling the two primary figures “a gipsy woman with a soldier.”

Although Michiel saw the painting in the home of Gabriele Vendramin, we cannot be sure that Vendramin originally commissioned the painting. Michiel’s notes indicate that Venetian patricians bought and sold and traded just as collectors do today. It was also common for estates to be broken up and sold on the death of the owner.

[12]"the dead Christ in the Sepulchre, with the Angel supporting Him, is by Giorgio di Castelfranco, but was repainted by Titian." (123)

Note. 3. This picture must be considered lost.

In the House of Messer Antonio Pasqualino, January 15, 1532

[13] "The head of a young man holding an arrow in his hand is by Giorgio da Castelfranco, and was obtained from Messer Giovanni Ram, who possesses a copy of it, which he believes to be the original." (93)

[14] "The head of St. John with the staff is either by Giorgio da Castelfranco, or by a pupil of his, from the Christ of San Rocco." (93)

In the House of Messer Andrea di Odoni, 1532

[15] "In the portico…The St. Jerome, naked, sitting in the desert by moonlight, was painted by…, from a picture on canvas of Giorgio di Castelfranco." (101) Perhaps a copy of the lost Jerome.

In the House of Messer Michel Contarini at the Misericordia August, 1543.

[16,17] "the pen-and –ink drawing representing a nude figure in a landscape is by Giorgio, and it is the same nude figure which I have in colours by the same Giorgio." (128)

In this instance Michiel does not indicate if the Giorgio is the one from Castelfranco.

In the House of Messer Piero Servio. 1575.

[18] "A portrait of his father by Giorgio di Castelfranco." It is difficult to know what to make of this note since it was added long after Michiel’s death.

Addendum: In his notes of the large collection of Pietro Bembo in Padua, Michiel mentions a miniature by Giulio Campagnola of "a woman, nude, lying down with her back turned, and is from a picture by Giorgione."

There is little biographical information in Michiel’s notes. Giorgio was from Castelfranco, a walled town west of Treviso that was about a 40 kilometer river voyage down the Brenta through Padua to Venice. Some of his works were completed by others or were copied by others. Only when he mentions the “birth of Paris,” does Michiel indicate that it was done early in Giorgione’s career. Still, his descriptions and attributions are one of the bases on which Giorgione scholarship must rest.

***"The Anonimo: Notes on Pictures and Works of Art in Italy Made by an Anonymous Writer in the Sixteenth Century," translated by Paolo Mussi, edited by George C. Williamson, London, 1903. Facsimile copy by Kessinger Publishing.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Giorgione and Raphael

Raphael: "The Holy Family under a Palm Tree."*

In the first decade of the 16th century the work of Raphael indicates a strong interest in episodes on the Flight into Egypt. During his Florentine period (1504-1508) Raphael did at least two versions of the "Rest on the Flight into Egypt."

One is a tondo, the “Holy Family under a Palm Tree,” dated c. 1506/7 and currently on loan since 1945 to Scotland’s National Gallery. This painting reflects the naturalism that Italian artists liked to bring to the subject, but also an increased importance for St. Joseph.The prominent palm tree in the background is the only reference that Raphael gives to the popular apocryphal legends surrounding the flight. According to the legend the palm or date tree bent down at the command of the Child so that Joseph could pick its fruit and feed his wife.

In the foreground Joseph is not depicted as a little old man off to the side in search of food. He has been given a prominent position front and center. He holds his simple pilgrim’s staff but is dressed in royal purple and gold. He is no longer a doddering old man and seems capable of protecting the Madonna and Child. Surely, his prominence reflects the growing importance of Joseph in the first decade of the century for Raphael’s patron as well as for most believers.

Raphael: "The Holy Family with the Young St. Joseph," Hermitage.

Another Raphael “Rest” is the “Holy Family with the Young St. Joseph” in the Hermitage and dated around 1506. The three figures are in an enclosure that looks out on a landscape. Again Joseph is not depicted as a decrepit old man but as a beardless middle-ager.

These two versions of the “Rest on the Flight into Egypt” are only a hint of the interest of Raphael and his patrons in the sojourn of the Holy Family in Egypt. Many of the great Madonnas that Raphael painted during his Florentine period are depictions of the meeting of the Holy Family with the young John the Baptist on their return from Egypt.

In Legends of the Madonna Mrs. Anna Jameson gave the background for this legendary meeting.**

Thus, it is related that among the children whom Herod was bent on destroying, was St. John the Baptist; but his mother Elizabeth fled with him to a desert place, and being pursued by the murderers, “the rock opened by a miracle, and closed upon Elizabeth and her child;” which means, as we may presume, that they took refuge in a cavern, and were concealed within it until the danger was over. (356)

Mrs. Jameson added that this meeting has led to some confusion in the minds of artists as well as viewers.

It is nowhere recorded, either in Scripture or in the legendary stories, that Mary and Joseph, in their flight were accompanied by Elizabeth and the little St. John; therefore, where either of these are introduced, the subject is not properly a Riposo, whatever the intention of the painter may have been…366.

Many of Raphael’s most famous Madonnas are versions of this meeting despite their popular appellations.

Painted in 1505 the “Terranuova Madonna” (Berlin, Staatliche Museum, Gemaldegalerie) shows the Infant Christ perusing the scroll presented by the Baptist. The writing clearly refers to the Lamb of God. Inexplicably, another infant looks on. In the left background is a city that represents Judea, and in the right background are the rocks that formed the hiding place of the Baptist.

In 1506 the famous “Belvedere Madonna” (Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum) shows the Christ Child accepting the sacrificial cross from the kneeling Baptist. Again they are in a landscape with a city in the background.

In the “La Belle Jardiniere” of 1507 (Paris, Louvre) the Christ Child looks up at his mother as John announces the mission. In a study Raphael has Christ looking directly at John.

Dated about 1507 the “Canigiani Holy Family” (Munich, Alte Pinakothek) is a much more elaborate version of the “Encounter with the Baptist.” With obvious reference to depictions of this scene by Leonardo and Michelangelo, Raphael adds Elizabeth and a prominent Joseph with his staff and golden robe.

Also in 1507 “The Holy Family with a Lamb” (Madrid, Prado) substitutes a lamb for the Baptist. Again in gold Joseph leans on his staff and observes the child riding the lamb.

Finally, around the end of the Florentine period Raphael painted the “Esterhazy Madonna” (Budapest, Museum of Fine Arts). The Infant Christ points to the scroll.

What explains the popularity of the “Encounter with the Baptist on the Return from Egypt” in the first decade of the 16th century? It was common to transpose the events of Christ’s maturity to his infancy. The meeting with John the Baptist at the river Jordan is reflected in this earlier meeting on the return from Egypt. John's words, "Behold the Lamb of God," marked the beginning of the salvific mission of Jesus.

Raphael’s interest in these desert scenes reflected the devotion of wealthy patrons as well as humble worshippers. Who can doubt that Giorgione and his patrons did not share the same interest? In the Tempest Giorgione went far beyond the standard image of the “Rest on the Flight” but all the iconographical elements are there.

Vasari described Giorgione as a painter of Madonnas and portraits. The same description could apply to Raphael in the first decade of the 16th century. At the height of what later would be called the High Renaissance both young masters were responding to the great demand for sacred subjects like the "Rest on the Flight into Egypt."

David Orme has developed a very fine site that brings together a great deal of information on the "Flight into Egypt" and its many legends.

*The source for the attributions and dating of the Raphael paintings in this post is Jean-Pierre Cuzin, "Raphael, His Life and Works," 1985.

**Mrs. Anna Jameson:" Legends of the Madonna," Boston, 1885.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Giorgione Tempest: Paris and Oenone

In his essay, “the ‘Favola’ in Giorgione’s Tempesta,” in the 2004 Giorgione exhibition catalog, Jurgen Rapp found the subject of the painting in the mythological story of Paris and Oenone. Rapp took issue with those interpreters, including some in the same catalog, who claimed that there is “no subject” in Giorgione’s most famous painting.

"Observation alone forbids viewing the picture,…mainly as a landscape, in which the human figures play a subordinate role as atmospheric decoration. The expressive size and power of the figures, which dominate the lower half of the picture, are in this case independent and provide a precisely balanced counterweight to the landscape that extends into the upper half of the painting"….(119)

Since his short essay, a summary of a larger dissertation, attempted to fit all the iconographical elements into the story of the two ill-fated lovers, Paris and Oenone, it is necessary to provide a brief recap of the legend.

Pieter Lastman: Paris and Oenone. 1619. Worcester Art Museum.

As we know from Homer, Paris was the son of King Priam of Troy and his wife, Hecuba. At the birth of Paris, Hecuba had a dream that was interpreted to mean that her new son would be responsible for the destruction of Troy.

To avert this disaster, the parents decided to put their son to death by exposing him to the elements on Mt. Ida. However, he was saved and raised to maturity by a shepherd and grew up to be a shepherd himself, albeit an extremely handsome one. Eventually, his looks caught the attention of the seer-nymph Oenone, daughter of the Ilian river Kebren. They married and she bore his child, Korythos.

Soon after, Paris gets involved in the famous beauty contest known as the Judgment of Paris. Asked to decide who is most beautiful, Juno, Athena, or Aphrodite, he chooses Aphrodite after she bribes him by promising him Helen, the most beautiful woman in the world.

He promptly deserts Oenone and his newborn son, Korythos, and returns to Troy and the rest is history. Not unexpectedly, Oenone is broken-hearted, bitter and enraged. In the post-Homeric legends her son grows up to be even handsomer than Paris. He also travels to Troy where his looks attract Helen. Paris responds by killing Korythos. Later Paris is fatally wounded by a poisoned arrow and returns to Oenone, the only one whose healing powers can save him. Still angry, she refuses and he dies. Quickly repenting she kills herself and both she and Paris are buried in the same grave.

Not surprisingly, in Rapp’s interpretation the key to the painting is Paris, the man on the left.

"The key…is to be found in the figure of the standing young man with the crook. The inconsistency of his choice of dress is immediately noticeable: on the one hand the extravagant breeches that point to a noble warrior, on the other a simple, casually worn shirt, and a doublet loosely slung over his shoulders, which in combination with the crook, indicate a shepherd"….(119)

Paris is shown in the act of deserting Oenone and their son.

"Giorgione depicts the moment, when Paris bids farewell to his nymph Oenone and their child Korythos at the Kebren spring on Mount Ida. As he pauses one last time and looks back to his family, his right foot and the crook are already pointed toward the edge of the picture; in the next moment he will leave the scene." (122)

Although Rapp stresses the importance of looking at the painting, I believe that this observation is way off. I don’t believe that any observer of this masterpiece has ever seen the Man in the process of exiting stage left. Some have claimed that the Man has just encountered the woman, or that he has stumbled upon her in a wilderness. Some think that he might even be thinking of assaulting her. Others claim that she only exists in his imagination.

In my interpretation of the Tempest as “The Rest on the Flight into Egypt,” the Man is St. Joseph and he stands on guard watching over the Woman and Child. Artistically, he acts as an Albertian “interlocuter” directing the viewer’s attention to the nursing woman and her Child. In no way is the Man the central or focal point of the painting.

I also question Rapp’s observational skills concerning the woman whom he identifies as the seer-nymph Oenone.

"After Paris has left her, the naiad is cast down by a bottomless grief, which soon turns to raging jealousy. (120)…the prophetic woman begins to see the dark fate with her gliding gaze." (122)

How is it possible to see “bottomless grief” and “raging jealously” in the look that Giorgione’s woman directs not at the Man but at the viewer of the painting?

Rapp takes on most of the other iconographical symbols. The broken columns in the mid-ground represent the common grave of Paris and Oenone.

The City in the background represents besieged Troy.

"Thunder, lightning and storms as heralds of personal and political catastrophes were also the subject of the widespread thunder books, called ‘brontologies’." (121-2)

He points out that Padua identified itself with ancient Troy. He identifies the bird on the rooftop as a heron, and notes that Virgil called the heron a harbinger of tempests. But he draws no connection between the siege of Padua in 1509 during the Cambrai war and the siege of Troy. He dates the painting to 1508.

Despite the importance Rapp attaches to Paris, he believes that the pentimenti revealed by scientific studies indicate that the Man was not in the “earlier” version. “The figure of Paris was painted over the left-hand naiad only later.” The earlier version included Oenone’s sister, Astarte, the goddess of lightning.

"The earlier version…represents a mental image in a pessimistic mood, or more precisely, a ‘pictorial’ elegy on the unhappy consequences of love, sketched with two mythological fates of women."(122)

Like other interpreters he does not discuss the other pentimento—the little man on the bridge carrying a pilgrim’s staff. Is such a character Homeric?

Finally, it can be said that Rapp’s thesis is partially based on a mistaken identification.

"Giorgione and his circle repeatedly used subjects from the youth of Paris,…For Giorgione himself the following are attested: Discovery of the Child Paris (previously in the collection of Taddeo Contarini) and a Judgement of Paris, a “Fauola di Parride” (drawn copy in the inventory of the collection of Andrea Vendramin.” (119)

The latter drawing is reproduced in the catalog as “after Giorgione.” The “Discovery of the Child Paris” originally in the Contarini collection only exists today in a 17th century copy. In my paper on the Tempest I have demonstrated this “lost” Giorgione actually represents “The Encounter of the Holy Family with Robbers on the Flight into Egypt.”

If this pillar of Rapp’s interpretation falls to the ground, what happens to the whole edifice?

Jurgen Rapp: “the ‘Favola’ in Giorgione’s Tempesta.” Ferino-Pagden, Sylvia, and Nepi-Scire, Giovanna: exh. Cat. Giorgione, Myth and Enigma, Vienna, 2004. Pp. 118-123.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Giorgione Tempest: A Vision

Rainer Metzger’s essay, “Everyday Life and Allegory, An Attempt to Understand Giorgione’s Tempesta” was one of four separate and contradictory attempts to interpret the Tempest in the 2004 Giorgione exhibition catalog, “Giorgione, Myth and Enigma.” *For Metzger the key to understanding the painting can be found in the young man who stands off to the side looking back at the nursing Woman.

“the gentiluomo has come from the background, from the town, a bridge has helped him abandon his urban life. On the far bank of the stream an ambience loaded with sentiment awaits him, dominated by ruins apparently left behind by antiquity and by now overgrown by nature….But it seems that the gentleman in his elegant breeches and the very latest fashion in codpieces has found a way to fight his way through to the promised land in the foreground. In this he has been supported by a shepherd’s crook, which is clearly only a prop and not an attribute, indicating not the beau’s profession but rather his obsession”….(114)

The young man has no relationship with the Woman—she is a product of his imagination, an imagination based on his reading of the pastoral literature that was becoming popular in Venice around the year 1500. He is having a vision in the same way that Chancellor Rolin imagined the Madonna and Child in Van Eyck’s famous painting.

The nursing Mother is a personification of fertile nature.

“Here he observes nature in her freedom, and he sees her personified, in the shape of a nymph nursing a child. He sees her as he knows her, as he knows her from the writings that first caused him to take the path to the holy place of nature. It is perfectly obvious that she does not see him, living as she does in a different sphere.” (116)

For Metzger “there is no text, no single text alone, irrespective of its origins, able to explain the painting and its details motif by motif…”(115) The attempts of other interpreters to find the source in Plato, Virgil, Lucretius, or an ancient myth are futile. The city and storm in the background refer to no specific place or event; the broken columns are just antique ruins; and there is no mention of the prominent plant in front of the woman.

He does however attach much importance to one of the pentimenti revealed by technological examination—the nude woman dangling her feet in a stream at the lower left. Although the catalog entry argued that Giorgione never intended to place two women in the painting, Metzger believes otherwise and that the man was a later addition thereby creating a major problem with his interpretation. If the Man is the key figure in the painting, and if the painting represents his vision, why wasn’t he in the original version?

Moreover, like every other interpreter Metzger omitted a discussion of another pentimento discussed in the catalog—the little man on the bridge carrying a pilgrim’s sack. How does that fit into his interpretation?

The examples he uses are also problematic. In Van Eyck’s painting Chancellor Rolin kneels in an attitude of prayer facing the Madonna and Child. Giorgione’s Man faces the viewer but looks back over his shoulder at the Woman. Metzger can provide no image of a nursing nymph because they are never depicted lactating. He can only supply a crude reclining nude being ogled by an aroused satyr from the “Hypnerotomachia Poliphilo”.

Strangely enough, Metzger sees the Christian origins of the painting but since he can’t imagine that Giorgione would depict the Holy Family in this manner, he argues that the painter imposed a classical framework on the old model in order to suit his sophisticated patron.

“more important than any text is the painting, one painting, the Allegoria Sacra. Giorgione subjects it before the highly demanding level of Venetian aristocracy to a comparable reinterpretation from the Christian into the classical….But the vocabulary, the figures and the construction principles of the official route and of the sacred space with its location “somewhere” were Christian.” (115)

“Bellini’s Madonna is replaced, secularized, naturalized by the mythologically derived mother figure, and the holy quarter is a sacred grove.” (115)

He sees the Madonna and Child in the Tempest but cannot bring himself to believe his own eyes.

*Ferino-Pagden, Sylvia, and Nepi-Scire, Giovanna: exh. Cat. Giorgione, Myth and Enigma, Vienna, 2004. This catalog was the result of the historic 2004 joint exhibition sponsored by the Accademia in Venice and the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. Historic, because for the first time the “Tempest” left Italy for the Vienna showing. The copious catalog entry did not take sides on the interpretation of the Tempest but left that to the four scholars. I have already reviewed Bernard Aikema’s essay in a previous post.