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, August 21, 2011

Giorgione and Jan van Scorel

Jan van Scorel: Madonna with Wild Roses, c. 1530, Utrecht, Central Museum.

Despite the title the presence of Joseph and the Ass in the right background indicates a "Rest on the flight into Egypt."

Jan van Scorel, an artist born in the Netherlands around 1495, traveled to Venice to study around 1520, only ten years after the death of Giorgione. Scholars speculate that during his stay he became familiar with the work of Giorgione and Titian. He certainly would have seen the famous frescoes at the Fondaco dei Tedeschi, as well as Titian’s famous Assunta in he Frari.

In 1530 Marcantonio Michiel, a Venetian patrician, saw the painting that would become known as the “Tempest” in the home of Gabriel Vendramin. In his notes Michiel described the painting as the “little landscape on canvas, representing stormy weather and a gipsy woman with a soldier,” and said it was by Giorgio di Castelfranco. Coincidentally, right after the “Tempest” entry, Michiel noted a “picture representing Our Lady with St. Joseph in the desert,” and said it was by John Scorel of Holland. The painting would most likely be a version of the “Rest on the Flight into Egypt.”

One year later, Michiel noted another Scorel in the home of Giovanni Ram at S. Stefano. “The small picture representing the Flight into Egypt, is by John Scorel.” (121). Giovanni Ram’s collection also included two other small pictures representing the flight into Egypt by an unnamed Flemish painter. (122)* (Either one of these "Rests" might have looked like the Scorel on the left.)

[In my paper on the “Tempest” I have argued that it is also a version of the “Rest on the Flight into Egypt.”]

Northern painters of sacred subjects like Patenir, David, and Memling were very popular with Venetian collectors. The lesser-known Jan Scorel would appear to have been just as popular. In 1966 Max Friedlander wrote of the vagaries of Scorel’s fame:**

The opinions of the sixteenth century are unanimous on Jan van Scorel and proclaim his fame loudly and--the reasons for this fame….So unbounded is our admiration for Netherlandish painting that Scorel’s determined and conscious turning away from tradition seems at first sight to be a dangerous uprooting. In quite recent times, it is true, there is a dawning tendency to recognize the positive side of the Rome pilgrim’s achievement…

Scorel’s popularity probably stemmed from the influences that Giorgione and other Italian painters exerted on his work. Scorel illustrates the continued importance of sacred subjects like the “Rest on the Flight into Egypt” in Venice as well as the “naturalistic” treatments of Italian masters. Here is Friedlander’s account of Scorel’s artistic pilgrimage.

In that same year [1520], the year of Raphael’s death, he probably crossed into Italy and stayed for some time at Venice. From there he made a journey to the Holy land, not merely as a pious pilgrim but also as a mentally alert traveler eager to see the places where Christ’s feet had trodden. This painter’s desire to interpret the biblical scene more ‘correctly’ than had been possible for his predecessors by expressing time and place of the action in the costume, landscape, and architecture could not, of course, lead to results that would satisfy our modern historical sense. Nevertheless,…he was able to offer his contemporaries plausible novelty. The town of Jerusalem, painted in the landscape backgrounds of his religious pictures after studies from nature, was viewed with awe and curiosity….

Scorel returned to Venice from the East, visited several other Italian towns and finally reached Rome…Short as his stay in Rome was, it made a decisive and lasting impression on his entire production.

Because of the Italian influence Scorel represents a break from Netherlandish tradition. In a way, his paintings should be regarded as a primary source for students of Giorgione. He was in Venice only ten years after Giorgione’s death. We know that he was a serious and attentive observer. Michiel’s sketchy notes were recorded two decades after Giorgione’s death. The young Vasari only visited Venice in 1541. Scorel left no written records but his paintings should provide students with visual clues to both the subject matter and manner of Giorgione. Max Friedlander noted that even though Scorel studied in Rome after his sojourn in Venice, the Venetian experience stayed with him.

As a result of his Dutch temperament when he tried to be a Roman he became a Venetian.

This finely dressed Mary Magdalene certainly looks Venetian.

*The Anonimo: Notes on Pictures and Works of Art in Italy, London, 1903.

**Max Friedlander, From Van Eyck to Bruegel, London, 1966, pp. 126-132.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Giorgione:Castelfranco Altarpiece 2

Scholars have given a great deal of attention to the “dating” of Giorgione’s Castelfranco Altarpiece. In her 1997 catalog Jaynie Anderson agreed with those who gave it a very early date of 1500. She claimed that the painting was commissioned that year by Tuzio Costanzo, a condotierre, who wanted to prove to the Venetian government that he had no intention of returning to Cyprus.*

In his essay that appeared in the 2004 Giorgione exhibition catalog, Salvatore Settis argued for a 1504-5 date since Tuzio’s son, Matteo, had just died that year.** In a 2007 catalog Wolfgang Eller also argued for the 1504 date although his argument that Giorgione used the hand of St. Francis and the knots on his belt to indicate the date of composition is unconvincing.*** Earlier some scholars had even suggested a late date between 1508 and 1510.

Why is the dating so important? We know that Giorgione never dated or signed his paintings. If we can date a painting then we might get some insight into the circumstances that led to its creation. This insight might then help to interpret the work. But there is another even more important reason. Dating the innovative and accomplished Castelfranco altarpiece as early in Giorgione’s career as 1500 would then leave ten whole years for the rest of Giorgione’s work. Dating it in 1504 or later compresses the rest of his career into a much shorter span.

A shorter time span would create great difficulty for those who try to date Giorgione’s work on stylistic grounds. Indeed, it would also make it very difficult for those who see a kind of stylistic evolution during Giorgione’s career. In his 2004 essay Salvatore Settis pointed out the problems involved in stylistic analysis.
“The construction of a "stylistic development" or a "pictorial biography" of an artist often seems to me to take something for granted that is anything but, that is, that a painter's art and style must inevitably develop via a preordained route, growing in accordance with an evolutionary parable that the historian is able to predict with the use of his books.” (147)

“A difference in style may have been occasioned in and by either of these circumstances; certainly it is possible that one and the same painter may have consciously adopted different stylistic registers depending upon the nature of the commission and the intended final location of his pictures.” (148)

Such caution seems eminently reasonable.

As far as interpreting a painting is concerned I would go even further than Settis and argue that the most important primary source is the painting itself. I know that this sounds like a truism but in my work on Giorgione I have found that Art historians sometimes neglect this basic principle and because of their training as graduate students tend to spend more time examining obscure texts or boxes of municipal records than they do actually looking at the painting itself.

For example, in her Giorgione catalog Jaynie Anderson devoted most of her discussion to her findings on the background of the Castelfranco Altarpiece but she said very little about what was actually going on in the painting.

In his essay on the painting Salvatore Settis provided an extended description of the Altarpiece from an article in the “Quotidiano Veneto” of 1803.

“Above a floor covered in square tiles of marble of different colours rises a Sarcophagus of Porphyry, on which is painted the coat of arms of the noble family Costanzo. Tuzio, famous warrior, disconsolate because of the death of his son, having ordered the erection of the Altar, it appears that the painter has delicately tried to alleviate his pain, placing behind the Tomb in an elevated position, a throne of whitish marble, on which sits Our Lady, on her knees her small Divine Child, with his head turned to observe the Sarcophagus itself. Behind the Virgin and supporting her on one side is a piece of inlaid marble. The entire base of the Throne is covered by a most beautiful tapestry, which hangs down a little…so far as to cover the sarcophagus, emerging from beneath the folds of the rich crimson robe,…Behind the Sarcophagus and at the height of the Throne the picture is framed by a most beautiful crimson velvet, descending to the floor, which gives a pyramidal layout and artificially divides the upper part of the foreground of the painting. On the right…stands St. George…Of his feet, the right rests on the floor, the left on a small step leading up to the Sarcophagus,…St. Francis stands with both feet on the lowest level of the floor…” (135)

Some scholars dismiss the importance of such an observation 300 years after the painting but Settis placed much stock in it because he believed that the observer saw correctly, especially when calling the rectangular box at the base a sarcophagus. He also noted that the journalist employed a systematic way of looking at a painting.

I wish there had been contemporaries of Giorgione who had had the patience and diligence to record their observations of his work in such a systematic way as the journalist from the “Quotidiano Veneto.”

*Anderson, Jaynie: Giorgione, 1997.

**Salvatore Settis: “Giorgione in Sicily–On the Dating and Composition of the Castelfranco Altarpiece,” in Ferino-Pagden, Sylvia, and Nepi-Scire, Giovanna: exh. Cat. Giorgione, Myth and Enigma, Vienna, 2004.

***Eller, Wolfgang: Giorgione Catalog Raisonne, Petersberg, 2007.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Giorgione: Castelfranco Altarpiece

Commentators have always regarded Giorgione’s “Castelfranco Altarpiece” as a unique and original work of art. It is Giorgione’s only known altarpiece, and although he used a traditional subject, he characteristically brought it to a new level. In their 1999 Giorgione catalog Teriseo Pignatti and Filoppo Pedrocco pointed to the extraordinary color scheme compared to other contemporary works.

These are all objective pieces of evidence, but they do not explain the unmistakable uniqueness of Giorgione’s altarpiece, which we feel constitutes the first attempt to convey true atmospheric effects through pure vibrations of color, both in the figures and in the distant landscape. There is a profusion of velvet crimsons in the figures, grass greens and gilded damascenes, the likes of which had never before been seen in Emilia or Venice. This consistent development and reshaping of Bellini’s premises and skilled application of Carpaccio’s fracturing of color is fundamental to Giorgione’s extremely personal work.* (128)

In a 2009 study of Giorgione, written in conjunction with the exhibition in Giorgione’s home town of Castelfranco Veneto that commemorated the 500th anniversary of the painter’s death, Enrico Maria dal Pozzolo wrote:

it would be unjust to diminish the importance of the very personal reworking that this young talent dared to express when he found himself standing before the great blank spaces of the panel,…[His] lifting the Madonna up to the highest possible height…but at the same time using that ‘emblematic” green cloth to tie them together and taking the back out of the chapel so that a preponderant landscape element might be added…is indicative of an approach that was totally original and free of conditioning.** (167)

My wife and I saw the Altarpiece in the spring of 2010. We had attended the annual meeting of the Renaissance Society of America that had been held that year in Venice, and decided to take the train to Castelfranco to see if we could get into the Giorgione exhibition. That Sunday was the closing day and the exhibition was sold out but we were able to see the Altarpiece on display in the Cathedral next door.

The first thing I noticed was the relatively small size of this extraordinarily beautiful painting that had been so carefully cleaned and restored in Venice only a few years before. It would certainly be dwarfed by Giovanni Bellini’s famed Venetian altarpiece in the church of S. Zaccaria that was also completed in 1505. The small size of the “Castelfranco Altarpiece” stems from the fact that it was meant not for the high altar in the Cathedral but for a small funerary chapel.

The whole story of the altarpiece is told best by Salvatore Settis in an extremely well researched essay that appeared in the exhibition catalog for the 2004 Giorgione exhibition that had been jointly sponsored by the Accademia in Venice and the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. For obvious reasons the Altarpiece was not included in the exhibition, but the essay by Settis was one of the highlights of the catalog.***

Settis related the history of Tuzio Costanzo, a Sicilian adventurer, in the service of the King and Queen of Cyprus toward the end of the 15th century. After the death of the King the threat of succession problems led the Venetian Signory to recall the Queen, the famed Caterina Cornaro, to the Veneto and take the government of the island into its own hands. She established herself in Asolo where her home became a humanist center. Always faithful to Caterina, Tuzio Costanzo became a Venetian condotierre and established his residence in Castelfranco.

In 1504 the death of his son, Matteo, himself serving with Venetian forces in Ravenna, led Tuzio to establish a funerary chapel in the Castelfranco cathedral for Matteo, and eventually for himself. Settis agrees with those who believe that the death of Matteo occasioned Giorgione’s commission.

Not only does the death of Matteo help to establish the dating of the Altarpiece, but it also helps to solve some of the mystery that has surrounded this unusual altarpiece. For example, Settis argued that that the large rectangular box at the bottom with the Costanzo coat of arms was a “Sarcophagus of Porphyry,” a material that had “symbolic connotations that were markedly funerary.” Moreover, such sarcophagi were extremely rare. “In Italy they were found only in Rome and in Sicily, especially in the cathedrals in Monreale…and in Palermo...” (142).

The Sicilian connection also helps to establish the identity of the armored saint. It’s neither St. George nor St. Liberalis, the patron saint of the Cathedral, but St. Nicasius, a popular Sicilian saint holding the banner of the Order of Jerusalem.
“In this case, the only candidate is St. Nicasius, venerated in Palermo and Messina, where his cult is associated with that of St. Francis (exactly as in the Altarpiece).” (p. 144).

The Sicilian heritage and connections of Tuzio Costanzo explain the rare appearance of St. Nicasius so far from home.“The St Nicasius of the Castelfranco Altarpiece is one of those described by Fabio Bisogni as “displaced saints (santi fouri posto)”, common only in one part of Italy and very rare (and therefore very difficult to recognize) in others…” (144).

Above the sarcophagus the very unusual direction of the gazes of both Madonna and Child derives from the nature of the composition.

But the sad gaze of the mourning Madonna from Castelfranco: is not directed at the Son…, and the Son is not looking at the shining armor of the warrior saint. Both mother and child focus on the sarcophagus with the Costanzo coat of arms, and their gazes are the only visual link between the upper and lower parts of the painting; their sad and self-absorbed attitude must be related to a recent death, and the coat of arms on the sarcophagus reveals whose death they mourn, in a reference to the tombstone on the wall close by that bears the name of Matteo Costanzo. (146)

I would just like to add an observation that has been inspired by Settis’ study. Above the sarcophagus there is a white marble altar on which the Madonna’s throne rests. But Franciscan spirituality regarded the Madonna herself as an altar on which her Son, the Eucharist, is placed. For confirmation we need only look at the white cloth underneath the Infant that also covers Mary’s head. It is the corporale that always covers an altar. Giorgione would later use the corporale in his famous “Tempest” where it winds around Mother and Child in much the same way.

But why two altars? On occasion, a funerary chapel is opened for Mass. At the height of the Mass, immediately after the consecration, the priest utters an ancient formula: “Lord, let your angel take this sacrifice to your Altar in Heaven.” At every Mass the sacrifice offered at the earthly altar would be merged with the eternal sacrifice of the Heavenly Altar. In Giorgione’s painting we see the Heavenly Altar (Mary) right on top of the earthly altar.

This concept, that seems so strange to viewers today, is reinforced by Giorgione’s artistic genius. Where is the viewer in this painting? We are not at floor level with the saints. We seem to look down on them. How is it possible for us to see the landscape in the background behind the curtain? The landscape in which we live is in the background. The figures in the foreground are in another world.

*Pignatti, Terisio, and Pedrocco, Filippo: Giorgione, Rizzoli, NY, 1999.

** Enrico Maria dal Pozzolo: Giorgione, Milan, 2009.

***Salvatore Settis: “Giorgione in Sicily–On the Dating and Composition of the Castelfranco Altarpiece.” In Ferino-Pagden, Sylvia, and Nepi-Scire, Giovanna: exh. Cat. Giorgione, Myth and Enigma, Vienna, 2004.