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

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Giorgione: "Boy with an Arrow" 2

Giorgione: Boy with an Arrow, c. 1508, Poplar, 48x42 cm, Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum.

As far as I know the most important iconographical detail in Giorgione’s “Boy with an Arrow” has never been discussed. I must confess that in an earlier post on the painting, I also failed to see it. It is the color of the young man’s tunic. Why did Giorgione deliberately choose to clothe him in red?

In that earlier post I agreed with those who identified Giorgione’s “Boy with an Arrow” as St. Sebastian. I was struck especially by the resemblance of Giorgione’s boy to a St. Sebastian painted earlier by Raphael.

A recent exchange with H. Nyazi and his subsequent blog post on St. Sebastian in art at Three Pipe Problem prompted me to look again at Giorgione’s painting. The exhibition catalog for the 2004 Giorgione exhibition jointly held in Venice and Vienna provided a full discussion of the interpretive history of the “Boy with an Arrow.”*

Marianne Koos, the author of the catalog entry, noted that the painting was not always attributed to Giorgione and that his authorship was only generally accepted after 1955. She also noted “it is usually dated to his mature period, between 1506 and 1508.”

“Boy with and Arrow” is another of Giorgione’s mysterious paintings and a number of different interpretations have been put forward. Koos, whose essay derived from her own doctoral dissertation, did a very nice job of summarizing and analyzing the different views.
While there is general agreement on the painting’s attribution and dating, its subject…remains controversial. Marcantonio Michiel described it as a “boy with an Arrow” in his inventory…compiled in 1531,…Nevertheless, to this day art historians are dissatisfied with the title “Boy with an Arrow”. Thus the figure is alternatively interpreted as “St. Sebastian”, “Apollo” or even “Eros”, respectively to identify the boy as a figure from Christian iconography or classical mythology.…Joannides recently suggested the identification of the boy as “Paris”, who would grow up to slay Achilles with his arrow.
She indicated that Bernard Berenson accepted the Sebastian identification in 1957 but that most scholars since have supported the Apollo or Eros readings. She then proceeded to point out the shortcomings of each interpretation.
None of these interpretations, however, is totally convincing. Against the boy’s identification as “Sebastian” there is the fact that in the art of the early modern period the saint is depicted either as a male nude pierced with arrows, or as a young man in courtly dress….Also absent are the saint’s halo and the contemplative sideways glance, which—as in Raphael’s Sebastian, Accademia Carrara, Bergamo—manifests the painting’s religious content. On the other hand, the classical god Apollo, iconographically related to St. Sebastian via his function as a protector against pestilence is represented in Renaissance art as a blond male nude with laurel wreath, bow and quiver or with a lyre….In 16th century iconography the god of love, Eros, is depicted as a mischievous boy with wings, bow and arrows—not as a melancholy, self-absorbed youth. And in the iconography of the early modern period, Paris, the son of the king of Troy, is depicted holding the apple of Eris rather than an arrow.
Koos believed that some more recent “metaphorical interpretations” pointed in the right direction and proceeded to devote the lion’s share of the catalog entry to her own.
The metaphorical interpretation of the arrow is—both here and in the context of Giorgione’s broader oeuvre—a most promising shift of perspective…which has the advantage of corresponding to Michiel’s description as “Boy with an Arrow”, while simultaneously taking into consideration the iconographic connotations of love and pain proposed for the painting.
Her own conclusion was pretty much what one would expect from a contemporary Art historian.
Giorgione’s youth remains primarily a subject in the discourse of love, an ideal male figure, with whom the male observer may also form an alliance in thought. The ideal-boy picture is not only a painting of…desire, but also of narcissistic identification and a homosocial avowal of brotherhood. 186
I’ll leave her objections to the mythological figures to their supporters, but I do not believe that her argument against the St. Sebastian interpretation is very strong. It is certainly true that most depictions of the martyr show a full-length nude figure riddled with arrows. Yet it is also true, as the recent post on Three Pipe Problem demonstrated, that a fully clothed, half-length figure of a doleful young man holding an arrow was popular at the time. Moreover, Giorgione never used a halo even in his obvious religious images.

Personally, I believe that the similarities between Raphael’s “St. Sebastian” and Giorgione’s “Boy with an Arrow” greatly outweigh the dissimilarities. Typically, Giorgione removes an obvious iconographical sign like the halo and replaces it with something that I have come to believe characterizes much of his work. He uses color to identify the subject.

Red is the symbol of martyrdom. It is the color of the vestment of the priest at every Mass that commemorates a martyr. In an essay on Giorgione’s “Three Ages of Man” I have argued that the color of the garments of the three figures in that mysterious painting now in the Pitti Palace identifies them as Jesus, Peter, and the rich young man of the Gospel of Matthew. Peter’s robe is bold red , a symbol of his eventual martyrdom. Christ is shown in green, in what looks like the vestment that a priest commonly wears on most Sundays of the liturgical year.

I have argued in another post on this site that the colors of the garments worn by the three men in Giorgione’s “Three Philosophers” support those who interpret that mysterious painting as the Three Magi. The color of their garments refers to their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.

Giorgione dressed the young man in the “Boy with an Arrow” in the color of a martyr. There is perhaps an insight contained in the metaphorical interpretation of Marianne Koos. Neoplatonic discussions of love and desire were not regarded as antithetical to Christian belief. On the contrary, in many respects they brought Christian beliefs, if only for a brief moment, to a new level on the eve of the Reformation.

Where it had been common to invoke St. Sebastian as a protector against the plague, now it would appear that Giorgione and others were seeing him again in his original guise; as one who gave his life for his fellow man. In this respect, he was truly a symbol of Christ-like love. No wonder his story inspired Christians throughout the Middle Ages, the Renaissance and even beyond.

In his inventory of the collection of the humanist scholar, Pietro Bembo, Marcantonio Michiel noted a picture by Mantegna, "representing St. Sebastian, over life size, fastened to a column and shot at with arrows."


*Ferino-Pagden, Sylvia, and Nepi-Scire, Giovanna: exh. Cat. Giorgione, Myth and Enigma, Vienna, 2004. pp. 184-7.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Giorgione: Sleeping Venus

Kenneth Clark claimed that Giorgione invented the “classic Venetian nude.” He noted some antecedents but found in Giorgione “an appetite for physical beauty more eager and more delicate than had been bestowed on any artist since fourth-century Greece.”*

Giorgione: Sleeping Venus
Dresden, oil on canvas
108x175 cm

Giorgione’s discovery opened the way for others.
It is because he suddenly found the shape and color of those desires which had been floating half formed in the minds of his contemporaries that Giorgione's work has reached us inextricably confused with that of other artists. He had no sooner found the password then all could enter at the same door, and one or two may have pushed past him.
Clark did not refer to the young woman in the “Laura” with one breast exposed, or even to the nude nursing woman in the “Tempest.” He had in mind the nudes on the Fondaco dei Tedeschi and, above all, the “Sleeping Venus” now in Dresden.
In the nude we can be sure that he was the real inventor. Engravings of his vanished masterpiece, the frescoes of the Fondaco dei Tedeschi, show nude figures of women used for almost the first time as units in a decorative scheme; and a nude woman is the subject of the picture in which his peculiar graces are most clearly apparent, the Dresden Venus.
Like most of Giorgione’s paintings the “Dresden Venus” has raised questions of attribution and interpretation. In 1525 Marcantonio Michiel, a Venetian patrician, saw the painting that most scholars believe to be the “Dresden Venus” in the home of Messer Jeronimo Marcello at San Tomado.
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.**
The editor of Michiel’s notes also claimed that Carlo Ridolfi saw the painting in Marcello’s house over a century later.
Ridolfi in 1646, saw it in Marcello’s house, and described it in his book as a work of Giorgione in the following words: ‘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. (note 3)**
Both observers mention that the painting had been left unfinished by Giorgione and completed by Titian. They also mention the Cupid that can no longer be seen because of a later overpainting. X-rays have revealed the presence of the Cupid but it is impossible to say if it was painted by Giorgione, Titian, or someone else.

In the past, despite Michiel’s words, some have attributed the entire painting to Titian but now most agree on Giorgione. Still, there is much controversy about the extent of Titian’s contribution. While the nude is universally given to Giorgione, some claim that Titian did the landscape, and others claim that he was responsible for the fine materials on which the Venus reclines. In a recent catalog Wolfgang Eller argued that most of the painting is by Giorgione’s hand and that Titian did little more than a final touch up.***

I do not possess the expertise or tools to deal with questions of attribution, and I would not even attempt to hazard a guess at the meaning of this painting at this time. I would just like to point out that I agree with most commentators that there is nothing erotic or pornographic in the “Dresden Venus.” In 1958 Kenneth Clark wrote:
The Venus of Georgione is sleeping, without a thought of her nakedness, in a honey-colored landscape: but her outline forbids us to identify her as Venus Naturalis. Compared to Titian's Venus of Urbino, who seems, at first, so closely to resemble her, she is like a bud, wrapped in it's sheath, each petal folded so firmly as to give us the feeling of inflexible purpose.*
Fifty years later Wolfgang Eller observed:
The sleeping figure does not realize that she is being observed and in contrast to Titian’s later depiction, she is not consciously displaying her nudeness. Giorgione rendered the beauty of the nude female female body with noble delicacy, and there is no indication of rawness or lasciviousness.***
Clark, Eller and most scholars agree that Giorgione represented a brief moment in time. In the first decade of the 16th century Giorgione took the lead along with Michelangelo in the depiction of the nude body with no trace of shame. Titian, especially in his early work, reflected Giorgione’s greatness and influence. Writing about the nude in the “Sacred and Profane Love,” Rona Goffen noted,

“as female nudes go, this one is modest; her sex is covered not by a coy gesture but by the unambivalent means of a white drapery. Moreover, her legs are firmly locked together,…there is nothing prurient about her presentation, and her turning away from us to glance at her counterpart underscores the nude’s purity.” ****
Not too long after after Giorgione’s death in 1510 a new element would enter into the picture and eventually bring to an end this brief moment in time. Reformation reformers, both Catholic and Protestant, would direct their efforts against lewd images, but the process took some time. At the same time, lewd images would begin to proliferate. In the 19th century Mark Twain described Titian's "Venus of Urbino" as not even fit for a bagnio. Carlo Ginzberg referred to a study of manuals for confessors that showed that images were not of primary concern in the first decades of the 16th century.
The minute analyses of the sin of lust concentrate on the senses of touch and sound well into the sixteenth century. Sight is hardly mentioned. The social occasions that abet the transgression…are principally dancing and singing….He did not warn against immoral images, simply because their diffusion must have been minimal or nil, except among the upper classes. Only later in the century did sight emerge slowly as a prominent erotic sense, immediately after touch.# 
For the time of Giorgione the words of Kenneth Clark are still apt.
In European painting the Dresden Venus holds almost the same place as is held in antique sculpture by the Knidian Aphrodite. Her pose is so perfectly satisfying that for four hundred years the greatest painters of the nude…continued to compose variations on the same theme… Her pose seems so calm and inevitable that we do not at once recognize its originality. Giorgione's Venus is not antique... how un-Gothic she is in the cylindrical smoothness of every form.
Yet this isolation on the nude from the vegetable life that surrounded it could not be maintained for long: it resulted from a moment of balance as delicate as that which produced Botticelli's Primavera. And in the culmination of the Georgionesque, the Concert Champetre, the bodies have lost all sense of Gothic virginity. Far from being buds, they have the opulent maturity of an Italian summer. We have entered the realm of Venus Naturalis.

Titian: Detail of "Venus of Urbino," Uffizi, Florence. Repeated attempts to put up the full image of the "Venus of Urbino" have been blocked. Anyone interested can find the full image with a simple search. In a way, I guess it just confirms the point made above about the modesty of early nudes by Giorgione and Titian.

*Kenneth Clark: The Nude, A Study in Ideal Form, Princeton, 1956, pp. 114-5.

**The Anonimo, Notes on Pictures and Works of Art in Italy made by an Anonymous Writer in the Sixteenth Century: ed. by George C. Williamson, London, 1903, p. 105.

***Wolfgang Eller: Giorgione, Catalog Raisonne, Petersberg, 2007, p.126.

****Rona Goffen: Titian’s Women, Yale, 1997, pp. 37-8.

#Carlo Ginzberg, 'Titian, Ovid, and Sixteenth-Cntury Codes for Erotic Illustration', inTitian's "Venus of Urbino," ed. Rona Goffen, Cambridge, 1999, p. 33.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Giorgione: Mary Magdalen

Is Giorgione's "Laura" his version of Mary Magdalen? Like most of his paintings this one has defied interpreters for 500 years. Today most scholars agree that it is not a portrait and that it is not a depiction of Petrarch's lover.

Giorgione: "Portrait of a Young Woman (Laura)." 41x33.6 cm. Vienna.

The catalog entry for the 2004 Giorgione exhibition provided some tantalizing hints that could point to the Magdalen even though she is not fair-haired and does not hold the traditional jar of ointment. Her garb and pose indicate a Venetian courtesan but other elements depict a woman of virtue.
"Her sumptuous fur-lined red garment is, more than an item of male attire, the winter dress of Venetian women of pleasure…However, as noted by Goffen (1997), the thin white veil that partly covers her hair and falls over her breast is a typical accessory of married women…. The paradox that accompanies the interpretation of this painting lies in the fact that laurel is also a symbol of conjugal virtue…Giorgione’s Laura—regardless of whether she is a learned courtesan or a virtuous wife—is characterized by the extraordinary charge of sensuality and eroticism that makes this image unique in the painting of the early 16th century."* (197)

Maybe the painting is not as unique as the catalog suggested. In 2001 Paul Joannides discussed another portrait of a young woman that bore a remarkable similarity to the "Laura." He noted that it had often been attributed to Giorgione but insisted that "the closest comparisons are with Titian's work and there can be no serious doubt that it is his…."** (94) He continued,

"The Bust of a Young Woman is often thought to be a portrait of a courtesan,…There is an obvious link of mood and gesture with Giorgione’s Laura,…it is probably a fragment of a narrative composition….But the action is ambiguous: is she opening her dress to reveal her breast, like Laura, or closing it in modesty? Given the high finish and luxurious color, this fragment is more likely to have formed part of a painting for a private house than a public place…"(95-6)
"Perhaps more likely is that she is a Magdalene in a Mary and Martha, the subject represented in Milan in the work of Bernardino 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." (96)

Titian is the most prolific and famous painter of Mary Magdalens. His many versions of a beautiful, semi-nude, weeping penitent Magdalen spread all over Europe. His versions do not depict the gaunt Magdalen of Donatello, emaciated after years of fasting in the desert, but a still beautiful woman who has only recently thrown off her courtesan's finery, and appears covered only by her gorgeous red hair.

This portrayal no doubt represented Titian's own preference as well as the preferences of his aristocratic patrons. In 1531 Duke Federico of Mantua asked Titian for a Magdalen that he could present as a gift,
"I would like you to make me a St. Magdalen, as lachrymose as can be...and that you make every effort to make it beautiful, which for you will not be remarkable as you cannot do otherwise, when you really want to..."***
In the 19th century Anna Jameson devoted a whole chapter in "Sacred and Legendary Art" to Mary Magdalen. In her own inimitable manner she noted the different styles of various times and places and expressed her opinion on the beautiful but distasteful Venetian versions.
in the display of luxuriant female forms, shadowed (not hidden) by redundant fair hair, and flung in all the abandon of solitude, amid the depth of leafy recesses, or relieved by the dark umbrageous rocks; in the association of love and beauty with the symbols of death and sorrow and utter humiliation; the painters had ample scope, ample material, for the exercise of their imagination and the display of their skill: but what has been the result? They have abused these capabilities even to license; they have exhausted the resources of Art in the attempt to vary the delineation; and yet how seldom has the ideal of this most exquisite subject been--I will not say realized—but even approached? We have Magdalenes who look as if they never could have sinned, and others who look as if they never could have repented; we have Venetian Magdalenes with the air of courtesans and Florentine Magdalenes with the air of Ariadne's; and Bolognese Magdalenes like sentimental Niobe's;... and Dutch Magdalenes, who wring their hands like repentant washerwomen. The Magdalenes of Rubens remind us of nothing so much as of the "unfortunate Miss Bailey;" and the Magdalenes of Van Dyke are fine ladies who have turned Methodists.**** ###

*Giorgione, Myth and Enigma: edited by Sylvia Ferino-Pagden and Giovanna Nepi Scire, Vienna, 2004, pp. 197-8.
**Paul Joannides, Titian to 1518, Yale, 2001.
*** Rona Goffen, Titian's Women, Yale, 1997. p. 177.
****Anna Jameson, Sacred and Legendary Art, Boston, 1895, v. 1, p. 353.