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, October 22, 2011

Giorgione and the Young Titian 2

Shortly after the death of Giorgione in the fall of 1510, Sebastiano Luciani and Tiziano Vecellio, the two young painters most likely to succeed him as the favorite of Venetian patrons, left Venice to pursue their careers elsewhere.

Sebastiano del Piombo, organ shutters,
Saint Louis of Toulouse and Sinibaldus.
(probably 1510-11), oil on canvas,
each 293 x 137 cm, Academia, Venice

Sebastiano, later known as Sebastiano del Piombo, could not refuse the offer made him by the wealthy Sienese banker Agostino Chigi to work for him in Rome. One of the reasons why Chigi chose Sebastiano over Titian might have been the fact that the former was considered to be the superior painter.

In “Titian to 1518” Paul Joannides discussed Sebastiano’s standing in the ranks of Venetian painters.*
Sebastiano seems to have been further advanced in his career than Titian before mid-1511, and his work more controlled and mature….It is notable, and an inherent quality of Sebastiano's work, that he always possessed a more severe, solid and sculptural sense of form than either Giorgione or Titian, qualities that later attracted Michelangelo to him. (129)

None of his contemporaries bettered Sebastiano's organ shutters and it is worth pausing to consider what this implies. It seems certain that all three of the major paintings... were commissioned from Sebastiano before the death of Giorgione and, perhaps, against Titian. If so, it would imply that Sebastiano was widely seen as the leading young painter in Venice, in preference to either of the others. But why, if by 1511 Sebastiano was in so commanding a position, with Giorgione dead and with little to fear from Titian in major commissions, did he accept Agostino Chigi's invitation to Rome? (136)
Whatever the reason for Sebastiano’s departure Titian was left with a practically open playing field. Only the aged but active Giovanni Bellini stood in his way. However, Titian decided to accept a commission to paint a fresco cycle in Padua’s Scuola del Santo. This commission, negotiated in December 1510, provides the first recorded documentary evidence of Titian’s existence.

Joannides devoted considerable attention to this cycle that depicted three of the miracles attributed to St. Anthony of Padua, and did his best to point out traces of the skill that would characterize Titian’s later work. Nevertheless, if Titian had died after completing this cycle no one today would regard him as more than a second or third-rate painter.

After the completion of the Paduan cycle, Titian returned to Venice late in 1511 and, according to Joannides, decided to take his work to a new level.
"A double effort was required: self-discipline and self-education. Self-discipline consisted largely in reduction: in attempting less within his paintings Titian was able to achieve more. Self-education made Titian a more effective figure-draughtsman. For self-discipline Titian looked to his great target, Giovanni Bellini, reconsidering the principles of his art; for self-education, he studied the art of Central Italy in a more intense and focused way than hitherto." (141)

In the next four years Titian would produce a remarkable series of oil paintings that raised him to the highest level. Joannides noted that these works are difficult to date precisely but I follow his probable dating. (Page numbers in parenthesis refer to "Titian to 1518")

“Pastoral Scene ('The Concert Champetre')” (probably 1511). Oil on canvas, 110 x 138 cm. Louvre. (99)

“Virgin and Child with Saints Anthony and Roch” (probably 1511). Oil on canvas, 92 x 133 cm. Madrid, Prado. (123)

“Virgin and Child (‘The Gypsy Madonna’)” (probably 1511. Oil on panel, 66 x 84 cm. Vienna. (141)

“The Virgin and Child” (‘The Bache Madonna’) (probably 1512). Oil on panel, 40 x 56 cm. NY, MMA. (144)

“Holy Family with an Adoring Shepherd” (probably 1512). Oil on canvas, 99 x 117 cm. London, NGA. (145)

“Saint Mark Enthroned with Saints Cosmas, Damian, Sebastian and Roch” (probably 1512). Oil on panel, 230 x 149 cm. Venice, Santa Maria della Salute. (149)

“Jacopo Pesaro Presented to Saint Peter by Pope Alexander VI” (probably 1513). Oil on canvas. 145 x 184 cm. Antwerp, Musee Royale des Beaux-Arts. (152)

“Unknown Donor Presented to the Virgin and Child by St. Dominic, with Saint Catherine Attendant” (probably 1513-14). Oil on canvas. 138 x 185 cm. Parma, Fondazione Magnum Rocca. (158)

“Rest on the Flight into Egypt” (probably 1512). Oil on (paper laid down on) panel, 46.3 x 61,5 cm. Longleat, Wiltshire, Marquess of Bath Collection (stolen 6 January 1995). (161)

“Tobias and the Angel Raphael” (probably 1514). Oil on panel, 179 x 146 cm. Venice, Accademia. (167)

“Baptism of Christ” (probably 1514). Oil on panel, 115 x 89 cm. Rome, Museo Capitolino. (172)

“Noli Me Tangere” (probably 1514). Oil on canvas, 109 x 91 cm. London, National Gallery. (173)

“Sacred and Profane Love” (probably 1515). Oil on canvas, 118 x 279 cm. Rome, Galleria Borghese. (186)

Titian: "Noli Me Tangere"

Joannides dealt with Titian’s portraits in a separate chapter but looking at the list above we must say that until Titian painted the “Sacred and Profane Love” in 1514-5, he was primarily a painter of “sacred” subjects.

The sole exception would be the controversial and mysterious “Pastoral Concert”: controversial because scholars still cannot agree on whether to give it to Titian or Giorgione, and mysterious because there is no agreement on the subject of the painting.

Moreover, Joannides noted Hourticq’s opinion that “although the ‘Concert’ was laid in by Titian around 1511, he completed it only around 1530…” He confessed that the temptation to accept Hourticq’s view is “considerable.” (p. 100)

In the five years after Giorgione’s death Titian became one of the greatest painters of the Renaissance but on the eve of the Reformation he and his patrons were still interested primarily in “sacred” subjects.

*Paul Joannides, "Titian to 1518" Yale,2001.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Giorgione: "Three Ages of Man"

Giorgione’s “Three Ages of Man” is another one of his paintings that has so far eluded identification. The name of the painting that now hangs in the Pitti Palace is pure guesswork stemming only from the obvious disparity in ages of the three men. One appears to be about 60, another in his early thirties, and the last a young man in his teens.

Giorgione: Three Ages of Man
Pitti Palace, Florence
Oil on wood, 62 cm  x 77.5 cm

Scholars today object to the popular title. Some think it represents a music lesson and that the man on the viewer’s right is pointing to musical notes on the paper held by the young man. Others claim that it represents the education of the young emperor/philosopher Marcus Aurelius. Others just throw up their hands and claim that it contains, like other Giorgione works, multiple levels of meaning.

However, the most spectacular element in this mysterious painting has so far received little notice. Venetian painters were known for their coloration. Just look at the garments of the three men. Nothing in a Renaissance painting is there by accident or whim. The colors in this painting provide a major clue to its real subject.

As far as I know no one has suggested that the painting has a “sacred” subject, but yet, it appears that Giorgione has depicted a scene from the 19th chapter of the Gospel of St. Matthew. It is the story of the encounter of Jesus with the young man of great wealth. (See below for full text)

In Matthew’s account the young man asked Jesus what he could do to attain eternal life. Jesus told him to keep the Commandments, and specifically named the most important. The man replied that he had done so but still felt that something was wanting. Jesus then uttered the famous words, “If thou wilt be perfect, go, sell what thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” The gospel relates that the young man went away sad for he had many possessions.

How has Giorgione depicted this story and who is the third man? The man in the middle is obviously young and the golden lapels of his garment as well as his fashionable hat indicate that he is well to do. He is holding a piece of paper or parchment that contains some indecipherable writing that under magnification hardly looks like Renaissance musical notation.

On the right any Christian, Venetian or otherwise, would immediately recognize the visage of Jesus. There is no halo or nimbus but Giorgione never employed that device. The pointed finger is certainly characteristic of Jesus. Here he points not at a sheet of music but at the Commandments, which the gospel account has just enumerated.

Jesus wears a green garment or vestment, certainly an unusual color for him. In fact, it looks like the robe or chasuble worn by a priest during Mass. At the hand of Jesus we can also see the white sleeve of the “alb,” a long white robe always worn under the chasuble. Green is the color used by the Catholic Church during Ordinary time, that part of the Church year not identified with any of the great feasts.

The third man is St. Peter. He is the only other person identified in Matthew’s account of this incident. He stands on the left, head turned toward the viewer. Giorgione uses Peter as an interlocutor, a well-known Renaissance artistic device designed to draw the viewer into the painting and encourage emotional participation. The old man’s face is the traditional iconographical rendering of Peter with his baldhead and short stubby beard. As Anna Jameson noted many years ago, Peter is often portrayed as ”a robust old man, with a broad forehead, and rather coarse features.”*

Giovanni Bellini and Albrecht Durer, both Giorgione contemporaries, depicted Peter’s head in this fashion. About a hundred years later Caravaggio still used it in striking fashion in the "Martyrdom of St. Peter" in S. Maria del Popolo in Rome, and in the "Denial of Peter" now in New York’s Metropolitan Museum.

The color of Peter’s robe is also liturgically significant. Peter is rarely shown wearing red, but Giorgione has chosen to show him wearing the color reserved for the feast days of the martyrs. In the gospel account immediately after the young man went away sad, Peter, speaking for the other disciples as well as for the viewer of Giorgione’s painting, had asked, “Behold we have left all and followed thee: what then shall we have?”

In the first decade of the 16th century Venice was at the apex of its glory. It would suffer a great defeat at the end of the decade during the War of the League of Cambrai but until that time it was arguably the wealthiest and most powerful of all the European nations. It was certainly the only one that dared confront the mighty Ottoman Empire.

Nevertheless, some young Venetian patricians were wondering whether the whole life of politics, commercial rivalry, and warfare was worthwhile. One of them, Tommaso Giustiniani, a scion of one of the greatest families, did actually sell all his possessions, including his art collection, in order to live as a hermit in a Camaldolensian monastery. At one point he wrote to a few friends, who were also considering a similar move, about the futility of their daily lives. He argued that Venetian life was agitated, completely outward, and continually dominated by ambition. It was the reason for all their worry.

“If, then, a Stoic philosopher appeared to free their minds from all these disturbances, his efforts would be in vain, so completely does agitation dominate and enfetter their whole lives. How can anyone not feel disgust for such an empty existence.”?**

Peter and the other disciples were shocked when Jesus said that it would be harder for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven, than for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle. “Who then can be saved,” they asked? The response of Jesus was full of hope: “With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” Green, the liturgical color used throughout the Church year, is also the color of hope.

“The Encounter of Jesus with the Rich Young Man,” the name we can now give to the painting in the Pitti Palace, would certainly appear to have an historical context in Giorgione’s time. Five hundred years after the death of this short-lived genius perhaps we can begin to understand that Giorgione was a unique and original painter of sacred subjects. ###

Full text of Matthew 19:16-27.

And behold, a certain man came to him and said, “Good Master, what good work shall I do to have eternal life?” He said to him, “Why dost thou ask me about what is good? One there is who is good, and he is God. But if thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments.” He said to him, “Which?” And Jesus said,

Thou shalt not kill,
Thou shalt not commit adultery,
Thou shalt not steal,
Thou shalt not bear false witness,
Honor thy father and mother, and,
Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.”

The young man said to him, “All these I have kept; what is yet wanting to me?” Jesus said to him, “If thou wilt be perfect, go, sell what thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” But when the young man heard the saying, he went away sad, for he had great possessions.

But Jesus said to his disciples, “Amen I say to you, with difficulty will a rich man enter the kingdom of heaven. And further I say to you, it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.” The disciples hearing this, were exceedingly astonished, and said, “who then can be saved?” And looking upon them, Jesus said to them, “With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”

Then Peter addressed him, saying, “Behold we have left all and followed thee: what then shall we have?”

* Anna Jameson, "Sacred and Legendary Art," Boston, 1896, Vol. 1, p. 191.

** Dom Jean LeClercq, "Camaldolese Extraordinary, The Life, Doctrine, and Rule of Blessed Paul Giustiniani," Bloomingdale, Ohio, 2003, pp. 61-62.