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

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Giorgione and Titian: Mystery and Enigma

In September I placed on my website a new interpretation of Titian's "Sacred and Profane Love" that identified the subject as "The Conversion of Mary Magdalen." Last week a condensed version of the paper was featured on the popular Art history blog, Three Pipe Problem. Here is a brief abstract of the interpretation.

“Titian’s Sacred and Profane Love” interprets the painting in Rome’s Borghese Gallery as “The Conversion of Mary Magdalen.” The finely dressed Woman is Mary Magdalen in the guise of a Venetian courtesan. The nude Woman is the converted Magdalen in the process of throwing off her worldly finery. In her hand she holds the jar of ointment that is found in practically every depiction of the great sinner/saint. The antique relief on the sarcophagus-like fountain, which so far has eluded explanation, can now be seen to depict three great sinners: Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, and St. Paul falling from his horse.

This new interpretation followed upon two other major interpretive discoveries of works by Giorgione. Over five years ago I saw the "Tempest" for the first time and immediately hypothesized that it depicted the Holy Family on the flight into Egypt. Here is a brief abstract of my paper that attempted to identify all the iconographic elements in the painting.

“Giorgione’s Tempest.” This paper identifies the subject of the “Tempesta” as “The Rest on the Flight into Egypt.” The nude woman nursing an infant is the Madonna. The man is St. Joseph with his staff. The broken columns are commonplace in depictions of the “Rest.” The city in the background is Judea from where the Holy Family has fled but could also be Padua during the Cambrai war. The scraggly plant in the foreground is “belladonna” a plant associated with witchcraft and the Devil. The paper included a new interpretation of a “lost” Giorgione heretofore mistakenly called “The Discovery of Paris.”

Seeing the "Tempest" as a "sacred" subject led to a number of other discoveries. For example, I was able to see Giorgione"s heretofore inexplicable "Three Ages of Man" as the "Encounter of Jesus with the Rich Young Man." Here is an abstract of the painting that now hangs in the Pitti Palace in Florence.

“Giorgione’s Three Ages of Man” identifies this famous depiction of three half-length figures that now hangs in the Pitti Palace as the “Encounter of Jesus with the Rich Young Man.” The subject derives from an episode in the Gospel of Matthew. The young man in the center, whose clothing indicates his wealth, has just asked how he can achieve eternal life. On the right, Jesus dressed in a green vestment commonly worn by priests at Mass points to the commandments that he has directed the man to follow. On the left, an aging, bald Peter, dressed in martyr’s red, invites the viewer to enter the scene.

I'd like to mention the methodology employed in the three above discoveries especially since it was remarkably similar. I am not a professional Art historian. I hold a doctorate in History but my specialty was 18th century British politics. I say "was" because I left academe 40 years ago to become a financial advisor. I never gave up my interest in history but it was on the back burner. About 15 years ago my wife and I began to travel in Italy and I became more and more interested in the art of the Renaissance. My wife and I are both Catholic and we shared an interest in religious art.

So when I first looked at the "Tempest" in 2005, maybe because I was an outsider, or maybe because of my interest in religious art, I immediately guessed that Giorgione had depicted a scene from the Flight into Egypt. My historical training made me understand that there were obvious problems with this interpretation. I realized that every major element in the painting would have to fit or else the hypothesis would fall to the ground. It would not do, as some have done, to ignore things that didn't fit the interpretation. For example, most interpretations of the "Tempest" have made no attempt to explain the "plant" in front of the Woman.

I proceeded with trepidation knowing that one inconvenient 'fact" could bring down the whole hypothesis. A good example would be the "bird on the rooftop" in the background of the painting. I had initially ignored it as being insignificant but when challenged on it last year, I was able to discover the source in the Psalms.

It was the same way with the "Three Ages of Man," and now with the "Sacred and Profane Love." An initial intuition that stemmed from seeing the paintings in Florence and Rome preceded the research. My wife and I were stranded in Rome last year because of the volcano eruption in Iceland. We decided to go to the Borghese gallery. When I first beheld Titian's magnificent canvas, I turned to Linda and said that the two women were Mary Magdalen.

On returning home the work of verification began. Each major element in the painting had to be explained. The work of all the leading scholars in the field had to be examined. To my surprise no one had ever seen the Magdalen in the painting. I didn't give up at this point because I quickly saw that there was no agreed upon interpretation of this famous painting. Moreover, some, like the late Rona Goffen, one of the most perceptive students of Venetian art, had provided great research findings that could support a Magdalen hypothesis even though they themselves could not see it.

My grandchildren tell me that in most video games the obstacles or enemies get more and more formidable as the game proceeds, and that at the end there is often an insurmountable obstacle. However, in the three paintings noted above the giants in the field had all demolished each other and the way was open for an amateur to use their discarded weapons and proceed to the goal.

These three paintings, one in Rome, one in Venice and the other in Rome, are prime examples of what Art historians mean when they refer to Renaissance paintings as enigmatic or mysterious. When such terminology is used it often means that there is no agreement in Art historical circles about the subject matter of the work involved. Finally, many of these interpretations often seem to ignore the actual paintings. Why, for example, has no one ever commented on the colors of the garments of the three men in Giorgione's "Three Ages of Man."

If an interpretation can explain all the elements in a painting and show how they relate to one another, can the painting be called enigmatical or mysterious?

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Veronese: Mary Magdalen

Paolo Veronese: The Conversion of Mary Magdalen, c. 1548, oil on canvas, 117.5x163.5 cm (National Gallery, London).

Famed Venetian art historian David Rosand contributed an essay on a Veronese painting in the same June 2011 edition of the Burlington Magazine that featured Renata Segre’s discovery of the inventory of Giorgione’s estate. Segre’s archival find attracted much attention but Rosand’s essay could provide much more insight into the work of Giorgione and other Venetian Renaissance artists.*

Rosand discussed a work by the twenty-year-old Paolo Veronese that London’s National Gallery currently labels “Christ addressing a kneeling woman.” Rosand noted that the painting has variously been thought to depict Christ with the woman taken in adultery; Mary Magdalen laying aside her jewels; or Christ and the woman with the issue of blood. Actually, a recent National Gallery catalog leans toward the “Woman with the issue of blood” but its website still calls her only a kneeling woman.

Not only does Rosand agree with those who see Mary Magdalen in the painting but he also has found a source text for Veronese’s depiction. The National Gallery catalog rejected the Magdalen interpretation because there is no mention of a scene like this one in either the gospels or the apocrypha. However, Rosand discovered that Pietro Aretino, the notorious scoundrel and self-promoter who was also a close friend of Titian’s, had written a popularization of the gospels that provided a fourteen page description of the events surrounding the conversion of Mary Magdalen.

Written in 1535 the name of the work was "Humanita di Christo" and it was extremely popular until it and other works like it were banned by the Church after the Council of Trent. Today it is almost impossible to find. A search of the New York Public Library’s vast online catalog found nothing. Rosand’s extensive quotes were from a 1539 Italian edition. **

In Rosand’s words Aretino’s text provided an “imaginative expansion of the generally laconic text of the Gospels ” that his artist friends were quick to exploit. Aretino gave artists “a new novelistic gospel replete with pictorial possibilities.”

Aretino’s description of the conversion of the Magdalen begins the evening before her meeting with Christ. Her sister Martha had persuaded her to go to the Temple but the courtesan decides to throw a party and have one last fling. She puts on a sumptuous banquet “to celebrate her hedonistic life.” Aretino dwells on her worldly beauty and her “fine linen gown trimmed in gold and studded with pearls.”

The next morning Mary Magdalen sets out for the Temple looking like a “rising sun” and followed by a great multitude “drawn to this vision of splendid beauty.” Nevertheless, the meeting with Jesus is life changing.
Jesus addresses her in an intimate tone…and then proceeds to inflect her worldly beauty to a spiritual one, her eroticism to divine love: her splendour can only have a higher source, a gift from heaven.

Afterwards, Martha leads her contrite sister home where she locks herself in her room and “throws her jewels to the ground.”

Bernardino Luini: Martha and Mary Magdalen

In the Burlington essay Rosand does not spend much time discussing the other figures in the painting. He doesn’t even call the modestly dressed woman supporting the Magdalen by name even though it must be Martha. He doesn’t mention the man in the foreground with the red cap who appears to be dropping a small notebook. Could this be the Magdalen’s procurer discarding her client list? What about the man clutching the column on the left? Is he suffering from the previous evening’s celebration? There is also a nude youth and a dog. Were they normal parts of a courtesan’s retinue?

There is no doubt that Rosand has found the source of Veronese’s painting in Aretino’s gospel popularization. However, one question remains. What was the source of Aretino’s account? Did he just make up his embellishment of the conversion of the Magdalen or did he draw from an already existing tradition?

Pietro Aretino was born in 1492 into a poor family in Arezzo. At about the age of fourteen he left his hometown to make his own way in the world. He didn’t journey to nearby Florence but for reasons unknown walked the 50 miles to Perugia. According to James Cleugh’s biography, “The Divine Aretino,” Pietro probably arrived in Perugia around 1506 and stayed for about six years.

In those years he tried his hand at a number of things and even studied painting. He achieved some competence but realized early that he would go nowhere as a painter. Nevertheless, there is one incident concerning Aretino that throws light on Veronese’s painting. Cleugh relates a prank attributed to the young Aretino.***

According to the Perugian poet Caporali he had been offended by the sight of a mediocre fresco in the Piazza Grande depicting Mary Magdalene at the feet of Christ. Her arms outspread in an absurdly awkward attitude of adoration and the two conspicuous tears rolling down her cheeks lent in Pietro's view an utterly incongruous aspect to the buxom citizeness who had been used as a model. He decided to correct this artistic impropriety and call the perpetrator to order in the only way he could be expected to understand--pictorially.

One morning, early risers were horrified to find that the pious Magdalene had been transformed overnight into the courtesan she was said to have been before her conversion. A lute had appeared in her hands and she was gazing at Jesus with a far from sorrowing expression. Pietro had spent a couple of hours the night before with his brushes and palette, and a discrete torch, on a ladder propped against the wall….

The joke, however, did not amuse the clergy or the ruling Baglioni family or the municipality of Perugia. Pietro could usually talk himself out of trouble, but this time his laughing apology did not help him. While the picture was being restored he was sternly given to understand that if he did not remove himself forthwith from the precincts of the city he could expect an examination by the Holy Inquisition.

Cleugh warns that practically anything by or about Pietro can be taken with a grain of salt but it would be impossible to doubt that there was a painting on a wall in Perugia that depicted a kneeling, penitent Magdalen at the feet of Christ, a scene only implied in the gospels. Moreover, it is not hard to imagine that this “Conversion of Mary Magdalen” by an unknown artist was not the only one in Perugia. Indeed, it is more than likely that such depictions could have been found all over Italy.

Faded image over door in Piazza S. Stefano, Venice
This incident should make us realize that what we have left of Renaissance art is but the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Time, weather, vandalism, and the efforts of Church reformers have left us only a very small percentage of the art that graced both the interior and exterior of churches, palaces, and homes over the entire peninsula. Of course, exceptional painters took these common devotional subjects to unprecedented heights but most must have been of the mediocre variety that Aretino playfully sought to improve.

Aretino’s scandalous writings have survived but Rosand noted in the Burlington Magazine that the Church banned works like his gospel popularization after the Council of Trent. Professor Rosand was correct to remind the National Gallery that there was more to the religious art of the Renaissance than could be found in the gospels or the apocrypha.

*David Rosand: “Veronese’s Magdalen and Pietro Aretino,” Burlington Magazine, 153, June 2011, pp. 392-395.

**All quotations from Aretino are taken from Rosand's article.

***James Cleugh, "The Divine Aretino", NY, 1966. p. 28.