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

Friday, December 23, 2011

Giorgione, Titian, and a Venetian Humanist

In my interpretation of Titian’s “Sacred and Profane Love” as “The Conversion of Mary Magdalen” I noted that most scholars believe that Niccolo Aurelio, a future Grand Chancellor of Venice, commissioned the painting to commemorate his marriage to Laura Bagarotto,  a young widow from Padua.


Aurelio’s coat of arms can be seen in the relief on the fountain above the spigot. Apparently the wedding raised eyebrows. Aurelio held one of the highest position in the state that could be filled by a non-patrician. Although the year of his birth is not recorded, Aurelio must have been in his fifties and had never been married before. He had, however, sired a natural son, Marco.

On the other hand, Laura Bagarotto was a woman with a checkered past. Her father, Bertuccio Bagarotto, a professor at the famed university of Padua, as well as her husband, Francisco Borromeo, had been accused of treason by the Venetian government for collaboration with the enemy during the War of the League of Cambrai. The husband most likely died during the war and later in 1509 the father was publicly hanged in the Piazza di San Marco, an execution that his wife and daughter were forced to witness.
Laura’s goods, including her substantial dowry, were confiscated. Subsequently, she maintained her father’s innocence and campaigned for the restoration of the family’s good name as well as for the restoration of her dowry, estimated at over 2000 ducats. Her marriage to Niccolo Aurelio in 1514 must have been an important step in her rehabilitation since her dowry was only restored the day before the marriage. One would like to think that Niccolo was honoring his new wife, or seeking to aid in her rehabilitation with a painting depicting Mary Magdalen as both a courtesan seeking to mend her ways, and as a repentant sinner.
Some think that Aurelio married Laura for her money but I think that there was more to it than that. In her contribution to the catalog, “Titian 500” the late Rona Goffen reproduced the last will and testament of Niccolo Aurelio along with two codicils.* Reading the will gives the impression that Aurelio married the much younger widow not for her money but in an attempt to perpetuate his family’s name. [portions of the Will are reproduced below]
Despite the prominence of his position, little is known about the life of Niccolo Aurelio, but a look at his father, Marco Aurelio, a prominent Venetian humanist, might help to shed some light on his illustrious son.
In “Venetian Humanism in an Age of Patrician Dominance”, a 1986 study published by Princeton University, Margaret L. King examined the correspondence and writings of practically every prominent Venetian humanist of the Fifteenth century.**  Not only did she give a brilliant overview of the nature of the Venetian movement but she also provided profiles of all the humanists. One of the most prominent was Marco Aurelio, the father of Niccolo.
The Aurelio family seems to have been originally from the Venetian colony at Negropont in Greece. It would appear that they left Negropont early in the Fifteenth century before the Turkish conquest of Constantinople in 1453 and the subsequent fall of Negropont in 1470. Here is King’s brief summary.
Aurelio’s family stemmed ultimately from Negropont….Marco and his brothers Paolo and Pietro were sons of Niccolo Aurelio and a daughter of Niccolo Sagundino. “The emigration had seemingly been recent, as our Sagundino refers to himself (foreign-born) along with the native-born Marco as ‘new men.” The Aurelio family had with Marco’s father already established itself in the Venetian bureaucracy. Marco’s brother Paolo was also a secretary, as was his father Niccolo and his son of the same name, subsequently grand chancellor;… (p. 315)
King makes clear that humanists in Venice were not merely scholars. They constituted a caste employed by the Republic to serve its civic purposes. In other words a secretary was a civil servant, scribe, or lawyer employed in the service of the Republic. They were a separate class definitely barred from entrance into the exclusive patrician class but well above the ranks of the lower orders. The word “mandarin” comes to mind when reading King’s analysis.
Although a class unto themselves, they associated and corresponded with similar humanists in other cities and countries. King notes correspondence between Marco Aurelio and Marsilio Ficino who dedicated six opuscula to Marco. In addition,
Learned men addressed works to him Giovanni Calfurnio his editions of Horace and of Plutarch’s Problemata…and his commentary on Terence…Francesco Diedo his translation from Boccaccio; Janus Pannonius his translation of Plutarch’s De capienda ex hostibus utilitare and De curiositare; …poems by Sebastiano Bursa…Christophorus Lanfranchinus…and Aurelius Trebanus…Domizio Calderini wrote in the dedicatory letter to Giuliano de’ Medici that Aurelio had urged him to publish his commentary on Juvenal…Aurelio borrowed Gregory of Nyassa’s Life of Moses, translated by George of Trebizond, from the library of Girolamo Molin in 1458… (pp. 315-316)
Marco Aurelio introduced his son Niccolo into the Doge’s chancery at an early age. By the time of his marriage in 1514 Niccolo was one of the four Secretaries to the Council of Ten. In addition to his other duties, it appears that he was responsible for the public building programs so important in Venice. We know that he signed the contract with Giorgione for the frescoes on the Fondaco dei Tedeschi. Eventually, in 1523 he became Grand Chancellor, the official head of the caste of humanist scribes, and one of the leading figures in the Venetian government. As such he would be present alongside the Doge at all meetings of the Senate and Council. He would function as a kind of Attorney General. 
As long as he held these important positions Niccolo Aurelio would have had no financial worries. His will is evidence that only when he somehow lost the position of Grand Chancellor, normally a lifetime appointment, in 1525 did his finances become precarious. Until then he was a well-placed civil servant of the cittadino class. Neither he nor his descendants would have dreamed of entering or marrying into the patrician class. On the other hand, it would have been unseemly for them to marry beneath themselves. They were like characters in a Jane Austen novel whose range of marital partners was severely limited.
Niccolo Aurelio’s marriage to Laura Bagarotto in 1514 would appear then to have little to do with her dowry. By 1523 his Will indicates that her dowry was completely intact. He allocated 1500 ducats of his own money for the dowry of their young daughter, and had even made substantial improvements to Laura’s properties in Padua at his own expense. Moreover, in his home he also supported his natural son, Marco, as well as the two children of his deceased brother.
Why hadn’t Aurelio married before?  He loved his natural son, but Marco does not appear to have been the result of a long-term relationship with a mistress. After providing for Laura and their daughter, Niccolo left the balance of his possessions to Marco who,
even if illegitimate [naturali], I do not consider or hold to be otherwise than if he were my legitimate son, because he has always been obedient to me; and I am most certain that he comes from my viscera, as can be seen clearly from his appearance and habits…
I suspect that given his elevated status in the narrow caste of humanist scribes and lawyers Aurelio had deliberately avoided marriage until Laura Bagarotto came along. She was a different story. Her father, Bertuccio Bagarotto, had been a renowned professor at the University of Padua. Despite his death in the hysteria following the loss of Padua in the aftermath of the military defeat at Agnadello, the end of the war had led some to believe that his execution had been a travesty of justice.
Bagarotto’s name was finally cleared and in 1519 the Venetian government admitted that his execution had been a mistake. Even so, Venetian humanists believed that character, status and ability were inherited.  The daughter of a famous professor would certainly be a suitable match for Niccolo Aurelio. I expect that one day a student will discover a relationship between Bertuccio Bagarotto and Niccolo's father, the humanist Marco Aurelio.
Subsequent events caused Aurelio to amend his will. In 1525 he was somehow disgraced and lost his position. Despite the drastic change in his fortunes, he still would not touch Laura’s dowry but only stipulated that now most of it would have to be used to dower their daughter. Two years later Laura provided Niccolo with a male heir and wholesale changes were made. According to custom the new son became the principal beneficiary not only of his estate but also of his humanist heritage.
I wish that he, Antonio, be the residual heir of all my property, whether personal or real estate…And being open to learning letters, appearing thus to his mother, have him study either in this land or in Padua…so that he not fall from his [condition] and that he make himself a worthy man, having a great many books as he will find at home. (p. 138)

 *Goffen, Rona: “Titian’s Sacred and Profane Love: Individuality and Sexuality in a Renaissance Marriage Picture ,” in Titian 500. ed. Joseph Manca, Washington, 1993. Pp. 121-147.
**Margaret L. King, Venetian Humanism in an Age of Patrician Dominance, Princeton, 1986.
Below are excerpts from the Will taken from "Titian 500"
 Holograph will of Nicolo Aurelio, dated 20 January 1523, with codicils of 26 April 1525 and 28 June 1527.
Jesus Mary. 1523 January 20 in Venice.
I Nicolo Aurelio, Grand chancellor of Venice…have deliberated…that this be my testament and last will. And first, recommending my soul to God Most High and to his glorious mother, the Madonna, Blessed Mary Immaculate Virgin, and to all the celestial court, I want my body to be interred in San Giorgio Maggiore in our [family] tomb,…
I leave to my most dear and beloved consort [Laura] and daughter [Giulietta], aside from her [Laura’s] dowry fund of the property in Lissaro and of Villa Torta in the Padoana, on which property I have spent no small sum of money in buildings and other improvements,…all these buildings and improvements made by me are to be hers [Laura’s] freely, and she can dispose of these as her own, if she does not wish to remarry, and remains a widow, as I deem she would be for doing, given her most honest life, such as she has always led, and the great love she bears for Giulietta, our one and only child. Aside from this, I bequeath her [Laura] all her garments, whether of silk, as of wool, and others which I have had made, and her gold chain, which likewise I have had made, and 100 ducats from my estate, that she have to use and to do with as she pleases. I leave her likewise her pearls that she brought with her when she came to my household….
In the event that my said consort wishes to marry, I want her to have her entire dowry, that is, the property of Lissaro and Villa Torta, in the condition in which they were consigned to me, that is, without walled buildings of any sort, and her pearls, and further that she have all her garments of silk and other which I have had made for her: these I give her. But the stone buildings [constructed] by me…are to remain in my estate, and likewise the gold chain and the 100 ducats, which are to be for Giuietta, my most gentle and only child, for her dowry…Declaring and thus it is my wish that my said consort, remaining a widow, and wishing to remain in this land in company with Marco, my son, in the house where we live, she, my consort, is to have possession of said house together with the said Marco, in that part which belongs to me, as though it were her very own, and she may use all my personal property as she does ands may do while I am alive.
In addition, I leave to the said Giulietta,…1500 ducats of the monies in my estate for her dowry…But because I am most certain, since her mother has no other child but this, she is not going to be found wanting in dowering her honorably…
if he, Francesco, is willing to remain in company with Marco, my son, and with my consort, whom I should have mentioned first, and Giulietta, my most gentle daughter, he and Marietta, his sister, are to have their expenses, as at present, and I want them treated in every regard as though they were my own children, leaving the burden to my most cherished consort to dower Marietta,…if her brother [Francesco] does not have the means to do so.
the balance of my possessions,…I likewise bequeath entirely to the said Marco, my son, whom, even if illegitimate [naturali], I do not consider or hold to be otherwise than if he were my legitimate son, because he has always been obedient to me; and I am most certain that he comes from my viscera, as can be seen clearly from his appearance and habits;…And I order him always to hold my most beloved consort in greatest reverence and respect, being as good a companion to her as if he had been born of her;… 
Codicil: Jesus Mary. 1525 on 26 April in Venice.
It having been my hard lot, and not because of any failing on my part, that my fortune has changed and that in a moment I have lost all my efforts and vigilance sustained by me since I was a child in serving this most excellent state,…
Codicil: 1527 on June 28.
Because it has pleased our Lord God to concede to me a little son by my wife, to whom I have given the name Antonio in memory of my deceased brother Antonio, 137
[to Marco] I wish that every year of thy life…that thou will have this office, that thou must give half of the earnings that thou will receive from that office to my said consort and to my other children for their subsistence…138…knowing my said consort to be prudent and wise and that she knows very well how to submit to the adversities of this world…
I wish that he, Antonio, be the residual heir of all my property, whether personal or real estate…And being open to learning letters, appearing thus to his mother, have him study either in this land or in Padua…so that he not fall from his [condition] and that he make himself a worthy man, having a great many books as he will find at home.
Goffen, Rona: “Titian’s Sacred and Profane Love: Individuality and Sexuality in a Renaisance Marriage Picture ,” in Titian 500. ed. Joseph Manca, Washington, 1993. Pp. 121-147.


Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Giorgione: "Virgilian" Tempest 2

Recently I received a response from Dr. Rudolph Schier to my critique of his interpretation of the Tempest. Instead of showing it as a comment to my original post of 1/11/2011, I have decided to reprise the original post here and follow with his full list of itemized comments. His remarks will appear in italics.

In my interpretation of Giorgione's "Tempest" as the "Rest on the Flight into Egypt," I did not address the many other interpretations. Not only did I want to concentrate on the actual painting, but also I believed that all the other interpretations had already been demolished by other learned scholars. As I said in my paper, not one interpretation remains standing. However, I decided to use "Giorgione et al" to post critiques of a few recent interpretations.

Below find my critique of Dr. Schier's interpretation that appeared in "Renaissance Studies" in 2008.

In Rudolf Schier’s “Giorgione Tempesta, a Virgilian Pastoral,” (Renaissance Studies, 22, Issue 4, 2008, pp. 476-506) we have another attempt to find the subject of the Tempesta in the writings of a Roman poet. Schier argues that the source of the Tempesta can be found in the Eclogues of Virgil, specifically the 1st and the 4th.

In his paper Schier takes issue with other scholars but his own interpretation has serious omissions. Most importantly, Schier fails to explain the nudity of the Woman of the Tempesta. He also does not even attempt to discuss the white cloth draped over her shoulder, or the plant prominently featured right in front of her.

Schier’s interpretation centers on the Man in the painting who he claims is the poet/shepherd of the Eclogues. For him the disparity between the simple shirt and jacket of the Man, and his fancy leggings indicates that Giorgione was making reference to the poet/shepherd represented in the Eclogues. I don’t think he does such a good job in this respect. First of all, it has been pointed out that the leggings are the dress of contemporary young Venetian patricians, and not that of a poet. Moreover, the Man is holding a staff and not a shepherd’s crook. Also, the Man in the Tempesta is young and virile but, as Schier himself points out, the shepherd of the 1st Eclogue is an old man.

Schier maintains that the Woman and Child represent a “vision” of the poet based on the famous reference in the 4th Eclogue to a virgin giving birth to a son destined for great things. To portray the vision Giorgione “deconstructs” the traditional image of the Madonna of Humility into a Pagan virgin. Like others he sees the Madonna in the painting but can’t believe that Giorgione would actually portray her in such fashion.

Besides his failure to deal with the “nudity” of the Woman, Schier seems to imply that in the poet’s “vision” she has just given birth. Yet the Child in the Tempesta is obviously not a newborn. He supports himself upright, something a newborn could not do, while nursing at his mother’s breast.

Schier views the other elements in the painting in a similar complex fashion. The broken columns are first a sign that the poet is in “Arcadia,” but later come to symbolize the passing of the Pagan world and the coming of the Christian. He disputes Paul Kaplan’s identification of the city in the background and claims it is Jerusalem rather than Padua. But what does Jerusalem have to do with Virgil? He also disputes Kaplan’s dating of 1509 on questionable stylistic grounds.

Finally, Schier includes a long discussion of the bathing woman in the underpainting. He regards her as a Roman fertility goddess mentioned in the Eclogues but removed by Giorgione because the Woman in the painting had already given birth. It is strange that he gives such attention to this “pentimento” while completely omitting any discussion of the other “pentimento,” the man on the bridge carrying a pilgrim’s sack over his shoulder.

Schier is obviously well versed in his Virgil but his whole essay is based on the “assumption” that Giorgione’s knowledge of the Roman classic was as good as his own. Like so many other scholars, Schier views the young Giorgione more as an art historian or humanist scholar than as an artist. There is no evidence that Giorgione knew Virgil or Lucretius.

Below find Dr. Schier's response.

I appreciate your interest in my article, though I find it disappointing that you concentrate exclusively on omissions and unexplained items. I don't think that there exists a single interpretation of any painting (including yours on your website which of course I have seen) where one could not find items that were left unexplained for the sake of conciseness and readability. Nevertheless, I shall respond at least briefly to each one of the items you list, though some would need a more detailed reply. In some cases the explanation is already in the article itself, and I shall then only refer you to the page of the article.

-- Nudity: Giorgione's picture derives its strength from the contrast between the young man and the nearly naked female. I argue that she is a vision which the young man has, and the maximum disparity between them is intended to make this clear. The poet-shepherd is located in reality and dressed accordingly, the woman is not. Moreover, in visions, as in dreams, especially when young men are dreaming or having a vision of a woman, they more often than not see them in the nude.

-- White cloth: Common to visions and dreams is the fact that elements of the seer's reality are incorporated in them. The white cloth mirrors and contrasts with the young man's red cloak: it has the same shape and is draped over the woman's shoulders in the same way his cloak is on his shoulders. It reinforces the fact that she is the poet-shepherd's vision.

-- As for the remark that she would have had enough time to get some better clothes: the ten months of weariness refer to the woman's pregnancy, not to the months after the birth.

-- In the fourth eclogue the vision is of a child at several stages of development, and not of a newly born baby. Even new-born babies at the time were rarely depicted the way a new-born baby looks in reality..

-- The plant has its origin in lines 18-20 of the fourth eclogue and is either a valerian or hog weed. Its function is to cover the woman's private parts, common in paintings of this and other periods, e.g. Masaccio's Expulsion of Adam and Eve.

-- Leggings: I discuss this in detail on p. 483, second paragraph.

-- Staff without crook: See footnote 24 and also several pictures in Settis's book.

-- Young and virile man vs. the old shepherd in eclogue one. I specifically explain that the painting does not relate to the first eclogue but to the fourth. The first illustrates the setting and the structure (see p. 492). The poet-shepherd of eclogue four is young; see line 53.

-- Pentimento "pilgrim" on the bridge. This man is not a pilgrim but goes back to Meliboes of the first eclogue, who was forced into exile. He was eliminated when Giorgione moved from the first to the fourth. (This would need a more detailed explanation).

-- Kaplan: I do not dispute Kaplan on stylistic gounds but for historical reasons (see p. 490).

-- Arcadia and the passing to Christianity: there is no contradiction here. The point is that the Arcadian columns are disintegrating.

-- Jerusalem ties in with the half-Christian allusions in the picture, especially with the birth of the Christ child.

-- As for Giorgione's knowledge of Virgil, see p. 479.

I believe this responds to all of the items you list and I hope that you will be convinced by these answers.


Rudolf Schier

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Giorgione, Titian and the Fondaco dei Tedeschi

In a paper that I put on my website on September 9, 2011, I argued that the two woman in Titian’s famous “Sacred and Profane Love” are both Mary Magdalen but in two separate guises.The “Sacred and Profane Love” might not have been Titian’s first attempt to portray Mary Magdalen in her two guises. In 1508-9 the young Titian worked with Giorgione on the exterior frescoes of the Fondaco dei Tedeschi, the vital center of the German commercial community in Venice that had been recently rebuilt after a fire in January of 1505.

Titian: 'Sacred and Profane Love' (probably 1514-5). Oil on canvas, 118x 279 cm. Rome, Galleria Borghese.

In 2001 Paul Joannides noticed the similarity of one of Titian's frescoes, now lost, to the "Sacred and Profane Love." Joannides thought it strange that a 17th century copy made by Antonio Zanetti of the Fondaco figures was related to a depiction of Judith,

"This seems to mean that the two figures, one certainly, the other probably, nude were placed above the Judith, and thus above the cornice. Zanetti's wording is ambiguous since his print contains at least part of the second figure... Indeed, it may be that this passage has been confused by some misprint. If, however, the two women were placed directly above the Judith it is evident that significant figural decoration continued into the storey above her-if only in the center, of the fa├žade-and it is probable that the figures embodied some meaning, since they would have been seen in conjunction with Judith. The nude, apparently pointing upwards, might have represented hope; the other, looking down perhaps to children, possibly Charity--but this is to reach the limits of the speculative."*

If the two women in the “Sacred and Profane Love” are seen as Mary Magdalen, there would be little need to speculate about the reason why one of the most famous woman of the Old Testament might have been placed below a famous one of the New Testament. Moreover, just like Mary Magdalen, Judith dressed herself in her most alluring garb in order to seduce her victim.

In the "Sacred and Profane Love" The fully clothed woman is Mary Magdalen depicted as a Venetian courtesan in the process of contemplating the spiritual opportunity that Jesus has presented to her.

The semi-nude woman is the penitent Magdalen perhaps in the first moments of her conversion. She holds in her hand the jar of oil or ointment that is the almost universal sign of Mary Magdalen. Once the two women are identified all the other pieces in this puzzling painting fall into place.

The two heads in Zanetti’s etching do resemble the two women in the “Sacred and Profane Love.” It would also be interesting to speculate on the contribution of Giorgione and the Fondaco frescos to Titian’s painting. Giorgione did the section that faced the Canal but Titian did the section that faced the Merceria. Years later Vasari related the story of Giorgione’s chagrin when friends told him that his work on the Merceria side was even better than his work on the Canal section. There might have been more than jealousy behind Giorgione’s chagrin.

In his study of Titian’s early years, Joannides argued that in 1508/9 the young Titian still was deficient in drawing skills. As a result it is hard to imagine him with the skill necessary for the intonaco work of a fresco cycle. Despite the praise heaped on Titian’s section, I believe that Giorgione was responsible for the whole iconographical scheme of the Fondaco and did the necessary drawings either of the cartoons or the actual intonaco. Titian merely had to do the final painting, a task often left to assistants.

The Fondaco project was a huge success. Today we have only a few remnants as well as some later engravings, but the large classical figures depicted in brilliant colors must have awed and inspired artists and spectators for years. A panel of distinguished elder painters agreed that the parsimonious Venetian government should pay Giorgione the full 150 ducats he had contracted for. Titian was never mentioned in the contract. It would appear that he was a sub-contractor hired by Giorgione.

Titian’s painting and the Fondaco figures might have had the same patron. The discovery of the coat of arms of Niccolo Aurelio on the sarcophagus/fountain in the 19th century definitely established the connection of that Venetian official to the “Sacred and Profane Love.” According to Paul Joannides, Niccolo Aurelio

was also involved, naturally, with the Serenissima's artistic policies: he signed the payment order to Giorgione for the frescoes on the Fondaco dei Tedeschi. It could be that he had some responsibility for planning Giorgione's (and Titian's) schemes, but whether or not this is so, Niccolo must have been in contact with both Giorgione and Titian and would have been in a position to order works from them.

I discuss Niccolo Aurelio and his bride, Laura Bagarotto, in the paper referenced above. A very full account of the couple can be found in Rona Goffen's "Titian's Women."

*Paul Joannides: Titian to 1518, 2001, pp. 66-67. All quotes from Joannides are from this source.