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, February 22, 2012

Giorgione: More Tempests

Giorgione’s most famous painting is called the “Tempest” because of the storm that dominates the background. Why did Giorgione use this device? Was it his own invention or did he rely on a motif common during his time? Are there other examples?

Giorgione: TheTempest

Three years after Giorgione’s untimely death in 1510, his younger associate Titian, who had worked with him on the fresco cycle on the Fondaco dei Tedeschi received a commission from the Venetian government to paint a battle scene for one of the rooms in the Ducal palace. Here is Carlo Ridolfi’s account from his biography of Titian written in the mid seventeenth century.
It was then decreed by the senate that he should paint for the Sala del Gran Consiglio the armed encounter at Cadore between the imperial troops and the Venetians. In this work, he imagined the natural site of his hometown with the castle situated above on a high mountain where the flash from a lightning bolt in the form of an arrow is suspended and misty globes in the manner of clouds are forming, mixed among the terrors of the unexpected tempest; meanwhile the battlefield is obstructed by the horrible conflict of knights and foot-soldiers, some of whom were defending with their rapiers the imperial flag, stirred by the wind and boldly moving in the air.*
Titian: Battle of Cadore (engraving)

The editors of a modern translation of Ridolfi note that Titian’s painting was begun between 1513 and 1516 but that it was only completed in 1537-8. The also point out that the painting was destroyed by fire in 1577 and that Ridolfi was confused about the subject, since the battle depicted was a legendary battle of Spoleto in which Venetian forces did not take part.
Nevertheless, either the painting was described to Ridolfi or he saw an engraving made before the fire. Despite the confusion about the subject, there seems no reason to doubt that shortly after Giorgione’s death Titian used a storm and a bolt of lightning to indicate a scene of violent death and destruction taking place below.
Joachim Patenier was another contemporary of Giorgione. In one of his many versions of the “Rest on the Flight into Egypt”, now in the Prado and dated around 1515, Patenier painted a storm in the left background above the city from which the Holy family had fled. The narrative follows their route since we see the legendary wheat field in the right mid-ground. The field is bathed in light and the sky above is blue with a couple of white clouds. The Madonna and Child sit in the foreground also bathed in bright sunlight.
Joachim Patenier: Rest on the Flight into Egypt

The stormy clouds in the background above the city indicate another scene of death and destruction. This time it is not a battle but the Massacre of the Holy Innocents. It was not uncommon to see some reference to the Massacre in versions of the flight into Egypt.
Finally, although not a painting, Pietro Aretino’s gave a very vivid image of the scene of the Crucifixion in his “Humanity of Christ.”
Meanwhile the darkness which had lasted from the sixth hour to the ninth, grew so black that it seemed day had hidden beneath the cloak of night. The clouds driving through the air and obscuring vision resembled a thousand banners of vast size arrayed against the eye of the sun. The sky itself groaned in unprecedented horror. The pallid lightning flashed. The very globe appeared about to dissolve in mist.**
Once again dark clouds interspersed with lightning cover a scene of death and destruction. Could Tintoretto have been aware of Aretino’s description?
Tintoretto: Crucifixion

Aretino’s popular religious work was written twenty five years after the death of Giorgione but the origins of his imagery can be found much earlier. In 1538 Aretino quarreled with Niccolo Franco, one of his many hangers on, and threw him out of his house. In his biography of Aretino James Cleugh printed Franco’s letter justifying his behavior.
The Aretine cannot say I am ungrateful’—he wrote to the scholar Francesco Alunno,…’for even though I admit he sometimes fed me, he cannot deny that I repaid this courtesy sevenfold by the work I did for him. Everyone knows that if it had not been for me he would not have had the skill to translate all those legends of the Holy fathers which he embroiders and passes off as his own.*** 
It would appear that many of the details in Aretino’s “Humanity of Christ” came from earlier but now forgotten popular religious works.
In each of these three examples a storm signals a tragedy going on below. I have argued that in the “Tempest” Giorgione's painted a version of the “Rest on the Flight into Egypt” where he used the storm and lightning for much the same purpose. Just as in Patinier’s painting Giorgione's Madonna and Child rest in bright sunlight while the storm rages over the city of Bethlehem in the background.
Moreover, in my interpretation I agreed with those who had argued that the city in the background of Giorgione’s painting could also be Padua during the War of the League of Cambrai. In 1509 Padua had been lost, retaken, but then besieged by Imperial forces over the summer. The storm of war was indeed over the city.
Scholars should consider looking for the source of the storm not in antiquity or humanist tracts but in popular vernacular religious stories. They might also consider the theatrical performances so popular in Italy during this time.
On a visit to her home town of Ferrara in 1503 Isabella d’Este, the famed Marchioness of Mantua, attended an elaborate dramatization at the Archbishop’s house on the occasion of the feast of the Annunciation. She wrote,
I…saw the wooden stage which had been erected for the occasion. A young Angel spoke the argument of the play, quoting the words of the Prophets who foretold the Advent of Christ, and the said Prophets appeared, speaking their prophecies translated into Italian verse. Then Mary appeared, under a portico supported by eight pillars, and began to repeat some verses from the Prophets, and while she spoke, the sky opened, revealing a figure of God the Father, surrounded by a choir of angels, and six other seraphs hovered in the air, suspended by chains. On the center of the group was the Archangel Gabriel, to whom God the Father addressed His word, and after receiving his orders, Gabriel descended with admirable artifice, and stood, half-way in the air, at the same height as the organ. Then, all of a sudden, an infinite number of lights broke out at the foot of the angel-choir, and hid them in a blaze of glory…At that moment the Angel Gabriel alighted on the ground, and the iron chain  which he held was not seen, so that he seemed to float down on a cloud, until his feet rested on the floor. After delivering his message he returned with the other angels to heaven, to the sound of singing and music and melody…when they had ascended into heaven, some scenes of the Visitation of St. Elizabeth and St. Joseph were given, in which the heavens opened again and an angel descended,…to manifest the Incarnation of Jesus to Joseph, and set his doubts to rest regarding the Conception of the Holy Virgin. So the festa ended. #
One can only imagine what special effects they might have used in celebrations of the Adoration of the Magi, or the Massacre of the Innocents.
It could also be that Giorgione and Titian were both just painting from nature. In all my years I have never heard a thunderstorm so violent and dramatic as the one I witnessed on a visit to beautiful Lake Garda a few years ago. All night long lightning flashed and thunder reverberated back and forth through the foothills of the Dolomites not far from the respective birthplaces of both Giorgione and Titian. ###

*Ridolfi, Carlo: The Life of Titian, edited by Julia Conaway Bondanella and Peter Bondanella, Bruce Cole, and Jody Robin Shiffman, Penn State, 1996, p. 75.This biography of Titian was part of a larger work, “Le Maraviglie dell’arte ovvero le vite degli illustri pittori veneti e dello stato,” originally printed in 1648.

**Quoted in Cleugh, James: The Divine Aretino, NY, 1966, p. 196-7.

***Cleugh, p. 174.

# Cartwright, Julia, Isabella D’Este, Marchioness of Mantua, 1474-1539, London, 1932, v.1, p. 251.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Duccio: Maesta

Here is just a brief post to direct readers to a wonderful exposition of Duccio's Maesta that David Orme has put up recently on his website at art threads. Just click on the Duccio section and you will be able to scroll through all the panels on both the front and rear of the famed altarpiece.

In addition to the depiction of the Madonna and Child, the front panels depict scenes from the life of Mary. The focus of the rear is the Passion and Death of Christ with panels depicting scenes from the life of Christ with emphasis on the Passion narrative.

David, a professed agnostic with a love for Italy and its art, has provided the relevant scriptural passages as well as brief comments.

This site is devoted to Giorgione and the Venetian Renaissance but I couldn't resist the opportunity to draw attention to David's work on Siena's famous Maesta, an altarpiece that I now see ranks right up there with Giotto's work in Padua's Scrovegni chapel.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Giorgione, Titian, and Anna Jameson

I am not ashamed to admit that I have used the writings of Anna Jameson, a now neglected nineteenth century English writer on Renaissance art, in my studies of Giorgione and Titian. First of all, I love the vivacity of her style. Here she is deploring the varied attempts to depict Mary Magdalen.
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 Ariadnes; and Bolognese Magdalenes like sentimental Niobes; and French Magdalenes, moitie galantes, moitie devotes; and Dutch Magdalenes, who wring their hands like repentant washerwomen. The Magdalenes of Rubens remind us of the ‘unfortunate Miss Bailey;’ and the Magdalenes of Vandyck are fine ladies who have turned Methodists.*

This passage also illustrates the depth and breadth of her knowledge. Mrs. Jameson was an Englishwoman whose life resembled that of a character from a Jane Austen novel. Her father was an educated man but of no great means. She made a bad marriage that quickly fell apart, and had to turn to writing to support herself. She had a great interest in the art of the Renaissance and fortunately somehow managed to travel extensively on the Continent.

A reading of her two major works, “Sacred and Legendary Art,” and “Legends of the Madonna,” makes it clear that she saw an extraordinary number of paintings on her travels, and that she managed in an age before digital cameras and laptops to retain an incredible amount of knowledge. From her writings it is clear that she had a keen eye for observation; an encyclopedic knowledge of the legends and stories that formed the basis of most Renaissance art; and a great flair for descriptive writing.  Here is her description of a Giorgione masterpiece that is now known as “The Three Philosophers.” 

“I must mention a picture by Giorgione in the Belvedere Gallery, well known as one of the few undoubted productions of that rare and fascinating painter, and often referred to because of its beauty. Its significance has hitherto escaped all writers on art, as far as I am acquainted with them, and has been dismissed as one of his enigmatical allegories. It is called in German, Die Feldmasser (the Land Surveyors), and sometimes styled in English the Geometricians, or the Philosophers, or the Astrologers. …I have myself no doubt that this beautiful picture represents the “three wise men of the East,” watching on the Chaldean hills the appearance of the miraculous star…” (332)

Her interpretation, which is shared by some prominent art historians today, shows not only her knowledge and appreciation of Giorgione and his work but also her familiarity with the ancient stories and legends so popular during the Renaissance. Even in her time these legends had been largely forgotten.  In her introduction to “Sacred and Legendary Art” she wrote,

It is curious, this general ignorance with regard to the subjects of Medieval Art, more particularly now that it has become a reigning fashion among us. We find no such ignorance with regard to the subjects of classical Art, because the associations connected with them form a part of every liberal education….(8)
In the old times the painters of these legendary scenes and subjects could always reckon on certain associations and certain sympathies in the minds of the spectators. We have outgrown these associations, we repudiate these sympathies. We have taken these works from their consecrated localities, in which they once held their dedicated place, and we have hung them in our drawing-rooms and our dressing-rooms, over our pianos and our sideboards—and now what do they say to us?...can they speak to us of nothing save flowing lines and correct drawing and gorgeous color? (9)

It was only in her work that I was able to find the story of the encounter of the Holy Family with robbers on the flight into Egypt. This story formed the basis for my interpretation of a lost Giorgione that scholars today still persist in calling the “Discovery of Paris.”

Jameson attributed this scholarly blindness to the prejudice engendered by the Reformation. Speaking of the legends of the Medieval church she wrote,

This form of hero-worship has become, since the Reformation, strange to us—as far removed from our sympathies and associations as if it were antecedent to the fall of Babylon and related to the religion of Zoroaster, instead of being left but two or three centuries behind us, and closely connected with the faith of our forefathers and the history of civilization and Christianity. (1)
Our puritanical ancestors chopped off the heads of Madonnas and Saints, and paid vagabonds to smash the storied windows of our cathedrals;--now, are these rejected and outraged shapes of beauty coming back to us, or are we not rather going back to them? (6)

She insisted that the legends were “an intense expression of the inner life of the Middle Ages”…”and that the art of the renaissance could not be properly understood without them.” (2) She bemoaned the prejudice of her own time.

It is about a hundred years since the passion, or the fashion, for collecting works of Art began to be generally diffused among the rich and noble of this land; and it is amusing to look back and to consider the perversions and affectations of the would-be connoisseurship during this period;…any inquiry into the true spirit and significance of works of Art, as connected with the history of Religion and Civilization, would have appeared ridiculous—or perhaps dangerous; we should have had another cry of “No Popery,” and Acts of Parliament forbidding the importation of Saints and Madonnas….(7)
She also criticized the art dealers and collectors of her time, and, I suppose, our time.
The very manner in which the names of the painters were pedantically used instead of the name of the subject is indicative of this factitious feeling; the only question at issue was, whether such a picture was a genuine “Raphael”? such another a genuine “Titian”? The spirit of the work—whether that was genuine; how far it was influenced by the faith and the condition of the age which produced it; whether the conception was properly characteristic, and of what it was characteristic—of the subject? or of the school? or of the time?—whether the treatment corresponded to the idea within our own souls, or was modified by the individuality of the artist, or by the received conventionalisms of all kinds? –these are questions which had not then occurred to any one; and I am not sure that we are much wiser even now; yet,… how can we do common justice to the artist, unless we can bring his work to the test of truth? And how can we do this, unless we know what to look for, what was intended as to incident, expression, character?
Today most scholars are unaware of Mrs. Jameson and her work, or think it is hopelessly outdated. As a result most graduate students have never heard her name. Fortunately, I believe that online versions are now available. A reader has informed me that reprints of her books can be found here.

*Anna Brownell Jameson, Sacred and Legendary Art. V. 1, Boston, 1895, pp. 352-3. Unless otherwise noted all references are to this volume with page numbers in parentheses.