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?
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?
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.