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, May 31, 2012

Giorgione: Trial of Moses and Judgment of Solomon

This post includes two paintings usually attributed to Giorgione in the early stages of his career. The first is the "Trial of Moses" and the second is the "Judgment of Solomon." I include references from three recent catalogs as well as from a recent major study.

Trial of Moses, Oil on panel, 89x72 cm, Florence, Uffizi

Judgment of Solomon, Oil on panel, 89x72 cm, florence, Uffizi.

In her 1997 catalog Jaynie Anderson placed the “Trail of Moses” and the “Judgment of Solomon” at the very outset of Giorgione’s career.*

Of all the paintings attributed to the youthful Giorgione, these have the best claim to be considered his earliest works, dating c. 1496, shortly after his apprenticeship with Bellini ended.

Unlike some previous scholars, Anderson believed that the works were not the result of a collaboration.

scientific investigation of the panels does not reveal any disjunctures that would be proof of joint collaboration. Thus the uneven characterization of the figures could reflect the inexperience of a youthful artist….

Two years later Teriseo Pignatti and Filippo Pedrocco also attributed the paintings to Giorgione but noted that they had variously been given to Giovanni Bellini, Giulio Campagnola, Romanino, Rocco Marconi, Costa, and Vincenzo Catena, Giorgione’s one-time associate. They placed the paintings a little later in Giorgione’s career and labeled them number 9 and 10 in their catalog.**

In our opinion these paintings are Giorgione’s first authentic landscapes after his initial attempts that were more closely tied to Northern models.

However, in his 2007 Giorgione catalog Wolfgang Eller gave the paintings to Carpaccio with only the heads of the two figures on the platform of the “Trial of Moses” by Giorgione. He was not the first to suggest that more than one artist worked on these panels.***

But in 2009, in his monumental study of Giorgione, Enrico Maria dal Pozzolo definitely gave the paintings to Giorgione but argued that the uneven quality of the work in the two paintings provided evidence that even early in his career the young master employed assistants in his workshop.#

Dal Pozzolo's study included the fullest discussion of the two panels. He noted that “an imitation marble decoration featuring plant motifs” on the reverse of each of the panels indicates their original use.

What we do know for sure is that at some point in time they were employed as shutters for a piece of furniture (hence to be viewed front and back); no doubt two support pieces—then removed—were originally mounted there, and the holes which are visible at one time probably housed hooks and bolts.

Dal Pozzolo also provided a series of magnificent images including a close up of the mysterious relief on the throne of the Egyptian pharaoh in the “Trial of Moses.”

Fortunately, although there are questions of attribution and dating, there is no uncertainty or ambiguity about the subject of the two panels. Both are religious or sacred subjects with a judicial theme. The story of the “Judgment of Solomon” is well known from Scripture but the “Trial of Moses” comes from a Jewish legend that became popular in medieval Christianity.

The subject of the Moses panel is taken from an apocryphal story told in the Midrash Rabbah as well as in other Jewish sources….It was frequently repeated and elaborated on in medieval Christian writing and illustrated in the Biblia Pauperum….*

Dal Pozzolo’s study includes a full discussion of both stories as well as their artistic representation around 1500. In the “Trial of Moses” the child is put to a test because of a playful prank. He had taken Pharaoh’s hat and thrown it to the ground, an action that could be seen to be full of symbolic significance. As a result he must choose between the plate full of red-hot embers or the one full of gold coins. According to the legend he chose the embers and actually placed one on his tongue, the cause of the speech defect noted in the Book of Exodus.

The story of the “Judgment of Solomon” is much more famous and dal Pozzolo gives a very full account.  Solomon is on the right sitting on his judgment seat giving the order to cut the child in half. The bad mother stands in the center her gesture agreeing with Solomon’s. Her deceased infant is at her feet. The good mother kneels and surrenders her child in order to save its life.

Scholars have pointed out the importance of landscape in both these paintings. Rather than in a palace or a temple the figures in the foreground are out of doors. For some reason they have left the city in the background behind, a feature that Giorgione would use in his undisputed works.

Also, in these two panels great pains have been taken to dress the young men in contemporary Venetian finery including fashionable codpieces.  Giorgione most notably used this type of attire for the young man standing guard over the woman in the Tempest.

The relief on the judgment seats in both panels remains inexplicable but Titian would later employ a similar device in two of his most famous paintings. The wikipedia entry allows one to zoom in but dal Pozzolo’s full page reproduction provides the best view I have seen.###

*Anderson, Jaynie: Giorgione, 1997, catalog entry.

**Pignatti, Terisio and Pedrocco, Filippo: Giorgione, Rizzoli, NY, 1999, catalog entry.

***Eller, Wolfgang: Giorgione Catalog Raisonne, Petersberg, 2007, catalog entry listed under paintings not attributable to Giorgione.

#Dal Pozzolo, Enrico Maria: Giorgione, Milan, 2009, pp. 126-144.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Bellini, Titian, Lotto

On May 15, 2012 a new exhibition opened at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, entitled “Bellini, Titian, Lotto: North Italian Paintings from the Academia Carrara, Bergamo.”

My wife and I visited the exhibition on opening day and found it to be a fine but modest offering housed in a relatively small room. Though limited to one room, the room is right in the middle of the Met’s great collection of Renaissance art, and so it is easy to place these paintings in a broader context.

The title of the exhibition is a little misleading. There is only one painting, a Pieta, by Giovanni Bellini although many of the others showed his influence. Moreover, the only Titian is a very small version of the story of Orpheus and Euridice. The catalog calls it a very early Titian but admits that the attribution is questionable.

The real star of the show is Lorenzo Lotto with four representative works. The first three are predella pieces separated in the nineteenth century from his magnificent altarpiece that was originally in Bergamo’s church of Saints Stephen and Dominic, but that is now in the church of St. Bartholomew. One piece depicts a story from the life of St. Dominic while another depicts the stoning of St. Stephen. In the middle is an Entombment that, like the others, exhibits the life, emotion, and vivacity that Lotto brought to all of his work. These predella pieces are also full of naturalistic detail including very detailed contemporary costumes.

Lotto is also represented by a portrait of Lucina Brembati, a granddame from Bergamo, in all her finery. The exhibition catalog quotes Bernard Berenson’s appraisal of Lotto’s portraits. "They all have the interest of personal confessions. Never before or since has any one brought out on the face more of the inner life."

Lorenzo Lotto
Portrait of Lucina Brembati

However, the exhibition also serves to introduce the viewer to some lesser-known artists who were working in Northern Italy at the time of Bellini, Giorgione, and Titian. Vincenzo Foppa is represented by the “The Three Crosses,” a Crucifixion scene  of the mid fifteenth century that demonstrates a remarkable use of perspective.

There are two religious works by the Milanese painter styled Bergonone including a very striking nursing Madonna from around 1485. Also represented are Bartolomeo Montagna, Giovanni Cariani, Moretto da Brescia, Andrea Previtali, and Giovanni Battista Moroni. Most of their contributions are sacred subjects but there are also a few outstanding portraits.

Previtali, for example, combined a sacred subject with two very realistic portraits of the Bergamo donors in “Madonna and Child with Saints Paul and Agnes, and Paolo and Agnese Casotti.”

All the paintings are on loan from Bergamo’s Accademia Carrara currently in the midst of renovations that will be completed in 2013. In the catalog, M. Cristina Rodeschini, the Head of the Accademia Carrara, provided an overview of the storied history of the collection including the contribution of Giovanni Morelli, one of the great figures in the nineteenth century revival of interest in the art of the Renaissance.

Andrea Bayer, who participated with Dr. Rodeschini in putting the exhibition together, also contributed essays on the history of the Museum, as well as on the individual paintings in the Met exhibition.  Her introduction should make anyone want to visit Bergamo and the Accademia Carrara after the completion of the renovation in 2013.
Arriving at the Accademia Carrara is a memorable experience, especially if traveling to Bergamo by train from Milan. Greeted upon arrival by the lower part of the town, the visitor follows a route past the historic Teatro Donizetti before beginning the climb toward the great medieval neighborhood of Bergamo Alta perched on the hills above. Along the way, one passes a number of the city’s most important churches, home to some of Lorenzo Lotto’s greatest paintings, as well as the twisting Via Pignolo, lined by noble Renaissance palaces. Finally, the great fortifying walls of the upper city appear, and there on an irregular piazza stands the neoclassical building that houses the city’s extraordinary art collections, the result of more than two hundred years of collecting and a direct outgrowth of the local culture embodied in these very streets, churches and homes. ###

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Titian: Sacred and Profane Love

My wife and I first saw Titian’s Sacred and Profane Love on a visit to the famed Borghese Gallery in Rome in the spring of 2010. We were in Rome for a few days at the end of a journey that had begun in Venice where I delivered my paper on Giorgione’s Tempest at the annual meeting of the Renaissance Society of America.

After the conference we visited Florence and Orvieto and wound up in Rome to complete our journey. However, once in Rome we discovered that we were among the multitude stranded there because an eruption of a volcano in Iceland had shut down most air travel from Europe. It was a nerve-wracking experience but we were in a lovely hotel not far from the Spanish Steps and the Pantheon. We had no choice but to enjoy a few extra days in Rome.

So one day my wife suggested we visit the Borghese, a site that due to my ignorance we had never visited before. The Villa Borghese is located in a huge beautiful park right across the street from the fashionable Via Veneto. Even though a sign at the door said sold out, we entered and had no trouble gaining admission.
In 1909 Edward Hutton, an Englishman who would go on to spend most of his life in Italy, introduced the Borghese in this fashion.*
The Villa was built in the early years of the seventeenth century by Cardinal Scipione Borghese…and was bought, with its magnificent collection of pictures, and beautiful gardens and parks, by the Italian government for 144000 lira, much less than its real value, in 1901.

Fifty years later Giorgina Masson gave this overview.
the chief glory of the villa, however, lies in its park and gardens, which have a circumference of nearly four miles and contain a riding school, an amphitheatre, a lake, an aviary and fountains. ‘Classical’ temples and ruins are dotted here and there among the shady walks of the great boschi of ilex. In assembling so many diverse buildings within the compass of one vast part it is tempting to think that perhaps Cardinal Scipione intended to create a villa on the lines of that of the Emperor Hadrian at Tivoli.**
Walking through the park was a beautiful experience but we had come to see the collection within the Gallery. We were not disappointed. The collection of statuary on the first floor was incredible including famous works by Bernini and Canova. However, it was the second floor that blew us away. I share the feelings of Edward Hutton expressed over a 100 years ago.
But it is really the Gallery of Pictures which calls for our wonder and admiration, since it is, perhaps, the finest private collection of the Italian masterpieces of the sixteenth century anywhere to be found….
the true glory of the gallery consists not only, or even chiefly, in the work of Raphael, but in three works by the greatest master of that or any other period, Titian, who is represented by three pictures, the first belonging to his youth, the others to his old age.... 
The Sacred and Porfane Love, painted about 1512 for Niccolo Aurelio, Grand Chancellor of Venice, is the highest achievement of Titian’s art at the end of his Giorgionesque period. It has been in this collection since 1613, when it was called…’Beauty unadorned and Beauty adorned.’ In fact, the name it now bears, which has so puzzled the world, does not occur till the end of the eighteenth century, when it seems to have been given it by the Germans. For us, at least, it can have no authority, the subject of the picture being merely a moment of beauty,--a moment gone, but for Titian’s genius, while we try to apprehend, in the golden summer heat, under the trees by a fountain of water….
No photograph or digital image can do justice to the Sacred and Profane Love. It is over nine feet long and seems to take up almost an entire wall in one of the largest rooms. I think that Hutton was right on when he described the subject of the painting as a “moment of beauty.” That is certainly the first impression when looking at the two beautiful female figures in the equally beautiful landscape. Titian’s coloration is also overwhelming.

However, I distinctly recall turning to my wife and saying, “It’s Mary Magdalen.” Why? I still don’t know. Nevertheless, after we finally got home, I began to think more and more of the iconographic symbols in the painting, and to do a little research on the Magdalen. I discovered that as in the case of the Tempest, there was no agreement among scholars about the subject of the famous painting. Moreover, recent scholarly studies of Mary Magdalen in history and art provided much material for a Magdalen interpretation.

It took a few months to do the research and to write a first draft that was very kindly reviewed by some art history blogger friends. Eventually, I put the paper on my website and guest posted a condensed version on the popular art history blog, Three Pipe Problem.  *** Earlier this year I presented the paper in New Orleans at the annual meeting of the South Central Renaissance conference. Attempts to publish the paper in a scholarly journal have so far been unsuccessful.

Sometimes I worry that interpreting beautiful paintings like the Tempest and the Sacred and Profane Love as “sacred” or “religious” subjects might lessen the reverence that these paintings have enjoyed in both the scholarly world and in the popular imagination. For years people have loved these paintings. Part of the allure has been the mystery and enigma that has always surrounded them. Moreover, in today’s secular society would a “sacred” subject turn people off? 

I hope not. To me it is the mark of genius to be able to produce beauty that will be admired even by those who don’t see the paintings in the same way that devout contemporary Venetians might have. I know that the Sacred and Profane Love was not originally meant to be hung in the Borghese Gallery but seeing it there in that magnificent setting will always be an unforgettable experience.

In 1909 a young Edward Hutton summed up the experience and fifty years later in the seventh edition of his “Rome” his opinion of the Borghese was the same.
But, after all, what we have come here to see is the Sacred and Profane Love, by Titian, and that will lead us, not from picture to picture in a sudden enthusiasm for painting, but most certainly back again into the gardens, where the world is so sleepily golden in the heat, and the shade so cool and grateful. There we shall linger till, from the faraway city, the Ave Mary rings from all the cupolas, and we must return down the long alleys in the softly fading light, stealing softly, half reluctantly, out of the world of dreams back into the streets and the ways of men. ###

*Edward Hutton, “Rome”, New York, 1909, pp. 330-333.
**Giorgina Masson, “Italian Villas and Palaces,” London, 1966, pp. 248-9.
*** Note, 5/5/2017: Three Pipe Problem no longer exists due to the unfortunate and untimely death of its creator, Hasan Nyazi.