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, June 28, 2012

Bellini, Giorgione, Titian bibliography

I would highly recommend the following three short books for anyone interested in the Venetian Renaissance. I have written about them at length in earlier posts but would just like to present a brief overview here.

The authors are Salvatore Settis, one of Italy’s leading art historians and cultural figures and the director of Pisa’s famed Scuola Normale Superiore; the late Rona Goffen, who before her death was one of America’s leading and most prolific historians of Venetian Renaissance art; and John V. Fleming, Professor emeritus of Literature at Princeton University.

Giorgione: Tempest
Accademia, Venice

In researching my interpretation of the Tempest as “The Rest on the Flight into Egypt,” no book has been of greater assistance than “Giorgione’s Tempest,” written by Salvatore Settis in 1990. In his introduction Professor Settis laid down a series of iconographical ground rules that should be used in any interpretation. *

For example,

Interpreting the Tempest means providing “a well documented explanation for each feature, and fitting all together into one persuasive framework. (2)

He argued that the famous painting must be treated like a puzzle and that any interpretation must be sure that all pieces fit, and fit easily without being squeezed into position.

He gave a very comprehensive analysis of practically every interpretation up to 1990 and included a very useful comparison chart. Even though his own very detailed and erudite explanation of the Man and the Woman as Adam and Eve was strongly criticized, his book remains today the most useful starting point for any study of Giorgione and his famous painting.

Titian: Pesaro Altarpiece
Frari, Venice

I owe a great debt to Rona Goffen. When I originally saw the nudity of the woman in the Tempest as Giorgione’s way of depicting the Immaculate Conception of Mary, I just assumed that the doctrine was important in Catholic Italy. However, it was only after a chance encounter with Goffen’s “Piety and Patronage in Renaissance Venice” that I came to realize just how important the Immaculate Conception was in Giorgione’s Venice. **

Goffen wrote many books and articles on the Italian Renaissance but in my opinion “Piety and Patronage in Renaissance Venice” was her best work. Subtitled, “Bellini, Titian and the Franciscans,” she never discussed Giorgione’s “Tempest” but her discussion of the historical background solidified my thoughts about the famous painting. Moreover, she insisted that the art of the Venetian Renaissance could only be understood by attempting to see it through the eyes of contemporary Venetians.

She studied the writings of prominent clerics like Bernardino of Siena, a patron saint of Venice, and Lorenzo Giustiniani, the saintly first Patriarch of Venice, and pointed out the importance, but also the difficulty, of seeing things through their eyes.
Their influence on Venetian piety must have been as pervasive during the Renaissance as it is difficult today to gauge in any precise way. Nevertheless, their thoughts and writings constitute part--a very important part--of the original context of sacred art in Renaissance Venice. One must attempt to reconstruct that context in the historically informed imagination.

In this book Goffen concentrated her attention on the Frari and on its incomparable altarpieces. The dust jacket of her book gives a good summary.

The church of Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari in Venice encapsulates the history of Venetian Renaissance art as well as the histories of a patrician family, a religious order, and a city….All this is embodied in the altarpieces painted for the Frari by two of the greatest masters of Venetian art—Giovanni Bellini and Titian.

Any trip to Venice must include the Frari.

Giovanni Bellini: St. Francis in the Desert
Frick Museum, NY

Finally, I include John V. Flemings study of Giovanni Bellini’s famous “St. Francis in the Desert”, entitled “From Bonaventura to Bellini.” Fleming argued that Bellini followed an iconographical scheme based on a profound understanding of Franciscan spirituality.***

He questioned the prevailing “Stigmatization” interpretation and offered an alternative based on his knowledge of medieval Franciscan texts.

It is a painting full of ideas, ideas much in vogue among serious Christians of the later Middle Ages and almost universally ignored by modern art history. The purpose of my own study is to give some account of these ideas—that is to say, in some fashion to “explain” the painting….the more profound and difficult intention is to suggest some of the ways in which fundamental Franciscan ideas, ideas often by nature more poetic and pictorial than discursive, could find powerful expression in word and image. (5)

He argued that every detail in the painting is there by design, and proceeded in chapter by chapter to present a masterful explanation of all the iconographical elements in the painting: the city in the background, the flora and fauna, the details of the saint’s habitat, and even the tiny chartula tucked in his belt.

He realized that he had to deal with accumulated prejudice.

For critics of a certain viewpoint, the word ‘medieval’ is naughty, , and the suggestion that, for instance, Bellini might have had medieval inspiration in painting a Madonna must be advanced apologetically. By implication, his sources should be pagan and cabbalistic, not scriptural and patristic. (7)

Fleming’s book is a primer on how to look at a Renaissance painting. He did not discuss Giorgione’s Tempest but I was emboldened by his attempt to take on the prevailing interpretations. I also found a degree of similarity between the Tempest and Bellini’s St. Francis. In particular, Fleming’s analysis of the prominent bird in the mid-ground helped me to identify the mysterious bird on the rooftop of Giorgione’s painting.

The book by Settis is still available in paperback. The other two are harder to find. ###

*Salvatore Settis, Giorgione’s Tempest, Interpreting the Hidden Subject, Chicago, 1990.
**Rona Goffen, Piety and Patronage in Renaissance Venice, Yale, 1986.
***John V. Fleming:  From Bonaventure to Bellini, an Essay in Franciscan Exegesis, Princeton, 1982.


Thursday, June 14, 2012

Giorgione and Leonardo

In his famous “Lives of the Most Eminent Painters” Giorgio Vasari claimed a connection between Leonardo da Vinci and Giorgione.

Giorgione had seen certain works from the hand of Leonardo, which were painted with extraordinary softness, and thrown into powerful relief, as is said, by extreme darkness of the shadows, a manner which pleased him so much that he ever after continued to imitate it, and in oil painting approached very closely to the excellence of his model.*[i]

Vasari elaborated on this claim in his biography of Titian which only appeared in the second edition of his “Lives”. He contrasted Giorgione’s work with the work of the Bellini brothers.

But about the year 1507, Giorgione da Castelfranco, not being satisfied with that mode of proceeding, began to give to his works an unwonted softness and relief, painting them in a very beautiful manner; yet he by no means neglected to draw from life, or to copy nature with his colours as closely as he could. And in doing the latter, he shaded with colder or warmer tints as the living object might demand, but without first making a drawing, since he held that to paint with the colours only, without any drawing on the paper, was the best mode of proceeding and more perfectly in accord with the true principles of design.[ii]

Leonardo briefly visited Venice early in the year 1500 after he had been forced to flee Milan following the fall of the House of Sforza. Vasari did not claim that the fifty year old Leonardo met the young Giorgione on that visit or even that they might have seen each others work on that occasion. He traced the influence to about 1507 when Giorgione only saw “certain works from the hand of Leonardo.”

Practically everything Vasari wrote must be taken with a grain of salt. He certainly recognized the genius of Giorgione and claimed that he was one of the inventors of the “modern manner”, but it would have been typical for him to claim that the young Venetian had been influenced by Leonardo, a Florentine.

Nevertheless, Vasari was a painter more than a historian and we must credit him with the ability to detect stylistic similarities in the work of the two masters. But what paintings “by the hand of Leonardo” could Giorgione have seen? Here I would like to discuss the subjects that Leonardo and Giorgione depicted.

In his study of Leonardo, Martin Kemp included a picture gallery of paintings.[iii] It is surprising to find how few works Leonardo actually produced in his long career. Kemp lists twenty-two independent paintings starting with the famous “Annunciation” of 1473-4 done in the Verrocchio studio, to the last painting, “Madonna, Child, St. Anne and a Lamb,” started by Leonardo in 1508 but only completed by 1517.

Interestingly, Vasari’s words about the early Giorgione, that he was a painter of Madonnas and portraits also apply to Leonardo. Obviously both masters worked to satisfy their patrons’ demands for portraits. Leonardo’s portraits of women from Ginerva de Benci (c. 1476-8) to Mona Lisa (c. 1503-1516) are world famous, but the majority of his other works deal with the Madonna.

Madonna and Child with a Carnation

Around 1475-6, not long after the Annunciation in the Verrocchio workshop, Leonardo completed the so-called “Madonna and Child with a Carnation.” According to Kemp, this painting  “shows Leonardo’s first steps in reanimating the genre of the Virgin and Child.” Madonna and Child sit alone inside a room with a landscape perceived through windows. The landscape, according to Kemp, “may reflect his interest in Netherlandish art.”

Benois Madonna

In 1479-80 Leonardo depicted another Madonna and Child, the so-called Benois Madonna, now in the Hermitage.  In this small painting “Leonardo has endowed the relationship between mother and child with new complexity, energy, and intensity of emotional reaction.” Madonna and child are still in an enclosed room. Although there is a window, it is impossible to detect a landscape.

Around the same time Leonardo also began work on a Madonna in profile (“the Madonna Litta”) which would appear to have been completed by his pupil Boltraffio by 1497. In this work the Mother is nursing the child and both are in an enclosed room with a landscape dimly perceived through windows.

Virgin of the Rocks, Louvre

In 1483 the Milanese confraternity of the Immaculate Conception negotiated a commission with Leonardo “for the large sculpted altarpiece in their chapel in San Francesco Grande in Milan, as part of a series of painted components and polychroming by Leonardo and the brothers Evangelista and Giovanni da Predis.” Two versions of this famous painting now known as the “Virgin of the Rocks" are still in existence: one in England’s National Gallery and the other in the Louvre. Kemp described the revolutionary nature of this painting.

the treatment of light, shade, and colour shows how Leonardo reformed their relationship in painting, using tonal description (i.e. the scale between white and black) as the basis of the definition of form.

However, the painting also marked a departure in subject. Madonna and Child have been taken our of the enclosed room and placed right within the landscape with two other figures, the infant John the Baptist and an angel. Rocks is not the right word for this landscape. Leonardo has placed his figures in a cave.

Instead of “Virgin of the Rocks” this painting should be called the “Encounter of the Holy Family with the Infant John the Baptist on the Return from Egypt,” or more simply, “Behold the Lamb of God.” Among the apocryphal legends that grew up around the scriptural mention of a flight into Egypt, was the very popular story of a meeting in the desert between the Holy Family and the Baptist who had also escaped the murderous designs of King Herod. Here is Anna Jameson’s account.

Thus, it is related that among the children whom Herod was bent on destroying, was St. John the Baptist; but his mother Elizabeth fled with him to a desert place, and being pursued by the murderers, “the rock opened by a miracle, and closed upon Elizabeth and her child;” which means, as we may presume, that they took refuge in a cavern, and were concealed within it until the danger was over.[iv]

The story became very popular in the fifteenth century and many artists depicted the meeting that centered around the two young children, a meeting that foreshadowed the meeting years later at the Jordan River when John would announce the beginning of the public ministry of the Christ. 

Why was this subject chosen for a Franciscan chapel dedicated to the Immaculate Conception? As the doctrine of Mary’s Immaculate Conception became more popular in the fifteenth century, artists had to grapple with ways to depict the concept. One of the ways was to identify Mary with the Woman from the Apocalypse or Book of Revelation, clothed with the Sun, with the stars in her crown, and with the Moon at her feet. After giving birth to her Child the Woman fled into the desert pursued by the great dragon or devil.

Until a text is found my best guess is that any depiction of Mother and Child in a landscape could be taken to represent Mary’s Immaculate Conception. In my interpretation of Giorgione’s Tempest I argued that Giorgione had not only put the nursing Madonna in a landscape but also had actually painted her nude to depict her Immaculate Conception.

It is possible that the “Virgin of the Rocks,” could have been seen by Giorgione. Another candidate could be the “Virgin of the Yarnwinder,” c. 1501-7. Kemp attributes both extant versions of this painting to Leonardo with pupils, and notes that technical examination of underdrawings indicates “Leonardo’ s direct involvement in making two pictures of this subject.” He also noted that in both versions underdrawings revealed “Joseph making a baby walker for Christ,” [v]a pentimento that would indicate another reference to the flight into Egypt.

Finally, there is the Mona Lisa.  Kemp states that the “basis for the picture was established in Florence around 1503-4, where it was seen by Raphael amongst others, but it appears to have been finished much later.”  It’s hard to believe that Giorgione could have seen it. Is this famous painting only a portrait or does it have some mysterious subject?

Of course, there is always the possibility that Vasari could have been wrong and that Giorgione never saw any of Leonardo’s paintings, and that both artists developed their revolutionary styles independently of each other. Nevertheless, it would appear that both were painters of Madonnas and portraits, and that both depicted scenes from the apocryphal legends concerning the flight into Egypt. 


[i] Giorgio Vasari, Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, selected, edited, and introduced by Marilyn Aronberg Lavin, NY, 1967, v. II, p. 227.

[ii] Op. cit, p. 235.

[iii] Martin Kemp, Leonardo, Oxford, 2005. Pp. 247-254. Except otherwise noted all the following quotes are from Kemp’s Gallery.

[iv] Anna Jameson, Legends of the Madonna, Boston, 1885, p. 356.

[v] Kemp, op.cit., p. 41.