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.
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. *
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|
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.