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

Monday, September 24, 2012

Giorgione's World

After years of gathering dust in my bookshelves I finally read “Once to Sinai”, H.F.M. Prescott’s account of the pilgrimage to the Holy Land undertaken by Friar Felix Fabri, a Dominican brother from Ulm, Germany. Hilda Frances Margaret Prescott is best known for her epic story of the tragic Pilgrimage of Grace in the England of Henry VIII. “Once to Sinai”, however, is an account of a delightful but dangerous pilgrimage recorded by an equally delightful pilgrim who was an assiduous recorder of practically everything he saw of this journey undertaken in 1483.

St. Katherine, Mt. Sinai

Prescott takes up the story in Jerusalem where Fabri and his fellow pilgrims begin the extremely difficult trip through the Sinai desert to the famed monastery of Saint Katherine on Mt. Sinai. The monastery contained the bones of the legendary Queen of Alexandria, and the importance of the journey to Fabri and his fellow pilgrims helps us understand the great popularity of Catherine in the art of the Renaissance. On the journey back we encounter Moslem Cairo and Alexandria; the Greek isles; fabulous Venice; and finally the passage across the Alps back to the beloved monastery in Ulm. 

Many of the details in Renaissance paintings that seem so strange and puzzling to modern eyes were seen and described by friar Fabri. For example, only in our time did John Fleming see the animal in Giovanni Bellini’s St. Francis in the Desert as an Onager or Wild Ass of the desert, and not as the domestic donkey that carried St. Francis to La Verna. On the way back from Mt. Sinai Fabri saw the fabled beast.  
The pilgrims had the good fortune to get a close view of the handsome wild ass of the mountain country, concerning which “naturalists say many things”…(99)
Giovanni Bellini: St. Francis and Onager

Moreover, Fabri actually stayed in the village of Matariya, a virtual resort oasis marking the end of the desert and the entrance to Egypt. In 1483 Christian and Moslem alike still venerated Matariya as the resting place of the Holy Family on the flight into Egypt.
“Like to paradise” the village of Matariya may well have seemed to men fresh from the parched loneliness of the desert, for here rose that famous and holy spring, known to Christians as the well of the Virgin,…whose waters were almost unique among the brackish springs of Egypt. But there was another and more important reason for the fame of Matariya. To Christian and Moslem both, the place was known for its Garden of Balm, the precious product of whose bushes was all the Sultan’s own, and a very considerable asset; while for Christians, and to a lesser degree even for Moslems, the association of both well and garden with the Holy Family during the Flight into Egypt, made the place one of the venerated sites of Egypt. (115)
After the long arduous pilgrimage, Fabri and his companions were finally able to get passage at Alexandria in a Venetian spice convoy. The Captain general of the armada was Sebastian Contarini, “one of the merchant princes of Venice,” a formidable figure who stood high over all. Contarini’s son sailed with him as well as his brother Bernardo, who captained another galley. Even by 1483 the family was wealthy and had already acquired a great estate in the Veneto on the Brenta outside of Padua. In the sixteenth century they would build the magnificent Contarini villa.  A scion of the family, Taddeo Contarini, was an avid art collector who owned Bellini's St. Francis as well as Giorgione's "Three Philosophers".

Contarini Villa

Felix Fabri had great respect for the Venetians and their accomplishments: the Venetian desire peace, yet daily they prepare for war by land and sea.” The knowledge and the experience of the Captain and his crew brought them through a very hazardous and stormy two-month return voyage to Venice. Fabri remained in Venice for some time and gave a very detailed account of the famed Fondaco dei Tedeschi and its workings. He marveled at the city but had reservations about the decoration of its magnificent churches. He was somewhat taken aback by the mixture of pagan and Christian figures in St. Giovanni e Paolo.
Within the walls were lined with the princely tombs of many Doges, enriched with marble, silver and gold, and a profusion of sculpture. Friar Felix admired but could not approve these monuments. There was in them a lack of theological discrimination; Christ, Our Lady, apostles and martyrs appeared indeed, but surrounded by a mixed company of ancient gods, monsters and heroes….here Hercules appeared,…the hydra was here too,…and, more reprehensibly, naked warriors and boys, so many pagan stories, in fact, mixed up with those of Christianity, that Felix feared lest the ignorant should be confused, and render the honour due to Samson and the Magdalen to Hercules and Venus. (259)
Titian: Venus or Mary Magdalen?

Is it any wonder that today so many scholars now call so many Venetian paintings enigmatic and mysterious?  I have interpreted the two women in Titian’s “Sacred and Profane Love” as Mary Magdalen in two guises, but most scholars have seen them as personifications of Venus. It would appear that the ancient figures of pagan legends were just as real during the Renaissance as the figures of Christian scripture and legend. Here is Prescott’s account of tourist Felix Fabri’s exploration of Cyprus, the legendary birthplace of Venus.

Though the friar in registering all this registers disapproval of plebian taste and behaviour, he yet takes pride in adorning his own work with flowers culled from the stories of the ancient gods. …it is in his account of Cyprus that they fill the foreground of his picture, so that the Apostle Paul yields place to the Cytherean, and it almost seems as if this devout, cheerful, Bible-reading celibate has become subject to the enchantment of the Queen of Love herself. Certainly the Friar could never forget that Cyprus was the birthplcace of her who, in the jumble of grotesque tales which he reports, is now the daughter of Saturn, now a mortal, “dead and certainly damned,” yet always the foam-born; though what was dark in the medieval monastic imagination added blood to the foam.She might be  half-devil, but she was still “a most beautiful virgin,” and the Friar could no more ignore than he could approve that creature “of unequalled loviliness.” While in the island he visited the places associated with hername as assiduously as if they were legitimate objects of pilgrimage. From Nicosia he went out all the way to Dali, the old Idalia, where he climbed the solitary hill which “the shameless Venus had made dedicate to herself.” He visited both old and new Paphos: he sat upon the Venus rocks, the great cliffs which thrust themselves out into the glitter of the bright sea near Kouklia. “All these,” he says, “I explored and inspected pretty thoroughly and carefully.” Even in the cathedral of Nicosia he was able to discover a memorial of the wanton goddess…In the Chapel of St. Dominic,…having first studied the frescoes of the Saint’s life around the walls,…Felix turned his attention to a great tomb which stood in the centre of the chapel….The bell was ringing for vespers, and some of the canons were walking up and down in the cathedral waiting for its last note; the Friar approached them and asked for information upon the “incomparable tomb.” The canons obligingly accompanied him and told him “a long and very pleasing story” of how Mars, who figured in it as the injured husband of Venus, in despite of the gryphons which guarded it, had procured this great block of jasper, a stone much conducive to the virtue of chastity, and had presented it to his wife for her bed. “And,” the Friar concludes, “ though I never read that story in any book, nor heard it elsewhere, yet I believe the words and put down what I was told…and if the truth is not as I wrote, yet it is what I heard, and as I heard in innocence, so I have written in innocence, and in innocence it may be read, and without any damage to the faith may be believed by the devout.” 
Fabri saw many wonderful things on his pilgrimage. Despite all he saw of the world of the fabulous East and of Renaissance Venice he was happy to get back to Germany. There was no place like Ulm. ###

H.F.M. Prescott: Once to Sinai, the further pilgrimage of Friar Felix Fabri, NY, 1958. Prescott supplemented her account with reports of travel to the Holy Land as late as the nineteenth century. Not much had changed over the centuries and most of Friar Felix Fabri's observations were verified.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Giorgione's Reputation

In the past two years I have written much about the works of Giorgione and other Renaissance masters but little about Giorgione himself. Last month I provided a background sketch of Venice in the time of Giorgione, and last week I discussed a possible self-portrait in a Budapest Museum.

This week I would like to offer some comments, both old and new, about the painter's reputation. In the Preface to the 2004 Giorgione exhibition catalog Wilfrid Seipel, the Director of Vienna's famed Kunsthistorisches Museum, wrote about Giorgione's reputation among his contemporaries.

Already a few years after his death in 1510 Giorgione was considered one of Venice’s greatest painters and the revolutionary forerunner of the northern style of painting, whose focus was firmly fixed on the structural significance of colour. His intensity of colour, light and mood bewitched nearly all his Venetian contemporaries.*

Vasari devoted only a short biography to Giorgione but ranked the Venetian right up there with the greatest painters of the Renaissance. He placed Giorgione's biography right after Leonardo's and credited him with the creation of the "modern manner."  In the 2004 catalog Sylvia Ferino Pagden, the curator of the Vienna exhibition, noted that Giorgione's fame is just as great in our time.

Today Giorgione is regarded as a unique phenomenon in the history of art: no other Western painter has left so few secure works and enjoyed such fame for almost five hundred years….His legend is fed not only by the mystery that still surrounds him, both as a man and as a painter, but also by the subtle inscrutability he was able to infuse into his paintings. …*

The mystery that surrounds Giorgione stems from the paucity of details about his brief life; difficulties about attribution; and most importantly, questions about interpretation. In his "Lives of the Painters", Vasari called Giorgione a painter of Madonnas, and works like the Castelfranco Altarpiece, and the Allendale Adoration of the Shepherds are well known, but he is not regarded primarily as a painter of “sacred” subjects. However, I claim that his Tempest“one of the most enigmatic and famous paintings in the world,” is a “sacred” subject": that it is Giorgione’s version of a popular legend, “The Rest on the Flight into Egypt.” In addition, I argue that a lost Giorgione, usually called The Discovery of Paris, also represents an apocryphal episode on the flight into Egypt. If we can view Giorgione through a “sacred” subject lens, then we can see many of his other works in a new light. Added weight would be given to those who regard the Three Philosophers as the Three Magi; the Laura as Mary Magdalen; and the Boy with an Arrow as St. Sebastian. We will even be able to identify the subject of the so-called Three Ages of Man in the Pitti Palace. Finally, seeing Giorgione through a sacred subject lens, has led to an equally startling discovery, an interpretation of Titian’s famous Sacred and Profane Love as The Conversion of Mary Magdalen.
About 100 years ago Edward Hutton waxed enthusiastic about Giorgione in "Venice and Venetia." Although he couldn't see Giorgione as a painter of religious subjects, he felt there was something sacred about the Tempest.
 Undoubtedly the greatest of these is a picture by Georgione, which has passed under various names--the Family of Georgione, or simply the Gipsy and the soldier--and which in itself sums up all that we mean by the Georgionesque in painting. There we see, in a delicious landscape of green and shady valley, of stream and ruin and towered country town, a woman nude but for a cape about her shoulders giving her breast to her child in the shadow of the trees by a quiet stream. On the other side of this jewelled brook a young man like a soldier--or is it a shepherd? --stands  resting on a great lance or crook and seems to converse with her. Close by are the ruins of some classical building overgrown by moss and lichen and half hidden in the trees, and not far off up the stream in the sunset we see the towers and walls and roofs and domes of a little town with its bridge across the stream leading to the great old fortified gate of the place. But what chiefly attracts us in the work is something new we find there, an air of golden reality, something dreamlike too, though and wholly of this our world, an air of music which seems to come to us from the noise of the brook or the summer wind in the trees, or the evening bells that from far-off we seem to hear ring Ave Maria. One of the golden moments of life has been caught here for ever and perfectly expressed. Heaven, it seems, the kingdom of Heaven, is really to be found in our midst, and Giorgione has contrived a miracle the direct opposite of that of Angelico; for he found all the flowers of Tuscany and the byways of the world in far off Paradise, but Georgione has found Paradise itself here in our world. And we must remember that such a work as this was the true invention of Georgione. Before him there was nothing but church pictures. It is to him we owe these pieces which have nothing directly to do with religion, that were painted to light up the rooms we live in, to bring the sun, if you will, into a cabinet and all the sunset and the quiet out-of-doors into a rich man's study. Here, in truth, we have humanism and its essence, and for once perfectly understood and expressed. (p. 122-3). ###

Giorgione: The Tempest

Giorgione, Myth and Enigma, An Exhibition of the Kunsthistorisches Museum and the Soprintendenza Speciale per il Polo Museale Veneziano, Exhibition catalog ed. By Sylvia Ferino Pagden and Giovanna Nepi Scire, Vienna, 2004.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Giorgione Self-Portrait

Giorgione Self Portrait
Budapest, 31.5 x 28.5 cm
Oil on paper, mounted on wood

In the first decade of the sixteenth century at the very height of the Renaissance six of the world’s greatest painters were active in Italy. We have all heard of Leonardo, Michelangelo, and Raphael but Giovanni Bellini, Giorgione and Titian matched them in Venice. Of the six we know the least about Giorgione who died at about the age of 33 in 1510 at the height of his career.

Even though we have very little biographical information, we might have a very fine self-portrait of the artist. In a Budapest Museum there is a striking portrait of a young man that might be Giorgione himself. It is a small painting measuring 31.5 x 28.5 cm done in oil on paper and then mounted on wood. The painting bears a close resemblance to one in Braunschweig that has been identified as a self-portrait in the guise of David.

Giorgione: Self Portrait as David
Braunschweig, 52 x 43 cm
Oil on canvas

In her 1997 Giorgione catalog Jaynie Anderson gave the Braunschweig “David” to Giorgione but believed that the Budapest version was a later copy. In their 1997 catalog Pignatti and Pedrocco did not include either painting in their list of works by Giorgione.

The Budapest painting was included in the 2004 Giorgione exhibition held in both Venice and Vienna.  The catalog, “Giorgione Myth and Enigma”, described it in this way:

The paintings in Budapest and Braunschweig share the position of the head, the striking features, the facial expression with the knitted brow, drooping mouth and prominent chin. But the gaze in this small picture [Budapest] is much more direct, penetrating, critically examining; and at the same time the position of the head seems consciously posed. Instead of the melancholy, contemplative expression we find in the Braunschweig painting, there is a feeling of concentrated self-expression.

The catalog noted that some have called the painting a copy, perhaps by Dosso Dossi or Palma Vecchio, but sided with those who “defend its authenticity.” It cited Baldass who in 1955 gave it to Giorgione and said: “The sketch is made from the life model.”

In his 2007 Giorgione catalog Wolfgang Eller also gave both paintings to Giorgione mainly on stylistic grounds, and he noted that the Budapest “self-portrait is one of the first oil sketches on paper.”

The use of paper support is much more customary for sketches and drafts than for copies executed in oil. The type of depiction makes is appear probable that Giorgione painted the picture in the evening sitting in front of a mirror in his atelier.[1]

In his Lives of the Painters Vasari credited Giorgione with the invention of the modern manner and since then most scholars have agreed that Giorgione’s work signaled a revolution in art.

At the same time when Florence was acquiring so much renown form the works of Leonardo, the city of Venice obtained no small glory from the talents and excellence of one of its citizens, by whom the Bellini, then held in such esteem, were very far surpassed, as were all others who had practiced painting up to that time in that city. This was Giorgio, born in the year 1478, at Castelfranco, in the territory of Treviso…Giorgio was, at a later period, called Giorgione, as well from the character of his person as for the exaltation of his mind….[2]

I would like to believe that the man in the Budapest painting is Giorgione. He is young, self-confident, and his expression shows that audacity that marked all his work. With his long hair and prominent features he even resembles the man in the "Tempest". ###

Giorgione: Tempest

[1] Wolfgang Eller, Giorgione, 2007, p.117

[2] Giorgio Vasari, Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, selected, edited, and introduced by Marilyn Aronberg Lavin, Volume II, New York, 1967, p. 227.