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

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Giovanni Bellini and Giorgione: From Padua to Venice

The following is a review of Roger Fry's, "Giovanni Bellini", a study first published in London in 1899. It was republished in New York in 1995 with an introduction by David Alan Brown of Washington's National Gallery. Cited pages are in parenthesis)

Giovanni Bellini: Agony in the Garden

Giovanni Bellini’s “Agony in the Garden” represented a major turning point in his career. In his classic 1899 study, "Giovanni Bellini" Roger Fry asserted that the “Agony and the Garden” marked the transition from Bellini’s early “Paduan” style to the “Venetian” style that would characterize the remainder of his long career.

Although the Bellini family was Venetian, Giovanni’s early work had been done in Padua as an assistant to his father, Jacopo, on their work in a chapel in the Santo, the church dedicated to St. Anthony. Working in the Santo at the same time was Squarcione, the famous teacher who was reputed to have trained over 100 painters including Andrea Mantegna, who would eventually marry into the Bellini family. Squarcione and his school were the leading exponents of what Fry characterized as a distinct Paduan style.

For Fry the “Paduan style” involved a system of linear design that was based on a complexity of outlined forms, and that utilized an old Paduan tempera technique “in which light and shade were put on by small hatched strokes with the point of the brush….” (35) Andrea Mantegna, who never departed from the Paduan style, did a version of the “Agony in the Garden” at about the same time as Giovanni, and Fry argued that the contrast between the two was becoming evident.

Andrea Mantegna: Agony in the Garden

Bellini, in fact, shows in his version of the subject how little the Paduan mannerisms were really congenial to him, for he does not carry their system of linear design consistently throughout the whole picture. The broad unbroken spaces of the hill on which Christ kneels, and of the distant valley, and the more flowing drapery of the S. Peter, all break with the linear convention which he still adopts in the figure of Christ, and to some extent in the hill to the right. (26)

In summary Fry stated that “Bellini shows already that perception of the emotional value of passing effects of atmosphere, which is often supposed to be a peculiarity of the art of this century…he has broken with literal accuracy…”(27)

The change in Bellini’s technique also represented a change in substance and feeling that even moved Giovanni away from his father’s own style. It involved a religious transformation influenced by the preaching of the famed Bernardino of Siena.

The outward change, at all events, from the mundane art of Jacopo’s sketches, which often treated religious subjects with surprising levity, is sufficiently striking. The reaction of Giovanni’s generation was not only towards a new technique, it was a reaction of feeling as well; a revulsion from the premature paganism which had sprung up in the courts of Rimini and Ferrara….it may have received greater impetus from the revivalist propaganda of S. Bernardino. In 1443…S. Bernardino preached the Lenten course at Padua. It was the climax of a lifetime spent in itinerant preaching. He had never before had such an amazing success; and his sermons, preached in the open air, were attended not only by the whole of the population, but by the magistrates representing the sovereign state of Venice, the professors, lecturers, and students of the University. (28)

After his great success in Padua, Bernardino went on to Venice where he received equal acclaim. Fry noted that “he counted among his friends the Doge Foscari, the Blessed Lorenzo Giustiniani, the first patriarch of Venice, and most of the leading senators and distinguished men of the day.”  In Fry’s opinion this visit “may well have been a contributory cause of the more religious attitude to life expressed by Giovanni’s generation.”

It certainly showed a marked influence on Giovanni Bellini and his work. Fry saw the change in Bellini’s famous “Pieta” now in the Brera in Milan.

Giovanni Bellini: Pieta

For here at last Bellini has shaken of the uncongenial intricacy of Paduan design; he has begun to find his own personal scheme, in which form is defined rather by the opposition of broad, scarcely modeled planes, than by multiplicity of contours. (31)

Bellini returned to Venice after 1460 and the following decade marked a “climax” in his life.

At last truly himself, free from all outside influence, he expresses with an intensity which never infringes on the claims of pure beauty, the profoundest sentiment of Christianity, pity, and love….at this period Bellini’s works are confined to two subjects—the Virgin and Child, and the Pieta. (32)

The transition would become complete in 1472 with the arrival of Antonello da Messina in Venice. Antonello brought a new technique “which admitted of a perfect fusion of tones.”

This technique consisted in part in the superposition of thin layers of opaque colour mixed with oils. From this time onward, all the most advanced artists of Venice succeeded in obtaining fusion, and dispensed with hatching, except in rare cases…(35-6)

By the 1480s Bellini had succeeded in the perfection of “that treatment of form as enveloped in atmosphere,” that became one of “the chief distinctions of cinquecento painting in Venice” and which led inexorably to Giorgione.  (41)

The group of pictures we have just considered closed the second stage of Bellini’s artistic career. During this period his aim was to obtain perfectly modulated transitions of tone within a precise contour. In the S. Giobbe altarpiece…a new idea begins to be felt—the conception of enveloping the forms in atmosphere by means of a subtle variation of the quality of the limiting contours of the figures. (43)

S. Giobbe Altarpiece

Reading Fry one is led to conclude that rather than a revolutionary departure from Bellini’s work, the work of Giorgione was based on the principles and technique that Giovanni Bellini had developed over his lifetime. In Fry’s words Giovanni kept alive his father’s tradition that involved “free composition” and “lyrical fancy,” a tradition “of which Giorgione was so soon to find the highest possible expression.”  (47)

In addition, recent studies have shown a close affinity between the techniques used by Giovanni and Giorgione. Fry’s description of Giovanni’s mature style could well apply to Giorgione.

For the atmospheric quality is obtained here largely by the use of oil glazes upon a tempera ground; it is by these that the shimmer of vibrating air is communicated to the whole, by these that the contours, on which the design is still built, are broken down, so that the eye is no longer arrested, as in earlier art, by the impassable barriers they present. (48)

In the first decade of the sixteenth century, at the very height of the Renaissance, Giovanni Bellini, the elderly master who had begun his career in Padua half a century before, and Giorgione, the young master from Castelfranco, were working in Venice. We cannot be sure of their relationship but there certainly seems to have been a close affinity of style. Roger Fry compared Giorgione’s Castelfranco altarpiece with Bellini’s  S. Zaccaria altarpiece.

S. Zaccaria altarpiece

Between this altarpiece, dated 1505, and those of the ninth decade of the previous century, Giorgione’s genius had matured; and the revolution in art, which Bellini had so long prepared, was proclaimed by his Castelfranco Madonna of 1504. In that work Bellini’s great pupil had shown that the new command of atmospheric tone and rich chiaroscuro were consistent with, and even demanded an entirely new simplification of design, and a new feeling for large and spacious disposition of masses. (52)

Giorgione: Castelfranco Altarpiece

Both paintings were done at about the same time but even today it is hard to say who influenced whom. Both are sacred subjects where the traditional “sacra conversazione” has been raised to a new level. ###

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Giorgione: Scientific Examinations

In 2004, two famous museums, the Accademia in Venice and the Kunsthistorisches in Vienna, worked together to mount a ground-breaking Giorgione exhibition. The Kunsthistorisches agreed to send it’s Giorgione collection that included the “Three Philosophers”, the “Laura”, and the “Boy with an Arrow” to the Accademia. In return the Accademia allowed the Tempest to leave Italy for the first time for the subsequent Viennese showing. 

The exhibition produced a beautiful and valuable catalog with essays and catalog entries by most of the world’s leading Giorgione scholars. In addition, the catalog included two appendices on the scientific or technological examination of some of Giorgione’s works that contained some valuable information that so far has been little noticed.*

The first study, “Giorgione’s Materials and Painting Technique: Scientific Investigation of Three Paintings,” was a joint effort by Elisa Campani, Antonella Casoli, Enrico Fiorin, and Stefano Volpin. The authors examined the newly restored “Castelfranco Altarpiece”, the “Tempest”, and the portrait of an old woman usually called “La Vecchia”. Acknowledging Giorgione’s fame as an innovator, the authors declared that:

The goal of this diagnostic campaign was to determine the extent to which Giorgione’s inventiveness manifested itself in a desire to experiment with new materials and techniques.

Those interested in the very full discussion of the variety of scientific techniques used will have to read the article. In brief, I would just like to highlight some of their results and conclusions. The authors believed that their investigation enabled a “complete reconstruction of Giorgione’s palette in the three masterpieces.” Moreover,

The choice of materials seems to depend on the result which the artist wished to achieve in each work, adapted to his expressive requirements and the evolution of his style. (256)

This conclusion only seems to confirm what everyone has thought of Giorgione and other Venetian painters but it is good to have it confirmed scientifically. Not only does his palette vary significantly but so too does his choice of binding medium. One of the results of the technical examination highlighted,

a significant difference in the painting technique of the three examined works; the choice of egg tempera to apply colour in the Castelfranco altarpiece and of a mixed technique, using walnut oil mixed with egg for La Tempesta and La Vecchia. (260)

The authors draw the following conclusion that so far does not appear to have penetrated the Giorgione world.

Even given the limited number of works investigated, the artist emerges as a figure with a great knowledge of materials and techniques rather than as an innovator and experimenter. One could say that the artistic revolution caused by Giorgione does not necessarily translate into strictly technological innovation. In fact, from this point of view, the analyses have not highlighted any novel resolutions in the three works. Instead there is clear evidence of an ability to utilize the extensive materials available in Venice and of a sound knowledge of the painting techniques accumulated by Venetian workshops during the 15th century.

Sandra Rossi and Paolo Spezziani collaborated on the second technical essay, “Examination via X-Ray and Infrared Reflectography, and Restoration of the Castelfranco Altarpiece.” Although mainly a discussion of the altarpiece, the authors did report on a  2001 infrared reflectography examination of both the “Tempest” and “La Vecchia” in preparation for the 2004 exhibition. This examinination confirmed a pentimento in the "Tempest" that the catalog still regarded as inexplicable:

 investigation enabled a more precise characterization of the figure on the bridge, who wears a long garment and is seen proceeding to the right. The figure holds a staff in his left hand; on his right shoulder is a second stick, from which hangs a container.

Although this figure cannot be seen even in the infrared image provided in the text, Dr. Rossi confirmed the existence of the man on the bridge to me as we both stood in front of the painting in the Accademia in 2010. A man with a staff and a pilgrim’s sack flung over his shoulder fits no other interpretation of the painting than “The Rest on the Flight into Egypt.” As so many other painters did, both before and after, Giorgione originally must have intended to portray the actual flight in the background with the “Rest” in the foreground. Why he changed his mind, we will never know. ###

Gerard David: "Rest on the Flight into Egypt" with flight in background.
Metropolitan Museum, NY

*Ferino-Pagden, Sylvia, and Nepi-Scire, Giovanna: exh. Cat. Giorgione, Myth and Enigma, Vienna, 2004.