In “Giorgione’s Tempest”, famed Italian art historian Salvatore Settis discussed practically every important commentary on Giorgione’s most beautiful, famous, and mysterious painting. The book was first published in 1978 but I use the 1990 English version published by the University of Chicago Press. To assist the reader Settis provided a convenient chart that listed 28 different commentators who had produced a total of 25 different interpretations of the subject.
Settis compared the painting to a jigsaw puzzle and argued that any interpretion must identify all the pieces of the puzzle and fit them easily together. In his chart he identified the pieces as the Man, the Woman, the child, the lightning, the pillars, the serpent, the city, and the bather seen only by x-ray. Actually, it would take a great deal of imagination to see a serpent, and it would probably have been better if he had used the prominent plant in front of the woman. Also, he did not include the bird on the roof in the backround as one of the pieces. Obviously, a pentimento like the bather can not be part of the completed puzzle.
Interestingly, hardly any of the commentators tried to identify all of the pieces of the puzzle, much less fit them together. Settis, himself, tried to fit them all together in his interpretation of the painting as Adam and Eve after their expulsion from the Garden of Eden. Perhaps this is why he saw a serpent rather than a plant root in the painting.
The Adam and Eve interpretation met the same fate as all the other interpretations mentioned in the book. It was rejected by leading scholars and has never gained wide acceptance. Since the book’s publication many other interpretations have been proposed especially after Giorgione’s fame grew immensely as the five hundredth anniversary of his death approached in 2010. In 2004 a groundbreaking exhibition jointly sponsored by the Accademia in Venice and the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna produced a catalog that offered at least three competing interpretations of the Tempest. The editors of the catalog had to admit that the painting was still as mysterious as ever.
One of the interpreters listed by Settis was Robert Eisler, an outsider to the art history world. In 1935 Eisler tried to identify the subject of the painting as the discovery of the infant Paris by a shepherd and his wife. Settis described the attempts of Eisler to penetrate the world of Art History.
It is impossible not to feel a certain sympathy for this scholar (1882-1949), who never taught and never managed to publish his book New Titles for Old Pictures, part of which was devoted to Giorgione. (After Richter dated it with a reference ‘London, 1935’ it was quoted by a long line of scholars as though it were a published work!) After various adversities, one of which was a long imprisonment in Nazi camps, Eisler discovered that some of his ideas on Giorgione were beginning to circulate through Richter’s book and attempted to draw attention to this fact in a letter to the Times Literary Supplement (1946). He corrected the proofs but only a third of his letter was finally published… regarding the Tempest, while the rest, on the Three Philosophers, is still unedited… The proposition quoted here is not included in the typescript of the book, and is only formulated in the letter to the Times Literary Supplement. (The Eisler Papers are preserved in the Warburg Insitute, where I was permitted , with a customary perfect courtesy, to examine them at my leisure.*
I also feel a certain sympathy with Eisler and his efforts. Like Eisler I had a long and successful career in another field but lacked the credentials and a certain amount of scholarly expertise. I earned a PhD in History long ago in the area of eighteenth century British politics. I taught European history at a local college but left to pursue a career as a financial advisor. Only as I neared retirement in 2005 did I return to History and come upon Giorgione’s "Tempest" in an old travel book. It was primarily intuition that led me to see the painting as an idiosyncratic version of “The Rest of the Holy Family on the Flight into Egypt.”
Subsequent investigation showed that this interpretation provided an explanation for all the pieces of the puzzle and fit them together nicely. I sent my interpretation to most of the leading scholars and institutions in the field but received little response. Professor Settis was one of a handful who had the kindness and courtesy to at least respond and offer words of encouragement.
In 2006 I did send an abbreviated version of the "Tempest" essay to the Wall St. Journal for possible publication in their new weekend Masterpiece column. It was published there on May 13, 2006. Attempts to publish an expanded version in scholarly journals came to nothing. In 2010 I did read the paper in a small panel at the annual meeting of the Renaissance Society of America held that year in Venice.
It was a nice experience but I realized that I would have to find another way to get my work out there. It was then that I decided to create my blog, Giorgione et al… The blog has been relatively successful in that I have met with and corresponded with interested parties all over the world. However, there is still a great reluctance on the part of many scholars to use the Internet. Some have told me that they won’t read anything that appears there. I can understand a certain level of concern but I imagine the same fears were present 500 years ago after the advent of the printing press.
Today marks the eighth anniversary of the publication of my initial brief explanation of the "Tempest" in the Wall St. Journal. The editor cautiously added the sub-title, "A Renaissance Mystery Solved?" I reproduced it last year on this site. For the full essay and other papers that have flowed from the realization that the painting had a "sacred" subject, please visit my website, MyGiorgione.
* Salvatore Settis, Giorgione's Tempest, 1990, c. 5, n. 45.
* Salvatore Settis, Giorgione's Tempest, 1990, c. 5, n. 45.