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, December 1, 2016

Giorgione: Castelfranco Altarpiece

Commentators have always regarded Giorgione’s Castelfranco Altarpiece as a unique and original work of art. It is Giorgione’s only known altarpiece, and although he used a traditional subject, he characteristically brought it to a new level.

Giorgione: Castelfranco Altarpiece
Oil on panel, c. 1504
200.5 cm x 144.5 cm
Castelfranco Veneto

In a 2009 study of Giorgione, written in conjunction with the exhibition in Giorgione’s home town of Castelfranco Veneto that commemorated the five hundredth anniversary of the painter’s death, Enrico Maria dal Pozzolo wrote:
it would be unjust to diminish the importance of the very personal reworking that this young talent dared to express when he found himself standing before the great blank spaces of the panel,…[His] lifting the Madonna up to the highest possible height…but at the same time using that ‘emblematic” green cloth to tie them together and taking the back out of the chapel so that a preponderant landscape element might be added…is indicative of an approach that was totally original and free of conditioning. *
The story of the altarpiece was told best by Salvatore Settis in an extremely well researched essay that appeared in the catalog for the 2004 Giorgione exhibition, jointly sponsored by the Accademia in Venice and the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. For obvious reasons the Altarpiece was not included in the exhibition, but the essay by Settis was one of the highlights of the catalog.

I have reviewed the Settis article previously and would just note here that Settis argued that the donor’s connection to Sicily helped to establish the identity of the armored saint. It’s neither St. George nor St. Liberalis, the patron saint of the Cathedral, but St. Nicasius, a popular Sicilian saint holding the banner of the Order of Jerusalem.

In this case, the only candidate is St. Nicasius, venerated in Palermo and Messina, where his cult is associated with that of St. Francis (exactly as in the Altarpiece).**
In his essay Settis reproduced a journalist’s description of the painting from 1803 that I copy here as a model for seeing and understanding.
 “Above a floor covered in square tiles of marble of different colours rises a Sarcophagus of Porphyry, on which is painted the coat of arms of the noble family Costanzo. Tuzio, famous warrior, disconsolate because of the death of his son, having ordered the erection of the Altar, it appears that the painter has delicately tried to alleviate his pain, placing behind the Tomb in an elevated position, a throne of whitish marble, on which sits Our Lady, on her knees her small Divine Child, with his head turned to observe the Sarcophagus itself. Behind the Virgin and supporting her on one side is a piece of inlaid marble. The entire base of the Throne is covered by a most beautiful tapestry, which hangs down a little…so far as to cover the sarcophagus, emerging from beneath the folds of the rich crimson robe…Behind the Sarcophagus and at the height of the Throne the picture is framed by a most beautiful crimson velvet, descending to the floor, which gives a pyramidal layout and artificially divides the upper part of the foreground of the painting. On the right…stands St. George…Of his feet, the right rests on the floor, the left on a small step leading up to the Sarcophagus,…St. Francis stands with both feet on the lowest level of the floor…”  ***

My wife and I saw the Altarpiece in the spring of 2010. We had attended the annual meeting of the Renaissance Society of America that had been held that year in Venice, and decided to take the train to Castelfranco to see if we could get into the Giorgione exhibition. That Sunday was the closing day and the exhibition was sold out but we were able to see the Altarpiece on display in the Cathedral next door.

The first thing I noticed was the relatively small size of this extraordinarily beautiful painting that had been so carefully cleaned and restored in Venice only a few years before. It would certainly be dwarfed by Giovanni Bellini’s famed Venetian altarpiece in the church of S. Zaccaria that was completed in 1505. The small size of the “Castelfranco Altarpiece” stems from the fact that it was meant not for the high altar in a Cathedral but for a small funerary chapel.

I would just like to add an observation that has been inspired by Settis’ study. Above the sarcophagus there is a white marble altar on which the Madonna’s throne rests. But Franciscan spirituality regarded the Madonna herself as an altar on which her Son, the Eucharist, is placed. For confirmation we need only look at the white cloth underneath the Infant that also covers Mary’s head. It is the corporale that always covers an altar. Giorgione would later use the corporale in his famous “Tempest” where it winds around Mother and Child in much the same way.

But why two altars? On occasion a funerary chapel is opened for Mass. At the height of the Mass, immediately after the consecration, the priest utters an ancient formula: “Lord, let your angel take this sacrifice to your Altar in Heaven.” At every Mass the sacrifice offered at the earthly altar would be merged with the eternal sacrifice of the Heavenly Altar. In Giorgione’s painting we see the Heavenly Altar (Mary) right on top of the earthly altar.

This concept, that seems so strange to viewers today, is reinforced by Giorgione’s artistic genius. Where is the viewer in this painting? We are not at floor level with the saints. We seem to look down on them. How is it possible for us to see the landscape in the background behind the curtain? The landscape in which we live is in the background. The figures in the foreground are in another world.


*Enrico Maria dal Pozzolo: Giorgione, Milan, 2009, 167.

**Salvatore Settis: “Giorgione in Sicily–On the Dating and Composition of the Castelfranco Altarpiece.” In Ferino-Pagden, Sylvia, and Nepi-Scire, Giovanna: exh. Cat. Giorgione, Myth and Enigma, Vienna, 2004, 144.

***Settis, 135.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Giorgione: "Boy with an Arrow" or St. Sebastian

In earlier posts I have agreed with those who have claimed that the small painting by Giorgione called “Boy with an Arrow” is an image of St. Sebastian, one of the most popular male saints of the Middle Ages and Renaissance. For almost 1000 years the third century martyr had been recognized as a protector against the plague. During the Renaissance his popularity was especially great in Venice and the Adriatic coast because of the frequent occurrences of plague.

Giorgione: Boy with an Arrow
Oil on wood, 48 x 42 cm
c. 1506
Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

In one of my first posts at Giorgione et al… I pointed to the great similarity between Giorgione’s “Boy with an Arrow” and Raphael’s earlier depiction of the saint. Both showed a soulful looking young man with head tilted to one side and holding one arrow in his hand. Both artists departed from the traditional version of a partially nude man tied to a tree or column riddled with arrows, symbols of the plague.

Raphael: St. Sebastian
Oil on wood, 43 X 34 cm
Accademia Carrara, Bergamo

Giovanni Antonio Beltraffio, a follower of Leonardo da Vinci’s in Milan, also produced a number of half-length versions of St. Sebastian that antedate the work of Giorgione and Raphael. He also depicted a soulful fully clothed young man holding one arrow in his hand. His saint has a halo.
There is no mistaking the subject of Raphael’s or Beltraffio’s versions of St. Sebastian. 

Beltraffio: St. Sebastian
Oil on canvas, 48 x 36 cm
Pushkin Museum, Moscow

Characteristically, Giorgione departed from using traditional iconographical symbols like the halo. He did keep the arrow but in another post I argued that he used color to identify the young man. His tunic is red, the color associated with martyrs in the liturgy of the Mass.

Anyone looking at Giorgione’s painting side-by-side with Raphael’s and Beltraffio’s would be hard pressed not to see the saint in the “Boy”. The small size of the three paintings would indicate that they were all made for private devotion. There must have been a real market in the days of recurring plague. Beltraffio made a number of depictions and we know that one Venetian patrician had two copies of the Giorgione in his possession.

Scholars do not like to recognize Giorgione’s “Boy with an Arrow” as St. Sebastian. They have proposed divine figures like Apollo and Eros. I have come to believe that, more than anything else, the facial expressions in these three paintings indicate a martyr. In the account of the persecution and death of St. Stephen, the first martyr, the face of the young man about to be martyred appeared to his accusers like the face of an angel.  Here are the words of the Latin Vulgate, 6:15.

Et intuentes eum omnes qui sedebant in concilio viderunt faciem eius tamquam faciem angeli.
And all that sat in the council, looking on him, saw his face as if it had been the face of an angel.

Note: I wrote this post in part to commemorate the third anniversary of the death of my blogging friend Hasan Niyazi who passed away suddenly and tragically alone in his new apartment late in October, 2013. Hasan was the son of a Moslem family that had migrated from Cyprus to Australia when he was a child. Like the children of many traditional immigrants he broke away from the traditional religion of his family and became an avowed secularist. Somehow, he developed a passion for the art of the Italian Renaissance, especially for Raphael.

He was obviously an outsider in every respect and so turned to blogging. His blog, Three Pipe Problem, quickly became a web sensation. To his passion for art, he added his scientific background, as well as technical proficiency in mastering blogging technology. Through social media he developed so many friends and contacts that he became a kind of sun around which they orbited.

I first met him on the web in 2010 when Three Pipe Problem was just beginning to make traction. In the next three years he went from an obscure blogger to a presence in the art history world. Six months before his death he wrote me about his plans.

I am increasingly busy. I have a few interviews coming up, including one with a prominent Florentine restorer, Dr Goldberg and some other scholars. Work on Raphael continues and many other things in the offing. My blog received its millionth viewing the other week, which was pleasant - and I hope to commemorate it with a prize in the near future. I have started learning Italian, and am also still working as a clinician. Blogging has become more than a curious pastime, yet there is still no easy way to make it viable financially, so I must continue in my dual mode! (4/18/2013)

Then, like his beloved Raphael and my beloved Giorgione he was gone in his mid-thirties. He may not have had the face of a Renaissance angel and I don’t know what arrow took his life, but I will always think of him when looking at the above paintings.

Hasan Niyazi in Florence

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Giorgione: Portrait of a Young Woman (Laura)

I have argued on this site that Giorgione’s Portrait of a Young Woman, commonly called “Laura” could actually be his version of “The Conversion of Mary Magdalen.” I believe that I am not the first to suggest Mary Magdalen but a number of distinguished catalogs in the past two decades do not even consider the possibility.

Giorgione: Portrait of a Young Woman (Laura)
Oil on canvas, mounted on panel, 51 x 33.6 cm
Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

While scholars are unanimous in attributing the Laura to Giorgione, they have not been able to agree on the subject of this painting of a partially nude young woman. Most agree that Laura is a misnomer and that the painting has nothing to do with Petrarch's lover. All do point out the paradoxical iconographic symbols. On one hand, there are the robe and bared breast of a Venetian courtesan, but on the other, there are symbols of chastity and conjugal love such as the laurel leaves and head scarf.

Only one person fits this description and that is Mary Magdalen. This most famous female saint of the Middle Ages was generally regarded in the Renaissance as a prostitute who after her encounter with Jesus became a true and virtuous bride of Christ. After her conversion she is often portrayed with breasts bared.

After I first interpreted Giorgione’s Tempest as “The Rest on the Flight into Egypt,” back in 2005, I began to suspect that some of his other inexplicable or mysterious paintings might actually be sacred subjects. Shortly after I began Giorgione et al… in the fall of 2010, I put up a brief post on the Laura [Giorgione: Laura] that explored the Magdalen interpretation. Three years later I put up a more expansive post that discussed its similarity with other mysterious paintings of beautiful women by Titian. [Giorgione’s Laura,Titian’s Flora, and Mary Magdalen. 8/19/2013.]

Giorgione’s Laura has been recognized as a revolutionary turning point in the development of the art of the Venetian Renaissance. In his magnificent 2009 Giorgione catalog, Enrico dal Pozzolo devoted nine pages to the Laura in a section entitled, “a sense of beauty.” He described the little painting in almost poetic terms.*

Imagined up against an impenetrable, dark background…, the painting has the power to suddenly brighten up the room where it hangs through a light that would appear to shine forth from her snow-white skin. She turns to her viewer sideways, and bares her right breast; her eyes trained on something or someone outside,…[291]

He called the Laura “one of the most astonishing paintings of the European Renaissance,” and claimed that it had a profound impact on artists who followed Giorgione. [291] He drew comparisons between the Laura and Giovanni Cariani’s Judith, Boccaccio Boccacino’s Portrait of a Girl, and even Albrecht Durer’s Portrait of a Young Woman that also hangs in Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum. He argued that Giorgione’s painting was a revolutionary departure.

There is no question that a work of this kind broke completely with previous Venetian portraiture. It was a turning point, if not a breaking point, which described a manner of conceiving the pictorial medium that was not just unprecedented, but actually elevated the descriptive datum to a metaphorical level. [297]

Nevertheless, the painting could also mark a revolutionary departure in depictions of Mary Magdalen. After Giorgione, painters such as Titian and Correggio would paint versions of an emotionally charged Magdalen with symbols representing both sinner and saint. Titian’s Sacred and Profane Love, painted shortly after Giorgione’s death, should be seen as one example.

In earlier posts I have also agreed with those who interpret Giorgione’s Three Philosophers as the Three Magi when they first see the Star of Bethlehem. I have also agreed with those who see his Boy with an Arrow as St. Sebastian. Coincidentally, a friend just back from a visit to Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum sent me an image (taken I suspect while the guards were looking the other way) of the three paintings hanging side by side. In the few years left to me I don’t expect the famed Museum to change the labels but what would we think of Giorgione and the Venetian Renaissance if we could stand before these paintings and see Mary Magdalen and St. Sebastian flanking the Three Magi at the first sign of the Incarnation?

Giorgione wall, Kunsthistorisches Museum.
Image courtesy of D.O.

* Enrico Maria dal Pozzolo: Giorgione,  Milan, 2009. Page numbers in brackets.