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

Friday, May 13, 2016

Giorgione: The Tempest

Today marks the tenth anniversary of the publication in the Masterpiece section of the Wall Street Journal of my interpretation of Giorgione's Tempest as The Rest on the Flight into Egypt. The editor gave it the equivocal headline, "A Renaissance Mystery Solved?" I reproduce the brief essay below while a larger and more recent interpretation can be found at my website, MyGiorgione.

I cannot say that my interpretation has taken the world by storm. I've sent it to most of the leading scholars in the field and only a handful have had the courtesy to even reply or acknowledge receipt. Academic publications have turned it down but I did get a chance to read it at the annual meeting of the Renaissance Society of America held in Venice in 2010, the five hundredth anniversary of Giorgione's death. It was a huge conference but only about fifteen people turned up to hear a paper by an unknown independent scholar. 

The experience in Venice led me to turn to the web as a means of publishing my work. I created MYGiorgione as an archive, and then began, with the great help of my late friend, Hasan Niyazi, to create this blog which by last month has received over 250000 page views. The website contains subsequent discoveries like my interpretation of Giorgione's 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, and Titian's Pastoral Concert as his Homage to the Recently Deceased Giorgione.

A Renaissance Mystery Solved?, Wall St. Journal, May 13, 2016.

No great work of art has mystified art historians and critics more than Giorgione’s “Tempesta,” one of a handful of paintings definitively attributed to the Venetian Renaissance master. After his untimely death in 1510 of the plague at about the age of 30, most of his paintings were either lost or completed by others, especially his colleague, Titian.

Although little is known of his life, Giorgione was apparently apprenticed to the great Giovanni Bellini at the outset of his career, and certainly was a major influence on Titian. In June the National Gallery in Washington will be hosting a Bellini, Giorgione, Titian exhibition.

While the “Tempesta” is universally admired as a pioneering work of landscape art because of its dramatic use of color and shadow, art historians have not been able to agree on the subject matter of this masterpiece of the High Renaissance. More than the painting itself, it was the mystery about its subject matter that first attracted me to it, and which prompted a trip to Venice last year.

This relatively small painting (82x73cm.) currently hangs in the Accademia in Venice. Over a hundred years ago my favorite travel author, Edward Hutton, described it as “a delicious landscape of green and shady valley, of stream and ruin and towering country town.” The town is visible in the background and above it, clouds and a flash of lightning indicate that a storm is raging. In the middle distance, separated from the town by a bridge, are overgrown ruins and two broken columns. In a glade in the foreground, a nude woman nursing an infant sits on the right, while on the left, a young man dressed in contemporary Venetian clothing holds a long staff.

Although never named by Giorgione himself, the painting is usually called “La Tempesta” because of the storm. Sometimes it is called “The Soldier and the Gypsy,” even though critics have pointed out that the man is not a soldier and the nude woman is not a gypsy.

One tends to accept works of art at face value, particularly when they are as famous as this one. But one question struck me: Why is the woman nude? Other than a white cloth draped around her shoulder, there is no sign of any clothing. After all, it isn’t necessary for a woman to completely undress to nurse a baby. I believe that if the nursing woman were clothed, the subject would be immediately recognizable for what it is: a “Flight of the Holy Family into Egypt.”

The “Flight” is a common subject in the history of art. It illustrates a passage from the Gospel of St. Matthew in which Jesus, Mary and Joseph, escaping from the deadly designs of King Herod, find an idyllic rest stop upon arrival in Egypt. Giorgione’s painting has all the elements common to a “Flight” image: Mary holding or nursing the baby Jesus; Joseph standing off to the side or in the background; a town in the distance; and ruins.

Why ruins? Emile Male, the great French art historian, pointed out that it was common for medieval artists to draw on the legend of the “Fall of Idols” when painting the “Flight.” According to it, when the infant Jesus entered Egypt, all the idols crumbled. Artists commonly used broken columns to represent this episode.

Giorgione was a master of artistic narrative. In this painting the Holy Family has left Judea and its dangers, symbolized by the storm, behind. They have crossed the bridge and stream representing the border between Judea and Egypt. They have entered Egypt and the idols, symbolized by the broken columns, lie broken behind them. We notice that the tempest is raging in the distance. The glade in which they rest is serene. Now they rest in safety.

It is only the depiction of the man and the woman that has deterred experts from recognizing this painting as the ”Flight into Egypt.” Joseph is usually portrayed as an old man by Medieval artists. Nevertheless, in the 15th century he began to be depicted as a young, virile carpenter. In Raphael’s depiction of the marriage of Joseph and Mary, the ”Sposalizio,” Joseph appears to be about the same age as Giorgione’s man. Italians especially found it unseemly to show Mary being married to an old man.

But why the nude Madonna? The explanation lies in the Catholic doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, a doctrine of which every Venetian would have been aware. Simply put it was the belief that Mary from the first moment of her existence had been created free from the stain of original sin which every other descendant of Adam and Eve had inherited.

The concept of Mary’s Immaculate Conception had been vigorously debated by theologians during the previous 250 years. The great advocates of the doctrine were the Franciscans; whose center in Venice, the “Frari” became a virtual shrine to the Immaculate Conception. Special impetus to the belief had been given by Pope Sixtus IV, himself a Franciscan, in 1476 when he added the feast of the Conception to the liturgy of the entire Western Church.

Theologians called Mary the new or second Eve. Artists had difficulty in expressing this increasingly popular doctrine. By Giorgione’s time they had not yet come up with the now familiar image of the “Woman Clothed with the Sun” from the Book of Revelation. Giorgione had the unprecedented audacity to portray a nude Madonna as Eve would have appeared in the Garden of Eden before the Fall.

Nothing is in Giorgione’s painting by accident. The white cloth on which the Madonna sits is a symbol of the winding sheet or burial cloth of Christ. Franciscans regarded Mary as the altar on which the Eucharist rested. The altar was always covered with a white cloth.

Finally, in front of the Madonna a scraggly bush rises out of bare rock. Artists frequently used plants or flowers symbolically to identify characters. From the way it is growing, the plant could be a member of the nightshade family, a common plant found in Italy at the time. The most well known form of nightshade is the aptly named “belladonna.” This plant is associated with witchcraft and the Devil. Is that why the plant below the heel of the Woman has withered and died?

Francis P. DeStefano


Tuesday, May 3, 2016

The Age of Giorgione: Three Landscapes

“In the Age of Giorgione”, the exhibition currently at the Royal Academy of the Arts in London, has generated much discussion about the attribution of many of the paintings on display. Giorgione, in particular, never signed his work, and there is little documentary evidence given his early death in 1510 at about the age of 33. 

The London Review of Books recently featured a long review of the exhibition by renowned art historian Charles Hope. Hope entered the attribution debate and argued that less than half the paintings in the exhibition have certain attributions. In particular, as he has done in the past, Hope questioned the attributions of many paintings usually given to Giorgione, the star of the show. Hope went so far as to suggest that since only a handful of paintings can definitely be attributed to the young master from Castelfranco, it is almost impossible to assess Giorgione’s impact on the Venetian Renaissance.

Nevertheless, even Hope agreed that some paintings can definitely be attributed to Giorgione, among which are the Accademia’s Tempest, and the Kunsthistorisches Museum’s Three Philosophers, both of which depict figures in a landscape. Hope did not mention a lost Giorgione painting of figures in a landscape that we have in a seventeenth century copy by David Teniers. It is usually called the Discovery of Paris, and its attribution to Giorgione is certain because, like the other two, it was briefly described in the notes of contemporary Venetian patrician and art collector, Marcantonio Michiel. Here are his brief descriptions of the three paintings. *

The Tempest: “The little landscape on canvas, representing stormy weather and a gipsy woman with a soldier, is by Giorgio di Castelfranco.” [123]

The Three Philosophers: “The canvas picture in oil, representing three Philosophers in a landscape, two of them standing up and the other one seated, and looking up at the light, with the rock so wonderfully imitated, was commenced by Giorgio di Castelfranco and finished by Sebastiano Veneziano. [102]

The Discovery of Paris: “The picture on canvas, representing the birth of Paris, in a landscape, with two shepherds standing, was painted by Giorgio di Castelfranco, and is one of his early works.” (104) 
In a footnote the editor of Michiel’s notes provided a fuller description of the Discovery of Paris from a manuscript catalogue of the mid-seventeenth century.

“A landscape on canvas, in oil, where there are on the one side two shepherds standing; on the ground a child in swaddling-clothes, and on the other side, a half nude woman and an old man, seated, with a flute. It is seven spans and one inch and a half wide, and nine spans and seven inches and a half long.”

What are we to make of these three landscapes with figures in the foreground? What do they tell us about Giorgione and his age? Anyone familiar with the Venetian Renaissance would know that there has never been any agreement about the subject of the Tempest. An incredible number of interpretations have been put forward and all have been shot down. Hardly anyone accepts Michiel’s description of the man and woman in the painting as a soldier and a gypsy.

Scholars are also divided about the subject of the Three Philosophers. Before the discovery of Michiel’s notes in 1800, the three men in the painting were regarded as the Three Magi, but Michiel’s description has not only given the painting its current name, but also has sent scholars searching for the particular philosophers represented. Today, it would appear that the Magi are making a comeback.

However, there has never been any disagreement on the subject of the Discovery of Paris. Scholars have been unanimous in accepting Michiel’s description although they usually prefer the “discovery” or “finding” of Paris, rather than the “birth” of the Trojan prince.

In my interpretation of the Tempest as The Rest on the Flight into Egypt, I included a discussion of the so-called Discovery of Paris in which I argued that the unanimous opinion of art historians was wrong. The painting bears little resemblance to the mythological story of the birth of Paris, but is almost a literal depiction of one of the popular apocryphal legends of the time: the encounter of the Holy Family with robbers on the Flight into Egypt.

The interpretations of the Tempest and the Discovery of Paris may be found at my website, MyGiorgione. Here I just offer a short passage from the Arabic Gospel of the Infancy.

Joseph and the lady Mary departed and came to a desert place, and when they heard that it was infested with raids by robbers, they decided to pass through this region by night. But behold, on the way they saw two robbers lying on the road, and with them a crowd of robbers who belonged to them, likewise sleeping. Now these two robbers, into whose hands they had fallen, were Titus and Dumachus. And Titus said to Dumachus: ‘I ask you to let these (people) go free, and in such a way that our companions do not observe them.’ But Dumachus refused and Titus said again:
‘Take from me forty drachmae and have them as a pledge.’ At the same time he reached him the girdle which he wore round him, that he might hold his tongue and not speak. **

The painting is a night scene with the sun setting in the background. The band of robbers is shown sleeping in the mid-ground. In the foreground there is an old man playing a pipe, a reclining woman with arms and leg exposed, and an infant lying on the ground upon a white cloth. To the right are two men whose clothing is in disarray. One of the men has obviously removed his “girdle”, and given it to the other who is wrapping it around his waist.

All of these details are explained in my paper and they indicate that the Discovery of Paris has a sacred subject. If so, not only are all previous opinions fanciful, but also the conclusions drawn from the painting about Giorgione and his age are also fanciful. Although not as famous as the Tempest and the Three Philosophers, scholars have attached great importance to the lost Giorgione painting.

In an essay in the Frick Museum’s recent exhaustive study of Giovanni Bellini’s St. Francis in the Desert, Susannah Rutherglen examined the actual manuscript of Michiel’s notes and discovered that the Discovery of Paris and the St. Francis were not only in the home of Venetian patrician Taddeo Contarini but that they were hung together in the same private inner room.  Rutherglen puzzled over the incongruity of an obviously devotional work like the St. Francis next to a painting of a scene from ancient mythology, and came up with a fanciful conclusion.

In a third chamber, Michiel encountered St. Francis together with a painting by the youthful Giorgione, Finding of the Infant Paris, now lost but known through a copy by David Teniers the Younger. The pairing of Bellini’s religious masterpiece with this mythological work—at first glance surprising—suggests that both pictures were recognized as large-scale achievements by masters in the vanguard of Venetian painting, sharing inventive subject matter and mountainous landscape settings. ***

Rutherglen was following in the footsteps of Enrico dal Pozzolo, a Giorgione specialist, who attached great importance to the Discovery of Paris and another lost Giorgione, described by Michiel as “Aeneas and Anchises”.

the Birth of Paris and the probable flight of Aeneas and Anchises from Troy constitute the beginning and the end of the Trojan saga. These specific subjects had seemingly never been represented in Venetian painting before Giorgione; but they were afterwards, and also in paintings by artists (both anonymous and identifiable) who were bound with the master of Castelfranco’s activity….#

Dal Pozzolo went even further and argued that the Discovery of Paris provided a window into Taddeo Contarini’s interest in classical antiquity. Contarini, he said,

judged the artist to be capable of painting on canvases that were not of the usual size…episodes that were not found in other Venetian houses, and that in all likelihood reflected the patron’s very personal interest in classical antiquity, an interest which he somehow passed on to the painter….But, if we look even more closely, the most singular feature of the Paris is that the entire composition revolves around the small, naked body placed at the centre of the scene, much akin to a Child Jesus adored by an extended “sacred family of shepherds.” The child is displaying his virile member which, more than any other detail, could evoke—the sexual prowess that would at first lead to his passion for Helen, and then to the ruin of Troy. #

If it actually is the Child Jesus “placed at the centre of the scene"in Giorgione’s lost painting, what conclusions should we draw?  The interpretation would then lend weight to those who believe that the Three Philosophers is a depiction of the Three Magi when they first beheld the Star of Bethlehem, another apocryphal legend. Both would then lend weight to my interpretation of the Tempest as Giorgione’s idiosyncratic depiction of the traditional and popular story of the Rest of the Holy Family on the Flight into Egypt.

*The Anonimo, Notes on Pictures and Works of Art in Italy made by an Anonymous Writer in the Sixteenth Century: ed. By George C. Williamson, London, 1903. All references to Michiel are from this edition of his notes with page numbers in parentheses.

**Extract from the Arabic Infancy Gospel in Edgar Hennecke, New Testament Apocrypha, edited by Wilhelm Schneemelcher, English translation edited by R. McL. Wilson, Volume One, Philadelphia 1963. p. 408. On the web a search for the First Gospel of the Infancy of Jesus, Chapter. VIII, will give the story with slightly different wording.

***Susannah Rutherglen and Charlotte Hale: In a New Light, Giovanni Bellini’s St. Francis in the Desert. The Frick Collection. New York, 2015, p. 56.

# Enrico Maria dal Pozzolo: Giorgione, Milan, 2009, p. 264.