My website, MyGiorgione, now includes my interpretations of 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"; and Titian's "Pastoral Concert" as his "Homage to Giorgione".

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.


  1. I appreciate that you included Marcantonio Michiel's descriptions of these three paintings in your post - I think that is so helpful as one tries to authenticate works of art. I assume that this description of the two figures as "shepherds" helped to support the idea that this was a "Discovery of Paris" scene, but perhaps Michiel led us down the wrong path!

  2. Thanks for the comment, Monica. It is good to hear from you again. Anyone visiting a museum today should appreciate how easy it is to draw wrong conclusions while wandering from picture to picture. Just this month an article in the Wall Street Journal described a detail of a Madonna and Child in the Gardiner Museum as a "mugging". I wrote to the author and pointed out that the clothing of the victim indicated that he was a Dominican martyr. They kindly published it as a Letter to the Editor.