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".

Sunday, April 14, 2019

Raphael: Czartoryski Portrait

Below I reprise my essay on Raphael's Czartoryski Portrait, a post that first appeared on this site on October 28, 2014. The essay had originally appeared on the late Hasan Niyazi' s very popular art history blog, Three Pipe Problem. Hasan died in October 2013 in his mid-thirties at about the same age as his beloved Raphael. He had done a fine survey of the attribution issues and provenance of this painting, and it led me to consider the sex of the sitter.

Raphael: Portrait of a Young Man
Lost during Nazi occupation of Poland

In a recent post at "Three Pipe Problem" Hasan Niyazi presented a very comprehensive study of the attribution and provenance history of a famed “Portrait of a Young Man”, usually attributed to Raphael. The painting was one of those looted from the Czartoryski collection in Poland by the Nazis during WWII and has still not been recovered.

Three Pipe Problem did mention that scholars have disagreed on the identity of the subject of the painting, and that even one, Oskar Fischel, had claimed that it was a young woman, and not a man. This struck a chord with me for on first glance the sitter appeared to me to be a woman of a particular kind.

Giorgione: Portrait of a Young Woman (Laura)

The painting reminded me of Giorgione’s Laura where a young woman in a state of undress is partially covered with a man’s robe. Scholars of Venetian art have noted that both the disheveled look and the man’s robe indicate a courtesan. In “Giorgione, Myth and Enigma”, the catalog of the 2004 Giorgione exhibition, the entry for Giorgione’s Portrait of a Young Woman (Laura) noted the following.

According to Junkermann (1993) she is wearing a male garment, which far from being a reference to marriage, instead indicates that the model has adopted a typical male role, perhaps that of a poet; but that does not exclude that she may also be a courtesan. Her sumptuous fur-lined red garment is, more than an item of male attire, the winter dress of Venetian women of pleasure (Pedrocco 1990; Junkermann 1993; Anderson 1996), according to Cesare Vecellio’s Habiti (1590);… (catalog entry #8) 

My first impression led me to take a look through other Raphael portraits of men and women. Even a cursory look at a Raphael catalog indicated that the hair of a Raphael man is rarely in such a long and stringy, even unkempt, fashion. Moreover, with one exception he never parts their hair in the middle or even exposes their foreheads. Men’s foreheads are usually covered with a cap that sits firmly on top of the head and not worn at the same rakish angle as in the lost painting. Raphael’s women, even Madonnas, inevitably have their foreheads exposed with hair neatly parted in the middle.

Raphael's portraits of Agnolo and Maddalena Doni provide a striking example of hair fashion around 1505-6. The man’s forehead is covered with his cap firmly on top of his head. The woman’s long hair is parted neatly in the middle and her hair is covered with a diaphanous veil. Things are much the same ten years later if we compare the portrait of Baldassare Castiglione with La Donna Velata. Castiglione’s cap is firmly atop his head and completely covers his forehead. The donna’s forehead is uncovered with long hair parted neatly in the middle. The back of her head is covered with a long white veil. Even the famous La Fornarina has hair neatly parted in the middle but with her hair tied back with a scarf. Only in the “Double Portrait with a Fencing Master” is a man’s forehead exposed but in that case the hair is neatly trimmed and the man has considerable facial hair.

Raphael: La Fornarina

It is true that most of Raphael’s woman have hair well done up and combed but I think Raphael could have been depicting a courtesan posing in her lover’s clothing. It looks like she’s sitting in her shift with a man’s robe casually thrown over her shoulder, and a man’s cap pinned to the back of her head as if to say “she’s mine” in a somewhat less obvious way than Raphael did in  La Fornarina

My first impression led me to get a copy of Oskar Fischel’s two-volume study of Raphael, a work that represented the culmination of a lifetime devoted to the rehabilitation of Raphael. Like the Czartoryski painting Fischel was also a casualty of the Nazis. He was born in 1870 and the book jacket describes him in this fashion. * 

Oscar Fischel was a well-known art historian and scholar. Among the important appointments he held was that of Professor of Art in Berlin University. He was author of numerous works on Italian Art, Modern Art, the History of Costume and the History of the Theatre. But the theme that lay nearest his heart was the art of Raphael. He made this his life’s work.

Unfortunately, Fischel’s career was interrupted in 1933 when he was dismissed from his post at the University of Berlin by the new Hitler regime. Student protests forced his reinstatement but he was finally dismissed in 1935. Apparently, museum officials in London were successful in bringing him to London where he died in 1939. His study of Raphael was translated and published in London in 1948 with the first volume containing text, and the second prints. The publisher summarized Fischel’s approach in this way.

Oscar Fischel contends that Raphael has been misrepresented in the same manner as Mozart. His natural grace and the apparent ease and fluency with which his work was accomplished have led to the charge that he was lacking in deeper understanding. The author is at pains to refute these criticisms. He reveals to us not the superficial, sentimental, pious and graceful artist, but a true poet and creator, interpreting the fundamental and essential meaning of life.
Fischel devoted only half a page to the Czartoryski painting discussing it right after the more famous La Donna Velata. To put it in context here are a few of his words on that woman that lead him into a discussion of the Czartoryski.
The Donna Velata of the Pitti Palace is the result of a commission of his very own, in the midst of the great frescoes and orders for altarpieces; it is a love-prompted improvisation on the most charming of themes—the innocence and womanly dignity of a young Roman woman of the people. The colour echoes this harmony of character…. (123)
Raphael: La Donna Velata

We know that the master found the purity of her young features, with the dark, beaming charm of her look, worthy of the otherworldly revelation of the Sistine Madonna. Years ago it was supposed that her still dazzling features, although quickly coarsened, might be recognized in the picture in the Czartoryski Gallery at Cracow. Once there was a much-disputed idea that it might be a self-portrait of Raphael, also that it perhaps represented the Duke of Urbino, or, finally, the Fornarina. Sebastiano del Piombo was mentioned as its painter, as so were as many other artists as there were experts who stood in front of the picture when it was at Dresden during the last war. 
Fischel must have been among those experts who saw the painting in person while it was in Dresden. He saw a young woman.
the hair with its locks reluctantly breaking loose on the temples, and the deep-cut thumbs, warrant the conclusion that it is a woman who is here represented; also the secret of the bosom is rather betrayed than guarded by the fur cloak, not put on, but thrown as if on the spur of the moment over the shirt. This negligee has a poetic significance only if it is a woman who is in question. The right forearm seems to rest on the bottom of a lute. The white of the chemise, the gold and brown of the gown with its fur collar, the greenish-golden cover on the table, form with the gleaming flesh-tones, a boldly conceived harmony, gorgeous to a degree, which is gathered together within the grand, free form of the silhouette. The painting can be compared for triumphant power with the group of the Pope in the Attila; like this fresco, it is of inestimable value as the last evidence quite incontestably from Raphael’s own hand of his most personal chromatic expression. (125)
Raphael: Portrait of a Young Woman

Hasan Niyazi’s post on “Three Pipe Problem” also provided some inadvertent information that supports a “young woman” reading.  Two early engravings taken from the painting or copies emphasized female characteristics especially the exaggerated curl of the lips. Also, Hasan presented a striking detail from the School of Athens that would seem to indicate a juxtaposition of Raphael and his lover, the only two figures in the famous fresco looking out at the viewer.

Although Hasan lived in Australia and was more than 40 years younger than me, we had become friends and frequent correspondents after our initial contact in the blogosphere. We proof-read, edited, and corrected each other. Despite differing opinions, we both reveled in the give and take. I even thought that Hasan might be the one to preserve my work on Giorgione and Titian but it was not to be.


*Oskar Fischel, Raphael, translated from the German by Bernard Rackham, Volume I, Text, London, 1948, V. I.

Thursday, March 28, 2019

Raphael: St. Cecilia

Today, I reprise a slightly revised version of a post on Raphael's St. Cecilia Altarpiece that originally appeared on this site almost six years ago. The article is primarily a review of Oskar's Fischel's explanation of the reasons for the inclusion of the four saints who surround St. Cecilia. 
Raphael: St. Cecilia
Pinacoteca Nazionale, Bologna
1516-7, 220 x 136 cm

 Raphael’s St. Cecilia was commissioned in 1514 by a patrician lady and mystic from Bologna, Elena Duglioli dall’Oglio, for her family chapel in the church of San Giovanni in Monte. The story of this painting is well known but there is still mystery about the reasons for the selection of the four saints who surround St. Cecilia.
St. Cecilia was one of the four great Virgin saints of the Western church. Mrs. Anna Jameson devoted a chapter to her and her legend in “Sacred and Legendary Art”. *
The veneration paid to her can be traced back to the third century, in which she is supposed to have lived; and there can be little doubt that the main incidents of her life are founded in fact, though mixed up with the usual amount of marvels, parables and precepts, poetry and allegory… [571]
She was a chaste virgin who even after her marriage was reputed to have converted her new husband to a life of virginity. They both eventually suffered martyrdom. Somehow she also became the patron saint of music and the creator of the organ.
As she excelled in music, she turned her good gift to the glory of God, and composed hymns, which she sang herself with such ravishing sweetness that even the angels descended from heaven to listen to her, or to join their voices to hers. She played on all instruments, but none sufficed to breathe forth that flood of harmony with which her whole soul was filled: therefore, she invented the organ, consecrating it to the service of God. [572]
Nevertheless, Mrs. Jameson believed that only in the fifteenth century did artists begin to depict Cecilia with musical instruments. She rightly pointed out that the most famous version was Raphael’s now in Bologna’s Pinacoteca Nazionale. In Raphael’s painting St. Cecilia stands in ecstasy among her cast-down instruments whose music bears no comparison with that of heaven. Despite her uplifted eyes, her sandals indicate that she is still of this world. Her heavenly onlookers are barefoot, a sign of their superior status.

It is easy to understand why the visionary Elena Duglioli dall’Oglio would want to feature St. Cecilia in the altarpiece of her chapel. Although a married woman, she too lived a life of celibacy. But the presence of the other saints has been difficult to explain. In his magisterial 1948 study of Raphael, Oskar Fischel wrote: 
The reasons that may have existed for the choice of the saints surrounding Cecilia have remained hitherto completely in the dark; and yet their relationships to the person of the lady who gave the commission and to the place of its destination were not unfamiliar to Raphael. At that time nothing of the content of a devotional picture can have been left to the artist; only in Raphael did every commission work itself out as a self-chosen theme, thanks to his free and dominating imagination and to the profound culture by virtue of which he adopted everything and caused it to become part of his own vital experience. [246] **

The four figures surrounding St. Cecilia are easily recognized by traditional iconographical symbols. St. John the Evangelist with the eagle and St. Augustine with his bishop’s crozier are in the background. In the foreground St. Paul leans on his sword of truth, and Mary Magdalen holds her familiar jar of ointment. For Fischel, they all are representations of love.
the significance of these saints precisely to the donors of the picture can scarcely be surmised. Only St John is adequately explained as patron of the church of San Giovanni in Monte—the “disciple whom Jesus loved” … He exchanges a glance of tearful radiance with the Doctor of the Church, St Augustine, …” How often have I wept at thy hymns of praise and chants, filling thy Church with soft strains, and have been stirred by its voices to the very depths.” …He too is a confessor of love: …” our heart is restless until it rests in Thee.” … [247]
In addition to the sword St. Paul holds a letter in his hand, an allusion to the famous passage from I Corinthians, xiii.
The Apostle mighty in speech acknowledges of himself: “though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal.” There at his feet lies the allegory… 
However, Fischel argued that the figure of St. Paul could not just be explained allegorically. Raphael had a special devotion to St. Paul.
It is to him precisely that Raphael acknowledged himself to be indebted, by him attracted...the painter of the figure was no stranger to the character of the great preacher of Conversion. Raphael at that time lived with the words of St. Paul. When, in the course of his work on the Disputa, the pages of his sketchbook were being filled with ideas for the figures, a hasty sketch was made for St Paul with his sword… And then, on a drawing at Oxford, for the Disputa, line after line is set down for a sonnet out of an overflowing sense of bliss, occasioned by an incident by night which must remain for the world in obscurity, Raphael discovers that his tongue is bound in a sudden kinship with the Apostle … [247-8]

Next Fischel turned to Mary Magdalen who looks out and invites the worshipper to enter the scene.  
Thus by the moving power of the back view of this figure, who has with sweeping cloak just entered the circle of the elect, the worshipper is, as it were, carried along with it into the region of other-worldly happenings—seized, with St Paul, by a sense of the vanity of all action “that has not charity”; and a bridge is thrown across to link him with her who “loved much” and therefore, her sins forgiven, may enter in before many. [248]
There was a text that also linked St. Paul and Mary Magdalen in the popular imagination of the time. In the third volume of his classic work on Medieval iconography, Emile Male discussed a small book whose fame spread all over Europe during the fifteenth century. The book was the Ars moriendi (The Art of Dying).
The text was often striking, but it was the astonishing woodcuts above all that spread its fame throughout Europe…. death appears not as a farcical dance, but as a serious drama played around the bed of the dying man; angel and devil stand at his side, contending for the soul that will soon depart. [348] ***
Male based his discussion on a 1492 French commentary, the L’Art de bien vivre et de bien mourir (The Art of Good Living and Good Dying), a “book that edified all Europe.” [349-350]. After a series of temptations where the devil is unable to shake the dying man’s faith, the devil tries another approach.
Hideous monsters again rove around the sick man’s bed. One presents him with a large parchment document: this is the list “of all the evils that the poor creature has committed during his sojourn on earth.”…
But the angel intervenes and brings four helpers.
They are St. Peter, who thrice denied his Master; Mary Magdalene, the sinner; St. Paul, the persecutor whom God struck down to convert him; and the good thief, who repented on the cross. These are the great witnesses of divine mercy….”do not despair. Even though you had committed as many crimes as there are drops of water in the sea, one contrite impulse of the heart is enough. God is greater than the greatest crimes.” [351]
Raphael received the commission for the St. Cecilia in 1514. It is hard to imagine today but the ideas of conversion and repentance must have been like a tsunami in Renaissance Europe. We like to think of the Renaissance as the revival of the gods and goddesses of antiquity but figures like St. Paul and Mary Magdalen were of far greater importance in the minds of contemporary believers especially those swayed by reformers like Savonarola. At the same time as Raphael and others were bringing Christian art to a new level, Martin Luther, an Augustinian monk in Germany, who had struggled for years with his own sinfulness, finally found conversion and salvation in the epistles of St. Paul. 
*Anna Jameson: Sacred and Legendary Art, Vol. II, Boston, 1885.
**Oskar Fischel, Raphael, London, 1948.
***Emile Male, Religious Art in France, The Late Middle Ages, Princeton,1986, pp. 348-351.

Monday, March 11, 2019

Titian: Woman in White

Titian: The Woman in White

In February on our annual winter visit to California, we visited the Norton-Simon Museum in Pasadena to view its current exhibition of Titian’s magnificent portrait, The Woman in White, on loan from its home in Dresden. The painting was given pride of place in a large room filled with other Old Masters from the Norton Simon’s permanent collection

The Museum’s notes indicated that in a 1561 letter Titian claimed that the young woman depicted was “the mistress of his soul.” Later, commentators took these words to mean that the young woman was Titian’s mistress even though the artist would have been in his seventies at the time. Others speculate that the woman could be one of Titian’s daughters, Emilia or Lavinia.

Whoever is depicted, the painting remains a striking portrait of a young woman in a beautiful white gown with elegant jewelry that includes a ring that could be a wedding band. She also holds a fan that is attached to a kind of chain around her waist. More than the clothing and accessories, it was the eyes and face of the woman that held my attention as I stood in front of the painting.

The young woman was looking directly at me. When I moved to the left, her eyes continued to look at me. The look on her face even seemed to change. The same thing happened when I moved to the right. She continued to look at me. If you’re reading this on a desktop, just move your chair and look at the image from left and right. If you’re using a handheld device, just hold it away from you first with your left hand, and then with your right to observe the effect.

Actually, I even walked a semi-circle from one side of the large room to the other, and the woman’s eyes followed me all the way. In traditional paintings, the viewer observes the subject but in this painting the woman observes the viewer. The tables have been turned.

I am not a student of female portraiture and I can’t imagine that I am the only one to observe this phenomenon. I do recall that while on a tour of the Renaissance collection of New York’s Metropolitan Museum a few years ago, a docent pointed out that it was considered indecent in the early days of the Renaissance to portray a living woman in a painting. The earliest portraits only dared to portray them in profile. Eventually, the face might be turned in a 45- degree angle with the woman still looking off to the side. Even when the full face would be exposed the eyes would still be averted from the viewer. She would not make eye contact with the viewer. 

Lorenzo Lotto: Portrait of a Woman

The aversion of the eyes might just represent female modesty but I suspect that male sensitivity might have been at work. Could it be that back then men did not want other men looking at their women? Could that be the reason why a woman’s eyes are averted? I am sure that scholars have studied female portraits of the era extensively, and I could be wrong. But by the middle of the sixteenth century Titian’s woman in white certainly seems to reflect a departure from the typical female portrait. *

Titian employed this technique many years earlier in his famous Pesaro altarpiece in the Frari. In that painting the young boy in the painting looks directly out at the viewer, and while you walk around that painting, the eyes of the boy follow wherever you go. The boy acts as an “interlocutor” inviting the viewer to not only pay attention to what is going on in the painting, but also to participate. 

The Woman in white could also be an interlocutor but she only draws the viewer’s attention to herself, not as a shy object of desire but as a female in charge of all she surveys. The Norton Simon Museum suggests that rather than any individual woman, Titian's painting could represent the "beauty and spirit" of Venetian women." Modern feminists should love this painting.


* I am a big fan of the American film genre knows as film noir, those black and white films of the forties and fifties that are enjoying a revival right now. Titian’s painting brought to mind one of the earliest, I Wake Up Screaming, a film starring pin-up queen Betty Grable in a rare dramatic role. Grable played the sister of a famous model who had been murdered. The sister’s press agent, who had made her famous, was the prime suspect. Inevitably, Grable and the press agent, played by Victor Mature, begin to fall in love. At one point Grable asks Mature if he had been in love with her sister. He replies that he had been her press agent and that it was his business to place her image all over town in magazines and posters. “If I had loved her, I would never have done that, I would have wanted her only for myself.”

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

Giovanni Bellini: Pieta revisited

A few years ago a correspondent accused me of injecting my Christian beliefs and sensibilities into my interpretation of Titian’s “Sacred and Profane Love”. Any interpretation of the two women in the famous painting that sees them as Mary Magdalen must be rejected out of hand since the Renaissance is all about the revival of pagan antiquity.

I admit that I am a Roman Catholic but I have argued elsewhere in this blog that it is my argument that counts, not my religion. I did not paint the “Sacred and Profane Love”, nor for that matter did I paint Giorgione’s “Tempest”. I have only interpreted both paintings as having sacred or religious subjects. It is the religion of late fifteenth and early sixteenth century Venetians that matters. 

One example of contemporary Venetian belief can be seen in Giovanni Bellini’s famous depiction of a “Pieta” or “Our Lady of Pity.” 

In “The Stripping of the Altars”, a groundbreaking and exhaustive study of religious practice and belief in pre-Reformation England, Eamon Duffy noted the widespread devotion to the “Pieta.” *

But the most distinctive manifestation of Marian piety in late medieval England was not devotion to the Joys, but rather to the Sorrows of Mary. This was of course a European rather than a merely English phenomenon, and was yet another aspect of the devotion to the Passion…
As it developed in the later Middle Ages the cult of the Sorrows of the Virgin, or the Mater Dolorosa, had a variety of functions, high among them that of serving as an objective correlative for the discharge of grief and suffering in the face of successive waves of plague sweeping through Christendom….
 But the essence of the devotion was that evident in what is arguably its noblest expression, the ‘Stabat Mater’. Here the Virgin’s grief is presented, not as an end in itself, but as a means of arousing and focusing sympathetic suffering in the heart of the onlooker. In this literal compassion, this identification with the sufferings of Christ by sharing the grief of his Mother, lay salvation. (258-9)

Here is Duffy’s English translation of the Stabat Mater.

Come then Mother, the fount of love, make me feel the force of your grief, make me mourn with you.
Make me weep lovingly with you, make me feel the pains of the crucified, as long as I shall live.
I long to stand with you by the Cross, and to be your companion in your lamentation.
Grant that I may carry within me the death of Christ, make me a partner in his Passion, let me relive his wounds.

For Duffy the “quest for a share in the sufferings of Christ, through identification with Mary, dominated the piety of Christian Europe in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries... Mary was a natural focus for the attempt to realize for oneself the sufferings of Jesus, for she had stood by the cross, supported by John the beloved disciple when the rest of the Apostles had fled….” (260)

Every parish church contained an image of this Mater Dolorosa, for all were dominated by the Rood across the chancel arch, invariable flanked by the mourning figures of Mary and the Beloved disciple. Other images, however, proliferated to sharpen the point. Of these the most widespread was the Pieta, or image of Our Lady of Pity.
Images of Our Lady of Pity exercised a growing attraction throughout the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. Lay people in increasing numbers left money in their wills to maintain lights before them, and sought burial near them. (261)

Most of these images have been lost. Many were destroyed during the Reformation. Many could be ugly, even gruesome. But the greatest artists could turn this scene of sorrow into an image of great beauty and meaning. Here is Giles Robertson’s description of Bellini’s “Pieta”. **
To praise or even to attempt to describe the beauty of this picture seems an impertinence.… There is no overemphasis on the drama of grief here, but a deeply restrained rendering of the beauty of sorrow that makes this one of the great classic achievements of European art. The colour is muted: a blue so dark as to be nearly black for the mantle of the Virgin and the robe of St. John, a pale purplish pink for the Virgin’s robe, and a light blue for St. John’s mantle, while a touch of warmer colour is given by his auburn hair. The main emphasis of the lines of the figure group is starkly vertical and contrasts with the simple horizontal lines of the sarcophagus, the ends of which are not seen, and with the striations of cloud in the sky. (54)
There is a perfect balance here between means and intention. Giovanni has developed the traditional tempera technique, which he inherited from his predecessors in Venice, to the fullest possible extent. We may suppose that Giovanni himself recognized this work as a special achievement, for instead of the usual signature just giving his name he added in beautiful classical lettering on a cartellino on the front of the sarcophagus a Latin couplet:
“When these swelling eyes evoke groans this (very) work of Giovanni Bellini could shed tears.”

Of course, the most famous Pieta is Michelangelo’s work now in St. Peter’s basilica in Rome. It is very likely that it was originally intended to be placed on a slab atop the grave of the French Cardinal who commissioned it. The genius of Bellini and Michelangelo was so great that you don’t have to be a Christian to be moved by their work. But it is impossible to say that  Christianity did not inspire the work of these and other great Renaissance masters.


Note: The above article was originally posted on Giorgione et al... on March 31, 2012. For some reason, not fully understood by me, it has become by far the site's most popular post.

*Eamon Duffy: The Stripping of the Altars, Traditional Religion in England, c. 1400--c. 1580. Yale, 1992.

**Robertson, Giles: Giovanni Bellini, Oxford, 1968.

Thursday, January 24, 2019

Lorenzo Lotto: Crucifixion

Italian Renaissance master Lorenzo Lotto was born in Venice around 1480 but spent most of his long career working in provincial towns. Perhaps this is why he is not as well known as Giorgione and Titian, both of whom were born outside of Venice but did most of their work in the great city.

Lorenzo Lotto: Crucifixion
Santa Maria in Telusiano
Monte San Giusto, Marche
oil on wood, 450x250cm

Lotto’s most powerful and dramatic work was a Crucifixion that still stands in its original site in the little church of Santa Maria in Telusiano in the small, out of the way, hill town of Monte San Giusto, located in that part of Italy known as the Marche. The town is not too far from Loreto, the religious center where Lotto eventually spent the last years of his life.

Lotto’s Crucifixion shows that he could hold his own with the greatest of Renaissance masters. My wife and I saw the painting a few years ago as we traveled down the Adriatic coast. Our old guidebook called Lotto’s painting in Monte San Giusto “ the most dramatic and powerful of all his large-scale works,” and so we decided to take a side trip out of our way in hope of finding it.  Although we are very thankful for the wonderful works of art preserved in Italian museums, it is always special to see a work “in situ”, where it was originally meant to be seen.

It was not easy to find the church and we finally had to go into a local bank where a patron kindly offered to lead us there through the curvy narrow streets of the town. We parked outside a long stone staircase that went up and up between stone buildings packed closely together on each side. 

It was hard to immediately recognize the church but we finally found a door that led into what was no more than a large chapel. It was dark inside and the church was empty except for a couple of ladies who seemed to be cleaning. We could hardly see the painting behind the only altar but one of the ladies pointed to a little box. We put a coin in and immediately the huge magnificent painting (450x250cm) that took up almost the whole back wall was revealed.

Revealed is an understatement. The light, color, movement, physicality, and dramatic intensity virtually jumped out at us. In the foreground, the disciple John, robed in green, seems to lead the grieving Mother right out of the picture. Behind them red-haired Mary Magdalene dressed in blue stretches out her arms in grief. A crowd of guards and onlookers stand beneath and around the three crosses that reach high into a dark sky. Jesus is in the middle flanked by the two thieves.

Standing in Santa Maria it is hard to examine the huge painting closely because the impression is so overwhelming. But on reflection we can see that Lotto has depicted the moment right after the death of Jesus. We can see the Roman centurion Longinus on his white horse immediately after he has placed the point of his lance in the side of Jesus to verify his death. He has released the lance and it is about to fall. He reaches both hands toward Jesus in the act of shouting, “truly, this man was the Son of God.”

The death of Jesus is also marked by a great wind that causes the loin cloths of Jesus and the thieves to billow as well as the Roman banner on the right where one can just make our the first letters of the name of Caesar Augustus. In the foreground the Apostle John is taking the Mother of Jesus away from the scene of horror.

Today, it is hard to imagine what churchgoers back in an obscure provincial town must have thought when they beheld this magnificent painting. They could never have seen anything like it before and must have known that a great master had done it. Going to Mass in Santa Maria in Telusiano would never be the same. At the Consecration of the Mass, as the priest at the altar raised high the host, their eyes would behold the sacrificial victim raised high on Calvary in the dramatic and breathtaking altarpiece behind. 

Note: This article was first posted on Giorgione et al... on 7/25/2014.

Friday, January 11, 2019

David Rosand on Veronese's Mary Magdalen

The late Venetian art historian David Rosand contributed an essay on a Veronese painting in the same June 2011 edition of the Burlington Magazine that featured Renata Segre’s discovery of the inventory of Giorgione’s estate. Segre’s archival find attracted much attention but Rosand’s essay provided much more insight into the work of Giorgione and other Venetian Renaissance artists.*

Paolo Veronese: The Conversion of Mary Magdalen, c. 1548
National Gallery, London, oil on canvas, 117.5 x `63.5 

Rosand discussed a work by the twenty-year-old Paolo Veronese that London’s National Gallery had labelled “Christ addressing a kneeling woman.” Rosand noted that the painting has variously been thought to depict Christ with the woman taken in adultery; Mary Magdalen laying aside her jewels; or Christ and the woman with the issue of blood. A few years ago, a National Gallery catalog leant toward the “Woman with the issue of blood” but now its website has accepted Rosand's identification of the painting as the Conversion of Mary Magdalen.

Not only did Rosand agree with those who saw Mary Magdalen in the painting but he also found a source text for Veronese’s depiction. The National Gallery catalog had rejected the Magdalen interpretation because there is no mention of a scene like this one in either the gospels or the apocrypha. However, Rosand discovered that Pietro Aretino, the notorious scoundrel and self-promoter who was also a close friend of Titian’s, had written a popularization of the gospels that provided a fourteen page description of the events surrounding the conversion of Mary Magdalen.

Written in 1535 the name of the work was "Humanita di Christo" and it was extremely popular until it and other works like it were banned by the Church after the Council of Trent. Today it is almost impossible to find. A search of the New York Public Library’s vast online catalog found nothing. Rosand’s extensive quotes were from a 1539 Italian edition. **

In Rosand’s words Aretino’s text provided an “imaginative expansion of the generally laconic text of the Gospels ” that his artist friends were quick to exploit. Aretino gave artists “a new novelistic gospel replete with pictorial possibilities.”

Aretino’s description of the conversion of the Magdalen begins the evening before her meeting with Christ. Her sister Martha had persuaded her to go to the Temple but the courtesan decides to throw a party and have one last fling. She puts on a sumptuous banquet “to celebrate her hedonistic life.” Aretino dwells on her worldly beauty and her “fine linen gown trimmed in gold and studded with pearls.”

The next morning Mary Magdalen sets out for the Temple looking like a “rising sun” and followed by a great multitude “drawn to this vision of splendid beauty.” Nevertheless, the meeting with Jesus is life changing.
Jesus addresses her in an intimate tone…and then proceeds to inflect her worldly beauty to a spiritual one, her eroticism to divine love: her splendour can only have a higher source, a gift from heaven.

Afterwards, Martha leads her contrite sister home where she locks herself in her room and “throws her jewels to the ground.”

Bernardino Luini: Martha and Mary Magdalen

In the Burlington essay Rosand did not spend much time discussing the other figures in the painting. He did not even call the modestly dressed woman supporting the Magdalen by name even though it must be Martha. He did not mention the man in the foreground with the red cap who appears to be dropping a small notebook. Could this be the Magdalen’s procurer discarding her client list? What about the man clutching the column on the left? Is he suffering from the previous evening’s celebration? There is also a nude youth and a dog. Were they normal parts of a courtesan’s retinue?

There can be no doubt that Rosand has found the source of Veronese’s painting in Aretino’s gospel popularization. However, one question remains. What was the source of Aretino’s account? Did he just make up his embellishment of the conversion of the Magdalen or did he draw from an already existing tradition?

Pietro Aretino was born in 1492 into a poor family in Arezzo. At about the age of fourteen he left his hometown to make his own way in the world. He didn’t journey to nearby Florence but for reasons unknown walked the 50 miles to Perugia. According to James Cleugh’s biography, “The Divine Aretino,” Pietro probably arrived in Perugia around 1506 and stayed for about six years.

In those years he tried his hand at a number of things and even studied painting. He achieved some competence but realized early that he would go nowhere as a painter. Nevertheless, there is one incident concerning Aretino that throws light on Veronese’s painting. Cleugh relates a prank attributed to the young Aretino.***

According to the Perugian poet Caporali he had been offended by the sight of a mediocre fresco in the Piazza Grande depicting Mary Magdalene at the feet of Christ. Her arms outspread in an absurdly awkward attitude of adoration and the two conspicuous tears rolling down her cheeks lent in Pietro's view an utterly incongruous aspect to the buxom citizeness who had been used as a model. He decided to correct this artistic impropriety and call the perpetrator to order in the only way he could be expected to understand--pictorially.

One morning, early risers were horrified to find that the pious Magdalene had been transformed overnight into the courtesan she was said to have been before her conversion. A lute had appeared in her hands and she was gazing at Jesus with a far from sorrowing expression. Pietro had spent a couple of hours the night before with his brushes and palette, and a discrete torch, on a ladder propped against the wall….

The joke, however, did not amuse the clergy or the ruling Baglioni family or the municipality of Perugia. Pietro could usually talk himself out of trouble, but this time his laughing apology did not help him. While the picture was being restored he was sternly given to understand that if he did not remove himself forthwith from the precincts of the city he could expect an examination by the Holy Inquisition.

Cleugh warns that practically anything by or about Pietro can be taken with a grain of salt but it would be impossible to doubt that there was a painting on a wall in Perugia that depicted a kneeling, penitent Magdalen at the feet of Christ, a scene only implied in the gospels. Moreover, it is not hard to imagine that this “Conversion of Mary Magdalen” by an unknown artist was not the only one in Perugia. Indeed, it is more than likely that such depictions could have been found all over Italy.

Faded image over door in Piazza S. Stefano, Venice
This incident should make us realize that what we have left of Renaissance art is but the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Time, weather, vandalism, and the efforts of Church reformers have left us only a very small percentage of the art that graced both the interior and exterior of churches, palaces, and homes over the entire peninsula. Of course, exceptional painters took these common devotional subjects to unprecedented heights but most must have been of the mediocre variety that Aretino playfully sought to improve.

Aretino’s scandalous writings have survived but Rosand noted in the Burlington Magazine that the Church banned works like his gospel popularization after the Council of Trent. Professor Rosand was correct to remind the National Gallery that there was more to the religious art of the Renaissance than could be found in the gospels or the apocrypha.


*David Rosand: “Veronese’s Magdalen and Pietro Aretino,” Burlington Magazine, 153, June 2011, pp. 392-395.

**All quotations from Aretino are taken from Rosand's article.

***James Cleugh, "The Divine Aretino", NY, 1966. p. 28.

Note. This post is a slightly revised version of one that appeared on Giorgione et al... in 2011. I plan to devote 2019 to reprising other early posts on artists other than Giorgione and Titian.