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".

Thursday, January 30, 2020

Giorgione: Discovery of Paris



A seventeenth century copy of a “lost” Giorgione painting, mis-identified as the birth or discovery of Paris for almost 500 years, can shed new light on the work and career of the most mysterious and perhaps the greatest of all Venetian Renaissance painters. *

David Teniers: Copy of a lost Giorgione


In 1525, fifteen years after the death of Giorgione, Marcantonio Michiel, a Venetian patrician and art collector, noticed a painting in the home of another patrician, Taddeo Contarini, and described it as a “picture on canvas, representing the birth of Paris, in a landscape, with two shepherds standing." Michiel noted that it was one of Giorgione’s “early works.”

This painting has been lost, but copies exist from the seventeenth century. The editor of the 1903 translation of Michiel’s notes cited a description in an “old manuscript catalog of the time.” 

A landscape on canvas, in oil, where there are on one side, a half nude woman and an old man, seated, with a flute. (1)

One of the copies, made by David Teniers around 1655, is currently in a private collection but has been discussed in recent catalogues. (2) The authors of these catalogues agree that it is a copy of an early Giorgione and also accept, although with some puzzlement, Michiel’s identification of the painting as “the birth of Paris.” However, details in this early Giorgione indicate that it has quite a different subject than the one imagined by Michiel. 

The subject of this “lost” Giorgione comes from a legendary episode on the flight of the Holy Family into Egypt. Here is the version from the apocryphal “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. (3)

       In Legends of the Madonna, nineteenth art maven Anna Jameson called the encounter with the robbers an “ancient tradition,” and added another detail. After the acceptance of his offer, “the merciful robber led the Holy Travellers to his stronghold on the rock, and gave them lodging for the night.” (4)

The landscape in the background of the painting is commonplace in depictions of the Flight into Egypt. The stream is often seen in versions of the “Rest.” It was used by the Madonna to either bathe, or to wash the swaddling clothes of her Son.

Bathing might explain Mary’s exposed leg and arms but the disarray of her clothing could also be Giorgione’s way of representing her obvious danger from the robbers. In a painting now in the Hermitage, Giorgione exposed the thigh of Judith, the famous Jewish heroine whose virtue was also threatened. (5) In any case Mary sits with her back to Joseph with her eyes intent on her Son, her real protector. Joseph is portrayed as an elderly graybeard as in Giorgione’s well-known Nativities. The infant Christ lies on a white cloth and returns his mother’s imploring look. The white cloth recalls the corporale, used to cover the altar on which the Eucharist is placed. (6)

The two men on the right side are not shepherds but robbers. A Giorgione shepherd would be kneeling or bending over the Child in adoration. The one with the red jacket has just convinced the other to leave the Holy Family in peace. He has taken off his “girdle” leaving himself somewhat exposed and given it to the other who is in the process of fixing it around his waist. The band of robbers can be seen lounging in the middle ground. Joseph’s flute recalls the well-know verse from Juvenal: “A wanderer who has nothing can sing in a robber’s face.” (7)

In “The Encounter with the Robbers in the Desert” Giorgione did not attempt to hide the subject of that early work. If no one has recognized its subject from Michiel’s time to ours, it is because the very popular apocryphal legends have largely been forgotten. In his massive 2009 study of Giorgione, Enrico Maria dal Pozzolo attached great importance to the lost Giorgione painting. Dal Pozzolo accepted the traditional identification of the painting as the discovery of the infant Paris on Mt. Ida, and paired it with another lost Giorgione, the meeting of Aeneas and his father, Anchises, after the fall of Troy.

as we previously stated, 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…. (8)

 I agree that the painting is important but it does appear that early in his career Giorgione was working not on a pagan subject derived from the legend of Paris but on a depiction of an apocryphal legend based on the Flight into Egypt. Moreover, he showed an inclination, even at this early stage in his brief career, to depict the Madonna in a very unusual way.

             Marcantonio Michiel may not have been the first to describe this painting. In 1510, the year of Giorgione’s death, Isabella D’Este, the Marchioness of Mantua and a noted collector, was trying to acquire a work by Giorgione for her camerino. When she was informed by Taddeo Albano, her agent in Venice, that Giorgione had just died, she urged him to try to acquire a “Notte” from his estate: (9)

we hear that among the possessions left by Zorzo da Castelfranco, the painter, there is a picture of a Notte, very beautiful and original. If this is the case, we wish to have it, and beg your Lorenzo da Pavia or any other person of taste and judgment to go and see if it is a really excellent thing. If it is, I hope you will endeavor to secure this picture for me, with the help of our dearest compare the Magnifico Carlo Valerio, or of any one else you may think fit. Find out the price and let us have the exact sum; but if it is really a fine thing, and you think well to clench the bargain for fear others should carry it off, do what you think best…”

Albano replied,
                                                                                 
I have spoken in your interests to some of my friends who were very intimate with him, and they assure me that there is no such picture among his possessions. It is true that the said Zorzo painted a Notte for M. Taddeo Contarini, which, according to the information which I have, is not as perfect as you would desire. Another picture of the Notte was painted by Zorzo for a certain Vittore Beccaro, which, from what I hear, is finer in design and better finished than that of Contarini. But Beccaro is not at present in Venice, and from what I hear neither picture is for sale, because the owners have had them painted for their own pleasure, so that I regret I am unable to satisfy Your Excellency’s wish.

According to Michiel’s notes the only painting in the home of Taddeo Contarini that could be a “notte” would be the “discovery of Paris,” or as we have called it, “The Encounter with the Robbers on the Flight into Egypt.” Scholars have never agreed about what Isabella D’Este could have meant by “Notte.” Some think she was referring to a Nativity but Isabella knew a Nativity when she saw one, or when she agreed to accept one from Giovanni Bellini. No, the “Encounter with the Robbers,” indicates that a “Notte” was an evening scene where the sun was setting over a landscape at the end of day.

What about the other “notte”? It is certainly possible that the one done for Vittore Beccaro, the one finer in design and better finished; the one described by Isabella as “very beautiful and original” could have been the Tempest. In the “Encounter with the Robbers” Giorgione was “stretching the envelope” with a presentation of a disheveled and partially nude Madonna. Later he would go even further in the Tempest. But that is another story. 

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*This post is the second in a series of articles that I hope to reproduce in 2020, the tenth anniversary of Giorgione et al... These essays will feature the interpretive discoveries that followed upon my interpretation of Giorgione's Tempest as a "sacred" subject, The Rest of the Holy Family on the Flight into Egypt.


Notes:

1. The Anonimo, Notes on Pictures and Works of Art in Italy made by an Anonymous Writer in the Sixteenth Century, ed. George C. Williamson, London, 1903. p. 104

2. Jaynie Anderson, Giorgione, 1997, p. 317; and Wolfgang Eller, Giorgione Catalog Raisonne, Petersburg, 2007, pp. 171-173.

3. 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.

4. Jameson, Legends of the Madonna, Boston, 1885. pp. 361-362. Mrs. Jameson noted that the encounter with the robbers has been “seldom treated” as an artistic subject but did indicate that she had seen two representations. “One is a fresco by Giovanni di San Giovanni, which, having been cut from the wall of some suppressed convent, is now in the academy at Florence. The other is a composition by Zuccaro.” In a later edition she provided a sketch of the Zuccaro “Encounter,” which shows Joseph assisting the Madonna down from the Ass at the behest of the armed robber.

5. In Judith’s famous prayer she recalled her ancestor Simeon who took vengeance on the foreigners “who had undone a virgin’s girdle to her shame, laid bare her thigh to her confusion…” Judith 9:2, Jerusalem Bible.

6. For the corporale see the discussion of Titian’s Pesaro Altarpiece in Rona Goffen, Piety and Patronage in Renaissance Venice, Yale, 1986, p. 114.

7. Juvenal, Satires, X, 22. I thank Dr. Karin Zeleny of the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna for the Juvenal reference.

8. Enrico Maria Dal Pozzolo, Giorgione, 2009, p. 264,

9. The correspondence is in Julia Cartwright, Isabella d’Este, Marchioness of Mantua,1474-1539. London, 1932. Pp. 390-391.


Friday, January 10, 2020

Giorgione: The Tempest

No great work of art has mystified art historians and critics more than Giorgione’s Tempest, 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.




While the Tempest 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.

This relatively small painting (82 x 73cm.) 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:  “The Rest of the Holy Family on the Flight 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 the legend, 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 "Rest on the Flight into Egypt." Joseph is usually portrayed as an old man by Medieval artists. Nevertheless, in the fifteenth century he began to be depicted as young and virile.  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 settled on 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?

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Note:

The essay above is a copy, with some slight changes, of my original essay that appeared in the Masterpiece section of the Wall Street Journal on 5/13/2006. It was originally entitled, "A Renaissance Mystery Solved?" with the cautious editor adding the question mark. I reproduce it here at the start of 2020 because at age 80 I want to devote this year to posts dealing with what I consider to be major discoveries that followed upon my initial intuition that the Tempest was actually Giorgione's version of "The Rest on the Flight into Egypt." The full version of my paper can be found at my website, MyGiorgione, along with other interpretive discoveries.

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 who had spent most of his career as a financial advisor. 

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 Giorgione et al... which by last month has received over 450000 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.

Happy New Year.

Frank DeStefano