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, September 14, 2021

Review: Leo Steinberg on Renaissance Nudity

Leo Steinberg:The Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art and in Modern Oblivion.

In his controversial and ground-breaking 1983 study, famed art historian Leo Steinberg explored the theological basis for the use of nudity in depictions of the infant Jesus, as well as the crucified Savior. In all honesty I must acknowledge that Steinberg never stated that his arguments could extend to the Virgin Mary. Neither did he ever see the nude Woman of Giorgione's Tempest as the Madonna.  Nevertheless, in my paper on the Tempest I argued that the nude Woman nursing her child is the Madonna, and I fail to see how the following passages from Steinberg's study cannot apply to Giorgione's Woman. 

Michelangelo: Risen Christ
S. Maria sopra Minerva, Rome

My third consideration concerns Christ in the character of Redeemer. His manhood differs from that of all humankind in one crucial respect, which once again involves the pudenda: he was without sin—not only without sins committed, but exempt from the genetically transmitted stain of Original Sin. Therefore, applied to Christ’s body, the word “pudenda”…is a misnomer…For the word derives from the Latin pudere, to feel or cause shame. But shame entered the world as the wages of sin. Before their transgression, Adam and Eve, though naked, were unembarrassed; and were abashed in consequence of their lapse. But is it not the whole merit of Christ, the New Adam, to have regained for man his prelapsarian condition? How then could he who restores human nature to sinlessness be shamed by the sexual factor in his humanity? And is not this reason enough to render Christ’s sexual member, even like the stigmata, an object of ostentatio? [p. 17] We are faced with the evidence that serious Renaissance artists obeyed imperatives deeper than modesty—as Michelangelo did in 1514, when he undertook a commission to carve a Risen Christ for a Roman church. The utter nakedness of the statue, complete in all parts of a man, was thought by many to be reprehensible. ... But the intended nudity of Michelangelo’s figure was neither a licentious conceit, nor a thoughtless truckling to antique precedent. If Michelangelo denuded his Risen Christ, he must have sensed a rightness in his decision more compelling that inhibitions of modesty; must have seen that a loincloth would convict these genitalia of being “pudenda,” thereby denying the very work of redemption which promised to free human nature from its Adamic contagion of shame... 
We must… credit Michelangelo with the knowledge that Christian teaching makes bodily shame no part of man’s pristine nature, but attributes it to the corruption brought on by sin. [p. 18] 

The candor of Michelangelo’s naked Redeemer consummates a development traceable through two and a half centuries of devotional art. I reproduce a sampling of representative instances. But I should feel defeated were these works taken as illustrations of texts, or as theological arguments. On the contrary: the pictures set forth what perhaps had never been uttered. They are themselves primary texts... [p. 23]

 The pictures tell us to reverse the priorities. Their chronology demonstrates that the conspicuous display of the privates, instead of resulting incidentally from the Child’s total nudity, is more likely the motive that prompted this nudity. [p. 28]

 No longer was it conceivable that Christianity had once, during the Renaissance interlude, passed through a phase of exceptional daring, when the full implications of Incarnational faith were put forth in icons that recoiled not even from the God-man’s assumption of sexuality. [p. 45] 

And because Renaissance culture not only advanced an incarnational theology... but evolved representational modes adequate to its expression, we may take Renaissance art to be the first and last phase of Christian art that can claim full Christian orthodoxy. Renaissance art… harnessed the theological impulse and developed the requisite stylistic means to attest the utter carnality of God’s humanation in Christ. It became the first Christian art in a thousand years to confront the Incarnation entire, the upper and lower body together, not excluding even the body’s sexual component. [p. 72] 


Leo Steinberg, The Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art and in Modern Oblivion, NY, 1983. 

Tuesday, August 31, 2021

Review: Piety and Patronage in Renaissance Venice

I owe a great debt to the late Rona Goffen. When I originally saw the nudity of the woman in the Tempest as Giorgione’s way of depicting the Immaculate Conception of Mary, I just assumed that the doctrine was important in Catholic Italy. However, it was only after a chance encounter with Goffen’s “Piety and Patronage in Renaissance Venice”* that I came to realize just how important the Immaculate Conception was in Giorgione’s time. 

Goffen wrote many books and articles on the Italian Renaissance but in my opinion this small volume was her best work. In her book, subtitled, “Bellini, Titian and the Franciscans,” she never discussed the Tempest but her discussion of the historical background of the controversial doctrine of the Immaculate Conception solidified my thoughts about Giorgione’s most famous painting. Moreover, she insisted that the art of the Venetian Renaissance could only be understood by attempting to see it through the eyes of contemporary Venetians.

In discussing the writings of prominent clerics like St. Bernardino of Siena, a patron saint of Venice, and Lorenzo Giustiniani, the saintly first Patriarch of Venice, she pointed out the importance, but also the difficulty, of seeing things through their eyes.

In these and other similar passages, Bernardino and Giustiniani declared their belief in the Immaculacy of the Madonna. Their influence on Venetian piety must have been as pervasive during the Renaissance as it is difficult today to gauge in any precise way. Nevertheless, their thoughts and writings constitute part--a very important part--of the original context of sacred art in Renaissance Venice. One must attempt to reconstruct that context in the historically informed imagination. (79)

Seeing through Venetian eyes means understanding first of all the great importance of religion to the ordinary Venetian. Because of its many disputes with the Papacy, Venice is sometimes regarded as a proto-Protestant state when in reality it was usually more Catholic than the Pope. Goffen understood that the Republic identified itself with the Madonna and her Immaculate Conception.

No Venetian--and no Venetian Franciscan--could have been unaware of the rich associations, both political and spiritual, of the Madonna in Venice, and indeed of the identification of the one with the other. After all, Venice, too, was apostrophized as a Virgin, always safe in the embrace of her beloved Evangelist St. Mark...(145).

This confluence of the sacred and the secular found its way into Venetian art.

And both Pesaro altarpieces embody that singular combination of sacred and civic elements that characterizes Venetian art, Venetian history, and Venetian piety, together with the very personal concerns and ambitions of the donors, concerns in themselves both spiritual and secular. In Venice the image of the Immaculate Conception combines the sacred and the secular in a very particular way. (136)

Goffen concentrated her attention on the Frari, itself dedicated to the Immaculate Conception, and on its incomparable altarpieces. The dust jacket of her book gives a good summary. 

The church of Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari in Venice encapsulates the history of Venetian Renaissance art as well as the histories of a patrician family, a religious order, and a city. The decoration of the Frari—notably commissioned by members of the Pesaro family—not only reflects their piety but their rivalry; in addition, it represents the particular concerns and the character of the Franciscan order and alludes to the relationship between church and state in Renaissance Venice. All this is embodied in the altarpieces pain ted for the Frari by two of the greatest masters of Venetian art—Giovanni Bellini and Titian.

In chapter 2 Goffen described the influence of Franciscan spirituality on Bellini’s famous triptych.

The Frari triptych was his fourth (and last) great commission of works painted for the Franciscan order or with a specifically Franciscan theme,...Bellini learned much about Franciscan sensibility and Franciscan spirituality. (54)

Chapter 3 deals with the “Assunta”, the painting that established Titian’s reputation. Although called the “Assunta”, the “theological and spiritual context is the triumph of the Immaculate Conception.” (74)

For Titian and his Franciscan patrons, there can be no doubt that "S. Maria Gloriosa" implied "S. Maria Immacolata"...Given the liturgical and theological assimilation of the Virgin's Immaculate Conception with her Assumption, it comes as no surprise that the visual imagery of the former was frequently based upon representations of the latter
. (93)

Goffen found the source of Titian’s work in a sermon by Lorenzo Giustiniani, whose collected sermons had been printed in Venice in 1506.

There is another text, however, that can almost be read as the libretto for Titian's "opera," and that is the sermon for the feast of the Assumption by Lorenzo seems that the artist or his Franciscan patrons must indeed have been referring to Giustiniani's text, or something very like it.

Chapter 4 is devoted to Titian’s famed Pesaro altarpiece. Looking at that painting through Goffen’s eyes is a revelation. 

This dual sacred and secular imagery, combining the representation of the Immaculate Conception with references to the Serenissima, is embodied also in Titian's Assunta of the high altar.

In her last chapter, “The Cult of the Madonna in Venice,” Goffen claimed the Bellini triptych, Titian’s Assunta and Pesaro altarpiece, and even his Pieta were representations of the Immaculate Conception.

Titian's Pieta must be considered, therefore, together with Bellini's triptych and Titian's own earlier works for the Frari. The four altarpieces (or the three alone, in situ) represent the dedication of the Frari to the Immaculate Conception in visual imagery that suggests the similarities of the Madonna, and hence her church, with the Most serene republic of Venice. (154)

In the year 1500 Venice was not only the greatest city on the Italian peninsula but it was also the wealthiest and most powerful nation in Europe. England, France and Spain were just emerging from a century of civil wars. Germany was hopelessly divided and the Emperor was little more than a penniless figurehead. The Papacy was still contending with threats to its authority from Roman warlords and Conciliarist bishops. Only Venice seemed to have the will and wherewithal to deal with the Ottoman Empire.

To read Rona Goffen’s book is to understand that in Giorgione’s time every Venetian would have believed that they owed it all to the Immaculata. Yet in history things can sometimes turn on a dime. Only a decade or two after Giorgione’s death radical Protestant reformers were destroying images of the Madonna all over Europe. 

It is hard for moderns, even Catholics, to understand or sympathize with the beliefs of Giorgione and his patrons. Interestingly, in the nineteenth century as hordes of Catholic immigrants were pouring into the United States, the Catholic hierarchy dedicated the country to the Immaculate Conception. Today, most of the descendants of those immigrants have no idea of the meaning of the doctrine.

Rona Goffen's book is not just her best work: it is probably the single best guide to the Venetian Renaissance.


*Rona Goffen:"Piety and Patronage in Renaissance Venice". Yale, 1986.

Saturday, August 14, 2021

Historical Imagination and the Venetian Renaissance


In my interpretation of Giorgione's Tempest I argued that the famous painting has a "sacred subject,"  "The Rest on the Flight into Egypt."  Since my initial discovery back in 2005, subsequent reading has led me to see that an increasing number of scholars are coming to understand the role that religion played in the life and art of Renaissance Venetians. Nevertheless, it is still hard to overcome the view that has prevailed for centuries that the Renaissance turned its back on Christianity in favor of the world of pagan Greece and Rome.

Titian: Vendramin family worshipping a relic of the Cross

For example, scholars sometimes point to the passage in the will of Gabriele Vendramin, the owner of the Tempest, where he directed that his collection not be dispersed or sold upon his death. He said that the collection had given him great consolation in moments of quiet contemplation. Scholars assume that he was contemplating the works of antiquity but the paintings in his collection were mainly "sacred" or devotional subjects. [Notice Titian: "Gabriele Vendramin with Brother and Nephews Venerating a Relic of the True Cross"] Indeed, the great majority of paintings found in the homes of Venetian patricians were of sacred subjects, including many versions of the "Rest on the Flight into Egypt.

In our modern world it takes a great amount of "historical imaginaton" to see things as Renaissance Venetians saw them.

Below find selections from two great scholars on the need for “historical imagination” for a correct understanding of the past. The first is from Piety and Patronage in Renaissance Venice, by the late Rona Goffen. Her small book is one of the best monographs ever written about the Venetian Renaissance. Referring to the importance of the sermons of Bernardino of Siena, and Lorenzo Giustiniani, the saintly first Patriarch of Venice, she wrote of the need for an historically informed imagination.

 In these and other similar passages, Bernardino and Giustiniani declared their belief in the Immaculacy of the Madonna. Their influence on Venetian piety must have been as pervasive during the Renaissance as it is difficult today to gauge in any precise way. Nevertheless, their thoughts and writings constitute part--a very important part--of the original context of sacred art in Renaissance Venice. One must attempt to reconstruct that context in the historically informed imagination. [p.79]

Goffen stressed the need to see Renaissance Venice, especially its art, through the eyes of contemporary Venetians. She wrote,

 No Venetian--and no Venetian Franciscan--could have been unaware of the rich associations, both political and spiritual, of the Madonna in Venice, and indeed of the identification of the one with the other. after all, Venice, too, was apostrophized as a Virgin, always safe in the embrace of her beloved Evangelist St. Mark... [p. 145]

The second selection on the need for historical imagination comes from C.S. Lewis, whose greatness as a scholar is somewhat obscured today by the extraordinary success of his popular Narnia stories. Nevertheless, he was one of the greatest twentieth century students of Medieval and Renaissance literature. The following excerpt is taken from his small but brilliant study of Milton’s "Paradise Lost." In chapter IX of  A Preface to Paradise Lost,  Lewis discussed the need to see things through Milton’s eyes.

"Now when we read Paradise Lost,…Milton is on his own ground, and it is we who must be the learners... 
"Our whole study of the poem will then become a battle between us and the author in which we are trying to twist his work into a shape he never gave it, to make him use the loud pedal where he really used the soft, to force into false prominence what he took in his stride, and to slur over what he actually threw into bold relief. The older modern reading of Dante, with its disproportionate emphasis on the Inferno, and, within the Inferno, on the episode of Paolo and Francesca, is an example of this…." 
"Fortunately there is a better way. Instead of stripping the knight of his armour, you can try to put his armour on yourself; instead of seeing how the courtier would look without his lace, you can try to see how you would feel with his lace; that is, with his honour, his wit, his royalism, and his gallantries out of the Grand Cyrus. I had much rather know what I should feel like if I adopted the beliefs of Lucretius, than how Lucretius would have felt if he had never entertained them. The possible Lucretius in myself interests me more than the possible C.S. Lewis in Lucretius…." 
"You must, so far as in you lies, become an Achaean chief while reading Homer, a medieval knight while reading Malory, and an eighteenth century Londoner while reading Johnson. Only thus will you be able to judge the work ‘in the same spirit that its author writ’ and to avoid chimerical criticism…." 
"We must therefore turn a deaf ear to Professor Saurat when he invites us ‘to study what there is of lasting originality in Milton’s thought and especially to disentangle from theological rubbish the permanent and human interest.’…Our plan must be very different—to plunge right into the ‘rubbish’, to see the world as if we believed it, and then, while we still hold that position in our imagination, to see what sort of poem results…." 
"I myself am a Christian, and that some (by no means all) of the things which the atheist reader must ‘try to feel as if he believed’ I actually, in cold prose, do believe. But for the student of Milton my Christianity is an advantage. What would you not give to have a real, live Epicurean at your elbow while reading Lucretius?"

Let me just add a personal footnote.

A few years ago I attended a Giorgione symposium at Princeton on a cold Saturday in December.  Next day, my wife and I got up early to go to Mass at the Catholic church just across the street from the campus. It was December 12, the feast day of Our Lady of Guadalupe, but still we were surprised to find a good sized congregation in attendance at the 7:00 a.m. Mass. Even more surprising was the display that filled one of the two side altars. There was an image of Our Lady of Guadalupe along with an incredible array of flowers that even included a colorful working fountain. Catholic churches are usually somewhat bare during the season of Advent.

Before beginning Mass the presiding priest, obviously Mexican, was on fire as he told the congregation of the story of Juan Diego and the miraculous appearance of Mary at Guadalupe almost 500 years ago. Most surprising was his announcement that 3 hours earlier, at 4:00 a.m., the church had been packed with over 600 worshippers gathered for prayers on the morning of this great feast. Afterwards, we discovered that there was a substantial community of Latino workers in Princeton.

I relate this story because it occurred to me that even the greatest and wealthiest of Renaissance Venetian patricians would have been closer in spirit to these 600 Latino worshippers than he would have been to the 100 or so learned art historians who had attended the Princeton symposium. To put it another way it would take a great deal of imagination for an ordinary American to understand the mentality that could get up at 4:00 a.m. on a dark, rainy, morning to go to church and fill it with beautiful flowers in honor of the Madonna.

You don't have to be a believer to understand the art of the Venetian Renaissance but you have to try to see through the eyes or ordinary believers. In fifteen years of lecturing on Giorgione's famous painting, I have found that ordinary Catholics have no difficulty in seeing the Madonna nursing her child in the Tempest. ###

Saturday, July 17, 2021

Tempest Patron

Giorgione's "Tempest" and the so-called "Discovery of Paris" might have been the two notte that Isabella D' Este sought to acquire on hearing the news of the painter's death in 1510. It is interesting to note that she, like other collectors, was not averse to acquiring paintings that had been commissioned by other patrons. Below, I reprise a post on the subject that includes speculation on the patron who might have originally commissioned the painting that has come to be called the Tempest.

Late in 1510 Isabella D’Este, Marchesa of Mantua and renowned art patron, tried to acquire a Giorgione painting only to discover that the young master had just died. Nevertheless, the indefatigable collector persisted. On October 25 she wrote to Taddeo Albano, her agent in Venice:
 “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… 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 on November 8:
“Most illustrious and honoured Madama mia,--
“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.” *
Since that time scholars have not been able to agree on the identity of the two paintings mentioned in Albano’s letter. Neither have they been able to agree on what Isabella or Albano meant by “notte” since the word hardly appears elsewhere in descriptions of paintings.

However, from the correspondence we can say that both paintings were commissioned: “the owners have had them painted for their own pleasure.” The one that was not as “perfect” as Isabella would have desired was done for Venetian patrician, Taddeo Contarini. The other “notte”, the one “finer in design and better finished,” was done for Vittore Beccaro, of whom nothing else is known. Not only was Beccaro out of town at the time of Isabella’s inquiry, but he seems to have completely disappeared from history. 

Some scholars have argued that Isabella used “notte” or night scene to mean a Nativity or “presepio.” They have suggested that the Adoration of the Shepherds now in the National Gallery in Washington is the more perfect version, and that the same painting in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna is the less perfect one since it is obviously unfinished. This explanation hardly seems plausible since it is impossible to imagine that a patron like Taddeo Contarini would have prized an incomplete painting. Moreover, Isabella knew a Nativity when she saw one. A few years earlier when she corresponded with Giovanni Bellini about a Nativity, she never called it a “notte.”

David Teniers: copy of a lost Giorgione

In 1525 Marcantonio Michiel saw a painting in the house of Taddeo Contarini that could be called a night scene. Michiel noted that it represented “the birth of Paris in a landscape, with two shepherds standing.” He said it was by Giorgio di Castelfranco,” and indicated that it was one of his “early works.” Recently, Enrico dal Pozzolo suggested that this painting, of which only copies remain, was the one mentioned by Albano. He also suggested that the “more perfect” “notte” might be a “Hell with Aeneas and Anchises,” a painting that is now completely lost but which had somehow found its way into Contarini’s home by 1525. **

Pozzolo noted that a discovery of Paris coupled with an Aeneas and Anchises would mark the beginning and the end of the whole Trojan saga. However, this hypothesis is based on a misinterpretation of the “Discovery of Paris.” I have argued elsewhere that this lost Giorgione is a depiction of an episode on the flight of the Holy Family into Egypt. It is clear that in this early work Giorgione relied on a text from the apocryphal Arabic gospel of the Infancy.

Even from the copy of the “Discovery of Paris” done by David Teniers in 1655, we can see that it is not one of Giorgione’s most perfect works. This early effort seems crude in comparison with his later work. Since I have argued that Giorgione’s most perfect painting, La Tempesta, is also a depiction of the Rest on the Flight into Egypt, I believe it is safe to say that it was also the “notte”, “very beautiful and original,” that Isabella unsuccessfully sought to acquire right after Giorgione’s death in 1510.

Finally, I would like to speculate on the identity of Vittore Beccaro. Enrico dal Pozzolo suggested that the name implies that he might have been a butcher but it is hard to imagine, given Giorgione’s patrician patrons, that the Tempest was commissioned by an ordinary tradesman. It is true that Taddeo Albano claimed that Vittore Beccaro was the owner of the beautiful “notte”. But Albano got his information second or third hand from acquaintances. It is clear that he did not know the owner or even see the painting. At my age, it is easy to imagine that Albano could have rendered the name somewhat incorrectly.

Instead I would like to advise students to look in the direction of Bologna whose leading citizens included the Zambeccaro family. I also believe that some members of the family fled Bologna for Venice after Pope Julius II drove out the ruling Bentivoglio family in 1506.

At least one of the Zambeccaro was an art collector. In his biography of Franceso Francia, Giorgio Vasari said that Francia was a close friend of Polo Zambeccaro.
He lived in close intimacy with Messer Polo Zambeccaro, who being much his friend, and wishing to have some memorial of him, caused him to paint a rather large picture of the Nativity of Christ, which is one of the most celebrated works that he ever made; and for this reason Messer Polo commissioned him to paint at his villa two figures in fresco, which are very beautiful.***
The status of Polo Zambeccaro enabled him to commission a painting from a renowned painter like Francia. Moreover, he asked for a sacred subject, a Nativity, for his own private devotion. Polo Zambeccaro would have been the type of person who could have asked Giorgione, the up and coming favorite of the Venetian aristocracy, for "a picture of a Notte, very beautiful and original," a painting that would later be called the Tempest. It is still not for sale at any price.



*Isabella’s correspondence with Taddeo Albano can be found in Julia Cartwright, Isabella d’Este, Marchioness of Mantua, 1474-1539. London, 1932. For the Italian text see Jaynie Anderson, Giorgione, The Painter of Poetic Brevity, p. 362.

**Enrico dal Pozzolo: Giorgione, 1999, pp. 33-35.

***Vasari, Giorgio: Lives of the Painters, Sculptors and Architects, translated by Gaston Du C. De Vere, with an introduction and notes by David Ekserdjian. 2V, Everyman’s Library, 1996. Vol. 1, 581.

Wednesday, June 30, 2021

Giorgione and Gabriele Vendramin

Titian's depiction of Venetian patrician Gabriele Vendramin and his brother Andrea venerating (along with Andrea's seven children) a relic of the True Cross is as much a primary source about the owner of Giorgione's Tempest as any written document. Scholars are unsure which of the two men is Gabriele but nevertheless, he must have made it clear to Titian that he wanted to be depicted in an attitude of religious devotion. 

In 1530 Marcantonio Michiel saw the Tempest in the “portego” or salon of Gabriele Vendramin. It is generally considered to be the first historical reference to the painting. In his notes Michiel described the Tempest in this way. “ The little landscape on canvas, representing stormy weather and a gipsy woman with a soldier, is by Giorgio di Castelfranco.” 

Despite this evidence, we cannot be certain that Vendramin initially commissioned the painting. I believe that it is more likely that he acquired it as he did other works of art by trade or purchase, perhaps after the death of the original owner. We do know that he prized his collection highly and insisted that it not be broken up or sold. However, other than the portraits listed in the inventory below, all of Vendramin's other paintings are of sacred subjects. For example, right after the Tempest entry, there is a  description of a version of a Flight into Egypt by Jan Scorel of Holland. 

Michiel’s notes were originally discovered in the early nineteenth century without an indication of the author. That is why the initial publication of the notes attributed them to the “anonimo.” The English translation of 1903 is available in paperback. References in the list below are to the page numbers in the paperback.

The Anonimo: Notes on Pictures and Works of Art in Italy Made by an Anonymous Writer in the Sixteenth Century, translated by Paolo Mussi, edited by George C. Williamson, London, 1903

In the House of Messer Gabrieli Vendramino: 1530.

The portrait of the same Messer Gabriel in half length, life size, in oil, on canvas, was painted by Giovannini del Comandador. The gold foliage decoration all around it was executed by the Priest Vido Celere. (122). 

The little landscape on canvas, representing stormy weather and a gipsy woman with a soldier, is by Giorgio di Castelfranco. (123)

The picture representing Our Lady with St. Joseph in the desert, is by John Scorel of Holland. (123)

The dead Christ in the Sepulchre, with the Angel supporting Him, is by Giorgio di Castelfranco, but was repainted by Titian. (123)

The three small portraits in tempera, one representing Messer Filippo Vendramino in a three-quarter view, and the others two young gentlemen in profile, are by Giovanni Bellini. (123)

The small oil picture on panel representing St. Anthony, with the portrait of Messer Antonio Siciliano in full length, is by…a Flemish master, and it is an excellent work, specially in the painting of the heads. (123)

124. The small oil picture on panel representing Our Lady standing up, crowned, with the Child in her arms, in a Flemish church, is by Roger of Bruges, and is a perfect work. (124)

 The portrait of Francesco Zanco Bravo, in chiaroscuro, with black ink, is by Giacometto. The large book of drawings, executed with a lead pencil on bombasin paper, is the work of Jacopo Bellini…. The two drawings in pen-and-ink, the one on vellum containing the history of Attila, and the other on bombasin paper representing the Nativity, are by Raphael.*  (125)

*The editor notes that even the drawing containing the history of Attila represents St. Peter and St. Paul appearing to Attila.

The only painting in Vendramin's collection that is not considered to be a sacred subject is the one we now call the Tempest. If we can see it as The Rest on the Flight into Egypt, what does that tell us about the interests of Gabrielle Vendramin, and what does that tell us about the collections of the other Venetian patricians that Michiel described in his inventory? Most of those paintings were also sacred or devotional subjects.


Tuesday, June 15, 2021

Giorgione and Marcantonio Michiel


The notes on paintings in sixteenth century Venetian homes made by Venetian patrician and art collector Marcantonio Michiel are perhaps the most important primary source for the works of Giorgione. However, Michiel’s notes indicate how even the testimony of a contemporary eyewitness must be used carefully. 

Around 1800 Abate Don Jacopo Morelli discovered the notes among a manuscript collection in Venice’s Marciana library. Written in the early part of the sixteenth century the notes, made by an anonymous writer, concerned “pictures and other treasures contained in various houses, and monuments and works of art in churches, schools and other ecclesiastical buildings in the cities which the writer had visited.” *

Abate Morelli published the notes in 1800 under the title, “The Anonimo, Notes on Pictures and Works of Art in Italy.” Morelli used “Anonimo” because he could not be sure of the author. Today, scholars believe that the notes were the work of Michiel. 

The cities visited by Marcantonio Michiel were Padua, Cremona, Milan, Pavia, Bergamo, Crema, and Venice. In Venice the notes recorded visits to fourteen homes of Venetian patricians as well as visits to the church and school of the “Carita” which is now the site of the famed Accademia. The publication of the "Notes" provided a look into the artistic preferences of some of the greatest families in Renaissance Venice but also shed much light on the artists, especially Giorgione. For example, the notes provided the first mention of the “little landscape on canvas,” now called the “Tempest”, that in 1800 remained largely out of sight in a private home.

Altogether Michiel mentioned 18 works in the homes of seven collectors that were either by Giorgione, possibly by Giorgione, or copies by others based on Giorgione. While Michiel’s observations are invaluable for purposes of attribution, his brief notes rarely attempt interpretation or analysis. For the most part, he seems to be content to point out identifying markers. Even there he can be mistaken about the subjects of the paintings he saw with his own eyes.

A few years ago Venetian art historian Jaynie Anderson noted Michiel’s deficiencies in her Giorgione catalog. For example, she believed that in his discussion of a St. Jerome by Antonello da Messina, 

Michiel appears to be the passive communicator of received opinions, which he is unable to verify…The fanciful absurdity of his suggestion throws doubt on Michiel’s canonical status in similar statements about other pictures…. **

She also argued that his eyes deceived him when it came to Giorgione’s most famous painting seen in the home of Gabriele Vendramin in 1530.

"What are we to make of the famous description of the Tempesta, where a nude female, suckling her infant in an open landscape, is identified as a gypsy—‘la cingana’. …Yet Giorgione’s gypsy looks less like a gypsy than those of other artists;…nor is she engaged in any of the traditional activities associated with gypsies,…What did Michiel mean by his use of the word? Like all connoisseurs, he was not as interested in subject matter as we would like him to have been…Michiel, alas, chose to record only the briefest of impressions." ***

Despite her caveats, even Anderson was led astray by Michiel’s description of a Giorgione in the home of Taddeo Contarini. Here is his note.

In the House of Messer Taddeo Contarini. 1525. 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.

David Teniers: Copy of a lost Giorgione

This painting has been lost but seventeenth century copies still exist. It gives us a very good illustration of Michiel’s limitations as an observer. He knows that the painting is an early Giorgione but his description does not even mention the two prominent figures on the left: an elderly man with a flute or pipe, and the young woman with arm and leg shockingly exposed. 

In my paper on the Tempest I have shown that Michiel’s brief identification of this lost painting was indeed incorrect. The subject of the painting is a “sacred” one: “The Encounter of the Holy Family with Robbers on the Flight into Egypt.” A popular legend of the time explains every detail in the painting including the lounging figures in the middle distance.

Nevertheless, his identification has stuck and led scholars to draw some fanciful conclusions. Anderson, for one, was surprised that Michiel had not seen in Contarini’s home the “notte” mentioned in correspondence between Isabella d’Este and her Venetian agent after Giorgione’s death in 1510. Anderson could only conclude that the “notte” or night scene must have been in the home of another member of the Contarini family. Yet, it is very likely that this lost Giorgione was the “notte.” After all, the sun is setting in the distance.


*The Anonimo: Notes on Pictures and Works of Art in Italy Made by an Anonymous Writer in the Sixteenth Century, translated by Paolo Mussi, edited by George C. Williamson, London, 1903. Facsimile copy by Kessinger Publishing.
** Anderson, Jaynie: Giorgione, 1997, p. 57.
***op.cit., p. 60.

Tuesday, June 1, 2021

Giorgione's Tempest: Bernard Aikema's Interpretation

In December 2010 I attended a symposium at Princeton University honoring Patricia Fortini Brown, Professor Emeritus of Art and Archaeology at Princeton, on her retirement this year after 27 years at Princeton. The symposium entitled, "Giorgione and His Times: Confronting Alternate Realities," was also intended to commemorate the 500th anniversary of Giorgione's death. 

 The Symposium produced some thoughtful and even provocative sessions. The organizers at Princeton had assembled an all star cast. The four main speakers, Bernard Aikema, professore ordinario of Art History at the University of Verona; Deborah Howard, Professor of Architectural History in the Faculty of Architecture and History of Art and a Fellow of St. John’s College, Cambridge; Sarah Blake McHam, Professor of Italian Renaissance Art at Rutgers University; and Salvatore Settis, Chair of Art History at the Museo del Prado in Madrid and Director of the Scuola Normale Superiore di Pisa, all had international reputations. I was particularly interested to hear Aikema and Settis both of whom have written extensively on the Tempest. As it turned out most of the fireworks at the symposium were produced by these two speakers. Both tried to deal with a very basic question. What can explain the obvious differences in the works attributed to Giorgione, differences in style, technique, size, and subject? 

Aikema indicated at the outset of his paper, “Giorgione: Myth and Reality” that he planned a very provocative presentation. He divided his talk into two sections. In the first, he presented a long analysis of Carlo Ridolfi’s seminal seventeenth century study of Venetian Renaissance artists, "Le maraviglie dell’ Arte ovvero, Le vite degli Illustri Pittori Veneti and dello Stato." Aikema claimed that Ridolfi was largely responsible for the myth of Giorgione. Ridolfi, Aikema argued, saw a dramatic change in Venetian art from Giovanni Bellini to Titian. It was a change from an old, traditional manner to a new or modern manner. Ridolfi then made Giorgione the pivotal link or transition between the two manners. To establish his claim Ridolfi had to attribute an extraordinary number of paintings, about 65, to the short-lived Giorgione. These works fell into four major areas: fresco, portraits, mythological, and large figures like the "Three Ages of Man." 

Aikema agreed with those scholars who have over the last century whittled Ridolfi’s attributions down to a handful. Nevertheless, the myth of Giorgione persists. He also argued that Ridolfi was wrong in seeing Giorgione as the bridge between the old and the new manner. Giorgione represented the “end of an epoch.” In the second part of his talk Aikema pointed out that Ridolfi did not mention the Tempest because it did not fit into his elaborate scheme. The Tempest with its finely painted figures in a landscape was omitted by Ridolfi because of what Aikema considered its obvious “northern” influences.  In this session Aikema went over much the same ground that he had covered in a 2004 paper, “Giorgione: Relationships with the North and a New Interpretation of La Vecchia and La Tempesta,” published in Giorgione, Myth and Enigma, the catalog of the groundbreaking 2004 Giorgione exhibition sponsored jointly by the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, and the Accademia in Venice.

 In that catalog Aikema’s was one of three different interpretations of the Tempest. For Aikema there are obvious “northern” influences in Giorgione’s work, especially in a small landscape like the Tempest with its carefully depicted figures in the foreground. In particular, Aikema believes that a group of artists from various centers along the Danube, the so-called “Donauschule”, holds the key to the Tempest. In 2004 he wrote,“ the Giorgionesque  innovations share quite a few correspondences with the landscapes formulated around 1500 in the drawings and paintings of a group of artists, including Lucas Cranach the Elder, Albrecht Altdorfer, Wolf Huber, as well as Durer, who all were active in various centers of the Danube valley and whose work is known as the Donauschule.” [88]

 Although Aikema pointed to some sacred subjects depicted by these Danube artists, he believed that Giorgione was mainly interested in their depictions of primitives living in the wilds. Indeed, he argued that the subject of the Tempest is a deliberate response to these German primitives. His view had not changed since 2004 where he wrote, “ If our hypothesis is correct,…the painting presents itself as a kind of Venetian reaction to the images of a primitive German world, which claimed superiority to the Mediterranean one…” [96]

In Aikema’s opinion it would be useless to search for an underlying text for the Tempest or to attempt to identify any of the iconographical elements. The Woman could be a gypsy but there is no need to explain her nudity. The Man is not a soldier but so what. The broken columns refer to nothing else than the classical world. Why they are broken doesn’t matter. The city in the background refers to no specific event, certainly not the Cambrai war. He doesn’t even consider the prominent plant in the foreground. Finally, Aikema maintained his hypothesis even though he himself had pointed out the obvious differences between the Danubian works and the Tempest. Giorgione was just reacting against them. In 2004 he also admitted that there was no evidence that any of these Danube “primitives” ever found their way into Venetian homes.

In his 2004 essay, he regarded the Tempest is “the most original artistic expression of the fundamental historical-philosophical and ideological debate about the origins of humanity and the superiority of the Mediterranean civilizations and, more specifically, that of the Veneto….” Stylistically, the Tempest, a “unicum, a work effectively without successor in Venetian painting…”, is a finely executed landscape which marks the end of an era and which has no impact on the future of painting. “In the final analysis it seems particularly significant that the painting presents itself as a work sui generis that cannot be classified in any of the conventional typological categories.” 

Settis, the last speaker of the day, would have none of Aikema’s thesis. He attributed the obvious differences in Giorgione’s work to the traditional process of negotiation between painter and patron. The title of his presentation, “Format and Purpose in Giorgione’s Paintings,” says it all. The differences in format that are obvious in Giorgione’s work can be attributed to the purpose for which they were done. He also said nothing about “northern’ influence tacitly suggesting that Aikema was trying to concoct a myth of his own. In the Q and A that followed it was obvious that no consensus would be reached between the “northerner”, Aikema, and the Italian, Settis. 

Finally, I would just like to point out that in his talk at Princeton, Aikema failed to mention three paintings with similarities to the Tempest that he had mentioned in his 2004 essay. 

David Teniers: Copy of a lost Giorgione

“ It must be noted that the figurative elements in the Tempesta somehow resemble those we can discover in a painting by David Teniers the Younger…depicting “the birth of Paris.”… The question of the nature of the relationship between this lost painting by Giorgione…and the Tempesta cannot feasibly be resolved except by pure speculation.” [p, 102, n. 80.]  Only two paintings from the early 16th century inequivocably reflect the Tempesta; one is on loan to the Fogg Art Museum in Cambridge, Mass., while the other is preserved at the Philadelphia Museum of Art….”[p. 103, n.99]

Rustic Idyll: Fogg Art Museum

Allegory: Philadelphia Museum

On my website I have presented my interpretation of the Tempest as "The Rest on the Flight into Egypt." I have also have also discussed the three paintings mentioned by Aikema. The first, formerly called, "Discovery of Paris," is actually "The Encounter with the Robbers on the Flight into Egypt." The second with three figures in a landscape by a "follower" of Giorgione is a "Rest on the Flight into Egypt," with Joseph's staff replaced by a halbred. The third depicts the meeting of the Holy Family with the young John the Baptist on their return from Egypt. If these three paintings are all "sacred" subjects what does that say about the Tempest, and what does it do to Aikema’s thesis?


Note: This post is a reprise of a earlier post on Giorgione et al... that appeared shortly after the Princeton symposium.