Since 2010 I have been using this site to discuss my interpretations of famous Renaissance paintings including Giorgione's "Tempest" as "The Rest on the Flight into Egypt"; his "Three Ages of Man" as "The Encounter of Jesus with the Rich Young Man"; Titian's, "Sacred and Profane Love" as "The Conversion of Mary Magdalen"; Titian's "Pastoral Concert" as his "Homage to Giorgione", and Michelangelo's"Doni Tondo." The full papers can now be found at

Saturday, February 27, 2021

Giorgione's Tempest: Lucretian Interpretation

In 2003 Stephen J. Campbell argued that the Tempest was “a portrait of didactic or philosophical poetry,” whose source could be found in the “De Rerum Natura,” the most famous work of the Roman poet and philosopher, Lucretius. Five years later in separate papers both Rudolf Schier and Regina Stefaniak gave little credence to Campbell’s interpretation and argued that the source of the Tempest could be found in their own favorite Classical authors, Virgil and Plato respectively. All three pointed to the popularity of their favorites during the Renaissance but then had to undertake the arduous task of making the pieces of the Tempest puzzle fit. 

Campbell’s interpretation, entitled “Giorgione’s Tempesta, Studiolo Culture and the Renaissance Lucretius,” appeared in 2003 in Renaissance Quarterly, 56-2 (Summer, 2003). He examined most of the major iconographical elements in the painting. Let’s look at them one by one.

In the first place, he did not believe that there was any relationship between the Man and the nursing woman in the painting. He wrote, “the figures appear not only spatially but psychologically isolated; it is by no means apparent that they are aware of each other.” (309) Like others he ignored the fact that the Man is looking right at the Woman in the same way that he does in two other paintings that Campbell noted bore a resemblance to the Tempest, but that do constitute a family group. He wrote that the Tempest:

 “could be classed with a series of depictions of family-like groups in landscapes from around 1510-15, such as the Landscape with Halbardier, Woman and Two Children from the Palma Vecchio circle and the Nursing Mother with Halbardier in a Landscape attributed to Titian. However, while these other Venetian works correspond in some formal respects to Giorgione’s picture, there is no consequent basis for the assertion that they reproduce its subject and its meaning.” (307) 

In fact, even though the Man in each of these paintings carries a halberd, they are both depictions of episodes in the sojourn of the Holy Family in Egypt. If it weren’t for the halberd, no one would take the one with two nude children embracing as anything other that the meeting of the Infant Jesus with John the Baptist on the return from Egypt. *

If the figures in the Tempest are not a family, who are they? For Campbell the answer lies in Lucretius. “All of the crucial elements of Giorgione’s painting—wanderer, nursing nude female, ruined columns, and, most importantly, the lightning bolt—can be accounted for through Lucretius’ poem… Nonetheless, the painting is not an illustration of Lucretius: it is an imitation…” (316) 

What about the Man in the Tempest? For Campbell he is the “epicurean philosopher in Lucretius’ poem… characterized throughout as a wayfarer; this includes both Epicurus and the poet, his disciple...” (319) He could be Epicurus or Lucretius, or just “the wanderer figure, whose clothing bears the signs of urban sophistication, [who] has embarked on a literal ‘marching beyond the walls’…he could be a contemporary “epicurean” who has left the city to pursue truth at the point where civilization gives place to nature.“ (320) In short the Man is the “Epicurean poet contemplating his materia.” …”Standing apart to the left, the man like the viewer, calmly surveys the entire spectacle, in its totality: the gathering clouds, the bolt of lightning which renders the city walls below incandescent, perhaps also the mother and child. Both he and she see the storm for what it is, not as a portent or as the raging of a deity, but as the indifferent motion of the elements….”(319) Given that by the rules of perspective the storm is far in the distance, and that the trio are bathed in sunlight, and that the Man has turned his back on the storm, and that he appears totally unconcerned, it seems that Campbell is reading an awful lot into Giorgione’s painting.

This brings us to the nursing Woman. The wandering poet has stumbled upon Venus or a Venus de-mythologized. “In other words, she is not Venus, but a mortal body in which a certain natural property of living things—the ability to arouse desire, to generate and to nurture, a property to which poets and superstitious people had given the name “Venus”—has manifested itself.” [325] He even brings in the Madonna. “Giorgione has made every effort to humanize, even de-mythologize the figure of the divina genitrice…removing her from her shrine and trappings of divinity, accentuating her nudity, and placing her upon the earth like a Madonna of Humility.” [325] But she might also represent Wisdom. “Once again, however, in the Tempest we see not wisdom, but wisdom, as it were, incarnate, in a singularly undivine manifestation.” [325]

Campbell devoted much attention to the lightning since Lucretius took pains to de-mystify this natural phenomenon. Even though the broken columns are not near the storm they are a symbol of how the temples of the gods are not impervious to the forces of nature. He spent little time on the city in the background even though it suffers the brunt of the storm. He mentioned the connection to the Cambrai war discussed in earlier papers by Deborah Howard and Paul Kaplan but tended to downgrade any historical context. Like most others he ignored the prominent plant in the foreground.

Finally, he accepted the common opinion that Gabriele Vendramin was the original owner of the painting and made much of Vendramin’s interest in classical antiquity. “Giorgione’s painting will be identified with a humanist theory and practice of poesia around 1500, but a conception of which would also have been meaningful for the first owner of the picture, the Venetian patrician and collector Gabriele Vendramin (1484-1552).” [301] Furthermore, “Vendramin…was one of several patricians who sought to associate himself, as patron and collector, with the world of classical scholarship and antiquarianism,…Among other paintings by Giorgione, Vendramin owned a work known as The Education of Marcus Aurelius, again suggesting that Vendramin found affirmation of his own morally rigorous outlook in the ethical and pedagogical legacy of the ancient philosophers.“(304) 

This reference to “The Education of Marcus Aurelius” is problematical. The painting which is in the Pitti Palace is usually called “The Singing Lesson,” or “The Three Ages of Man” and was only identified as Marcus Aurelius in an inventory of 1666. I have argued on my website, MyGiorgione, that it is really a depiction of a “sacred” subject, “The Encounter of Jesus with the Rich Young Man.” 

In any event, we know that when Vendramin, whether or not he was the original owner of the Tempest, went into his camerino to contemplate, his walls were covered primarily with “sacred” subjects. It was not for nothing that Titian would later depict him and his family venerating a relic of the True Cross. 


*The first painting is now in the Philadelphia Art Museum where it is labeled, "Allegory." The second is in Harvard's Fogg Art Museum and is usually called, "Rustic Idyll." These two paintings were discussed previously on Giorgione et al....

Saturday, February 13, 2021

Interpreting the Tempest: Paris and Oenone


In his essay, “The ‘Favola’ in Giorgione’s Tempesta,” in the 2004 Giorgione exhibition catalog, Jurgen Rapp found the subject of the painting in the mythological story of Paris and Oenone. Rapp took issue with those interpreters, including some in the same catalog, who claimed that there is “no subject” in Giorgione’s most famous painting.

Observation alone forbids viewing the picture,…mainly as a landscape, in which the human figures play a subordinate role as atmospheric decoration. The expressive size and power of the figures, which dominate the lower half of the picture, are in this case independent and provide a precisely balanced counterweight to the landscape that extends into the upper half of the painting….(119)
His short essay, a summary of a larger dissertation, attempted to fit all the iconographical elements into the story of the two ill-fated lovers, Paris and Oenone. It is necessary to provide a brief recap of the legend. 

Peter Lastman: Paris and Oenone, 1619
Worcester Art Museum

As we know from Homer, Paris was the son of King Priam of Troy and his wife, Hecuba. At the birth of Paris, Hecuba had a dream that was interpreted to mean that her new son would be responsible for the destruction of Troy.

To avert this disaster, the parents decided to put their son to death by exposing him to the elements on Mt. Ida. However, he was saved and raised to maturity by a shepherd and grew up to be a shepherd himself, albeit an extremely handsome one. Eventually, his looks caught the attention of the seer-nymph Oenone, daughter of the Ilian river Kebren. They married and she bore his child, Korythos.

Soon after, Paris gets involved in the famous beauty contest known as the Judgment of Paris. Asked to decide who is most beautiful, Juno, Athena, or Aphrodite, he chooses Aphrodite after she bribes him by promising him Helen, the most beautiful woman in the world.

He promptly deserts Oenone and his newborn son, Korythos, and returns to Troy and the rest is history. Not unexpectedly, Oenone is broken-hearted, bitter and enraged. In the post-Homeric legends her son grows up to be even more handsome than Paris. He also travels to Troy where his looks attract Helen. Paris responds by killing Korythos. Later Paris is fatally wounded by a poisoned arrow and returns to Oenone, the only one whose healing powers can save him. Still angry, she refuses and he dies. Quickly repenting she kills herself and both she and Paris are buried in the same grave.

Not surprisingly, in Rapp’s interpretation the key to the painting is Paris, the man on the left.

The key…is to be found in the figure of the standing young man with the crook. The inconsistency of his choice of dress is immediately noticeable: on the one hand the extravagant breeches that point to a noble warrior, on the other a simple, casually worn shirt, and a doublet loosely slung over his shoulders, which in combination with the crook, indicate a shepherd….(119)
Rapp saw Paris in the act of deserting Oenone and their son.

Giorgione depicts the moment, when Paris bids farewell to his nymph Oenone and their child Korythos at the Kebren spring on Mount Ida. As he pauses one last time and looks back to his family, his right foot and the crook are already pointed toward the edge of the picture; in the next moment he will leave the scene. (122)

Although Rapp stressed the importance of looking at the painting, I believe that this observation is way off. I don’t believe that any observer of this masterpiece has ever seen the Man in the process of exiting stage left. Some have claimed that the Man has just encountered the woman, or that he has stumbled upon her in a wilderness. Some think that he might even be thinking of assaulting her. Others claim that she only exists in his imagination.

In my interpretation of the Tempest as “The Rest on the Flight into Egypt,” the Man is St. Joseph and he stands on guard watching over the Woman and Child. Artistically, he acts as an Albertian “interlocuter” directing the viewer’s attention to the nursing woman and her Child. In no way is the Man the central or focal point of the painting.

I also question Rapp’s observational skills concerning the woman whom he identified as the seer-nymph Oenone.

After Paris has left her, the naiad is cast down by a bottomless grief, which soon turns to raging jealousy. (120)…the prophetic woman begins to see the dark fate with her gliding gaze. (122)

How is it possible to see “bottomless grief” and “raging jealously” in the look that Giorgione’s woman directs not at the Man but at the viewer of the painting?

Rapp took on most of the other iconographical symbols. The broken columns in the mid-ground represent the common grave of Paris and Oenone. The City in the background represents besieged Troy.

Thunder, lightning and storms as heralds of personal and political catastrophes were also the subject of the widespread thunder books, called ‘brontologies’." (121-2)

He pointed out that Padua identified itself with ancient Troy. He identified the bird on the rooftop as a heron, and noted that Virgil called the heron a harbinger of tempests. But he drew no connection between the siege of Padua in 1509 during the Cambrai war and the siege of Troy. He dated the painting to 1508.

Despite the importance Rapp attached to Paris, he believed that the pentimenti revealed by scientific studies indicated that the Man was not in the “earlier” version. “The figure of Paris was painted over the left-hand naiad only later.” The earlier version included Oenone’s sister, Astarte, the goddess of lightning.

The earlier version…represents a mental image in a pessimistic mood, or more precisely, a ‘pictorial’ elegy on the unhappy consequences of love, sketched with two mythological fates of women. (122)

Like other interpreters he did not discuss the other pentimento—the little man on the bridge carrying a pilgrim’s staff. Is such a character Homeric?

Finally, it can be said that Rapp’s thesis is partially based on a mistaken identification.

Giorgione and his circle repeatedly used subjects from the youth of Paris,…For Giorgione himself the following are attested: Discovery of the Child Paris (previously in the collection of Taddeo Contarini) and a Judgement of Paris, a “Fauola di Parride” (drawn copy in the inventory of the collection of Andrea Vendramin. (119)

The latter drawing is reproduced in the catalog as “after Giorgione.” The “Discovery of the Child Paris” originally in the Contarini collection only exists today in a seventeenth century copy. In my paper on the Tempest I have demonstrated that this “lost” Giorgione actually represents “The Encounter of the Holy Family with Robbers on the Flight into Egypt.”

If this pillar of Rapp’s interpretation falls to the ground, what happens to the whole edifice?


Jurgen Rapp: “the ‘Favola’ in Giorgione’s Tempesta.” Ferino-Pagden, Sylvia, and Nepi-Scire, Giovanna: exh. Cat. Giorgione, Myth and Enigma, Vienna, 2004. Pp. 118-123.