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, March 27, 2021

Interpretating the Tempest: Plato

In my interpretation of the Tempest as the "Rest of the Holy Family on the Flight into Egypt," I identified the nude Woman nursing her infant as the Madonna, and the colorfully dressed man on the side as St. Joseph watching over his family. I explained the nudity of the Woman as Giorgione's attempt to depict Mary as the Immaculate Conception. In offering this interpretation, I understood that there were many others but felt encouraged back in 2005 by the fact that there was no agreement on the subject of the famous painting. This year I have been revisiting my reviews of some of the other interpretations. Below is a review of an interpretation that finds the subject in Plato's Symposium.

In 2008 Regina Stefaniak published her interpretation of the Tempest based on her reading of Plato's Symposium.  Despite her obvious erudition and exhaustive notes, Stefaniak’s interpretation is a torturous attempt to fit the pieces of the painting into a puzzle that only an art historian could imagine. Her paper, “On Founding Fathers and the Necessity of Place, Giorgione’s Tempesta,” appeared in Artibus and Historiae, (XXIX, No. 58, 2008, pp. 121-155).

Before we get into her thesis I would like to note a couple of points. One is immediately alerted by her description of the child in the painting when she calls it ”newly-born.” In another place she uses the term “post-partum” to describe the woman. A new born baby could never hold its head erect as does the nursing child in the Tempest. The child is obviously supporting itself while it nurses at the mother’s breast. Secondly, like some others she claims that the storm in the background is about to engulf the figures in the foreground, despite the laws of perspective that would place the storm miles away. She sees the winds of the storm blowing in the trees. 

Next, she introduces the figure of Gabriele Vendramin, the owner of the painting when it was seen by Marcantonio Michiel in 1525, but doesn’t quite say that he was the original patron. Nevertheless, as her argument progresses it becomes clear that she assumes that Vendramin was the original patron, and by the end of her paper much of her thesis rests on that assumption. A good case can be made for Vendramin but there is no direct proof that he was the patron. We know that paintings were bought and sold and traded during this period. In his will Vendramin, himself, had to urge his executors not to break up or sell his collection. 

Speaking of Vendramin’s collection, a glance at Michiel’s notes shows that with the exception of a few contemporary portraits and the "little landscape" that we now call the Tempest, all the paintings and drawings were of sacred subjects, including a Flight into Egypt. 

Let’s turn to her description of the painting. For Stefaniak the Man and the Woman represent Wealth and Poverty, a theme derived from a story in Plato’s Symposium. The story deals with the seduction of the drunken god of wealth, Poros, by the impoverished nymph, Poenia. The child of their union is Eros. The Man then is a Venetian patrician who appears as a kind of country gentleman: a shepherd who does not have to work, whose staff is not exactly a crozier, and who has no flock. The Woman is a kind of earth mother. Actually, it is impossible to do justice to all the intricacies of Stefaniak’s interpretation for even though she rightly critiques other theories, she winds up including many of them in her own complex presentation. Indeed, at one point she says that Giorgione must have had a humanist advisor in order to depict all the different levels of meaning. She also suggests that Vendramin must have been pleased to know that he was the only one who knew the real subject of the painting. 

Stefaniak includes a discussion of the mysterious bathing woman that Giorgione painted over. However, like all the others who conjecture about this pentimento, she declines to discuss or even mention the other, pentimento; the little man on the bridge carrying a pilgrim’s staff and bundle. Is there a pilgrim in Plato? Finally, she omits to discuss the plant prominently placed in front of the nursing woman. What is it? Why is it there? 

Finally, it is interesting to note that  Stefaniak draws a comparison between the Tempest and Leonardo's Madonna of the Rocks. Although the latter painting was done for a chapel of the Immaculate Conception, she believes the depiction of the Madonna in an underground cave also derives from a passage in Plato. Actually, the subject of either version of the so-called Madonna of the Rocks is actually the Meeting of the Madonna and Child with the young John the Baptist on the Return from Egypt, a subject very popular at the time.


Saturday, March 13, 2021

Interpreting the Tempest: A Gipsy Woman with a Soldier


In 1530, 20 years after the death of Giorgione, Marcantonio Michiel saw the painting that would become known as the "Tempest" in the home of Venetian patrician, Gabriele Vendramin. In his notes Michiel wrote:"the little landscape on canvas, representing stormy weather and a gipsy woman with a soldier, is by Giorgio di Castelfranco." Since that time most scholars have argued that Michiel's descriotion was off the mark. The man is not a soldier and the woman nursing a child is not a gypsy. Today, only a few diehards call the woman a gypsy. (See the end of this post for an analysis of Paul Holberton's hypothesis).

Why did Marcantonio Michiel mistakenly identify the nude woman and the man in the “Tempest” as “a gipsy woman with a soldier”? After all, the nude woman nursing an equally nude infant does not resemble contemporary descriptions of a gypsy. Moreover, the young man’s posture might resemble that of a soldier but he is neither armed nor armored.

It seems obvious that Michiel’s notes were hastily drawn and fragmentary but why did he guess “a gipsy woman with a soldier” for the two characters in the famous landscape? I would like to offer the following as an hypothesis.

In one of his sermons Savonarola criticized the artists of his time for depicting the Madonna dressed in splendor and finery. He said, “think ye that the Virgin should be painted, as ye paint her? I tell ye that she went clothed as a beggar.”

This quotation from Savonarola’s “Prediche sopra Amos e Zaccaria,” is found in Professor Pasquale Villari’s monumental biography of Savonarola, originally published in 1888 after years of research in original sources, many of which he discovered hidden in Florentine archives. In his work Professor Villari devoted a few pages to the famous or infamous Dominican friar’s views on art and poetry. *

Villari disputed the notion, popular in his time and even more popular in ours, that Savonarola was a reactionary opponent of Art, Poetry, and Learning. Although known to popular history as the moving force behind the “Bonfire of the Vanities,” Savonarola was respected and admired by contemporary artists and philosophers.

Villari mentioned Fra Bartolommeo, the whole Della Robbia family, and Lorenzo di Credi, who according to Vasari was “a partisan of Fra Girolamo’s sect.” Vasari also wrote of Cronaca, “that he conceived so great a frenzy for Savonarola’s teachings, that he could talk of nothing else.” Even Sandro Botticelli was an ardent admirer “who illustrated the Friar’s works with beautiful engravings."

Finally, to prove his point Villari argued that ‘it is enough to mention the name of Michelangelo Buonarotti, known to be one of his most constant hearers, and who, in his old age, constantly read and reread the Friar’s sermons, and never forgot the potent charm of that orator’s gestures and voice.”

In the beginning of the sixteenth century it would appear that attempts were made to portray the Madonna as a poor beggar especially in paintings depicting the Rest on the Flight into Egypt. In these paintings Joseph was depicted as an armed protector of the Madonna and Child. Edgar Wind in “Giorgione’s Tempesta” referred to two unusual, almost inexplicable images of a soldier standing guard over a woman and child. Both of these paintings bore a striking resemblance to the "Tempest".

In the first, attributed by Wind to a “Follower” of Giorgione, there are three figures in a landscape. In the foreground a fully clothed but plainly dressed woman sits on the ground with her infant son standing beside her supported by her arm. She is left of center and looks to the right in the direction of an armored soldier standing guard. He leans not on a staff but on a formidable looking halberd, a weapon associated with the Swiss soldiers imported into Italy by Julius II during the Cambrai war. For Wind the subject of the painting was an allegory, “Fortezza and Carita,” the same subject he claimed for the "Tempest". This painting which I consider to be a version of the Rest on the Flight into Egypt could easily be described as a soldier and a gypsy.

Wind called the second painting “The Peaceable Warrior (ex bello pax).” He attributed it to Palma Vecchio, a contemporary of Giorgione. It is now in the Philadelphia Museum of Art where it is identified as an “Allegory.” This painting is also a depiction of the encounter of the Holy Family with the young John the Baptist on their return from Egypt. In the center a young nude Jesus stands and embraces his equally nude elder cousin. A heavily armed Joseph stands off to the right watching over the Madonna and the children. A plainly dressed Madonna sits on the ground observing the children. She wears the headscarf or turban associated with gypsy women!

So even though Giorgione did not paint a “gypsy” woman or a soldier in the "Tempest", the similarity of his painting with depictions of a Madonna dressed like a beggar in the desert with a protector standing guard might have led to Michiel’s mistake 20 years later.

Below find my analysis of Paul Holberton's "gypsy" hypothesis. See Paul Holberton: “Giorgione’s Tempest”, Art History, vol. 18, no. 3, September 1995. (Holberton has posted the article on his website with a slide show.)

In a paper published in 1995 Paul Holberton argued that Marcantonio Michel’s original description of the woman depicted in Giorgione’s "Tempest" is indeed correct. He wrote, “the fact remains that although they differ in their descriptions of the man, both Michiel and the 1569 inventory [of the estate of Gabriele Vendramin] identify the woman as a gypsy.”

For Holberton the "Tempest" has a subject and it is a gypsy family wandering on the outskirts of society about to be engulfed by a storm. He pursues this thesis even though both Michiel and the 1569 inventory do not identify the man as a gypsy. For Michiel, he was a soldier, but in the 1569 inventory he had become a shepherd.

Holberton provided some very useful information on gypsies and the way they began to be depicted in art at the end of the fifteenth century, but his thesis is full of holes. In the first place, he never really explained the nudity of the woman in Giorgione’s painting. He argued that gypsies were depicted as “primitives” but they still are not depicted in the nude. Certainly, there is nothing primitive about the woman of the "Tempest." Look at her hair, for example. If she is a primitive, than you would also have to call the Dresden "Sleeping Venus" a primitive.

Secondly, the handsome young man of the "Tempest", dressed in the garb of a Venetian patrician, can hardly be called a primitive or a gypsy. There is no relationship between his finery and the nudity of the woman and child. How can they belong to the same family? None of the plates that Holberton presented in his paper shows such a striking dis-similarity in the clothing of the major figures.

Next, he confesses that he has no explanation for the broken columns and ruins in the painting. “What does the column symbolize? In my opinion it is no more symbolic than the trees…” Neither does he attempt to identify the plant featured so prominently in the foreground, nor does he see any significance in the city in the background.

Nevertheless, Holberton came so close. If he could only have seen the "Tempest" as Giorgione’s version of the "Rest on the Flight into Egypt", so much of his evidence would have fallen easily into place. Instead of claiming that identifications of images of the Madonna were mistaken, he should have asked why the Madonna came to be depicted wearing a gypsy headdress in some of the paintings he describes.

De' Barbari: Holy Family

At one point he argued that a de’ Barbari drawing could not be a Holy Family because of the gypsy headpiece of the woman. Yet, Correggio painted a Madonna and Child where the Madonna appears with a similar headpiece, and it is commonly called La Zingarella.

Correggio: Madonna and Child

*Professor Pasquale Villari, Life and Times of Girolamo Savonarola, New York, tenth edition, 1909. pp. 495-499.