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

Thursday, April 29, 2021

Giorgione's Tempest: A Vision


Rainer Metzger’s essay, “Everyday Life and Allegory, An Attempt to Understand Giorgione’s Tempesta” was one of four separate and contradictory attempts to interpret the Tempest in the 2004 Giorgione exhibition catalog, Giorgione, Myth and Enigma. * For Metzger the key to understanding the painting can be found in the young man who stands off to the side looking back at the nursing Woman.

“the gentiluomo has come from the background, from the town, a bridge has helped him abandon his urban life. On the far bank of the stream an ambience loaded with sentiment awaits him, dominated by ruins apparently left behind by antiquity and by now overgrown by nature….But it seems that the gentleman in his elegant breeches and the very latest fashion in codpieces has found a way to fight his way through to the promised land in the foreground. In this he has been supported by a shepherd’s crook, which is clearly only a prop and not an attribute, indicating not the beau’s profession but rather his obsession”….(114) 

The young man has no relationship with the Woman—she is a product of his imagination, an imagination based on his reading of the pastoral literature that was becoming popular in Venice around the year 1500. He is having a vision in the same way that Chancellor Rolin imagined the Madonna and Child in Van Eyck’s famous painting.

The nursing Mother in the Tempest is not a real woman but a personification of fertile nature.

“Here he observes nature in her freedom, and he sees her personified, in the shape of a nymph nursing a child. He sees her as he knows her, as he knows her from the writings that first caused him to take the path to the holy place of nature. It is perfectly obvious that she does not see him, living as she does in a different sphere.” (116)

For Metzger “there is no text, no single text alone, irrespective of its origins, able to explain the painting and its details motif by motif…”(115) The attempts of other interpreters to find the source in Plato, Virgil, Lucretius, or an ancient myth are futile. The city and storm in the background refer to no specific place or event; the broken columns are just antique ruins; and there is no mention of the prominent plant in front of the woman.

He does however attach much importance to one of the pentimenti revealed by technological examination—the nude woman dangling her feet in a stream at the lower left. Although the catalog entry argued that Giorgione never intended to place two women in the painting, Metzger believes otherwise and that the man was a later addition thereby creating a major problem for his interpretation. If the Man is the key figure in the painting, and if the painting represents his vision, why wasn’t he in the original version?

Moreover, like every other interpreter Metzger omitted a discussion of another pentimento discussed in the catalog—the little man on the bridge carrying a pilgrim’s sack. How does that fit into his interpretation?

The examples he uses are also problematic. In Van Eyck’s painting Chancellor Rolin kneels in an attitude of prayer facing the Madonna and Child. Giorgione’s Man faces the viewer but looks back over his shoulder at the Woman. Metzger can provide no image of a nursing nymph because they are never depicted lactating. He can only supply a crude reclining nude being ogled by an aroused satyr from the “Hypnerotomachia Poliphilo”.

Strangely enough, Metzger sees the Christian origins of the painting but since he can’t imagine that Giorgione would depict the Holy Family in this manner, he argues that the painter imposed a classical framework on the old model in order to suit his sophisticated patron.

“more important than any text is the painting, one painting, the Allegoria Sacra. Giorgione subjects it before the highly demanding level of Venetian aristocracy to a comparable reinterpretation from the Christian into the classical….But the vocabulary, the figures and the construction principles of the official route and of the sacred space with its location “somewhere” were Christian.” (115)

“Bellini’s Madonna is replaced, secularized, naturalized by the mythologically derived mother figure, and the holy quarter is a sacred grove.” (115)

He sees the Madonna and Child in the Tempest but cannot bring himself to believe his own eyes. 


*Ferino-Pagden, Sylvia, and Nepi-Scire, Giovanna: exh. Cat. Giorgione, Myth and Enigma, Vienna, 2004. This catalog was the result of the historic 2004 joint exhibition sponsored by the Accademia in Venice and the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. Historic, because for the first time the Tempest left Italy for the Vienna showing. The copious catalog entry did not take sides on the interpretation of the Tempest but left that to the four scholars. 

Thursday, April 15, 2021

Giorgione's Tempest: a Vergilian Interpretation

 In my interpretation of Giorgione's Tempest as the "Rest of the Holy Family on the Flight into Egypt," I did not address the many other interpretations. Not only did I want to concentrate on the actual painting, but also I believed that all the other interpretations had already been demolished by other learned scholars. As I said in my paper, not one interpretation remains standing. For example, if it's the mythical story of Paris and Oenone, it can't be the story of Demeter and Iasion. If the source is in Lucretius, then it can't be in Plato or Virgil. 

Nevertheless, this year I am revisiting some of these interpretations that I originally reviewed ten years ago. Most of them try to find the subject of the Tempest in ancient mythology or poetry. In two preceding posts I have discussed Lucretian and Platonic interpretations. Below find an analysis of a Virgilian interpretation by Rudolf Schier. *

 In Rudolf Schier’s “Giorgione Tempesta, a Virgilian Pastoral,” (Renaissance Studies, 22, Issue 4, 2008, pp. 476-506) we have another attempt to find the subject of the Tempest in the writings of a Roman poet. Schier argues that the source of the Tempest can be found in the Eclogues of Virgil, specifically the 1st and the 4th. In his paper Schier takes issue with other scholars but his own interpretation has serious omissions. 

Most importantly, Schier fails to explain the nudity of the Woman of the Tempest. He also does not even attempt to discuss the white cloth draped over her shoulder, or the plant prominently featured right in front of her. Schier’s interpretation centers on the Man in the painting who he claims is the poet/ shepherd of the Eclogues. For him the disparity between the simple shirt and jacket of the Man, and his fancy leggings indicates that Giorgione was making reference to the poet/shepherd represented in the Eclogues. I don’t think he does such a good job in this respect. First of all, it has been pointed out that the leggings are the dress of contemporary young Venetian patricians, and not that of a poet. Moreover, the Man is holding a staff and not a shepherd’s crook. Also, the Man in the Tempest is young and virile but, as Schier himself points out, the shepherd of the 1st Eclogue is an old man.

Schier maintains that the Woman and Child represent a “vision” of the poet based on the famous reference in the 4th Eclogue to a virgin giving birth to a son destined for great things. To portray the vision Giorgione “deconstructs” the traditional image of the Madonna of Humility into a Pagan virgin. Like others he sees the Madonna in the painting but can’t believe that Giorgione would actually portray her in such fashion. Besides his failure to deal with the “nudity” of the Woman, Schier seems to imply that in the poet’s “vision” she has just given birth. Yet the Child in the Tempest is obviously not a newborn. He supports himself upright, something a newborn could not do, while nursing at his mother’s breast.

Schier views the other elements in the painting in a similar complex fashion. The broken columns are first a sign that the poet is in “Arcadia,” but later come to symbolize the passing of the Pagan world and the coming of the Christian. He disputes Paul Kaplan’s identification of the city in the background and claims it is Jerusalem rather than Padua. But what does Jerusalem have to do with Virgil? He also disputes Kaplan’s dating of 1509 on questionable stylistic grounds. 

Finally, Schier includes a long discussion of the bathing woman in the underpainting. He regards her as a Roman fertility goddess mentioned in the Eclogues but removed by Giorgione because the Woman in the painting had already given birth. It is strange that he gives such attention to this “pentimento” while completely omitting any discussion of the other “pentimento,” the man on the bridge carrying a pilgrim’s sack over his shoulder. 

Schier is obviously well versed in his Virgil but his whole essay is based on the “assumption” that Giorgione’s knowledge of the Roman classic was as good as his own. Like so many other scholars, Schier views the young Giorgione more as an art historian or humanist scholar than as an artist. There is no evidence that Giorgione knew Virgil or Lucretius.

* Note: Dr. Schier responded at length to my original review article. I published his comments in a separate post. Since then, we have agreed to disagree and have continued an amicable correspondence.