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

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 It is generally considered to be the first historical reference to the painting.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.