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 It is generally considered to be the first historical reference to the painting.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