In The Art of Devotion Henk van Os argued that Andrea Mantegna deliberately sought to be an “exceptional painter.” As court painter of Mantua, Mantegna worked for an exclusive and well-to-do clientele. Even when his patrons wanted traditional subjects like a Madonna and Child for their homes, they would not be satisfied with a stock or second-rate work.
"There are quite a few extant pictures showing devotional scenes in bedrooms and they make it clear that such small paintings on a wall had a different function from the diptychs or triptychs which were opened when one wanted to pray. A Virgin and Child on the wall was more remote. It sanctified the room as a whole, as well as serving if necessary as a focal point for prayer. It had become one of the norms for interior decoration. A second-rate Madonna would have been out of place in a sumptuous room…."
Mantegna used not only his technical virtuosity but also his uncommon knowledge of antiquity to become an “exceptional” painter. "As an authority on antiquity, and mixing as he did with princes, he regarded each new commission as a new artistic challenge. Whatever he painted…the result was always something entirely and unmistakably his own."
Everything that van Os said about Mantegna can be applied to Giorgione. If Mantegna, working in Mantua, had a difficult and demanding clientele, what can we say about the young Giorgione working in Venice in the first decade of the sixteenth century? I like to compare the big three of Renaissance Italian cities to three current day American cities. Florence is Boston, Rome is Washington but Venice is New York, the cultural and financial capital of the world.
In my interpretation of Giorgione’s Tempest as “The Rest on the Flight into Egypt.” I have concentrated on explaining what Giorgione did in this painting. I did not paid too much attention to the “why” of this painting. Why did Giorgione choose to depict this familiar subject in such an unusual and seemingly mysterious manner? There has been much speculation about the “why” of the Tempest in the scholarly literature. Some have argued that Giorgione deliberately chose to “hide” the subject so that only his patron would be in on the secret. More than just enjoying the painting, his patron would also be able to show off in front of his wealthy and influential friends. Even though the small size of the Tempest indicates that it was designed to be hung in a private study or bedroom, some have argued that Giorgione deliberately tried to create a feeling of ambiguity and even discomfort in the mind of the viewer.*
I cannot agree with the advocates of “hidden subject” or ambiguity. Where is the ambiguity in the “lost” Giorgione mistakenly called the “Discovery of Paris?” In my paper on the Tempest I demonstrated that the copy of this lost painting by David Teniers was an almost literal depiction of an episode on the flight into Egypt taken from the apocryphal “Arabic Gospel of the Infancy.” It is the Encounter with Robbers on the Flight into Egypt. A Venetian patrician, Marcantonio Michiel, simply mis-identified it in 1525 and scholars have fallen in line ever since.
I would like to speculate that it was the desire to become an “exceptional” painter that motivated Giorgione. All commentators have agreed that his technical skills were exceptional. If you look at the Three Ages of Man in the Pitti Palace, you can literally count the hairs in the beard of the elderly man in red. But Giorgione was also exceptional in what contemporaries called “invention.” To possess a Giorgione was to possess a work entirely his own.
In my paper on the Tempest I wrote that Giorgione was “stretching the envelope” with his depiction of a nude Madonna. Giorgione stretched the envelope in practically all of his paintings. He used traditional sacred subjects and took them to a new and daring level, not to hide their subject but to enhance its artistic quality as well as its devotional power. I agree with those who see the so-called “Laura” as Mary Magdalene, and the so-called “Boy With an Arrow” as St. Sebastian. I agree with those who see the “Three Philosophers” as the Magi, not at the end of their journey but at its very beginning. Even his Nativities depart from the conventional, stock images. He has moved the Madonna and Child out of the center and placed them in the right foreground where they become the focus of the narrative.
Giorgione lived in the greatest city of his time. Even if he did not apprentice in the famous Bellini workshop, he must have been familiar with its work and resources. Vasari claimed that he learned much from Leonardo but he must also have been familiar with the work of Mantegna and Antonello da Messina. There is even evidence Indicating an awareness of the work of Raphael, and Luca Signorelli. Giorgione’s patrons must also have been aware of these great painters, but we know the great value that they placed on the work of the young master from Castelfranco. Speaking about patrons, when Isabella d’Este, the Marchesa of Mantua, tried to add to her collection she only contacted the best painters of the day. Even though she expected them to use their “invention,” she usually specified the “subject” she wanted them to depict. No ambiguity for her. She never wanted the “subject” to be hidden.
Note: The quotes in italics above are taken from Henk van Os, "The Art of Devotion, 1300-1500." Princeton, 1994, pp. 132-135. Below are additional notes from this study which could apply to Giorgione as well as to Mantegna. Van Os is discussing Mantegna's Madonna and Child, now in Berlin.
"One of the most beautiful ‘paintings on a wall’ for private devotion is Andrea Mantegna’s Virgin and Child of ca. 1465/70 in the Staatliche Museum in Berlin. Mantegna was the greatest Early Renaissance painter of northern Italy. As an authority on antiquity, and mixing as he did with princes, he regarded each new commission as a new artistic challenge. Whatever he painted…the result was always something entirely and unmistakably his own. That conscious, erudite communion with the past in order to achieve new creations is one of the most remarkable aspects of his career…."
"The innovative nature of the work is immediately apparent from the technique employed. It is not on panel, but canvas, and the medium used was not egg or oil, but glue. Mantegna painted directly on to the canvas, with no intermediate ground. … So even with the technique Mantegna was proclaiming his originality. He wanted to be different, exceptional, although that desire should not be associated with romantic notions of artistry. Mantegna broke with accepted craft practice because he served patrons who sought exceptional artists partly in order to enhance their social status…."
"Renaissance artists who wanted to display their exceptional qualities often did so by a radical individualization of stereotypes, in this case the Virgin. She does not follow the fixed type, nor does she present her Child in accordance with the rules developed in Byzantine art. There was a programme for the Virgin cheek to cheek with the Child, the so-called eleousa Madonna, but Mantegna leaves it so far behind that it becomes almost irrelevant. The spatial conception gives both figures a new presence. The rectangular format is turned into a window at which Mary displays her baby, but without making a point of presenting it to the viewer. Her relationship with Jesus brings them very close to us. The Mother of God is an ordinary girl who has no need of a halo to idealise her. She gazes pensively ahead, caressing her sleeping Child…."
"With his Virgin and Child, Mantegna brought the veneration of the famous Padua Madonna into the home. By an artifice he removes the costly cloth, revealing Mary displaying her sleeping baby wrapped in swaddling bands. Art exposes Salvation. The essential feature is still the proximity of the sacred, but the ingenuity of the artist has taken on a different dimension. From craftsmanlike fabricator he has manifestly become a creator."
* See, for example, Tom Nichols, Giorgione's Ambiguity. London, 2020.