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, January 26, 2022

Giorgione: Sleeping Venus

I began posting on Giorgione et al... on November 7, 2010, a few months after presenting my interpretation of Giorgione's Tempest at the annual meeting of the Renaissance Society of America held that year in Venice. As I mentioned in my last post, Giorgione et al... has received over 538,000 page views since then, and I plan to re-publish the most popular posts this year. Two weeks ago I began with a discussion of the number one post, Giovanni Bellini's Pieta. The number two post is a discussion of Giorgione's Sleeping Venus that originally appeared on September 21, 2011.


Kenneth Clark claimed that Giorgione invented the “classic Venetian nude.” He noted some antecedents but found in Giorgione “an appetite for physical beauty more eager and more delicate than had been bestowed on any artist since fourth-century Greece.”*

Giorgione: Sleeping Venus
Dresden, oil on canvas
108x175 cm

Giorgione’s discovery opened the way for others.
It is because he suddenly found the shape and color of those desires which had been floating half formed in the minds of his contemporaries that Giorgione's work has reached us inextricably confused with that of other artists. He had no sooner found the password then all could enter at the same door, and one or two may have pushed past him.
Clark did not refer to the young woman in the “Laura” with one breast exposed, or even to the nude nursing woman in the “Tempest.” He had in mind the nudes on the Fondaco dei Tedeschi and, above all, the “Sleeping Venus” now in Dresden.
In the nude we can be sure that he was the real inventor. Engravings of his vanished masterpiece, the frescoes of the Fondaco dei Tedeschi, show nude figures of women used for almost the first time as units in a decorative scheme; and a nude woman is the subject of the picture in which his peculiar graces are most clearly apparent, the Dresden Venus.
Like most of Giorgione’s paintings the “Dresden Venus” has raised questions of attribution and interpretation. In 1525 Marcantonio Michiel, a Venetian patrician, saw the painting that most scholars believe to be the “Dresden Venus” in the home of Messer Jeronimo Marcello at San Tomado.
The canvas, representing Venus, nude, sleeping in a landscape with Cupid, is by Giorgio di Castelfranco; but the landscape and the Cupid were finished by Titian.**
The editor of Michiel’s notes also claimed that Carlo Ridolfi saw the painting in Marcello’s house over a century later.
Ridolfi in 1646, saw it in Marcello’s house, and described it in his book as a work of Giorgione in the following words: ‘In Marcello’s house there is a lovely nude Venus sleeping, with Cupid at her feet holding a bird in his hand, which (cupid) was finished by Titian.’ The Venus is now alone in the landscape, for the Cupid was so badly damaged that it had to be effaced. (note 3)**
Both observers mention that the painting had been left unfinished by Giorgione and completed by Titian. They also mention the Cupid that can no longer be seen because of a later overpainting. X-rays have revealed the presence of the Cupid but it is impossible to say if it was painted by Giorgione, Titian, or someone else.

In the past, despite Michiel’s words, some have attributed the entire painting to Titian but now most agree on Giorgione. Still, there is much controversy about the extent of Titian’s contribution. While the nude is universally given to Giorgione, some claim that Titian did the landscape, and others claim that he was responsible for the fine materials on which the Venus reclines. In a recent catalog Wolfgang Eller argued that most of the painting is by Giorgione’s hand and that Titian did little more than a final touch up. ***

I do not possess the expertise or tools to deal with questions of attribution, and I would not even attempt to hazard a guess at the meaning of this painting at this time. I would just like to point out that I agree with most commentators that there is nothing erotic or pornographic in the “Dresden Venus.” In 1958 Kenneth Clark wrote:
The Venus of Georgione is sleeping, without a thought of her nakedness, in a honey-colored landscape: but her outline forbids us to identify her as Venus Naturalis. Compared to Titian's Venus of Urbino, who seems, at first, so closely to resemble her, she is like a bud, wrapped in it's sheath, each petal folded so firmly as to give us the feeling of inflexible purpose.*
Fifty years later Wolfgang Eller observed:
The sleeping figure does not realize that she is being observed and in contrast to Titian’s later depiction, she is not consciously displaying her nudeness. Giorgione rendered the beauty of the nude female female body with noble delicacy, and there is no indication of rawness or lasciviousness.***
Clark, Eller and most scholars agree that Giorgione represented a brief moment in time. In the first decade of the sixteenth century Giorgione took the lead along with Michelangelo in the depiction of the nude body with no trace of shame. Titian, especially in his early work, reflected Giorgione’s greatness and influence. Writing about the nude in the “Sacred and Profane Love,” Rona Goffen noted,

“as female nudes go, this one is modest; her sex is covered not by a coy gesture but by the unambivalent means of a white drapery. Moreover, her legs are firmly locked together,…there is nothing prurient about her presentation, and her turning away from us to glance at her counterpart underscores the nude’s purity.” ****
Not too long after after Giorgione’s death in 1510 a new element would enter into the picture and eventually bring to an end this brief moment in time. Reformation reformers, both Catholic and Protestant, would direct their efforts against lewd images, but the process took some time. At the same time, lewd images would begin to proliferate. In the nineteenth century Mark Twain described Titian's "Venus of Urbino" as not even fit for a bagnio. Carlo Ginzberg referred to a study of manuals for confessors that showed that images were not of primary concern in the first decades of the 16th century.
The minute analyses of the sin of lust concentrate on the senses of touch and sound well into the sixteenth century. Sight is hardly mentioned. The social occasions that abet the transgression…are principally dancing and singing….He did not warn against immoral images, simply because their diffusion must have been minimal or nil, except among the upper classes. Only later in the century did sight emerge slowly as a prominent erotic sense, immediately after touch. # 
For the time of Giorgione the words of Kenneth Clark are still apt.
In European painting the Dresden Venus holds almost the same place as is held in antique sculpture by the Knidian Aphrodite. Her pose is so perfectly satisfying that for four hundred years the greatest painters of the nude…continued to compose variations on the same theme… Her pose seems so calm and inevitable that we do not at once recognize its originality. Giorgione's Venus is not antique... how un-Gothic she is in the cylindrical smoothness of every form.
Yet this isolation on the nude from the vegetable life that surrounded it could not be maintained for long: it resulted from a moment of balance as delicate as that which produced Botticelli's Primavera. And in the culmination of the Georgionesque, the Concert Champetre, the bodies have lost all sense of Gothic virginity. Far from being buds, they have the opulent maturity of an Italian summer. We have entered the realm of Venus Naturalis.

Titian: Detail of "Venus of Urbino," Uffizi, Florence. Repeated attempts to put up the full image of the "Venus of Urbino" have been blocked. Anyone interested can find the full image with a simple search. In a way, I guess it just confirms the point made above about the modesty of early nudes by Giorgione and Titian.

*Kenneth Clark: The Nude, A Study in Ideal Form, Princeton, 1956, pp. 114-5.

**The Anonimo, Notes on Pictures and Works of Art in Italy made by an Anonymous Writer in the Sixteenth Century: ed. by George C. Williamson, London, 1903, p. 105.

***Wolfgang Eller: Giorgione, Catalog Raisonne, Petersberg, 2007, p.126.

****Rona Goffen: Titian’s Women, Yale, 1997, pp. 37-8.

#Carlo Ginzberg, 'Titian, Ovid, and Sixteenth-Cntury Codes for Erotic Illustration', inTitian's "Venus of Urbino," ed. Rona Goffen, Cambridge, 1999, p. 33.

Wednesday, January 12, 2022

Giovanni Bellini: Pieta


I began publishing Giorgione et al... on September 7, 2010 with a post containing abstracts of interpretive discoveries I had made over the previous five years. Since then the site has received over 538,000 page views. This year I would like to reprise some of the most popular posts. It is hard to know what makes a post popular but #1 is Giovanni Bellini's Pieta that originally appeared on March 31, 2012. 


A few years ago a correspondent accused me of injecting my Christian beliefs and sensibilities into my interpretation of Titian’s “Sacred and Profane Love”. Any interpretation of the two women in the famous painting that sees them as Mary Magdalen must be rejected out of hand since the Renaissance is all about the revival of pagan antiquity.

I admit that I am a Roman Catholic but I have argued elsewhere in this blog that it is my argument that counts, not my religion. I did not paint the “Sacred and Profane Love”, nor for that matter did I paint Giorgione’s “Tempest”. I have only interpreted both paintings as having sacred or religious subjects. It is the religion of late fifteenth and early sixteenth century Venetians that matters. 

One example of contemporary Venetian belief can be seen in Giovanni Bellini’s famous depiction of a “Pieta” or “Our Lady of Pity.” 

In “The Stripping of the Altars”, a groundbreaking and exhaustive study of religious practice and belief in pre-Reformation England, Eamon Duffy noted the widespread devotion to the “Pieta.” *

But the most distinctive manifestation of Marian piety in late medieval England was not devotion to the Joys, but rather to the Sorrows of Mary. This was of course a European rather than a merely English phenomenon, and was yet another aspect of the devotion to the Passion…
As it developed in the later Middle Ages the cult of the Sorrows of the Virgin, or the Mater Dolorosa, had a variety of functions, high among them that of serving as an objective correlative for the discharge of grief and suffering in the face of successive waves of plague sweeping through Christendom….
 But the essence of the devotion was that evident in what is arguably its noblest expression, the ‘Stabat Mater’. Here the Virgin’s grief is presented, not as an end in itself, but as a means of arousing and focusing sympathetic suffering in the heart of the onlooker. In this literal compassion, this identification with the sufferings of Christ by sharing the grief of his Mother, lay salvation. (258-9)

Here is Duffy’s English translation of the Stabat Mater.

Come then Mother, the fount of love, make me feel the force of your grief, make me mourn with you.
Make me weep lovingly with you, make me feel the pains of the crucified, as long as I shall live.
I long to stand with you by the Cross, and to be your companion in your lamentation.
Grant that I may carry within me the death of Christ, make me a partner in his Passion, let me relive his wounds.

For Duffy the “quest for a share in the sufferings of Christ, through identification with Mary, dominated the piety of Christian Europe in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries... Mary was a natural focus for the attempt to realize for oneself the sufferings of Jesus, for she had stood by the cross, supported by John the beloved disciple when the rest of the Apostles had fled….” (260)

Every parish church contained an image of this Mater Dolorosa, for all were dominated by the Rood across the chancel arch, invariable flanked by the mourning figures of Mary and the Beloved disciple. Other images, however, proliferated to sharpen the point. Of these the most widespread was the Pieta, or image of Our Lady of Pity.
Images of Our Lady of Pity exercised a growing attraction throughout the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. Lay people in increasing numbers left money in their wills to maintain lights before them, and sought burial near them. (261)

Most of these images have been lost. Many were destroyed during the Reformation. Many could be ugly, even gruesome. But the greatest artists could turn this scene of sorrow into an image of great beauty and meaning. Here is Giles Robertson’s description of Bellini’s “Pieta”. **
To praise or even to attempt to describe the beauty of this picture seems an impertinence.… There is no overemphasis on the drama of grief here, but a deeply restrained rendering of the beauty of sorrow that makes this one of the great classic achievements of European art. The colour is muted: a blue so dark as to be nearly black for the mantle of the Virgin and the robe of St. John, a pale purplish pink for the Virgin’s robe, and a light blue for St. John’s mantle, while a touch of warmer colour is given by his auburn hair. The main emphasis of the lines of the figure group is starkly vertical and contrasts with the simple horizontal lines of the sarcophagus, the ends of which are not seen, and with the striations of cloud in the sky. (54)
There is a perfect balance here between means and intention. Giovanni has developed the traditional tempera technique, which he inherited from his predecessors in Venice, to the fullest possible extent. We may suppose that Giovanni himself recognized this work as a special achievement, for instead of the usual signature just giving his name he added in beautiful classical lettering on a cartellino on the front of the sarcophagus a Latin couplet:
“When these swelling eyes evoke groans this (very) work of Giovanni Bellini could shed tears.”

Of course, the most famous Pieta is Michelangelo’s work now in St. Peter’s basilica in Rome. It is very likely that it was originally intended to be placed on a slab atop the grave of the French Cardinal who commissioned it. The genius of Bellini and Michelangelo was so great that you don’t have to be a Christian to be moved by their work. But it is impossible to say that  Christianity did not inspire the work of these and other great Renaissance masters.


Note: The above article was originally posted on Giorgione et al... on March 31, 2012. For some reason, not fully understood by me, it has become by far the site's most popular post.

*Eamon Duffy: The Stripping of the Altars, Traditional Religion in England, c. 1400--c. 1580. Yale, 1992.

**Robertson, Giles: Giovanni Bellini, Oxford, 1968.