This year I have been re-posting my interpretations of some mysterious Renaissance paintings by Giorgione and his contemporaries. Here is the latest, a painting, identified as Allegory in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, that bears a striking resemblance to Giorgione’s Tempest, even though there is no trace of a storm.
|Palma Vecchio: Allegory|
This subject. Fortezza e Carita, was trivialized, inevitably, by some of Giorgione’s disciples. A Giorgionesque painting in the collection of the Marquess of Northampton and a painting by Palma Vecchio in the Philadelphia Museum omit the ominous character of the storm-swept landscape but retain the easy contrast between a soldier leaning on his lance and a woman seated on the ground, with a child or two. (p. 3)In a footnote, Wind elaborated.
In Palma Vecchio’s tame conversation piece, which might be called ‘The Peaceable Warrior (ex bello pax)’, the children play like Eros and Anteros, whose mythological parents were Mars and Venus....The lethargic guardsman in this picture is a surprisingly weak invention, particularly if compared with the fine paraphrase of Giorgione's soldier in the altarpiece for Santo Stefano in Vicenza... (p, 21, n.13).
In the Philadelphia Museum website the painting is given the title “Allegory,” and is attributed to “a follower of Palma il Vecchio.” It is dated 1510. Over ten years ago, a curator at the Museum very kindly allowed my wife and I to view this spectacular painting that was in a basement studio under restoration. It is a very large canvas, much larger than the Tempest, and despite the need for restoration it is still a beautiful painting. Today, the Museum's website indicates that it is still not on public view.
I believe that this painting is a version of an episode deriving from the brief scriptural account of the "Flight into Egypt.” The man is St. Joseph, dressed as a young Venetian patrician, standing watch over the Madonna who is seated on the left. The two children are the Christ child and John the Baptist, who is also identified by the lamb in the background. John is often introduced into the Flight into Egypt legend when he meets the Holy Family in the desert on their return from Egypt, a very common subject at the time.
The other painting mentioned by Wind is now on loan to the Fogg Art Museum. Attributed by Wind to a “Follower” of Giorgione, there are three figures in a landscape. In the foreground a fully clothed plainly dressed woman sits on the ground with her infant son standing beside her supported by her arm. She is left of center and looks to the right in the direction of an armored soldier standing guard. He leans not on a staff but on a formidable looking halberd. For Wind the subject of the painting was an allegory, “Fortezza and Carita,” the same subject he claimed for the Tempesta.
|Follower of Giorgione: Rustic Idyll|
In each painting Joseph’s traditional staff has become a halberd, the weapon of choice of the famed Swiss soldiers who had been introduced into Italy a few years earlier by Pope Julius II. Why is Joseph now being presented as an armed and armored protector of the Madonna and Child? Perhaps the Cambrai war required Joseph to take on a more martial aspect. It seems that it would be easier to answer that question than to try to fit these two paintings, which bear a striking resemblance to the Tempest, into an allegorical interpretation.
Another question arises about the plainness of the woman's attire in each painting. It is so plain that viewers have argued that the women are gypsies. When Marcantonio Michiel, a Venetian patrician and art collector, saw the Tempest in 1530 in the home of patrician Gabriele Vendramin, he described it as "the little landscape on canvas, representing stormy weather and a gipsy woman with a soldier..."*
Of course the woman in the Tempest is nude but in the twenty years following Giorgione's death in 1510, paintings like the two discussed above might have led to Michiel's faulty description.
Why did Marcantonio Michiel mistakenly identify the nude woman and the man in the Tempest as “a gipsy woman with a soldier”? After all, the nude woman nursing an equally nude infant does not resemble contemporary descriptions of a gypsy. Moreover, the young man’s posture might resemble that of a soldier but he is neither armed nor armored.
It seems obvious that Michiel’s notes were hastily drawn and fragmentary but why did he guess “a gipsy woman with a soldier” for the two characters in the famous landscape? I would like to offer the following as an hypothesis that would also apply to the two paintings mentioned above..
In one of his sermons Savonarola criticized the artists of his time for depicting the Madonna dressed in splendor and finery. He said, “think ye that the Virgin should be painted, as ye paint her? I tell ye that she went clothed as a beggar.”
This quotation from Savonarola’s “Prediche sopra Amos e Zaccaria,” is found in Professor Pasquale Villari’s monumental biography of Savonarola, originally published in 1888 after years of research in original sources, many of which he discovered hidden in Florentine archives. In his work Professor Villari devoted a few pages to the famous or infamous Dominican friar’s views on art and poetry. **
Villari disputed the notion, popular in his time and even more popular in ours, that Savonarola was a reactionary opponent of Art, Poetry, and Learning. Although known to popular history as the moving force behind the “Bonfire of the Vanities,” Savonarola was respected and admired by contemporary artists and philosophers including Botticelli and Michelangelo, "who, in his old age, constantly read and reread the Friar’s sermons, and never forgot the potent charm of that orator’s gestures and voice.”
In the beginning of the sixteenth century it would appear that attempts were made to portray the Madonna as a poor beggar especially in paintings depicting scenes from the Flight into Egypt. So even though Giorgione did not paint a “gypsy” woman or a soldier in the Tempest, the similarity of this painting with depictions of a Madonna dressed like a beggar in the desert with a protector standing guard might have led to Michiel’s mistake 20 years later.
Holberton came so close. If he could only have seen the Tempest as Giorgione’s version of the "Rest on the Flight into Egypt", so much of his evidence would have fallen easily into place. Instead of claiming that identifications of images of the Madonna were mistaken, he should have asked why the Madonna came to be depicted wearing a gypsy headdress in some of the paintings he describes.
|De' Barbari: Holy Family|
For example, at one point he argued that a de’ Barbari drawing could not be a Holy Family because of the gypsy headpiece of the woman. Yet, Correggio painted a Madonna and Child where the Madonna appears with a similar headpiece, and it is commonly called La Zingarella.
|Correggio: Madonna and Child|
Edgar Wind was correct to see the similarity between the Tempest and the "Allegory" in the Philadelphia Museum, and "The Rustic Idyll" in the Fogg Art Museum, but we can now see them all as derived from the Flight into Egypt, one of the most common sources in the art of the Venetian Renaissance.
***Paul Holberton: “Giorgione’s Tempest”, Art History, vol. 18, no. 3, September 1995. (Holberton has posted the article on his website with a slide show.)