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

Thursday, April 25, 2024

Review: Salvatore Settis: The Tempest

Here is another in a series of review articles of studies that have helped me in my work on Giorgione and the Venetian Renaissance. In the case of Professor Settis I feel like the proverbial dwarf sitting on the shoulders of a giant.

In researching my interpretation of the Tempest as “The Rest on the Flight into Egypt,” no book has been of greater assistance than Giorgione’s Tempest, written by Salvatore Settis in 1990. In addition to providing an in depth analysis of practically every previous interpretation, Professor Settis also laid down a series of iconographical ground rules that should be used in any interpretation. 

For example, in his introduction he noted:

“Interpreting the Tempest means providing “a well documented explanation for each feature, and fitting all together into one persuasive framework.” (2)

Indeed, he came very close to identifying the subject of Giorgione’s most famous painting. At least he did see that the painting had a “sacred subject” but instead of seeing the Woman as Mary, the new or second Eve, he identified her as the original Eve nursing her first-born son, Cain. The Man in the painting is Adam in the guise of a Venetian aristocrat accompanying his wife after their expulsion from the Garden of Eden.

Even though his book is a must for anyone interested in Giorgione, his ingenious and painstaking interpretation came under serious criticism and was accepted by virtually no one. He argued that the famous painting must be treated like a puzzle and that in any interpretation all the pieces must fit, and fit easily without being squeezed into position. 

Unfortunately, he sometimes violated his own maxim. The major pieces of the puzzle are the Man, the Woman and Child, the broken columns, the plant in the foreground, and the storm and city in the background. 

For Settis, the Man is Adam after the expulsion from the Garden of Eden. The nude Woman is Eve nursing her newborn son, Cain. The broken columns are a symbol of death which has entered the world as a result of sin. The plant is there to cover Eve’s nakedness, although obviously doing a very poor job. The city in the background is the lost Paradise forever barred to the Man and Woman who are doomed to a life of toil and hardship. The storm and lightning represent the wrath of God not only on the erring couple but also on what he called a serpent slithering into the rock beneath the heel of the woman. 

Here are his words concerning the Man and the Woman:

 “Adam leans, not on the short-handled spade of his Bergamo counterpart, but on a singularly long staff: various interpreters have agreed that this could be a soldier’s lance, a traveler’s wand or simply a generic tool. The allusion to the manual labor prescribed in the biblical text is underplayed, almost fleeting, for this Adam is an elegant Venetian…The medieval tradition portraying Adam at work…has evolved to show Adam at rest, with Eve as mother at his side….” (113)

 “The handsome clothes belong to a Venetian gentleman, not to a peasant or a fisherman, and are appropriate with the attenuated image of the tool:  in the hands of this meditative, or resting, figure the staff must allude to manual labour. Neither spade nor hoe, it has a point at one end but so hidden in the grass that it is only visible on a close and careful examination.” (114)

 “Eve is seated opposite him a white wrap that barely covers her. (sic) The baby in her lap and her own nakedness indicate recent childbirth, a familiar schema in earlier art. The slender bush that grows out in front of her cannot be a simple decoration in this painting of such deliberate construction: its compositional importance has already been noted by other interpreters…who have tried in vain to establish its meaning.” (115)

In chapter 4 Settis provided a number of images of Adam and Eve after their expulsion from the Garden of Eden. It was an impressive feat but in every image the Man and the Woman do not exhibit the disparity of clothed and unclothed figures found in the Tempest

For example, in Amadeo’s, Bergamo bas-relief, both Adam and Eve are nude, just as they are in Jacopo della Quercia’s relief in St Petronio in Bologna. In all the other images it is the same. Either Adam and Eve are both nude, or both clothed. 

The Adam in these images is always a rustic laborer, and not the poised Venetian aristocrat of Giorgione’s painting. This development is one of the main props for the “hidden subject” thesis proposed by Settis. Moreover, the Adam in these images is usually the central or focal point, but in the Tempest the Man directs the viewer’s attention to the Woman and Child.

The Woman’s nudity is only explained as a sign of “recent childbirth,” but the child in the Tempest is obviously almost a year old. He holds himself up nicely while nursing. Settis did not identify the plant in the Tempest, but he did argue that it is there to cover the Woman’s nakedness. He also argued that the dead root beneath the woman’s heel was not part of the plant but the “serpent” slithering into the rock fleeing God’s wrath.

Settis, like some others, argued that the lightning bolt in the background was a symbolic representation of God, and that it and the storm were hovering over the couple forever banished from Paradise. The gates of Paradise have forever been closed to them and the broken columns are symbolic of death. Yet according to the rules of perspective the storm and lightning bolt are miles in the distance. Moreover, in the foreground the couple is bathed in sunlight. They show no trace of fear, anxiety, or loss.

Speaking of Paradise, why would one of the buildings show an emblematic representation of Padua’s Carrara family? 

Salvatore Settis, Giorgione’s Tempest, Interpreting the Hidden Subject, Chicago, 1990.

Dr. Francis P. DeStefano

Note: This post originally appeared on this site on 5/6/2011.

Note: Below are some relevant notes from Settis' text.

Chapter 1. Subject and Non-Subject.

p.2. “If we can perceive the beauty of an object within its meaning and not outside it, within its history and not outside it, and if we can comprehend and not simply admire, attribute and acquire, perhaps then we can really slaughter the ‘art’ which we have invented and free it from a contrived immortality.”

p.2. “In the study of art…the history of form has gradually parted company from the history of content: ‘art criticism’ elaborates lists of attributions and comments on aesthetic value and is thus de facto opposed to iconology, which attempts to decipher the meaning of inherited images.”

p.3. “The great, regal, public museum,…the bourgeois drawing-room…In both of them statues and pictures are snatched from their original context, in which co-ordinates of meaning were mapped our around them, and are offered to the visitor for their aesthetic value only.”

p.4. “Art criticism has thus produced pages of exquisitely artistic prose which deliberately competes in stylistic effect with the picture it describes, as well as pages of awkwardly-phrased enthusiasm. But in both cases the cost has been a high one: by favoring form, the function of a statue or painting as bearer of a message…has been completely overshadowed.”

p.10. “A complete understanding of a statue or a painting should place the question of style within the framework of careful research on its meaning as a vehicle of communication, and on its ways of expressing that meaning. For form and content…are born at the same time…”

p.13. “Vasari’s words bear witness to the difficulties of understanding Giorgione’s subjects, even a few decades after his death….Bur Vasari must have momentarily lost his concentration when he looked at the four facades of the Fondaco….The few things we do know about the decoration of the Fondaco indicate a precise iconographical Programme, however disjointed its features may seem to be.”

C. 4.  Interpreting the Tempest,

p.82. “it is usually the case that we instantly recognize a picture  of a woman and child as Mary and Jesus….We recognize Virgin and Child above all by means of the many different images in our memory and form, as it were, a single type. It is visual experience itself, repeated over and over again, but always receptive, that tells us the title of the picture.” …

p.82. “But that memory can be lost; and when this happens an image that was created for a public that could understand it becomes incomprehensible to observers who are alien to that particular figurative culture. This can give rise to absurd and fantastic interpretations.”

c. 5. The Hidden Subject

p. 129. “In choosing a painting as a vehicle for expressing personal feelings, ‘inventiveness’ must have been severely hampered by the inescapable weight of authority represented by previous iconographic tradition. The transformation of an ‘interior subject’ into something less comprehensible entailed searching out an unusual iconography, and also perhaps attenuating its meaning by eliminating or toning down its essential features.”

p. 129/130. “Even more complex and difficult was the task of fitting a religious theme into this ‘closed’ and private use of art….But to a painter in the time of Palma il Vecchio and Giorgione, a Christian subject would have had a different weight….The codification of iconography for religious subjects must have been that much more forceful for being accepted as serving the true Christian faith. Equally, it was that more difficult to dare to choose a Christian theme as a way of expressing personal thoughts.”


Thursday, April 11, 2024

Review: Rona Goffen: Piety and Patronage in Renaissance Venice


The late Rona Goffen passed away on September 8, 2004 at the age of 60. By that time she had become one of the leading scholars in the field of the Venetian Renaissance. She was one of the few art historians who saw the importance of understanding the religious and cultural background of Venetian artists and their patrons.

Goffen wrote many books and articles on the Italian Renaissance but, in my opinion, Piety and Patronage in Renaissance Venice remains as the single best introduction to the art of the Venetian Renaissance. Subtitled “Bellini, Titian and the Franciscans,” she discussed the theological and devotional background of the magnificent paintings by Bellini and Titian in the Frari, the Franciscan center in Venice. *

As a prelude to viewing the paintings she discussed the writings of prominent clerics like St. Bernardino of Siena, a patron saint of Venice, and Lorenzo Giustiniani, the saintly first Patriarch of Venice, especially when it came to depictions of the Madonna. She pointed out the importance, but also the difficulty, of seeing things through their eyes.

In these and other similar passages, Bernardino and Giustiniani declared their belief in the Immaculacy of the Madonna. Their influence on Venetian piety must have been as pervasive during the Renaissance as it is difficult today to gauge in any precise way. Nevertheless, their thoughts and writings constitute part--a very important part--of the original context of sacred art in Renaissance Venice. One must attempt to reconstruct that context in the historically informed imagination. (79)

Seeing through Venetian eyes means understanding first of all the great importance of religion to the ordinary Venetian. Because of its many disputes with the Papacy, Venice is sometimes regarded as a proto-Protestant state when in reality it was usually more Catholic than the Pope. Goffen understood that the Republic identified itself with the Madonna and her Immaculate Conception.

No Venetian--and no Venetian Franciscan--could have been unaware of the rich associations, both political and spiritual, of the Madonna in Venice, and indeed of the identification of the one with the other. After all, Venice, too, was apostrophized as a Virgin, always safe in the embrace of her beloved Evangelist St. Mark... (145).

This confluence of the sacred and the secular found its way into Venetian art.

And both Pesaro altarpieces embody that singular combination of sacred and civic elements that characterizes Venetian art, Venetian history, and Venetian piety, together with the very personal concerns and ambitions of the donors, concerns in themselves both spiritual and secular. In Venice the image of the Immaculate Conception combines the sacred and the secular in a very particular way. (136)

Goffen concentrated her attention on the Frari, itself dedicated to the Immaculate Conception, and on its incomparable altarpieces. The dust jacket of her book gives a good summary.

The church of Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari in Venice encapsulates the history of Venetian Renaissance art as well as the histories of a patrician family, a religious order, and a city. The decoration of the Frari—notably commissioned by members of the Pesaro family—not only reflects their piety but their rivalry; in addition, it represents the particular concerns and the character of the Franciscan order and alludes to the relationship between church and state in Renaissance Venice. All this is embodied in the altarpieces painted for the Frari by two of the greatest masters of Venetian art—Giovanni Bellini and Titian.

In chapter 2 Goffen described the influence of Franciscan spirituality on Bellini’s famous triptych where every detail is important.

The Frari triptych was his fourth (and last) great commission of works painted for the Franciscan order or with a specifically Franciscan theme,... Bellini learned much about Franciscan sensibility and Franciscan spirituality. (54)

Chapter 3 deals with the Assunta, the painting that established Titian’s reputation. Although called the Assunta, the “theological and spiritual context is the triumph of the Immaculate Conception.” (74)

For Titian and his Franciscan patrons, there can be no doubt that "S. Maria Gloriosa" implied "S. Maria Immacolata"... Given the liturgical and theological assimilation of the Virgin's Immaculate Conception with her Assumption, it comes as no surprise that the visual imagery of the former was frequently based upon representations of the latter. (93)

Goffen found the source of Titian’s work in a sermon by Lorenzo Giustiniani, whose collected sermons had been printed in Venice in 1506.

There is another text, however, that can almost be read as the libretto for Titian's "opera," and that is the sermon for the feast of the Assumption by Lorenzo Giustiniani... it seems that the artist or his Franciscan patrons must indeed have been referring to Giustiniani's text, or something very like it.

Chapter 4 is devoted to Titian’s famed Pesaro altarpiece. Looking at that painting with its "dual sacred and secular imagery, combining the representation of the Immaculate Conception with references to the Serenissima" through Goffen’s eyes is a revelation.

In her last chapter, “The Cult of the Madonna in Venice,” Goffen claimed the Bellini triptych, as well as Titian’s Assunta, Pesaro altarpiece, and Pieta were representations of the Immaculate Conception.
Titian's Pieta must be considered, therefore, together with Bellini's triptych and Titian's own earlier works for the Frari. The four altarpieces (or the three alone, in situ) represent the dedication of the Frari to the Immaculate Conception in visual imagery that suggests the similarities of the Madonna, and hence her church, with the Most serene republic of Venice. (154)

In the year 1500 Venice was not only the greatest city on the Italian peninsula but it was also the wealthiest and most powerful nation in Europe. England, France and Spain were just emerging from a century of civil wars. Germany was hopelessly divided and the Emperor was little more than a penniless figurehead. The Papacy was still contending with threats to its authority from Roman warlords and conciliarist bishops. Only Venice seemed to have the will and wherewithal to deal with the Ottoman Empire.

To read Rona Goffen’s book is to understand that in the age of Bellini, Giorgione and Titian,  practically every Venetian would have believed that they owed it all to the Immaculata. Yet in history things can sometimes turn on a dime. In the year after Titian painted the Assunta, Martin Luther posted his 95 theses on a church door in Wittenberg. In the next few years radical Protestant reformers would be destroying images of the Madonna all over Europe.

It is hard for moderns, even Catholics, to understand or sympathize with the beliefs of Venetian painters and patrons. Interestingly, in the nineteenth century as hordes of Catholic immigrants were pouring into the United States, the Catholic hierarchy dedicated the country to the Immaculate Conception. Today, most of the descendants of those immigrants have no idea of the meaning of the doctrine.

I owe a great debt to the late Rona Goffen. When I originally saw the nudity of the woman in the Tempest as Giorgione’s way of depicting the Immaculate Conception of Mary, I just assumed that the doctrine was important in Catholic Italy. However, it was only after a chance encounter with Goffen’s Piety and Patronage in Renaissance Venice that I came to realize just how important the Immaculate Conception was in the Age of Bellini, Giorgione, and Titian.


*Rona Goffen: Piety and Patronage in Renaissance Venice. Yale, 1986.