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Giorgione

 

 

 

THE MYSTERY OF GIORGIONE

Over the centuries, a number of factors have fuelled the mystery that surrounds the Venetian artist Giorgione: his premature death, the continuing debate about his autograph works, the loss of the Fondaco dei Tedeschi frescos, the alleged rivalry with Titian, and the suggestion, without support, that Giorgione belonged to the Jewish community. As a result, his paintings have proved difficult to understand. Only a few years separate Giorgione's two most representative works — The Tempest and The Three Philosophers. Both paintings have been seen to contain biblical references (the theme of Adam and Eve for the first work and the Magi for the second). Mythological and secular meanings have also been detected: The Tempest as an erotic allegory, for instance, or references to the three ages of man in The Three Philosopher. Radiography has revealed radical alterations during the creation of the works; the young soldier in The Tempest was initially a female nude, while one of the philosophers was previously a Moor. This suggests a considerable amount of manipulation of the subject matter and implies that the final outcomes were deliberately left ambivalent. The most prevalent feature, however, is the artist's fascination with the moods of nature: his treatment of tones and evocative touches of light create an unusual atmospheric density. In this regard, Giorgione, of all the Venetians, was the closest in style to Leonardo da Vinci.

        


Giorgione
The Three Philosophers
1507-10

 
 


Giorgione
The Tempest
1505-06

 
 


Giorgione
The Tempest
(detail)
1505-06

 



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Giorgione


born c. 1477, Castelfranco Veneto, Republic of Venice
died 1510, Venice


also called Giorgio Da Castelfranco , original name Giorgio Barbarelli extremely influential Italian painter who was one of the initiators of a High Renaissance style in Venetian art. His qualities of mood and mystery were epitomized in “The Tempest” (c. 1505), an evocative pastoral scene, which was among the first of its genre in Venetian painting.


Life

Nothing is really known about Giorgione's personal life except the legends reported by the biographer and Mannerist artist Giorgio Vasari in the two editions (1550 and 1568) of his Vite de' piu eccellenti pittori, scultori, ed architettori italiani . . . (Lives of the Most Eminent Italian Painters, Sculptors, and Architects . . . ). Giorgione's name is given in two surviving documents of 1507 and 1508 as Zorzi da Castelfranco (in Venetian dialect); i.e., Giorgio of Castelfranco. The form Giorgione (or Zorzon), which is customarily used today, first appears in the 1528 inventory of the Grimani Collection. His name means “tall George,” or “big George,” implying that he was a large man. Tradition holds that he was handsome and amorous. Correspondence dated Oct. 25, 1510, between the celebrated Renaissance patron of the arts Isabella d'Este of Mantua and her agent Taddeo Albano at Venice mentions Giorgione's death as having occurred recently, probably caused by the plague that was raging in Venice at that time. Vasari's biography is the earliest. It emphasizes the artist's humble origin, his elevated mind, and his personal charm, but this characterization undoubtedly was a product of Vasari's imagination, based upon the poetic quality of Giorgione's paintings.

That the young painter went to Venice to study about 1490 under Giovanni Bellini, the greatest Venetian master of the day, is undeniable. The technique, colour, and mood of Giorgione's pictures are clearly related to Bellini's late style.

 

 


Giorgione
Sleeping Venus
c. 1510

 

 




Works

The commission of 1507 for a painting or paintings to be placed in the Audience Hall of the Ducal Palace at Venice was perhaps never completed, since no further notice of the work is recorded. Giorgione's principal public commission was the execution of frescoes on the exterior of the Fondaco dei Tedeschi (the German Exchange), where he painted the figures on the facade over the canal. The frescoes over the street were carried out by the young Titian, perhaps under Giorgione's direction. These works, documented in 1508, are lost, except for fragments that contain faint outlines of figures.

Aside from the works mentioned in specific documents, the notes on the art collections of Venice (Notizie d'opere del disegno), written between 1520 and 1543 by the Venetian patrician Marcantonio Michiel, contain references to picturesby Giorgione. This information occurs so shortly after the master's death that it is considered generally reliable. Of the12 paintings and one drawing listed, five works have survived: “The Tempest,” “The Three Philosophers,” “Sleeping Venus,” “Boy with an Arrow,” and “Shepherd with a Flute.”

“The Tempest” is a milestone in Renaissance landscape painting with its dramatization of a storm about to break. Here is the kind of poetic interpretation of nature that the Renaissance writers Pietro Bembo and Jacopo Sannazzaro evoked. This feeling for nature is probably also intimately related to, though not directly derived from, the philosophical “naturalism” of the contemporary Venetian and Paduan Humanists grouped around the important Renaissance philosopher Pietro Pomponazzi. The meaning of the two people seated in the foreground of “The Tempest” has been the subject of numerous interpretations, none of them definitive. Michiel called them a soldier and a Gypsy. Some literary source of a romantic, Arcadian nature is generally assumed, since no Renaissance artist would include two mysterious figures devoid of meaning. The samekind of evocative literary theme involves the “Pastoral Concert” (c. 1510), the attribution of which is much debated.


The “Sleeping Venus” (c. 1510) was left unfinished at Giorgione's death. Michiel stated that the task of adding the landscape background fell to Titian. The picture itself validates this statement, for the landscape with buildings in the right distance is repeated in other works of Titian. Giorgione's “Sleeping Venus” inaugurates a long series of paintings of the goddess of love in Venetian art, particularly those of Titian. None, however, achieved so fully the expressionof remoteness and unselfconscious beauty as this majestic and ideally conceived figure. “Judith” (c. 1505), though undocumented, evokes the same concept of universal beauty; she is more of a goddess than the avenger of her people.

Few religious paintings are mentioned in the early documentary sources. The panels representing the “Trial of Moses” and the “Judgment of Solomon” are generally agreed to number among the artist's first works (c. 1495–1500). Although the figures look slightly archaic, the beauty of the landscape setting with its soft melting distances unmistakably reveals the hand of the painter of “The Tempest.” Most celebrated of his religious pictures is the “Madonna and Child with SS. Francis and Liberale” (c. 1504; Castelfranco Veneto). The composition of this painting formsan equilateral triangle in conformance with the search for geometric solutions characteristic of the Renaissance mind. Thoroughly in the spirit of the master are the landscape and the dreamy mood of the figures, who seem lost in a religious reverie. “The Holy Family” (c. 1508) and the “Adoration of the Shepherds” (c. 1508) are of equally fine quality. The latter is particularly noteworthy for its exquisitely adjusted colour.

“The Three Philosophers” (c. 1510) is one of the works Michiel saw and specifically identified as being by Giorgione. He stated, however, that it was completed by the Venetian painter Sebastiano del Piombo after the master's death. The composition and colour are so fully Giorgione's that Sebastiano could only have added a few finishing touches. In addition, the dreamy melancholy of the three men—who represent youth, maturity, and old age—embodies the spirit of the master. Though the notion ofthree ages of man is surely implied, little agreement prevailsamong critics as to whether the three magi, three philosophers, or a literary source in ancient Roman legend is really intended.

The “Christ Carrying the Cross” (Scuola Grande di San Rocco,Venice) is widely disputed even today. Nevertheless, Vasari in 1568 specifically stated that the painter was Titian, correcting an error that he had committed in the edition of 1550 in attributing the picture to Giorgione. The canvas, much restored and repainted, possesses no more than archaeological interest. Other questioned paintings that seem to a number of 20th-century critics to be the works of Giorgione rather than Titian are “The Adulteress Brought Before Christ” (c. 1500), the “Madonna and Child with SS. Roch and Anthony of Padua” (c. 1505), and the “Madonna and Child in a Landscape” (c. 1504).

 

               

  
Book of Judith


Aiblical canonsbut included in the Septuagint (Greek version of the Hebrew Bible) and accepted in the Roman canon.

The book relates that Nebuchadrezzar, king of Assyria, sent his general Holofernes on an expedition against Palestine. At the siege of the Jewish city of Bethulia, a general named Achior warned Holofernes of the danger of attacking the Jews. A beautiful Jewish widow named Judith left the besieged city in pretended flight and foretold to Holofernes that he would be victorious. Invited into his tent, she cut off his head as he lay in drunken sleep and brought it in a bag to Bethulia. A Jewish victory over the leaderless Assyrian forces followed.

The work's historicity is suspect because of numerous historical and chronological errors. Some scholars have suggested that the existence of similar accounts in the Bible (e.g., Jael in the Book of Judges) and in the interpretive stories of the Midrash point to an early, common source (perhaps from the 6th century BC) now lost. Others, however, view the story as sheer fiction and attribute it to an anonymous Palestinian Jew who wrote shortly after the end of the Maccabean revolt (2nd century BC). According to this view, Judith was meant to be the female counterpart of Judas Maccabeus, leader of the revolt, and the book, discussing a contemporary situation in the guise of an ancient historical setting, was written to encourage the Judaean Jews in the uneasy period of independence following the wars precipitated by the Maccabean uprising.

The work has apocalyptic overtones insofar as the enemy attack against Palestine was seen as a combat between the forces of evil and the people of God. Religion and patriotism are equated, and emphasis is also placed on the beliefs that disobedience to the Law will bring certain punishment and that faith must remain strong in times of stress. God's Providence is shown as working through human instruments,in this case, Judith, not through the intervention of divine beings. As a work of literature, Judith maintains a constant dramatic tension, and its popularity in antiquity is attested by its preservation in several Hebrew, Greek, Syriac, and Latin editions.

Encyclopaedia Britannica


Giorgione
Judith
c. 1505

                         
              


Giorgione
Judith
(detail)
c. 1505


Giorgione
Judith
(detail)
c. 1505

 
 


     

 
Influence and significance

In portraiture Giorgione made a most profound and far-reaching impression. Venetian painters such as Titian, Palma Vecchio, and Lorenzo Lotto so closely imitated him in the early 16th century that it is at times virtually impossible to distinguish between them. Nevertheless, the portrait of a “Youth” (c. 1504) is universally considered to be by Giorgione. The indescribably subtle expression of serenity and the immobile features, added to the chiseled effect of the silhouette and modeling, combine to make the “Youth” an unforgettable expression of Renaissance man. The same sort of exquisite refinement and sensibility characterizes the disputed portrait supposedly of the poet “Antonio Broccardo” (c. 1506). Accepted by all critics is the portrait of the so-called “Laura,” on the back of which is an inscription giving the date as June 1, 1506, and Zorzi of Castelfranco as the painter.

Giorgione's “Self-Portrait as David” (c. 1510), recorded in an engraving of 1650 by the well-known German engraver Wenzel Hollar, can safely be considered a much-damaged original that has been drastically cut down in size. The artist gave his own portrait more dramatic force by the frown upon his face and by turning the body inward at an angle to the parapet. Titian adopted the same arrangement in his portrait of a gentleman in blue (c. 1512; National Gallery, London), where the initials “TV” (Tiziano Vecellio) establish him as the painter rather than Giorgione, as was formerly believed.

Despite considerable recent research, the short-lived master from Castelfranco still remains one of the most enigmatic of Renaissance painters. Yet the quality and charm of his paintings have made him as highly esteemed today as he was in his own time—a Venetian master of poetic mood created through idealized form, colour, and light.

Harold E. Wethey

Encyclopaedia Britannica

   


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