THE VENETIAN PAINTING SCHOOL III. Giorgione

What little is known of Giorgione’s life has mixed with apocryphal fables and legend to confuse us more. Born Giorgio Barbarelli da Castelfranco, he was the son of a rustic nobleman from the Venetian Alps. Giorgio was known as Giorgione, meaning roughly “Big George”. His native city, Castelfranco Veneto, a graceful town surrounded by towers on top of a hill, still keeps the beautiful painting of a Virgin (the Castelfranco Madonna), who is supposed to be based in the portrait of the artist’s unfaithful lover. He died in Venice, on 17 September 1510, at the age of 33, victim of the plague that by then was ravaging the city. Nowadays, we know about 6 authenticated paintings by Giorgione, and yet, despite his short life, he influenced painting more than any of the artists of his generation. Giorgione’s fascinating personality explains why in the 20th century it was studied and written much about his life and work. Nothing is known with certainty about Giorgione’s life, except for Vasari’s very brief indication that he liked “the love’s things”, and by the writings of the Venetian Carlo Ridolfi (and art biographer and painter) who, years later, wrote that Giorgione “lived in love with life, beautiful women and music”, and that “with his skills and pleasant character he succeeded in attracting many friends, with whom he rejoiced playing the lute”. Ridolfi also tells us that Giorgione was an apprentice under Giovanni Bellini.

It seems that Giorgione was born either in 1477–1478, or 1473–1474, and until he painted his work at Castelfranco, in 1503-1504, very little is known about him. This altarpiece known as Castelfranco Madonna was commissioned by Condottiere Tuzio Costanzo in memory of his dead son Matteo, in fact, the Costanzo coat of arms is visible on the base of the Virgin’s throne (an oval crest with three pairs of ribs). The painting is divided vertically in two zones: the upper part with the landscape and the central figures of Mary and baby Jesus, ant the bottom part which includes the standing saints and the base of Mary’s throne. This painting shows some of Giovanni Bellini‘s early influence on Giorgione’s painting; although here we can already appreciate one of Giorgione’s trade marks, his extraordinary ability to softens the atmosphere with a kind of atmospheric, unpalpable veil that is analogous to the methods by Leonardo da Vinci, who visited Venice in 1500, and possibly influenced Giorgione. The painting itself includes all the elements of a typical sacra conversazione, with the Madonna enthroned with the child, and St. Francis (right) and St. Liberalis or St. George (left) standing at either side. Saint Liberalis is the patron of Castelfranco. It is noteworthy than in this altarpiece, Giorgione avoided the representation of any kind of ecclesiastical architecture as it was traditional for this type of altarpieces. The figure of St. Francis is very similar to that in the San Giobbe Altarpiece by Giovanni Bellini from ca. 1487.

Castelfranco Madonna, oil on wood panel, by Giorgione, ca. 1503-1504, 200 x 152 cm (Cathedral of Castelfranco, Castelfranco Veneto, Italy).

By 1507 to 1508 Giorgione was already a recognized artist, as he was commissioned together with other prominent contemporary artists such as Titian, Veronese and Tintoretto, to decorate with frescoes the newly rebuilt Fondaco dei Tedeschi (or “German Merchants’ Hall”, Tedeschi means “Germans”) in Venice. He and Titian were in charge of the frescoes of the building’s façade facing the Canal Grande, but that work deteriorated by the salty and humid climate of the lagoon with only some few fragments surviving and now housed in the Ca’D’Oro.

Vasari tells us that Giorgione began painting in his “modern” way around 1507, and attributes his change to the influence of Leonardo who was briefly in Venice in 1500. Anyhow, it is clear that from this date on begun what it has been agreed to call “giorgionismo”. Let’s now learn the paintings where this new style appeared.

One of them is the Sleeping Venus (ca. 1510) in Dresden, a naked young woman lying on a sheet placed in the middle of a landscape. She sleeps leaning on her right arm and is worthy of comparison with the select human prototypes ancient marbles made famous before. Titian, Velázquez, Goya and even Manet when painting the naked female figure, repeated Giorgione’s Venus in its general lines, but without that chastity and beauty that the young Venetian instilled in it. This painting really represented the creation of a new type, as important and well resolved as was the Venus of Praxiteles in ancient times. Reclining, almost lying down, Giorgione’s naked Venus is an invention that subsequent generations have accepted without modification. In a writing dated 1525, it is said that in the house of the Venetian patrician interested in art Girolamo Marcello, “there was that figure of a naked Venus sleeping in a landscape…”, although later it is added that the landscape “was finished by Titian”, because Titian, influenced by giorgionismo, finished or repainted some of Giorgione’s works. The Sleeping Venus is considered as the first known reclining nude in Western painting, and together with the Pastoral Concert by Titian (ca. 1509), it established “the genre of erotic mythological pastoral”, with female nudes in a landscape, sometimes accompanied by clothed men. 

Sleeping Venus, oil on canvas, by Giorgione, ca. 1510, 108 x 175 cm (Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Dresden).

Giorgione placed the figure of Venus occupying the whole width of the painting. She stretches one arm behind her head, and her body’s curves echo the hills of the landscape in the background, probably suggesting some form of connection between the female depicted and nature. Venus’s sensuality is emphasized by her red lips and the deep red velvet and white satin drapery upon which she lies. As said before, in this painting Titian assumed a significant portion of the painting, especially in the landscape, where on the right there was a cupid that was painted over in 1843. As typical of Giorgione’s technique, the drawing is only approximative, with the outlines blurred to produce a gradual transition between the barely modeled flesh of Venus and the surrounding surface.

The general composition of Giorgione’s Sleeping Venus exerted an enormous influence in future artists. Treating a female nude of this size and as a single subject was unprecedented in Western painting and to a large extent it determined the treatment of this subject in painting for centuries to come. Between the many great artists that painted reclining nudes clearly influenced by this painting of Giorgione, are Titian, Gentileschi, Velázquez, Goya, Cabanel, Manet to name a few.

Some of the paintings inspired by the composition of Giorgione’s Sleeping Venus. From top to bottom and from left to right works by Titian (1534), Artemisia Gentileschi (1625), Velázquez (ca. 1650), Goya (1792), Cabanel (1863) and Manet (1863).

No great painter of the time would dare, like Giorgione, to draw such a suggestive composition as the small painting of The Tempest (ca. 1508). The painting depicts a fantastic landscape, with trees and towers, crossed by a river with a bridge of a refined country style; the clouds gather in space and lightning slices through the air. With incoherence that only art justifies, in the foreground stand out the figure of a young man with a pike and that of a woman, almost naked, nursing a child. Whatever the meaning of this painting was, the subject-matter emulates the ideas associated with storm and woman that the artist’s mind blended here for an aesthetic reason. The painting inspires different sensations in the viewer, as when one listens to a symphony or a piece of music. The forms are not logically related to natural things: they are grouped according to the rhythm of the spirit. There are also literary references to this painting: in the 16th century it was called “The Tempest, with a Soldier and a Gypsy Woman”. Franz Wickhoff, an Austrian art historian, proposed that the subject is taken from a poem by Statius, and that the characters are Adrastus and Hypsipyle. The painting was commissioned by Gabriele Vendramin, one of the leading personalities in the intellectual circles of Venice.

The Tempest, oil on canvas, by Giorgione, c. 1508, 82 x 73 cm (Gallerie dell’Accademia, Venice).

Art historians have tried to give many interpretations of the subject of this painting, but its meaning still remains elusive. Its subject matter and symbolism has allowed viewers to make up their own tale and interpretation of the painting. Giorgione caught the scene at the precise moment of the breaking of a storm. In the background we see a little town half-hidden behind a lush vegetation and a lazy stream that flows to the ancient ruins in the foreground. The houses, the towers and the buildings in the distance pale against the blue of the sky. On the right a woman sits, suckling a baby. Her pose is unusual, with the baby positioned at her side, half exposing her pubic area. A man -soldier?, shepherd? gypsy?-, holding a long staff or pike, stands in contrapposto on the left. He smiles and glances to the left, and doesn’t seem to be looking at the woman. Studies using X-rays revealed that in the place of the man, Giorgione originally painted another female nude. In the background, on the rooftop on the right, there’s a perched stork, birds that sometimes represent the love of parents for their children.

The fascination of The Tempest arises from the pictorial realization of its illustrative elements: the vibrant brightness which immediately precedes the breaking of the storm reflects the chromatic gradations that give an airy, atmospheric value to all the space. Giorgione’s painting here, totally liberated from the precepts of drawing or perspective, achieved with his treatment of color a new spatial-atmospheric synthesis that was fundamental in the evolution of the art of painting.

The painting known as the Three Philosophers (ca. 1505-1509), with three enigmatic characters that to some look like three philosophers and to others three personifications of the ages of life or of the arts, is surrounded by an appropriate landscape for high intellectual thinking. Painted in the last years of his life, it was finished by Sebastiano del Piombo. Like in The Tempest, its subject matter has long been debated. Theories about the identity of the three men include philosophers, mathematicians, the three Magi (with the Holy Family supposedly being in the cave at the left of the painting). Whatever its subject is, we can see three ages of man, three distinct temperaments, and three different nations. They appear to be silent images, placed somewhat un-specifically in space: the youngest figure, seated toward the center of the composition, is partly blocked by the oriental-style man wearing a deep red garment. This young man is observing a cave located on the left of the scene, and apparently measuring it with some instruments. In the background there’s a village with some mountains. Some art historians see the old man as representing a Greek philosopher, whose writings have been copied and transmitted through the Arab philosophers (the man with the turban) to the Italian Renaissance, represented by the young man measuring the visible world, whom has at once roots in the past (the older philosophers standing at this back) while looking ahead into the empty darkness of the cave, symbolizing the yet undiscovered secrets of the future.

The Three Philosophers, oil on canvas, by Giorgione, ca. 1505-1509, 124 x 145 cm (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna).

Again, Giorgione has created a natural as well as a private space that envelops the viewer with its mystery and poetry, with its antiscientific structure and even its rather unclassical choice of figural types and poses, and with a unique ethereal atmosphere. The painting was commissioned by the Venetian noble Taddeo Contarini, a merchant with an interest in the occult and alchemy.

But ultimately, what is then giorgionismo? It is difficult to answer this question without writing a long essay on aesthetics, but the current state of the term can be summarized. Technically, the innovations that characterize Giorgione’s style are a certain sfumato in the treatment of light that makes shadows alive and interesting, as well as a modern interpretation of the landscape as a spiritual entity. In Giorgione’s work we no longer find those academic trees from the Tuscan or Umbrian school and even those by Bellini, but rather a pulsating landscape brimming with an intangible meaning. These Venetian features found in his painting are Giorgione’s contribution that took Italian art a step forward. But, furthermore, there is something in Giorgione that is neither technique, nor composition, nor color, something essentially “giorgionesque”, a feeling of life as a whole, a thought overflowing with form, and a general sentiment beyond logic. For these reasons it is difficult to specify what Giorgione’s paintings represent and to define his subjects.

Giorgione was also among the first artists to give their portraits that unique vibration of personality, a feature that was later found in Titian and even more so in El Greco, who, as we shall see, was educated in Venice. The few portraits we know are with certainty by Giorgione not only reflect the spirit of the person portrayed, but also strongly project their character beyond the current moment in which the painting was done: we can even guess their past and future fixed by the portrait on one moment of their lives.

In Portrait of a Young Woman (also known as Laura, from 1506), the effect is also of remoteness, of some type of enigmatic quality. The sitter is unspecific and is portrayed as a bride, her soft flesh is juxtaposed against the fur of the luxurious garment, the dark eyes, shining and alert, the thin nuptial veil enticingly but gently winding around the exposed breast. The gesture of opening the garments to uncover the breast may indicate fecundity (and, in consequence, maternity). The laurel branches (a symbol of chastity or of poets), which give their name to the portrait, are painted with considerable realism and allow the head to be silhouetted before the neutral gray-green halo of the leaves, which in turn is isolated from the deep-dark colors of the background. The influence of Leonardo’s Ginevra de’ Benci can subtly be perceived. It is believed that the young woman was perhaps a courtesan and a poet, a combination that wasn’t unknown in Renaissance Venice. Venetian paintings portraying courtesans usually bear the pose Laura shows. It is the only known painting of the author that was signed and dated by him, it has his name and the date of 1506 on the back. Some scholars think that the sitter probably was also the model of the Tempest.

Portrait of a Young Woman (Laura), oil on canvas mounted on wood panel, by Giorgione, 1506, 41 x 34 cm (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna).

The portrait of an Old Woman (ca. 1508) also bears some of that “hidden meaning” so characteristic of the work by Giorgione. The scroll held by the old woman reads col tempo (“with time”) and would suggest that the subject of the painting is the fading of beauty over the years. This portrait allows the viewer to admire Giorgione’s extraordinary handling of the oil painting by the use of subtle gradations of color to depict with extraordinary fidelity and realism the features of old age. The depiction of the shriveled flesh, the aged eyelids, the toothless mouth, retains nothing of the Nordic prototypes and uses color alone to create an objectively naturalistic image with consummate skill.

Old Woman, oil on canvas, by Giorgione, ca. 1508, 68 x 59 cm (Gallerie dell’Accademia, Venice).

Contemporary to Giorgione was the painter Palma il Vecchio (ca. 1480 – 30 July 1528) who, although was not able to add any new innovations to Venetian painting, anticipated Titian’s splendid ideal of beauty in several respects.

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