by Roderick Conway Morris

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The mysteries of a Venetian Renaissance master

By Roderick Conway Morris
VENICE 22 November 2003
Galleria dell'Accademia, Venice
La Tempesta by Giorgione, 1506-08



While overcoming his Florentine prejudices and heaping praise on Giorgione, the 16th-century art critic Vasari wrote of a cycle of the Venetian artist's frescoes: 'I have never been able to understand his figures nor, for all my asking, have I ever found anyone who does.' Giorgione was the most enigmatic painter of the Italian Renaissance, and despite centuries of efforts to unravel the mysteries of his works, they remain in many ways as elusive as ever. He died in 1510, in his early 30's, but by then had established himself as the father of 16th-century Venetian painting.

When, in the same year, Isabella d'Este, the Marchese of Mantua, one of the great collectors of the age, instructed her agent in Venice to obtain a Giorgione, she was informed that not one was available - at any price. With many paintings since lost, Giorgione's works are even more precious today. No more than about two dozen are generally recognized as being by his hand, and some experts would put the number lower.

So bringing together nine of these, modest in the case of other artists, is an event. 'Giorgione' continues at the Accademia until Feb. 22, then moves to the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna (from March to June 2004). It has been made possible by the Vienna museum's agreement to lend 'Three Philosophers' and the portrait 'Laura' to the Accademia - in exchange next year for the Venetian gallery's 'The Tempest' and 'The Old Woman' - and the Rotterdam Boijmans van Beuningen Museum's willingness to lend Giorgione's only known autograph drawing, 'Figure in a Landscape.' Also, returning from England to Venice for the first time since Ruskin bought it in the 19th century is one of the few surviving fragments of the external frescoes of the Fondaco de' Tedeschi (now the city's main post office) that baffled Vasari.

The centerpiece of the Venice show is the large altar painting from Castelfranco (the artist's birthplace in the Veneto), brought to the city temporarily for conservation treatment. This is universally accepted as an early Giorgione. It is unusual as a surviving religious painting, almost all the others being portraits, or enigmatic, secular scenes. Nonetheless, the altarpiece has many of the classic elements: the beautifully rendered figures and somewhat mysterious landscape; the innovative handling of paint to create form from color.

Venice was undergoing a quiet revolution during Giorgione's childhood and youth, as the classical past, art and literature were becoming pervasive influences on the city's cultured classes. This was the world that gave rise to Francesco Colonna's erudite, fantastical, intriguingly illustrated novel 'Hypnerotomachia Polifili' (Strife With Love in a Dream), published by the Aldine Press in 1499 (and happily now available in a splendid facsimile edition, superbly translated into English by Joscelyn Godwin). The book, which reflected the overlapping circles of a new generation of artists and the elite who became their patrons, was no doubt familiar to Giorgione, and provides a unique window into the intellectual and psychological milieu in which he moved.

So although Giorgio da Castelfranco's master, Giovanni Bellini, had spent most of his life painting religious works, many for institutions, Giorgione, literally 'the Great George' as he came to be called, even as a young man found sufficient patronage to devote himself to developing a new, secular art, which was to have a major impact on European painting.

The placing side by side of 'The Tempest' and 'Three Philosophers,' pivotal works in the undisputed core of Giorgione's oeuvre, helps to confirm that his secular images defy definitive exegesis. Both might be replete with arcane symbols and recondite references - they have been interpreted in myriad ways down the generations - but whether they are, and if so whether this was really central to his vision, we simply do not know. But both share a strange, beguiling sense of rightness, the calm integration of figures and landscape, the human and the natural world.

Also side by side are the pair of likewise unchallenged autograph works, 'Laura' and 'The Old Woman,' depictions respectively of a pulchritudinous young woman, one breast exposed, forthright, 'up front,' and a decrepit old woman, the lines of a lifetime's experience upon her face. Is the former a courtesan, or a respectable young woman on the eve of her marriage (both readings have been suggested), and the latter a 'memento mori,' or a tragi-comic, satirical figure? We cannot be sure. But both are extraordinary, ground-breaking studies in human physiognomy.

Giorgione traditionally has been credited with being the first in Venice to realize the full potential of oil paint and routinely to use canvas instead of wooden panels. He unquestionably found these new media vital in refining and extending the way he came to express himself. But his studio training had equipped him with a deep knowledge of the old ways and he made these transitions gradually. As the latest detailed chemical analysis of the three Venetian paintings has revealed, the Castelfranco Altarpiece (on a panel support) is executed entirely in tempera, while 'The Tempest' and 'The Old Woman' (both on canvas) were created with a cocktail of oil- and tempera-based paints. Interestingly, too, the subtle, many-layered effects of the latter were achieved using only five basic pigments, mixed in a variety of ways.

If just one more canvas could have been added to this exhibition, it should surely have been 'The Sleeping Venus' from Dresden. It is possible that Titian finished off the landscape and some minor details of the work after Giorgione died - though by this time plagiarism had become the finest form of flattery and, as Vasari recorded, Titian had come to imitate Giorgione's manner so well that confusion ensued. But there seems no doubt that the overall conception and central figure of the serene reclining nude were Giorgione's.

There is no reason to believe that the picture was elegiac in intention. But in retrospect it could be seen to mark the emblematic finale of the artist's brief meteoric career - the end of a trajectory from the gravely beautiful Madonna and Saints of the Castelfranco Altarpiece, to the intense engagement of the portraits and his distillation of a whole free-spirited humanist world in the mysterious tantalizing vignettes, to an unabashed pagan-inspired celebration of the female body, basking in the golden light of an ideal pastoral landscape, and the gifts of the good earth.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024