Summary of Giorgione
Giorgio da Castelfranco, or Giorgione as he is better known, lived a short, but vital, life; a life that confirmed him indeed as one of the most important and enigmatic figures in the history of Western art. The elusive, poetic quality to his painting - with no surviving documentation of the artist's preferences and aims, and no record of his patron's demands, their meanings have always been subject to fervent conjecture - secured a legacy that belies a career that lasted just 15 years. Though Giorgione's paintings resist straightforward classification, they undoubtedly challenged the modern style of the day and the artist was instrumental in effecting a shift within Venetian culture towards a new appreciation for the ancient world, esoteric mythology and the natural world. He is remembered primarily for his portraits and landscapes, and of the latter, there is some consensus amongst historians that his work led to the development of landscape as a legitimate genre in its own right. Vasari's famous biography describes him merely as a man of intelligence, charm and prodigious talent (though the author's account was probably drawn from Giorgione's painting style rather than from reliable records and/or anecdotes) - he emerges as a pivotal figure in the move within Renaissance art towards a style that promoted the sensuous blending of luminous color that we recognise to this day as a hallmark of the Venetian Renaissance.
- The fashion amongst portrait artists, including Giorgione's esteemed tutor, Giovanni Bellini, was to treat their sitters with a holy reverence. Giorgione approached portraiture with a more humanistic outlook that encouraged the spectator to consider something of the personality of his subject. The status of Giorgione's sitters often remained ambiguous, while the delicate attention to detail in his painting allowed for a much greater intimacy to form between subject and spectator.
- Giorgione's ingenuity was evident both in his choice of subject matter and in his technique. He was one of the first Italian painters to abandon the traditional medium of egg tempera in favor of the new oil paint. Oils allowed for the creation of a more luminous, textured canvas and offered a means by which to affect a higher dramatic potential in the painted scene. Some historians have suggested that Giorgione might have been inspired by Leonardo's famous sfumato technique. Even if this were so, his use of rich colors and thick oily brushstrokes were of his own invention.
- According to the art historian Ernst Gombrich, the Venetian nobleman Marcantonio Michiel's analysis of Giorgione's work in 1525 was the first to use of the word landscape in art. Though there were precedents to be found in ancient Chinese art, and others in Northern Europe such as Albrecht Dürer had become interested in rendering the detail in nature, Giorgione was the first Western painter to treat natural scenery as something much more meaningful than a mere backdrop for his figures. It seems likely that Giorgione had been influenced by the Renaissance philosopher Pietro Pomponazzi who had gained fame amongst the Venetian humanist groups of the day by suggesting that nature, ergo the philosophy of "naturalism," offered the true explanation of life and mortality.
Important Art by Giorgione
Portrait of a Young Man ('Giustiniani Portrait')
The face of this young man is not quite in profile as he turns his head to engage the look of the spectator. Placed against a dark background, he wears a purple doublet fastened with bows over a white undershirt, with long hair reaching down to his shoulders. With his right hand he holds on to a parapet, his fingers curling over its edge, and on which we see the letters 'V V' (added to the painting during a nineteenth-century restoration), possibly to signify 'Virtus Vincit' (virtue conquers), or 'Vivus Vivo' (the living [made it] for the living).
The pose and naturalistic use of color in this painting demonstrate the influence of the Venetian master Giovanni Bellini, under whom Giorgione trained. Where it differs from his master's formal, "detached," style of portraiture is in the interaction it encourages between sitter and spectator. By depicting his subject as turning to meet our gaze, and by moving beyond the ledge that divides us, Giorgione sets up a new relationship that invites us to consider the young man's personality and his state of mind. Describing this portrait, art historian Simone Facchinetti declared that "Giorgione's genuinely innovative approach [...] can be appreciated by comparing it to contemporary work by Bellini, for example the Portrait of Pietro Bembo in Hampton Court. There, the painting is still executed in fifteenth-century 'medallion style' and is set in a fictitious landscape. In the Giorgione portrait we are presented with an anxious personality, a demonstration of how Giorgione, in Vasari's words, desired to 'confront living and natural things'."
Oil on canvas - Gemäldegalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
Portrait of a Young Woman (Laura)
This painting depicts a young woman in a red, fur-lined coat, with a translucent white robe beneath that wraps up and across her chest. Shown in profile, her eyes escape our gaze. With one hand she moves her garments to reveal the soft curve and pale skin of her right breast. Her hair is modestly bound underneath a lace cap, though a few tendrils fall loose around her ears. Behind her, rise the branches and leaves of a laurel (lauro in Italian), a tree associated in Italian literature and art with "Laura" being the beloved of the poet Petrarch. Indeed, it was this association that led seventeenth century scholars to title the painting as A Portrait of Laura.
As with many paintings by this enigmatic artist, the true identity and status of his subject is unclear. The laurel that accompanies her can be interpreted as a symbol of chastity, and the baring of her breast her fecundity and potential for a fruitful marriage, lending itself to the theory that it may have been commissioned as a marriage portrait. Alternatively, it is possible that she might have been a courtesan depicted in the guise of Petrarch's Laura, as her style of dress corresponds with the Venetian writer Cesare Vecellio's descriptions of courtesans' clothing in his book On Clothing. Whatever its meaning, this is undoubtedly a work of striking naturalism blended with a streak of eroticism.
On its reverse is an inscription declaring that Laura was painted in 1506 by "Master Giorgio of Castelfranco, at the request of a Mister Giacomo". This appears to have been written shortly after the painting was made, although probably not by the artist himself. Only one other work by Giorgione carries a similar inscription documenting its creation (in which, however, the date is illegible), making this portrait invaluable in dating Giorgione's works (of which art historians believe possibly up to forty now exist). Stylistically, the delicate modelling and blending of light and shade across the young woman's features demonstrate the influence of the Florentine painter Leonardo da Vinci, who visited Venice in 1499, and shows Giorgione moving beyond the model and style of the preceding master of Venetian painting, Giovanni Bellini. In its exquisitely detailed depiction of the texture of her clothing, and the crisp outlines of the laurel leaves, however, we observe the continuing importance of Albrecht Dürer and northern European Renaissance painting as a model.
Oil on canvas over spruce panel - Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna
La Tempesta (The Tempest)
On the grassy bank of a river, a young mother, naked except for a white cape and a lace cap, suckles her child. Unlike the Portrait of a Young Woman, she turns her head to meet our gaze. To the left a fashionably dressed youth surveys the scene as he leans on a staff, while behind him we see the remains of two broken columns and other architectural fragments. Trees frame the scene to the left and right, and in the middle ground a wooden bridge stretches over the water to the dwellings of a town beyond. Above, lightning breaks out in a sky heavy with atmosphere, lending the painting its title: The Tempest.
Giorgione was among the first generation of painters in Italy to paint exclusively in oils. Oil painting was developed by northern European artists such as Jan van Eyck, and introduced to Venice by Antonello da Messina in the 1470s. The young Giorgione would also have been able to observe the technique in the work of the German artist Albrecht Dürer, who visited the city in 1494-95, around the time that his apprenticeship with Giovanni Bellini would have been drawing to a close at that time. In this painting he exploits the dramatic potential of oil to capture the tension and expectancy of a summer's day before a storm, and the luxurious beauty of the northern Italian landscape, which comes to the fore here in a way that prefigures the development of landscape art as an independent genre of painting.
Despite its relatively small size, this painting has had an enormous impact and influence on art history. Since its creation in the early sixteenth century the painting has been puzzling viewers and eluding interpretation: is the male figure a soldier or a shepherd? The mother a goddess or a gipsy? Writing about the painting in 1949 in his work Landscape into Art, the great art historian Sir Kenneth Clark declared "No one knows what it represents; even Michiel, writing in Giorgione's day could offer no better title than 'a soldier and a gypsy', and I think that there is little doubt that it is a free fantasy". Perhaps because of its ambiguity, The Tempest has fascinated and influenced later artists, who have echoed its treatment of landscape and atmosphere, and the intriguing interaction of its figures. We find strong echoes of La Tempesta in Titian's painting Sacred and Profane Love, in Nicolas Poussin's equally enigmatic work Et in Arcadia ego, and later in Manet's controversial impressionist painting Le Dejeuner sur l'herbe.
Oil on canvas - Gallerie dell'Accademia, Venice
Il Tramonto (The Sunset)
In the midst of a rocky landscape we observe an older and younger man seated by a path that follows the contours of a lake. The elder figure seems to be tending the wounds of the younger, who has set down his walking stick. To the middle right an armoured and mounted Saint George rears his lance to attack a dragon as a hermit looks on, while in the background a townscape stretches into the distance as the sky turns from day to night.
Once more this composition by Giorgione lends itself to multiple interpretations, from ancient Greek myth to a devotional Christian scene, and the search for its "true" meaning has not been aided by its poor condition (having been discovered in a villa close to Venice in the early 1930s). Recent technical analysis carried out by the National Gallery, London, has revealed that the figure of Saint George slaying the dragon was added to the painting by a restorer in 1934, probably in an attempt to persuade potential buyers of the painting that it was less damaged than it appeared when first discovered. This highlights the importance of an awareness of conservation issues when analyzing and interpreting old master paintings, and the ways in which their visual effects may have altered over time due to restoration or the fading of pigments.
Stylistically, meanwhile, this painting shows the evolution and increasing sophistication of Giorgione's work, particularly in his depiction of the landscape. As the Giorgione scholar Simone Facchinetti writes "Compared to the landscape of The Tempest, the setting for Il Tramonto appears more developed, with a progression of planes shaded in light blue glazes that seems to herald the Sleeping Venus." Disregarding the later addition of Saint George, a plausible identification of the two figures in the scene are Saint Roch and his attendant Gothardus. Originally from Montpellier, Saint Roch travelled to Northern Italy, where he cared for sufferers of the Black Death, before falling victim to the illness himself. After death, his remains were moved to Venice, where he became an important saint invoked against the plague that struck the city in 1504. Tragically for art history, Giorgione himself succumbed to the later epidemic of 1510.
Oil on canvas - The National Gallery, London
A beautiful young woman lies naked in a verdant landscape, sheltered from the sun by a rocky outcrop. She rests on a luxurious silk sheet that glows in the light, her upper-body propped against a red bolster decorated with gold thread. In the foreground wildflowers spring from the grass on which she lies, while in the middle distance farm buildings are framed against a cloud-filled sky and a landscape that stretches to distant woods and hills. Venus lies with her right arm above her head, her face is turned towards the spectator but her eyes are closed. She is seemingly unaware of our gaze - the painting's title tells us that she is asleep - with her left hand covering her genitals. The strategically placed left-hand leaves us to wonder however if Venus is in fact asleep or if she is "pretending"; posed, in that case, purely for aesthetic reasons.
The Venetian nobleman Marcantonio Michiel described this work as a canvas with Venus sleeping in a landscape with cherubs (which appear to have later been removed from the composition). According to Michiel, Venus was painted by Giorgione, with the landscape and cherubs completed by Titian. Knowing this detail suggests to us the close links between the two artists, and the influence that Giorgione exerted over his colleague in making the composition (indeed, Titian's world famous Venus of Urbino (1532-24) is an obvious descendant of Giorgione's Venus.) Although female nudes had been represented in Venice in the small panels of wedding chests, this was the first large-scale representation of the nude in the city, and the first convincing representation of the female form using deep space perspective. The painting would become the archetype in fact for a whole genre of painting and the many variations that followed it by Venetian painters such as Titian, Palma Vecchio, and Paris Bordon.
The nineteenth-century critic Walter Pater dubbed this trio of painters, along with later painters, Velázquez and Manet, "The School of Giorgione." With Caravaggio and Rubens, Giorgione is one of the few figures in art history to have entered a wider cultural consciousness in such a way as to lead to the development of the adjective Giorgionesque, usually applied to such depictions of beautiful nude women, and used by the French novelist Proust, for example, to describe a maid that he has long lusted-after in his work In Search of Lost Time as "wildly Giorgionesque."
Oil on canvas - Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Dresden
La Vecchia (Portrait of an Old Woman)
An old woman, her grey hair only partially covered by her white cap, emerges from a black background. Placed behind a parapet, she turns to face the spectator, her near toothless mouth open as if in speech. With her right hand she gestures to herself, touching the rough fabric of her tunic. In the same hand she holds a piece of parchment on which is written "col tempo" (with time).
Although lacking the beauty of the young Laura, Giorgione's Old Woman is a vivid presence who, despite her age, still brims with life, and looks as if she might even step out of the picture plane to meet the spectator in our world. Although a reminder of the brevity of life and the passage of time, this vividness makes this portrait a memento senescere (what it is "to grow old") rather than a memento mori ("remember you will die"). In its depiction of the ravages inflicted on the human body by time, Giorgione manages to retain a sympathy towards the humanity, frailty, and uniqueness of its subject that differentiates it from mere allegory.
Tempera and oil on canvas - Gallerie dell'Accademia, Venice
Biography of Giorgione
Giorgio da Castelfranco was born around 1477 in the small northern Italian town of Castelfranco Veneto, some twenty-five miles inland from the Republic of Venice. Passed down by posterity, the name Giorgione - "Big" or "Tall George" - tells us something perhaps about his physical stature while legend has tended to view him as a handsome and passionate young man. Yet so little is known about Giorgione, least of all his early childhood. From a document listing his possessions compiled shortly after his death, we learn the name of his father, Giovanni Gasparini, and that his mother (unnamed) died while Giorgione was a young child. He was raised by his stepmother, Alessandra, though we cannot tell from what date. Even Giorgio Vasari, author of the influential The Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors and Architects (1550) offers no more than the observation that the artist was born of humble origins. But there can be no doubt that he was a prodigiously talented child given that, aged 13, Giorgione moved to Venice to take up an apprenticeship under one Giovanni Bellini, the pre-eminent Venetian master of the second half of the fifteenth century.
Education and Early Training
A member of the esteemed Venetian artistic dynasty, that also included his father Jacopo and brother Gentile, Giovanni Bellini's late Renaissance style clearly exerted a strong influence on the young Giorgione. The application of color in Giorgione's paintings bear Bellini's influence though the student is thought to have quickly surpassed his master in technique and in the way he brought a greater sense of cerebral complexity to his work.
By the time Vasari published the second, enlarged edition of his Lives in 1568, his view of Giorgione seems to have shifted from a talented pupil of the Bellini family to a master in his own right. Vasari suggested indeed that Giorgione was responsible for a turning point in Venetian painting; that being an evolution in style, subject, and mood that marked the beginnings of the modern Venetian style. By 1507 his reputation was such that he was commissioned by the Venetian Republic to paint a large work for the centre of government, the Sala del Maggior Consiglio in the Palazzo Ducale, which unfortunately has not survived. A second state commission followed in 1508, when he decorated the façade of the Fondaco dei Tedeschi on the Grand Canal, assisted this time by Titian. The exact relationship between the two artists is unclear and in the centuries following Giorgione's death, art historians have often struggled to distinguish between Giorgione's work and that of the young Titian.
Although little about his life and work can be established with certainty, Giorgione's death is well-documented, particularly in correspondence between the celebrated patron and art collector Isabella d'Este, Marchesa of Mantua and her agent in Venice, Taddeo Albano. The daughter of Duke Ercole I d'Este and Eleonora of Naples, Isabella was raised in the highly cultured environment of the court of Ferrara in northern Italy, and married Francesco II Gonzaga, Marquess of Mantua, in whose absence she acted as regent of the city. Arguably the most important art patron of the Renaissance, she had commissioned works by the greatest artists of her age, including Bellini, Leonardo, Andrea Mantegna, Raphael, Titian, Correggio, and Giulio Romano. Isabella wrote to Albano on the 25th of October 1510, having learned of the artist's death from the plague in a Venetian hospital. She asked the agent to procure a painting of a night scene by Giorgione that she has heard was very beautiful and original, and which could be found in his studio. If the painting was as fine as it was reputed to be, Albano should purchase it at whatever price will prevent others from buying it. From Albano's reply, however, we discover that Giorgione left no such painting among his effects. Reading, meanwhile, from an inventory drawn up at the request of Giorgione's heir, we learn that the artist, who died at the age of about thirty-three, left behind few possessions and little wealth.
The Legacy of Giorgione
The 20th century Italian poet Gabriele d'Annunzio made the following observation in respect of Giorgione's legend: "He seems more of a myth than a man. No poet on earth has a destiny to compare with his. Almost nothing is known of him, some people even doubt his very existence [...] Yet all the art of Venice seems inflamed by his revelation." The illustrious critic and historian Ernst Gombrich only added to the sense of awe when he stated that "scarcely five paintings can be ascribed with absolute certainty to [Giorgione's] hand. Yet these suffice to secure him a fame nearly as great as that of the great leaders of the new [Venetian] movement." Indeed, Giorgione's reputation only seems to have profited from his untimely demise. As early as 1528 (just 18 years after his death) he was cited by Baldassare Castiglione, in his Book of the Courtier, as ranking amongst Italy's most excellent painters and equal in stature to the likes of Leonardo, Mantegna, Raphael, and Michelangelo.
Giorgione's paintings - both portraits and landscapes - would defy straightforward categorization. His chivalrous and courteous response to Leonardo's use of sfumato and chiaroscuro was taken up by a generation of Venetian painters including Sebastiano del Piombo and Titian, while historians are generally agreed that Giorgione effectively reinvented landscape painting. Others, such as Edgar Wind, have understood his legacy as initiating a cultural shift within Renaissance art that brought about a new appreciation of the ancient world and its esoteric mythology while, in the longer term, his sophisticated rendering of atmosphere set precedents for the development of early 19th Century Romanticism. More specifically, Giorgione's Sleeping Venus (1508-10) provided the impetus for two of the greatest masterpieces of Western art: Titian's Venus of Urbino and Manet's Olympia.
Influences and Connections
Useful Resources on Giorgione
- Giorgione: Catalogue Raisonné: Mystery UnveiledOur PickBy Wolfgang Eller
- In the Age of GiorgioneOur PickBy Simone Facchinetti
- GiorgioneOur PickBy Terisio Pignatti
- Giorgione's Tempest: Interpreting the Hidden SubjectBy Salvatore Settis
- Pagan Mysteries in the RenaissanceBy Edgar Wind
- Giorgione's Tempesta with Comments on Giorgione's Poetic AllegoriesBy Edgar Wind