Progression of Art
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