Giorgione

Summary

Giorgio Barbarelli or Zorzi da Vedelago or da Castelfranco, known as Giorgione (Vedelago or Castelfranco Veneto 1477 – Venice 1510) was the first great Venetian painter of the Cinquecento and High Renaissance.

He lived only 32 years. However, he was one of the most famous painters in Venice during his lifetime. Most of his paintings were commissioned by early collectors and the intellectual background of these learned personalities, which is not well known today, makes these paintings quite mysterious.

Despite the artist”s great popularity during his lifetime, he is one of the most enigmatic figures in the history of painting. He did not sign any work (except for his Laura) and the reconstruction of his catalog, as well as the determination of the iconographic meanings of many of them, are the subject of much debate and controversy among scholars. He was active on the Venetian painting scene for a little over ten years, marking it with a sudden but dazzling appearance, which in artistic historiography has subsequently assumed legendary proportions. Even if we restrict his catalog to a minimum and minimize the hyperbolic comments that followed his death, it is certain that his activity certainly marked a turning point in Venetian painting, giving it a decisive orientation towards the “maniera moderna”.

Giorgione innovated in his practice as a painter, which allowed him to evolve his paintings during their realization, making the drawing less constraining. This practice quickly spread to all Venetian painters and far beyond until today, opening the creation to greater spontaneity and research in painting.

His surname is unknown: Giorgio, in Venetian Zorzo or Zorzi, from Castelfranco Veneto, his birthplace. His birthplace has been transformed into a museum, where one of the few works attributed to him with certainty is the Frieze of the Liberal and Mechanical Arts. It is said that the nickname Giorgione (Giorgione or Zorzon means Great George) was given to him by Giorgio Vasari “for his allure and greatness of soul,” but this nickname was in fact probably related to his physical stature or height. He has always remained an elusive and mysterious artist, so much so that he appeared to Gabriele D”Annunzio “more like a myth than a man.

The works attributed to him are rarely attributed with a general consensus and the catalog raisonné established in 1996 by Jaynie Anderson is limited to 24 paintings in oil on wood or canvas and two drawings, one in brown ink and wash, the other in sanguine.

Origins

Very little is known about his life; only certain facts are known thanks to inscriptions on paintings or to a few contemporary documents. Moreover, Giorgione did not sign his works. The first information on the painter”s origins comes from 16th-century sources, which unanimously report him as a native of Castelfranco Veneto, fifty kilometers northwest of Venice. Enrico Maria dal Pozzolo reports that in some documents in the historical archives of the city”s municipality, mention is made of a certain Zorzi, born in 1477 or 1478, who in 1500 asked the municipality to exempt him from paying taxes because he no longer lived in the country. This Zorzi, son of the notary Giovanni Barbarella and of a certain Altadonna, has been identified as Giorgione. His birth and death dates were given by Giorgio Vasari in The Lives of the Best Painters, Sculptors and Architects. The date of birth, corrected in the second edition of the Lives, would be 1478; this date is consistent with Giorgione”s artistic activity at the end of the 15th century.

According to historians, Giorgione was of very humble extraction. According to the professor of architecture at the University of Rome “La Sapienza” Enrico Guidoni, Giorgione was the son of the master Segurano Cigna.

Giorgio da Castelfranco, often called in the Venetian dialect “Zorzo” or “Zorzi”, is mentioned as Giorgione a few years after his death, the augmentative was a way to accentuate his high moral and physical stature, and since then, has been used as the most used name to identify him.

Learning and Beginnings

There are no documents that allow us to trace Giorgione”s early youth. No one knows exactly when he left Castelfranco, much less at what stage of his education. What is known is that he arrived in Venice at a very young age, taking up residence in the studio of Giovanni Bellini, from whom he inherited a taste for color and attention to landscapes. Carlo Ridolfi recounts that at the end of his apprenticeship he returned to his native city where he trained in the technique of fresco with some local artists and that he exploited this skill in the lagoon, dedicating himself to the decoration of facades and interiors of palaces, from his own residence in Campo San Silvestro. Confirming what Ridolfi wrote in 1648, historians of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries have listed a large number of frescoes painted by him, all of which have been lost today with the exception of the Nude, saved in 1938, on the facade of the Fontego dei Tedeschi but now almost completely destroyed.

Between the end of the 15th and the beginning of the 16th century, he appeared in Venice among the many “foreigners” who easily found employment in the city in the pictorial field. Mauro Lucco indicates that Venetian painters reached maturity and became self-employed at the age of 18, so around 1495 or 96, he would have done his first paintings independently.

His first attempts, such as the paintings in the Uffizi Gallery or the Madonna and Child in a Landscape in the Hermitage Museum, show a good degree of assimilation of different expressions. It seems to Alessandro Ballarin, in view of the works that he considers to be the artist”s first, that he was aware of the protoclassical painting of Perugino, of the woodcuts and copper engravings of Albrecht Dürer, of Hieronymus Bosch, of Lorenzo Costa, of the Lombard artists, and of the Nordic painters and engravers, who were all in Venice in 1494-96. The passage of Leonardo da Vinci in the first months of 1500 would have been equally decisive. Perugino was in Venice in 1494 for a commission that he never carried out, but he took the opportunity to paint a narrative cycle for the Scuola di San Giovanni Evangelista, perhaps in 1496, portraits and a lost canvas for the Doge”s Palace. The Judith in the Hermitage Museum, one of the works attributable to his hand and generally dated to this period, assembles folds of drapery with a stiff Gothic quality and holds a large sword that seems to come from the Perugino repertoire.

Sacred works

The works with sacred subjects are mainly located in his early years of activity. Usually referred to this period are the Holy Family Benson, The Adoration of the Shepherds Allendale, The Adoration of the Magi and The Madonna and Child Reading, while the fragment of the Maddalena in the Uffizi has had its attribution rejected. In these works, there are fundamental differences with the main painter then active in Venice, Giovanni Bellini: while for Bellini everything is imbued with sacredness and creation appears as a divine manifestation, for Giorgione everything has a profane aspect, with a nature that seems to have its own innate internal norms, in which the characters are immersed in real and “earthly” feelings.

Maturation

The commissions for his easel paintings did not come from religious bodies or from the Serenissima, but rather from a small circle of intellectuals linked to patrician families who preferred portraits and small format works with mythological or allegorical images rather than the usual religious subjects.

There are, however, two exceptions of “public” commissions: a telero for the audience hall of the Doge”s Palace, which has been lost, and the fresco decoration of the façade of the new Fontego dei Tedeschi, which was entrusted to him by the Signoria and completed in December 1508. His work filled all the spaces between the windows of the facade overlooking the Grand Canal, where Giorgione painted a series of nudes that contemporaries report as grandiose and animated by the use of a flamboyant red. All that remains of them today is the so-called Nude preserved in the Galleries of the Academy of Venice.

It is likely that this important commission was entrusted to Giorgione because of his experience in the field of frescoes and that it was also a signal to him of the possibility of succeeding Bellini in the role of official painter of the Serenissima, which in any case could not happen because of his premature death during the terrible plague that devastated Venice in 1510.

According to Vasari, Giorgione, a courteous man, fond of elegant conversations and music (he played madrigals on his lute), frequented the refined and cultured, but rather closed, circles of Vendramin, Marcello, Venier, Contarini in Venice. He is recognized as a “committed” artist in the milieu of Aristotelianism professed in Venice and Padua.

His access to the most famous patrons may have been ensured by a protector such as Pietro Bembo, or very wealthy Venetians such as Taddeo Contarini or Gabriele Vendramin. At the end of October 1510, Isabella d”Este, the most ardent collector in Northern Italy, wrote to her Venetian agent asking him to buy a Nativity by Giorgione, after the painter”s death. But her search was unsuccessful: the painting, in two versions, had been commissioned by two other Venetian collectors who did not wish to part with it. Giorgione had indeed invented the easel painting, conceived and realized for the pleasure of his patrician patrons, and the decoration of their studiolo. These new objects were sometimes protected by a painted “cover” that was removed to contemplate them in the company of selected friends.

The altarpiece of Castelfranco

The altarpiece of Castelfranco, one of the few certain works of Giorgione dates back to around 1503, commissioned by the condottiere Tuzio Costanzo for the family chapel of the cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta e Liberale in Castelfranco Veneto .

Tuzio Costanzo, a chief from Messina (“the first spear of Italy” for the French king Louis XII), had settled in Castelfranco in 1475, after serving Queen Catherine Cornaro in Cyprus, earning the title of viceroy. The altarpiece of Castelfranco is a work of private devotion that Tuzio wanted first to celebrate his family, and later in 1500, to remember his son Matteo, also a condottiere, who died tragically in Ravenna during the war for the control of Casentino, The tombstone at the foot of the altarpiece (originally placed on the right wall of the chapel), probably the work of Giovan Giorgio Lascaris, known as Pirgotele, a refined and mysterious sculptor, active in Venice between the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. The disappearance of his son, as X-ray investigations of the altarpiece seem to confirm, probably led Tuzio to ask Giorgione to modify the original structure of the work, transforming the base of the throne into a porphyry sarcophagus, a royal burial par excellence, in the effigy of the Costanzo family, and accentuating the sadness of the Virgin. The sacred conversation is characterized by the group of the Virgin with the Child Jesus isolated in the sky to emphasize the divine dimension. In the background, an apparently gentle landscape, but marked by the disturbing traces of war (on the right, two tiny figures are armed, while on the left, a village with turrets is in ruins): the background refers to a specific historical moment, or to the troubled decades between the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.

At the base, two saints introduce the scene: one of them is clearly identifiable as Francis of Assisi, represented with the gestures with which the sponsors are usually shown (who are however absent here). The identification of the other saint is more complex: the iconography that refers to the warrior saints is clear, such as George of Lydda (the eponym of the painter and whose name the chapel bears), Liberal of Altino (titular of the cathedral and patron saint of the diocese of Treviso), St. Nicolaus (a martyr of the order of the Knights of Jerusalem, to which the client Tuzio Costanzo also belonged), or finally Florian of Lorch (venerated between Austria and the upper Veneto). Both characters turn their gaze towards the hypothetical observer, making the link between the real world and the divine world.

The altarpiece, inspired by Bellini, marks Giorgione”s independent debut upon his return to his native city after years spent in Venice in Bellini”s workshop. It is erected as a very high pyramid, with the head of the Virgin enthroned at the top and the two saints at the base, in front of a parapet; the St. Francis is inspired by Giovanni Bellini”s Altarpiece of St. Job.

Compared to the lagoon models, the artist abandons the traditional architectural background, laying down an original partition: a lower half with the checkerboard floor in perspective and a smooth red parapet as a backdrop, and a sky-blue upper half, with a wide and deep landscape, formed by the countryside and the hills. Continuity is guaranteed by the perfect use of atmospheric light, which unifies the different planes and figures, despite the differences between the various materials, from the brightness of the armor of the holy warrior to the softness of the Virgin”s clothes. The style of the altarpiece is characterized by an obvious tonality, obtained by the progressive overlapping of the colored layers, which make the chiaroscuro soft and enveloping.

The virgin wears the three symbolic colors of the theological virtues: white for faith, red for charity and green for hope.

Giorgione and Leonardo

Vasari was the first to point out the relationship between the style of Leonardo da Vinci and the “manner” of Giorgione. According to Vasari, Giorgione”s attention to landscapes was influenced by Leonardo”s works while he was in the lagoon.

The Tuscan painter, who fled to Venice in March 1500, is best known locally for the work of the Leonardeschi, such as Andrea Solari, Giovanni Agostino da Lodi and Francesco Napoletano.

Leonardo da Vinci brought at least one drawing to Venice: the cardboard portrait of Isabella d”Este (now in the Louvre), but there were undoubtedly others, perhaps related to The Last Supper he had just completed in Milan. This impact is particularly visible in The Education of Young Marcus Aurelius. Giorgione then tried to imitate the master”s “sfumato” and abandoned his research into the effect of dense, velvety compact colors. On the contrary, in this painting he tries to render the atmospheric “blur” using a very light, fluid texture, with a very small quantity of pigments diluted in a lot of oil.

In works such as the Boy with an arrow, the Three Ages of Man or the Portrait of a Young Man from Budapest, show a psychological deepening and a greater sensitivity to the play of light derived from Leonardo .

The “Maniera Moderna

It is not unlikely that Giorgione frequented the Asolo court of Catherine Cornaro, the dethroned queen of Cyprus, in the early 16th century, who had gathered a circle of intellectuals around her. Works such as the Double Portrait have been linked to the discussions on love in the Gli Asolani by Pietro Bembo, whom Giorgione probably met in Asolo and who, in those years, published his Platonic treatise in Venice. The Portrait of a Warrior with his Squire in the Uffizi seems to be related to court events. These works have been deleted or reassigned several times in Giorgione”s catalog. Giorgione meditated at length on the themes of his paintings and filled them with biblical, historical and literary meanings. Giulio Carlo Argan emphasizes the Platonic attitude of the painter, grafted on the Aristotelian culture of the Padua workshop.

In the well-known letter of Isabella d”Este”s agent of 1510, it appears that the nobleman Taddeo Contarini and the citizen Vittorio Bechario owned works by the painter and that they would not part with them for anything in the world, because they had been commissioned and produced in a way that satisfied their personal tastes: Giorgione”s works were rare and coveted, and the clients took part in the choice of subjects. A list of Giorgione”s works, with their respective owners in Padua and Venice, can also be found in the list of Marcantonio Michiel, published between 1525 and 1543.

During these years, Giorgione devoted himself to themes such as the paragone, of which there remain works by his pupils inspired by his lost originals, and to landscape. If some works are of doubtful attribution, probably by artists of his circle, such as the “Paesetti” (Civic Museum of Padua, National Gallery of Art and The Phillips Collection), there remain above all some undisputed masterpieces such as the Sunset and the famous Storm. These are works with an elusive meaning, in which the characters are reduced to figures in an Arcadian landscape, full of atmospheric and luminous values related to the time of day and the weather conditions. These works show influences of the new sensibility of the Danube School, but they also depart from it, giving a less agitated, more balanced Italian interpretation. The painting known as the Three Philosophers, which also dates from around 1505, has complex allegorical meanings that are not yet fully explained. The difficulty of interpretation is related to the complex demands of the rich and refined clients, who wanted mysterious works filled with symbolism. The figures are built for color and mass, not for line; the contrasting lines separate the figures from the background, creating an impression of spatial sweep.

It was not until 1506 that Giorgione”s first and only dated autograph was found: the portrait of a young woman named Laura, preserved in the Museum of Art History in Vienna, stylistically close to the portrait of La Vieille.

The Storm

The Storm, also known as The Storm (c. 1507 ?) is a painting belonging to the poesie (poesia), a genre developed in Venice at the turn of the 15th and 16th centuries.

It is, for the first time in the history of Western painting, essentially a landscape where the space reserved for the characters is secondary compared to the space reserved for nature.

The figure holding a stick on the left seems to represent a shepherd and not a soldier as Marcantonio Michiel had interpreted it in 1530 in the house of Gabriel Vendramin, the commissioner. This shepherd would be more in keeping with the pastoral movement that marked Italian poetry of the time. The subject would thus not correspond to a written text but would associate disparate sources in a lyrical mode. The challenge for the poet is then to surpass his prototypes by the extent of the poetic effects that his creation generates. And this is indeed what The Tempest raises in those who watch it today.

The painting seems to have undergone a slow elaboration because the X-ray reveals an important repentance: the figure of a naked woman with her feet in the water, at the bottom left, has been erased. By this maturation of the idea on the canvas, Giorgione confirms his Venetian opposition to Florentine practices, Florence being adept at the preparatory drawing for the work.

Giorgione has painted on the right a woman nursing a child and on the left is a man standing and looking at them. There is no dialogue between them. They are both separated by a small stream and ruins. In the background, we see a city over which a storm is breaking. A flash of lightning crosses the overcast sky.

No one can claim, today, to have the meaning that this painting had for the painter and his circle of friends; as with many of his works, Giorgione gives it a meaning that is inaccessible to us with certainty today. But research, increasingly erudite, offers us new readings, like that of Jaynie Anderson, in her catalog raisonné.

The Fontego dei Tedeschi

On the night of January 27-28, 1505, the thirteenth-century building of the Fontego dei Tedeschi, the commercial headquarters of the Germans in Venice, was set on fire. Within five months the Venetian Senate approved a project for a larger and more monumental building, which was built around 1508. That year, a dispute over payment, a special commission formed by Vittore Carpaccio, Lazzaro Bastiani and Vittore di Matteo having decided to pay Giorgione 130 ducats and not 150 as agreed, confirmed that by this time the frescoes on the outer walls were to be completed, entrusted to Giorgione and his young pupil Titian who, according to Vasari, were also helped by Morto da Feltre who, however, usually confined himself to doing “the ornaments of the work”. One wonders how a painter who was still little known in Venice and who had just arrived from Florence (later a friend and companion of Giorgione) was part of the team. According to Vasari, Morto is the one who knew how to recreate the style of the grotesques. By grotesque, Vasari meant both the convoluted decorations and the scenes with idyllic landscapes and figures of ancient Roman painting which were made up of juxtaposed colors, which could be compared to the style of 19th century impressionism. Morto dedicated himself to this study first at the Domus aurea in Rome and then in Tivoli and Naples, and became famous for his talent in this field. It is in fact only underground (in the “caves”) that the colors and shapes of the Roman frescoes have survived the passage of time and weathering. It can be suggested that Venetian painting is the rightful heir to ancient Roman painting. The new style also spread to Venice because it revived ancient painting, sculpture, and classical architecture, which used much stronger materials than paint and were already “reborn.” Even Durer complained that he was not appreciated enough by the Venetians not to paint in the “new fashion”. Giorgione had the privilege of observing Morto up close on the scaffolding of the Fontego and understood his innovative design without having to go to Rome personally, and kept him close.

Vasari saw the frescoes in their splendor and, even without being able to decipher their meaning, praised them highly for their proportions and the “very vivid” color that made them seem “drawn under the sign of living beings, and not in imitation, whatever the manner”. Damaged by atmospheric agents, the humid climate and the brackish lagoon, they were finally removed in the 19th century and transferred to museums, the Ca” d”Oro and the Galleries of the Academy of Venice. Giorgione”s Nude is in the latter museum, where, despite its poor state of preservation, it is still possible to appreciate the study of ideal proportion, a theme that was very much in vogue at the time, inspired by classical statuary and also treated in painting in those same years by Albrecht Dürer. The chromatic vivacity is still perceptible, giving the flesh of the figure the warmth of a living being.

Some of Giorgione”s best works as a colorist are attributed to this period, such as the Portrait of a Man Terris.

The Sleeping Venus

Around 1508, Giorgione painted the Sleeping Venus for Girolamo Marcello, an oil on canvas that depicts the goddess sleeping relaxed on a lawn, unaware of her beauty. It is likely that Titian intervened on this painting, who, while still young, would have created the landscape in the background and a cupid between Venus” legs.

During a restoration in the 1800s, the cupid was erased due to its poor condition, and is now only visible by X-ray. According to his testimony, Marcantonio Michiel, in 1522, had the opportunity to see in the house of Girolamo Marcello, a nude Venus with a putto that “made in the hand of Zorzo of Castelfranco, but the city and Cupidine were completed by Titian.

The same theme (the representation of Venus) was taken up several times by Titian: the pose of the Venus of Urbino, dated 1538, presents the strongest analogy with that of Giorgione.

Last step

The last phase of the painter”s production shows increasingly enigmatic works, characterized by an increasingly free approach, with flamboyant color and nuance. Giorgione”s last paintings, including the controversial Christ Carrying the Cross, the Concert, the Passionate Singer and the Pied Piper, have been described by the great art historian Roberto Longhi as a “mysterious fabric” that mixes the flesh of the protagonists with the objects of the composition.

Death

Giorgione died in Venice in the fall of 1510, during a plague epidemic. A recently found document, although not bearing the precise date of death, attests to the place: the island of Lazzaretto Nuovo, where those affected by the disease, or considered to be so, were quarantined and contaminated goods deposited. Several sources speak rather explicitly of the island of Poveglia.

According to Vasari, Giorgione had been infected by his mistress, who died in 1511, but this must be inaccurate since in 1510, a letter sent to the Marquise of Mantua Isabella d”Este by her agent in Venice Taddeo Albano, mentions the painter as recently expired; the Marquise wanted to commission a work from him for her studiolo, but had to “fall back” on Lorenzo Costa.

His refined and poetic character places Giorgione in the orbit of Raphael”s Cinquecento: in addition to being a painter of genius, he is also a poet, a musician, a man of the world, essential traits of the man of the new century. Titian inherited his unfinished paintings, but also the position that his premature death left vacant in Venice.

In Vasari”s words, Giorgione”s untimely death was partly made less bitter by leaving behind two exceptional “creations”, Titian and Sebastiano del Piombo. The former began his collaboration with Giorgione around the time of the frescoes of the Fondego dei Tedeschi, around 1508, and his early style was so close to that of the master that after his death, the finishing of unfinished works and the exact attributional boundary between the one and the other, remain among the most debated issues in sixteenth-century Venetian art.

The two, who also shared elite clientele, subjects, themes, poses, and compositional cuts, are distinguished by a greater boldness in the young Titian”s work, with more intense levels of color and a more decisive contrast between light and shadow. In the portraits, Titian drew inspiration from the master, but he enlarged the scale of the figures and amplified the sense of vital participation, in contrast to the dreamy contemplation of Giorgione. Contested attributions between the two include The Country Concert in the Louvre and Man with a Book in the National Gallery of Art in Washington.

Sebastiano del Piombo also completed some of the works left unfinished by the master, such as The Three Philosophers. Fra” Sebastiano borrowed the compositions of the works from Giorgione, but from the beginning he distinguished himself by a more robust plasticity, which later fully manifested itself in his mature works, always remaining linked to a “very soft way of coloring.” The Sacred Conversation in the Galleries of the Academy of Venice is one of the contested works between the two.

Unlike his other colleagues, Giorgione did not have a real workshop, where he could instruct apprentices by entrusting them with the most basic parts of the execution of paintings. This may have been due to his particular clientele, who mainly asked him for works of small format and high quality.

Despite this, his style had an immediate resonance, which guaranteed him a rapid diffusion in the Veneto region, even without a group of direct collaborators to work with him, as happened for example with Raphael. A group of anonymous painters and some painters who later had a dazzling career adhered to his way.

The “giorgioneschi” characterize their works with colors that recreate atmospheric and tonal effects, with iconographies derived from his works, especially those of small and medium size in private collections. Among the giorgionesque themes, the portrait, individual or group, predominates, with a deep psychological interest, and the landscape, which, although not yet considered worthy of an independent genre, has now acquired a fundamental importance, in harmony with the human figures.

Giovanni Bellini himself, the greatest master active in Venice at that time, reworked Giorgione”s stimuli in his last production. Among the most important masters who were influenced, especially in their formative phase, in addition to those already mentioned, are Dosso Dossi, Giovanni Gerolamo Savoldo, Romanino, Giovanni Cariani, Le Pordenone and Pâris Bordone.

The little known information on Giorgione comes from the Nouvelles des Peintres written between 1525 and 1543 by Marcantonio Michiel, but published only in 1800, and from the Lives of Vasari. Michiel had a predilection for Giorgione among Venetian artists, just as Peter the Aretin, a great admirer of colorism, praised him. Vasari, on the other hand, was a passionate proponent of the Florentine “primacy of drawing”, but he recognized Giorgione as a master among the designers of the “maniera moderna”, providing important, if contradictory, information about him.

Giorgione is mentioned among the greatest painters of his time in Paolo Pino”s Dialogue on Painting (1548), in an attempt to mediate between the Tuscan and Venetian schools. Baldassare Castiglione, in The Courtier”s Book, names Giorgione among the “most excellent” painters of his time, along with Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Andrea Mantegna and Raphael.

In the 17th century, Giorgione”s works were reproduced and imitated by Pietro della Vecchia, who often passed on works that were later lost. Among the great admirers of his art, the Archduke Leopold-Guillaume of Habsburg predominates, who came to collect thirteen of his works, now largely in the Museum of Art History in Vienna.

In the eighteenth century, when Anton Maria Zanetti reproduced the frescoes of the Fontego dei Tedeschi in engravings, scholars and writers preferred the pastoral side in the painter”s art, in keeping with the Arcadian themes of the time. Aspects of this genre were also deepened in the nineteenth century, when the emphasis was placed above all on the emotional content of his works.

Giorgione innovated in Venetian painting at the beginning of the 16th century by introducing four new aspects: the secular subject, of small dimensions, for private individuals and collectors; chiaroscuro with its infinitely delicate progression and highly evocative palette; the nude; and landscapes painted for themselves. He created the style of the new century and had a strong influence on Bellini.

He produced the first paintings conceived and realized for private clients, who were also the first collectors of contemporary painting. The Tempest is the first painting in Western art where the landscape occupies such a large space compared to the space reserved for figures. It introduces new effects with an opaque paint, very rich in pigments, and melted insensitively, like a sfumato modulated in the material and by spots or brush strokes on a dark preparation. The underlying drawings, which appear in the X-rays of the paintings, sometimes overlap or testify to an initial arrangement of the elements of the painting. These drawings were not systematically followed by a coloring as the contemporaries of the young Giorgione would have done, on the contrary, the opaque paint allows him to recompose his initial project, to follow a more natural evolution of the painting, to draw while painting.

In The Adoration of the Shepherds (or Allendale Nativity) (c. 1500), he introduced several innovations. Firstly, a modest format corresponding to a painting intended for private devotion, whereas this theme was traditionally treated on altarpieces, or in any case large formats because of their use for large gatherings. Secondly, he shifts the main subject to the right in favor of the shepherds, who look more like people for whom grace and cultivated manners are the natural behavior. Finally, and above all, the landscape occupies a considerable space: it is the opportunity to give form to a whole literary, bucolic current, which goes from Filenio Gallo (it), Giovanni Badoer (it) to Pizio da Montevarchi (it), and from the Dream of Poliphilo (1499) to The Arcadia of Jacopo Sannazaro (1502).

In the altarpiece of Castelfranco (c. 1502), his painting marks a departure from Venetian art, with the saints curiously introverted and sensitive modulations of color like a veil unifying the painting. It is also the last traditional subject painting that Giorgione did, devoting himself to individualized portraits and subjects that were rarely or never treated.these paintings are painted with tiny patches of color, or rather subtle touches of opaque paint, a technique that Giorgione introduced into oil painting. These gave his works a surface modulated light in the colored matter. Whereas before him, light came from the background of the paint prepared in white, his preparation is carefully sanded to allow the deposition of very thin layers of paint, almost transparent, in the brightest areas. With this opaque paint, retouching could not only allow for very important modifications during the realization, but also to bring light through light colors, making the figures emerge from the dark background, as Leonardo da Vinci advocated.

Giorgione has a new approach to nature, the landscape and the figures are coherent. Thus, in The Three Philosophers, there is no break in scale between the arches of the rock, the men or the plants: the atmosphere envelops them equally. Similarly, nudes were not uncommon at the time, but that of Venus is unusual: her peaceful sleep completely separates the goddess from the world of the viewer, and the shyness later found in Titian”s Venus of Urbino is absent.

Attributions of works in Giorgione”s hand began shortly after his death, when some of his paintings were completed by other artists. His considerable reputation also led to erroneous claims of attribution early on. Documentation of paintings from this period relates primarily to large commissions for the church or government; the small domestic panels, which comprise the bulk of Giorgione”s work, are still much less likely to be recorded. Other artists continued to work in his style for some years, and probably by mid-century, deliberately deceptive work was being produced.

The main documentation for attributions concerning Giorgione comes from the Venetian collector Marcantonio Michiel. In notes dating from 1525-1543, he identifies twelve paintings and one drawing by the artist, of which only five of the paintings are almost unanimously identified by art historians: The Tempest, The Three Philosophers, Sleeping Venus, Boy with an Arrow, and The Shepherd with a Flute (not all accept the latter as by Giorgione). Michiel describes the Philosophers as having been completed by Sebastiano del Piombo, and the Venus by Titian (it is now generally accepted that he painted the landscape). Some recent art historians also implicate Titian in The Three Philosophers. The Tempest is thus the only work of the group universally accepted as entirely by Giorgione. Although first mentioned in 1648, the Castelfranco altarpiece has rarely, if ever, been questioned, nor have the destroyed fresco fragments from the German warehouse. The Vienna Laura is the only work with his name and date (1506), on the back and not necessarily in his own hand, but seems to belong to the period. The first pair of Uffizi paintings are also generally accepted.

After that, things get complicated, as Vasari testifies. In the first edition of the Lives (in the second edition completed in 1568), he attributes authorship to Giorgione in his biography, printed in 1565, and to Titian in his, printed in 1567. He had visited Venice between these two dates and may have obtained different information. The uncertainty in distinguishing between Giorgione”s painting and that of the young Titian is most apparent in the case of the Louvre”s Country Concert (or Country Feast), described in 2003 as “perhaps the most controversial attribution in all Italian Renaissance art,” an issue that concerns many paintings from the painter”s later years.

The Country Concert is one of a small group of paintings, including the Madonna and Child with St. Anthony and St. Roch in the Prado Museum, that are very similar in style and, according to Charles Hope, have been “increasingly attributed to Titian, not so much because of a very convincing resemblance to his undisputed early works-which surely would have been noted before-but because he seemed a less implausible candidate than Giorgione. But no one has been able to create a coherent chronology of Titian”s early works that includes them in a way that elicits general support and fits the known facts of his career. An alternative proposal is to attribute the Country Concert and other similar paintings to a third artist, the very obscure Domenico Mancini.” While Joseph Archer Crowe and Giovanni Battista Cavalcaselle considered the Pitti Palace Concert to be Giorgione”s masterpiece but de-attributed the Louvre Concert, Lermolieff reinstated the Country Concert and claimed instead that the Pitti Concert was by Titian.

The Concert and the Country Concert differ in every way, but they have in common two musicians who look at each other with a tender and haunting intimacy. This gaze is one of Titian”s favorite devices, which can be found in almost all of his compositions, religious or secular. It is a way for him to give cohesion to a painting; in contrast to the works of Giorgione, which are known to avoid this link between the figures. The women in the Country Concert are very similar to Giorgione”s, but the landscape and brushstrokes are closer to Titian. Linda Murray suggests that the work may have been begun by Giorgione before his death and completed by Titian.

Giulio Campagnola, well known as the engraver who translated the Giorgionesque style into old master prints, but none of whose paintings are identified with certainty, is also sometimes considered.

At an earlier period in Giorgione”s short career, a group of paintings is sometimes described as the “Allendale Group,” based on the Allendale Nativity (or more correctly, the Allendale Adoration of the Shepherds) in the National Gallery of Art in Washington. This group includes another Washington painting, the Holy Family, and a predella panel with the Adoration of the Magi at the National Gallery. This group, now often expanded to include a very similar Adoration of the Shepherds in Vienna, is usually included (increasingly) or excluded from Giorgione”s work. Ironically, the Allendale Nativity caused a rift in the 1930s between Joseph Duveen, who sold it to Samuel Henry Kress as by Giorgione, and his expert Bernard Berenson, who insisted that it was an early Titian. Berenson had been instrumental in reducing the Giorgione catalog, recognizing less than twenty paintings.

Matters are further complicated by the fact that no drawing can be identified with certainty as Giorgione”s (although one in Rotterdam is widely accepted), and a number of aspects of the arguments for defining Giorgione”s late style require drawings.

Although he was highly regarded by all contemporary writers and remained a big name in Italy, Giorgione became less known to the world at large and many of his (probable) paintings were attributed to others. The Judith in the Hermitage Museum, for example, was long considered a Raphael, and the Venus of Dresden a Titian.

At the end of the nineteenth century, a great revival of Giorgione began, and the fashion was reversed. Despite more than a century of disputes, the controversy remains active. Many of the paintings attributed to Giorgione a century ago, especially portraits, are now firmly excluded from his catalog, but the debate is, to say the least, fiercer today than it was then. The battles are fought on two fronts: paintings with figures and landscapes, and portraits. According to David Rosand in 1997, “the situation has been thrown into a new critical confusion by Alessandro Ballarin”s radical revision of the corpus. … [Paris exhibition catalog, 1993, increasing it] … as well as Mauro Lucco … . Recent major exhibitions in Vienna and Venice in 2004 and in Washington in 2006, have given art historians new opportunities to see contested works side by side.

Even so, the situation remains confused; in 2012, Charles Hope complained, “In fact, there are only three paintings known today for which there is clear and credible early evidence that they are by him. Despite this, he is now generally credited with twenty to forty paintings. But most of them…bear no resemblance to the three just mentioned. Some of them could be by Giorgione, but in most cases there is no way to tell.”

Attributions to Giorgione depend on four criteria:

The Berlin portrait and the Shepherd with a flute, considered to be a very damaged original, are both accepted because of the sensitive and delicate treatment held as the artist”s mark. The Judith is also generally accepted today because of the astonishingly flamboyant palette, the sensitive detachment and the deliberate absence of the most spectacular aspects of the subject. The Adulteress, with its energetic attitudes seen from too unusual an angle to match the mystery and restraint typical of Giorgione”s other works, has a palette, though surprisingly, that is a little too vivid, and brings to mind a bold disciple rather than the master.

In the United States

On the occasion of the 500th anniversary of Giorgione”s death, an exceptional exhibition was held at the Museo Casa Giorgione in Castelfranco Veneto from December 12, 2009 to April 11, 2010, the anniversary of his death. Forty-six museums from around the world lent works to the exhibition, 16 of which are attributed to Giorgione: the Louvre, the National Gallery in London, the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, the Uffizi Museum in Florence, and the Galleries dell”Accademia in Venice, which included The Tempest. Also presented in this exhibition are works by painters whom Giorgione knew: Giovanni Bellini, Albrecht Dürer, Titian, Raphael, Lorenzo Costa, Cima da Conegliano, Palma the Elder, Le Perugino…

Sources

  1. Giorgione
  2. Giorgione