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.
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.
Important Art by Giorgione
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'."
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.
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.
Influences and Connections
Useful Resources on Giorgione
- Giorgione: Catalogue Raisonné: Mystery UnveiledBy Wolfgang Eller
- In the Age of GiorgioneBy Simone Facchinetti
- GiorgioneBy 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
- Giorgione and not Giorgione: The Conservation History and Technical Examination of 'Il Tramonto'By Jill Dunkerton / Technical Bulletin Volume 31 / 2010
- Tour: Giorgione and the High Renaissance in VeniceThe National Gallery of Art
- Great Works: Giorgione, Old WomanBy Tom Lubbock / The Independent / 2006