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Giorgione (Giorgo da Castelfranco; 1477–1510)

GIORGIONE (Giorgo da Castelfranco; 14771510)

GIORGIONE (Giorgo da Castelfranco; 14771510), Italian painter, master of the Venetian school. Although little is known about Giorgione, it is clear that in the course of a brief career curtailed by the plague in the autumn of 1510 he transformed the field of painting in Renaissance Venice. In a number of small-scale devotional works (e.g., the Allendale Nativity, c. 1500, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.), the young artist responded in brilliant fashion to the pictorial innovations of his master, Giovanni Bellini (c. 14381516). In these paintings, Giorgione demonstrated his understanding of Bellini's tonal and atmospheric approach to pictorial composition in which individual forms are loosely bound together through the unifying play of warm golden light. Also derived from Bellini is the placement of human and sacred protagonists within a broadly articulated natural landscape.

Giorgione broadly relied on the established painting types and iconographies of late-fifteenth-century Venice in his earlier work. But his uniquely expressive artistic personality is already very evident in the dreamlike atmosphere that pervades each painting. This air of moody introspection is most noticeable in the Castelfranco altarpiece (c. 15001502, Castelfranco, Duomo), Giorgione's first and only monumental religious commission. Here, the rigorously defined rational space of the early Renaissance altarpiece is undermined by a perspective scheme that makes little logical sense. Works such as two well-known male portraits (both c. 15001502, one at the Staatliche Museum, Berlin, the other at the San Diego Museum of Art) are undoubtedly commissioned portraits, but their lack of reference to the trappings of social rank makes them very unlike the average fifteenth-century painting of this type. Col Tempo (c. 1505, Accademia, Venice), Laura (1506, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna), and the Boy with an Arrow (c. 15051507, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna) cannot really be understood as "portraits" at all, although the artist very deliberately drew on the conventions of the genre. In each painting, Giorgione presents a strongly lit form emerging out of dark shadow, indicating his awareness of the art of Leonardo da Vinci, who had briefly visited Venice in 1500. But Giorgione's fluid and varied application of paint goes beyond Leonardo's smooth blending, pushing the limits of the malleable oil medium. In Col Tempo, it is the realization of the woman's weathered skin through the use of broadly applied impasto touches that breathes life into the vanitas theme. Both Laura and the Boy are more conceptually ambiguous. Despite the portraitlike arrangement, we are shown a real individual in neither case. These works are characterized by a simmering (yet understated) eroticism wholly unprecedented in Italian Renaissance art. Texture and touch are the means by which Giorgione creates the sensual mood: in Laura by the juxtaposition of fingers, fur, and secret flesh; in the Boy by the softly melting treatment of one physical substance into another.

Paintings such as these set the tone for much of Giorgione's later work, which is typically intimate and secular in tone, as well as boldly original in style, technique, and exposition of subject. Little is known of the circumstances in which these paintings were commissioned. But in the 1520s and 1530s The Three Philosophers (c. 15081510, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna) was owned by Taddeo Contarini, The Tempest (c. 15091510, Accademia, Venice) by Gabriele Vendramin, and the Sleeping Venus (c. 1510, Gemäldegalerie, Dresden) by Girolamo Marcello. These men are likely to have been the original patrons, and recent studies have revealed that they formed an intimate and sophisticated private circle of Venetian patricians. Giorgione's artistic response to the primarily poetic and esoteric interests of this circle may help to explain both the formal originality and the iconographic ambiguity characteristic of his work for them.

The subject matter of both The Three Philosophers and The Tempest has been hotly disputed by scholars, but such arguments may have been anticipated by the painter who, conceiving his paintings as complex visual and iconographic "puzzles," intended to stimulate interpretation. X-rays of The Three Philosophers, for example, indicate that details revealing the subject as that of the three Magi were concealed in the final version. Technical examination of The Tempest suggests a less deliberate procedure altogether: rather than veiling a preconceived subject, Giorgione seems to have invented the picture as he went along, his final composition being radically different from that revealed by the x-ray. The many modern attempts to read the painting in terms of a specific mythological, biblical, or allegorical subject seem to sell the painting short. It might be better to think of The Tempest as a pictorial attempt to rival the open-ended associative power of the pastoral poetry then so in vogue with Gabriele Vendramin and his select circle.

The vastly influential Sleeping Venus, completed by Titian following Giorgione's death, brings together many of the themes and qualities of his art. The subject matter, so typical in its combination of classical and erotic elements, is not on this occasion in doubt. But the Venus once again suggests Giorgione's fundamental conception of painting as a kind of "poetry," which works its magic less through the "logical" or scientific description of the object observed than through its ability to encourage the free association of ideas. It is perhaps for this reason that the anatomical impossibility of Giorgione's goddess has failed to disturb the many who have found in her fluid form the perfect realization of an aesthetic ideal.

See also Venice, Art in .


Anderson, Jaynie. Giorgione: The Painter of "Poetic Brevity." Paris and New York, 1997.

Lucco, Mauro. Giorgione. Milan, 1995.

Pignatti, Terisio. Giorgione. Venice, 1969.

Settis, Salvatore. Giorgione's Tempest: Interpreting the Hidden Subject. Cambridge, U.K., 1990.

Tom Nichols

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