My website, MyGiorgione, now includes my interpretations of Giorgione's "Tempest" as "The Rest on the Flight into Egypt"; his "Three Ages of Man" as "The Encounter of Jesus with the Rich Young Man"; Titian's, "Sacred and Profane Love" as "The Conversion of Mary Magdalen"; and Titian's "Pastoral Concert" as his "Homage to Giorgione".

Friday, January 12, 2018

Giorgione's Tempest: The Solitary Bird on the Rooftop 2017




A dozen years after seeing the subject of Giorgione's Tempest as "The Rest on the Flight into Egypt", I have found no reason to change my interpretation. Everything I have read since 2005 has only confirmed my initial view that the the nude Woman nursing the Child is the Madonna, and that the young man with the staff is St. Joseph watching over his family. I also identified the broken columns, the city in the background, the plant in front of the Woman, and showed how they fit easily into the puzzle.




However, I must admit that originally I saw no need to identify the bird on the rooftop in the background.  I thought it too insignificant a detail, not realizing back then that every detail in a Renaissance painting is significant. It was only after an online discussion with the late Hasan Niyazi, whose Three Pipe Problem blog had become one of the leading art history sites on the web, that I decided to look into the bird on the roof.


Tempest: Detail *


It is difficult to see the solitary bird hardly visible on a rooftop in the background of Giorgione’s famous painting. Most of the many interpreters of the Tempest fail to mention the bird or attempt to explain its significance. In his 2007 catalog Wolfgang Eller could neither make a positive identification nor offer an explanation.


“A white bird with a long neck sits on the ridge of this roof. The depicted bird is probably neither a heron nor a cormorant, since both of these have a straight neck when they are seated;” **  

Never mind that the bird appears to be standing, this was all Eller had to say.

In 2004 Waldemar Januszczak identified the bird as a crane to support his rather fanciful BBC TV interpretation of the Tempest as the story of Demeter and Iasion taken from one sentence in Homer’s Odyssey. He argued that a crane is often shown with the goddess Demeter. He paid a lot of attention to this little figure in the background but failed to explain why Demeter is nursing one child although she had twins by Iasion.

Eventually, I found the source of the solitary bird in Psalm 102, one of the seven penitential psalms that were so popular during the Renaissance. All of the Psalms were recited weekly in monasteries throughout Europe. John Fisher, the ascetic English bishop and martyr under Henry VIII, had even written a treatise on the Seven Penitential Psalms. Here are the verses from the Jerusalem Bible (102, v.7-8), and the Latin Vulgate where it is Psalm 101.


I live in a desert like the pelican,
In a ruin like the screech owl,
I stay awake, lamenting
Like a lone bird on the roof;


 Similis factus sum pelicano solitudinis: factus sum sicut nycticorax in domicilio.
( I have become like a pelican in solitude. I have become like a night raven in a house.)
Vigilavi, et factus sum sicut passer solitarius in tecto.
 (I have kept vigil, and I have become like a solitary sparrow on a roof.)


I was led to the Psalm interpretation after browsing the web for images of various crane like birds. The innumerable images available made it difficult, especially when trying to distinguish between cranes, herons, bitterns, storks, and even pelicans. Despite it’s curved beak even an ibis seemed possible.



Then I recalled that Giovanni Bellini had depicted a Grey Heron in his "St. Francis in the Desert", now in New York’s Frick Museum. John Fleming’s study of this famous painting demonstrated the connection between depictions of fauna and scriptural sources. 

Fleming noted that Bellini's "command of animal anatomy and vegetable forms reveals a close empirical observation, his vision of animal ecology would seem to reflect the literary sources of the Scriptures, and his desert wildlife gives visual form to the poetic diction of the Psalms, Isaiah, and Job." ***(35). 

But how can the well-known and distinctive pelican be confused with a grey heron? Fleming provided the answer.


A cursory iconographic survey of the well-known emblem of the “Pious Pelican” in the Middle Ages and Renaissance will reveal an entire aviary, birds we would be disposed to call pelicans, egrets, herons, eagles, storks, and swans, not to mention many that we would be hard pressed to give a name to at all. In ornithological terms, the “pelican” seems to be any large bird, especially any large water bird. In poetic terms, the pelican is almost any desert bird, so that the pelican and the passerus are treated as equivalents in monastic texts…. ( 42)

Of course, Fleming was discussing Bellini’s "St. Francis" and not Giorgione’s Tempest.

Nevertheless, a solitary bird on a roof lamenting the massacre of the Holy Innocents, symbolized by the storm, is certainly appropriate in a depiction of the “Rest on the Flight into Egypt.”  Even more if it is a large water bird associated with the desert and the Nile Delta. In my interpretation of the Tempest, I noted the connection.


The "Tempest” has one subject but more than one level of meaning. On a literal level it represents the escape of the Holy Family from the murderous havoc being visited on the children of Bethlehem and its environs. In the same passage of Matthew’s gospel where Joseph is warned to flee to Egypt, the evangelist records the plight of the  ”Holy Innocents,” and recalls the prophecy of Jeremiah,

"A voice was heard in Ramah, sobbing and loudly lamenting: it was Rachel weeping for her children,…because they were no more."

The solitary bird on the roof is the last piece of the Tempest puzzle. It fits very easily into an interpretation of the painting as "The Rest on the Flight into Egypt." As far as I can discover, it fits no other interpretation of the painting. #

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* Image used by kind permission of David and Helen Orme, friends from England. When we met them in Venice last October, we had a chance to get as close as possible to the beautifully displayed Tempest in the Accademia. Click on the image to enlarge it and you will see that it is probably the best image of the bird available anywhere.


**Wolfgang Eller: Giorgione, Catalogue Raisonee,  p. 95.


***John Fleming, From Bonaventure to Bellini, an Essay in Franciscan Exegesis, Princeton, 1982, 42.

# For an earlier discussion of the Massacre of the Innocents and the solitary bird, see my February 7, 2013 post and note the comment by Poussin scholar David Backwood about a Poussin version.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Giorgione: Christmas Stamp


Giorgione: Adoration of the Shepherds

In 1971, an incredible 1.2 billion copies of a single postage stamp were printed by the U.S. Postal Service. It was the largest stamp printing order in the world since postage stamps were first introduced in 1840. It was almost ten times larger that the usual printing of an American commemorative stamp. The stamp was one of two Christmas stamps issued that year. It depicted a Nativity scene by the Venetian painter Giorgione, Adoration of the Shepherds, and portrayed Mary, Joseph, the Christ Child, and two shepherds.*

The Postal Service probably picked Giorgione’s “Adoration of the Shepherds” because it was one of the most prized possessions of the National Gallery. The scene is so familiar that it is easy to overlook its real meaning.**

This King is not protected by armed guards. There is no need to bribe or otherwise court influence with bureaucrats acting as intermediaries. Anyone, even the simplest and the humblest, can approach this King directly and in his or her own fashion.

Merry Christmas to all readers and followers of Giorgione et al...


* M.W. Martin: “Christmas in Stamps,” in Catholic digest Christmas Book, ed. Father Kenneth Ryan, St. Paul, Minnesota, 1977.

** For a discussion of the painting click on this link to an earlier post at Giorgione et al...

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Giorgione: Tempest "Pentimenti"


I did not include a discussion of the "pentimenti" in the "Tempesta" in my original paper because I believed that the painting should be evaluated on what Giorgione finally decided he wanted the viewer to see.  However,  because of the continuing interest in the "pentimenti", I  published an essay on the subject  at Giorgione et al... on October, 24, 2010. I update it here with a couple of minor changes. While not necessary in supporting an interpretation of the painting as "The Rest on the Flight into Egypt," the "pentimenti" do not contradict it, especially the heretofore inexplicable little man on the bridge. See the following.





In "Giorgione, Myth and Enigma," the catalog for the ground breaking 2004 Giorgione exhibition, the essay on the "Tempesta" by Giovanna Nepi-Scire included a discussion of “pentimenti” or “changes of mind” revealed by the scientific exploration of what lies beneath the surface of the famous painting.

X-ray and radiographic technology did shed some light on the techniques of the painter and the materials he used but the results were inconclusive when it came to the meaning and subject of the painting. The "pentimenti" did not reveal much of Giorgione's original intention. Or did they?

One of the discarded figures in the underpainting had already received much attention from scholars. Originally, the canvas included a nude woman dipping her legs in a stream at the lower left hand corner. The catalog article indicated that some scholars believe that this figure provides an important clue even though the radiographic image is so indistinct that it is impossible to say whether the figure was even part of the original painting, or whether it was even painted by Giorgione. (Reproductions of this pentimento are an artist's rendering of the very indistinct x-ray image.)



For some, however, the “bathing woman” indicates that Giorgione originally intended the painting to contain two women. This contention would necessarily send the hunt for a “subject” into an entirely different direction.

However, the size of this bathing figure in relation to the nursing woman led the author of the catalog entry to reject the theory that Giorgione had originally intended to place two women in the painting. “In addition, the proportions appear slightly larger than those of the man and the nursing woman in the final version. If this figure really was part of the initial version, then there must have been a male figure on the right…” [p. 192]

Interestingly, a “bathing Madonna” would not be out of place in a depiction of the “Rest on the Flight into Egypt.” One of the apocryphal legends refers to a fountain near the Egyptian village of Matarea that sprang up to nourish the Madonna and her child. In his “Madonna della Scodella,” Correggio painted a version of the Rest on the Flight into Egypt with Mary dipping a bowl into a stream.

But, in my opinion, there is a much more telling pentimento. The Catalog indicated that the radiographic technology revealed,

the presence of a figure walking across the bridge in a long robe and carrying over his right shoulder a stick with a suspended load. (p. 192)

According to the Catalog this discovery contributed “nothing to the deciphering of the painting,” and there has been very little discussion of the little man since.

However, a walking man with a stick bearing a sack over his shoulder is easily recognizable as a pilgrim. St. Joseph’s sack is commonplace in depictions of the Flight into Egypt. Often in depicting the “Rest on the Flight into Egypt,” artists used a narrative format, which included the actual journey in the background and the resting figures in the foreground.

In one of Gerard David’s version of the “Rest on the Flight into Egypt” the Madonna sits in the foreground nursing her Son while in the background she rides atop the Ass with Joseph trailing behind on foot carrying over his shoulder a stick with a suspended load.

Gerard David: Rest on the Flight into Egypt
Metropolitan Museum, NY


This piece of evidence fits no other interpretation of the "Tempesta." Why would a pilgrim be in a mythological or classical setting? It is only explicable in reference to the “Flight into Egypt.”

Because the man is on the bridge, he must have been in the original painting but then Giorgione changed his mind. I can only guess that he realized he didn’t need it or that it would have been cumbersome to also include a miniature animal and rider.

To argue that Giorgione depicted a traditional subject in the "Tempesta" should in no way detract from his greatness. Another article in the Catalog [“Giorgione’s Materials and Painting Technique: Scientific Investigation of Three Paintings,”] indicated that in technique Giorgione was more traditional than commonly believed.

One could say that the artistic revolution caused by Giorgione does not necessarily translate into strictly technological innovation….Instead, there is clear evidence of an ability to utilize the extensive materials available in Venice and of a sound knowledge of the painting techniques accumulated by Venetian workshops during the 15th century….This demonstrates how the greatness of an artist is in no way bound by ‘vile matter. [p. 260]

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Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Giorgione: A "Notte" for Vittore Beccaro

In my last post I revisited my interpretation of a painting by Giorgione that has been lost but that still exists in seventeenth century copies. It is usually called the Discovery of Paris but I have argued that it is a depiction of the legendary encounter of the Holy Family with robbers on the flight into Egypt. I also believe that it is one of the two "notte"that Isabella D' Este sought to purchase in 1510. Below I reproduce my discusses of the two paintings with an addendum about Vittore Beccaro, the owner of the one that Isabella's agent called "finer in design and better finished".

 Late in 1510 Isabella D’Este, Marchesa of Mantua and renowned art patron, tried to acquire a Giorgione painting only to discover that the young master had just died. Nevertheless, the indefatigable collector persisted. On October 25 she wrote to Taddeo Albano, her agent in Venice:
 “we hear that among the possessions left by Zorzo da Castelfranco, the painter, there is a picture of a Notte, very beautiful and original. If this is the case, we wish to have it, and beg your Lorenzo da Pavia or any other person of taste and judgment to go and see if it is a really excellent thing. If it is, I hope you will endeavor to secure this picture for me… Find out the price and let us have the exact sum; but if it is really a fine thing, and you think well to clench the bargain for fear others should carry it off, do what you think best…”
Albano replied on November 8:
“Most illustrious and honoured Madama mia,--
“I have spoken in your interests to some of my friends who were very intimate with him, and they assure me that there is no such picture among his possessions. It is true that the said Zorzo painted a Notte for M. Taddeo Contarini, which, according to the information which I have, is not as perfect as you would desire. Another picture of the Notte was painted by Zorzo for a certain Vittore Beccaro, which, from what I hear, is finer in design and better finished than that of Contarini. But Beccaro is not at present in Venice, and from what I hear neither picture is for sale, because the owners have had them painted for their own pleasure, so that I regret I am unable to satisfy Your Excellency’s wish.” *
Since that time scholars have not been able to agree on the identity of the two paintings mentioned in Albano’s letter. Neither have they been able to agree on what Isabella or Albano meant by “notte” since the word hardly appears elsewhere in descriptions of paintings.

However, from the correspondence we can say that both paintings were commissioned: “the owners have had them painted for their own pleasure.” The one that was not as “perfect” as Isabella would have desired was done for Venetian patrician, Taddeo Contarini. The other “notte”, the one “finer in design and better finished,” was done for Vittore Beccaro, of whom nothing else is known. Not only was Beccaro out of town at the time of Isabella’s inquiry, but he seems to have completely disappeared from history.

Some scholars have argued that Isabella used “notte” or night scene to mean a Nativity or “presepio.” They have suggested that the Adoration of the Shepherds now in the National Gallery in Washington is the more perfect version, and that the same painting in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna is the less perfect one since it is obviously unfinished. This explanation hardly seems plausible since it is impossible to imagine that a patron like Taddeo Contarini would have prized an incomplete painting. Moreover, Isabella knew a Nativity when she saw one. A few years earlier when she corresponded with Giovanni Bellini about a Nativity, she never called it a “notte.”

David Teniers: copy of a lost Giorgione

In 1525 Marcantonio Michiel saw a painting in the house of Taddeo Contarini that could be called a night scene. Michiel noted that it represented “the birth of Paris in a landscape, with two shepherds standing.” He said it was by Giorgio di Castelfranco,” and indicated that it was one of his “early works.” Recently, Enrico dal Pozzolo suggested that this painting, of which only copies remain, was the one mentioned by Albano. He also suggested that the “more perfect” “notte” might be a “Hell with Aeneas and Anchises,” a painting that is now completely lost but which had somehow found its way into Contarini’s home by 1525. **

Pozzolo noted that a discovery of Paris coupled with an Aeneas and Anchises would mark the beginning and the end of the whole Trojan saga. However, this hypothesis is based on a misinterpretation of the “Discovery of Paris.” I have argued elsewhere that this lost Giorgione is a depiction of an episode on the flight of the Holy Family into Egypt. It is clear that in this early work Giorgione relied on a text from the apocryphal Arabic gospel of the Infancy.

Even from the copy of the “Discovery of Paris” done by David Teniers in 1655, we can see that it is not one of Giorgione’s most perfect works. This early effort seems crude in comparison with his later work. Since I have argued that Giorgione’s most perfect painting, La Tempesta, is also a depiction of the Rest on the Flight into Egypt, I believe it is safe to say that it was also the “notte”, “very beautiful and original,” that Isabella unsuccessfully sought to acquire right after Giorgione’s death in 1510.



Finally, I would like to speculate on the identity of Vittore Beccaro. Enrico dal Pozzolo suggested that the name implies that he might have been a butcher but it is hard to imagine, given Giorgione’s patrician patrons, that the Tempest was commissioned by an ordinary tradesman. It is true that Taddeo Albano claimed that Vittore Beccaro was the owner of the beautiful “notte”. But Albano got his information second or third hand from acquaintances. It is clear that he did not know the owner or even see the painting. At my age, it is easy to imagine that Albano could have rendered the name somewhat incorrectly.

Instead I would like to advise students to look in the direction of Bologna whose leading citizens included the Zambeccaro family. I also believe that some members of the family fled Bologna for Venice after Pope Julius II drove out the ruling Bentivoglio family in 1506.


At least one of the Zambeccaro was an art collector. In his biography of Franceso Francia, Giorgione Vasari said that Francia was a close friend of Polo Zambeccaro.
He lived in close intimacy with Messer Polo Zambeccaro, who being much his friend, and wishing to have some memorial of him, caused him to paint a rather large picture of the Nativity of Christ, which is one of the most celebrated works that he ever made; and for this reason Messer Polo commissioned him to paint at his villa two figures in fresco, which are very beautiful.***
The status of Polo Zambeccaro enabled him to commission a painting from a renowned painter like Francia. Moreover, he asked for a sacred subject, a Nativity, for his own private devotion. Polo Zambeccaro would have been the type of person who could have asked Giorgione, the up and coming favorite of the Venetian aristocracy, for "a picture of a Notte, very beautiful and original," a painting that would later be called the Tempest. It is still not for sale at any price.


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*Isabella’s correspondence with Taddeo Albano can be found in Julia Cartwright, Isabella d’Este, Marchioness of Mantua, 1474-1539. London, 1932. For the Italian text see Jaynie Anderson, Giorgione, The Painter of Poetic Brevity, p. 362.

**Enrico dal Pozzolo: Giorgione, 1999, pp. 33-35.


***Vasari, Giorgio: Lives of the Painters, Sculptors and Architects, translated by Gaston Du C. De Vere, with an introduction and notes by David Ekserdjian. 2V, Everyman’s Library, 1996. Vol. 1, 581.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Giorgione: "Discovery of Paris" ***



    

        A “lost” Giorgione painting which has been misidentified for almost 500 years can shed new light on the work and career of the most mysterious and perhaps the greatest of all Venetian Renaissance painters.

In 1525, fifteen years after the death of Giorgione, Marcantonio Michiel noticed a painting in the home of Venetian patrician, Taddeo Contarini, and described it as a “picture on canvas, representing the birth of Paris, in a landscape, with two shepherds standing.…” Michiel noted that it was one of Giorgione’s “early works.”[i]



This painting has been lost, but copies exist from the seventeenth century. The editor of the 1903 translation of Michiel’s notes cited a description in an “old manuscript catalog of the time.”
A landscape on canvas, in oil, where there are on one side, a half nude woman and an old man, seated, with a flute.[ii]

One of the copies, made by David Teniers around 1655, is currently in a private collection but was discussed in two recent catalogues. The authors of both catalogues agree that it is a copy of an early Giorgione and also accept, although with some puzzlement, Michiel’s identification of the painting as “the birth of Paris.”[iii] However, details in this early Giorgione indicate that it has quite a different subject than the one imagined by Michiel.

The subject of this “lost” Giorgione comes from a legendary episode on the flight of the Holy Family into Egypt. Here is the version from the apocryphal “Arabic Gospel of the Infancy.”
Joseph and the lady Mary departed and came to a desert place, and when they heard that it was infested with raids by robbers, they decided to pass through this region by night. But behold, on the way they saw two robbers lying on the road, and with them a crowd of robbers who belonged to them, likewise sleeping. Now these two robbers, into whose hands they had fallen, were Titus and Dumachus. And Titus said to Dumachus: ‘I ask you to let these (people) go free, and in such a way that our companions do not observe them.’ But Dumachus refused and Titus said again:
‘Take from me forty drachmae and have them as a pledge.’ At the same time he reached him the girdle which he wore round him, that he might hold his tongue and not speak.[iv]

       In Legends of the Madonna Anna Jameson called the encounter with the robbers an “ancient tradition,” and added another detail. After the acceptance of his offer, “the merciful robber led the Holy Travellers to his stronghold on the rock, and gave them lodging for the night.”[v]

The landscape in the background of the painting is commonplace in depictions of the Flight into Egypt. The stream is often seen in versions of the “Rest.” It was used by the Madonna to either bathe, or to wash the swaddling clothes of her Son.

Bathing might explain Mary’s exposed leg and arms but the disarray of her clothing could also be Giorgione’s way of representing her obvious danger from the robbers. In a painting now in the Hermitage Giorgione exposed the thigh of Judith, the famous Jewish heroine whose virtue was also threatened.[vi] In any case Mary sits with her back to Joseph with her eyes intent on her Son, her real protector. Joseph is portrayed as an elderly graybeard as in Giorgione’s well-known Nativities. The infant Christ lies on a white cloth and returns his mother’s imploring look. The white cloth recalls the corporale, the cloth used to cover the altar on which the Eucharist is placed.[vii]

The two men on the right side are not shepherds but robbers. A Giorgione shepherd would be kneeling or bending over the Child in adoration. The one with the red jacket has just convinced the other to leave the Holy Family in peace. He has taken off his “girdle” leaving himself somewhat exposed and given it to the other who is in the process of fixing it around his waist. The band of robbers can be seen lounging in the middle ground. Joseph’s flute recalls the well-known verse from Juvenal: “A wanderer who has nothing can sing in a robber’s face.”[viii]

In “The Encounter with the Robbers in the Desert” Giorgione did not attempt to hide the subject of that early work. If no one has recognized its subject from Michiel’s time to ours, it is because the very popular apocryphal legends have largely been forgotten. Early in his career Giorgione was working not on a pagan subject derived from the legend of Paris but on a depiction of an apocryphal legend based on the Flight into Egypt. Moreover, he showed an inclination, even at this early stage in his brief career, to depict the Madonna in a very unusual way.

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*** The above is part of a post that was one of the first to appear at Giorgione et al... back in 2010. I reproduce it here for new readers. It can also be found at MyGiorgione with my other major papers on Giorgione, Titian and the Venetian Renaissance. In the past seven years I have seen or read nothing that would make me want to change my interpretation of this lost Giorgione.








[i] The Anonimo, Notes on Pictures and Works of Art in Italy made by an Anonymous Writer in the Sixteenth Century, ed. George C. Williamson, London, 1903. p. 104.

[ii] ibid. note 1.

[iii] Jaynie Anderson, Giorgione, 1997, p. 317; and Wolfgang Eller, Giorgione Catalog Raisonne, Petersburg, 2007, pp. 171-173.

[iv] Extract from the Arabic Infancy Gospel in Edgar Hennecke, New Testament Apocrypha, edited by Wilhelm Schneemelcher, English translation edited by R. McL. Wilson, Volume One, Philadelphia 1963. p. 408. On the web a search for the First Gospel of the Infancy of Jesus, Chapter. VIII, will give the story with slightly different wording.

[v]  Jameson, Legends of the Madonna, Boston, 1885. pp. 361-362. Mrs. Jameson noted that the encounter with the robbers has been “seldom treated” as an artistic subject but did indicate that she had seen two representations. “One is a fresco by Giovanni di San Giovanni, which, having been cut from the wall of some suppressed convent, is now in the academy at Florence. The other is a composition by Zuccaro.” In a later edition she provided a sketch of the Zuccaro “Encounter,” which shows Joseph assisting the Madonna down from the Ass at the behest of the armed robber.

[vi] In Judith’s famous prayer she recalled her ancestor Simeon who took vengeance on the foreigners “who had undone a virgin’s girdle to her shame, laid bare her thigh to her confusion…” Judith 9:2, Jerusalem Bible.

[vii] For the corporale see the discussion of Titian’s Pesaro Altarpiece in Rona Goffen,  Piety and Patronage in Renaissance Venice, Yale, 1986, p. 114.

[viii] Juvenal, Satires, X, 22. I thank Dr. Karin Zeleny of the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna for the Juvenal reference.