In his famous Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Giorgio Vasari included a brief account of the life and work of Giorgione, and featured it prominently right after the biography of Leonardo da Vinci. Born in 1511 Vasari was not a contemporary of Giorgione’s, whose life had been tragically cut short the year before by the plague. Although brief, the Giorgione biography was given much prominence because of Vasari’s high opinion of Giorgione’s work and importance. It began with this introduction.
At the same time when Florence was acquiring so much renown from the works of Leonardo, the city of Venice obtained no small glory from the talents and excellence of one of its citizens, by whom the Bellini, then held in such esteem, were very far surpassed, as were all others who had practiced painting up to that time in that city. This was Giorgio, born in the year 1478, at Castelfranco, in the territory of Treviso… Giorgio was, at a later period, called Giorgione, as well from the character of his person as for the exaltation of his mind…. *
Vasari credited Giorgione with the development of a new style or manner of painting from nature.
He was endowed by nature with highly felicitous qualities, and gave to all that he painted, whether in oil or fresco, a degree of life, softness, and harmony (being more particularly successful in the shadows), which caused all the more eminent artists to confess that he was born to infuse spirit into the forms of painting; and they admitted that he copied the freshness of the living form more exactly than any other painter, not of Venice only, but of all other places. 
What was the basis for Vasari’s evaluation? We know that he visited Venice on at least two occasions, and it is clear that he saw Giorgione’s work on the Fondaco dei Tedeschi. He said that in an Ascension Day procession he saw a Giorgione portrait of Leonardo Loredano as Doge that he believed himself “to behold that most famous Prince himself.” He also saw and attributed to Giorgione the famous painting of Christ Carrying the Cross that is still displayed in the Scuola of S. Rocco in Venice.
It is hard to determine what other works of Giorgione’s he might have actually seen with his own two eyes. Most of Giorgione’s work was done for the homes of private aristocratic patrons, and it is hard to determine if Vasari had access to those homes. Vasari often relied on others for descriptions of paintings he had not seen. For example, here is his description of three Giorgione paintings in the home of the Venetian Cardinal Grimani, an avid patron and collector.
In his youth, Giorgione painted, in Venice, many very beautiful pictures of the Virgin, with numerous portraits from nature, which are most life-like and beautiful. Of this we have proof in three heads of extraordinary beauty, painted in oil by his hand, and which are in the possession of the Most Reverend Grimani, Patriarch of Aquileia. One of these represents David (and according to common report, is a portrait of the master himself). He has long locks, reaching to the shoulders, as was the custom of that time, and the colouring is so fresh and animating that the face appears to be rather real than painted; the breast is covered with armour, as is the arm with which he holds the head of Goliath. The second is much larger, and is the portrait of a man taken from the life. In the hand this man holds the red barret cap of a commander; the mantle is of furs, and beneath it appears one of those tunics after the ancient fashion, which are well known; this is believed to represent some leader of armies. The third picture is a boy with luxuriant curling hair, and is as beautiful as imagination can portray. 
Vasari’s sources might have included Titian and Sebastiano Luciani, later called Sebastiano del Piombo. Both of these painters had worked with Giorgione at the outset of their careers. Vasari visited Titian in his studio in Venice, and also in Rome, in the company of Michelangelo, during Titian’s brief sojourn in that city. After Sebastiano left Venice for Rome shortly after Giorgione’s death, he developed a working relationship with Michelangelo. Given Vasari’s close friendship with Michelangelo, he must have had frequent contact with Sebastiano. So, although not a contemporary of Giorgione’s, Vasari had seen some of his works and talked with at least two contemporaries who knew the master at the height of his brief career.
In addition to the descriptions of others, Vasari had some drawings by Giorgione in his own collection.
In my book of drawings, also, there is a head painted in oil by his hand, wherein he has portrayed a German of the Fugger family, who was one of the principal merchants then trading in Venice, and had his abode at the Fondaco, or Cloth Magazine of the Germans. This head is wonderfully beautiful; and I have, besides, in my possession other sketches and pen-and-ink drawings of this master. 
Finally, it is certain that Vasari saw Giorgione’s famous exterior frescoes on the Fondaco dei Tedeschi with his own two eyes. He saw it more than three decades after Giorgione’s death but it still retained its brilliant colors and original designs. Nevertheless, Vasari confessed that he could not understand the subject or the meaning of much of the work. Giorgione, he wrote,
thought only of executing fanciful figures, calculated for the display of his knowledge in art; and wherein there is, of a truth, neither arrangement of events in consecutive order, nor even single representations, depicting the history of known or distinguished persons, whether ancient or modern. I, for my part, have never been able to understand what they mean; nor, with all the inquiries I have made, could I ever find anyone who did understand, or could explain them to me. 
|La Nuda: Remnant of a Fondaco fresco|
Vasari was an accomplished painter and a skilled observer but by the time he visited Venice, Giorgione had already become a mystery.
Despite these first hand observations and excellent sources, scholars today tend to take Vasari with a grain of salt. Nevertheless, Vasari is the source of most of what we know about Giorgione. He related the story of Giorgione’s tragic death of the plague. He gave us the well-know “paragone” story in which Giorgione rebuffed the advocates of sculpture by showing how he could represent all the sides of the human body on a flat surface. Vasari also gave us the account of the friction between Giorgione and Titian after their collaboration on the Fondaco dei Tedeschi.
After Vasari there is no other contemporary source for the life and work of Giorgione. To fill out the story we will have to look at the paintings and try to solve the mysteries by trying to see them as a contemporary Venetian would have seen and understood them. The paintings are the best primary sources for Giorgione.
* All quotes are from Giorgio Vasari, Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, selected, edited, and introduced by Marilyn Aronberg Lavin, Volume II, New York, 1967.