The first article in this two-part series covered Giorgione’s early paintings, up to 1504. This article covers those from 1505 to his tragically early death from plague in 1510.
The Tempest (c 1504-8) is one of the earliest ‘proper’ landscape paintings, and is well attested in Michiel’s notes from 1530. Its theme is one which will become familiar in the much later landscapes of Poussin and others, of an approaching storm. The sky is filled with inky dark clouds, and there is a bolt of lightning in the distance. The buildings of a small town back onto a little river, with a simple footbridge cutting the view in half.
The foreground is more enigmatic: on the right, a young infant is suckling from the breast of its almost naked mother, who sits on the bank of the river. She stares blankly at the viewer. On the left, a soldier stands bearing a staff against his right shoulder, looking across at the mother and child on the opposite bank. Trees frame the buildings and lightning in repoussoir, an extremely early and innovative use of this compositional device.
Three Philosophers (1504-8) was one of the earliest and most explicitly attested paintings in the notes of Michiel, from 1525, who stated that it had been completed by Sebastiano del Piombo (c 1485-1547), although recent convention is for Giorgione to be credited alone. He confirmed that the three figures are philosophers, which would include most of the sciences, and that the seated man is observing the sun’s rays. Michiel also considered that the rock was “so admirably faked”.
The Holy Family (c 1505) is sometimes considered with the Allendale Nativity and the Adoration of the Kings to form the ‘Allendale Group’, and thereby is either included or excluded in Giorgione’s works. Current opinion generally favours their attribution to his hand.
It shows Joseph, the infant Christ, and the Virgin Mary sat together. Whilst Joseph is seated on a symbolically incomplete low wall, Mary appears to be on a low rock just in front of the wall, inviting additional interpretation in terms of its symbolism. Although delicately painted, the distant landscape is small, and not as fine as those in other accepted works.
Portrait of a Young Woman (‘Laura’) (1506) is the only one of Giorgione’s paintings which bears an autographic inscription with a date:
On 1 June 1506 this was made by the hand of master Giorgio from Castelfranco, the colleague of master Vincenzo Catena, at the instigation of misser Giacomo.
Vincenzo Catena (or de Biagio) (c 1470-1531) is known largely from this inscription, and from a few paintings which have been attributed to him.
One of the finest portraits of the Italian Renaissance, it is believed to have been a bridal portrait intended to be seen in a domestic setting, hence the background of laurel foliage, and the right breast exposed from her fur jacket. It was also one of Giorgione’s earlier works to leave Italy, as it was bought and shipped to Britain to join the art collection of King Charles I in 1636.
The Adoration of the Kings (1506-7) is quite a conventional approach to this popular subject, with fine modelling of the figures, delightful highlights forming details, and rich colour. Sometimes considered in the ‘Allendale Group’, opinion has varied as to whether this should be attributed to Giorgione. Currently the consensus is that it should be.
The Adoration of the Shepherds (‘Allendale Nativity’) (1505-10) is an altogether more sophisticated and innovative painting, which should probably be attributed to Giorgione, according to current opinion. It shows two shepherds paying their respects to the newly-born Christ and his parents, with superb modelling of those figures.
Behind is an Italianate landscape with fine details and strong aerial perspective in the distant hills.
Nude (c 1508) is a fresco fragment which is believed to have been painted by Giorgione as part of the multi-artist façade of the Fondaco dei Tedeschi in Venice, which was undertaken in 1508. Further research into this is being undertaken in Venice.
Self-portrait as David (c 1508) has been claimed as Giorgione’s only self-portrait. It appears in a 1650 engraving by Wenceslaus Hollar, with the addition of a severed head, presumably Goliath’s, as a portrait of the artist.
La Vecchia (The Old Woman) (c 1508-10) is a masterly portrait of an old woman who comes to life in its rich detail. The paper which she is holding bears the words Col Tempo – ‘with time’ – making it a reminder of ageing and the inexorable progress of time. This was first described in the late 1560s as depicting Giorgione’s mother, and has quite an extensive history following that, including spending a period with a cover portrait of a man, since lost.
Giorgione’s Sleeping Venus (c 1508-10) is generally accepted as having been left unfinished when Giorgione died, so was completed by Titian, who later went on to paint the remarkably similar Venus of Urbino (1538).
This woman – there is no evidence that it represents the classical goddess Venus – has her eyes closed in sleep, and the sheet next to her is screwed up, as if someone else has just got up from it. Behind her is an Italianate landscape with features common to other paintings attributed to Giorgione, rather than the indoor scene in Titian’s later work. According to Michiel’s notes from 1525, the landscape was finished by Titian, who also is recorded there as having completed cherubs. It is not clear why there are no cherubs to be found in the painting now.
Bust Portrait of a Courtesan, also known as Head of a Venetian Girl (c 1509) is a more controversial attribution which does not currently have a positive consensus. For the moment it might be better ascribed to Giorgione’s circle than himself.
Titian was in his early twenties when Giorgione died, so it is not possible to draw any firm conclusions on the influence that Giorgione may have had specifically over Titian’s work. This is made the more complex by the difficulty in distinguishing their paintings: many which have in the past been attributed to Giorgione are now being considered to have been painted, or at least completed, by Titian.
If most of these attributions are correct, Giorgione appears to have been a key innovator and central figure in the development of the Venetian style. His portraits have a refinement which breathes life into their faces. Among his best are the paintings with the strongest evidence for being his: ‘Laura’, La Vecchia, and the full-length Judith.
His development of secular genres such as landscape and the nude provided a foundation on which Titian, the Venetian school, and ultimately Poussin and Claude Lorrain were able to build. Here too there are several quite securely attested paintings which should dispel any doubt over his role.
For some, this is enriched by the mystery surrounding his tragically short career. Thankfully Titian, Tintoretto, Veronese and others were able to develop from his brief burst of brilliance.
Facchinetti S & Galansino A (2016) In the Age of Giorgione, Royal Academy of Arts. ISBN 978 1 910350 26 3.