The earliest reference to Giorgione indicates that he was commissioned to paint frescoes in the Fondaco dei Tedeschi (“Guildhouse of the German Merchants”) in Venice in 1508 and that he was aided in this undertaking by the young Titian. Vasari, commenting on the frescoes for the Fondaco dei Tedeschi, complained: ” But he only thought of demonstrating his technique as a painter by representing various figures according to his own fancy. Indeed, there are no scenes to be found with any order…And I, for my part have never been able to understand his figures nor, for all my asking, have I ever found anyone who does.” The biographer, fortunately perhaps for his mental health, apparently did not see the “Tempesta” during his visit to Venice.

The Three Philospohers. Hoocher:The subject matter has long been a source of disagreement. In addition to interpret the painting as three philosophers (or three mathematicians) it is also assumed that the painting represents the three Magi, the Holy Family being in the cave at the left. Whatever the precise theme, one can find three ages of man, three distinct temperaments, and three different nations. There are important pentimenti, more easily accomplished in the oil medium that Giorgione favored than with tempera. The present picture may have been cut down on all sides, judging from a later copy. If there was an element of collaboration, the invention and the figure types, their poses, and the relation of one to another are Giorgione's. Sebastiano's role must have been limited literally to finishing the work, that is, giving it the final surface and unifying the elements. In the 'Three Philosophers' the figures are rather weightless, silent images, placed somewhat unspecifically in space, haphazardly related, as it were, to the landscape. For example, the youngest figure, seated toward the centre of the composition, is partly blocked out by the oriental with the deep red garment, and his head, in profile, is apparently unrelated to the twin tree trunks behind it. The natural and private world Giorgione has created envelops us with its mystery and poetry, with its antiscientific structure and even its rather un-classical choice of figural types and poses.

The indeterminacy of  Giorgione’s subject matter has never interfered with the fascination for his work; just the opposite. Paintings such as the “Tempesta” are similar to other enigmatic works such as “Mona Lisa” or Michelangelo’s “Moses”. In the absence of supporting documentation at the time, the interpretation of enigmatic content is not an easy task….

A Venetian of around 1507 was likely to be interested in magic, alchemy and astrology; in a revised Neo-Platonism mixed with Jewish theosophy, and Egyptian occultism; in Stoicism, which taught that god runs through the material world as honey runs through a honeycomb; and in the University of Padua’s brand of Aristotelianism, which emphasized nature and held, among other heretical notions, that individual intellects were absorbed at death into the eternal intellect. Even a small section of this classical-oriental-medieval miscellany, sufficiently warmed in an artistic imagination, could yield a view of the universe that combined pagan pantheism with something close to primitive animism.

That the artist took such a magical view is another Giorgionesque proposition that cannot be proved. But “The Three Philosophers” shows that he was acquainted with the eclectic, esoteric doctrines of his time. In this profoundly meditative picture the bearded sage holds a sheet covered with celestial figures; the turbaned one is obviously an Eastern, possibly “Chaldean,” seer; and the youth is manipulating a compass and a square as he raptly contemplates the countryside. Also, something like pagan pantheism could help to account for the weird heedlessness of the man and woman in the “Tempesta” – for their apparent readiness to be absorbed, mentally and almost physically, by natural elements. It could explain in part the lyrical storm, the encroachment of the pastoral landscape on the unreal, deserted town, and the work’s whole air of being a sort of cosmic opera.

"The Tempest can thus be seen to depict the Epicurean poet contemplating his materia, that is, the matter and source from which he draws his inspiration. Aligned with the fountain is a landscape embodying the strife of the elements and a contemporary city of the terraferma, a spectacle encompassing "the nature of things" in their everyday, local manifestation. Some recent readings of the picture have deciphered certain background elements in terms of the precarious fortunes of Venice during the Wars of the League of Cambrai (1509-17): these occur in the faint, distant outlines of the carro, the stemma of the long extinct former rulers of Padua, still visible on the gates of subject cities such as Cittadella."

The operatic comparison puts us on the picture’s fourth level of meaning, which seems to be best described as musical. Talk about this level must, by necessity, be entirely subjective and impressionistic, which has made most scholars nervous; apparently reminded of Walter Pater and the gemlike flames of the English aesthetic movement. But, in the first place, Pater’s analysis of the Giorgionesque school in “The Renaissance” , including the famous observation that “all art constantly aspires towards the condition of music,” holds up very well in a modern context; and in the second place , Giorgione actually was a musician.

We are told again, by Vasari, that he was “extremely fond of the lute, which he played so beautifully to accompany his own singing that his services were often used at music recitals and social gatherings.” We can even be practically certain of at leat one kind of music he sang and played, for his career coincided with the golden age of the “frottola” , which was the immediate ancestor of the Italian madrigal. The “frottola” was a relatively simple vocal form, suitable for performance by a group or by a soloist accompanying himself on the lute, and was often improvised. It was particularly popular among the literary gentlemen and grand ladies of the Venetian region- among, that is, the same people who collected Giorgione’s pictures.

The Finding of Paris:(ca 1673), 20.6 × 30.4 cm, engraving by Théodorus von Kessel (ca 1620-1693) after Teniers II (1610-1690). Washington DC., Library of Congress, Dayton C. Miller Flute Collection 0525/V. Ref. Jan Lancaster ex Robert Bigio (pers. comm., 2007). A print (and thus reversed) after a painting by Teniers II said to be copied from a now lost painting by Giorgione (see above). The baby Paris lies in a basket on a river bank. On the left bank stand a man and a woman. On the right bank sits a woman and an old man playing a near-cylindrical, tenor-sized recorder, left hand lowermost. The window and hole for the lowermost little finger are clearly visible.

However, there is no need to drive off a cliff with these analogies. Much of Giorgione’s painting technique can be explained quite adequately as a development of other painter’s techniques. Nonetheless, there are subtle vibrations of of brushwork, an unidentifiable aptness of transitions, and a tonality in the “Tempesta” that seem to be the work of an artist used to thinking and feeling in musical terms. The same musicality can be found in representational aspects of his work, and here the comments of  Walter Pater, although not specifically on the “Tempesta” are worth quoting:

“Now it is part of the ideality of the highest sort of dramatic poetry, that it presents us with a kind of profoundly significant and animated instant, a mere gesture, a look, a smile, perhaps—some brief and wholly concrete moment—into which, however, all the motives, all the interests and effects of a long history, have condensed themselves, and which seem to absorb past and future in an intense consciousness of the present. Such ideal instants the school of Giorgione selects, with its admirable tact, from that feverish, tumultuously coloured world of the old citizens of Venice—exquisite pauses in time, in which, arrested thus, we seem to be spectators of all the fullness of existence,

which are like some consummate extract or quintessence of life.” ( Walter Pater )

The Finding of Paris. Nicolas S. Lander:(1651 or later), oil on panel, 21 × 30.5 cm, David II Teniers (1610-1690). Brussels, Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts; formerly in the collection of Signora Ch. Loeser, Florence. Ref. Béguin (1971: 97, fig); Martineau & Hope (1983: 47, fig. 22); Jan Lancaster (pers. comm., 2007); Rijksbureau voor Kunsthistoriche Documentatie 47071 (2010-col.) Said to be copied from a now lost painting by Giorgione when it was in the collection of the Archduke of Austria, Leopold Wilhelm (1614-1662), governor of southern (Spanish) Netherlands from 1647 to 1656, whose palace was in Brussels. The infant Paris lies in a basket on a river bank. On the left bank stand a man and a woman. On the right bank sits a woman and an old man playing a tenor-sized near-cylindrical recorder, right hand lowermost. The window and hole for the lowermost little finger are clearly visible. Martineau & Hope (loc. cit.) place this painting at the Courtauld Institute Galleries, London, in error. It is interesting to compare this painting to Giorgione's The Tempest (ca 1508; Galleria dell'Accademia, Venice), thought by some to represent a shepherd finding Paris suckled by a nurse; the town as Troy; the lightening alluding to its destruction, and the broken columns to Paris' death.

He evokes Giorgionesque music “heard across running water” and “people with intent faces, as if listening, like those described by Plato in an ingenious passage of the “Republic”, to detect the smallest interval of musical sound, the smallest undulation in the air, or feeling for music in thought on a stringless instrument, ear and finger refining themselves infinitely.”


It can be objected that on this level the painting does not really have meaning, at least not in the same way that it has on the allegorical, narrative, and philosophical levels. But isn’t the possibility of such an objection an indication of the thoroughly revolutionary nature of Giorgione’s achievement in his own time? What he produced was a painting that was primarily a painting- a painting that had significance and emotional impact, but no more need of informational content than the music of a “frottola” had.

Trosman: Components in “The Tempest” derive intensity as a result of the mechanisms of the dream work such as condensation and displacement, just as elements in the manifest image of the dream of necessity are encoded similarly with sensorial attributes, such as empowerment of intensity is present in “The Tempest.”

Clearly, primary process mechanisms are at play, and logically contradictory interpretations can be present. The scope of interpretation is secondary to the presence of enigmatic content yielding to the widened capacity for the evocation of fantasy. Indeed, in the final analysis what we are witnessing is the capacity of a great artist to present to us the process of fantasy formation itself, the conditions under which it can be produced, that it can be transmitted, and that it lends itself to the continuing process of renewal and recreation in the mind of the viewer.

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