Tempesta: enigma of of visual poetry

It is a rhetoric of enigma and the art of indeterminacy. Behind this curtain is a paradox of narrative mystification. Giorgione is the most mysterious and perhaps the greatest of all Venetian Renaissance artists- but only a handful of paintings are certainly his. The “Tempesta” is his most famous work.  One of the few facts that we know about him is that he died in the year 1510 at about the age of  thirty-three. Today, 500 years later, his painting, the “Tempesta,” is still regarded as “one of the most enigmatic and famous paintings in the world.”…

..not particularly carefully drawn, and though the composition is somewhat artless, the picture is clearly blended into a whole simply by the light and air that permeate it all. It is the weird light of a thunderstorm, and for the first time, it seems, the landscape before which the actors of the picture move is not just a background. It is there, by its own right, as the real subject of the painting. We look from the figures to the scenery which fills the major part of the small panel, and then back again, and we feel somehow that, unlike his predecessors and contemporaries, Giorgione has not drawn things and persons to arrange them afterwards in space, but that he really thought of nature, the earth, the trees, the light, air and clouds and the human beings with their cities and bridges as one. In a way, this was almost as big a step forward into a new realm as the invention of perspective had been. From now on, painting was more than drawing plus coloring. It was an art with its own secret laws and devices.”

From The Story of Art, by E.H. Gombrich

Most of the argument in this post was taken from a paper on the Tempest by Dr. Francis P. DeStefano which can be found on his website at http://www.giorgionetempesta.com. Other material can be found on his blog at http://giorgionetempesta.blogspot.com.

…In 1530, 20 years after Giorgione’s death, Marcantonio Michiel saw the painting that would become known as the “Tempesta” in the home of Venetian patrician, Gabriele Vendramin. Michiel described it as “the little landscape on canvas, representing stormy weather and a gypsy woman with a soldier,” and said it was by Giorgio di Castelfranco. Since that time no one has doubted the attribution but it is safe to say that there has never been agreement on the subject of Giorgione’s masterpiece…. ( DeStefano )

DeStefano:This paper identifies the subject of Giorgione’s "La Tempesta" as The Rest on the Flight into Egypt. This interpretation is the only one that identifies all the major elements in the painting. The nude woman nursing an infant is the Madonna. The man standing at the left functioning as an “interlocutor” is St. Joseph with his staff. The broken columns featured so prominently are commonplace in depictions of the “Rest on the Flight into Egypt.” The city in the background is Judea from where the Holy Family has fled but could also be equated with Padua during the Cambrai war. The scraggly plant in the foreground is identified as a “belladonna” a plant associated with witchcraft and the Devil. No other interpretation of this painting has even attempted to identify the plant. The great difficulties of this interpretation, the “nude Madonna” and the “young” Joseph are dealt with in the paper. The nude Madonna is Giorgione’s idiosyncratic way of depicting the concept of Mary’s Immaculate Conception, a doctrine of great importance at this time, especially in Venice. If the association with the War of Cambrai is correct, this interpretation dates the painting in 1509, a year before Giorgione’s death.

Sometime in 1530 Marcantonio Michiel, an intelligent patrician who kept a sort of connosieur’s diary jotted down the fact that in the house of the Venetian collector Gabriele Vendramin he had seen ” the landscape with the tempest, with the gypsy and soldier, done by the hand of Zorzi da Castelfranco.” Michiel thus became the first recorded viewer of the masterpiece that is usually, and perhaps incorrectly , referred to as the “Tempesta”. He also became, with this “gypsy and soldier”  surmise, the earliest known practitioner of what might be called Tempestry, a form of divination that has been fascinating experts ever since that time.

The fascination is understandable. The “Tempesta” invites and defies a decoding of its message. It is like a melody whose words you can never quite remember, a poem composed of unexplained metaphors, a still from an unknown motion picture. Moreover, the painting is part of a larger mystery: that of Giorgione himself.According to Vasari’s “Lives” he was “very amorous” . He may have spent some time in Giovanni Bellini’s workshop, and in 1506 he shared a studio with Vincenzo Catena, a Bellini epigone. Late in 1510, when he was about thirty-two, he died of the plague, which Vasari says he caught from “a certain lady” with whom he had been having ” a very pleasurable affair.”

"The great objection to interpreting Giorgione's "Tempest" as "the Rest on the Flight into Egypt" is, of course, the nude Madonna. As one scholar said, it is "unimaginable." Others have insisted that precedents must be found for such a radical interpretation. It was only last year that I found a precedent in a copy of a "lost" Giorgione. This new evidence was incorporated into the presentation given at the Annual meeting of the Renaissance Society of America in April, 2010."

A Giorgionesque cult swept through the Italian upper classes. A few days after his death Isabella d’Este, one of the most alert art patrons of her day, rushed a letter from Mantua to Venice in a vain effort to buy a “very beautiful and curious” Nativity that she had heard he had left unsold. The Venetian owners of two similar pictures refused to part with them “at any price.” By 1524 the sophisticated Baldassare Castiglione in his “Book of the Courtier” was ranking the Castelfranco master with the Leonardo, Mantegna, Raphael and Michelangelo masterpieces.

There would seem then, to be little room for doubt that Giorgione was a remarkably poetic figure, somewhat in the tragic category of Keats, and also one of the great innovators in the history of Western art. He appears, from written evidence, to have provided a fresh impetus for the Venetian Renaissance and to have invented, for European culture generally, a new mode of feeling. But when we turn to the painted evidence, his personality and  his achievement begin to blur alarmingly. There are no pictures bearing his signature. Worse, there are no works backed by contemporary documentation, for a fire destroyed the canvas in the D

’ Palace and marine air eventually rduced the frescoes to a batch of pink smudges.

Giorgione'swhite-draped nude seems dreamlike and detached, even from her child, as if she belonged not to the real world but to myth or allegory.

…”Every interpretation, beginning with Michiel’s, has been disputed and today not one remains standing. Indeed, disagreement about the subject has led some to claim that the painting has “no subject”; that it is simply a beautiful, pioneering work of landscape. …that the “Tempesta” has a subject, a sacred subject, and that it is a strikingly idiosyncratic version of the “Rest on the Flight into Egypt.” The figures in the foreground are, of course, the great difficulty of this interpretation. A young St. Joseph is unusual and a ‘nude Madonna” is unimaginable. What could have led Giorgione to make this leap of imagination?” …

Posthumous attributions are all we have. The majority of these are very posthumous indeed, and many are weakened by testimony that other hands, notably those of Titian, took over the dead innovator’s unfinished projects. The sudden Giorgionesque vogue, which encouraged imitators, is another source of confusion; moreover, the possibility of unscrupulous “restorations” opens areas of suspicion that an earnest art lover can scarcely bear to contemplate.

If an expert is finicky enough to demand an almost  unanimous expert opinion, the only unquestioned works are “The Virgin with St. Francis and St. Liberale”, painted for a church in Castelfranco; the “Tempesta”; and “The Three Philosophers,” . To these three many experts would add the “Laura”. In the light of this disparity between the said and the seen, the “Tempesta” is more than a charming puzzle. it is, in many ways, the least conventional of all the paintings attributed to its creator and so possibly the most characteristic of his innovative “modern” style. If then, we could decide what it is really about, we would have a better notion of what the whole Giorgionesque revolution, or revelation, was really about.

"Could Giorgione's famous "Laura" be Mary Magdalen? Scholars have not been able to agree on the subject of this painting of a partially nude young woman. Most agree that the name is a misnomer and that the painting has nothing to do with Petrarch's lover. I believe that I am not the first to suggest Mary Magdalen but recent catalogs do not even consider the possibility. All do point out the paradoxical iconographic symbols. On the one hand, the dress of a Venetian courtesan and the bared breast, but on the other, symbols of chastity and conjugal love such as the laurel leaves and head scarf. Only one person fits this description and that is Mary Magdalen. This most famous female saint of the Middle Ages was generally regarded in the Renaissance as a prostitute who after her encounter with Jesus became a true and virtuous bride of Christ. After her conversion she is often portrayed with breasts bared."

A “lost” and heretofore mis-identified Giorgione can provide a clue not only to his familiarity with the legends surrounding the flight of the Holy Family into Egypt but also to his depiction of the Woman in the Tempesta.  In 1525, five years before he saw the Tempesta, Michiel noticed a painting in the home of another 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.” This painting has been lost, but copies exist from the 17th century. The editor of the 1903 translation of Michiel’s notes cited a description in an “old manuscript catalog of the time.”

DeStefano:In the “Tempesta” the Holy Family has left Judea and its dangers, symbolized by the storm, behind. They have crossed the bridge and stream representing the border between Judea and Egypt. They have passed the Egyptian temple with the ruins and broken columns behind them. Now they rest in safety. We notice that the storm is raging in the distance. The woman is bathed in bright sunlight. The glade in which they rest is serene without a hint of wind in the trees.

During the 15th and 16th centuries whenever we see an artistic representation of a nursing mother, it is almost always the Madonna. Moreover, whenever we see a man holding a staff, he is usually St. Joseph. Broken columns and ruins, as Emile Male pointed out, are commonplace in depictions of the Flight into Egypt. When all three elements are put together in a peaceful landscape, it is easily identifiable as a version of “The Rest on the Flight into Egypt.” It is only Giorgione’s departure from the stock or standard images of Mary and Joseph that has deterred scholars from seeing the “Tempesta” as a traditional subject.

Most of the argument in this post was taken from a paper on the Tempest by Dr. Francis P. DeStefano which can be found on his website at http://www.giorgionetempesta.com. Other material can be found on his blog at http://giorgionetempesta.blogspot.com.

The Finding of Paris, (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.
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.

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