Encounters with robbers in the desert…No need for the cross of salvation?…..An esoteric language, an Aristolean network, an ambiguity, or “pentimenti”–changes of mind— of additional, multiple and complex narratives under the surface….. The mystery intrigues and continues to prevail….
The theme and subject of Giorgione’s mysterious La Tempesta remains an encoded secret, as it appears to be without a narrative, historical, mythic,religious, or cultural referent. Such a task of aesthetic discernment should reveal the meaning of this painting and the relationships among the three human figures and between the human elements and nature. The juxtaposition of an undressed nursing mother holding her suckling child at her right breast with a standing, fully dressed male pilgrim may signify everything and nothing. The mysterious positioning of the indecipherable human figures and their story (stories) within the boundaries of this canvas are secondary to the physical presentation that Kenneth Clark identifies as “the quintessence of poetic landscape.” The creation of space within Giorgione’s canvas is enhanced by a series of triangular intersections of topographical and architectural elements that lead the viewer’s eye into the center space, which then evaporates into the wafting storm clouds. This mixture of hard-and soft-line effects evokes an atmospheric aura of ambiguity and heightened emotion as the storm either approaches or passes over.
The “Tempesta” is a kind of “sacra conversazione.” Joseph stands on a plane beneath the Madonna and draws our attention to her. There “clothed with the sun” she sits on a raised earthen throne nursing her innocent Child who is destined to return to Judea and face the same fate as the Holy Innocents slaughtered by King Herod. The Madonna looks out and invites the viewer to enter the picture and follow her Son on His journey. (DeStefano)
Perhaps the most interesting symbolic portrayal of the Renaissance ideal of coincidentia oppositorum, is Giorgione’s Tempesta or storm. Little is known of the provenance or early history of this picture other than that it was painted some time after 1504. First documented in 1530 as a landscape with a tempest, a gypsy and a soldier, it is probably the most discussed and analyzed paintings of the Renaissance. A nineteenth century inventory lists it as an allegory of Mercury (Hermes ) and Isis. This labeling may or may not come from an earlier tradition. As the original intention of the artist is unknown, many of the great art historians of our age have attempted to unravel what Kenneth Clark called, its “Magical” power. It is my belief that Italian Historian Lionello Venturi perhaps came the closest: “The subject is nature; man, woman and child are only elements – not the most important – of nature.”
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 ) Today, 500 years after its attribution, his painting, the “Tempesta,” is still regarded as “one of the most enigmatic and famous paintings in the world.”
…The material for answering questions about Giorgione and the painting are extremely fragile. No sixteenth-century document names the painters parents; Vasari merely says that they were “humble”. The painted evidence points only vaguely towards a “Paris Complex” , a preoccupation with forlorn infants. A “birth of Paris” which is listed by Michiel as one of the artist’s earlier works, is known through a copy by David Teniers. A Giorgionesque picture that is now at Princeton shows a baby, probably Paris, abandoned in a landscape. Possibly related, in a psychological way, to the Mount Ida theme of the forsake but divinely “chosen” child is the Uffizi “Ordeal of Moses”, a painting that experts usually attribute at least in part to Giorgione.
While the Paris theory was being debated, a vain attempt was made to identify the “soldier” as Adonis and the “gypsy” as Venus. An then, in 1939, modern science added a fresh note to the discord: beneath the figure of the dreaming young man an X-ray examination revealed a seated woman with her legs in the water. Had she once had a role on the narrative? Was it possible that Giorgione had never had a narrative in mind and had just improvised an inhabited landscape? Or did the hidden bather prove only that he h
DeStefano: 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. 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. Interestingly, a “bathing Madonna” would not be out of place in a depiction of the “Rest on the Flight into Egypt.”… Egypt with Mary dipping a bowl into a stream.
In 1949, Kenneth Clark, meditating on the X Ray and reflecting an opinion already widespread in Britain and America, decided that heavyweight “Tempestry” had demonstrated its futility. “The Tempesta” he wrote in his “Landscape into Art,” “is one of those works of art before which the scholar had best remain silent. No one knows what it represents… and i think there is little doubt that it is a free fantasy, a sort of Kubla Khan, which grew as Giorgione painted it…” He added that if we cannot say what it means, still less can we say “how it achieves its magical power over our minds.”
This plea for passive enjoyment seems merely to have spurred erudite and clever spirits into venturing new guesses. The most impressive theory to consider was by Edgar Wind, whose studies of renaissance pagan mysteries have ruined the hypotheses of many less knowledgeable art historians. He accepted the gypsy and soldier description, but maintains the picture is a “charade” rather than a “story”. He interprets the charade as a pastoral allegory in which “fortezza” ( fortitude) and “carita” ( charity) are placed in a setting of “Fortuna” ( fortune or chance ) In support of this reading he points out that the mother and child image was a common sixteenth-century symbol for “carita” and that the word “fortuna” was a synonym for “tempesta” and that broken columns like those behind the young man were familiar emblems of “fortezza” in paintings done during the Renaissance – apparently because of an association with the fortitude of Samson in wrecking the pillars of the Philistine temple.
J. Eric Marales: One might wonder why the Alchemists communicated in coded pictures rather than written codes. This is quite easily explained by another fundamental principle of Alchemy, which is, the Work they did was of such a divine nature, that it transcended the intellect and spoke on other wavelengths where words are inadequate. “Whenever we [Alchemists] have spoken openly we have actually said nothing. But where we have written in code and in pictures we have concealed the truth.” I am not arguing that Giorgione was an Alchemist. I instead inject the Alchemical principles into this discussion to illustrate the prolific dissemination of codified imagery during this period of art history. The Alchemists were not the only constituency speaking through coded images.
As Settis explains, “By adapting the painting to the taste of one man, and camouflaging its meaning from general view, the painter isolates it from the large mass of religious subjects and shifts it to the realm of an individual, inner experience.” Giorgione, it is recorded, was considered a painter quite gifted and inventive, yet sensitive to concerns of taste and for this reason, received very respectable commissions. On his demonstrable talent as a painter, Giorgio Vasari wrote of Giorgione,
“And nature gave him such a gracious spirit that, in either oil or fresco, he created living forms and other images so soft, so harmonious, and so carefully shaded off into the shadows that many of the most skilful artists of those times agreed he had been born to infuse life into his figures and to represent the freshness of living flesh more than any other artist who had ever painted, not only in Venice but anywhere.”
His patrons had so much faith in his work that they often refused to direct his compositions. Because he is known to have completed most of his commissions free from the creative control of his patrons, Giorgione is credited with being the father of modern painting. In this case, modern signifies this shift in creative control from patron to artist. Giorgione’s inventiveness served him well within this trend. Settis firmly establishes Giorgione’s mastery of riding the line between the pious and profane, though may still be underestimating Giorgione’s talent for disguise.
A lingering subculture of the Church in Giorgione’s time began over a thousand years prior with the split between the Gnostics and the Christians. The principle difference between the two was that the Gnostics favored an intellectual path in pursuit of spirituality and the Christians favored a sensual, non-intellectual path. This epic battle for the spiritual salvation of mankind occurred around 200 AD with the fierce division between Tertullian and Origen, the two most influential thinkers of their day. So entrenched in his belief that knowledge was spiritual death, Tertullian rejected all logic claiming, “And the Son of God died; this is therefore credible just because it is absurd. And He rose again from the tomb; this is certain because it is impossible.” It is written that it was through his wisdom he recognized the impenetrability of the spiritual by the intellectual and therefore rejected it wholly. Origen, was equally emphatic about his opposing opinion that the intellect held reign over the sensual and as a result, castrated himself at the age of 26.
Giorgione may well have been an active or inactive participant in the revival of or resistance to the secretive, Gnostic philosophies flowing from Platonic circles in Florence. Either way, the influences of the secretive manner were abundantly upon him. Settis explains, “This principle [the attenuation or concealment of meaning] was already in force long before [Paulo] Giovio’s codefication : the deliberate exclusion of the plebei from the pleasures of the educated class played a natural and fundamental part in finding the balance between subtlety and accessibility.” The Hidden Subject was all the rage.