Giorgione is counted among the world’s great painters, even though only a handful of paintings are certified as certain to be uniquely attributed to him. The “Tempesta” is his most famous work, but its meaning is still unclear. The enigmatic figures of the “Tempesta” seem locked in private reveries, as oblivious to the breaking storm as they are to one another. One thing is certain; after Giorgione painting became an art form with its own secret laws and devices. It can even be asserted that the Modernist impulse really began amid the sensuous delights of Renaissance Venice–Giorgione being the first “Modern” artist.
“Besides the universally acknowledged quality of the works attributed to Giorgione, there is an air of mystery about the painter. His death in Venice in 1510 at about the age of thirty three cut short an incredibly promising career. Although Giorgio Vasari in his famous work on Renaissance painters devoted a whole chapter to Giorgione, there is little biographical data. Scholars think that he apprenticed in the workshop of the prolific Giovanni Bellini, but then went off on his own. He was either a mentor, colleague, or rival of the younger Titian who apparently completed some of Giorgione’s unfinished paintings after his untimely death.
Giorgione was one of the first Italians to work with oil, a medium which enabled him to break new ground especially in landscape. His style, often called Giorgionesque, influenced Titian to such an extent that scholars often attribute the same paintings to one or the other, or sometimes to both. Moreover, there is an enigmatic quality about the works of Giorgione that is part of his fascination. He is the master of what is called “the hidden subject.”
“…But it is not due to its content that the picture is one of the most wonderful things in art. That this is so may be difficult to see in a scan, but even such an illustration conveys a shadow, at least, of his revolutionary achievement. Though the figures are 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. 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.” … ( Gombrich )
A gypsy and a soldier? Sometime in 1530, Michiel noted “seeing a landscape with the tempest, with the gypsy and soldier done by the hand of Giorgione”, in the house of the Venetian collector Gabriele Vendramin. Except for a certain wildness in her eyes, the woman does not look at all like a gypsy. Her nakedness and the white drape suggest instead a figure of classical mythology or of Renaissance allegory. She is a sister of the similarly draped, and certainly non-gypsy nymphs in the Louvre’s “Concert Champetre” , which is usually assigned to Giorgione or to the Giorgionesque period of Titian. As for the man, well, he might be a soldier, though his rather unmilitary staff and his lack of armor and side arms make this less plausible.
Thirty-nine years after Michiel’s visit an inventory of the Vendramin collectionidentified the man as a shepherd, presumably of the aristocratic variety found in pastoral romances. Modern scholars have objected that the staff is not a crook, that no sheep are in sight, and that Giorgione usually depicted shepherds as coarsely dressed rustics. The identification however, does not agree with cultural history. In 1504, a few years before the likely painting of “Tempesta” , the Italian revival of the classical pastoral convention had culminated in the publication of Jacopo Sannazzaro’s “Arcadia” , familiar to students of English literature as a source for the poetic artifice, innocent sexuality, and idealized rural atmosphere of works by the Elizabethans; and it may have been a source for Giorgione.
In a nineteenth-century inventory, which may preserve a guess dating back to the Renaissance, the painting is listed as “Mercury and Isis” . Apparently, the Egyptian fertility goddess was supposed to be nursing her son Horus during one of the trips that Mercury, actually the Greek Hermes, is said to have made to the region of the Nile. All this, in view of the setting and costumes looks improbable; and yet, in a mind a bit hooked on Tempestology , it can raise some nagging questions. Doesn’t a nursing mother in a lush landscape strongly suggest fertility? Could these broken and evidently non architectural columns, prominently situated in the near foreground , be the phallic symbols of Hermes?
Could the vaguely aquatic bird that is roosting on a roof near the right end of the bridge be one of the cranes that in ancient times were sacred to the god? Could Michiel, during the learned talk in the palace of Gabriele Vendramin, have heard “gypsy,cingana in his spelling, when what was really said was “Egyptian” Egiziana?
After passing through some Victorian era interpretations that sentimentalized “Tempest” as a numbingly domestic bourgeois family, then through World War I , where among otthers, Italian historian Lionello Venturi elaborated the work as an allegory of the four elements and an illustration of the growth and decay principle of the universe, and simply as an allegory of the five senses. These sweeping generalizations brought a return to specific anecdote and classical legend.
Several scholars, among them Giorgione specialist George M. Richter, felt that the painting referred to the infant Paris, who was exposed on Mount Ida because of a prophecy that he would be the ruin of Troy. This theory suffers from some near fatal defects due to leaving too many details, including the storm, unaccounted for; but it can stimulate a romantic imagination and interest Freudian speculators. Was Giorgione himself an abandoned or illegitimate child of an important father? Could this fact be one of the sources of his creative drive and one of the reasons for the veiled subject of the “Tempesta”? The most recent research has returned to the Egyptian speculation:
“This paper identifies the subject of Giorgione’s “La Tempesta” as “The Rest on the Flight into Egypt.” This interpretation 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 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.” …..This brings us to the nude Madonna and Child. The explanation lies in the Catholic doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, a doctrine of which every Venetian would have been aware. Simply put, the doctrine affirms that Mary had been created free from the stain of original sin inherited by every other descendant of Adam and Eve. Indeed, Mary was regarded as the “new” or “second” Eve…. ( Francis P. DeStefano)
Bengt Gustafsson on Giorgione, “The Three Philosophers”:The picture, the original of which is on display in the Kunsthistorisches
Museum in Vienna, has been frequently discussed. While some have suggested that the painting pictures the three Magi in front of Jesus’ grotto , others have seen Plato and two pupils at the philosopher’s famous cave, some have thought of the three great monotheistic religions , while yet some others have traced the Middle ages (or possibly Antiquity), the Arabic expansion age and the Renaissance. In some interpretations such identifications have been concrete. For instance, the figures have been identified as Aristarchus, Pythagoras, Averroes, Leonardo da Vinci etc., or painter contemporaries to Giorgione himself. For a modern viewer it
is tempting to see Knowledge and Research, represented by the old and the young man, respectively, while the middle‑aged person with his thoughtful (but not necessarily approving) attention might symbolize men and women of responsible action in the society. This then leads us to the study of how these different persons in the painting interact. Or, in the world around us, how do knowledge and research interact, and still more significant, how are they used to promote wise actions?