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 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 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.
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 )
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.