Giorgione  

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Sleeping Venus (c. 1510, detail) Giorgione
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Sleeping Venus (c. 1510, detail) Giorgione

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

Giorgione (c. 14771510) is the familiar name of Giorgio Barbarelli da Castelfranco, an Italian painter, one of the seminal artists of the High Renaissance in Venice. Giorgione is known for the elusive poetic quality of his work, and for the fact that only very few (around six) paintings are known for certain to be his work. The resulting uncertainty about the identity and meaning of his art has made Giorgione one of the most mysterious figures in European painting. His best-known work is the reclining nude Sleeping Venus (c. 1510) .

Works

For his home town of Castelfranco, Giorgione painted the Castelfranco Madonna, an altarpiece in sacra conversazione form — Madonna enthroned, with saints on either side forming an equilateral triangle. This gave the landscape background an importance which marks an innovation in Venetian art, and was quickly followed by his master Giovanni Bellini and others. Giorgione began to use the very refined chiaroscuro called sfumato — the delicate use of shades of color to depict light and perspective — around the same time as Leonardo. Whether Vasari is correct in saying he learned it from Leonardo's works is unclear — he is always keen to ascribe all advances to Florentine sources. Leonardo's delicate color modulations result from the tiny disconnected spots of paint that he probably derived from Illuminated manuscript techniques and first brought into oil painting. These gave Giorgione's works the magical glow of light for which they are celebrated.

Most central and typical of all of Giorgione's extant works is the Sleeping Venus now in Dresden. It was first recognized by Giovanni Morelli, and is now universally accepted, as being the same as the picture seen by Marcantonio Michiel and later by Ridolfi (his 17th century biographer) in the Casa Marcello at Venice. An exquisitely pure and severe rhythm of line and contour chastens the sensuous richness of the painting. The sweep of white drapery on which the goddess lies; and the glowing landscape that fills the space behind her; most harmoniously frame her divinity. The use of an external landscape to frame a nude is innovative; but in addition, to add to her mystery, she is shrouded in sleep, spirited away from accessibility to any conscious expression.

It is recorded by Michiel that Giorgione left this piece unfinished and that the landscape, with a Cupid which subsequent restoration has removed, were completed after his death by Titian. The picture is the prototype of Titian's own Venus of Urbino and of many more by other painters of the school; but none of them attained the fame of the first exemplar. The same concept of idealized beauty is evoked in a virginally pensive Judith from the Hermitage Museum, a large painting which exhibits Giorgione's special qualities of color richness and landscape romance, while demonstrating that life and death are each other's companions rather than foes.

Apart from the altarpiece and the frescoes, all Giorgione's surviving works are small paintings designed for the wealthy Venetian collector to keep in his home; most are under two feet (60 cm) in either dimension. This market had been emerging over the last half of the 15th century in Italy, and was much better established in the Netherlands, but Giorgione was the first major Italian painter to concentrate his work on it to such an extent — indeed soon after his death the size of paintings began to increase with the prosperity and palaces of the patrons.

The Tempest has been called the first landscape in the history of Western painting. The subject of this painting is unclear, but its artistic mastery is apparent. The Tempest portrays a soldier and a breast-feeding woman on either side of a stream, amid a city's rubble and an incoming storm. The multitude of symbols in The Tempest offer many interpretations, but none is wholly satisfying. Theories that the painting is about duality (city and country, male and female) have been dismissed since radiography has shown that in the earlier stages of the painting the soldier to the left was a seated female nude.

The Three Philosophers is equally enigmatic and its attribution to Giorgione is still disputed. The three figures stand near a dark empty cave. Sometimes interpreted as symbols of Plato's cave or the Three Magi, they seem lost in a typical Giorgionesque dreamy mood, reinforced by a hazy light characteristic of his other landscapes, such as the Pastoral Concert, now in the Louvre. The latter "reveals the Venetians' love of textures", because the painter "renders almost palpable the appearance of flesh, fabric, wood, stone, and foliage" (2006 Britannica). The painting is devoid of harsh contours and its treatment of landscape has been frequently compared to pastoral poetry, hence the title.

Giorgione and the young Titian revolutionized the genre of the portrait as well. It is exceedingly difficult and sometimes simply impossible to differentiate Titian's early works from those of Giorgione. None of Giorgione's paintings are signed and only one bears a reliable date: his portrait of Laura (1 June, 1506), one of the first to be painted in the "modern manner", distinguished by dignity, clarity, and sophisticated characterization. Even more striking is the Portrait of a Young Man now in Berlin, acclaimed by art historians for "the indescribably subtle expression of serenity and the immobile features, added to the chiseled effect of the silhouette and modeling" (2006 Britannica).

Few of the portraits attributed to Giorgione appear as straightforward records of the appearance of a commissioning individual, though it is perfectly possible that many are. Many can be read as types designed to express a mood or atmosphere, and certainly many of the examples of the portrait tradition Giorgione initiated appear to have had this purpose, and not to have been sold to the sitter. The subjects of his non-religious figure paintings are equally hard to discern. Perhaps the first question to ask is whether there was intended to be a specific meaning to these paintings that ingenious research can hope to recover. Many art historians argue that there is not: "The best evidence, perhaps, that Giorgione's pictures were not particularly esoteric in their meaning is provided by the fact that while his stylistic innovations were widely adopted, the distinguishing feature of virtually all Venetian non-religious painting in the first half of the 16th century is the lack of learned or literary content" (Charles Hope in Jane Martineau (ed), The Genius of Venice, 1500-1600, 1983)

Assessment

Though he died at the young age of 33, Giorgione left a lasting legacy to be developed by Titian and 17th-century artists. Giorgione never subordinated line and colour to architecture, nor an artistic effect to a sentimental presentation. He was the first to paint landscapes with figures, the first to paint genre — movable pictures in their own frames with no devotional, allegorical, or historical purpose — and the first whose colours possessed that ardent, glowing, and melting intensity which was so soon to typify the work of all the Venetian School.

Selected works




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