Storm over the Storm

Giorgione's 'Tempest': Interpreting the Hidden Subject

by Salvatore Settis, translated by Ellen Bianchini
University of Chicago Press, 189 pp., $29.95

One of the best sellers of Renaissance Europe was Baldassare Castiglione’s Book of the Courtier. This manual of social conduct, first published in 1528 but written some years earlier, was in the form of an imaginary conversation set at the court of Urbino in 1507. In a discussion about literary style near the beginning of the book one of the speakers proposed an analogy with painting. “Consider that in the field of painting Leonardo da Vinci, Mantegna, Raphael, Michelangelo, and Giorgio da Castelfranco are outstanding,” he said. “None the less they all have different methods of working, and it is well known that each of them has a style that lacks nothing, because one can see that each is altogether perfect in his own way.” While we are well informed about the other four artists, we know almost nothing about Giorgio da Castelfranco, or Giorgione (big George), as he is called in later texts. Documents tell us that he painted a canvas of an unspecified subject for the Doge’s Palace in 1507–1508, that in 1508 he painted some frescoes on the outside of the German warehouse in Venice, of which one very damaged fragment survives, and that in the autumn of 1510 he died of plague. Shortly afterward Isabella d’Este, the marchioness of Mantua, tried to acquire “a painting of a night scene, very beautiful and unusual,” which she wrongly thought was still in his studio. It turned out that two Venetians owned works of this type, but neither was prepared to sell.

The most important information about Giorgione dates from about twenty years after his death, when a Venetian nobleman named Marcantonio Michiel compiled some notes about paintings in Venetian private collections. He was evidently familiar with collectors with a taste for the work of Giorgione, whose name appears in these notes more often than that of any other painter. Michiel describes some fifteen paintings by him, mostly portraits or nonreligious subjects with landscape settings. Of these, three can now be identified with almost complete certainty: the Venus in Dresden, the Three Philosophers in Vienna, and the Tempest in Venice. They are at the heart of every attempt to reconstruct Giorgione’s oeuvre.

This has proved to be one of the hardest tasks in the history of Renaissance art, and the reasons are not difficult to understand. Michiel’s notes remained undiscovered until 1800, and in the meantime connoisseurs and collectors based their ideas of Giorgione mainly on printed sources, above all on Vasari. In the first edition of his collection of artists’ biographies, published in 1550, Vasari gave Giorgione pride of place, discussing his career immediately after that of Leonardo da Vinci. He did so not because he knew much about Giorgione’s work, let alone his life, but because he knew of his reputation from Castiglione. And when Vasari published a second edition in 1568, he completely changed his mind about what Giorgione had painted, reattributing a group of pictures in public buildings and crediting him instead with a…

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