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Tempest over Titian

Le Siècle de Titien: L’âge d’or de la peinture à Venise

an exhibition at the Grand Palais, Paris, March 9–June 14, 1993

Le Siècle de Titien: L’âge d’or de la peinture à Venise

catalog of the exhibition by Michel Laclotte. others
Réunion des Musées Nationaux, 748 pp., FF 390

Le Siècle de Titien is the fourth major show of sixteenth-century Venetian art in ten years, following The Genius of Venice in London in 1983–1984, Titian in Venice and Washington in 1990, and Jacopo Bassano in Bassano del Grappa and Fort Worth last year, to name only the most ambitious. Venetian painting is beautiful and historically important, but this alone does not account for these four spectacular exhibitions. Equally important is the convenient fact that Venetian artists of this period produced more works on canvas than their predecessors or contemporaries elsewhere in Italy. In most instances curators are rightly unwilling to allow panels to travel, but they have fewer reservations about canvases. Thus this is the only type of Italian Renaissance painting that can be exhibited in quantity.

Even so, many Venetian masterpieces are too large or too precious to be moved, so the number of works available for loan is quite limited. This in part explains why in both Paris and London there were a number of paintings by artists of the Venetian territories on the mainland, and why there was a good deal of overlap with previous exhibitions, with Titian’s late Flaying of Marsyas, for instance, putting in its third appearance. But on this occasion the organizers were able to take advantage of a nucleus of major works from the Louvre, particularly by Titian, and they have managed to assemble a remarkable group of great paintings, as well as an impressive series of drawings.

An important function of shows of this kind is to attract a public that is unwilling or unable to invest the time and money to see the individual works in their normal settings. At the same time, the inevitable risk of wear and tear on the paintings themselves is usually defended on the grounds that bringing them together in one place is a contribution to knowledge. In the present case the claim is certainly justified, since the exhibition includes an unprecedented number of works by or ascribed to Giorgione and his two closest known followers, Sebastiano del Piombo and the young Titian.

The early works of Sebastiano present relatively few major problems of attribution, although three of the smaller paintings exhibited as his in Paris were clearly by other hands. By contrast, the career of Giorgione and his relationship with Titian is the most contentious single chapter in the history of Renaissance art, and this exhibition provides the best opportunity anyone is likely to have of seeing so many of the key works assembled in one place.

The complexity of the problem will be evident to even the most uninformed visitor. Thus the second room contains no fewer than eighteen pictures, all of them ascribed to Giorgione, but no one can fail to wonder how scholars have been able to establish that a group of works so wholly inconsistent in style were painted by the same artist over little more than a decade. The paintings attributed to early Titian, too, seem surprisingly diverse, and anyone who consults the nine pages of close print devoted in the catalog to the Concert champêtre from the Louvre, the famous painting that figures on the poster and that inspired Manet’s Déjeuner sur l’herbe, will find that in this century scholars have attributed it to Sebastiano, to Giorgione, to Sebastiano and Giorgione, to Titian, to Giorgione and Titian (with a variety of suggestions about who painted which part), and even in part to Palma Vecchio.

The authorship of several of the other paintings in these early rooms is scarcely less contentious. Thus I suspect that very few art historians would now accept that more than half the pictures given here to Giorgione are actually by him. The total lack of scholarly consensus is reflected even in the organization of the exhibition itself, since Konrad Oberhuber, responsible for cataloguing the early drawings, has a very different conception of Giorgione from Alessandro Ballarin, who catalogued most of the early paintings. If Oberhuber is right, many of the paintings should be relabeled; if Ballarin is right, most of the drawings here attributed to Giorgione cannot be by him. Unfortunately, even though both scholars have published on this topic before, in the catalog neither takes much account of the views of the other.

If scholars confronted with exactly the same body of material can come to diametrically different conclusions, if they can change their minds about attributions not once but repeatedly, if every proposal advanced so far involves (as it does) the discounting of some crucial early evidence, and if after a century of labor no one can come up with a solution that convinces anyone but himself, it is worth asking why this bizarre state of affairs should have arisen. Art historians, after all, are used to making attributions; it is their job. But if, as in this case, they cannot reach even the most basic consensus about the authorship about some of the acknowledged master-pieces of Western painting, there must be a reason, especially since disagreement on this scale does not exist in other fields of Italian Renaissance art. Were the artists of Venice in the first couple of decades of the sixteenth century far less consistent than those of any other place or period? Or are the premises that scholars have accepted in some fundamental way flawed? One of the weaknesses of the catalog and of the exhibition itself is that nowhere is there a clear statement of just what evidence survives about Venetian painting in the time of Giorgione. Anyone can see that there is a problem, but no one explains just what the source of the difficulty might be. Yet once one looks at the historical evidence, much becomes clear.

Giorgione came from a small town northwest of Venice called Castel-franco, and, as we know from a contemporary document, he died of plague in the autumn of 1510. His name first appeared in print in 1528, in Baldassare Castiglione’s Book of the Courtier, a fictional dialogue set at the court of Urbino. Near the beginning of the book, in a passage written no later than 1514, the participants discuss literature, and one of them makes a parallel between writers and painters, pointing out that Leonardo da Vinci, Mantegna, Michelangelo, Raphael, and “George of Castelfranco” were all quite different in their manner of working, but each perfect in his own way. The Courtier was a best seller in the sixteenth century, and this passage established Giorgione’s reputation as one of the outstanding painters of all time; but regrettably Castiglione did not indicate why he was so remarkable.

The next stage of the story came in 1550, when Giorgio Vasari published the first edition of his Lives of the most eminent painters, sculptors and architects, the basis of all later accounts of Renaissance art. In the light of Castiglione’s comment it is not surprising that Vasari gave particular prominence to Giorgione, identifying him as the founder of modern painting in Venice and putting his biography immediately after Leonardo’s. Unfortunately, at that time Vasari evidently knew almost nothing about Giorgione’s work.

In the first edition his discussion of Venetian painting in general is brief and wholly inadequate, being based only on some very imperfect recollections of what he had seen in the city in 1541. He said that Giorgione was born in 1477, and credited him with two sets of frescoes on the outside of buildings, which have subsequently vanished almost without trace, one portrait and three major oil paintings in churches or other Venetian public buildings; and he mentioned that Giorgione had two principal followers, Titian and Sebastiano.

In 1566 Vasari returned to Venice to gather material for his second edition, published two years later, and on this occasion he talked to Titian, probably the one artist still alive who had known Giorgione personally. Not surprisingly, Titian talked mainly about his own career, and as a result Vasari’s biography of him is detailed and largely accurate. It was presumably on the strength of information supplied by Titian that in the second edition Vasari provided new attributions to Titian and others for all three major works in oils previously ascribed to Giorgione, who was now credited instead with a number of portraits in Venice and elsewhere.

There is good reason to believe that Vasari was right to change his earlier attributions. The disturbing implication, however, is that even by 1541 there was great uncertainty about what Giorgione had actually painted. Indeed, the picture that Vasari had hailed in the first edition as Giorgione’s masterpiece, a large canvas of St. Mark Stilling a Storm in the Scuola di San Marco, was almost certainly begun by Palma Vecchio in the 1520s and completed by Paris Bordone a decade later. Moreover, after the publication of Vasari’s second edition there was not a single work in oils on public display anywhere that was unambiguously identified in print as being by the hand of Giorgione, and thus nothing that could serve as a touchstone for further attributions. Even the façade frescoes, which would have been of only limited help in determining the authorship of oil paintings, had much deteriorated by the middle of the seventeenth century, and probably long before.

The lack of readily accessible and undisputed works makes Giorgione unique among major Italian painters, and it is not surprising that over the following centuries he was credited with an immense number of pictures in a bewildering variety of styles. Everyone had heard of Giorgione, everyone wanted to own a picture by him, but no one really knew what his work actually looked like. By the end of the eighteenth century, indeed, the great majority of the most admired works of Giorgione had nothing whatever to do with him. Thus all the paintings attributed to him by Luigi Lanzi in his fundamental Storia pittorica della Italia of 1795–1796 are now thought to date from after 1520. Some of the most famous supposed Giorgiones are displayed in the Paris exhibition, among them the Concert from the Pitti, today universally recognized as a Titian, and Jacob and Rachel from Dresden, an entirely characteristic work of Palma Vecchio of the 1520s. Most of the pictures in the second room too have attributions to Giorgione dating back only to the period when any coherent conception of his style had been lost.

It was not until the second half of the last century that art historians began to put some order into this confusion. The use of photographs and archival documents gradually provided a clearer picture of the styles of a number of Venetian artists such as Palma, thus allowing some of the more obviously anomalous works to be eliminated from Giorgione’s oeuvre. Equally important was the discovery of a series of notes by a Venetian noble-man named Marcantonio Michiel, compiled in the 1520s and 1530s, listing works in some Venetian collections. Among these were about a dozen paintings by Giorgione, three of which were still identifiable: the Tempesta in Venice, the Three Philosophers in Vienna, which Michiel said was completed by Sebastiano, and the Venus in Dresden, of which the landscape was said to be by Titian. Another painting in Vienna, a Boy with an Arrow, which is displayed in Paris, may be one of two very similar pictures by Giorgione mentioned by Michiel, but even in his day it was unclear which was the original.

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