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Tempest over Titian

Further discoveries have been made in this century, namely two inscriptions written on the back of paintings in early sixteenth-century handwriting, stating that these were by “Zorzi da Castelfranco,” which is the form of Giorgione’s name found in contemporary documents. One of these is on the so-called Portrait of Laura in Vienna, and it also indicates that the picture dates from 1506. The other, on a portrait in San Diego, includes a partially defaced date, probably 1508. Finally, there is a painting in Brunswick which corresponds to a self-portrait already recorded in 1528 and later reproduced in Vasari’s Lives, although today it is often considered only a copy.

Taken together, these three portraits and the works identified by Michiel form a reasonably coherent group, and most scholars agree that they were painted between about 1506 and 1510. They are all works of notable quality, but quite different in style from those of Giovanni Bellini, the major Venetian artist of the previous generation, being painted without strong contours and with soft gradations of tone. These are the characteristics that Vasari, in a passage in the 1568 life of Titian, singled out as Giorgione’s great innovation. He was right to do so, because the pictures themselves mark the appearance of a wholly new conception of the possibilities of painting in oils, which, largely through the work of Titian, was to exert an incalculable influence on later artists throughout Europe. Vasari also stated that the new style was introduced in Venice around 1507, and was immediately adopted by Titian, who had been a pupil of Bellini. This date fits well with the fact that the earliest documentary reference to Giorgione, apart from the inscription on the Laura, likewise dates from this year.

If we confine ourselves to the very earliest attributions and the few scraps of written evidence that have some claim to be taken seriously, Giorgione’s career therefore presents no serious problems. There is no particular difficulty in supposing that the works themselves were painted by a single artist over a period of about five years; and their beauty and originality explain the high reputation that Giorgione had already acquired when Castiglione wrote The Courtier. The trouble comes when we try to deal with a number of other paintings that have been credited to Giorgione since the late sixteenth century, none of which has much in common with those just mentioned. Scholars continue to assign these to Giorgione largely because they are reluctant to believe that the traditional image of the artist that grew up after the time of Vasari is virtually worthless, although this is clearly the case. The power of that tradition can be seen in the catalog, and indeed in almost every modern book on the artist, where much more space tends to be devoted to the views of modern scholars than to a serious discussion of the historical evidence.

A case in point is the date of Giorgione’s birth. Vasari, as we have seen, gave it as 1477 in his first edition, but this was changed to 1478 in the second edition, almost certainly because of a misprint. It is now universally accepted without question that Giorgione was born about 1477–1478, even though Vasari was notoriously inaccurate on such matters, knew almost nothing about Giorgione in 1550, and implied in the 1568 life of Titian, albeit in rather ambiguous terms, that Giorgione’s career began around 1507. As a result, scholars invariably assign a number of paintings to him in the years around 1500, none of which was attributed to the artist before the time of Vasari (and most much later), none of which looks like the works identified by Michiel, and none of which, incidentally, closely resembles any dated Venetian painting of that early period.

The most famous of these supposed early works is a small altarpiece in Castelfranco, which has an attribution dating back to 1635. Given that it was in Giorgione’s native town and that he was extremely famous, it is almost inevitable that the picture would have been assigned to him, but it does not follow that the attribution is correct. Yet it has never been questioned. Four or five other pictures are now almost always ascribed to Giorgione because they are similar in style to the Castel-franco altarpiece. Two are exhibited in Paris, the Holy Family from Washington and the Sunset Landscape from London. Seeing them together with the Laura and the San Diego portrait, both of which are inscribed, it is difficult to believe that the two groups are by the same hand.

Scholars have frequently observed that the works of the altarpiece group, in particular the two paintings now in Paris, look very like some engravings by another Venetian artist, Giulio Campagnola, who was born around 1482 and still alive in 1515, and who was mentioned many more times in contemporary sources than Giorgione himself. It is usually supposed that Giulio was simply copying works by Giorgione, or even reproducing designs specifically provided by him, but this theory raises a number of awkward issues which are generally disregarded. In particular, it is difficult to reconcile the idea that the paintings are early works by Giorgione with the fact that all the relevant engravings, one of which is dated 1509, are likely to have been produced several years later. The only scholar who has tackled the problem is Konrad Oberhuber, but his solution, which assumes that some of Giulio’s most technically accomplished prints are earlier than the less skillful ones, and that a large group of related drawings, hitherto universally thought to be by Giulio, are actually by Giorgione, involves too many implausible hypotheses to be credible. A simpler solution would be to suppose that the paintings of the altarpiece group, like the drawings and the engravings, are all by Giulio.1

It might seem strange that scholars, while conceding that the paintings look like the engravings and unlike the undoubted works of Giorgione, have been so reluctant to draw this conclusion. The reason is simple. While it is generally admitted that Giulio was the outstanding engraver in Venice in the early sixteenth century, if he did indeed paint these pictures he would be a rather considerable painter too, and his reputation, so it is thought, ought to have survived. This argument, of course, is simply an appeal to historical tradition; but, as so often, that tradition is flawed. One has only to remember that the present canon of Venetian artists was largely established by Vasari, who knew almost nothing about Venetian art when he wrote his first edition and derived most of the information in his second edition from a single visit to the city of only five days. It is unlikely that anyone setting out to write the history of Venetian art in such circumstances, without photographs, without a guide-book, and without even visiting many of the towns of the Veneto, would have done much better. But it does not follow that his account is in any way comprehensive.

Even so, he did manage to discover the names of a few artists who worked outside the city of Venice, among them Giulio Campagnola, “who painted, illuminated and engraved on copper many beautiful things, in Padua and other places.” This passing comment was not enough to establish Giulio’s lasting fame, and he was overlooked by Vasari’s seventeenth-century Venetian successor Carlo Ridolfi. Not much should be read into this, because for this early period the artists discussed by Ridolfi, apart from most of those who had already been mentioned by Vasari, had left signed works in public buildings. Other Venetian painters, whose names we sometimes know from documents, were disregarded, as to a great extent they have been up to the present day. In other words, the idea that the Venetian artists who are well known today were the only ones of real merit working in the time of Giorgione may well be no more than wishful thinking.

The theory that a substantial group of works conventionally attributed to early Giorgione are by a gifted follower, Giulio Campagnola, makes Giorgione’s career much easier to understand. But it does not solve the other major problem presented in the Paris exhibition, that of the Concert champêtre. Perhaps more than any other single work, this famous picture, first recorded as a Giorgione in 1683, is responsible for the idea that he introduced a particular kind of sensibility into European art, a nostalgic combination of arcadian landscape, love, and music, depicted in indistinct forms suffused with a Romantic golden glow. The glow is largely due to a layer of discolored varnish, but enough of the picture beneath can still be made out to confirm that the works which most closely resemble it in style are two paintings displayed in the same room in Paris, Christ and the Adulteress from Glasgow2 and a Madonna with St. Anthony and St. Roch from Madrid.

In modern times art historians are almost unanimous in supposing that all three are by the same hand, and now that they can be seen together for the first time at the Paris show this seems entirely convincing, even though it is difficult to believe that they date from the same period. They used to be attributed most often to late Giorgione, but because none of them has much in common with the pictures identified by Michiel, in recent years most scholars have preferred to assign them to Titian, whose name was almost never associated with any of these three paintings before this century. But, as in the case of Giorgione, there is a substantial group of works that can be given to the young Titian on the basis of the credible early evidence; and although these are reassuringly compatible in style, they do not look much like the Concert champêtre or its companions.

A good selection of Titian’s undisputed early paintings, indeed, can be seen in Paris, and the differences between them and the Concert champêtre group in draftsmanship, physiognomy, and brushwork are all too evident. In practice, these differences have long been recognized, and to account for them art historians have tried in various ways to arrange the securely established works of Titian so as to create a gap in his chronology in which these other paintings can be inserted. Some of the theories that have been proposed are not consistent with earliest written sources, others involve the unlikely assumption that Titian was painting in widely different styles at almost the same moment, and others fail on both counts. In short, the Concert champêtre and its companions are ascribed to Titian or Giorgione not because they look like the undisputed paintings of either artist or can be convincingly incorporated into their development, but simply because these are the least improbable candidates that anyone can think of. This seems an inadequate basis for attribution.

It was noticed sixty years ago that two rather insignificant areas of the drapery of the Madonna in the Madrid picture are repeated, fold for fold, in a small altarpiece, The Madonna and child with an angel in Lendinara, a rather remote village about twenty-five miles southwest of Padua. The Lendinara picture, which was restored a few years ago, has an inscription indicating that it was painted in Venice in 1511 by Domenico Mancini; and this is all that we know about him. Were it not for the inscription, this altarpiece would surely have been claimed as an early work of Titian, since the technique is clearly dependent on the innovations of Giorgione, while the composition is derived from Bellini’s altarpiece of 1505 in the Venetian church of San Zaccaria. Although recognizing this source, scholars have invariably argued that the two sections of drapery must have been copied from a second painting, believed to be by Giorgione or Titian, the one from Madrid. A moment’s reflection shows that this theory is untenable. Mancini adopted the general arrangement of Bellini’s drapery, but did not precisely copy any single section. Why should he have taken two details, which in style are entirely consistent with the rest, from the work of another artist? It would have been a time-consuming and pointless thing to do.

Instead of assuming that Mancini’s altarpiece is based on two other pictures, it is more realistic to suppose that the Madrid painting is later than the one in Lendinara. The implication, of course, is that both pictures are by the same artist, since Lendinara is so inaccessible and it is most unlikely that the painter of the Madrid Madonna would have gone to Lendinara and copied its details. We may plausibly conjecture that in the Madrid Madonna Mancini simply repeated a couple of passages of drapery that he had previously used in his altarpiece. To be sure, the two works, though similar, are not identical in style, but given that one is in large part a copy of a Bellini and that the other, which is much less dependent on Bellini, may be somewhat later, the differences are not sufficient to rule out common authorship.

Scholars have also pointed out that the head of the angel in the Lendinara altarpiece, which has a very distinctive, plump, and fleshy physiognomy quite unlike anything in the undisputed work of Giorgione, Titian, or indeed Bellini is virtually identical to the head of the Adulteress in the Glasgow picture. So compelling is the resemblance that the Glasgow picture has occasionally been ascribed to Mancini. This attribution has generally been rejected for one reason only: that we ought to know more about Mancini if he was capable of producing anything so impressive.

Here again we encounter the familiar claim that the only artists of real talent in the Veneto in the early sixteenth century were those whose reputations survived. Given that the Glasgow picture has a clear link with Mancini’s altarpiece and no such link with the secure work of any other artist, it seems more plausible to suppose that it is by Mancini. But if both the Glasgow and Madrid pictures are by Mancini, it follows that the Concert champêtre, now almost invariably said to be by the same hand, is also by him. Like so many of the other problematic paintings traditionally associated with Giorgione, it would then date from several years later than is usually believed.

It is tempting to suppose, indeed, that Mancini even left us a clue about the authorship of the Concert champêtre. X-rays show that the pose of the standing woman at the left was changed by the artist. Originally she looked in the other direction and extended her left arm toward the central group. Now she pours water into a stone basin from a jug held in her left hand. It is rare for Renaissance artists to show unambiguously left-handed figures, let alone deliberately to change a figure in such a way as to make the left-handedness so explicit. Is it possible that Domenico did so in order to provide a concealed signature? After all, mancino means “left-handed” in Italian. This might seem far-fetched, but in much the same way the Venetian painter Lorenzo Lotto chose in 1526 to include the story of Lot and his daughters in a series of episodes from the Old Testament because, as he explained in a letter, the subject incorporated his surname.

Several other works currently attributed to Titian can readily be added to this group, as well as some paintings that scholars now tend to overlook. Likewise, it is easy to see that widely accepted attributions of other Venetian paintings of these years are based on the slenderest of evidence. A case in point is The Drunkenness of Noah from Besançon, exhibited in Paris as a very late Bellini. No one denies that this picture looks quite unlike that artist’s work up to the penultimate year of his life, so it is argued that he must have changed his style radically just before he died. There is no reason whatever to accept this convenient but unsubstantiated hypothesis, although it is of a type often proposed by historians of Italian art, many of whom seem to believe that there is something particularly admirable in attributing paintings to artists whose known style is markedly different.

Given our limited knowledge of Venetian painting of the early sixteenth century, especially on the mainland, and the paucity of the surviving documents about the artists themselves, it seems better to admit that we do not yet know who painted the Besançon picture. This is something that scholars of northern art would be quite happy to do, since they are accustomed to the idea of anonymous masters, but their colleagues who work on Venice almost always choose to attach familiar names to paintings and drawings, rather than concede that in many cases we do not have enough evidence to make credible attributions. The results of this optimistic approach are clear for all to see in Paris, where, I suspect, no more than three of the supposed paintings of Giorgione have a serious claim to being by him—the San Diego portrait, the Laura, and the Boy with an Arrow—and where drawings are confidently given to famous artists on the basis of evidence scarcely worthy of the name—even, on occasion, despite clear indications to the contrary.

The most interesting question, perhaps, is why historians of Venetian art have never questioned the historical assumptions that underlie so much of their work, despite the implausibility of so many of their conclusions. The answer seems to be that art history does not start from scratch. In the nineteenth century scholars had inherited such a confused image of Giorgione that it was relatively easy to accommodate new information, such as Michiel’s notes, into their existing pattern of ideas. To rely only or even primarily on the earliest sources and documents would have involved rejecting centuries of tradition, and thus the whole basis on which they had previously worked. The process has continued to the present day; each new piece of evidence has either been fitted into the conventional scheme, often only with great difficulty, or else disregarded. We have ended up with something like the Ptolemaic system of astronomy, a structure of immense complexity and ingenuity, with all its cycles and epicycles, but in this case one whose detailed arrangement has yet to be settled to everyone’s satisfaction. By now it should be evident that this will never happen.

It is probably unrealistic to hope that the Paris exhibition will finally overturn the current consensus, let alone that we will soon see the Concert champêtre displayed in the Louvre under the name of Domenico Mancini. But if Le Siècle de Titien gives a few art historians pause for thought about the prevailing conception of Giorgione and early Titian, it will have amply fulfilled its scholarly function. For other visitors it offers a chance to see a marvelous selection of some of the most beautiful European paintings ever produced, an opportunity of a kind that is unlikely to be repeated—until the next blockbuster show ten years or so from now. They would be well advised, however, to trust the evidence of their eyes, not the labels on the walls.

  1. 1

    Neither Oberhuber nor Ballarin discusses the underdrawings revealed by infrared reflectography beneath Giorgione’s Three Philosophers and two small pictures of the altarpiece group. These provide the best available evidence for the drawing styles of the artists involved. If all three works were by the same hand and even if the artist changed his manner of painting, one might expect to find a certain consistency in the style of these drawings, which were made for a purely practical purpose and never meant to be seen. In my opinion the drawings under the two small pictures are compatible with one another and with the drawings and engravings of Giulio, but are not at all like the drawing under the Three Philosophers. As one would suspect, the underdrawing styles of Titian and Sebastiano are different again. See C. Hope and J. R. J. van Asperen de Boer, “Underdrawings by Giorgione and his Circle,” in Le dessin sous-jacent dans la peinture, Colloque VIII, edited by H. Verougstraete-Marcq and R. Van Schoute (Louvain-la-Neuve: Université Catholique de Louvain, 1991).

  2. 2

    In Paris this picture is called Suzanne et Daniel. The man who is supposed to be Daniel not only has a cross-shaped halo appropriate to Christ, but also a beard. It is said in the Bible that Daniel was still a child when he established Susanna’s innocence.

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