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 number of portraits, only one of which can now be identified with any confidence. Vasari’s few remarks about Giorgione’s life and character have been accepted almost unreservedly by later writers, although there is little reason to believe them, while his contradictory and unhelpful statements about Giorgione’s pictures have caused total confusion. With the deterioration of Giorgione’s façade frescoes, there was soon not a single painting on public display in Venice or elsewhere that could be ascribed to him with complete certainty. As a result, his reputation always remained high, but each generation ascribed a different group of pictures to him.

The discovery of Michiel’s notes eventually led to some radical rethinking, but even now scholars are wholly at odds about what Giorgione actually painted, so much so that estimates of the number of his surviving pictures range from less than ten to more than thirty. Considering that he was singled out by Castiglione because his work was both outstanding and distinctive, it may seem surprising that we have such difficulty in identifying his paintings. This confusion is a poor advertisement for connoisseurship; but it is also a reflection of our ignorance about Venetian painting in the years around 1500, which has led to a disproportionate number of pictures being ascribed to a small group of well-known artists, at the expense of their more obscure contemporaries.

In Giorgione’s case, one effect of this confusion has been to deprive him of any trace of a coherent artistic personality. He has come to seem less an actual person than a convenient label to assign to almost any Venetian picture of the period that does not look obviously like the work of anyone else. Yet if we confine our attention to the few paintings recorded in the earliest sources, notably by Marcantonio Michiel, then we can see what Castiglione had in mind. For the three extant pictures that Michiel mentioned seem entirely unprecedented in the history of Italian art, both in the way that they are painted and in their subject matter. With the Three Philosophers and the Venus, however, Giorgione’s own contribution is not altogether clear, for Michiel tells us that they were completed by Sebastiano del Piombo and Titian respectively. However, there is every reason to believe that the Tempest is entirely by Giorgione; and it alone fully explains just why he achieved the reputation he did.


The Tempest, which is slightly less than three feet high, hangs in a side room in the Accademia in Venice, together with a group of small paintings by Giovanni Bellini, Mantegna, Piero della Francesca, and Cosimo Tura. What strikes one first is how different it looks from all the others. In some ways Giorgione seems a less competent artist. The drawing of the figures is pedestrian at best, some of the buildings are not quite upright and there are puzzling discrepancies of scale in the landscape. Equally noticeable is the absence of strong contours. In the work of earlier Italian painters individual forms are sharply defined, often in an almost sculptural way, and emphasized by strong directed lighting. Giorgione goes out of his way to avoid this, constructing his forms entirely by differences in tone, softening and blurring outlines. And just as Giorgione’s way of painting is quite unlike that of his predecessors, so too is his subject matter. In Renaissance paintings the figures are normally the most important feature; in the Tempest the focus of interest is the setting, an astonishingly realistic landscape beneath a gray-green sky split by a flash of lightning. This is evidently what impressed Michiel, too, when he saw the picture in the collection of Gabriel Vendramin in 1530, for his description of it reads as follows: “The little landscape on canvas with the storm, with the gypsy and soldier, was by the hand of Giorgio da Castelfranco.”

This description raises some obvious problems. The man does not look like a soldier: he wears no armor and does not hold a weapon, but a staff. Likewise, the woman, naked except for a shawl over her shoulder, and sitting in an ungainly pose on a white cloth suckling a child, does not much resemble the rather small number of surviving Renaissance representations of gypsies. Perhaps she was called a gypsy simply because she conformed to various stereotypes about such people, notably the practice of giving birth in the open air, on the ground, and the habit of keeping small children with them at all times. Be that as it may, Michiel was not alone in thinking that the woman was a gypsy, for in an inventory of 1569 she was identified in the same way, while the man was said to be a shepherd. No one has yet found a story which involves a gypsy and a soldier or shepherd in a thunderstorm, and these identifications perhaps suggest that the figures were regarded as typical wayfarers, outside the normal commerce of civilized life. Yet there remains the question of whether the Tempest is just a depiction of a stormy landscape with picturesque figures, as Michiel’s text and the inventory might seem to imply, or whether it illustrates a narrative theme or an allegory, which are much more common types of subject in Renaissance painting.

Many scholars have accepted the second alternative, arguing either that Michiel did not know the subject, or else that, in compiling his notes, he was simply concerned to remind himself what the picture looked like. This view, which does not really take account of the inventory, is accepted by Salvatore Settis, whose book contains an extensive critique of earlier explanations of the subject matter, together with a new theory of his own and great deal of useful information about Giorgione’s patrons. For anyone interested not just in Giorgione, but in the way in which scholars set about trying to decipher the iconography of Renaissance paintings, it will be essential reading.

Given the immense amount of ink spilled in attempts to identify the subject of the Tempest and of a handful of other puzzling Renaissance pictures, it is easy to forget that almost all works of art of this, as any other period, present no such iconographic problems. They mostly illustrate themes taken from the Old and New Testament, from the lives of saints, classical mythology, or ancient history. These can usually be recognized without much difficulty by anyone who has seen a good number of paintings. In cases of doubt, it is usually easy enough to consult the standard works used by artists and patrons, such as the Golden Legend, Ovid’s Metamorphoses, or the Facta et Dicta Memorabilia of Valerius Maximus.


In the case of pictures which do not depend on such familiar sources, it is not at all obvious how one should proceed. The most common strategy is to read more widely in texts which were supposedly known in the Renaissance, in the hope of finding one that fits. This text-based approach was once advocated by Erwin Panofsky in an influential article in which he took the example of Leonardo’s Last Supper. To an Australian bushman, he observed:

It would only convey the idea of an excited dinner party. To understand the iconographical meaning of the picture he would have to familiarize himself with the content of the Gospels. When it comes to representations of themes other than Biblical stories or scenes from history or mythology which happen to be known to the average “educated person,” all of us are Australian bushmen.

What Panofsky seems to have been suggesting is that if the bushman, by diligent reading, acquired the kind of knowledge of texts that Renaissance people possessed, like them he would become competent at identifying subjects in paintings. Alternatively one might argue that he would thus master the kind of learning on which they drew when they commissioned works of art.

Both of these claims are difficult to accept. For one thing, the more the bushman read, the more accounts of dinner parties he would find. How would he know which was the right one? In practice he would be better employed in reading about Leonardo, or failing that, in looking at paintings of meals in other monastic refectories, some of which might be documented. By doing so, he would soon discover that the Last Supper was a common subject in such contexts, and that Leonardo’s picture approximately followed a standard visual scheme. Moreover, it is by no means clear that even educated people in the Renaissance were notably competent at identifying subjects, any more than most people are today. Of course, we generally do not have much trouble with familiar themes such as the Annunciation or the Madonna and Child. But with less common subjects the best procedure is to read the label on the wall of the museum, or consult a guidebook. In Renaissance public buildings paintings of unusual subjects were often given explanatory labels too. And in most cases the original patrons would have known very well what subjects were shown, because they had told the artist what to paint. This applies equally well, of course, to private patrons. They did not have to identify the subjects of paintings, because they always knew them; and if, as must often have been the case, friends and visitors were at a loss, they had only to ask. Reading books would not have got them very far, particularly if, as is entirely possible, the subject was not taken from a book at all.

When faced with problem pictures like the Tempest scholars today have no one to ask Instead, like Panofsky’s bushmen, they tend to devote themselves to the study of texts, often of a rather esoteric kind and without obvious relevance to art. One effect has been to create the widespread belief tht Renaissance painting was far more abstruse in its content than that of any other period. Another has been to confuse the notion of interpretation, which is central to the process of reading, with the very different and usually more mundane task of identifying the subjects of paintings. But for all the scholarship that is displayed, the study of iconography frequently makes art historians behave like second-hand-car salesmen, optimistically twisting the facts to fit their case and suppressing inconvenient problems in a desperate attempt to display their favorite theory in the best possible light.

A famous example involves another painting by Giorgione, the Three Philosophers. It was long ago suggested that this actually showed the three Wise Men, or Magi, awaiting the appearance of the Star of Bethlehem. In 1932 an X-ray photograph of the picture was published, in which one of the figures had a dark face. It was argued that originally Giorgione had painted this figure as a black, and that this proved the Magi hypothesis, since one of the Magi was often shown as an African. This theory had a long and successful history, so much so that it was adopted even by Settis, whose book was first published in Italian in 1978 and has not been revised. Unfortunately, none of the scholars who accepted the argument thought fit to ask whether a dark area in an X-ray necessarily indicated the use of a dark pigment. In fact, it may merely indicate that the artist did not use lead white; and there are dozens of X-rays of Renaissance paintings in which the faces of white people appear dark. The only way to establish whether Giorgione’s figure was once a black would be to examine a cross section of the pigment in the relevant place, but to the best of my knowledge this has never been done.

Many of the interpretations that have been proposed for the Tempest are equally ill-founded. Settis’s discussion is very entertaining, and he has little difficulty in demolishing almost all of them. To cite but a few, the picture has been seen as an illustration of some little-known episode from mythology, as an episode from the Decameron or from the legend of St. Theodore, as the Rest on the Flight into Egypt, or the Discovery of Moses (a proposal supported by invoking Giorgione’s supposed Jewish origins, for which there is no evidence whatever). More recently, but no less fancifully, it has been suggested that the composition somehow alludes to the military setbacks suffered by Venice following the attack by the combined powers of the League of Cambrai in 1509.

Having dealt so effectively with the earlier interpretations, Settis unfortunately then proceeded to propose a new theory of his own that is just as extravagant. His starting point was his observation that Giorgione’s composition bears a certain resemblance to a marble relief in Bergamo, showing God the Father appearing to Adam and Eve after they were expelled from the Garden of Eden. Settis’s hypothesis is that Giorgione depicted the same subject. There are, of course, a number of significant differences. God does not appear in the picture, but Settis thinks that he is represented by the flash of lightning. In the relief Adam is naked, holding, as he often does, a spade; in the painting the man is clothed, and has a long staff. In the relief the only building is a simple hut; in the painting a city is shown in the background.

In attempting to explain these differences, Settis at one point falls back on the familiar iconographer’s ploy of invoking unfamiliar texts, in this case a sixth-century commentary to Genesis by the Greek theologian Procopius of Gaza, which was not published until 1555 and whose meaning he in any case misrepresents. To support his claim that the city in the painting is the Garden of Eden, Settis says that “God wisely placed Adam and Eve ‘within the sight of the Lord’s city,’ ” giving Procopius as his source. But Procopius actually said that when God expelled Adam from Eden, he “imitated a good and merciful king, who does not impose a distant exile on a criminal, but a near one, ordering him to stay within sight of the royal city.” Procopius went on to say that God “ordered [Adam] to settle in places close to Paradise”; but he certainly did not suggest that Paradise was a city. Settis also speculates that the patron wished to give the theme a contemporary relevance, to indicate that the experience of Adam and Eve is the common fate of us all, and then suggests that the subject was made deliberately obscure, so that it could be only be understood by a few people with the knowledge and insight to see through “the veil of subtlety and allusion,” thus “lifting private devotion to a level of greater sophistication.” An artist whose career is now in many respects mysterious thus turns out to be a painter of mysteries.

This argument, unfortunately, brings back into play most of the theories that Settis himself had so carefully demolished. For if, in order to conceal the real subject, Giorgione could show God as a flash of lightning, Adam as a sixteenth-century Italian, and the Garden of Eden as a city in the Veneto, then he could equally well have misrepresented any other subject just as radically and for similar reasons. One may wonder, too, just how many Venetians would ever have been able to decipher the real theme, as explained by Settis. Very few of them, after all, can have been familiar with the Bergamo relief, which was in a city a hundred and forty miles away. It is perhaps worth mentioning that one man who had seen that relief was Michiel, who was both highly educated and unusually interested in art; but he evidently quite failed to make the connection. In any case, it is difficult to accept that Giorgione’s patron would have wanted to commission an iconographic puzzle for the amusement of his clever friends. This seems a strange response to the originality and beauty of Giorgione’s art. Moreover, once the puzzle had been solved the game would lose its point.

What little we know of Giorgione’s early reputation suggests that his work was admired not for its obscurity, as Settis would have us believe, but for the novelty of his technique. We cannot identify the subject matter not because we are ignorant of the shared culture of the patrons, but because we cannot ask them for an explanation. For this reason we may never solve this particular problem. But we can surely be confident that they would have found the Tempest fascinating and beautiful for much the same reasons as we do now, because of the astonishing and evocative depiction of a storm-filled landscape. It is quite possible, too, that in representing such a subject Giorgione or his patron may have been aware of a famous passage in Pliny’s account of ancient art, in which the celebrated painter Apelles was praised for painting “the un-paintable, thunder, for example, lightning and thunderbolts.” The relevance of this passage to the Tempest was long ago suggested by Oliver Logan, whose proposal Settis dismisses too readily. If Isabella d’Este was anxious to acquire a work by Giorgione simply because it was a night scene, “very beautiful and unusual,” we cannot, I believe, rule out the possibility that in the Tempest Giorgione was principally concerned to depict a thunderstorm, to show what he could do. If, as Michiel and the 1569 inventory perhaps imply, the figures were mere staffage, added to heighten the mood, to underline mankind’s vulnerability before the forces of nature, it would certainly make this masterpiece quite unique in the history of Renaissance art. But, as it happens, nothing like the Tempest does survive from this period; and no better explanation of those figures has yet been proposed.

This Issue

February 14, 1991