Summary · La tempesta di Giorgione · Cultured Venetian patrons · One painting, multiple interpretations · The Christian message of The Tempest Articles

The Tempest by Giorgione

Description and analysis of one of the Castelfranco painter's most mysterious paintings

'The Tempest' painting by the artist Giorgione da castelfranco

Despite a very short career of only ten years, prematurely cut short by the plague epidemic that raged through Venice at the beginning of the 16th century, Giorgione's great skill nonetheless enabled him to assert himself decisively and achieve legendary fame immediately after his death, imposing himself (with some of his important innovations, first and foremost tonalism) as a model not only for the subsequent painting tradition in the lagoon (starting with the masters of 16th-century Venice such as Titian and Veronese) but also for many other personalities active in the artistic field, both Italian and contemporary (including Palma Vecchio and the Lombard-Emilian Dosso Dossi), Titian, Tintoretto and Veronese), but also for many other personalities active in the artistic field, both Italian and contemporary (including Palma il Vecchio and the Lombard-Emilian Dosso Dossi) and foreign and later (for example Jean-Antoine Watteau, an 18th-century French painter who looked up to the Venetian artist and became his most sensitive heir).

But Giorgione still arouses clamour today because of the mysterious fascination that characterises his figure, biographically lacunose and linked to a production that is complex to reconstruct and disproportionately small (compared to the depth of his authorship), made up of a few examples, most of which, however, can be traced back to the basic tendency of the master to recreate a profoundly enigmatic context in his works, to the point of making their reading difficult, impossible to untangle in certain interpretations. This same impossibility still binds one of Giorgio's most representative and famous works in this sense to doubt: The Tempest.

Nicolas de Larmessin-Esme de Boulonais, Portrait of Giorgione, 1682

Nicolas de Larmessin-Esme de Boulonais, Portrait of Giorgione, 1682

💡 Did you know? Very little is known about Giorgio da Castelfranco (c. 1477-1510): Vasari says he was a pupil of the equally famous Giovanni Bellini (although Vittore Carpaccio has also been mentioned in this regard), but he soon became independent from this apprenticeship and began working on his own or in prestigious collaborations (with Titian, for example) almost exclusively in the Veneto area. He was strongly influenced by the works of Leonardo, whom Vasari places alongside him as the founder of "modern" painting, and reworked his sfumato in so-called tonalism, a technique consisting in the gradual spreading of colour in overlapping veils that gives an effect of plasticity and spatial depth.

Cultured Venetian patrons

In order to better understand the secret singularity of Giorgione's works, it is necessary to bear in mind an equally particular aspect of his artistic activity.

In a largely patronage-based Italy, where the skill of painters and sculptors was no longer just craftsmanship produced within the confines of workshops but the manifestation of a genius recognised for its intellectual value and, above all, for its potential as a social, political and ideological tool, the main type of widespread patronage was of a public nature, whether civil (and therefore on behalf of the local lord or the powerful) or ecclesiastical (from the reigning pontiff to the wealthy cardinals and the various monastic orders).

The Venetian Republic, already a centuries-old autonomous reality, was an eloquent example of cultural (especially in art, which was close to styles of oriental origin and often late compared to the course of trends recorded in the rest of the Peninsula) and political otherness, marked by the notable presence of a patrician class aimed at cultivating its own closed exclusivity, This was reflected in certain precise characteristics such as the cult of antiquity and poetry or the practice of intimate and personal forms of religiosity, to which was added a taste for "cryptic" iconographic forms, the subject of which - 'hidden' - had to be revealed to the decipherment, and therefore to the consequent meditation, of a few initiates, equipped with an adequate degree of knowledge that could serve as a key to interpretation. Logically speaking, the purpose of such works was no longer open to the general public, but was intended as an ornament for private homes.

Gabriele Vendramin (1484-1552), who commissioned the Giorgionesque Tempest, fits into this context. Belonging to one of the most economically enterprising Venetian families of working-class extraction, having inherited the rich collection of his famous ancestor Andrea Vendramin (1400-1478), he did not fail in his turn to contribute by commissioning works - as he himself noted in his will - "all by the hands of most excellent people, of great value and of great account".

Coat of arms of the Vendramin family

Coat of arms of the Vendramin family

The collection, as can be deduced from the same document, was housed in a "chamerin" which, in all probability, must have been Vendramin's "studiolo" for which he had the aforementioned canvas painted by a rather precocious Giorgione, an active and well-known frequenter of the private collecting environment who found in him talent and sensitivity rare in the production of works of small format and strictly personal circulation.

💡 Did you know? A family of homini novi, the Vendramins, originally from Friuli, made their fortune in the food trade, thanks to which they managed to acquire an important position within the city class of the Republic, and then officially entered the Venetian nobility following the war of Chioggia against Genoa (1378-1381), for which they offered financing of men and galleys.

One painting, multiple interpretations

Giorgione's fortune "in life" was thus due to his having intelligently grasped and understood the desires of the Serenissima's aristocratic patrons, and having translated them with calculated skill into unusual depictions in which the protagonist is the landscape, evocatively rendered with meticulous attention to its individual naturalistic details, to which what should presumably be the subject is subordinated, disappearing in the absence of an obvious and immediate meaning.

But the Venetian artist's concealment is so thick that he often prevented even his contemporaries from knowing what was depicted in his paintings. The Venetian collector and art expert Marcantonio Michiel (c. 1484-1552), a reliable and scrupulous source for the reconstruction of Giorgione's production, when taking notes on The Tempest, merely described it as "el paeseto [landscape] in tela cun la Tempesta cun la cingana [gypsy] et soldato", demonstrating that he too was unaware of the real meaning expressed by the work.

The interpretative debate on the painting, if it experienced a serene disinterest for several centuries, began to flare up in the 20th century when the supporters of the early birth of images "without subject" in the Italian Renaissance chose Giorgione's canvas as the paradigm of their thesis, concluding that the author had created the work independently of any external suggestion as a 'delightful' expression of a personal feeling, In support of this assertion they cited the results of the x-rays taken in 1939 of the painting itself, from which the substitution of an earlier image of a 'bather' on the left (later placed on the right in the final version) with the present 'soldier' character, which emerges, would demonstrate the freedom the painter enjoyed during his work and therefore the irrelevance of a compositional criterion in the iconography.

As well as being anachronistic in that it does not take into account the close relationship between artists and patrons, particularly in a social dimension such as Venice, this position also demonstrates ignorance of the fact that the X-rays themselves reveal the exact opposite of what it declares: the shifting of the 'bather' from the left to the right of the canvas and the appearance of the 'soldier', although at first glance a simple and insignificant operation, actually betray a precise construction process of the scene that responds to a preliminary project.

Giorgione, The Tempest (1506-1508), Venice, Gallerie dell'Accademia. Detail of the lightning bolt, the towered city, the bridge and the river.

the landscape of the painting 'The Tempest' by Giorgione da Castelfranco

There have been countless hypotheses for interpreting The Tempest: From those of a symbolic-allegorical nature that would see the representation of the sorrowful fate that befalls humanity, or the idea of Harmony as discordia concors (i.e. the positive contrast of opposites that generates balance - in the case of the painting, the tacit pause of the two characters is contrasted with the storm raging in the background), or the representation of Fortitude (the soldier) and Charity (the nursing woman) dominated by Fortune (embodied by the thunderbolt in an almost central position); or those that would rather see the painting as the illustration of a story taken from mythology (the story of Deucalion and Pyrrha, the married couple chosen by the gods to regenerate humanity after the Flood), from classical literature (the encounter - narrated in Statius' Thebaid - between Adrastus, king of Argos, and the nurse Hypsipyle nursing Ophletheus, son of Lycurgus) or from the Bible (the finding of Moses).

The Christian message of The Tempest

The archaeologist and art historian Salvatore Settis (1941) has put forward a proposal for a possible reading, the coherence of which seems, so far, the most credible.

In the eyes of the scholar, Giorgione's painting shows some strong similarities with what could be considered a very important "precedent", namely a relief on the facade of the Colleoni Chapel in Bergamo, part of a sequence of stories of Adam and Eve by the sculptor Giovanni Antonio Amadeo, depicting divine condemnation and the destiny of the progenitors after sin: Against a backdrop of trees and houses, Eve sits on the ground on the right, with an infant Cain in her arms, while Adam sits standing on the left, leaning on a spade; between the two, God breaks in to announce to the two their destiny of toil and death, to which they will be subjected along with all humanity by virtue of their sin.

Detail of the bather with child. Giorgione, The Tempest (1506-1508).

the woman in the painting 'The Tempest' by Giorgione da Castelfranco

💡 Did you know? Giovanni Antonio Amadeo (Pavia 1447-Milan 1522) was a Lombard architect and sculptor, trained on the site of Milan Cathedral and, at the same time, on that of the Certosa di Pavia, for which he made the reliefs on the façade and the entrance door to the church in the small cloister. In the 1570s, he was responsible for the construction of the Colleoni Chapel in Bergamo, built in the space of the old sacristy of the city's cathedral.

Detail of the soldier with broken columns. Giorgione, The Tempest (1506-1508).

the boy in the painting 'The Tempest' by Giorgione da Castelfranco

Apart from the obvious iconographic link between the two works, which can in fact be traced back to the same tradition without necessarily implying an interdependence between them, the close commonality is nonetheless very useful for understanding the true motif of the painting with a greater degree of certainty.

The spatial dimension, marked by the same presence of vegetative elements and turreted constructions as in the relief, frames the two planes of the scene, linking the background, occupied by the brightly lit image of the thunderbolt - to be identified with God according to a widespread symbolism - with the foreground, where the spectator's gaze meets Eve's maternal gaze and identifies with the cogitabond pose of Adam, closer to the sixteenth-century observer also because of his contemporary clothing; The link is established by the river gash in the centre, through which the eye first passes by the profile of the broken columns on the left - again, according to the allegory of time, alluding to a fatal destiny - and then lingers on the bridge, rendered inaccessible by the precipitation and thus emblematic of the supreme prohibition of access to Paradise, to the heavenly Jerusalem, to which humanity can return only after the work of redemption has been completed.

The naturalistic phenomenon par excellence of the thunderstorm thus becomes, under the brush strokes of a master like Giorgione, a metaphor for the human condition after original sin.

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