According to Vasari, “Zorzo” came from “most humble origins;” the nickname “Giorgione” first appeared in Mario Grimani’s 1528 inventory. There is very little documentary data that allow us to reconstruct his life. He began painting in the manner of the renewed fifteenth century Venetian style that had been initiated by Giovanni Bellini and Vittore Carpaccio. However, he was also influenced by the great artists, who passing through the city on the lagoon, brought with them different and often revolutionary pictorial languages: Antonello da Messina, Dürer, and Leonardo. It was Da Vinci who, while in Venice in 1500, gave the young Giorgione the example of wise use of chiaroscuro, attention to human faces and the quality of the landscape’s atmosphere. It was a valuable gift for the painter who would shortly paint The Ages of Man (Palazzo Pitti). In the Castelfranco Altarpiece (1500-1505) painted for the condottiere Matteo Costanzo, he invigorated the traditional structure of the altarpiece with the landscape and the accord between man and nature created through a diffuse luminosity that unites and expands the composition. The only definite date in Giorgione’s life is 1506 that appears on the back of the portrait of the young woman known as Laura. The date of The Tempest (Venice, Gallerie dell’Accademia), however is uncertain. It may have commissioned by Gabriele Vendramin, a refined intellectual. It is one of the world’s most famous paintings, because of the enigmatic nature of the subject – there are many different interpretations – and the technique. In the Sleeping Venus (Dresden) that was completed by Titian after Giorgione’s death, we see the same contemplative attitude towards nature and beauty that were present in the philosophical circles he had frequented. Even the monumental figures of The Three Philosophers (Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum) immersed in a rural setting, that he may have painted for Taddeo Contarini, have been interpreted as the three kings or three ages of man. In 1507 the Venetian Senate commissioned Giorgione to a large canvas for the audience room of the Council of Ten in the Ducal Palace that has since been lost. In 1508 he demanded payment for the frescoes he painted in the Fondaco dei Tedeschi, of which only a fragment known as Nude, remains. Giorgione died of the plague in Venice during the autumn of 1510.
Mosè bambino alla prova dei carboni ardenti
This panel is the companion piece of The Judgment of Solomon that is also in the Uffizi (Florence), and can be dated during the period immediately preceding his move to Venice. The episode is quite rare and is based on the Talmud, the post-Old Testament body of Jewish law and tradition, and leads to imagine an educated client who was not in totally agreement with the positions of the Roman Catholic Church. A horizontal arrangement, similar to the Sacred Allegory by Giovanni Bellini (Uffizi), allowed space for the landscape that he rendered with minute detail and that shows strong signs of Nordic artistic culture, especially in his treatment of the large masses of the trees.Iconography
Judgment of Solomon
In terms of theme and style this panel painting is perfectly in line with The Trial of Moses. The court dignitaries and the female protagonists of the episode are aligned horizontally at the feet of the enthroned king. Both women claimed to be the mother of a child, but upon hearing Solomon’s decision – to cut the child in two – only the real mother was willing to give him up, thus revealing the other woman’s falsity. A huge oak behind them divides the profound landscape in two. Giorgione did this painting with a helper, trained in Ferrara, and familiar with classical sculpture (see the evil woman standing in the middle of the composition).Iconography
This altarpiece was commissioned by the condottiere Tuzio Costanzo for the St. George chapel in the cathedral: his coat of arms is well evident. Giorgione focused on a very sad Madonna seated on a exaggerated throne, with the just awakened Child as a premonition of His tragic death. The two saints, with equally forlorn expressions, try to intervene with the observer. The saint on the left, marred by seventeenth restorations, may be George (to whom the chapel is dedicated), Liberale (to whom the church is dedicated) or Nicasius. The painting, characterized by a fusion of absolute colors, modified the traditional format of the Venetian altarpiece which, in the manner of Bellini, had to be inscribed in an architectural setting.
The frieze runs along two parallel walls, below the ceiling of one room in the house. In the first section (eastern wall) each group of subjects, selected with a clear symbolic value, alternates with two tablets with Latin inscriptions that frame a medallion with the heads of famous men in mock relief. In the second section (western wall), objects are grouped haphazardly. In the first section (the only one that is signed) Giorgione wanted to present the terrible conjunction of Saturn, Jupiter and Mars in the sign of Cancer, in an astrological key. This conjunction, predicted for the year 1503-1504 was to bring cosmic chaos and horrible disasters on earth. It was probably the endless series of wars plaguing Italy that provided the inspiration for this painting.
Adoration of the Shepherds
Giorgione painted this picture in the atelier of Vincenzo Catena, an artist who closely adhered to Bellini’s dictates. He set the scene on the right in a grotto carved into the rock that could not be penetrated by natural light, and on the left he opened a luminous landscape framed by a backdrop of two trees. By focusing on the two pilgrims, placed on the threshold of the realm of the Christian mystery, he charged the painting with sincere dramatic tension.Iconography
The Three Philosophers
Many hypotheses have been put forth concerning the identity of the three men: astrologers from different cultures and religions, the Three Kings, or wise men of antiquity. The hypothesis that they are Moses (the old bearded man) who led the Jews, Mohammed (the one in the middle with the turban) founder of Islam, and the Antichrist (the handsome, seated youth) seems to enjoy particular credit. Astrologers had, in fact, predicted the advent of the Antichrist, bearer of disaster and death, in 1504. Thus, Giorgione would have interpreted the ancient Jewish belief in which the prospect of salvation coincides with redemption from catastrophe and annihilation.
Portrait of a Young Woman (“Laura”)
This is the only painting that Giorgione ever signed and dated. It is also the painting that clearly marked his departure from Bellini’s models and his adhesion to Leonardo’s style. It is the portrait of a young bride, with a laurel branch – a popular symbol of chastity – and a nuptial veil. The gesture that shifts the fur to reveal her breast means fertility (hence motherhood), an offer of love and seduction. The fact that the canvas was glued to the panel ab origine, a rare practice indeed, confirms the value of the gift.
The Three Ages of Man
This is not a singing lesson, nor a vocal trio as often hypothesized. The music is the metaphor of existential and cosmic harmony of worldly things which the old man is about leave and while the youth, instructed by the adult is about to enter. Once again Giorgione tested himself with a “hidden” subject beneath the apparent accessibility of the image, that is clear and concise in its formal rendering. Like The Old Woman and The Tempest, this painting may have belonged to Gabriele Vendramin.
The Old Woman (La Vecchia)
Marcantonio Michiel described this painting as a portrait of the artist’s mother, mercilessly rendered with deep wrinkles, thin hair, missing teeth and a faded gaze. Behind the mild caricature and in light of the evidence on the scroll (that was probably added when the painting was completed) it is preferable to interpret it as an allegory of senility, a warning about the destructive effects that time has on female beauty. It may have been the companion piece to a “portrait of a man dressed in black,” perhaps another allegory, that has since been lost.
In 1530 according to Marcantonio Michiel, the painting portrayed “the tempest, the gypsy and the soldier.” Nineteenth century art historians exhausted themselves in the quest for alternative interpretations: Biblical tale, classical myth, occult-alchemical allegory, philosophical concept, or emblematic personification. Giorgione conceived it as a hidden subject to be understood by the elect few, and definitely the client, Gabriele Vendramin. There is no trace of an underlying preliminary drawing so the colors shift from one tone to the next without interruption.
Self-Portrait as David
This painting is only a fragment of the self-portrait Giorgione did shortly before his death. A seventeenth century engraving by Wenzel Hollar gives the picture in its entirety and shows us David’s right hand, buried in Goliath’s hair, while the giant’s head rests on a parapet. The identification with the hero who saved the Jewish people was certainly no accident: it has the value of a statement of cultural belonging. Cardinal Grimani, the owner of the painting, was also an educated Hebraist.