Giorgione (ca. 1478- 1510) takes a position as significant to the Venetian High Renaissance as that of Leonardo to the Florentine, with an art that is rooted in the local tradition of Bellini, yet recast with a new approach to nature and the painter's craft that tends more toward the lyric and poetic rather than the Florentine dramatic expression.
Giorgio da Castelfranco, called Zorzi in Venetian dialect in the Anonimo Morelliano, was born about 1478 (Vasari) in Castelfranco (the family name of Barbarelli is sometimes attributed to him), apparently came to Venice at an early date, and may possibly have worked in Giovanni Bellini's studio. From the early sixteenth century there have been innumerable legends, speculations, and attributions concerning the life, character, and work of Giorgione. The only important documentary records of him, however, are the two payments of August 14, 1507, and January 24 1508, by the Council of Ten to Giorgione for an unidentified picture for the council chamber; a payment on May 2, 1508, for a hanging for the picture (la tenda di la tella facta per la camera di la audientia nuova); a document of November 8, 1508, concerning payments for Giorgione's frescos on the façade of the Fondaco de' Tedeschi and the judgment of Bastiani, Carpaccio and Vittore Belliniano estimating the value at 150 ducats; and finally the correspondence between Isabella d' Este and the Venetian Taddeo Albano of October 25 and November 8, 1510, in which the duchess inquires about a nocte, possibly a Nativity by Giorgione, and Albano replies that Giorgione has died of the plague only a short time before.
Of the many attributions to Giorgione, four have been traditionally recognized as certain and authentic. One is traceable to its original place in Castelfranco and is mentioned by Ridolfi, the other three were recorded by Marcantonio Michiel as having been seen in Venetian collections in the sixteenth century. The first is the Madonna Enthroned with St. George and St. Francis, which was painted ca. 1505 for the Chapel of St. George in the Cathedral of Castelfranco at the request of the condottiere, Tuzio Costanzo, whose son Matteo died in 1504 and was buried in that chapel (note his coat of arms on the throne). The comparison with similar altarpieces by Giovanni Bellini, e.g., the San Giobbe altar or that in San Zaccaria, will show a tendency away from the older Sacra Conversazione type of altar toward a more impressive form which in spirit and composition is more directly associated with the beholder. Notice the use of fewer figures, their logical composition into a pyramid with the Virgin towering on the throne, the substitution of a larger space and delicate luminous landscape for the architectural frame and vaulted interiors of Bellini (cf. the soft gray-yellow light illuminating the sky behind the red and green robed Madonna), and the general simplicity and spiritual expression which, aside from the coloration, is not unlike the early Perugino.
The so-called Three Philosophers in the gallery of Vienna (listed in the collection of Taddeo Contarini in 1525 by Marcantanio Michiel) is variously interpreted as the classical Aeneas, Pallas, and Enander, or as representatives of philosophical viewpoints associated with the contemporary academies and philosophic orders, or again as the Three Ages of Man. More significant, however, is the profane content as an artistic motif in itself, which is related to the mood of the Sacra Conversazione scenes. Its divorcement from the religious devotional theme is in keeping with the general tendency toward the special emphasis on the genre detail (cf. the expansion of musicmaking angels to the "musicians" or "the concert," i.e., Ercole Roberti's Concert in London). In the composition, note the dignified Renaissance figures (cf. the saints in Giovanni Bellini's San Zaccaria altar) placed asymmetrically to one side, the use of light to model the figures and space, their balance with the rock formations on the left side, the total design of figures, trees, and rocks in the foreground against the lighter and more luminous landscape in the distance.
The third work is the Giovanelli landscape, formerly in the Palazzo Giovanelli and now in the Academy of Venice, which is probably the finest and best preserved of Giorgione's paintings, and was recorded in the Casa Vendramin by Marcantonio Michiel in 1530. Its content is again variously explained as Hypsipyle and Adrast(from Dante and the Thebais of Statius), or Giorgione's family; its interest is chiefly in the landscape and staffage as such. In contrast to the Three Philosophers, note the greater emphasis on the space and recession of the landscape, the larger opening to it made by the trees of the fore- and middle-ground, and the romantic subordination of figures to the space and stormy landscape.
Though sometimes attributed altogether to Titian, the Sleeping Venus in the Dresden gallery is Giorgione's most famous canvas, and is certainly the one listed as such by Marcantonio Michiel in the house of Jeronimo Marcello. The motif is not to be explained by classical mythology and literary associations, as is the case with Botticelli and the Florentines of the Medici circle, but more from the personal approach of the artist. With Giorgione it appears to be a combined romantic interest in nature, whether the landscape or the nude model, and the artistic recognition of the emotional possibilities of light and color. The canvas is considerably damaged and repainted, and is assumed to have been left unfinished by Giorgione to be completed by Titian (i.e., the landscape). A cupid originally at the foot of the nude had later been painted out. Note the contrast in design and color, and the different character of the romantic expression in the Venus representations of Botticelli, Lorenzo di Credi.
Giorgione was probably born in 1478 in or near Castelfranco, a pleasant town of the Venetian mainland, presided over by a castello, and not far from the little hill-town of Asolo, where Caterina Cornaro, after her withdrawal from Cyprus, held her petty Court. Aristocratic families, influential in the region, were the centre of the social life of Castelfranco. The boy, sensitive and gifted, shared more or less in the fêtes and varied interests that make the life of small provincial towns in Italy so delightful and so full of colour.
Venice, but a day's journey away, naturally drew anyone with aptitude for the artist's craft, and while Giorgione is still hardly youth, we find him in Giov. Bellini's workshop in Venice. already become a friend of the young Titian, and of other pupils of the school. From this time on until his early death his uneventful life must be followed mainly in his works. We hear of his social charm, of his welcome to the aristocratic circles of that most splendid and luxurious of cities. We see and hear how he passed from being the fellow-pupil to becoming the virtual master of the young artists of Venice, and of his especial intimacy with Titian. We hear also of large frescoes executed, witnessing to the general and official recognition of his capacity, and from the few pictures still remaining--generally easel pictures and not large--we seem to judge of both the aristocratic quality of his patrons and of an aristocratic outlook in himself. There is a subtle analysis that belongs to a highly developed and intricate society.
He never, apparently, travelled far from Venice. He lived, happy and adored, and died in Venice, apparently unmarried, at the age of thirty-two.
An exhaustive and authoritative estimate of Giorgione's work is still wanting, due to the great diversity in critical attributions. Yet a sufficient number of works for adequate criticism are unquestionably his. Feeling tradition, he is yet original both in idea and form. His style is related to that of his master, Giovanni Bellini, but their art cannot be confused, and there is no evidence of Giorgione's hand in any work by Giovanni. He sums up and expands Venetian ideals. His earlier composition is Venetian --his use of colour and masses, his light and shade and texture, his wholesome attitude, his largeness and simplicity.
He also inherits the classical spirit which we have found common to all Italians. But his distinctive characteristic is a personal attitude toward the visible world peculiar to himself, which gives to his work an imaginative or "lyric" quality indescribable and eluding analysis. Giorgione has, indeed, distinct limitations. He is not in general dramatic. He is rather contemplative. He is never discursive, like Carpaccio. His art is unreligious (neo-pagan), although never profane. He does not impress us as an intellectual artist. His ideals are those of a rare and special beauty--the joy of refined living, the love of nature in its larger aspects. His is the selective temperament, Greek-like in sensitiveness. A fundamental characteristic is a balance of idealism and naturalism. For this combination in his design, notice his freedom of composition, although naturalistic features are subordinated to the decorative. In his later work the welding together of the formal and natural has become the art that conceals art.
For illustration we turn first to the celebrated Madonna of Castelfranco, his native place, a picture of less assured mastery than some others, but yet a most alluring work. Notice, first, the combination of a formal composition (an unusual development of the older Bellini scheme) with naturalism in figures, landscape, and accessories. The Virgin is a girl of the Veneto. Throughout, the two tendencies are united, realism in parts, and idealism in the whole; the dignity of the place, the aloofness of the figures, the largeness of special imagination--it is idealisation of the highest sort. A little conscious care stamps the picture early; the folds of drapery are like the artist's later work, but more studied. But even at this stage there is the sense for rhythmic lines, for subdued tones, and depths of harmony; the picture at first seems dark, and then appears flooded with sunshine, which covers with a silent radiance landscape and sky.
From the Castelfranco Madonna we turn to one of the small early panels in the Uffizi. The real subject of the Judgment of Solomon is a group of aristocratic Venetians amusing themselves in the country. It is intimate contemporary description, but transcends pure genre by its high emotional tone, expressing a general mood of cultured people--their delight in the beauty of nature. It is significant of the undramatic character of the work that we cannot be sure which mother is which. Action and landscape bathed in soft light and air reinforce each other; the planes are marked by the traditional foliage and rising ground, but they are not emphasized as by the Early Florentines. The composition is linear rather than in planes. The objects are disposed in a distinctly graphic pattern. Taking the figure on the extreme right, we follow gestures and contours into the open middle distance, and thence into every portion of the scene. In the Ordeal of Moses a similar linear motive intimately connects landscape and action. Such design is of the rarest beauty, and guarantees the authenticity of both pictures. The originality and assurance of form suggest that they can hardly be of Giorgione's earliest years.
The Fête Champêtre ( Louvre) illustrates the phase of Giorgione's mature painting most influential on later art--that of pure idyllic landscape. The figures are one with the setting. Founded upon nature--the mainland of the Veneto--without direct imitation, the scene is composed with a sense for formal beauty comparable to Greek sculpture. Giorgione here creates an ideal world for his figures. He has dropped the descriptive character of the Uffizi panels and the individualised models of the Castelfranco Madonna. The figures are pure symbols of the physical enjoyment of nature. The picture is generally recognised as consummate in design, a work of the imagination, never to be exactly repeated even by the genius who imagined it.
Another phase is found in the Evander, Pallas, and Eneas ( Vienna). In the balance between figure and landscape and in the silhouette of the foliage there is much the same quality as in the Judgment of Solomon, and the relief-like grouping transcends the naturalistic. But the design, the scale of figures, the concentration are far grander. There is mystery in the solemn background, in the absolute quietude of the scene. And how life-like and robust are the figures, how suggestive is the contrast of age and youth, how deeply the background penetrates into nature's secrets. The painter here comes close to the intellectual attitude of Leonardo or Mantegna.
One of the most debated pictures connected with Giorgione's name is the Concert of the Pitti. It has been given to Giorgione and also to Titian during his early Giorgionesque period. The question is a delicate one. No painting by Giorgione has precisely its quality, yet the picture is mature for Titian's early period, and no other painter comes near it in quality. It has been suggested that the work is in part by Giorgione, but finished after his death by Titian. Whoever the artist, it places him in the front rank with Leonardo for intimate ideal portraiture. The picture gives a marvellous interpretation of the poetry in human character.
It remains to discuss Giorgione's influence upon others. This is seen sometimes in spirit, as in the young Titian's work and in the idealised portraits of Sebastiano del Piombo, and sometimes in superficial forms, as in the engravings of Campagnola, or in the somewhat mundane religious fêtes of Bonifazio. The reputation of the artist encouraged imitation; two copies of works by Giorgione are mentioned by the Anonimo. Pictures painted, often by able artists, under Giorgione's influence, sometimes under his direction or upon his design, reproduce his external manner. The confusion increased with his fame after his death, and contemporary collectors attached his name to their pictures on small evidence.
We thus see Giorgione in various phases : his incidental and conventional motives under the lingering influence of the previous age, combined with his freedom and originality; his purely sensuous delight; his profound sympathy with nature and with human character. We see his personality pervading his generation, and finally transmitted to the whole Venetian school of the 16th century. From this mass of Giorgionesque art his work must be disengaged; this can generally be done. In his sensitiveness, his poetry, his largeness of spirit, he has no real rival.