Handful of of the Venetian painter’s works are identified to survive, however fascinating insights emerge at the RA’s new show
For Gabriele D’Annunzio, Giorgione was “more myth than man”. For Bernard Berenson, he was a figment of our collective imagination: “Everyone has their own private Giorgione.”
The Venetian painter is the glamorous mystery man of the Renaissance. Lauded by Giorgio Vasari for his “physical functions and greatness of spirit”, a man who loved to play the lute and “sang divinely”, his star burnt bright and he died young. Born in the Veneto town of Castelfranco about 1478, by the age of 32 he was dead of the plague he had caught from a lover in Venice.
In his wake he left a body of function that awed his contemporaries. Vasari mentioned his “talent and excellence” surpassed that of the Bellinis and even rivalled the Tuscans as they moved towards the “modern manner” — accurate to nature but classically right — which would define the Higher Renaissance.
His untimely passing may possibly account for the muddle of attributions that rapidly entangled his oeuvre. Right now only a handful of operates are agreed to be by his hand and most of these — “The Tempest” (in Venice’s Accademia), “The Sleeping Venus” (completed by Titian, at the moment in Dresden) and Vienna’s “Laura” — are not permitted to travel.
But the Royal Academy shows that, with sincere curation, it is feasible to create an exhibition around the memory of an artist whose paintings are frequently as enigmatic as his biography. With the couple of Giorgiones surrounded by operates by artists of the exact same or similar era — Giovanni Bellini, Dürer, Sebastiano del Piombo, Titian, Lorenzo Lotto — what emerges is a thoughtful, unpredictable, sometimes scintillating exhibition that illuminates one particular of the most imaginative moments in the history of art.
For any talented painter, late 15th-century Venice was a quite great location to be. Regardless of encroachments by the Ottoman Turks, the empire was still enormously wealthy. Nearby society was catching up with the sophisticated Florentines who had embraced classical humanism many decades earlier. A flourishing publishing business saw texts from Aristotle to Ovid suddenly accessible to a wider public than ever ahead of. The result was a wealthy, “nouveau cultured” elite who preferred painting that would reflect the complex new texture of their globe.
A stupendous clutch of portraits in the initial area include Dürer’s 1506 painting of Burkhard of Speyer, a German resident in Venice when the painter was himself passing via the lagoon city. With each flaw and shadow moulded in the full-wattage optics that were Dürer’s signature, its unflinching realism speaks of an age no longer frightened of psychological depth.
But Dürer’s crystalline gaze is less powerful than the far more impressionistic strategy Giorgione takes with his “Portrait of a Man” (often identified as the Terris portrait), on loan from San Diego. In 3-quarter profile, the sitter’s hooded, sideways gaze is simultaneously piercing however inward, his cheekbones softened by a Leonardesque sfumato — Giorgione utilised a grisaille undercoat — so that they melt into his gauzy grey locks and powder-soft black collar.
The lack of sharp contours heightens his air of vulnerability. No touch-me-not patrician, this is a man acutely aware of fortune’s slings and arrows. There’s no better proof that Vasari was correct when he says Giorgione could “reproduce the freshness of living flesh much better than any other artist who had ever painted . . . anywhere”.
The portraits of young males in the next room all boast an elusive dreaminess that typifies an age when poetry and music, especially courtly ballads sung by enjoy-struck young lute-players, have been considerably in vogue. That all of these had been regarded as to be by Giorgione at a single time or yet another tells us how thorny the issue of attribution can be.
Assuming the attributions given here are right, the painter who shines is Giovanni Cariani. Slightly younger than Giorgione, Cariani — who shuttled in between Venice and Bergamo — is rarely regarded in the identical breath as his renowned Venetian peers. However the delicacy of the rose flush that colours the sitter’s pale complexion in “Portrait of a Young Man with a Green Book” (c1510-15) suggests the author was inspired by Giorgione’s gift for verisimilitude.
On the far side of the room, a drawing of a young man (1512) in coloured chalks, also attributed to Cariani, employs equally achieved shading. His grey-blue eyes boring into the viewer’s thoughts, this wary youth epitomises an era that saw portraiture evolve from an art that kept the audience at a distance to one that tugged them into intimacy.
This was when all manner of boundaries have been loosened. Sacred and secular, topic and viewer, object and background, all shaded into one particular another with far more fluidity than preceding generations could have imagined. Nowhere is this clearer than in the vogue for landscape painting.
Giorgione’s “The Tempest”, a mysterious encounter in between a man and woman in a storm-lit wilderness, is the fulcrum about which the bucolic style turns. Unable to borrow the real point, why did the curators not proffer a life-size reproduction rather than the diminutive replica on show right here?
Alternatively, pride of spot goes to Giorgione’s second string, “Il Tramonto” (1506-10), usually in London’s National Gallery. Even just before misguided restorers added in St George and the Dragon in the 1930s, this was a baffling painting. Untouched by the sulphur-rimmed sunset, its powdery dun-coloured rocks produce a Delphic stage for two males, a single fiddling with the leg of the other their presence may signal that Giorgione had read Sophocles’s play about Philoctetes (who was bitten by a snake en route to Troy), which had been published in Venice by 1502.
The printing boom that swept across the Veneto is the secret to this genre’s glory. From Petrarch to Ovid and Virgil, by way of contemporary literature such as Jacopo Sannazaro’s poem “Arcadia” and Pietro Bembo’s “Gli Asolani”, Giorgione and his peers suddenly had a tsunami of adore-in-a-landscape literature on which to draw.
They thrilled to the challenge. Representing the vogue for Ovidian mischief, two scenes by Sebastiano del Piombo — “Birth of Adonis” and “Death of Adonis” (c1505-08) — clasp the figures inside a fecund, frothy canopy of oaks as if nature rather than God was in handle.
That whisper of paganism offers such paintings their allure. Attributed to Titian, a gorgeous ink more than chalk drawing of a man and lady creating music in an Arcadian glade, her robe slipped down to reveal her fleshy, naked back, is a sheer celebration of sensory pleasure.
When artists are this excited by the concept of wilderness, even a Christian topic such as Lorenzo Lotto’s “St Jerome” (possibly 1506) seems in danger significantly less of divine punishment than of animistic spirits lurking in the light-splashed rocks and trees that loom above him.
What happens when such heathen pastorals encounter spiritual feeling? In the case of Giorgione’s “Virgin and Child in a Landscape” (1500-05), on loan from the Hermitage, the answer is pure magic. Despite the fact that produced for a private client’s domestic sanctuary, this little painting dominates the religious functions that are the penultimate chapter of this show. The Virgin presides more than a grassy valley with a village nestling in its kernel. From her tender milkmaid’s cheeks to the honey-stoned church tower, Giorgione has modelled colour and light into a visual praise-song for a planet where humanity, God and nature are as 1.
The final room is devoted to allegorical portraits, a style in which Giorgione had no equal. (His most touching diary of mortal flesh, “The Three Ages of Man”, was anticipated in London and may possibly still arrive from Florence’s Pitti Palace.) Happily, the presence of “La Vecchia” (1508-10), from the Accademia Gallery, satisfies all demands. As realistic a depiction of old age as any ever painted, Giorgione has utilised his mastery of sfumato to bleach all bloom from the old woman’s parchment skin and smoke-grey wisps of hair. With her eyes devoid of light and toothless mouth, she does not require the written message — “With Time” — in her hand for us to shiver with the expertise that such indignity is our destiny, as well.
The handsome “Zorzi” at least escaped that fate. Despite a scarcity of performs by him, this exhibition underlines the tragedy of such early loss.
‘In the Age of Giorgione’, Royal Academy, London, to June five. royalacademy.org.uk
Photographs: Alamy San Diego Museum of Art Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest
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