In the Age of Giorgione

Royal Academy of Arts, Piccadilly, London  12 March – 5 June, 2016

According to Vasari, the art historian of the Italian Renaissance, Giorgione was born in 1478 in Castelfranco, near Treviso, and brought up in Venice. He became one of the greatest Venetian artists, but died of the plague, probably in 1510, in his early 30s.

These very sparse biographical details add to the sense of enigma we see in the paintings, very few of which have survived, and several of which are merely attributed to him.

Giorgione with his followers, such as Titian, Lotto, Mancini and Cariani, revolutionized Venetian painting. His works have a mystical, misty, smoky (“sfumato”), poetic quality, with blurred lines and colours, like Venice itself, a sliver of land between sky and sea. Vasari mentions that Giorgione learnt to depict these “subtle transitions of colour and tone” and to use light and shade from studying the works of Leonardo, who visited Venice in 1500.

In the Terris Portrait, once owned by the Scottish coal merchant, Alexander Terris, painted probably in 1506, Giorgione does something new: a man of about 40 has turned his head and is looking straight at us with a calm, but searching gaze. He engages and draws the viewer into the painting. With this new style of portraiture which became very fashionable, Giorgione was able to win over a whole generation of patrons.

Another portrait, this time of a younger man who has an androgynous quality, is perhaps of the Venetian poet, Antonio Brocardo. He is absorbed in thought. The gold embroidery on his black damask coat may represent the bands of love – and his slightly melancholic expression may suggest a broken heart. There was a debate at the time about whether poetry or painting better represents love, and Giorgione may be making the case here for painting.

In the Virgin and Child in a Landscape, Maria is not enthroned or on a higher plane, but the earthly and heavenly are combined. The tender interaction between Madonna and Child has a quietly unsettling quality, perhaps because the mother is thinking about her child’s fate. The scene has a touching realism, and was probably intended for private devotion.

In La Vecchia (The Old Woman) the sitter looks straight at the viewer, with a steady, but troubled gaze. There is no attempt at flattery here: wisps of grey hair stray from under her cap, and her face is wrinkled.  The message in her right hand reads: ‘Col Tempo’ or ‘With Time’. This could have been just an allegorical painting, but Giorgione makes the portrait the humane and compassionate representation of a real woman.

The Trial of Moses
is remarkable for the use of the landscape of the Veneto with its soft greens and browns and sunlight on the buildings in the middle distance, wistful, poetic landscape, quite different from the clear contours of Bellini’s landscapes, and perhaps influenced by the landscapes of Dürer who left Nuremberg to escape the plague and visited Venice for the first time in 1494-1495. Dürer painted the first landscapes in European art and regarded the realistic depiction of nature as the best training to develop the skill of a painter.

The landscape of the Veneto also dominates Il Tramonto, in which the sky is gently illuminated by the setting sun. There are two men in the foreground, one examining the leg of the other, perhaps looking at a plague boil. St George, who is slaying the dragon on the right, has been added by a restorer in 1934 to conceal an area of damaged canvas, and, below him, in the river, there is an unidentified swimming object, also added in 1934 to cover up damage. Near the two men a small beaked monster emerges from the water. The gradual transitions from light to dark, the muted colours, and the mysterious content have a spellbinding effect on the viewer.

Of course this superb exhibition cannot settle the question of which paintings are by Giorgione and which are not, but it gives us the opportunity to see some very great works of art and invites us to consider the possibility that the question of who it was that painted some of the individual works, a question which preoccupies art historians, is not always of primary importance.

(This is a longer, and slightly different version of a review of the Giorgione exhibition which will appear in the on-line journal, Psychiatric Eye, published by the Royal College of Psychiatry.)

Paul Crichton, May 2016