The Italian painter Giorgione (1477-1510) was one of the first masters of the Venetian High Renaissance. His works are notable for their poetic qualities.
Although the career of Giorgione occupies a very short period of time, his creation of mood through color, light, and atmosphere, giving a dreamlike character to his paintings, established a style of poetic romanticism that influenced numerous Venetian contemporaries, particularly Titian and Palma Vecchio, but also secondary masters such as Cariani, Vincenzo Catena, and II Romanino. Because of the paucity of documents and of signed pictures by these masters, many attributions are difficult to establish, and various critics differ radically in assigning works to Giorgione himself and to the so-called Giorgionesque painters who followed him.
The painter called Giorgione, whose name was Giorgio (Zorzi) da Castelfranco, was born in the town of Castelfranco near Venice in 1477. No information exists as to his family or his early years. Because of his early death of the plague in Venice at the age of 33 and because of the poetic nature of his pictures, the legend grew that he was handsome, a fine musician, and an ardent lover. The name Giorgione ("Big George") implies that he was a tall man.
Giorgione became a pupil of the greatest Venetian artist of the day, Giovanni Bellini, entering his studio about 1490. Bellini himself began to develop the effects of light and atmosphere, suggesting the warmth of a late summer afternoon and establishing a tranquil contemplative mood in such late works as the Religious Allegory (ca. 1490) and the Madonna of the Meadow.
Two cassone panels, the Judgment of Solomon and the Judgment of the Baby Moses by Fire, are generally accepted as Giorgione's early works (ca. 1495-1500). In them the landscape backgrounds are already developed, but the figures retain a rather rigid archaistic stance reminiscent of the works of Vittore Carpaccio. More mature are Giorgione's Adoration of the Kings, the little Holy Family, and the Adoration of the Shepherds, in the last of which the deep landscape corridor to the left and the group of figures to the right establish a formula for Venetian composition that survived throughout the century.
The brevity of Giorgione's career limits the importance of chronology, since his mature production fell within one decade. The Madonna with Saints Francis and Liberale can be reasonably placed about 1500-1504. Here the artist elongated the high throne to a much greater degree than usual in northern and central Italian painting in order to establish an equilateral triangle, thus revealing his Renaissance feeling for strong geometric relations in formal structure. The mellow landscape distance and the dreamlike contemplative attitude of the figures provide a notable example of the Giorgionesque mood.
The Tempest is Giorgione's most personal excursion into the realm of idyllic landscape, an evocation of the pastoralism of ancient Greece and Rome, represented in ancient literature by the poetry of Theocritus and Virgil and comparable with the Renaissance poetry of Pietro Bembo in I Asolani (1505) and Jacopo Sannazzaro in Arcadia (1502). The enigma of the precise literary meaning of the picture has invited a variety of explanations, none of which has been universally accepted. The latest is Edgar Wind's book Giorgione's Tempest (1969), which interprets the male figure as Fortitude and the female as Charity, but this is inconsistent with the very poetic nature of the composition.
The pictures by Giorgione that are mentioned by a near contemporary, Marcantonio Michiel (ca. 1532), include the Tempest, the Boy with an Arrow, the Three Philosophers, the Sleeping Venus, and possibly the Shepherd with Pipe. Michiel says that after Giorgione's death Titian completed the landscape of the Venus, this most admired of all evocations of the ideally beautiful goddess, and that Sebastiano del Piombo finished the Three Philosophers. Giorgione's hand in the Judith has not been challenged, although undocumented. The Christ and the Adulteress, the Madonna and Saints, and the Pastoral Concert seem to most Anglo-Saxon writers to belong to Giorgione, but recent Italian critics have preferred to transfer them to the young Titian.
The close relationship between Giorgione and Titian is epitomized by the lost frescoes, dated 1507-1508, on the exterior of the German Merchants' Exchange (Fondaco dei Tedeschi) in Venice, where the two artists collaborated. Titian, presumed to be the younger man, appears to have worked under Giorgione's direction at this time. Lodovico Dolce (1557), a friend of Titian, records that Titian painted the Allegory of Justice over the side portal and Giorgione the nude figures on the main facade. Known today through 18th-century prints and a few archeological fragments, these frescoes only increase the problem of distinguishing between the work of the two men at this period.
Giorgione's portraits provide the greatest problems in the matter of attribution since none is signed or documented. By general agreement he is assigned several half-length portraits: the Young Man (Berlin), the so-called Antonio Broccardo, the Laura, dated by an old inscription on the back 1506, and La Vecchia. The more doubtful Portrait of a Man (San Diego, Calif.) has an old attribution to Giorgione on the back of the panel, and the Self-portrait (Brunswick, Germany) is probably a damaged original, much reduced in size. The famous group portrait The Concert, formerly given to Giorgione, is now generally accepted as a youthful work by Titian.
Further Reading on Giorgione
There are two excellent accounts of Giorgione in English. Terisio Pignatti, Giorgione (trans. 1971), is a documented study of his career and examines the complexities of Giorgione attributions. George Martin Richter, Giorgio da Castelfranco, Called Giorgione (1937), is a scholarly work in which all important documents and original sources are reprinted, including the accounts of Marcantonio Michiel (1532), Giorgio Vasari (1568), and Carlo Ridolfi (1648). A brief, more popular book is Duncan Phillips, The Leadership of Giorgione (1937). There is an excellent appreciation of Giorgione in A. Richard Turner, The Vision of Landscape in Renaissance Italy (1966).