Grappling with the great Giorgione


My first encounter with Giorgione didn’t start well. It was a scorching August day and as the audio guide droned on I failed to see what all the fuss was about as crowds thronged to get close to ‘The Tempest’. Nine years later I can readily admit that I was wrong. I still don’t like The Tempest but I do like Giorgione. He hasn’t changed but I certainly have. Last autumn Alessandra and I even made the pilgrimage to his pretty little hometown Castelfranco Veneto to see the magnificent Castlefranco Madonna and the little Museo Giorgione dedicated to his life and works.

In the Age of Giorgione at the Royal Academy is a gem of an exhibition. Simply drop your other plans and insist on going. Beautifully created and with rare and important works in each and every room it’s something which you will regret if you can’t make it. I visited on the opening weekend and signed up to attend Friday night’s lecture on ‘Innovations and Influence: In the Age of Giorgione’. It afforded me the opportunity for a second look round and I familiarised myself with the key canvasses before the lecture.

In the very first two portraits on display we get a sense of just how special the Royal Collection is. It’s a thing of rare beauty and is bound to be the subject of a future post. Until recently, I had only seen images of Bellini’s Portrait of a Young Man but it doesn’t disappoint. The contrasting Burkhard of Speyer by Dürer with its dark background and bright face is an example of his absolute mastery of portraiture.

It’s exalted company, but Giorgione can take it as canvass after canvass shows. One of my favourites is the Terris Portrait pictured below. As this unknown man gazes out directly at us it typifies the rises in self-consciousness that provides such a bridge to the modern viewer. La Vecchia, which I choose as the first image, doesn’t have a direct translation – it’s politely referred to as ‘Old Woman’ but the modern Italian would be in a more literal sense be closer to ‘Old Crone’ even if the derogatory intent was unintended. It’s equally arresting either way.


Giorgione remains an enigma despite the erudition of the impressive lecturers Per Rumberg, Paul Hills and Sheila Hale. But I do now have a much deeper understanding of his import and influence. One aspect of which is the development of the wider setting and the diffusion of the subject that will eventually become the landscape genre. The uniquely vibrant Venetian use of colour and light were implicit in all that was discussed.

It’s that irresolvable mystery that surrounds Giorgione which somehow adds to his attraction. Instead of a more defined complex figure like the bankrupt Rembrandt or the one eared Van Gogh; we can’t even be certain what Giorgione looked like. Into the vacuum we can therefore happily project our own thoughts and feelings free from danger.

Throughout history we are drawn to these at best sketchy or undefined characters. William Shakespeare is, I guess, a good example. After 400 years what little we do know about the man, such as him leaving the ‘second best bed’ to his wife. Doesn’t fit our lofty image of the elegant myth maker we know through his work. Personally, I’d much rather we didn’t know about the bed.

Equally, those cut down in the beauty of their youth seem to acquire a veneer which time doesn’t tarnish. JFK will forever have a boyish charm which the ageing process cannot corrupt. His unfinished legacy is just that. His iconic status rests on what it might have been and not a roll call of achievements.

Giorgione combines both these traits, the unknown and the unfulfilled. Cut down at a youthful 32 we cannot know how far Giorgione would have taken us. His talent dazzled brilliantly but briefly. He sadly didn’t leave a large body of work. All but a tiny handful of canvasses are disputed in terms of their attribution. We can but glimpse and guess and that’s surely what draws us to him.


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