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Giorgione and the High Renaissance in Venice


A search for luminous color and intuitive responses to nature—a pursuit, above all, of the sensuous—occupied painters in Venice for centuries. While artists in central Italy concentrated on the more intellectual aspects of form and structure, Venetian painters, beginning with Giovanni Bellini and his students, focused their attention on the surface of things, on color and texture, even on the paint itself.

With the work of Giorgione, one of Bellini's students, the Venetian High Renaissance truly began. Although he died very young, Giorgione's influence was enormous. For the private enjoyment of cultivated patrons he introduced new subjects: mythological scenes and pastorals with elusive meaning. To an unprecedented extent, mood is the primary "subject" of his works. Like Italian poetry of the time, the lyricism of his paintings was designed to delight and refresh. Light and shadow move imperceptibly into one another, and a soft atmosphere unifies landscape and figures, giving both a kind of mystery. For Giorgione more than any artist before him, the landscape became an end in itself. It was no longer a mere backdrop to the action of the figures but an equal actor in creating his poesia.

Giorgione is credited with several technical innovations as well. Although Bellini had mastered the new medium of oil pigments, some of his practices remained those of a tempera painter. He planned carefully, defining every element of his compositions in advance. By contrast, Giorgione worked directly and without detailed preparatory drawings. Many of his paintings show evidence of rethinking; radiographs reveal figures that were changed, added, or removed. Giorgione also increasingly favored canvas over wood panel as a painting support, a switch that brought about its own set of technical changes. Instead of painting from light to dark on a light ground, Giorgione used a darker ground and painted progressively from darker to lighter tones. Light seems to emerge from the darkness. The woven canvas encouraged a looser pattern of brushwork, one that breaks up the surface with light-reflecting textures, some thick, others of transparent thinness.

Attributed to Giorgione Giorgione, Italian, 1477/1478 - 1510, Giovanni Borgherini and His Tutor, oil on canvas, Gift of Michael Straight, 1974.87.1

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Bacchus is typically portrayed as a young man wreathed with vines, his body slouched with the intoxicating effect of drink. This young child, who wears an ivy wreath and holds a wine pitcher, must also represent the god of wine. As a god of agriculture, Bacchus was sometimes depicted as aging along with the seasons, in much the same way that the new year comes in as a baby and goes out as an old man. In winter, when crops were just starting to grow, Bacchus took the guise of a young boy—as pretty, Roman poets said, as a curly-haired girl.

Bellini used this same figure in the Feast of the Gods, also in the Gallery’s collection. In that painting, made for Alfonso d’Este of Ferrara, the youth of Bacchus might suggest the duke’s winter wedding to Lucrezia Borgia. Not until Bellini was close to eighty years old could he be persuaded, even by strong-willed patrons such as the Este family, to paint mythological scenes. He preferred instead the religious subjects and portraits that had occupied his long career. Remaining open to innovation, however, Bellini’s style, and ultimately his subject matter, responded to influences from younger artists, including his own pupils.

Giovanni Bellini, Italian, c. 1430/1435 - 1516, The Infant Bacchus, probably 1505/1510, oil on panel transferred to panel, Samuel H. Kress Collection, 1961.9.5

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Knowledge of Giorgione's life and career is in inverse proportion to his importance. He remains one of the least documented and most influential of all Renaissance painters. A single signed painting exists. Beyond that, scholars must attempt to identify his works on the basis of style and on sixteenth-century household inventories, which provide only brief indications of subject matter. Many of Giorgione's paintings were made for private patrons, so that records, which typically document large civic and religious commissions, are not available. Difficulty also arises in distinguishing the early work of Giorgione from that of near contemporaries like Sebastiano del Piombo and Titian, who were also pupils of Bellini and whose early styles were likewise heavily influenced by their teacher.

This painting must be one of those early works. The figures, especially the aged, bearded Joseph, closely resemble those of Bellini. Joseph sits on an unfinished wall, while mother and child are seated on a humble rock that emphasizes Christ's humility and humanity. The symbolism of the unfinished wall also refers to the incomplete and imperfect era before Christ's birth. The precision of detail, particularly of the plants and rocks in the foreground, suggests the influence of paintings from northern Europe, which could be seen in Venice in large numbers and were also known through prints.

Giorgione, Italian, 1477/1478 - 1510, The Holy Family, probably c. 1500, oil on panel transferred to hardboard, Samuel H. Kress Collection, 1952.2.8

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The Virgin has a calm, quiet beauty, and Joseph's domed head is washed in light, his gray hair picked out with delicate highlights. Barely visible behind them, the ox and ass stand in a dark cave, as humble men gaze down on the infant. The Adoration of the Shepherds was a common theme for public altars, but Giorgione has transformed it—making it more intimate and emotionally resonant.

Landscape became Giorgione's overriding concern as a painter and a primary means of creating mood. X-ray examination of this panel has revealed extensive changes to the sides and background that opened up the space and drew attention into the distance. (Giorgione was unusual in his time for not making preparatory drawings, often working out designs directly on the panel or canvas.) Compare The Holy Family, painted earlier, where the landscape is contained within a window. In The Adoration, by contrast, setting and figures are integrated and suffused with a poetic ambiance that unifies the entire composition. Landscape—and light—shape our experience, emphasizing the painting's meditative, rather than narrative, dimension. Some elements of the picture may have been suggested by poems that celebrated the beauties of nature and rustic life: distant shepherds; the light at the horizon, glowing a soft yellow; a tiny fire sparking under an archway; and clear water flowing in a glassy stream.

Giorgione, Italian, 1477/1478 - 1510, The Adoration of the Shepherds, 1505/1510, oil on panel, Samuel H. Kress Collection, 1939.1.289

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The expression of calculating, almost cruel, appraisal—amplified by his closed fist—gives this man an aggressive air, but we do not know his identity. The inscription on the parapet does not help. These letters, VVO, have been interpreted as a form of the Latin vivo (in life). This would suggest that the portrait was painted from life and that it confers on both subject and painter a measure of immortality. It may more likely, however, be an abbreviation of a humanist motto, perhaps virtus vincit omnia (virtue conquers all).

Like other paintings associated with Giorgione, this one presents difficulties of attribution. Both Titian and Sebastiano are know to have completed works that remained unfinished when Giorgione died prematurely in his early thirties. (It was said that Giorgione contracted the plague from his mistress.) A second hand seems to be at work in this painting. The portrait's format, with subject glancing sidelong at the viewer from behind a parapet, was developed by Giorgione, and the soft, shadowy gradations of tone also recall his style. However, its aggressive mood points to a painter with a bolder brush and more active, worldly outlook, like Titian.

Giorgione, Italian, 1477/1478 - 1510 and Titian, Italian, c. 1490 - 1576, Portrait of a Venetian Gentleman, c. 1510, oil on canvas, Samuel H. Kress Collection, 1939.1.258

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This small panel originally functioned as a cover for a portrait. Covers not only protected the painting underneath, but allowed the artist to expand symbolically on particular facets of the patron's personality and concerns. This allegorical scene covered a portrait, now in Naples, of Bernardo de' Rossi, bishop of Trevisio.

Rossi had only recently survived an assassination attempt when Lotto painted him. This scene presents a view of the bishop's virtue and perseverance—and the ultimate award available to those who choose a difficult path over more immediate and worldly gratifications. The panel is clearly divided in two halves by the central tree. On the right side, a drunken satyr peers into a wine pitcher, the intoxicating liquid already spilled around him. His surroundings are lush and green, but farther in the distance a storm rises and a ship sinks below the waves. On the other side, where we find Rossi's coat-of-arms leaning against a tree, an industrious child busies himself with tools. Here the land is parched and rocky, but in the distance the same child, now with an angel's wings, climbs a hill toward a brilliant radiance. Even the tree sprouts with new life, but on the left side only. It may refer to Job 14:7: "For there is hope of a tree, if it be cut down, that it will sprout again." The bishop, like Job beset by troubles, would also flourish through steadfast virtue.

The clarity of Lotto's landscape has little to do with the soft dreaminess recently introduced by Giorgione. It shows instead the continuing influence of the kind of precision found in northern art, especially that of the German Albrecht Dürer (1471–1528), who traveled to Venice and whose works were widely known through printed engravings.

Lorenzo Lotto, Italian, c. 1480 - 1556/1557, Allegory of Virtue and Vice, 1505, oil on panel, Samuel H. Kress Collection, 1939.1.156

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The story of the wise and foolish virgins is told in the biblical book of Matthew. Preparing for marriage, five wise virgins carefully provided oil for their lamps and awaited the bridegroom. Five foolish virgins, on the other hand, missed the bridegroom when they left their homes in search of more oil. The parable was often interpreted in terms of the Last Judgment and the need to be constantly prepared for the Second Coming.

Otherwise unusual for early sixteenth-century Italy, this subject would have had obvious significance for brides, and this painting is possibly an idealized portrait intended as a wedding gift. A faint inscription on the painting has often been interpreted as a reference to Vittoria Colonna, a poet best known for her friendship with Michelangelo. Perhaps the painting was done to commemorate her wedding in 1509. Several seventeenth-century editions of her works used engravings based on this painting as a frontispiece.

Vittoria, however, lived in Rome, and Sebastiano worked in Venice until 1511. Furthermore, paintings like this one were more popular in Venice than in Rome. Venetian works depicting beautiful young women with locks of hair tumbling to creamy shoulders and revealing necklines may have been idealized portraits or fanciful creations painted for a gentleman’s private enjoyment. The models for these bellezze may well have been the fabled courtesans of Venice.

Sebastiano del Piombo, Italian, 1485 - 1547, Portrait of a Young Woman as a Wise Virgin, c. 1510, oil on hardboard transferred from panel, Samuel H. Kress Collection, 1952.2.9

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In a set of paintings made for Duke Alfonso d’Este of Ferrara, Dosso illustrated Virgil’s Aeneid. The scenes were installed friezelike on the walls of Alfonso’s private study, the camerino d’alabastro, where Bellini’s Feast of the Gods also hung.

This painting is from that set and is usually thought to illustrate the moment when the luckless Trojans rebuild their wrecked ships after storms, unleashed at the bidding of the goddess Juno, drove them to the coast of Africa. Walking along the beach with Carthage in the distance, Aeneas tells his friend Achates, “Sorrow is implicit in the affairs of men. . . .” (The painting, however, has been cut down and perhaps no longer includes the figure of Aeneas. The two conversants at the right seem too old for the young Aeneas and Achates.) Dosso imparted a sense of immediacy to the ancient literary subject by clothing the Trojans in the latest Italian fashions and by giving them ships of the kind that were then exploring the New World.

Little is known about Dosso’s early career. Possibly he was a native of Ferrara, where he became court painter to the powerful Este family. Although his painting style shows influences from Venice and Rome, his work is strongly original, with feathery landscapes and scenes of everyday life tinged with whimsy. Quick brushwork, intense colors, and strong patterns of light give them unusual vitality.

Dosso Dossi, Italian, active 1512 - 1542, Aeneas and Achates on the Libyan Coast, c. 1520, oil on canvas, Samuel H. Kress Collection, 1939.1.250

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