1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Giorgione
GIORGIONE (1477-1510), Italian painter, was born at Castelfranco in 1477. In contemporary documents he is always called (according to the Venetian manner of pronunciation and spelling) Zorzi, Zorzo or Zorzon of Castelfranco. A tradition, having its origin in the 17th century, represented him as the natural son of some member of the great local family of the Barbarelli, by a peasant girl of the neighbouring village of Vedelago; consequently he is commonly referred to in histories and catalogues under the name of Giorgio Barbarelli or Barbarella. This tradition has, however, on close examination been proved baseless. On the other hand mention has been found in a contemporary document of an earlier Zorzon, a native of Vedelago, living in Castelfranco in 1460. Vasari, who wrote before the Barbarella legend had sprung up, says that Giorgione was of very humble origin. It seems probable that he was simply the son or grandson of the afore-mentioned Zorzon the elder; that the after-claim of the Barbarelli to kindred with him was a mere piece of family vanity, very likely suggested by the analogous case of Leonardo da Vinci; and that, this claim once put abroad, the peasant-mother of Vedelago was invented on the ground of some dim knowledge that his real progenitors came from that village.
Of the facts of his life we are almost as meagrely informed as of the circumstances of his birth. The little city, or large fortified village, for it is scarcely more, of Castelfranco in the Trevisan stands in the midst of a rich and broken plain at some distance from the last spurs of the Venetian Alps. From the natural surroundings of Giorgione’s childhood was no doubt derived his ideal of pastoral scenery, the country of pleasant copses, glades, brooks and hills amid which his personages love to wander or recline with lute and pipe. How early in boyhood he went to Venice we do not know, but internal evidence supports the statement of Ridolfi that he served his apprenticeship there under Giovanni Bellini; and there he made his fame and had his home. That his gifts were early recognized we know from the facts, recorded in contemporary documents, that in 1500, when he was only twenty-three (that is if Vasari gives rightly the age at which he died), he was chosen to paint portraits of the Doge Agostino Barberigo and the condottiere Consalvo Ferrante; that in 1504 he was commissioned to paint an altarpiece in memory of Matteo Costanzo in the cathedral of his native town, Castelfranco; that in 1507 he received at the order of the Council of Ten part payment for a picture (subject not mentioned) on which he was engaged for the Hall of the Audience in the ducal palace; and that in 1507-1508 he was employed, with other artists of his own generation, to decorate with frescoes the exterior of the newly rebuilt Fondaco dei Tedeschi or German merchants’ hall at Venice, having already done similar work on the exterior of the Casa Soranzo, the Casa Grimani alii Servi and other Venetian palaces. Vasari gives also as an important event in Giorgione’s life, and one which had influence on his work, his meeting with Leonardo da Vinci on the occasion of the Tuscan master’s visit to Venice in 1500. In September or October 1510 he died of the plague then raging in the city, and within a few days of his death we find the great art-patroness and amateur, Isabella d’Este, writing from Mantua and trying in vain to secure for her collection a night-piece by his hand of which the fame had reached her.
All accounts agree in representing Giorgione as a personage of distinguished and romantic charm, a great lover, a great musician, made to enjoy in life and to express in art to the uttermost the delight, the splendour, the sensuous and imaginative grace and fulness, not untinged with poetic melancholy, of the Venetian existence of his time. They represent him further as having made in Venetian painting an advance analogous to that made in Tuscan painting by Leonardo more than twenty years before; that is as having released the art from the last shackles of archaic rigidity and placed it in possession of full freedom and the full mastery of its means. He also introduced a new range of subjects. Besides altarpieces and portraits he painted pictures that told no story, whether biblical or classical, or if they professed to tell such, neglected the action and simply embodied in form and colour moods of lyrical or romantic feeling, much as a musician might embody them in sounds. Innovating with the courage and felicity of genius, he had for a time an overwhelming influence on his contemporaries and immediate successors in the Venetian school, including Titian, Sebastian del Piombo, the elder Palma, Cariani and the two Campagnolas, and not a little even on seniors of long-standing fame such as Giovanni Bellini. His name and work have exercised, and continue to exercise, no less a spell on posterity. But to identify and define, among the relics of his age and school, precisely what that work is, and to distinguish it from the kindred work of other men whom his influence inspired, is a very difficult matter. There are inclusive critics who still claim for Giorgione nearly every painting of the time that at all resembles his manner, and there are exclusive critics who pare down to some ten or a dozen the list of extant pictures which they will admit to be actually his.
To name first those which are either certain or command the most general acceptance, placing them in something like an approximate and probable order of date. In the Uffizi at Florence are two companion pieces of the “Trial of Moses” and the "Judgment of Solomon," the latter the finer and better preserved of the two, which pass, no doubt justly, as typical works of Giorgione’s youth, and exhibit, though not yet ripely, his special qualities of colour-richness and landscape romance, the peculiar facial types of his predilection, with the pure form of forehead, fine oval of cheek, and somewhat close-set eyes and eyebrows, and the intensity of that still and brooding sentiment with which, rather than with dramatic life and movement, he instinctively invests his figures. Probably the earliest of the portraits by common consent called his is the beautiful one of a young man at Berlin. His earliest devotional picture would seem to be the highly finished “Christ bearing his Cross” (the head and shoulders only, with a peculiarly serene and high-bred cast of features) formerly at Vicenza and now in the collection of Mrs Gardner at Boston. Other versions of this picture exist, and it has been claimed that one in private possession at Vienna is the true original: erroneously in the judgment of the present writer. Another "Christ bearing the Cross," with a Jew dragging at the rope round his neck, in the church of San Rocco at Venice, is a ruined but genuine work, quoted by Vasari and Ridolfi, and copied with the name of Giorgione appended, by Van Dyck in that master’s Chatsworth sketch-book. (Vasari gives it to Giorgione in his first and to Titian in his second edition.) The composition of a lost early picture of the birth of Paris is preserved in an engraving of the “Teniers Gallery” series, and an old copy of part of the same picture is at Budapest. In the Giovanelli Palace at Venice is that fascinating and enigmatical mythology or allegory, known to the Anonimo Morelliano, who saw it in 1530 in the house of Gabriel Vendramin, simply as “the small landscape with the storm, the gipsy woman and the soldier”; the picture is conjecturally interpreted by modern authorities as illustrating a passage in Statius which describes the meeting of Adrastus with Hypsipyle when she was serving as nurse with the king of Nemea. Still belonging to the earlier part of the painter’s brief career is a beautiful, virginally pensive Judith at St Petersburg, which passed under various alien names, as Raphael, Moretto, &c., until its kindred with the unquestioned work of Giorgione was in late years firmly established. The great Castelfranco altarpiece, still, in spite of many restorations, one of the most classically pure and radiantly impressive works of Renaissance painting, may be taken as closing the earlier phase of the young master’s work (1504). It shows the Virgin loftily enthroned on a plain, sparely draped stone structure with St Francis and a warrior saint (St Liberale) standing in attitudes of great simplicity on either side of the foot of the throne, a high parapet behind them, and a beautiful landscape of the master’s usual type seen above it. Nearly akin to this masterpiece, not in shape or composition but by the type of the Virgin and the very Bellinesque St Francis, is the altarpiece of the Madonna with St Francis and St Roch at Madrid. Of the master’s fully ripened time is the fine and again enigmatical picture formerly in the house of Taddeo Contarini at Venice, described by contemporary witnesses as the “Three Philosophers,” and now, on slender enough grounds, supposed to represent Evander showing Aeneas the site of Troy as narrated in the eighth Aeneid. The portrait of a knight of Malta in the Uffizi at Florence has more power and authority, if less sentiment, than the earlier example at Berlin, and may be taken to be of the master’s middle time. Most entirely central and typical of all Giorgione’s extant works is the Sleeping Venus at Dresden, first recognized by Morelli, and now universally accepted, as being the same as the picture seen by the Anonimo and later by Ridolfi in the Casa Marcello at Venice. An exquisitely pure and severe rhythm of line and contour chastens the sensuous richness of the presentment: the sweep of white drapery on which the goddess lies, and of glowing landscape that fills the space behind her, most harmoniously frame her divinity. It is recorded that the master left this piece unfinished and that the landscape, with a Cupid which subsequent restoration has removed, were completed after his death by Titian. The picture is the prototype of Titian’s own Venus at the Uffizi and of many more by other painters of the school; but none of them attained the quality of the first exemplar. Of such small scenes of mixed classical mythology and landscape as early writers attribute in considerable number to Giorgione, there have survived at least two which bear strong evidences of his handiwork, though the action is in both of unwonted liveliness, namely the Apollo and Daphne of the Seminario at Venice and the Orpheus and Eurydice of Bergamo. The portrait of Antonio Grocardo at Budapest represents his fullest and most penetrating power in that branch of art. In his last years the purity and relative slenderness of form which mark his earlier female nudes, including the Dresden Venus, gave way to ideals of ampler mould, more nearly approaching those of Titian and his successors in Venetian art; as is proved by those last remaining fragments of the frescoes on the Grand Canal front of the Fondaco dei Tedeschi which were seen and engraved by Zanetti in 1760, but have now totally disappeared. Such change of ideal is apparent enough in the famous “Concert” or “Pastoral Symphony” of the Louvre, probably the latest, and certainly one of the most characteristic and harmoniously splendid, of Giorgione’s creations that has come down to us, and has caused some critics too hastily to doubt its authenticity.
We pass now to pictures for which some affirm and others deny the right to bear Giorgione’s name. As youthful in style as the two early pictures in the Uffizi, and closely allied to them in feeling, though less so in colour, is an unexplained subject in the National Gallery, sometimes called for want of a better title the “Golden Age”; this is officially and by many critics given only to the “school of” Giorgione, but may not unreasonably be claimed for his own work (No. 1173). There is also in England a group of three paintings which are certainly by one hand, and that a hand very closely related to Giorgione if not actually his own, namely the small oblong “Adoration of the Magi” in the National Gallery (No. 1160), the “Adoration of the Shepherds” belonging to Lord Allendale (with its somewhat inferior but still attractive replica at Vienna), and the small “Holy Family” in the collection of Mr R. H. Benson. The type of the Madonna in all these three pieces is different from that customary with the master, but there seems no reason why he should not at some particular moment have changed his model. The sentiment and gestures of the figures, the cast of draperies, the technical handling, and especially, in Lord Allendale’s picture, the romantic richness of the landscape, all incline us to accept the group as original, notwithstanding the deviation of type already mentioned and certain weaknesses of drawing and proportion which we should have hardly looked for. Better known to European students in general are the two fine pictures commonly given to the master at the Pitti gallery in Florence, namely the “Three Ages” and the “Concert.” Both are very Giorgionesque, the “Three Ages” leaning rather towards the early manner of Lorenzo Lotto, to whom by some critics it is actually given. The “Concert” is held on technical grounds by some of the best judges rather to bear the character of Titian at the moment when the inspiration of Giorgione was strongest on him, at least so far as concerns the extremely beautiful and expressive central figure of the monk playing on the clavichord with reverted head, a very incarnation of musical rapture and yearning—the other figures are too much injured to judge.
There are at least two famous single portraits as to which critics will probably never agree whether they are among the later works of Giorgione or among the earliest of Titian under his influence: these are the jovial and splendid half-length of Catherine Cornaro (or a stout lady much resembling her) with a bas-relief, in the collection of Signor Crespi at Milan, and the so-called “Ariosto” from Lord Darnley’s collection acquired for the National Gallery in 1904. Ancient and half-effaced inscriptions, of which there is no cause to doubt the genuineness, ascribe them both to Titian; both, to the mind of the present writer at least, are more nearly akin to such undoubted early Titians as the “Man with the Book” at Hampton Court and the “Man with the Glove” at the Louvre than to any authenticated work of Giorgione. At the same time it should be remembered that Giorgione is known to have actually enjoyed the patronage of Catherine Cornaro and to have painted her portrait. The Giorgionesque influence and feeling, to a degree almost of sentimental exaggeration, encounter us again in another beautiful Venetian portrait at the National Gallery which has sometimes been claimed for him, that of a man in crimson velvet with white pleated shirt and a background of bays, long attributed to the elder Palma (No. 636). The same qualities are present with more virility in a very striking portrait of a young man at Temple Newsam, which stands indeed nearer than any other extant example to the Brocardo portrait at Budapest. The full-face portrait of a woman in the Borghese gallery at Rome has the marks of the master’s design and inspiration, but in its present sadly damaged condition can hardly be claimed for his handiwork. The head of a boy with a pipe at Hampton Court, a little over life size, has been enthusiastically claimed as Giorgione’s workmanship, but is surely too slack and soft in handling to be anything more than an early copy of a lost work, analogous to, though better than, the similar copy at Vienna of a young man with an arrow, a subject he is known to have painted. The early records prove indeed that not a few such copies of Giorgione’s more admired works were produced in his own time or shortly afterwards. One of the most interesting and unmistakable such copies still extant is the picture formerly in the Manfrin collection at Venice, afterwards in that of Mr Barker in London, and now at Dresden, which is commonly called “The Horoscope,” and represents a woman seated near a classic ruin with a young child at her feet, an armed youth standing looking down at them, and a turbaned sage seated near with compasses, disk and book. Of important subject pictures belonging to the debatable borderland between Giorgione and his imitators are the large and interesting unfinished “Judgment of Solomon” at Kingston Lacy, which must certainly be the same that Ridolfi saw and attributed to him in the Casa Grimani at Venice, but has weaknesses of design and drawing sufficiently baffling to criticism; and the “Woman taken in Adultery” in the public gallery at Glasgow, a picture truly Giorgionesque in richness of colour, but betraying in its awkward composition, the relative coarseness of its types and the insincere, mechanical animation of its movements, the hand of some lesser master of the school, almost certainly (by comparison with his existing engravings and woodcuts) that of Domenico Campagnola. It seems unnecessary to refer, in the present notice, to any of the numerous other and inferior works which have been claimed for Giorgione by a criticism unable to distinguish between a living voice and its echoes.
Bibliography.—Morelli, Notizie, &c. (ed. Frizzoni, 1884): Vasari (ed. Milanesi), vol. iv.; Ridolfi, Le Maraviglie dell’ arte, vol. i.; Zanetti, Varie Pitture (1760); Crowe-Cavalcaselle, History of Painting in North Italy; Morelli, Kunstkritische Studien; Gronau, Zorzon da Castelfranco, la sua origine, &c. (1894); Herbert Cook, Giorgione (in “Great Masters” series, 1900); Ugo Monneret de Villard, Giorgione da Castelfranco (1905). The two last-named works are critically far too inclusive, but useful as going over the whole ground of discussion, with full references to earlier authorities, &c. (S. C.)