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.
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