ArtIssue 14

If Only, Giorgione

In the Age of Giorgione at the Royal Academy of Arts

12 March 2016 — 5 June 2016

Baldassare Castiglione (1478–1529) is most famous for his Book of the Courtier, a manual on etiquette, courtesy and style that nobody has ever bothered to read. Certainly not since indexed editions have been available. Yet even looking up things in the index is tiresome. Stanislaus Joyce (1884–1955) records how his brother James (1882–1941) – the novelist – became politer yet less sincere after flipping through a few pages and getting the gist. Castiglione teaches gentlemanly effortlessness, not honesty or hard work. Or at least he seems to – one would have to read his book properly to find out.

English versions of the Book of the Courtier have been available since 1561; the book was frequently printed and translated throughout the sixteenth century, and is said to have been important and highly influential by people who pretend to have read it. Castiglione mentions art at some point in the book as something that a gentleman ought to know about. He drops a few key names: Leonardo, Mantegna, Raphael, Michelangelo – and Giorgione.

The Book of the Courtier purports to be the record of a dialogue that took place at the ducal palace in Urbino in 1507. At that time the undisputed master of painting in Venice was Giovanni Bellini (c. 1430–1516); when the book was published there in 1528 Titian (c.1488/90–1576) had no rival. As a representative of the Venetian school of painters Giorgione is a surprising choice. Did Castiglione know what he was talking about? He was after all a diplomat, not a historian of art, and usually had better things to do than look at pictures (gather intelligence on the Spanish to send to the Pope, for example).

Nobody quite knows when or where the painter Giorgione (Giorgio da Castelfranco) was born, though he died of the plague in 1510 aged around 33. His death is recorded in a letter (25th October 1510) from Isabella d’Este, Marchioness of Mantua, to her agent in Venice. She’d heard of a rather good night scene that he’d painted and wanted to buy it. The marchioness’ agent wrote back to tell her that he knew of, not one, but two Giorgione night scenes, one from the collection of Tattoo Contarini and the other in Victorio Becharo’s possession. Neither man was willing to sell. There was no such picture among Giorgione’s personal effects. The two (possibly three) pictures mentioned in this correspondence certainly existed; that much is certain, if nothing more.

Marcantonio Michiel (1484–1552), an idle minor nobleman, took notes on eleven Venetian art collections between 1525 and 1543. Giorgione’s name comes up a dozen times in the surviving manuscript, though one wonders how accurate the attributions are. Two out of twelve pictures have been identified now, despite the vague descriptions. Michiel was no trained connoisseur, and relied for the most part on what collectors and their stewards told him about the pictures he listed. His eye was amateur rather than expert, and he had no way of correcting faulty memories about who painted what. In his century around forty pictures were attributed to Giorgione; by the end of the seventeenth century the number increased to over two hundred and fifty. Vasari was to blame for the increase.


History remembers Giorgio Vasari (1511–1574) as enthusiastic, ambitious, energetic and utterly talentless, both as a painter and a historian. He could write charming, absorbing prose; his biographical collection The Lives of the Greatest Painters, Sculptors and Architects (1550; expanded edition 1568) is not without value. The work remains influential, despite the fact that only one man (Professor Hope of the Warburg Institute) is known to have read the entire thing without skipping pages: not even Vasari did so, having likely outsourced much of his research. Vasari seems to have read his Castiglione though: he places a remarkably high value on Giorgione, even though everybody else in Venice had more or less forgotten about him by the 1540s.
Vasari might have been an awful painter himself, but he did know something about painting, and notes how impatient Giorgione was when it came to drawing: he preferred to attack the canvas straight away with little preparation: proportion and composition were less important to him than colour and effect. Apparently he was besotted with Leonardo da Vinci’s sfumato effect (the soft blending of colours) as well as his chiaroscuro (dramatic opposition of light and shade) – though it seems difficult to trust Vasari completely on Giorgione’s style, or anything else. In 1550 he talks about The Storm at Sea (now in the Accademia, Venice) as embodying the artist’s genius. In 1568 the picture embodies the genius of Palma il Vecchio (c. 1480–1528) instead. There are other such examples to suggest that Vasari had no clear idea of what he was talking about.

Vasari had met and spoken to Titian as well as Sebastiano del Piombo (c. 1485–1547); both men had at least encountered Giorgione, and Titian spoke especially highly of him. But if he influenced their styles, and that of the Venetian school as a whole, then it would be nice to know how he actually painted. The problem is that scarcely half a dozen surviving pictures are undeniably Giorgione’s work. Another dozen-odd are likely or likely-ish; after that attribution begins to look like wishful thinking.

Any Venetian painting that looks sort of like an early Titian or Sebastiano del Piombo but is too good to be by Giovanni Cariani (c. 1490–1547) may be referred to as ‘Giorgionesque’. The term encompasses anything that is freer in manner than a Bellini yet less vigorous and arresting than a Titian. Usually it involves some ‘poetical’, ‘mysterious’ or ‘enigmatic’ quality, and so applies more to landscapes than portraits. Whenever art historians claim a picture to be a copy of some Giorgione original by Cariani or Sebastiano they are either lying, incompetent or simply drunk.

Giorgione’s most famous picture The Tempest (c.1506–1508; Accademia, Venice) depicts a young woman, naked except for a white cape, who looks at the viewer whilst suckling a baby and all but exposing her sex; a soldier-like figure leaning on a pike stands to one side looking at her and posing in a classical contrapposto posture. There is a flash of lightning in the sky, but the atmosphere in the landscape remains otherwise undisturbed by the coming storm: a white bird can be seen resting quietly on a roof in the background. What The Tempest represents is hard to say: the subject has never been successfully decoded. Lord Byron loved the picture precisely because of its ambiguity. We know so little about either painting or painter that both make excellent Trojan horses for all manner of warped ideas.

In the Age of Giorgione at the Royal Academy featured forty-seven exhibits: some magnificent pictures, including a watercolour and two oils by Albrecht Dürer (1471–1528); drawings attributed to Lorenzo Lotto (c. 1480–1556/57) and Lotto’s dazzlingly intricate St Jerome (1506) from the Louvre; a few reasonably memorable Titians, Sebastianos and Bellinis; an arresting canvas by Dosso Dossi (c. 1490–1552) of Ferrara; some pleasant enough Carianis and other very minor works; and thirteen paintings attributed to Giorgione. One is undeniably his work; perhaps another two or three are likely or certainly his. The other Giorgione attributions here range from iffy to suspect to simply laughable.

Giorgione’s 1506 Terris Portrait (San Diego) is an arresting portrait of a youngish, stoutish man with dark eyes who stares at the viewer. The texture of his hair and the strength of light and shadow are startlingly realistic; this picture alone justified the cost of admission to this exhibition. One wonders how the hand that painted this could have executed the other portraits that were hung nearby and attributed to Giorgione. Of course, connoisseurship is far from an exact science; at first glance it would be difficult to tell that a picture of Giorgione’s aged mother (La Vecchia; Accademia, Venice) is by the same artist. Yet the documentation for the latter is potentially convincing. But the curators are sheepish about these questions, because they have no idea how to answer them.

The catalogue for In the Age of Giorgione does not give provenances for individual pictures, exhibition histories or select bibliographies; in fact the bibliography is alarmingly slight. Simone Facchinetti and Arturo Galansino – the exhibition’s curators – have not bothered to read or digest all the literature on their subject, and clearly have no idea how to interpret evidence. All scholars they cite are treated as equally competent, and if enough of them call a picture a Giorgione then that counts as ‘scholarly consensus’ and it must be a Giorgione, even if all of them were blindly copying off the same crooked art historian who was paid off by some client to say that an inferior picture was in fact the work of a more prestigious master. The lack of critical judgment is shocking.

There is shoddiness and then there is plagiarism. In their 1999 coffee-table book Giorgione Terisio Pignatti and Filippo Pedrocco claim unconvincingly that Giorgione definitely knew the humanist Pietro, Cardinal Bembo (1470–1547). They also fill a bit of space discussing spurious connections between Giorgione and Dürer. Facchinetti and Galansino swallowed all this whole and decided to fill up precious wall space in their show with a 1506 Bellini portrait from the Royal Collection, supposedly of Bembo (even though it doesn’t look like him) as well as two Dürers that were painted in Venice in 1506 but are otherwise completely irrelevant – except that they too appear in that coffee-table book. Stealing ideas is one thing; stealing bad examples is simply pathetic.

The Royal Academy has put on so many stinkers recently that one wonders whether they are simply trolling the public now. In the Age of Giorgione boasted many enjoyable exhibits, but taken as a whole this show was embarrassing. We have little idea of who Giorgione was, what he painted, or how he was an influence on anybody else, and it is disgraceful for a national institution to claim otherwise – particularly if the curators made honest mistakes in doing so: that means that nobody at the RA has the intellect or learning to stop this sort of thing. Or perhaps nobody cares anymore. In that case the Royal Academy are only acting in a manner worthy of the author of The Book of the Courtier himself.

Castiglione was glib, derivative and pretentiously philistine (not to mention utterly craven in the face of power); as the Vatican’s chief diplomat at the Spanish court he was so busy trying to make himself liked that he seemed as surprised as anybody else when the Holy Roman Emperor’s troops mutinied and sacked Rome in 1527. Pope Clement VII was not well pleased, having been imprisoned during the sack. In his subsequent letter of apology to the Holy See Castiglione criticised the Vatican, and was rewarded with a new appointment as Bishop of Avila, which he failed to take up because he died suddenly of plague.

Curators should be careful whom they copy.


Admission: £11.50 (£10 without donation).
Catalogue: with introductory essay by Arturo Galansino and Simone Facchinetti; section introductions and catalogue entries by Facchinetti. £20.