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Atmosphere, thought and feeling: on Giorgione and his contemporaries

The mastery of his art and that of his Venetian contemporaries

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Before the pace of change accelerated in the 20th century, there was probably no 30-year period in European history that witnessed so profound a transformation of received opinion as did the years 1490-1520. In these decades the New World was discovered; Copernicus first challenged the geocentric view of the universe; seminal works came from the pens of Machiavelli, More and Erasmus; Luther launched what came to be known as the Reformation; and, in the arts, there was the burst of creativity that has been called the High Renaissance.

Where the last is concerned, the place of Venice—in an Italian context that otherwise focuses mainly on Florence and Rome—has never been entirely clear. One may have a sense of the distinctiveness of Venetian painting, but how is one to characterise this contribution among the period’s many strokes of innovation and originality? The Royal Academy exhibition and catalogue, In the Age of Giorgione, may offer some answers to that question.

That the emphasis is on Giorgione is appropriate. Active for about 15 years before plague struck him down in 1510, when he was in his early 30s, his influence remained strong even after he died. It is true that his teacher, Giovanni Bellini, outlived him, and had already pioneered a precision in portraiture, a sense of colour, a use of oil paint and an evocation of atmosphere in landscape that were to be characteristic of Venetian art. But Giorgione added to these qualities an ability to convey mood and human feeling and thought that was his distinctive mark. One could well argue that it was this ability that set the Venice of this period apart and thus justifies the label: the age of Giorgione.

The major problem faced by the effort to make this case is the elusiveness of the evidence. Because documentation is so rarely available, the overwhelming concern of the catalogue is the difficulty of attribution. So central is this uncertainty that the authors spend almost no time in trying to define Giorgione’s special qualities. Instead, they grapple with the many different opinions that have been put forward about almost every single exhibit. It becomes clear, for instance, that at one time or another a goodly proportion of the nearly 50 works on display have been assigned to Giorgione by a reputable art historian. In the catalogue, just over a quarter of the items retain the attribution, but it would be impossible to find unanimity among art historians about these works, let alone the others in the exhibition.

The difficulty of identifying artists is compounded by the problem of dating. Those who organised the show strive hard to keep within their three decades, but they admit that other colleagues might prefer dates well beyond 1520. Even geography is not assured, although style does tend to be associated with fairly specific areas. Thus “foreigners” like Dürer and Leonardo are emphasised as influences, but in both cases it is their visits to Venice that encourage the linkage. On the other hand, Carpaccio, a native son through and through, gets barely a mention—but that is because his art was not Giorgionesque: he did not participate in the style that the works in this show lead one to regard as Venice’s particular contribution to the innovations of the age.

What is that style? What was unique to the painters of Venice as they headed in new directions during these vital decades? One characteristic, already visible in Bellini, but strongly enhanced by Giorgione and his younger colleague Titian, was the atmosphere in a landscape. Whenever a scene moves outdoors, one knows what the weather is like. The very name attached to what may be Giorgione’s most famous painting, La Tempesta, describes its weather. And in Tramonto (1502-05) one can even sense the time of day. When it is sunny and pleasant, as in The Trial of Moses (1496-1499), the setting is not idealised, as it often is in Florentine painting, but rather appears as a recognisable terrain, marked by shadows and little vignettes of daily life.

Equally remarkable was the depiction of thought and feeling in portraits. To move from Bellini’s beautiful but formal Doge Leonardo Loredan of around 1501 to any of the portraits attributed to Giorgione in this exhibition is to pass from the exterior to the interior. Although we may not know what young men like the archer, the knight, or Antonio Brocardo (?) are thinking, we have no doubt that they are deep in contemplation or perhaps caught off guard. The determination to dig below the surface has never been more powerfully evoked—not even when, as in La Vecchia (1508-10) the aim seems to have been to illustrate a general moral as well as capturing the features of an individual.

While the focus on attribution brings a number of lesser-known artists into view, including such relatively obscure figures as Bernardino Licinio or more modest talents like Giovanni Cariani, the central juxtaposition is between Giorgione and Titian. That both men should have been pupils of Giovanni Bellini; that documentation from these years should be so sparse; and that both shared stylistic preferences make decisions about who did what especially hard. The stunning Titian in the exhibition, Jacopo Pesaro Presented by Alexander VI to St Peter (1508-11), gives us an inkling of where the younger man was headed. If only the plague had not intervened, and we had an equally extensive oeuvre for Giorgione, we would have major additional reasons to marvel at the creativity of the decades between 1490 and 1520.

• Theodore K. Rabb is the emeritus professor of history at Princeton University. A specialist in Early Modern Europe, he is a frequent contributor to The Art Newspaper and the Times Literary Supplement. His most recent book is The Artist and the Warrior (Yale University Press, 2011) and he is currently working on a book of essays about the visual arts

In the Age of Giorgione

Simone Facchinetti and Arturo Galansino, eds

Royal Academy of Arts, 168pp, £30 (hb)

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