Giorgione: the painter of “poetic brevity”

This study is based on a close look at conservation and restoration research, a scientific examination of the artist’s technique, and new documentary evidence

Jaynie Anderson, in her Giorgione: the painter of “poetic brevity”, seizes on the phrase in her subtitle (by the sixteenth-century Venetian critic Paolo Pino) as the most appropriate to epitomise the artist: his life was short, he used a process of iconographic abbreviation to represent complex subjects (to the confusion of future scholars) and used thin layers of pigment on his canvases, a painting technique that was later to cause problems of conservation.

An alternative and equally symbolic title might have been “Col tempo” (“As time goes by”, written on the piece of paper in the hand of “La vecchia” in the Galleria dell’Accademia)—which also alludes to the question of conservation and restoration, the structural mainstay of this book and its most innovatory aspect as far as the enormous historiography of the painter from Castelfranco is concerned.

Jaynie Anderson’s interest in Giorgione dates from her doctoral thesis of 1972, and her search for new material on the artist (one of the least well-documented) has brought to light interesting and valuable additions to our knowledge over the last twenty years. The first few lines of her book indicate that her position has shifted quite significantly (in a chronological sense only) since the last catalogue produced to accompany the exhibition, “Le siècle de Titien” held in Paris in 1993.

In her monograph Dr Anderson adopts a new approach: she devotes a whole chapter to the fact and fiction that has emerged from laboratory analysis of the paintings. She has deemed it essential, given the current state of our knowledge of the painter, to make comparative studies of restoration work carried out in the past, and of the results of more recent scientific work done on the paintings.

Dr Anderson’s book, based primarily on the findings of this research, has an integrity and coherence worthy of respect as well as attention, whether or not one finds oneself in agreement with her catalogue or her chronology of the artist. Some of the attributions and sequences are bound to raise eyebrows among scholars; this writer admits to experiencing some astonishment when scanning the catalogue raisonné.

The author has approached this enthralling subject in a completely new way. Her six chapters, followed by a catalogue raisonné, focus mainly on the history of the restoration of Giorgione’s paintings: in her opinion the attribution of the paintings is based on the artist’s technique, which consists of very fine layers of pigment applied to the canvas or wood. Because the pigment has become powdery over the years the paintings have been frequently restored, in some instances so frequently that they are hardly genuine any more. As a result, the paintings are divided into accepted works, works of uncertain or controversial attribution (uncertain largely on account of restoration); then the copies and, finally, the rejected attributions.

With regard to new documentary evidence, following the discovery of the commissioning of “Christ bearing the Cross” in San Rocco and of the inventory of the Vendramin Collection (already published by Dr Anderson) this book contains two unpublished inventories in which various works by Giorgione are described: the first dates from 1556 and was drawn up by the son of Taddeo Contarini, one of Giorgione’s patrons; the second was drawn up in Venice in 1681 and refers to the sale of “La vecchia” and other paintings attributed to Giorgione.

One particularly revealing feature of the book is Dr Anderson’s analysis of the archives of Giorgione experts and of museums. This analytic method aims to retrace the history of the works and of their successive restoration. Assessments by art historians are often based on the appearance of paintings, but appearances change over the years; the most recent restoration is not an adequate guide to the painting if previous restorations have effected a radical change of any kind. An example cited by Anderson is the “Benson Madonna”, brutally vandalised, as the photographs of 1936 in the Duveen archives demonstrate.

The book contains plentiful suggestions for the interpretation of Giorgione’s paintings, for instance, the so-called “Borgherini double portrait” in the National Gallery of Washington, and the “Three philosophers” in Vienna. The author rejects the hypothetical interpretation of the latter as a picture of the Magi, and proposes a philosophical subject, suggesting that the diagram held in the oldest philosopher’s hand was used for calculating eclipses of the moon.

With regard to the biographical and catalogue sections of this book, the author provides us with the results of the latest research, some of it drawn from work done by those museums that have Giorgiones. Perhaps the most significant discovery is the drawing found on the back of the “Terris portrait” in San Diego, which, in Dr Anderson’s opinion, dates the painting to somewhere around 1500. Another interesting new find, incorporated when the book was about to go to press, is the identification of a fresco in Saltwood Castle with a “Cupid shooting apples from an apple tree” which may come from the original decorations of the Fondaco dei Tedeschi and which will now be restored.

Particular praise must go to the exceptionally careful editing of the book, to the illustrations that are so faithful to the originals and to their intelligent incorporation into the text.

Jaynie Anderson, Giorgione: the painter of “poetic brevity” (Flammarion, Paris and New York, 1997), 392 pp, 153 b/w ills, 107 col. ills, £65, $95 (hb only) ISBN 2080136445

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'The test of time'

Appeared in The Art Newspaper Archive, 87 December 1998