Friday, December 18, 2009

Mindf**k in Castelfranco Veneto

"La Tempesta," Giorgione, 1506-8

I didn't set out to go to an art exhibit. I went to Castelfranco this morning to verify the schedule for the buses from Castelfranco to Villa Barbaro in Maser. That sounds easy, however, it isn't and nobody seemed to know anything for sure. But on my way from the station I noticed that there is a big Giorgione show at the Casa Giorgione, next to the Duomo in the center of the old walled town.

Briefly, Giorgione (1478-1510) was born in Castelfranco, flowered early and died young. Like Rafaello and Caravaggio, his genius was of a different order of magnitude than the brief years of his life. There are only five works that he indisputably painted, several others which the experts are reasonably certain he painted, and some others he may have painted. As with all great geniuses, you know it when you see it; the real thing glows with an unearthly beauty, and the "maybe" real, or the expert copies by such other geniuses as Tiziano, bask in the reflected glory.

It is generally agreed that Giorgione studied under the old and towering power of Giovanni Bellini; some hold that both Tiziano and Giorgione studied under Bellini at the same time. Giorgione shows the influence of Bellini but his was a genius of a different order altogether.

Giorgione was a revolutionary.

Until he painted, the work of all painters was divided into two neat categories: religious (or mythological) scenes and portraits. The figures -- and their messages and morals, or their egos in the case of the portraits -- took stage center. Landscapes were in the background. The great renaissance artists lavished loving attention on these backgrounds; they became increasingly detailed, with all manner of flora and fauna and realistic or fantastic buildings and ruins, or raw nature-- mountain crags and tropical Edens. But they were always only that, backgrounds. Nobody painted nature for the sake of painting nature, but only as settings for the people who were the center of attention, and every painterly skill was used and developed to draw attention to them.

With a single painting, Giorgione blew all that up. "La Tempesta" (above) was like a molotov cocktail lobbed into the symmetrical, harmonious, classical imaginative world of the renaissance. Suddenly the background became the subject: the majestic sky, the cityscape and the river, the trees and the reflections in the water and the lightning that looks like sun tearing open a seam in the clouds. The figures are discrete, mysterious, their presence, both alone and together, open to endless interpretation; they are a part of the picture. They are not its center.

Brave new world. Art changes forever as the background moves to the foreground.

But Giorgione, in addition to inventing the "paesaggio," the landscape painting, also painted portraits, and here his contribution is mood, affect, and especially, "la melanconia" -- melancholy. Instead of looking robust, demure, posed, classical, his portraits sigh with wistfulness and longing and the mysteries of the heart.

Besides the few Giorgione paintings, the exhibition is filled with other treasures such as Durer prints of both plants and animals, paintings by Tiziano, Sebastiano del Piombo, Giovanni Bellini, Perugino, Rafaello, and the heretofore unknown to me and stunningly wonderful Giulio Campagnola. Even the fragment of carved stone by an anonymous Venetian artisan is more expressive than whole rooms at museums I've been to. It is possible that Durer, considered the greatest artist of the northern renaissance, met Giorgione during his visits to Bellini's studio.

For me, the most touching of the additional works are watercolors painted in 1896 of what remained at that time of the frescoes Giorgione and Tiziano painted on the walls of the Fondaco dei Tedeschi, the German trade association, on the Grand Canal (today the main post office). These frescoes have entirely vanished. We have the sketchiest remains and ideas of what they looked like; what they might have been is forever left to our imaginations. The water colors are a fragmentary record of that particular paradise lost.

But what lives in the imagination thrives. We are blessed with the images that remain, and for the galvanic impact they had on all subsequent art, and while we cannot know, our imaginations can suggest the splendor of those frescoed walls lit by the sunlight or moonlight reflected in the Grand Canal.

It is always staggering to walk out of an art show and stand amid the buildings in the paintings. Italy offers that beautiful dissonance in abundance. From the Casa Giorgione you walk around the Duomo to see the Pala Giorgione, the altarpiece Giorgione painted in 1505. It isn't where it was painted to be; it is in a side chapel of the Duomo which, on a cold December day, is like a refrigerator. The melancholy beauty of the faces, the jewel-like splendor of the fabrics and the hills upon which the walled city stands in the distance, make you forget the temperature, the time, and just about everything else during that delicious moment, however long it lasts.

That is what art is all about.

"Doppio Ritratto (Double Portrait)", Giorgione, 1502


  1. You write splendidly about Giorgione's impact on the art of his time - and on you. I will definitely go to see this exhibition.

  2. There is a video commentary by Antonio Paolucci which is a must see; he spoke slowly and clearly enough that I could understand his Italian and it was he who provided many insights into the particular importance of Giorgione.