SO BEGUILING are the charms of La Serenissima that few visitors to Venice ever take time to travel in the Veneto or in the Republic’s former domains either side of the Adriatic. In addition to being an extensive naval empire, the terra firma stretching to the Dolomites holds signs of the presence of the Lion of St Mark.
The hinterland of the lagoon offers a wealth of medieval Venetian cities that crucially provided a land barrier to the expansion of the Hapsburg Empire. Cities such as Treviso, Conegliano, Feltre, and the oval-walled gem of Cittadella afford travellers today a real sense of the power once wielded by the Republic, and show how aggressively Venice expanded its frontiers.
In the 1500s, when Giorgione (1477/8-1510) was growing up in a city that had been subsumed from Treviso into the Venetian Republic in the previous century, it still included lands in the Greek Peloponnese, and Corfu and Crete. Venice obtained Cyprus when Giorgione was a teenager, and, by 1500, had seized back the Ionian islands.
But by the time of the painter’s death, presumably from the plague of 1510, much of the Veneto, as far east as Brescia, had fallen into French hands, and Venice was fighting a rearguard action to defend itself overseas.
The region produced many artists: Titian came from Pieve di Cadore from beneath the blue misty slopes of the Dolomites; and Giovanni Cariani, possibly the great “recovered discovery” of this show, was born near Bergamo, in about 1485. Sebastiano del Piombo was born about the same time in Venice itself, as was another featured artist, Lorenzo Lotto.
Little is known of the life of Zorzi da Castelfranco, known to us as Giorgione, but in The Lives of the Artists, Giorgio Vasari tells that he was born some 25 miles inland from Venice, in the city’s castle, the former Trevisan stronghold at Castelfranco Veneto.
The cathedral there was designed in the 18th century by Francesco Maria Preti (1701-74), and stands on the site of the Romanesque church of San Liberale. It contains probably the finest work undertaken by Giorgione, an altarpiece for a Sicilian immigrant family.
Tuzio Costanzo came from Messina, and had served as viceroy for Queen Catherine Cornaro of Cyprus — the 35-year-old widowed queen had returned to live in Asolo — before settling at Castelfranco in 1475.
He commissioned the altarpiece of the Madonna for the family’s funerary chapel. When his son, Matteo Costanzo, died, Captain Tuzzio asked Giorgione, the young local artist, to modify some of his first design. This led to changes in the throne of the Virgin, which is now set on a pedestal atop a porphyry tomb with the Costanzo crest on it, and to her face, which was now accentuated with grief. The work was finished by 1505.
It is the only altarpiece securely attributed to the artist and, although it was not possible to show it in this extensive and beautiful exhibition, it is a crucial starting point for any discussion of Giorgione.
The Pala of the Madonna and child with Saints Francis and Liberale has recently been cleaned, and it can now be admired in situ as one of the great treasures of the Veneto; the screen to the cathedral chapel is no longer permanently locked, and the lighting is greatly improved. The cathedral now prefers to identify the second figure as Saint Nicasius of Sicily, a martyred Knight Hospitaller, but the older inclusion of the titular saint of the church is just as likely.
It is one of the earliest examples of what Vasari supposedly despised as the Venetian habit of pittura senza disgeno (“painting without design”: Arts, 27 November 2015). This allowed the artist the opportunity to paint with enigmatic speed, and to convey glances and gestures with a spontaneity that was not bound by awkward draughtsmanship.
In the altarpiece for his native city, Giorgione achieves a poetic grace, melding the sacred solemnity of the chapel space with a scene that is set against a lively landscape of local hills and villages.
Landscape becomes important in the period. A distant view of the Dolomites provides a subtle depth of field beyond the parapet and the raised dais on which the Virgin sits, holding her infant son, almost negligently. She looks downwards at St Francis and, ultimately, out towards us. It is a captivating moment of encounter that seems not to take place in time and yet feels ardently real.
The composition almost toys with the conventions of the sacra conversazione in which local patron saints gathered around the enthroned Madonna and Child, often with lazy putti at their feet playing contemporary music.
Set head and shoulders above all, the Virgin is neither aloof nor attentive, as marking space between the here and now, bounded by the wall of the parapet, and an almost paradisiacal rendering of the world of nature beyond.
Simone Facchinetti and Arturo Galansino, who has just been appointed as director of the Palazzo Strozzi, have organised this fascinating exhibition concentrating on the first decade of the 16th century. The same team jointly arranged the exhibition of G. B. Moroni in these upstairs galleries in the autumn and winter of 2014-15 (Arts, 2 January 2015).
The exhibition is arranged in four sections to survey portraits, landscapes, devotional works, and allegorical portraits, and demonstrates how Giorgione opens up the century of Titian. Apart from the altarpiece in Castelfranco and some exterior frescoes for the German bourse in Venice, Giorgione rarely undertook public commissions. This makes agreement on his authorship complicated and many pictures on display have changed scholarly attribution repeatedly over time.
The exhibition opens in an explosion of colour and light. Giovanni Bellini was into his seventies when he painted the portrait said to be of the Renaissance wit and writer Pietro Bembo (HM The Queen), in which the poetic sensuousness that is so readily associated with Giorgione is apparent. It may also be that Bellini, who had grown up in an age of codices and illuminated manuscripts, is marking the triumph of Venetian printing with Bembo’s publications for the celebrated Aldine press.
It is the first painting in the show and hangs alongside two portraits by Dürer, who visited Venice in 1505/6, and two by Giorgione: the Giustiniani portrait of a young man in a mauve satin doublet that is open at the neck (Berlin), and the “Terris” portrait (San Diego), named after its previous owner, a Scottish coal merchant.
Although it has been suggested that the 1506 Dürer portrait of a man (Palazzo Rosso, Genoa) in a black cap against a rich green background may depict one of the Fugger banking family, there would appear to be no reason to identify him as the same man who sat to Giorgione for the Terris portrait. Dürer’s alert blue-eyed man is not the same grey, brown-eyed senatorial figure Giorgione has captured in a wonderfully off-hand moment. Is this in fact a self-portrait, as the Museum of Art, San Diego, believed when they acquired it?
The room given to devotional works is dominated by two early paintings by Titian; the one that illustrates John 8.2-7 was often attributed to Giorgione (Glasgow City Council), while, in the other, the Borgia Pope Alessandro VI presents the Venetian-born Bishop Jacopo Pesaro before the enthroned Virgin and Child.
In 1502, Pope Alessandro had sent Pesaro, who was Bishop of Paphos, to lead a naval detachment against the Turks to secure the Ionian island of Saint Maura. The painting, now in Antwerp, seemingly celebrates that outcome, but since victory was so short-lived (the Ottomans seized the island in 1503 when the Borgia pope died), it is not quite clear when it was painted.
Bishop Pesaro has taken off his helmet and placed it in front of the throne of grace; the helm is identical to the one set in front of the supercilious knight in armour painted by Giorgione alongside his page boy (Uffizi). The latter is a sort of double portrait in which the knight Gattamelata is attended by his squire, but it appears to be in a wholly different emotional world. Giorgione plays the same card in his handling of another double portrait (Palazzo Venezia, Rome) in which a young man abstractedly holds an orange, resting his cheek on his hand while he is lost in thought.
In the same long gallery-room as the Titians, there are two extraordinarily expressive paintings by Giorgione, one of the Virgin and Child in a landscape (bought for the Hermitage in St Petersburg in 1817), in which the Virgin clutches a closed book to her breast with her left hand while awkwardly cradling her toddler’s head. It is as if he has a headache as he tries to wriggle away from her care.
In the other, the Virgin sits reading, with a distant view glimpsed through a window of the Doge’s palace and the piazza San Marco in Venice, against which the almost Impressionist tempestuous seas of acqua alta rage (Ashmolean, Oxford). Her studied calm against the stormy lagoon behind her seemingly adumbrates that of Jesus when his disciples panic in the storm-tossed boat.
A similar serene acceptance marks the countenance of Christ carrying his cross away from the city gate at Jerusalem. In a painting here attributed to Pordenone (c. 1483-1539), Christ’s farewell glance, turning back towards us, suggests the immediacy of a portrait. It is a perceptive depiction (Vienna), in which we see beyond the questioning gaze to understand Christ’s degree of self-acceptance as a model for our own willingness to take up our cross and follow him.
The last painting on display is perhaps the finest allegorical portrait on show and more than makes up for the failure to obtain the Three ages of Man from the Pitti Palace in Florence for the exhibition. Just as the Giustiniani portrait in the first room revelled in youth and the abandonment of concern, so in LaVecchia (Venice, Academy of Arts) we confront sheer beauty, in this case that of senescence.
Amiable, welcoming and with a wealth of experience neatly summed up in the motto she holds (“col tempo”), she invites us to consider our own frail mortality. The artist, who never reached the dark wood Dante claimed we enter in the middle of our life, died before the age of 35. The exhibition leads us to ponder what he might have gone on to achieve had he had lived on into the age of Luther and Michelangelo, of Calvin and of El Greco.
“In the age of Giorgione” is at the Royal Academy of Arts, Burlington House, Piccadilly, London W1, until 5 June. Phone 020 7300 8000.