I bought a copy of Waldemar Januszczak's Every Picture Tells a Story DVD at the end of last year and finally got to watch the first part of it last night. The painting discussed in that part is Giorgione's La Tempesta (The Tempest), painted just before the artist's death in 1510. It's a painting for which there is no definitive interpretation; Salvatore Settis, author of Giorgione's Tempest: Interpreting the Hidden Subject tells us, in the programme, that there have been thirty to forty different suggestions as to its meaning. The painting's so mysterious... And don't we all love a good mystery! Anyway, this painting has recently become a bit of an obsession of mine.
Settis suggests that the painting depicts Adam and Eve with the infant Cain, that the city in the background is Paradise and that the figures are shown just after their expulsion from it by God, whose presence is indicated by the lightning bolt piercing the sky above. Another suggestion is that the painting depicts Mary and Joseph's rest on their flight into Egypt. I should point out that I am not a religious person, so I don't find the idea of a nude Madonna to be shocking and therefore unthinkable. But when I look at the seated woman, I don't see the Madonna. The Tempest doesn't strike me as being a religious painting at all. I'm including a close-up of the Madonna from Giorgione's Adoration of the Shepherds for comparison (see below).
Twenty years after Giorgione's death, Marcantonio Michiel described the painting as 'el paesetto in tela cun la tempesta, cun la cingana et soldato' (the little landscape on canvas with the storm, with the gypsy and soldier); a 1569 inventory of the collection of the Vendramin family, who owned the painting, records the work as a 'una cingana, un pastor in un paeseto con un ponte' (a gypsy, a shepherd in a little landscape with a bridge). This is the interpretation favoured by Giovanna Scrire Nepi, Director of the Accademia Galleries in Venice, which is where the painting is currently housed.
Edgar Wind, in his book Giorgione’s Tempesta (pub. 1969), identified the subject of the painting as an allegorical depiction of the virtues of Fortezza (Fortitude) and Carita (Charity) set against Fortuna (Fortune), personified by the rising storm. There is a small bronze medal by Peter Flötner that shows the semi-clad personification of Charity in a pose very similar to Giorgione's nude, set in a landscape with a city in the background (see below). It has also been suggested that Giorgione's young mother is Mother Earth, the personification of the nurturing aspects of nature.
Another suggestion is that the painting is based on The Seven Against Thebes and that the young woman is Hypsipyle, who was nursemaid to the son of Lycurgus. Having been asked to lead the thirsty Argive army to water, she placed her young charge on the ground, where he was killed by a snake. Capaneus, one of The Seven Against Thebes, later stood at the wall of Thebes and proclaimed that Zeus himself could not stop him from invading the city. Zeus' response was to smite Capaneus with a lightning bolt.
Byron thought that the painting showed the artist himself, with his wife and child, and The Tempest has been likened to two other paintings in order to support the argument that Giorgione's three figures form a family group. One, showing a seated woman, standing halbardier and two young children in a wooded landscape, is housed in the Philadelphia Museum of Art (see below). The other, housed in Fogg Art Museum (Harvard University Art Museums, Cambridge, Mass.), depicts a similar scene but with only one child. But the differences between these two paintings and Giorgione's are more telling than any perceived resemblances. The male figure in both the Philadelphia and Cambridge paintings is clearly depicted as a soldier and serves as protector of the group; Giorgione's figure is dressed as a city-dweller and carries a simple staff. The positioning of the figures in the Philadelphia and Cambridge paintings suggests a family group; the man and woman in Giorgione's painting are separated by a stream and hardly seem aware of each other. He seems to glance over his shoulder at her in passing; she looks out of the painting at the viewer and pays the young man no attention at all.
Januszczak's conclusion is that the painting shows the fair-haired Demeter (the Greek goddess of the harvest) and Iasion, who are said to have met at a wedding and made love in a thrice-ploughed field, which resulted in the birth of Ploutos. Zeus, so angered by their liaison, struck Iasion dead with a thunderbolt. According to Januszczak, the damaged column situated behind the young man signifies a life cut short and the bird just visible on the rooftop in the distance is a crane, one of the attributes of Demeter.
On the subject of the bird, I don't believe it to be a crane. Having consulted a few bird fanciers, I'm inclined to think that it is a stork. The stork, a bird associated with fertility and childbearing since antiquity, would fit in with the idea of the young woman being the personification of Mother Earth.
Returning to Januszczak's suggestion that the painting depicts Demeter and Iasion, there is something that casts doubt on all interpretations of the painting that rely strongly in their formulation on the presence of the male figure; whether you think of him as Iasion, Adam or Joseph, that young fellow began life as a nude woman.
The young man, identified by his hosery, is one of the Compagnia della Calza (Companions of the Order of the Stocking), confraternities of young Venetian noblemen who organised theatrical and musical events in the city. Another of these Companions, with his two-tone leg coverings, is shown in the Pastoral Concert (see below), which has been attributed to both Giorgione and Titian. Given the incorrect identification of the male figure by both Michiel and the Vendramin inventory (a soldier according to former, a shepherd according to the latter), what should we make of their identification of the woman as a gypsy?
X-rays taken of The Tempest, revealing the pentimenti (underpainting), show that a nude woman occupied the area of the painting where the young man now stands. As you can see from the image below of the reconstruction produced by Antonio Morassi, the woman is sitting on the riverbank, her legs immersed in water up to her knees. She is not holding an infant and there is no room for one to sit or lie on the bank alongside her. It's been suggested that, as there was a female nude on the left of the painting originally, there must have been a male figure planned for the right, but this is conjecture. Imagine the painting with no male figure; would Adam and Eve's expulsion from Eden, Mary and Joseph's journey into Egypt, or Demeter and Iasion's love affair enter our minds? It wouldn't enter mine. When viewing the x-ray image of The Tempest, the nudes remind me more of the Muses depicted in the Pastoral Concert than they do of any image of the Madonna.
Reconstruction of The Tempest by A. Morassi (Le Arti, 1939). More recent examinations of the underpainting have revealed that the lower portion of the cupola's base and an adjacent tree were replaced by the hillock supporting the wooden bridge.
Pastoral Concert (Concert Champêtre), c. 1510, attributed by some to Titian and others to Giorgione. It's thought possible that Titian completed the painting by Giorgione following the latter's untimely death.
Some might say that the elements of the painting that were discarded are of no importance because they ultimately did not form part of the finished work. But the changes made to The Tempest tell us something of what Giorgione was thinking when he set out to paint it. He didn't begin with the completed image in mind; he didn't intend to include the male figure on the left, which suggests that the meaning he intended to convey did not rely on that figure's presence, or at the very least it did not rely on the figure's presence in that exact spot.
For me, The Tempest is not a picture of figures in a landscape, it is a painting of a landscape in which there are figures; there is a difference. The landscape grabs our attention. It's dominant. It's moody. It's wonderful. It is, in my opinion at least, more important than any figure set in it. That's why a nude woman could be replaced by a hedonistic youth, because the painting's meaning, if there is one, is present as long as the landscape is there.
As for the tempest itself, I tend not to see the lightning bolt as a sign of the presence, or anger, of any god. In fact, I find myself wondering if the painting was intended to suggest that only by ridding the human mind of such superstition could a man be at peace. The man and woman in the painting do look as though they are oblivious to the storm raging behind them. They don't appear to be fleeing from it or heading towards is; they simply exist in a place where it does not affect them, separated from it by the line of the wooden bridge that cuts the painting in two horizontally. Their immediate environment is calm and still. Where some see the storm as the manifestation of a god's vengeance and quake in terror, others see only the force of nature. And nature is indiscriminate; it does not judge you, it does not seek you out and punish you. It is capable of destruction, but there's little point being worried about it; it's simply the way of things and no man can persuade a lightning bolt not to strike him by prayer or devotion, or any other action for that matter. It destroys farmhouses and temples alike and neither man nor gods can suppress it. The message, in that case, would be a liberating one; throw off the shackles of superstition and make hay while the sun shines.
Gabriel Vendramin, the first owner of The Tempest, expressed in his will of 1548 his hope that his collection of paintings and antiquities would remain intact 'most of all because they have brought a little peace and quiet to my soul during the many labors of mind and body that I have endured in conducting the family business'.
Perhaps peace of mind was all this painting was ever meant to bring to its viewer. But I am open to other possibilities. I know which theories I'm not attracted to; I don't believe that the figures represent Adam and Eve, or Mary and Joseph. But beyond that I will draw no firm conclusions at this moment in time; in fact, I think I'm unlikely ever to do that. The artist is the only soul who ever really fully understands his work, and artists are a tricky lot; I know, I am one and I wouldn't trust me as far as I could throw me. Perplexing the audience is one of the perks of the job.