Giorgione was a Venetian painter who was born at Castelfranco, some fifty kilometers from Venice, in 1473/74. His life ended tragically at the age of 36 on 17 September 1510, when he died of the plague. In contemporary documents his name is given in Venetian dialect as Zorzi da Castelfranco (George from Castelfranco), or as Zorzon (Big George), in recognition of the celebrity he enjoyed during his lifetime. Baldassare Castiglione, in his “Book of the Courtier,” in 1516, recognized Giorgione as one of the greatest artists of his age, along with Leonardo da Vinci, Mantegna, Raphael, and Michelangelo. In 1548 the Venetian theorist Paolo Pino defined Giorgione as the painter of poetic brevity, as the inventor of new Venetian mode of creation. In 1550, in his Lives of the Artists, Giorgio Vasari endorsed this assessment and placed Giorgione as the artist who introduced the modern style of the High Renaissance to Venice. With the notable exception of some significant frescoes, only a few of which survive, and some devotional images, such as the important altarpiece in his birthplace, the Castelfranco Altarpiece, Giorgione is celebrated for creating cabinet paintings, such as The Tempest, The Three Philosophers, and the Dresden Sleeping Venus, for private patrons, which have proved to be more complex to interpret than many other works by Renaissance artists. It has also proven challenging to establish a corpus of works that may be securely attributed to him. In recent decades the scientific examination of paintings has provided new data about underdrawing, as well as the use of pigments, which may be revealing in defining new characteristics for attribution. The scientific analysis of underdrawing reveals many pentimenti or changes of mind when Giorgione was working out his compositions on canvas, adding additional complexity to iconographic explanations. Given these difficulties of interpretation and attribution, Giorgione has often been considered a mysterious and impossible artist to define. Following the article Anderson, et al. 2019 (cited under Earliest Sources: Documents), the bookends of Giorgione’s life are now known, unlike those for his mentor Giovani Bellini and his pupil Titian. There is a huge investment in the scholarship of Giorgione’s work, both emotional and intellectual, so that any discovery or interpretation related to him arouses passionate argument. The evidence is so thin and contested that anything new—especially of this significance—is immediately seized upon and pored over, as has occurred in the following case. A copy of Dante’s Commedia (Divine Comedy), printed in 1497, in the library of the University of Sydney contains a previously unpublished inscription giving Giorgione’s age at his death. The accompanying drawing in red chalk reveals Giorgione’s engagement with the intricate text of Dante’s Commedia, a discovery that opens up a new understanding for the complexity of Giorgione’s interpretation of religious subject matter. The discovery is a fitting beginning to a new evaluation of this extraordinary period in Venetian art.
See the separate complementary General Overviews section in the Oxford Bibliographies article “Art in Renaissance Venice” by Tom Nichols and Rose King. In recent decades the writing on Venetian Renaissance art in the crucial first three decades of the 16th century has become increasingly dynamic and innovative. In this section there is the classic 19th-century study Crowe and Cavalcaselle 1871, which presents the earliest outline of the works of major and minor Venetian artists, and a summary of what is known of the documentary evidence, the best in English to date. Lucco’s volumes on painting in the Veneto, published between 1989 and 1990 (see Lucco 1989–1990 and Lucco 1996–1999), present a wider range of Italian material, handsomely illustrated, with up-to-date biographical accounts of artists according to region, as well as theoretical interpretations of art history by a distinguished cohort of experts. There is no better introduction to the painting of the period than Rosand’s classic study (Rosand 1997) of the great artists in the first half of the 16th century, about whom he writes engagingly about their style and technique. Aikema and Brown 1999 is a pioneering account of how cultures crossed between Venice and Northern Europe, published to accompany an exhibition at Palazzo Grassi, Venice. This study reveals the enduring nature of north-south synergies for Venetian and German art. The intellectual impact of printed books on artists, their patrons, and the public was demonstrated in 2016 by the exhibition on Aldus Manutius, the legendary publisher, who made the book a work of art (see Beltramini, et al. 2016). Schulz 2017 is a remarkable survey of Venetian sculpture and sculptors, the first since the late nineteenth century, that presents up-to-date biographies of sculptors and demonstrates the affinities between sculpture, painting, and architecture. There are a number of overviews of the unique architecture of Venice, the most notable being Howard and Moretti 2009; here the authors interrogate well-known buildings with new questions about acoustics and sacred space. All these publications showcase the exceptional nature of the period in which Giorgione lived and the continual responses to the artist across centuries.
Aikema, Bernard, and Beverly Louise Brown. Renaissance Venice and the North: Crosscurrents in the Time of Dürer, Bellini and Titian. London: Thames and Hudson, 1999.
A critical and interdisciplinary overview of the dialogues between Venetian artists and their northern counterparts, whether painters, musicians or writers, and the art they produced. The essays include discussions of the role of printmakers, of painting techniques, of the collecting of Flemish art in Italy, and the German presence in Venice at the Fondaco dei Tedeschi.
Beltramini, Guido, Davide Gasparotto, and Giulio Manieri Elia. Aldo Manuzio: Renaissance in Venice. Venice: Marsilio Editori, 2016.
An enthralling account of the origins of the modern book in the form of an exhibition that conveyed how different audiences experienced literary and antiquarian culture and how this impacted the creation and reception of secular and religious art by Giorgione and his contemporaries. Among the authors are David Landau on print culture and Helen Szépe on the Dream of Poliphilo, whose attribution of the influential woodcuts to Benedetto Bordone has become canonical.
Crowe, Joseph Archer, and Giovanni Battista Cavalcaselle. A New History of Painting in Northern Italy. London: John Murray, 1871.
In Volume 3 of their magisterial study, the authors give the first modern account of Giorgione’s entire corpus, an ambitious undertaking for the period, with analyses and translations of documents, primary sources, restorations and collection histories (pp. 1–57). They contextualize Giorgione within the history of northern Italian art, an undertaking that is of enduring value for the history of connoisseurship and provenance.
Howard, Deborah, and Laura Moretti. Sound and Space in Renaissance Venice. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009.
A pioneering study of the built environment that examines the relationship between architecture, design, sound, and music in twelve of the most celebrated churches of Venice, principally by the architects Mauro Codussi, Francesco Sansovino, and Andrea Palladio. The authors investigate the polyphonic and architectural theories influencing the forms of sacred spaces and analyze the successes and limitations of the acoustic effects on singers, musicians, and worshippers.
Lucco, Mauro. La Pittura nel Veneto: Il Quattrocento. 2 vols. Milan: Electa, 1989–1990.
A series of volumes on Italian painting, conceived by Lucco, to present the results of international scholarship in handsomely illustrated books arranged geographically and chronologically. The intention was to escape a Florentine-centric view of the Renaissance, which Vasari had created, and to privilege local schools of painting in the Veneto that had not previously been integrated into a wider narrative.
Lucco, Mauro. La Pittura nel Veneto: Il Cinquecento. 3 vols. Milan: Electa, 1996–1999.
An ambitious survey of art in Venice and the surrounding area, of great artists and their contemporaries. The volumes represent the most up-to-date Italian scholarship, with artists’ bibliographies and contributions from Peter Humfrey, Paul Joannides, G. F. Villa, and many others.
Rosand, David. Painting in Sixteenth-Century Venice. 2d ed. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997.
A classic and inspiring text, with an excellent opening chapter, that provides an overview of the major artists of the Renaissance in Venice (e.g., Titian, Veronese, Tintoretto), suitable as an introduction for undergraduates. It is a book about the high value of looking closely at works of art and how to interpret style in context. The stylistic analysis is written with the verve of an author who delighted in abstract expressionism.
Schulz, Anne Markham. The History of Venetian Renaissance Sculpture (c. 1400–1530). 2 vols. Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols, 2017.
The volumes give the most authoritative account of northern Italian sculpture to date, with an extensive analysis of newly discovered documentary evidence, allied with much new photography. Schulz has written an enduring overview of sculpture in this period, which is attentive to the relationship between sculpture and painting.
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