Venetian Painting – Giorgione (continued)

WHEN Giorgione was twenty-six he went back to Castelfranco, and painted an altarpiece for the Church of San Liberale. In the sixteenth century Tuzio Costanza, a well-known captain of Free Companions, who had made his fortune in the wars, where he had been attached to Catherine Cornaro, followed the dethroned queen from Cyprus, and when she retired to Asolo, settled near her at Castelfranco. His son, Matteo, entered the service of the Venetian Republic, and became a leader of fifty lances; but Matteo was killed at the battle of Ravenna in 1504, and Costanza had his son’s body embalmed and buried in the family chapel.

Nothing is known of the details of this commission, but we are not straining the bounds of probability by assuming that in a little town like Castelfranco, hardly more than a village, the two youths must have been well known to each other, and that this acquaintance and the familiarity of the one with the appearance of the other may have been the determining cause which led the bereaved father to give the commission to the young painter, while the tragic circumstances were such as would appeal to an ardent, enthusiastic nature. A treasure of our National Gallery is a study made by Giorgione for the figure of San Liberale, who is represented as a young man with bare head and crisp, golden locks, dressed in silver armour, copied from the suit in which Matteo Costanza is dressed in the stone effigy which is still preserved in the cemetery at Castelfranco. At the side of the stone figure lies a helmet, resembling that on the head of the saint in the altarpiece.

In Giorgione’s group the Mother and Child are enthroned on high, with St. Francis and St. Liberale on either hand. The Child’s glance is turned upon the soldier-saint, a gallant figure with his lance at rest, his dagger on his hip, his gloves in his hand, young, high-bred, with features of almost feminine beauty. The picture is conceived in a new spirit of simplicity of design, and shows a new feeling for restraint in matters of detail. It is the work of a man who has observed that early morning, like late evening, has a marvellous power of eliminating all unessential accessories and of enveloping every object in a delicious scheme of light. Repainted, cleaned, restored as the canvas is, it is still full of an atmosphere of calm serenity. It is not the ecstatic, devotional reverie of Perugino’s saints.

The painter of Castelfranco has not steeped his whole soul in religious imagination, like the painter of Umbria ; he is an exemplar of the lyric feeling ; his work is a poem in praise of youth and beauty, and dreams in air and sunshine. He uses atmosphere to enhance the mood, but Giorgione carries his unison of landscape with human feeling much further than Perugino ; he observes the delicate effects of light, and limpid air circulates in his distance. The sun rising over the sea throws a glamour and purity of early morning over a scene meant to glorify the memory of a young life. The painter shows his connection with his master by using the figure of the St. Francis in Bellini’s San Giobbe altarpiece. What Bellini owed to Giorgione is still a matter for speculation. The San Zaccaria altarpiece was, as we have seen, painted in the year following that of Castelfranco. Something has incited the old painter to fresh efforts ; out of his own evolution, or stimulated by his pupil’s splendid experiments, he is drawn into the golden atmosphere of the Venetian cinque-cento.

The Venetian painters were distinguished by their love for the kindred art of music. Giorgione himself was an admirable musician, and linked with all that is akin to music in his work, is his love for painting groups of people knit together by this bond. He uses it as a pastime to bring them into company, and the rich chords of colour seem permeated with the chords of sound. Not always, however, does he need even this excuse his “conversation-pieces” are often merely composed of persons placed with indescribable grace in exquisite surroundings, governed by a mood which communicates itself to the beholder.

With the Florentines, the cartoon was care-fully drawn upon the wall and flat tints were superimposed. They knew beforehand what the effect was to be ; but the Venetians from this time gradually worked up the picture, imbedding tints, intensifying effects, one touch suggesting another, till the whole rich harmony was gradually evoked. With the Florentines, too, the figures supply the main interest ; the background is an arbitrary addition, placed behind them at the painter’s leisure, but Giorgione’s and Titian’s fêtes champêtres and concerts could not be at all in any other environment. The amber flesh-tints and the glowing garments are so blended with the deep tones of the landscape, that one would not instil the mood the artist desires without the other. Piero di Cosimo and Pintoricchio can place delightful nymphs and fairy princesses in idyllic scenes, and they stir no emotion in us beyond an observant pleasure, a detached amusement ; but Giorgione’s gloomy blues, his figures shining through the warm dusk of a summer evening, waken we hardly know what of vague yearning and brooding memory.

In the Fête Champêtre ” of the Louvre he acquires a frankly sensuous charm. He becomes riper, richer in feeling, and displays great exuberance of style. The woman filling her pitcher at the fountain is exquisite in line and curve and amber colour. She seems to listen lazily to the liquid fall of the water mingling with the half-heard music of the pipes. The beautiful idyll in the Giovanelli Palace is full of art of composition. It is built up with uprights ; pillars are formed by the groups of trees and figures, cut boldly across by the horizontal line of the bridge, but the figures themselves are put in without any attention to subject, though an unconscious humorist has discovered in them the domestic circle of the painter. The man in Venetian dress is there to assist the left-hand columnar group, placed at the edge of the picture after the manner of Leonardo. The woman and child lighten the mass of foliage on the right and make a beautiful pattern. The white town of Castelfranco sings against the threatening sky, the winds bluster through the space, the trees shiver with the coming storm. Here and there leafy boughs are struck in with a slight, crisp touch, in which we can follow readily the painter’s quick impression.

The Knight of Malta ” is a grand magisterial figure, majestic, yet full of ardent warmth lying behind the grave, indifferent nobility. The face is bisected with shadow, in the way which Michelangelo and Andrea del Sarto affected, and the cone-shaped head with parted hair is of the type which seems particularly to have pleased the painter. To Giorgione, too, belongs the honour of having created a Venus as pure as the Aphrodite of Cnidos and as beautiful as a courtesan of Titian.

The death of Giorgione from plague in 1511 is registered by all the oldest authorities. His body was conveyed to Castelfranco by members of the Barbarelli family and buried in the Church of San Liberale. In 1638 an epitaph was placed over his tomb by Matteo and Ercole Barbarelli.

Allowing that he was hardly more than twenty when his new manner began to gain a following, he had only some twelve years in which to establish his deep and lasting influence. We divine that he was a man of strong personality, such a one as warms and stimulates his companions. Even his nickname tells us something,—Great George, the Chief, the George of Georges,—it seems to express him as a leader. And we have no lack of proof that he was admired and looked up to. His style became the only one that found favour in Venice, and the painters of the day did their best to conform to it. Few authentic examples are left from his own hand, but out of his conscious and devoted and more or less successful imitators, there grew up a school, out of all those fascinating works, rightly or wrongly attributed to him ; out of many copies from, or variations on him, by unknown or uncertain workmen, whose drawings and designs were, for various reasons, prized as his ; out of the immediate impression he made upon his contemporaries and with which he continued in men’s minds ; out of many traditions of subject and treatment which really descend from him to our own time, and by retracing which we fill out the original image.”

Summing up all these influences, he has left us the Giorgionesque ; the art of choosing a moment in which the subject and the elements of colour and design are so perfectly fused and blended that we have no need to ask for any more articulate story ; a moment into which all the significance, the fulness of existence has condensed itself, so that we are conscious of the very essence of life. Those idylls of beings wrapped into an ideal dreamland by music and the sound of water and the beauty of wood and mountain and velvet sward, need all our conscious apprehension of life if we are to drink in their full fascination. The dream of the Lotos-eaters can only come with force to those who can contrast it adequately with the experience, the complication, and the thousand distractions of an over-civilised world. Rest and relaxation, the power of the deeply tinted even-tide, or of the fresh morning light, and the calm that drinks in the sensations they are able to afford, are among the precious things of life.

The instinct upon which Giorgione’s work rests is the satisfying of the feeling as well as the thinking faculty, the life of the heart, as compared to the life of the intellect, the solution of life’s problems by love instead of by thought. It was the Eastern ideal, and its positive expression is conveyed by means of colour, deep, restful, satisfying, fused and controlled by chiaroscuro rather than by form.


Berlin. Portrait of a Man.

Buda-Pesth. Portrait of a Man.

Castelfranco. Duomo : Madonna with SS. Francis and Liberale.

Dresden. Sleeping Venus.

Florence. Uffizi : Trial of Moses (E.) ; Judgment of Solomon (E.) ; Knight of Malta.

Hampton Court. A Shepherd.

Madrid. Madonna with SS. Roch and Anthony of Padua.

Paris. Fête Champêtre.

Rome. Villa Borghese : Portrait of a Lady.

Venice. Seminario : Apollo and Daphne.

Palazzo Giovanelli : Gipsy and Soldier.

San Rocco : Christ bearing Cross.

Boston. Mrs. Gardner : Christ bearing Cross.

London. Sketch of a Knight ; Adoration of Shepherds. Viscount Allendale : Adoration of Shepherds.

Vienna. Evander showing Æneas the Future Site of Rome.