Venetian Painting – Giorgione

WHEN we enter a gallery of Florentine paintings, we find our admiration and criticism expressing themselves naturally in certain terms ; we are struck by grace of line, by strenuous study of form, by the evidence of knowledge, by the display of thought and intellectual feeling. The Florentine gestures and attitudes are expressive, nervous, fervent, or, as in Michelangelo and Signorelli, alive with superhuman energy. But when looking at pictures of the Venetian School we unconsciously use quite another sort of language ; epithets like ” dark ” and ” rich ” come most freely to our lips ; a golden glow, a slumberous velvety depth, seem to engulf and absorb all details. We are carried into the land of romance, and are fascinated and soothed, rather than stimulated and aroused. So it is with portraits ; before the ” Mona Lisa” our intelligence is all awake, but the men and women of Venetian canvases have a grave, indolent serenity, which accords well with the slumber of thought.

Up to the beginning of the sixteenth century the painters of Venice had not differed very materially from those of other schools ; they had gradually worked out or learned the technicalities of drawing, perspective and anatomy. They had been painting in oils for twenty-five years, and they betrayed a greater fondness for pageant-pictures than was felt in other States of Italy. Florence appoints Michelangelo and Leonardo to decorate her public palace, but no great store is set by their splendid achievements; their work is not even completed. The students fall upon the cartoons, which are allowed to perish, instead of being treasured by the nation. Gentile Bellini and Carpaccio and the band of State painters are appreciated and well rewarded. These men have reproduced something of the lucent transparency, the natural colour of Venice, but it is as if unconsciously ; they are not fully aiming at any special effect. Year after year the Venetian masters assimilate more or less languidly the influences which reach them from the mainland. They welcome Guariento and Gentile da Fabriano, they set themselves to learn from Veronese or Florentine, the Paduans contribute their chiselled drawing, their learned perspective, their archeological curiosity. Yet even early in the day the Venetians escape from that hard and learned art which is so alien to their easy, voluptuous temperament. Jacopo Bellini cannot conform to it, and his greatest son is ready to follow feeling and emotion, and in his old age is quick to discover the first flavour of the new wine. If Venetian art had gone on upon the lines we have been tracing up to now, there would have been nothing very distinctive about it, for, however interesting and charming Alvise and Carpaccio, Cima and the Bellini may be, it is not of them we think when we speak of the Venetian School and when we rank it beside that of Florence, while Giovanni Bellini alone, in his later works, is not strong enough to bear the burden.

The change which now comes over painting is not so much a technical one as a change of temper, a new tendency in human thought, and we link it with Giorgione because he was the channel through which the deep impulse first burst into the light. We have tried to trace the growth of the early Venetian School, but it does not develop logically like that of Florence ; it is not the result of long endeavour, adding one acquisition and discovery to another. Venetian art was peculiarly the outcome of personalities, and it did not know its own mind till the sixteenth century. Then, like a hidden spring, it bubbles irresistibly to the surface, and the spot where it does so is called by the name of a man.

There are beings in most great creative epochs who, with peculiar facility, seem to embody the purpose of their age and to yield themselves as ready instruments to its design.

When time is ripe they appear, and are able, with perfect ease, to carry out and give voice to the desires and tendencies which have been straining for expression. These desires may owe their origin to national life and temperament ; it may have taken generations to bring them to fruition, but they become audible through the agency of an individual genius. A genius is inevitably moulded by his age. Rome, in the seventeenth century, drew to her in Bernini a man who could with real power illustrate her determination to be grandiose and ostentatious, and, at the height of the Renaissance, Venice draws into her service a man whose sensuous feeling was instilled, accentuated, and welcomed by every element around him.

More conclusively than ever, at this time, Venice, the world’s great sea-power, was in her full glory as the centre of the world’s commerce and its art and culture. Vasco di Gama had discovered the sea route to India in 1498, but the stupendous effect which this was to exert on the whole current of power did not become apparent all at once. Venice was still the great emporium of the East, linked to it by a thousand ties, Oriental in her love of Eastern richness.

It would be exaggerating to say that the Venetians of the sixteenth century could not draw. As there were Tuscans who understood beautiful harmonies of colour, so there were Venetians who knew a good deal about form ; but the other Italians looked upon colour as a charming adjunct, almost, one might say, as an amiable weakness : they never would have allowed that it might legitimately become the end and aim in painting, and in the same way form, though respected and considered, was never the principal object of the Venetians. Up to this time Venice had fed her emotional instincts by pageants and gold and velvets and brocades, but with Giorgione she discovered that there was a deeper emotional vehicle than these superficial glories,—glowing depths of colour enveloped in the mysterious richness of chiaroscuro which obliterated form, and hid and suggested more than it revealed.

Giorgione no longer described ” in drawing’s learned tongue ” ; he carried all before him by giving his direct impression in colour. He conceives in colour. The Florentines cared little if their finely drawn draperies were blue or red, but Giorgione images purple clouds, their dark velvet glowing towards a rose and orange horizon. He hardly knows what attitudes his characters take, but their chestnut hair, their deep-hued draperies, their amber flesh, make a moving harmony in which the importance of exact modelling is lost sight of. His scenes are not composed methodically and according to the old rules, but are the direct impress of the painter’s joy in life. It was a new and audacious style in painting, and its keynote, and absolutely inevitable consequence, was to substitute for form and for gay, simple tints laid upon it, the quality of chiaroscuro. We all know how the shades of evening are able to transform the most commonplace scene ; the dull road becomes a mysterious avenue, the colourless foliage develops luscious depths, the drab and arid plain glows with mellow light, purple shadows clothe and soften every harsh and ugly object, all detail dies, and our apprehension of it dies also. Our mood changes ; instead of observing and criticising, we become soothed, contemplative, dreamy. It is the carrying of this profound feeling into a colour-scheme by means of chiaroscuro, so that it is no longer learned and explanatory, but deeply sensuous and emotional, that is the gift to art which found full voice with Giorgione, and which in one moment was recognised and welcomed to the exclusion of the older manner, because it touched the chord which vibrated through the whole Venetian temperament.

And the immediate result was the picture of no subject. Giorgione creates for us idle figures with radiant flesh, or robed in rich costumes, surrounded by lovely country, and we do not ask or care why they are gathered together. We have all had dreams of Elysian fields, where falls not any rain, nor ever wind blows loudly,” where all is rest and freedom, where music blends with the plash of fountains, and fruits ripen, and lovers dream away the days, and no one asks what went before or what follows after. The Golden Age, the haunt of fauns and nymphs : there never has been such a day, or such a land : it is a mood, a vision : it has danced before the eyes of poets, from David to Keats and Tennyson : it has rocked the tired hearts of men in all ages the vision of a resting-place which makes no demands and where the dwellers are exempt from the cares and weakness of mortality. Needless to say, it is an ideal born of the East ; it is the Eastern dream of Paradise, and it speaks to that strain in the temperament which recognises that life cannot be all thought, but also needs feeling and emotion. And for the first time in all the world the painter of Castel-franco sets that vague dream before men’s eyes. The world, with its wistful yearnings and questionings, such as Leonardo or Botticelli embodied, said little to his audience. Here was their natural atmosphere, though they had never known it before. These deep, solemn tones, these fused and golden lights are what Giorgione grasps from the material world, and as he steeps his senses in them the subject counts but little in the deep enjoyment they communicate. We, who have seen his manner repeated and developed through thousands of pictures, find it difficult to realise that there had been nothing like it before, that it was a unique departure, that when Bellini and Titian looked at his first creations they must have experienced a shock of revelation. The old definite style must have seemed suddenly hard and meagre, and every time they looked on the glorious world, the deep glow of sunset, the mysterious shades of falling night, they must have felt they were endowed with a sense to which they had hitherto been strangers, but which, it was at once apparent, was their true heritage. They had found themselves, and in them Venice found her real expression, and with Giorgione and those who felt his impetus began the true Venetian School, set apart from all other forms of art by its way of using and diffusing and intensifying colour.

When Giorgione, the son of a member of the house of Barbarelli and a peasant girl of Vedelago, came down to Venice, we gather that he had nothing of the provincial. Vasari, who must often have heard of him from Titian, describes him as handsome, engaging, of distinguished appearance, beloved by his friends, a favourite with women, fond of dress and amusement, an admirable musician, and a welcome guest in the houses of the great. He was evidently no peasant – bred lad, but probably, though there is no record of the fact, was brought up, like many illegitimate children, in the paternal mansion. His home was not far from the lagoons, in one of the most beautiful places it is possible to imagine, on a lovely and fertile plain running up to the Asolean hills and with the Julian Alps lying behind. We guess that he received his education in the school of Bellini, for when that master sold his allegory of the Souls in Paradise ” to one of the Medici, to adorn the summer villa of Poggio Imperiale, there went with it the two small canvases now in the Uffizi, the ” Ordeal of Moses ” and the ” Judgment of Solomon,” delightful little paintings in Giorgione’s rich and distinctive style, but less accomplished than Bellini’s picture, and with imperfections in the drawing of drapery and figures which suggest that they are the work of a very young man. The love of the Venetians for decorating the exterior of their palaces with fresco led to Giorgione, being largely employed on work which was unhappily a grievous waste of time and talent, as far as posterity is concerned. We have a record of façades covered with spirited compositions and heraldic devices, of friezes with Bacchus and Mars, Venus and Mercury. Zanetti, in his seventeenth-century prints, has preserved a noble figure of “Fortitude” grasping an axe, but beyond a few fragments nothing has survived. Before he was thirty Giorgione was entrusted with the important commission of decorating the Fondaco dei Tedeschi. This building, which we hear of so often in connection with the artists of Venice, was the trading-house for German, Hungarian, and Polish merchants. The Venetian Government surrounded these merchants with the most jealous restrictions. Every assistant and servant connected with them was by law a Venetian, and, in fact, a spy of the Republic. All transactions of buying and selling were carried out by Venetian brokers, of whom some thirty were appointed. As time went on, some of these brokerships must have resolved themselves into sinecure offices, for we find Bellini holding one, and certainly without discharging any of the original duties, and they seem to have become some sort of State retainerships. In i 505 the old Fondaco had been burnt to the ground, and the present building was rising when Giorgione and Titian were boys. A decree went forth that no marble, carving, or gilding were to be used, so that painting the out-side was the only alternative. The roof was on in 1507, and from that date Giorgione, Titian, and Morto da Feltre were employed in the adornment of the façade. Vasari is very much exercised over Giorgione’s share in these decorations. “One does not find one subject carefully arranged,” he complains, or which follows correctly the history or actions of ancients or moderns. As for me, I have never been able to understand the meaning of these compositions, or have met any one able to explain them to me. Here one sees a man with a lion’s head, beside a woman. Close by one comes upon an angel or a Love : it is all an inexplicable medley,” Yet he is delighted with the brilliancy of the colour and the splendid execution, and adds, ” Colour gives more pleasure in Venice than anywhere else.”

Among other early work was the little ” Adoration of the Magi,” in the National Gallery, and the so-called ” Philosophers” at Vienna. According to the latest reading, this last illustrates Virgil’s legend that when the Trojan Aeneas arrived in Italy, Evander pointed out the future site of Rome to the ancient seer and his son. Giorgione, in painting the scene, is absorbed in the beauty of nature. It is his first great landscape, and all accessories have been sacrificed to intensity of effect. He revels in the glory of the setting sun, the broad tranquil masses of foliage, the long evening shadows, and the effect of dark forms silhouetted against the radiant light.