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The appearance of the landscape in painting reflects an attempt to humanize the art. While in the Middle Ages nature represented in art contained symbols whose function was to clarify the narrative[1], some centuries later, the Italian artist Leon Battista Albert would collect in his treatises about architecture that painting landscape was introduced as an appropriate form of architectural decoration. It would be Leonardo da Vinci who raised the status of the landscape itself in asserting that an artist who is able to represent nature possessed an exceptional quality.[2]

Although it can be found some precedents in Italian painting landscapes, such as Piero della Francesca (1415-1492) stated in his famous work The Baptism of Christ (1450s, National Gallery, London), it was not until around 1470 when the Renaissance artist will truly appreciate the possibilities of expression offered by the landscape into a painting. The artists tried to find a unity between the figures and the illusionist world in which they live, and through this unit was suggested a convincing mood state. [3]

The life of Giorgio de Casteldefranco (1478-1510), better known as Giorgione, is still to art historians an accumulation of mysteries unresolved. The attribution of his artwork has been, until relatively recently, very controversial for two main reasons. On the one hand, the figure of the artist who could be regarded as his successor, Tiziano Vecelli (1485-1576), overshadowed the personality of Giorgione. Sometimes, some works have been attributed to him, which eventually revealed as probable works by Giorgione. On the other hand, there is little contemporary documentation relating to the work of the master. The two main sources of information are found in the figures of Giorgio Vasari (1511-1574) and the Venetian patrician and art collector Mancantonio Michiel (1484–1552).

This essay aims, firstly, to show how Giorgione interprets the notion of landscape in painting. Secondly, how the artist achieves a reciprocal connection between nature and figures, not through a hierarchy within the painting, but as both being part of a whole. Finally, to demonstrate the influence of Italian literature, more specifically the pastoral poetry, in the landscape development present in the artworks of the Venetian master.

Giorgione introduced an entirely new approach to landscape itself. If one of the first works attributed to Giorgione, one altar for a family chapel in the Gothic church of Castelfranco is observed, it can be seen how the artist has abandoned the scheme accepted as canon during previous decades. On the altar there is not chapel, chior or apse; instead there is a new conception of space in the Venetian art scene. This space is unbounded; its depth zones are not measurable.[4] Despite the fact that a clear relationship with the paintings of the same period continues to be shown, such as tone over tone, modulated shading or reflected colour shades, the artist has changed the architectural background, proposing instead a landscape without limitations. The characters are arranged in a space unbounded and this feeling is created from the landscape.

The Italian writer Robert Longui suggested that in the painting Il Tramonto (1506-10, National Gallery, London), a work of art strongly attributed to Giorgione whose title was invented by himself, the main theme is the sunset at dusk, while the activities of the saints who live in the landscape are apparently of secondary importance. If the scene is observed, two characters from very small scale in the foreground and a figure on horseback at the bottom right appear. This whole scene is framed by a landscape, which occupies almost the entire canvas, giving prominence to the full force of nature. The author considered evident the intention of Giorgione to cause in the viewer a new consideration of the landscape in relation to the other components of the artwork.[5] The artist reversed the visual relationship between the figures and the stage, giving more importance to the landscape.

In addition, it could be considered as other example the painting The Tempest (1508, Gallerie dell’Accademia, Venice). If the landscapes into artworks of earlier artists to him as his master Giovanni Bellini (1430-1516) and his painting St Francis (1480, Frick Collection, New York) or the devotional panel St Jerome in a Landscape (1500-1510, National Gallery, London) by Giovanni Battista Cima da Conegliano (1419-1517), are observed, it can be appreciated that artists have compacted the elements of nature with botanical details, besides controlling the landscape through the use of a static compositional structure. However, in The Tempest, a natural flow and meteorological drama is shown. The composition consists of a series of dynamic curves, and vegetation seems very lively stirred. At the same time, the shapes on the canvas of Giorgione are not too linear and edges are mixed with a moist atmosphere enclosure. [6]

Giorgione was able to produce in his landscapes a unified view. [7] Throughout a series of effects achieved by using some new painting techniques, he succeeds in creating a strikingly apparent atmosphere that surrounds all objects and fills the space between them. In Three Philosophers (1505-1509, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna) can be appreciated how the composition of the painting serves a bold symmetry. The three protagonists characters, featuring the three views par excellence of the human figure, such as profile, frontal and three quarters, are offset by the dark mouth of the cave in the rock, while in the centre a warm and luminous landscape is being extended. This landscape is conceived by the artist as a series of contrasting patterns of light and dark, so that the work is divided between the darkness of the cave and the outside world, lit by the rays of sunlight. [8] The three men, who could represent the three different generations, are pictorially inseparable from the landscape, as if they were in a forest, a manner contrary to what happens in earlier paintings, where the figures seem to be set against a backdrop.[9]

This effect also occurs in The Tempesta, where the figures fit into the compositional area as much as any other element of the picture. In fact, they are inseparable because they are creating a homogeneous space.[10] The characters do not dominate, nor by its scale or its position, the landscape, and they are also not dominating the structure of the painting. On the other hand, nature does not appear under a rigid arrangement under the laws of perspective of the fifteenth century. The landscape is not the field of action of a story or a myth, but he is assuming the same level of prominence than the other elements on the canvas. Nature and history are shown as inextricably linked, people and things participate in the same sense and are presented on equal terms. [11] Until that moment, had been found landscape backgrounds for figures. However, now the roles are reversed, the figures are only to provide scale and magical atmosphere of the countryside. [12]

This result is produced, in part, by the repetition of colour by the artist in the painting. Colours used in the figures, like red and orange dress pastor, are the same that can be found in other parts of the canvas. Giorgione was the first artist who adapted the lighting effects of the new Venetian painting technique on canvas with oil pigments and flexible resins. This pictorial advancement opened the way to a greater freedom of brushwork and allowed variations in its application, getting soft areas expressively intensified with bold splashes of colour ‘impasted’.[13] The artist was able to provide the scene of an intentionally ambiguous nature, evoking an atmosphere and environment, beyond a story or narrative.

It could be argued that the landscape at paintings by Giorgione is related to the pastoral movement of contemporary Italian poetry. [14] It is attributed to Giorgione the transformation into pictorial format of the Arcadian world, which Pietro Bembo (1470-1547) evoked in his Gli Asolani, a collection of Platonic dialogues about love that took place in the campaign of Asolo. [15] Giorgio Vasari described the Venetian painter as a man who “took unceasing delight in the joys of love; and the sound of the lute gave him marvellous pleasure, so that in his day he played and sang so divinely that he was often employed for that purpose at various musical assemblies and gatherings of noble persons.” This description is revealing a new romantic conception of the artist, as something more than a mere art manufacturer.

It has been suggested on several occasions that there is a parallel development between the bucolic landscape that appears in his works and the introduction by Bembos of pastoral themes in the Venetian literature. [16] The artwork The Pastoral Concert (1508-1510, Louvre, Paris), which was finished by Titian, shows an idyllic landscape in which a young man playing a lute, a shepherd and two naked young women are integrated. One plays the flute, while the other pours water into a fountain. The figures are perfectly integrated in nature. As is the case in the literature, the landscape setting plays a key role in the paintings of Giorgione. The artwork evokes a sense of rural peace and pastoral learning like that can be seen in the first passages of the work of Bembo, Asolami where a dialogue in the marriage of Asolo occurs. The scene takes place in an idealized landscape by the poet, on the edges of Caterina’s garden, near of a lush meadow, a group of trees, a fountain and a flock of sheep. This description would correspond to the traditional scene ‘Virgilian pastoral’, known as ‘locus amoenus’. [17] Some authors claimed that the artwork evokes Arcadian scenes of classical and Renaissance bucolic poetry. Until then, only some poets had captured this image of nostalgic erotic reverie in which everything is like music, so The Pastoral Concert could be regarded as a visual poem.[18]

Another painting that reflects the relationship of Giorgione’s painting with pastoral poem is The Tempest. Many of the features of pictorial revolution created by Giorgione are found in this work. Michel described it as “the little landscape on canvas with tempest, with gypsy and the soldier”, subordinating the composition of the figures to the landscape. [19] This is a picture that emerges a deep sense of mystery. The scene describes a bend protected by trees and remains of buildings in ruins, where a topless woman breastfeeding her child on the bank of a river. Opposite the female figure is standing a young man leaning on his stick. The background of the painting shows a bridge, which left in the dark the surrounding waters. Behind it, a city bursting with bright accents under a threatening sky whose clouds appear splits by a flash of lightning. Despite the fact that it is unclear whether Giorgione considered that the figures were characters in a story that he chose not to identify or the author considered them simply as anonymous inhabitants of a landscape, identification of the male figure with a shepherd could be related to the movement of the Italian pastoral poetry of the time, as represented by Jacopo Sannazaro (1456-1530) in the play Arcadia. These stories were based on classical models of Theocritus and Virgil, poets who tried to evoke an ancient golden age, in which there are shepherds, nymphs and satyrs in idyllic landscapes, full of shady groves and rolling streams. [20] Thus, the figure of the shepherd is a key element in the Arcadian motives. In his dual role as a shepherd who cares for his flock, as well as a musician or poet, this young curly hair, bare feet, modest dress, represents the influence of Arcadian in the landscapes of Giorgione. [21]

In conclusion, the work of Giorgione revolutionized Venetian painting, particularly in his conception of landscape. This is no longer a mere element as a compositional framework and, sometimes, it is set as the main subject of the painting. Throughout the combination of secular themes, whose meanings were imprecise, with a soft atmospheric style and a feeling of dream, Giorgione tried to satisfy a new kind of culturally sophisticated patterns. Finally, the influence of the Italian pastoral poetry in his artwork is evident. However, the intention of Giorgione was no attempt to accurately represent the characters and situations narrated in the literature. His challenge was to use these literary sources as the basis for a new pictorial invention that surpassed previous prototypes in Venetian painting.




[1] R. Turner, The visión of landscape in Renaissance Italy (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1974), p. 10

[2] Anderson, J. Giorgione. The painter of ‘Poetic Brevity’ (Paris: Flammarion, 1996), p.31

[3] Turner, The visión of landscape in Renaissance Italy, p. 3

[4] J. Wilde, Venetian Art from Bellini to Titian (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1981), p.63

[5] R. Longui, Officina Ferrarese (Florence: Sansoni, 1974), p.179

[6] Humfrey, Painting in the Renaissance Venice, p.120

[7] Wilde, Venetian Art from Bellini to Titian, p. 66

[8] Anderson, Giorgione.The painter of ‘Poetic Brevity’, p. 155

[9] Honour and Fleming, A World History of Art, (London: Laurence King Publishing Ltd, 2009), p.489

[10] Wilde, Venetian Art from Bellini to Titian, p.66

[11] Álvarez Lopera, J. and J.M. Pita Andrade, La Pintura: de la Prehistoria a Goya (Barcelona: Ediciones Carroggio S.A., 1991), p.145

[12] F. Hartt, Arte. Historia de la Pintura, Escultura y Arquitectura (Madrid: Ediciones Akal S.A., 1989), p.711

[13] Honour and Fleming, A World History of Art, p. 489

[14] P. Humfrey, Painting in the Renaissance Venice (London: Yale University Press, 1996), p.118

[15] P. F. Brown, Arte y Vida en la Venecia del Renacimiento (Madrid: Ediciones Akal S.A., 2008), p.61

[16] Anderson, Giorgione. The painter of ‘Poetic Brevity’, p. 135

[17] Anderson, Giorgione. The painter of ‘Poetic Brevity’, p. 136

[18] Honour and Fleming, World History of Art, p. 489

[19] Humfrey, Painting in the Renaissance Venice, p.118

[20] Humfrey, Painting in the Renaissance Venice, p.118

[21] D. A. Brown and Ferino-Pagden, S. Bellini, Giorgione, Titian and the Renaissance of Venetian Painting (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006), p.19