Giorgione, La Tempesta, c. 1504, Accademia, Venice.
I’ve been asked to talk about Giorgione’s evocative and mysterious painting La Tempesta, which I’m very happy to do, even if it is something I have often avoided, for reasons which should become obvious. The best translation of the title would be ‘The Storm’, but, if translated at all, it is usually called ‘The Tempest’, because that sounds more poetic – and it is a profoundly poetic painting. More poetic still, the title is more often left as La Tempesta, giving non-Italians a greater sense of the exotic and unreachable. We have no idea what Giorgione himself would have called it. As I have said before, like many titles, this is a nickname, but at least in this case it is one which makes sense, inspired as it by the lightening that is arguably the main focus of the painting. However, I sometimes wonder if it should be renamed ‘the swamp’, given that most scholars who talk about it end up stuck, waist deep in the shifting sands of interpretation. It would be easy to say that nobody really knows what is going on here, but the problem is worse than that: everyone thinks that they know what is going on, but has a different idea to everyone else. So, for now, let’s just look at it.
It is relatively small (82 x 73 cm), painted with oil on canvas, and is predominantly a landscape – rich, deep green trees, bushes and shrubs and brighter grass surround a deep blue river, which reflects the colours of the lowering sky. A path emerges from the bottom right corner of the painting, curves around a small rocky outcrop, and turns back into the painting behind the outcrop at the bottom left corner, heading towards a small section of wall topped by two broken columns. It seems to lead to a light green pasture beside the river, which is crossed by very basic bridge. Posts support girders, which in their turn have planks lain across them. The bridge leads to one of the defensive gateways of a walled town, unidentified and unidentifiable, which has more defensive towers further away along the grassy bank of the river. There is a church with its campanile – or bell tower – in the distance. The setting is not Venice, but somewhere in the Veneto, the mainland domain of the maritime republic. The foreground seems unnaturally light given the colour of the sky, suggesting a sultry warmth. Maybe the clouds have cleared behind us, and a low sun is cast the golden light of dusk on the ground. We have reached that tense moment when the hairs on the back of your head start to bristle with the build-up of electricity just prior to the storm, and even after the first lightning has struck, but before it has begun to rain.
Within this landscape there are also three people. A man stands on the left, his left hand behind his back, his right resting on a staff, which in turn rests on his shoulder. He looks towards the right of the painting, but probably not directly at the woman who is sitting, naked, on a white cloth on the grassy bank next to the path. She has another white cloth around her shoulders, and is breast-feeding a child who is sitting on the ground beside her. Who are they? Well, the earliest reference to this painting comes from 1530, when it was owned by the Vendramin family. At that point, twenty years after Giorgione had died, it was described as ‘el paesetto in tela cun la tempesta, cum la cingana et soldato … de man de Zorzi de Castefranco’. Admittedly my 16th Century Venetian dialect isn’t strong, but this translates as ‘the little landscape on canvas with the storm, with the gypsy and soldier… from the hand of George from Castelfranco’. Giorgione – meaning ‘Big George’ – probably because he was a great artist – was indeed from Castelfranco, a charming walled town in the Veneto not entirely unlike the one depicted here. It’s well worth a visit! But we don’t have to take rest of the description that seriously, as the man is definitely not dressed as a solider. His clothes could be described as the fashionable daywear of the moneyed class in Venice in the 16thCentury. And if we don’t have to take the identification of the man seriously, neither should we for the woman. As far as I am aware, none of the terms used in the phrase ‘breast-feeding naked in a storm’ has ever been used to describe a gypsy, however unconventional it may seem. But after that, we are lost – who are they and what are they doing there? You can at least see why the term ‘soldier’ might be appropriate, as he is standing with a staff that could be used as a weapon. He could be defending her, or on the lookout. But he might equally well be surprised to see her – the distance between them seems relevant. Another early account described him as a shepherd. This seems equally unlikely, in those clothes. And still there is nothing to explain why the woman is there. It is this that has intrigued everyone who has looked at the painting.
We are, undoubtedly, in the Veneto – but why would this couple – if they are a couple – be among ruins, with two broken column? As a symbol this would often refer to the classical past, but what do they signify here? Are they in some way related to the two characters, each in some way broken, or out of place? Giorgione certainly brings them into visual relationship with the man and woman, by painting the columns in the same white as the fabrics. The man is pictorially echoed by the ruined structure as a whole. The brick-red colour of his hose and slashed britches echoes the bricks, while the marble sill which supports the two columns is equivalent to the white bar formed by the lower half of the man’s shirt, including the sleeve of his right arm. This horizontal white area is also topped by the white vertical which is left visible by the cloak thrown over his shoulders: both shirt and columns form an inverted ‘T’. The columns are also echoed by the guard towers in the background, especially by the more brightly lit walls on the left of each building. Giorgione uses this to structure the painting, the light areas forming a diagonal coming down from the lightening, through the towers and the columns to the shirt. The white of the woman’s drapery completes this pyramid of light on the right-hand side.
I have said that we are in the Veneto, but where is the proof? The landscape is typical of the Venetian mainland – predominantly flat and marshy, with a river (it could be a canal…) and a bridge. The buildings look Venetian, too, with the big, conical chimneys of the houses which can be seen above the left end of the bridge. The relatively small dome on the church is also similar to many seen in Venice and the Veneto, as is the freestanding campanile.
Even more specifically, some historians have identified the markings above the gateway at the end of the bridge as one of the emblems of Padua, whereas the Venetian Lion of St Mark can be seen on the edge of the tower at the left of the trees – visible at the bottom left of the detail above. With the lightening striking between these two symbols, some have suggested that the painting represents political discord between Padua and Venice at the beginning of the 16th Century – which is possible – although as Padua had been ruled by the Venetians since 1405, most towns in the area would have had St Mark’s lion prominent somewhere or other. It might also be worthwhile remembering that, unlike Venice, Padua had been a Roman town (the ruins of the Roman Amphitheatre, or Arena, can still be seen, and give an alternative name for the building commissioned by Enrico Scrovegni: the Arena Chapel). But this doesn’t help us in interpreting the painting. Nor does it tell us if there is any reason why a stork should be standing on the steep roof directly to the right of the lightening. Maybe it is just a naturalistic observation. Or maybe it is symbolic of the birth – even if this particular child was not born that recently.
So who are they? We may never know. One suggestion is that they are Adam and Eve, with Cain, their firstborn son, having been thrown out of Eden. But no other image of the biblical pair has shown them like this, and, if it is them, who built the town, and when? Another theory suggests that the painting shows the finding of Moses, but if you look at Poussin’s version (Picture Of The Day 21) you will realise that there should at least be a Princess present, if not several maids to accompany her. It doesn’t look at all like Egypt, either, but that is a minor concern. Yet more scholars have wondered if it is it even a narrative at all – it could be an allegory (e.g. of the discord between Venice and Padua). And at one point it was even interpreted as a self portrait of the artist with his own family, but if I were you I wouldn’t give that one a second thought. About a decade ago it was related to a poem written in 1482 in praise of the Vendramin family, which discusses their descent from the classical hero Aeneas (they weren’t the only family to flatter themselves with such exalted claims). More specifically, they claimed their origins with his second son, Silvius, who got his name from the Latin word ‘Silva’, meaning forest or wood, as that was where he was born. In this interpretation the woman would be Silvius’s mother, who has escaped the jealousy of her elder son, and the man would be Silvius himself, now grown up. It is not unusual to have the same person in a painting twice. This interpretation would certainly be worth looking into, as the painting was first known in the Vendramin Collection – and they might even have commissioned it.
Or maybe – for possibly the first time in art – it is just a picture drawn from the artist’s rich and inventive imagination. Going back to the Greeks, Simonides of Keos, who died in 468 BC, suggested that ‘Poetry is a speaking picture, painting a silent poetry’. The Roman Horace rephrased this a couple of centuries later in the phrase ‘Ut pictura poesis’ – ‘as is painting, so is poetry’. This idea is most fully stated in his Ars Poetica, where, to quote him at length, he suggests,
‘Poetry resembles painting. Some works will captivate you when you stand very close to them and others if you are at a greater distance. This one prefers a darker vantage point, that one wants to be seen in the light since it feels no terror before the penetrating judgment of the critic. This pleases only once, that will give pleasure even if we go back to it ten times over’.
So maybe – just maybe – this is what Giorgione was doing, painting a silent poem, evocative, enchanting but ultimately unknowable. Even if we go back to it ten times over.