Magazine article The Spectator

Arts Feature: Is That a Giorgione?

Magazine article The Spectator

Arts Feature: Is That a Giorgione?

Article excerpt

Question-marks over attribution are at the heart of a forthcoming Giorgione exhibition. Martin Gayford sifts through the evidence

On 7 February 1506, Albrecht Dürer wrote home to his good friend Willibald Pirckheimer in Nuremberg. The great artist was having a mixed time in Venice: on the one hand, as Dürer explained, he was making lots of delightful new acquaintances, among them 'good lute-players' and also 'connoisseurs in painting, men of much noble sentiment and honest virtue'. However, there was also a very different type lurking in the early 16th-century Serenissima: 'the most faithless, lying, thievish rascals such as I scarcely believed could exist on earth'.

Dürer hints that among these latter were painters, perhaps including some whose works will be seen in a forthcoming exhibition at the Royal Academy, In the Age of Giorgione . Conceivably one who got on the wrong side of Dürer was the shadowy genius himself, Giorgione of Castelfranco.

Of the great masters of the early 16th century, Giorgione (c .1477/8-1510) is by some way the most elusive. Unfortunately, he did not write home to Castelfranco -- a fine fortified town in the Veneto -- or if he did no correspondence exists. Indeed, not much survives at all, either in the way of evidence or of art. He died young, probably in his early thirties and of the plague. Giorgio Vasari, author of the great Lives of the Artists , tells us that he 'took unceasing delight in the joys of love', which is plausible enough given the amorously poetic mood of some pictures by -- or attributed to -- him, and his development of a new sort of nude.

Apparently, it was Giorgione, whose name just means 'big George', who first combined the anatomy of a classical marble Venus with the delicately fleshly sensuality made possible by the oil medium (especially practised in the softer-focused fashion he may also have pioneered). Vasari also relates that the 'sound of the lute gave him marvellous pleasure', and Giorgione himself sang and played so well that he spent a lot of time performing -- which may help to explain why there are so few of his paintings now.

However, Vasari was writing decades after Giorgione's death and, as a patriotic Tuscan, he was distinctly hazy about Venetian art in general and Giorgione in particular. Though he did not mention Giorgione, Dürer was on the spot at the time. And his complaint about the younger painters of Venice was that they stole his ideas (he may, as we shall see, have had a point). Dürer specifically excluded the venerable Giovanni Bellini, then aged around 76, from his vilification. Bellini, he wrote, though old, 'is the best painter of all'.

In making that last judgment, however, Dürer may not have been completely up to speed. In 1506, the elderly Bellini was being challenged by Giorgione, so much so that the wily old fellow eventually incorporated some aspects of the younger man's style into his own. Indeed, around the time Dürer wrote his letter, Giorgione was influencing so many other artists that it is now very hard to say which are by whom. As Per Rumberg, the curator of the RA exhibition, ruefully explains, 'Usually the disagreement between scholars about attributions is around the fringes; with Giorgione it's at the core.'

Wisely, therefore, the exhibition is not simply devoted to Giorgione himself but to his era, in which a new kind of painting emerged in Venice -- which, for want of a better word, is dubbed 'Giorgionesque'. It will contain some pictures that most agree are by Giorgione, others that might possibly be by him, still more that are fairly definitely the work of other artists such as the young Titian and Bellini. …

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