Giorgione, "Le tre età dell'uomo". Olio su tela, 62 x 78 cm. Firenze, Palazzo Pitti, Galleria Palatina

CASTELFRANCO VENETO.- An ardent journey of discovery into the most enigmatic and mysterious artist of the Renaissance. An exhibition which brings together in Castelfranco Veneto, his native town, an incredible collection of the works of this great artist, who, more than any other, has aroused controversy among scholars and art historians in search of the documented facts, still lacking, giving rise to some very diverse and sometimes far-fetched interpretations of his life and works: GIORGIONE.

Torrents of words and ink have flowed in the attempt to understand and interpret the man, the poetics and the true history of Giorgione. Yet this Castelfranco master, to whom some of the most important masterpieces of the Italian Renaissance have been attributed, has evaded all attempts to construct a definite biography, a definite catalogue of his works, or a generally agreed interpretation of the significance of some of his works.

Although his life and career were very brief – he died at little more than thirty years old and his activity was limited to a period of fifteen years at the most – his work nevertheless appears meaningful and revolutionary, able to influence hundreds of artists of various periods with the lyrical power of his art, his use of colour, and that new equilibrium between man and nature, leaving an inevitable and indelible mark on the development of the history of art after his death.

So the Giorgione “phenomenon” is a genuine one.

According to the most authoritative accounts, the fifth centenary of the death of Zorzi da Castelfranco, better known as Giorgione (Castelfranco Veneto 1477/78 – Venice 1510), occurs in 2010 and Castelfranco Veneto, the birthplace of the great artist and home to one of his most important works (the famous Castelfranco Altarpiece) as well as to one of the very few frescos attributed to Giorgione (Frieze of the Liberal and Mechanical Arts), is staging a wide-ranging exhibition in collaboration with the Veneto Region, which has set up the Regional Committee for the Fifth Centenary of the Death of Giorgione. The exhibition to be held from December 12 to April 11, 2010 at the Museo Casa Giorgione (Giorgione House Museum) was recently inaugurated in the Casa Barbarella, opening the Giorgione celebrations.

The exhibition, a challenge both from the scientific and the organizational points of view, is being staged with the essential support of the Fondazione Monte dei Paschi di Siena and the Fondazione Antonveneta, with the collaboration of the Department for Historic, Artistic and Ethnoanthropological heritage for the Provinces of Venice, Belluno, Padova and Treviso, the Province of Treviso, the Cathedral Parish of Castelfranco Veneto-Treviso Diocese and with funding from the Banca Antonveneta.

It is curated by Lionello Puppi (the Chairman of the Regional Committee for the Fifth Centenary), Antonio Paolucci (Director of the Vatican Museums) and Enrico Maria dal Pozzolo (from the University of Verona) and co-produced by the Comune di Castelfranco Veneto and Villaggio Globale International. The exhibition does not intend to provide definitive answers or solutions (despite the archive research that has been conducted and the reflectographic and diagnostic examinations that have been carried out on many of the paintings) but rather to suggest, evoke and marvel, leaving it to the extraordinary works collected in this small town in the Veneto, together with the documents and evidence, to bring this remarkable account to life.

Some of the major international museums – the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, the Uffizi and Palazzo Pitti in Florence, the National Gallery in London, the Galleria Borghese and the Palazzo Venezia in Rome, the Kunsthistorisches in Vienna, the National Gallery in Edinburgh, the Gallerie dell’Accademia in Venice, the Louvre in Paris, the Ambrosiana in Milan, the Museo di Capodimonte in Naples and Castle Howard in Yorkshire – have accepted and contributed to this challenge.

The focus of this epoch-making exhibition, therefore, is on the “phenomenon” of Giorgione himself – created from the artist’s works (from "The Tempest" to "The Three Ages of Man in Palazzo Pitti", from "The Sunset to the Madonna with Child at the Hermitage"), but also from the dense network of artistic and cultural connections that compete to suggest meanings, keys to interpretation, and the role and historical weight of Giorgione’s art, or to provide hints for an evanescent biography and reinterpretation of the myth. The exhibition also offers, as never before, a careful and detailed analysis of the environment and cultural and spiritual context of the painter between the end of the fifteenth century and the first decade of the sixteenth century, suggesting a “system” existing around the brilliant artist, that Giorgione himself helped to develop.

Alongside the numerous paintings by Giorgione, on exceptional loan, the exhibition will also include important works by Giovanni Bellini, Vincenzo Catena (in whose workshop Giorgione is believed to have trained), Albrecht Dürer, Sebastiano del Piombo, Titian, Lorenzo Costa, Il Perugino, Cima da Conegliano, Palma il Vecchio, Boccaccio Boccacino, and Garofalo, as well as works by some of the biographers of Giorgione – Castiglioni, Pino, Vasari, and Dolce – and literary, musical and intellectual works by scholars from Petrarca to Bembo, all of whom may have contributed to the creation of the cultural milieu which is likely to have nourished Giorgione; then there are bronzes by Lombardo, Del Riccio and Severo da Ravenna, and engravings by Teniers and Zanetti that help remember the lost works of Giorgione and in particular the frescos from the Fondaco where he worked alongside Titian.

But foremost of all will be Giorgione’s art – “a limpid mirror of the Renaissance at its supreme heights”, according to Berenson – displayed through some core groups of works in the exhibition.

Focus is devoted to Giorgione’s earliest works in a collection that has never been so complete, on display in the room at the Casa Barbarella which houses the enigmatic Frieze of the Liberal Arts. The unsettling "Saturn in Exile" perhaps the first work by Giorgione we have, on loan from the London National Gallery, is displayed beside the two works from the Gallerie degli Uffizi which usually constitute the opening items in the catalogue of the artist’s works: "Moses at the Trial with Fire" and "The Judgment of Solomon".

These two paintings are without equal in the context of the period, showing the artist’s absolute freedom in the compositional structure and the choice of subject; alongside these is the "Madonna with Child from the Hermitage" – which may also be ascribed to this first phase in the artist’s career – in which the influence of northern European draughtsmanship is evident – and the two paintings from the Civici Musei in Padua, "Leda and the Swan" and "Pastoral Idyll," closely related to the two paintings from the Uffizi. It was reputedly during this phase that the relationship began – which was set to continue – between Giorgione and the Paduan artist Giulio Campagnola, and the exhibition displays several of Campagnola’s engravings, indicative of the more refined cultural ambience of this period, including the famous Astrologer from the Albertina Museum in Vienna, presented in order to invite comparison with the suggestions and references in the iconography of the Fregio fresco.

Zorzi had a good reputation as a portrait painter. “Giorgione painted many other beautiful portraits which are scattered throughout Italy”, wrote Vasari in 1568.

A significant number of works in the exhibition testify how Giorgione introduced a new taste in the concept of portrait painting into Venetian art in a very impelling way, thanks also to the indubitable, though never proven, contact he had with Leonardo da Vinci: this appears not only in the choice of a dark background or in the highlighting of objects with a strong symbolic and emblematic character, but also, and especially, in the psychological portrayal.

So beginning with "The Three Ages of Man" from the Galleria Palatina in Palazzo Pitti, which is probably a music lesson, or perhaps a metaphor for universal harmony, visitors can admire several key works in the exhibition, such as the "Portray of a Warrior" from the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, which can probably be identified as the work mentioned by Michiel as being by Giorgione in the home of Gianantonio Venier and depicts, in the grotesque face of the bizarre figure on the right, a Leonardesque creation.

The exhibition continues with the painting on loan from the National Gallery in Edinburgh depicting "Portrait of a Archer" – a work which can certainly be included in the debate on the parallel between painting and sculpture, but which, owing to its state of conservation, does not allow us to affirm with certainty that it is by Giorgione, and finally the Double Portrait from the Palazzo Venezia in Rome, one of Giorgione’s major portrait works and a remarkable artistic depiction with a profound sense of gestures, symbols and expressions.

Two further benchmarks in the work of this Castelfranco artist appear in the form of two key works that mark the birth of landscape painting: "The Tempest" and "The Sunset", lent respectively by the Gallerie dell’Accademia in Venice and the National Gallery in London in a great spirit of understanding for a commemorative exhibition of such importance.

So we have together the “definite” painting which more that any other has challenged the interpretative powers of many scholars, suggesting the strangest and most complex philosophical, psychoanalytical and alchemistic conjectures, and the work now increasingly being accredited to Giorgione which probably depicts Philoctetes on Lemnos, a topic which he would have come upon in Venice after the first edition of Sophocles’s tragedies was printed by Aldo Manuzio in 1502: in both works man and nature are on the same level, in a complementary relationship which is translated into lyricism and which, abandoning the conventional categories, is expressed wholly through colour. These paintings are evidence of Giorgione’s remarkable modernity.

Other noteworthy exhibits in this section are the drawings attributed to Campagnola and some to Giorgione himself, from the Louvre and the Uffizi, with studies of the landscape and of architecture that seem closely related to the natural protagonist of Giorgione’s two masterpieces, as well as the engravings by Dürer. Similarly, it should be emphasized – in keeping with the continual references to the cultural and artistic environment in which Giorgione’s art developed – how The Sunset is placed in dialogue with the marble slab of "Philoctetes" by Antonio Lombardo from the Hermitage, and with the Renaissance bronzes depicting monsters and serpents which are recalled in the sinuous stance of the young protagonist in Giorgione’s painting and in the perception of monstrous beings among the dense foliage and rocks.

The last section – fascinating, inevitable, and emblematic of the critical and interpretative twists and turns that have accompanied the reconstruction of this great artist’s path, shrouded in a dense cloud of uncertainties and with an absence of documentation – is presented quite explicitly this time as "The Challenges".

Challenges between the great masters of Renaissance art, who are perhaps irritated, or perhaps laughing, up there in the afterlife, to see scholars attribute the same painting first to one artist and then another – to Giorgione himself, to Titian, Sebastiano del Piombo or Perugino; challenges for the art historians, challenges for the public, challenges for those in search of definite facts and absolute truths, when the only definite fact is the excellence, the ability to leave a mark in history.

"The Madonna and Child with Saints Catherine and John the Baptist", from the Gallerie dell’Accademia in Venice, could be attributed to Sebastiano del Piombo at the beginning of his career, but many would include it among Giorgione’s works.

The beautiful "Christ Carrying the Cross", with a lunette above depicting The Eternal Father with Angels in the Scuola Grande di San Rocco, an object of great devotion during the sixteenth century, has been attributed at various times to Titian or to Giorgione. The striking "Impassioned Singer" seems to recall the new concept of monumentality introduced by Giorgione in his frescoes at the Fondaco but also a new experimentalism in Giorgione’s portrait painting, with greater plasticity in the volumes of the skin thanks to the use of red, and with an almost caricature-style accentuation of gestures and expressions, yet despite this it has actually been ascribed to a disciple of Giorgione in the mid seventeenth century, post-dating both paintings by a century.

Then there is the painting from a private collection that shares a musical theme with the two preceding works, a topic that was very dear to Giorgione according to Vasari, known as the "Concert", for which a new iconographic interpretation is offered: it is assigned to the last phase in the master’s work, and appears to be of the highest artistic quality, with remarkable realistic significance, a clear expression of a tonal painting liberated from the old ideas of schematism.

Finally there are the two "Warriors": one from the National Gallery in London – once considered preparation for the saint on the left in the Castelfranco altarpiece but more recently with the dating oscillating between the early sixteenth century and a century later – and the "Warrior with Page" from Castle Howard, which very few have been lucky enough to have seen in the flesh: it is perhaps by Titian, perhaps taken from a lost work conceived by Giorgione. Perhaps.


Giorgione, "Leda e il cigno", fine XV sec. Olio su tela, 12 x 19 cm. Padova, Musei Civici agli Eremitani