Giorgione Essay

It has been argued by historians interested in the art and culture of the Renaissance that in the work of visual and literary artists of this period, we can discover a kind of rejection of the idea of a stable and knowable equivalence connecting symbol and meaning, a shift in dynamic linking painting and audience that saw the symbols of the painting repositioned as a system of meanings that resonates in the mind of the spectator, rendering the work itself as more than a mere sum total of the individual symbols it contains.  The work of Giorgio da Castelfranco, known as Giorgione, is powerfully representative of this shift, taking traditional symbols associated with Renaissance iconography, and deploying them in such a way as to foreground the ambivalences and tensions underlying the relationship between the certainties of the symbols considered individually and the ambivalences of the symbols in relationship with each other.  Put another way, Giorgione’s paintings move a viewer’s attention simultaneously to the meaning of each independent symbol as well as to the interdependence of the symbols within the context of the painting of the whole, creating in the process an iconography that is at once very public and intensely personal.[1]  It is in the negotiations of this space between the independence of each symbol (and its interpretive history) and the interdependence of these symbols that symbolic art generally, and the work of Giorgione more specifically, gathers its energies.

Giorgione’s “Tempesta” is an important example of this transition in symbolic art.  “[O]ne of the persistent mysteries of Renaissance iconography,”[2] it is densely coded work notable, in one sense, for “the way its apparent ambiguity has challenged the iconologist’s skills more than any other painting”[3] from this period; in the end, Settis argues, the results of the multitudinous interpretations “have only reiterated all the pitfalls and nuances”[4]  the painting contains.  It is a painting that deploys a number of meaningful and familiar symbols – the soldier, a virtually nude woman nursing a child, the symbolic topography of villages, ruins, and pillars – in such a way as to render them even more meaningful in the distance that separates them.  Put another way, the symbols of Giorgione’s paintings are invested with ambiguities that open the painting outward to interpretations rather than closing them off to singular readings; there are “many ingenious interpretations that have been constructed around [“Tempesta”],” as Settis observes, and, given Giorgione’s re-imagining of the possibilities of symbolic art, it is important to recognize that “they are all possible interpretations, some more so than others, and there are others still that we could try.”[5]  Each symbol, in this sense, becomes a palimpsestic gesture toward both personal and cultural interpretations, a layering of potential meanings that extends on both a horizontal axis (to include a range of mythological, historical, and religious significances) and a vertical axis (each symbol means many possible things at the same time).

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Even a glance at Settis and Pignatti’s incomplete history of the various interpretations of “Tempesta” works to prove the success of Giorgione’s project within the painting, beginning with Wickhoff in 1895, who saw in the painting clear symbolic relations with Statius’s Thebais, through Cioci’s “reading” of the painting in relation to the story of Venus and Mars.  Readings of the symbols in terms of the four elements have also flourished, with the symbolic typography understood and re-understood as a balance of harmony and discord; as sin and salvation; as strength, charity, and fortune; and even as copulation between land and sky.”[6]  Still others have “seen these apparent iconographic incongruities as proof of a substantial lack of ‘theme’,” which renders interpretations of the work as “merely a landscape painting.”[7]  Add to these the plethora of literary interpretations, and the symbolic ground of Giorgione’s “Tempesta” is clearly a multifaceted one that resists homogenization and essentialist readings; in this sense, there is no “Tempesta” but many “Tempesta”s existing simultaneously in the palimpsest that is each symbol, and, as Taylor notes, proves a “structural impossibility of representing the ideality”[8] of an allegorical or closed symbol.

As Adams suggests, the symbols within such Giorgione paintings as the Allendale “Adoration of the Shepherds,” “The Three Philosophers,” and “Tempesta” open outwards to “create a ‘dialogue’”[9]  — what Pignatti calls “a gestural dialogue”[10] – that serves as a kind of interpretative bridge (represented symbolically by the architectural bridge in the background of “Tempesta” and many other Giorgione landscapes) linking each of the palimpsestic symbols into a web of independent interdependence; accordingly, the independence of a symbol is reinforced in the articulation of its individual depth of meaning and in its interdependence within the web of symbols and interpretations circulating simultaneously within a painting.  This symbolic bridging, for instance, allows the verticality of the symbolic soldier with lance in the left foreground of “Tempesta” to interact in meaningful ways with the softened horizontal world of the woman and child embraced by foliage.  As Settis’s taxonomic interpretaton of the various symbols in the painting underscores, such bridges connect, too, across a full range interpretive acts.  Similarly, each of the three symbolic figures foregrounded in “The Three Philosophers” can be variously arranged but never stabilized in terms of various (at least fifteen, Settis suggests) interpretations: three Magi; astronomers, geometers, and mathematicians; and representative of three “ages” of human wisdom (classical, medieval, and Renaissance), to name three of the more popular configurations.[11]

The potential of a Giorgione painting to gather meaning in complex ways “that goes well beyond the conventional harmony”[12] of symbolic art exists, then, in the densely layered space that bridges the layerings of individual symbols, thereby creating a meaningful interdependence.  Importantly, the potential to meaning is also realized within the mind of the spectator, who as viewer/interpretative agent finds room to engage with the familiar layers of each symbol, and to move freely within the fluidities of the gestural dialogue.  In these gestures Giorgione invites engagement, exploration, and exchange, breaking down the allegorical stabilities of symbol in favor of the negotiated and ambiguous, a movement that links in radicalized ways the imaginations of the artist and his audience, the personal and the public.  In these gestures, Giorgione tells his audience that it has become time to “let our imaginations go and not ask foolish questions.”[13]  As Settis argues generally, this pushing of the symbolic to such new extremes of connectivity in Giorgione’s work is not about leading viewers to hermetic erudition (complex symbol reading for its own sake) but is a powerful statement about the strategies of encoding and decoding messages woven into “Tempesta” and, by extension, into all works of art.


Adams, Laurie Schneider.  A History of Western Art.  3rd  ed.  Boston: McGraw-

Hill, 2001.

Onians, John.  “On How To Listen to High Renaissance Art.”  Art History 7.4


Pignatti, Tersio.  Filippo Pedrocco Giorgiopne.  New York: Rizzolo,


Settis, Salvatore.  Giorgione’s Tempest: Interpreting the Hidden Subject.  Trans.

Ellen Bianchini.  Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1990.

Taylor, Barry.  “Realising Giorgione: Aestheticism, the market and Renaissance

values in Bernard Berenson.”  Journal of Victorian Culture 3.2 (1998): 282-301.

[1] Tersio Pignatti,  Filippo Pedrocco Giorgiopne (New York: Rizzolo, 1999), 13.
[2]  Laurie Schneider Adams, A History of Western Art,  3rd ed. (Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2001), 296.

[3] Salvatore Settis, Giorgione’s Tempest: Interpreting the Hidden Subject.  Trans. Ellen Bianchini (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1990), 48.
[4]  Ibid.
[5]  Ibid., 83.
[6] Pignatti, 145-7.
[7] Ibid., 146.
[8]  Barry Taylor,“Realising Giorgione: Aestheticism, the market and Renaissance

values in Bernard Berenson,”  Journal of Victorian Culture 3.2 (1998): 288.
[9] Adams, 297.
[10] Pignatti, 50.
[11] Settis, 78-9.
[12] Pignatti, 50-1.
[13] Settis, 58.


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