Giorgione. The Tempest - by Maria Daniela Lunghi

Review of the book Giorgione. The Tempest by Maria Daniela Lunghi, an interesting new contribution on the studies around this famous masterpiece.

Everything has been written about Giorgione ’s Tempest, but any new contribution that can help, in a serious way, to shed light on the great mystery that has been posing questions to all who observe it for centuries is always welcome. For, as is well known, the meaning of the work is far from known: Giorgione, an author who is fundamental to Western art but about whom very little is known, was accustomed to working for very sophisticated patrons, who shared their own language, indispensable for a kind of “golden isolation” from the rest of the world. That language was also made up of figurative repertoires that only those who belonged to theelite cultural circles of late 15th-century Venice could understand. And in this context Giorgione’s great masterpiece is also placed.

Maria Daniela Lunghi, Giorgione. La tempesta
Maria Daniela Lunghi, Giorgione. The Tempest.
It used to be said that any new contribution must always be welcome, as long as it is serious. And seriousness is not lacking in this volume by Maria Daniela Lunghi, simply titled Giorgione. The Tempest and published by Europa Edizioni. A very nimble booklet (just 52 pages), it begins immediately with a fundamental premise: if we leave out the discovery of unpublished documentaries, the only way to try to understand what the Tempest represents is throughiconographic investigation. One carefully scrutinizes the details, thinks about what symbols they might recall, relates them to the historical and artistic context of the time, and finally puts in place an attempt to derive a logical thread that brings together what has been studied and can allow an acceptable conclusion to be drawn. This is, in essence, the work that Maria Daniela Lunghi has done. The author is an art historian specializing in textiles: in 1998 she founded the Civica Tessilteca of Palazzo Bianco in Genoa, served as its director and is currently its honorary conservator. But, from the passion and expertise with which she approaches the subject, she would seem to have a certain soft spot for Renaissance Venetian art.

Let us start with one of the conclusions: it is not possible to establish with certainty what the Tempest represents. But this can already be understood by leafing through the very first pages. Having completed this premise, we can start by saying that there is a work, according to Maria Daniela Lunghi, that can be related to the Giorgionesque painting: it is an engraving by Albrecht Dürer, dated 1496, reproduced in several copies (one is kept in the Civic Museums of Pavia). It depicts the legend of Saint John Chrysostom: a popular myth that enjoyed wide circulation in the era we are examining. According to this legend, John Chrysostom allegedly decided at some point in his life to retire to an ascetic life in the desert of Syria. One day, however, he allegedly ran into the young daughter of a local ruler, with whom he fell in love and reciprocated. After uniting with her, however, he would be seized with remorse for having gone against the principles of his own religious faith, and he would remedy this with an even more foul act: he would hurl the girl off a cliff as if to atone for his guilt. But a guilt cannot be atoned for by a crime, and careful reflection on his very serious faults would have led John Chrysostom to live like a savage, avoiding all contact with other human beings. One day, John Chrysostom would be found by some of the young girl’s father’s soldiers, and the future saint would confess the crime to the king: they would all go to the scene of the crime and find the girl safe and sound, miraculously escaping the fall, and together with a child, the fruit of her union with John Chrysostom, who would be forgiven.

La Tempesta di Giorgione, dettaglio
Giorgione, detail of The Tempest (c. 1502-1505; Venice, Gallerie dell’Accademia)

A very different story from the one handed down through “official” ways, it nevertheless had the merit of providing suggestions to artists, who identified some recurring elements in the iconography of the legend: the naked woman nursing the child, the wild landscape, the king’s castle, and a John Chrysostom reduced to crawling naked on all fours, often covered with hair, and completely deprived of his dignity as a human being. Maria Daniela Lunghi lists in her discussion other works, besides Dürer’s, on the same theme: engravings by Lucas Cranach, Giulio Campagnola, Andrea Zoan, the Sebald brothers, and Barthel Beham. It is conceivable, through stylistic analyses of some of his works, that Giorgione was familiar with Dürer’s engravings, partly because the German artist stayed in Venice precisely at the time when Giorgione was preparing to paint his Tempest (we are between the late 15th and early 16th centuries: Dürer made two trips to Italy, and on both occasions he had the opportunity to stop on the lagoon). Venice always had fruitful cultural exchanges with countries in the Germanic area: suffice it to mention that Venice was, during the Renaissance, the major center in Italy for the production of printing, a German invention.

In his Tempest, Giorgione would seem to take up the figuration of the myth of John Chrysostom, albeit making several changes: the focus, as was the case with the other artists mentioned above, is on the female figure, but the figure of the saint is completely suppressed and the figure of the soldier, absent in other works depicting the myth, makes his appearance. We have no elements to know whether Giorgione actually wanted to give his own interpretation of the legend, or whether, more likely, the latter constituted for him only a source on which to draw in order to create a kind of allegory, understandable only by those who were part of the cultural circles of Venice at the time.

In short: the message behind the painting is far from being revealed and fully understood. Nevertheless, one cannot fail to appreciate Maria Daniela Lunghi’s book, which helps us to immerse ourselves in a cultural reality as complex as that of late 15th-century Venice was. Rich in timely references, in its own way profound despite its brevity, devoid of rhetoric, written in a clear and easy-to-understand manner. As an art history book intended for a wide audience should be! Finally, an essay that opens up interesting vistas on the study of Giorgione’s Tempest, and I feel like saying that it cannot be missed in the library of anyone who studies or appreciates the inspiration of the great Venetian artist.

Giorgione. The Tempest
By Maria Daniela Lunghi
Europa Editions, 2014
52 pages

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