If you're seeing this message, it means we're having trouble loading external resources on our website.

If you're behind a web filter, please make sure that the domains *.kastatic.org and *.kasandbox.org are unblocked.

Main content

Giorgione, The Tempest

Giorgione, The Tempest, c. 1506-8 (Accademia, Venice) Speakers: Dr. Steven Zucker & Dr. Beth Harris. Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

Want to join the conversation?

Video transcript

(jazzy music) Male: We're in the Accademia in Venice and we're looking at Giorgione's The Tempest. Female: It's a painting from the very early years of the 1500s. Male: He's painting at a time when, for many years, the leading painter in Venice had been Giovanni Bellini and we're seeing a significant change; one that sets the foundation for the great Venetian masters of the 16th century. Female: Especially Titian. This is a painting that has puzzled art historians. Even before art historians it puzzled people shortly after Giorgione's life. Giorgione died young. He was in his early 30s. He died of the plague. Mystery surrounds so much of his work. None of his work is signed. It's difficult to date. And they're mysterious in their subjects. Male: Giorgione was a favorite among the new art collectors in Venice; this new intellectual elite. Venice was this place where the intellectual community was dramatically expanding. There were an enormous number of printing presses in Venice. There was interest in humanism, in antiquity, in poetry. There was just this extraordinarily varied culture that had really blossomed. Giorgione's paintings are mysterious to us because he was working for a clientele that was looking for more than the typical religious subject matter. Female: When you think about the career of Giovanni Bellini you think about the large public commissions, or major church commissions, or you think about private commissions, and those are generally half-length Madonna and Child paintings. Here, with Giorgione, we seem to have a new type of subject. Their iconography is not standard, their symbolism isn't standard, so they're hard to know what they are. You're right, they are for this new clientele. Male: We're greeted, as soon as we look at the painting, by this woman's gaze. She looks out at us. She is almost completely nude. And she's suckling a young child. Female: She's accompanied on the other side of the painting by a young male figure who looks over in her direction, carrying a staff. Soon after the painting was completed he was identified both as a soldier and as a shepherd. Male: And in one of the early descriptions of the woman, she was described as a gypsy. Female: We don't have to take any of that as truth. In fact, he certainly doesn't look like a soldier. Art historians have determined that he's dressed as a contemporary Venetian. Another thing that complicates the subject is that we've recently learned through x-rays that the male figure was not always there. In fact, there was a seated nude female figure. Male: I think that art historians sometimes want to find the one particular meaning, and that has brought us to looking at specific elements within this painting which almost seem in some ways beside the point. There is just barely visible, for instance, the lion of St. Mark on the tower in the distance. There may be the insignia of the city of Padua, which has led us to think in that direction. We've focused on the bird that stands on the roof. We've, of course, focused on that bolt of lightening because of its particularity. Female: There are a whole range of interpretations; that this is allegorical and relates to some conflicts in Venice at that moment, that the columns represent fortitude, that the female figure represents charity, and that the lightening represents the vagaries of fortune. Another art historian has said that this is Adam and Eve. We're all over the map here. Male: There's also an art historian who suggested that this is an illustration of a relatively rare Greek myth. So right, there are an enormous number of interpretations, but all of those things draw our eye away from the totality of the painting, from the way in which oil paint can be used to create a very harmonious light, a landscape full of atmosphere, full of humidity, full of the kind of presence that one feels amidst a storm. Female: We do have a sense of a figure embedded in a shadowy space. Clearly Giorgione's exploiting oil paint in a different way. When we look at Bellini, we have a sense of layer upon layer of thinned out oil paint that is very reflective. Here we have more a sense of the density, an opaqueness of the paint. He's using oil paint in a different way. We know that Leonardo da Vinci was in Venice in 1500, less than a decade before this was painted, and that Giorgione was looking at Leonardo and thinking about sfumato. Male: But what this painting is mostly is the space between these figures. That is, this extraordinary landscape with a city beyond and a storm in the sky. Female: The painting really does seem to be about the transient effects of weather much more so than the figures who seem incidental to it or about to be overcome by those effects of weather. Male: It's of course because those figures feel almost at odds in some way with the landscape that as art historians we often conclude that they must be allegorical or figures in some kind of literary drama. But really what we're left with is this sumptuous object, this sumptuous color. Female: And a painting that seems to ask for our involvement, for our interpretation. It's poetic and evocative. It's no wonder that we're so engaged with it. It's meant to engage us. Male: It does so in a very direct way. The man looks at the woman. The woman looks at us. If we look back at the man, we form this visual triangle. We are part of this painting. It is this marvelous dream-like space. (jazzy music)