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Giorgione, Three Philosophers

Giorgione, Three Philosophers, c. 1506 (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna) Speakers: Dr. Beth Harris & Dr. Steven Zucker. Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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  • leafers ultimate style avatar for user Scott
    Given what the bearded man is holding (), might he be an astronomer, or a proto-astronomer? Who can be considered the first astronomer?
    (11 votes)
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    • spunky sam blue style avatar for user rjhadley
      Ptolemy (c. AD 90 – c. AD 168) was a Roman in Egypt whose written works influenced astronomers in the Middle Ages. Ptolemy is associated with the (false) belief of the Earth as the centre of the Solar System, known as Ptolemaic system.

      There were certainly many accomplishment astronomers in ancient cultures who's names and works are mostly lost however. For example, monuments such as Stonehenge as well as the Egyptian pyramids are aligned with celestial events and stars.
      (15 votes)
  • piceratops ultimate style avatar for user Ari Mendelson
    At around , you discuss the background. As the eye goes farther and farther into the background, it seems bluer and hazier to me. Is it fair to say that this is a sfumato technique from Leonardo's influence? Didn't Leonardo used to do backgrounds like this?
    (4 votes)
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    • orange juice squid orange style avatar for user Beth
      From the author:Giorgione was likely influenced by Leonardo, yes. But this is also just atmospheric perspective - though applied in a particularly Venetian way to a particular time of day and quality of light.
      (7 votes)
  • piceratops ultimate style avatar for user Christian Laube
    The speculation about what these men represent is interesting, and strangely i had a different feeling about it. The young man is holding a right angle and a compass the tools of a master builder, while the clothes of the man in the middle looks expensive and from a far away place, while the old man holds a piece of paper or parchment with knowledge. So i was thinking about them maybe representing an artisan a merchant and a philospher or wise man.
    I think each of these groups could be valued in a republic like venice, or is my thinking off here?
    (4 votes)
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  • leaf red style avatar for user elisabeth classen
    2.05 Could it be the different ages of man?
    (3 votes)
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  • leaf green style avatar for user jamie
    When I watched this video, it actually came to mind that maybe these three figures actually represent the same man at different times of his life. Being that at a young age he has a compass and right angle, and in the final stage of life, he has an idea sketched on paper, it made me think of his journey in discovering in life. We change in life. We come across ideas. We ponder. We discover. We look back and down and forward while we ponder. Probably zero validity to this, but it just took my mind to a totally different place...
    (2 votes)
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  • leaf orange style avatar for user Jeff Kelman
    Given that so much of painting had biblical significance, would it not be reasonable to assume that this is another painting of the three wise men (aka. magi, kings)?
    (2 votes)
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    • aqualine tree style avatar for user David Alexander
      I doubt it. The renaissance in Northern Italy was secularizing, and subjects other than things that could hang in churches were becoming more and more common. Besides, the Magi (how ever many or few of them there may have been) carried gold, frankincense and myrrh. I saw no myrrh in anyone's hand in the picture.
      (1 vote)
  • leafers seed style avatar for user Qaf
    Maybe he's presenting the same person over time ?
    (2 votes)
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  • leaf grey style avatar for user Steven Meaney @Atlas
    Is the youngest holding a http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ballastella so that he can find the height of things using the Pythagorean theorem?
    (1 vote)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user Larry Morgan
    Since Socrates was a free thinker and never wrote any thing down but rather was a spoken thinker, how do we know if Plato's interpretation of his mentor was accurate and did not lose the original intend verbal notions and ideas of Socrates when written by Plato ?
    (1 vote)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user Shangyun Shen
    If Giorgione's painting is so elusive and even enigmatic, can he be consider a mannerist? or at least a precursor of them?
    (1 vote)
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    • blobby green style avatar for user drszucker
      From the author:Interesting question. Venice is always a little tricky. Styles that originate in Florence and Rome often sit uneasily in Venice but there is a thread worth thinking about in Giorgione's work that does seem to forecast the court art of the following decades.
      (1 vote)

Video transcript

(piano playing) Steven: We're in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna looking at Giorgione's The Three Philosophers. But that title is provisional because we really have no idea what this painting is about. Beth: These figures clearly represent something. They're each so very distinct in their gestures and the way that they look and how they're dressed and what they hold, that there must be a key. But we don't know what it is. Steven: So let's take a look at what Giorgione is offering us and see if we can't figure this out at least a little bit. Their faces are beautifully illuminated by that light just before dusk, when the sun is low in the sky. But the figure seated, the youngest of the three, is wearing this green and brilliant white. He holds in his hand a compass and a right angle. The standing figure next to him, red and blue wearing a turban, seems to be gesturing over to the oldest figure on the extreme right side, who is himself dressed in these rich golds. He holds a compass in his left hand and a drawing in his right. Beth: And that drawing seems to have on it a sun, perhaps a moon, some geometric diagrams so perhaps he is a ancient philosopher or mathematician. Steven: So this is esoteric knowledge. It is knowledge that perhaps has been lost to us. Beth: And he's the oldest of the three figures and he seems to look, if anything, inward. The figure next to him, by contrast, looks down. Steven: That's the standing man in middle age. Beth: And then the youngest figure seems to look up. Steven: But look what he's looking at. Beth: Into the darkness, into this cave form. Steven: He seems to be trying to measure not only the physical world around him, in contrast to the old man on the right who seems to be measuring the cosmos in some way, but he seems to be trying to understand and draw out something factual, something actual, from a space that he can't really see or at least that we can't really see. Beth: It's very complicated and the most recent theory matches what we're describing ourselves as we stand and look at it, which is that the figure on the left represents the era that Giorgione lived in of this new humanist interest in the world around us. That the figure in the center who looks like he's wearing foreign clothing may represent the Islamic world and the way that they preserved ancient Greek and Roman knowledge, and the figure on the far right may represent that philosophy of ancient Greece and Rome. Steven: Other competing theories take these figures as the three great monotheistic religions: Christianity, Islam and Judaism. Beth: Another theory is that they represent three specific philosophers, we really don't know. We know that Giorgione did work for aristocratic patrons in Venice and they seemed to have preferred a new type of subject and often we really can't determine what those were. They're not the standard Christian subjects. Steven: Well right, they're not enacting a narrative. They're not enacting a biblical story, they're not representations of mythic figures. In a sense they seem to be referencing a set of ideas and that is more elusive and thus it's lost to us. Beth: So even though we can't determine the specific meaning we can still really enjoy the painting. Steven: The composition is so interesting because they are pushed over to the right, they occupy less than half the canvas. But they're perfectly balanced by the darkness, the mass of the cave on the left. Beth: And then between those groups a really beautiful landscape that, to me, looks very Venetian. Steven: Well look at that atmospheric perspective as we move back. The hillside becomes bluer and bluer and then that's played against the golden light of that setting sun. Beth: And that golden light is the environment for all of the figures. That's one of the wonderful things about Giorgione and Venetian painting is that there's a real sense of atmosphere, of time of day, of a soft glowing light that envelops the landscape and that also envelops the figures. Steven: It creates a mood for the entire painting which is soft and contemplative and really does underscore the idea that something profound is taking place. (piano playing)