The tempest enigma

Around 1508 the Italian Renaissance artist Giorgione painted The Tempest. No-one knows what it means.

Giorgione's The Tempest
Giorgione, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Giorgione is one of the more mysterious characters in Renaissance art. He died young (of the plague) and left only a few paintings (six confirmed at last count). But, together with Titian, he really kicked off Venice’s particular brand of artistic expression: subdued, moody, poetic. In artistic terms, Giorgione’s paintings – and Titian’s too – defined their figures through careful gradations of colour and shade. The figures are not outlined in strong lines, the dominant mode in Florentine painting of the time, but seem to blend into their background, becoming a part of the world around them.

(This, by the way, is one of the tricks that Leonardo Da Vinci used in the Mona Lisa; some people believe that he taught this technique – called sfumato – to Giorgione in 1500.)

Almost all Renaissance art is an open book in terms of their meaning. Portraits don’t carry much meaning beyond “I have a rich patron.” Paintings with a Biblical or Classical subject tie to universally recognised events or stories, and often carried well-understood allegorical elements. Giorgione’s painting The Tempest, in contrast, is not an open book.

This enigmatic painting depicts three figures. On the left a standing man puts his weight on one foot while holding a pole. One the right a woman breastfeeds a baby. Behind them is an empty city. Over the whole scene loom dark and threatening clouds. The painting is breathless, waiting, as if something big is about to happen.

What does it mean? No-one knows, but art historians have spent hundreds of years trying to work it out. Some hold that it’s supposed to be a Bible scene, Adam and Eve or the flight from Egypt; others think that the figures are a Classical pair or an allegory for… something. But none of these really seem to match.

We got one interesting clue in the 20th century: an x-ray of the painting revealed that Giorgione had painted the man over the top of another woman. We have no idea why, of course – it just rules out a few of the possibilities described above. It’s pretty clear, for example, that Giorgione didn’t intend to draw Adam and Eve because an earlier version of the painting had no Adam.

It’s entirely possible that Giorgione had no particular meaning in mind. The Tempest is important for a completely different reason: it is considered one of the first landscape paintings in Western art, in the sense of giving the landscape an active and important role in the composition.

Oh, and one last note: Giorgione translates into English as something like “Big George.” Heh, Big George.

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