The High Renaissance Venetian painter Giorgio Barbarelli da Castelfranco, popularly known as Giorgione (or Zorzi), was a pupil of Giovanni Bellini and - according to the biographer Giorgio Vasari (1511-74) - ranked with Leonardo da Vinci as one of the pioneers of oil painting. He was the first artist in Venice to produce small pictures in oils, and his picture The Tempest is seen by many art historians as the first ever landscape. A master of all the painting genres who exerted huge influence over his contemporaries, Giorgione is best known for a small number of pictures - some of which were finished by other artists - including: The Castelfranco Madonna (Church of San Liberate, Castelfranco), The Tempest (Venice Academy Gallery), The Three Philosophers and Boy with an Arrow (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna), and Sleeping Venus (Gemaldegalerie Alte Meister Dresden). Despite the shortness of his career, the scarcity of facts about his life and the small number of paintings authoritatively attributed to him, Giorgione is one of the most celebrated of High Renaissance artists, and a major influence on the Renaissance in Venice. Note: according to Vasari, Giorgione rarely did any drawing. For details of drawings by other Renaissance artists in Venice, see: Venetian Drawing (c.1500-1600).
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Giorgione was born in Castelfranco, a town outside of Venice. It is believed that he trained as an apprentice in the workshop of the great Venetian Renaissance painter Giovanni Bellini (14301516), at the same time as Lorenzo Lotto (1480-1556) and Palma Vecchio, although there are some suggestions that he may also have been a pupil of Vittore Carpaccio (c.1465-1525/6).
Whatever the case, in his painting style Giorgione (like his contemporary Titian) took after Bellini, whose unique expression of colour, light and atmosphere gave Venetian painting a distinctive character to rival the Florentine focus on line and composition. Giorgione improved on his master's style by giving it greater monumentality, seriousness and lyricism. He used colour as the basis of pictorial representation, building up his canvases with layer upon layer of complementary colours, drawn from a relatively narrow palette, creating a sort of haze which envelopes his forms.
According to Giorgio Vasari, Giorgione started out as a specialist painter of small devotional Madonnas and other works for private collectors, who were then beginning to emerge as a new type of patron. In 1500, at the age of 23, he was commissioned to paint the portraits of the Doge Agostino Barbarigo and the Condottiere (mercenary leader) Consalvo Ferrante. In 1504, he was asked to paint an altarpiece to commemorate another Condottiere, Matteo Costanzo, in the cathedral of his native Castelfranco. This work, known as the Castelfranco Madonna, or Madonna and Child Between Saint Francis and Saint Nicasius, includes a novel background of lush landscape. Such a style would come to fruition in his later Sleeping Venus, whose nude subject blends intimately into the soft, flowing landscape background. It was in the early 1500s - about the same time as Leonardo da Vinci started - that Giorgione began using a very fine chiaroscuro technique known as sfumato - the use of gradual shades of colour to express light and perspective. Vasari, who was notoriously biased in favour of the Renaissance in Florence, claims that the Venetian learned it from Leonardo's works. In any event, use of the technique lent Giorgione's oil paintings their characteristic glow.
In 1506 he shared a studio with the religious painter and portraitist Vincenzo Catena (c.1470-1531). In 1508 he and other young artists frescoed the canalside facade of the newly refurbished Fondaco dei Tedeschi (German Merchants' Warehouse) in Venice, while a younger Titian worked on the side facade. Only a fragment remains of this fresco of Giorgione (now in Ca' d'Oro, Venice), while in the case of similar frescoes he produced for the exterior of the Casa Soranzo, the Casa Grimani alli Servi and other Venetian palaces, there is no trace.
Indeed, much of Giorgione's output as a painter is wreathed in mystery. The principal document for reconstructing Giorgione's list of works is a set of notes made by the Venetian art collector Marcantonio Michiel (c.1484-1552) during the period 1521-1543. From these notes, in addition to the Castelfranco Madonna (1504) and a signed female portrait known as Laura (1506), art historians have identified the following works as being those of Giorgione. For more about Giorgione's involvement in ecclesiastical painting, like the Castelfranco Madonna, see: Venetian altarpieces (c.1500-1600).
The Tempest (Tempesta) (c.1508)
The Three Philosophers (1509)
Sleeping Venus (c.1510)
Reputation As an Artist
Giorgione died of the plague in Venice in October 1510 at the tragically young age of 33. Despite having achieved considerable acclaim amongst Italian painters during his lifetime, and afterwards, a number of his (probable) works were - until the 19th century - attributed to others. The Hermitage Judith for example, was long considered a Raphael, and the Dresden Sleeping Venus a Titian. Then during the late 19th century a Giorgione revival began, and the trend was reversed. This is still the case, and while numerous paintings previously assigned to Giorgione a century ago, have now been definitely excluded from his oeuvre, other works are beginning to be included. Major art exhibitions at Venice (2004) and Washington (2006), have provided a platform for further comparative inspections of disputed works by art historians and curators. See also: Legacy of Venetian Painting on European art.
Whatever the final verdict on who painted what, Giorgione left behind a legacy which exerted a huge influence on Venetian painters, including Titian, Sebastiano del Piombo, Palma Vecchio, Dosso Dossi, Giulio Campagnola, and Tintoretto, as well as on his former teacher, Giovanni Bellini, and later artists such as Jean-Antoine Watteau (1684-1721). Giorgione pioneered a new range of subjects beyond the usual ecclesiastical idiom, including landscape painting, portraits and even an early type of genre-painting. Most unusually, he painted pictures that told no apparent story, but instead conveyed a mood of lyrical or romantic feeling. His "mood-landscapes", for instance, were particularly inventive. In addition, he was the first Renaissance artist to create that warmth and luminosity of colour which later became the hallmark of the Venetian School of oil painting. (See also: Titian and Venetian Colour Painting c.1500-76.)
Paintings by Giorgione can be seen in many of the best art museums throughout the world.
For biographies of other great European
painters before 1800, see: Old Masters.
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