Giorgione and the plague

portrait of cave with two men
Il Tramonto, National Gallery, London

 

Giorgione’s painting Il Tramonto (The Sunset) is as mysterious as most of the other details of the artist’s life. Painted around 1506, it was lost and rediscovered in 1933 in a villa near Venice, in very poor condition, damaged, and with holes in it. Over time it underwent three restorations. The holes were covered with canvas, parts were repainted, and the restorers patched up the damaged areas by adding a Saint George with the Dragon in the right upper side and converting the rocks in the lower right pond to sea monsters. Of the two men in the foreground one is perhaps Saint Roch, and the other is his attendant applying a bandage to a possibly plague-infected or ulcerated leg.  Saint Roch is himself a vague historical figure, likely a hagiographic doublett of two saints combined into one, the earlier one warding off storms, the later a young French nobleman who became a saint protector against the plague. 1 Also plague-related is the difficult to see hermit peering out of a cave on the right side of the painting. He may be Anthony Abbot, another saint protector against the plague.

Most facts about the life of Giorgione are derived from an idealized portrait  by Vasari who described him as of humble origin, gentle and courteous, “always a very amorous man, “ fond of the flute and of design, in his work always imitating the beauties of nature “so that he would present in his works only what he copied directly from life.”2 Trained for some time by Giovanni  Bellini in Venice around 1490 and influenced by Leonardo da Vinci , he developed a style ”so soft, so well harmonized, and so subtly blended“2 that it surpassed the earlier Venetian masters and became known as Giorgionesque. It inspired a new generation of Venetian painters such as Titian, Sebastiano del Piombo, Palma Vecchio, and Lorenzo Lotto.

Even to this day some doubt remains about which of his few surviving paintings may be definitely attributed to him, but based on his known style, experts seem to have agreed that it was Giorgione indeed who painted Il Tramonto.  What message the painting was intended to convey, however, remains unclear giving rise to much speculation and controversy among art historians.

It has been reported that when Isabella d’Este, the Marques of Mantua, instructed her agent to purchase one of Giorgione’s paintings, the agent was told that the artist had recently died of the plague. Vasari recounts that in 1511 he fell in love with a certain lady and “carried on a very pleasurable affair,“ not knowing that she was infected with the plague so that “he too became dangerously infected; and soon afterwards, at the age of thirty-four passed to the other life… a grievous loss for the whole world… made more tolerable because of the many accomplished pupils he left behind him .”2

 

References

  1. Saint Roch, Art Flash in Hektoen International, Summer-Fall 2012.
  2. Giorgio Vasari: Lives of the Artists. Penguin Classics, 1965.

 


 

George Dunea, MD Editor-in-Chief (Summer 2016)

 

 

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