Marcantonio Michiel's inventory of 1530 for the art collection of Gabriele Vendramin is the first mention of this painting of Giorgione's now in the Accademia in Venice: "El paesetto in telacunla tempesta, cunla cinganaet soldato, fude mano de Zorzi da Castelfranco"(A small landscape on canvas with a tempest, with the gypsy and soldier, was by the hand of Giorgio from Castelfranco - my trans.) (Zorzi is the Venetian version of Giorgio, cingana probably the Venetian version of zingara.)
Since Giorgione died in 1510 of the plague, according to Vasari, this painting had to have been painted sometime before 1510, probably around 1505-6. The mystery of the painting's subject has excited more art historical writing than almost any other painting in the Italian Renaissance, and with good reasons.
It is a beautiful painting. It is an erotic painting. And the subject is not typical for painters of the
15th or 16th centuries. We have no documents for the patronage apart from the inventory, so we don't know if it was commissioned, only that in 1530 Vendramin had bought it, and that Michiel thought it was painted by Giorgione with the subject a soldier and a gypsy in a landscape. Not much
to go on twenty years after the painter's death.
The best approach to any painting, however, but especially to one where the subject is atypical, is to look closely at all the elements included in it.
Here two adults and a child are painted into a scene that is partly natural, with stream and trees and
meadow, partly constructed by humans, with a village, bridge over the river in the middle distance, and suggestions of ruins of buildings closer to the people. The two adults are one man standing on the left, holding a staff, and one woman, naked, who is seated, nursing a baby on a white cloth on the ground. The two adult figures are separated by the river that winds between them and keeps them apart.
There are ducks in the river and a white crane atop one of the village buildings.
In the background sky, a streak of white lightning forms a sharp diagonal slicing through the dark grey clouds, suggestive of a storm, hence the title of the painting now.
The man looks over at the woman while standing in place and holding the staff in his right hand, his left arm almost akimbo. He wears a codpiece, perhaps, but is painted to look clearly aroused as he
gazes at the naked woman. A tie string from his red short mantle hangs down untied on his right side, and his right white sleeve is loose.
The woman looks out at the viewer with hair in
disarray, white cloak thrown over her shoulder, her naked body only slightly covered by the bush in
front of her. Her breast is exposed as she offers it
to the child who nurses with eyes closed.
Is her clothing only the white cloth on the ground or is her clothing somewhere else out of sight?
Why is she not looking back at the man but rather at the viewer? Her exposed body is sprawled
on the ground and the cloth under her is rumpled as if she has taken her place in haste to answer the need of the child.
The two figures are not in the village, they are outside it, in the countryside, in natura, which
reminds us that the Italian word for the vagina of animals is "la natura." (Italian contadini will say that they reached into "la natura" to help pull out a calf that is being born.) Nature is more than just landscape in Italy; it is creation and procreation, the place of sexual activity.
The scene is one of an intimate event in the lives of these two people. One can imagine that they
had been making love in the countryside, away from the prying eyes of people, but they had brought
the baby, and during their love-making, the baby had cried, and the woman had a choice to make:
to take care of the needs of the child before the needs of the lover or husband; she knows she can
nurse the child back to sleep and resume love-making with the man, so she chooses to nurse the child
first. The man has partially dressed again but is still aroused, and he stands quietly and looks to her for a sign that he may return to her side. He stands away from them so as not to distract the child,
whom they both hope will go back to sleep. She doesn't look at the man because the baby is still at breast. She knows she must wait to give the man a signal to come back. While she waits, she looks at the viewer as if to ask approval for her choice.
We as viewers are given access to the sex life of this couple, a rare privilege, and yet we feel, as we look at them, as if we look at all couples as they negotiate the sometimes crossed paths of loving each other and loving their child. The natural quality of their interaction and the mystery of it are both present in their disparate glances and in the landscape painted behind them.
Their sexual connection and implied intercourse are symbolized in the bridge that spans the river
behind them and connects the land the man stands on with the village behind the woman.
The interrupted love-making, coitus interruptus, is referred to in the columns that stop short behind the man
and in the arches that seem to start a span but are cut off abruptly in the structure behind the columns.
The building elements that are unfinished are signs of the unfinished nature of their love-making.
The impending or retreating storm adds to the anxiety of the moment, the question about whether they will be able to finish what they came for.
The excitement of their sexual encounter is mirrored in the lightning strike in a sky which
envelops them, yet the storm implies a natural interruption in the proceedings.
The mystery of the universal attraction and separation of the sexes is portrayed here, and if we were not aware of these two people representing male and female, Giorgione shapes them in the form most familiar to Italians, the articles il and la, the definite articles that come before masculine and feminine nouns in Italian, even Italian of the 16th-century. The man's staff presents the i of il, the man's standing figure the l.
The woman's head and body present the l of la, the curved leg and white cloth the a.
An example of these articles in a Venetian printed book of 1545 comes from Parabosco's
appropriate Lettere Amorose: (the feminine articles are circled in green, the masculine in yellow)
Do I think Giorgione purposely paints Italian definite articles here? Is the subject about
grammar? No, it is more that because of the sexual division in the Italian language into male and
female nouns, everything learned by Italians from birth is regarded as either masculine or feminine
(there is no neuter), so that the grammatical forms well up from the cultural landscape for the painter
because he has grown up with that language. The sexes in the painting are separated by a gap, a river, but that river is bridgeable, or in the foreground, jumpable, and so the separation in this case is temporary. All creation is sexual in Italy, reflected in its verbal language and in the visual language painted into the couple here. Giorgione is painting the mysterious understanding and misunderstanding between the sexes and the shapes of the people in that mystery take on the forms of the masculine and feminine he has come to know since childhood.
An intimate love moment between two people is a powerful image and unusual as subjects
normally painted in 16th century Italy. But if we gather some of the paintings that most art historians
think were painted by Giorgione, we find that Giorgione paints or draws subjects often that are unusual or personal, intimacies outside the usual religious or mythological topics painted by other painters of his era. The titles are given to the paintings afterwards by others. The dates are all between 1505 and 1510.
Fete Champetre, Louvre
date, but in every case, the subjects are intimacies.
Two exceptions to his intimacy oeuvre:
The Castelfranco Altarpiece, commissioned for his hometown church, a more usual 16th-century
and a self-portrait, originally as David with the head of Goliath, in the Herzog Anton Ulrich-Museum in Braunschweig:
(The painting has been cut down and is the reverse of this etched image of 1650, with eyes looking out at the viewer).
The TEMPEST is more like the first four examples than these last two. Giorgione's choice for subject, love interrupted in an intimate natural setting, may be personal and perhaps autobiographical.
Some critics have said that the soldier, who is not a soldier at all but a Venetian with striped hose, looks unlike Giorgione's self-portrait:
But is it that much unlike? Long nose, dark hair covering brow and cheeks, set mouth.
When the subject is about male arousal and female breast-feeding, it is understandable if art historians find it easier to attach mythological and biblical stories to the event depicted, since the
subject evokes powerful feelings and makes the viewer want to keep looking at it. The gloss for this intimate subject over the years has covered over the real scene out of a need to avoid confronting it directly and a need to keep looking at it. Various critical identifications have included Adam and Eve, Iasion and Ceres, Padua and Venezia, Mars and Venus.
And what about the crane, you ask? Why is it in the picture? Cranes have a natural migratory
path across Northern Italy in autumn, when they sense the coming of the winter cold. The crane
at the top of the building in the background is another indication of interruption; it is not a flock of
cranes, but the first scout in the migratory pattern of change from summer, depicted in the painting
in the trees in full leaf, to the colder season which follows.
Art historians have often wanted to see erudite literary passages implied in Renaissance paintings about naked women. Though it is true that intellectual advisers undoubtedly contributed content to
some of the paintings created in the 15th and 16th centuries in Italy, it is also true that painters during
that period painted about life, the lives of their patrons and their own individual lives, something
some art critics have preferred to see not happening for painters until the 19th century.
If believing that this is a painting about Giorgione's own love-making is not acceptable, perhaps
believing that the painter was sensitive enough to imagine his own parents and their activities when
he was a child could be settled on. The curators in the Accademia may refer to this possibility in placing the painting side by side with another personal painting by the artist, the painting called "Col Tempo."
Is this not the same woman's face turned 3/4 to the left to look out at the viewer? Is she not the same woman in both paintings who has aged in the older portrait and who points to herself to say the aging has taken place "WITH TIME," COL TEMPO, the inscription written on the scroll she holds in her right hand? Does that mean that the woman in the Tempest is a portrait of Giorgione's mother? Or an imagined portrait of the young lover in the Tempest that Giorgione wishes to remind of the swiftness of life's passing? It would certainly suggest that she is not a woman from mythology or from the Bible; the implication is that she is a real woman who is subject to the vicissitudes of time, to aging. The sweet atmosphere in the Tempest, the heavily charged sexual atmosphere, then, could be a painting of a memory of time long past that has led to the reality depicted in Col Tempo, or the painting of an event that the artist wishes to preserve from the natural ravages of time. The personal and intimate nature of both paintings gives us a glimpse into the appreciation Giorgione had for the brief exhilarating moments in life that we all remember in old age. The electricity in the scene
in the countryside is emphasized in the lightning strike but is palpable in the space between the
If we are naturally drawn to look at it, it is because we recognize in it our own sexual origins
and the beauty and pleasure of love-making and breast-feeding both.