This jewel of a painting, glowing like a stained glass window, is more modern than it looks at first glance. We don’t know exactly when it was created (probably around 1508) and we don’t know its real name—The Tempest is a nickname to make it easier to identify. So what makes it so modern?
Giorgione (a nickname meaning Big George) was an astonishingly gifted Venetian painter who died young and left only a handful of paintings. The colors and textures are vivid hallmarks of Venetian painting, but in spite of its brilliance there’s a perplexing riddle at the heart of The Tempest: what the heck does this picture mean? It’s okay to scratch your head while studying it. Art scholars have been doing so since the picture was found in Giorgione’s studio after his untimely death from the plague at thirty-three.
In Giorgione’s day landscape art had yet to be developed, but this landscape is more than just a backdrop for figures. It’s a presence in its own right and will later point the way for future landscape painters. Lightning crackles in a sky choked with menacing clouds, and sultriness oozes from the painting. Gazing at it, I can almost feel my shirt sticking to my back. But the riddle doesn’t come from the steamy landscape; it’s harbored in the figures.
Is this a religious picture? On the right a woman sits, suckling a baby. Instead of looking at her child, she takes in the viewer with a challenging stare. Is this the way most women suckle babies? No. The baby is not on her lap but off to the side, as if Giorgione delighted in exposing her private parts. This has disturbed those who have wanted to interpret this as the Holy Family on the flight to Egypt. Venice was a licentious place, but not even the Venetians would have dared to depict the Mother of God this way. Is she a gypsy, or a prostitute? Is this Adam and Eve with their child Cain? A scene from classical mythology, and if so which one? How could a painter of Giorgione’s caliber have created something so confusing?
Take a look at the dude with the staff in the bottom left corner, smiling at we know not what. Who is he? He doesn’t even look at the mother and child. Does he know they are there? Is he a shepherd? If so what’s he doing in fashionable duds from a Venetian version of the Men’s Wearhouse? Is he a soldier protecting them, or are they hiding from him? We don’t know if he is flesh and blood or the spirit of a protective saint. Maybe he’s a member of a club for unwed men. If so, are the columns behind him signs of his steadfastness or phallic symbols advertising his sexual prowess? Either way, why are these columns broken? X-rays show that the artist had originally painted another nude female here before changing his mind, which could have made this a picture about women on the lam, a Renaissance version of Thelma and Louise.
Artists have always changed their minds, altered and refined their work, but here it seems as if Giorgione had no subject in mind. During the Renaissance, artists were considered mere tradesmen; they painted what they were told to paint; portraits flaunting wealth and status, a crucifixion for a church, the commemoration of a special event. Unlike modern artists, they weren’t free to paint what they pleased. The Tempest was said to have been commissioned by a Venetian nobleman, but who could possibly have commissioned something as vague, as peculiar as this?
This is not for those who shun mysteries, who like things tied and bundled with neat rules and explanations. Giorgione’s painting is like the city that inspired it—Venice, that labyrinthian marvel on the waves, a place of blurry twists and turns forcing you to question what you see. Like Venice itself, this painting floats on a sea of questions and improbabilities.
Giorgione has prepared a visual feast for us but we are expected to bring something to the party, our own interpretation. This is the beginning of something modern. We get to participate in the creative process by deciding for ourselves what this painting means. In the future this concept will be taken for granted, but here in 1508 it’s a steamy little revolution.
Welcome to the feast. What do you think is happening in The Tempest?