The Tempest: Giorgione’s masterpiece without a subject

No other painter in the history of Western art has left so few definitively attributable works while enjoying such fame as Giorgione. That fame rests chiefly on his mysterious, poetic paintings, of which The Tempest is a prime example. Although composed as a landscape, the work also contains figures and complex allusions. It’s the epitome of Giorgione’s depiction of mood within an evocative pastoral scene, which was among the first of its genre in Venetian painting. Beyond that, it’s all conjecture.

Similarly, nothing tangible is known about Giorgione’s personal life except the legends reported much later by the biographer of Renaissance artists Giorgio Vasari. The painter’s talent was recognised early but his short career in Venice was ended abruptly by the plague when he was in his early 30s. The technique, colour and mood of Giorgione’s pictures are related to Giovanni Bellini’s late style. It’s now accepted that the young artist was trained by Giovanni, the “father of the Venetian School”.

Despite the young age, Giorgione developed his own style of soft focus painting, which – not unlike that of Leonardo da Vinci – incorporated more landscape than usual and a more gradualist application of colour. Unlike many other High Renaissance artists of the Venetian School who favoured a more sensualist and less intellectual approach to art, Giorgione tended to imbue his works with a range of hidden meanings, more in line with that of Leonardo, Michelangelo and other artists of the Florentine Renaissance.

That said, the exact meaning of The Tempest, now in the Accademia, eludes everyone. In the foreground, on the right, a seated nude woman is holding a baby to her breast. On the opposite side, a young man with a stick is smiling at the woman who is, however, looking at the viewer, not at the man. An X-ray analysis has shown that originally a second female stood in place of the male, before Giorgione erased it. The interpretations range from a soldier and a Gypsy to Adam and Eve, with others in between.

The Tempest is also a painting of two distinct halves – foreground and background – set within the same landscape. With its dramatisation of a storm about to break, the picture is a milestone in Renaissance landscape painting as one of the first works in which landscape, both countryside and urban, is the dominant feature. Some literary source of a romantic nature can be assumed here, since no Renaissance artist would include in a generic landscape two mysterious figures devoid of meaning. Or would he?