Giorgione. The Tempest. c.1506-9. Gallerie Dell'Academia, Venice
Tempest is a work attributed to Venetian Master Giorgione. He was, even during his life time, commonly referred to as Giorgione (Giorgio The Great), which Vasari tells us was a nickname earnt due to the "greatness of the stature of his mind".
Whilst some hold that The Pastoral Concert is a Giorgione concept, perhaps finished by Titian, the painting seen exclusively as the definitive Giorgione masterpiece is Tempest.
A lot has been surmised about this painting, including a range of interpretations ranging from pastoral arcadian, mythological, to biblical. Amidst all this speculation however, two things are certain... the dominance and beauty of the natural setting - with the impending storm(tempest) churning away in the background. Then there are the deliberate motifs associated with the two figures.
Even if they were portraits of actual persons, the poses and situations they have been placed in give them a meaning more than their identity alone. The male is youthful, healthy and handsome. The woman is also youthful, but also has the radiance of fertility and motherhood, as well as a deep underlying sensuality that Tempest is really driving our thoughts towards.
It must be remembered that this was a private commission, painted for a leading Venetian intellectual and Patron of the Arts, Gabriele Vendramin. Whilst still hanging in Vendramin's home in 1530, Venetian writer Marcantinio Michiel - who wrote extensively on collections of the day - described it as "the little landscape on canvas with a tempest, a gypsy woman and a soldier."
Whether this was an actual description handed to Michiel from Vendramin, or a personal interpretation, we are not sure. As with much of Giorgione's work, the mode of depiction, and the multiplicity of meanings adds to its magic and mystery.
Adding to the numerous classical readings of Tempest made over the years, is the explanation offered by Waldemar Januszczak, as presented in his lovely short format documentary Every Painting Tells A Story (2003-4). This series looked at a total of 8 works, including The Arnolfini Portrait by van Eyck, Botticelli's Birth of Venus and Caravaggio's Boy Bitten By A Lizard.
Januszczak draws on a tale related by Homer in The Odyssey. The thunderbolt, the Crane, the shortened column, all point toward the story of Demeter and Iasion, and the vengeful Zeus, who struck Iasion with a thunderbolt, cutting his life short. Students of mythology will also know that the Crane is a symbol of Demeter, as the thunderbolt is of Zeus. In an historical context, some argument has also been put forward that the bird is symbol of vigilance in the ongoing battles in the War of The League of Cambrai.
edit: Following some highly insightful contributions from Dr. Frank DeStefano in the comments to this post, I would like to present a direct link to his work here. Frank has done some interesting research into The Tempest, examining its as an unique depiction of The Rest during the Flight into Egypt, a common subject for artists since Medieval times.
His recent research on the bird is particularly fascinating, and definitely nudges the interpretation of that symbol in the Biblical direction. See the post A Grey Heron for more details. Below is the Psalm in question. Kudos to Frank for his persistence and thoroughness, and for sharing his findings with 3PP.
I live in a desert like the pelican,
In a ruin like the screech owl,
I stay awake, lamenting
Like a lone bird on the roof;
[Jerusalem Bible, Psalm 102]
Giorgione's bird is literally a couple of tiny dabs of paint. This image is taken from a close-up shown in the documentary, run through a software noise reduction filter to improve clarity
Regardless of whether one subscribes to his particular reading or not, I personally love Waldemar Januszczak's quirky style. His growing list of amazing documentaries are available for purchase from his production company's site, ZCZ Films. His series on the Baroque in particular is very engaging.
Below is a clip from this wonderful episode. If you enjoyed this snippet I recommend you track down the rest of the Every Painting series - they are simply unmissable if you are a fan of Baroque or the Renaissance in particular.
Zeus as a storm cloud is not unique to Tempest in Venetian art. He was a storm cloud spewing thunderbolts in In Titian's Danae
For the complete catalogue of Januszczak's films, go to ZCZ films, where you can view more trailers. There is also a YouTube Channel and Twitter Feed you can follow, for the latest info on new projects, and witty observations and laments as Januszczak treks around the world making his films.
I would like to dedicate this post to Mr. Januszczak's wonderful films - it was in fact whilst watching the Every Painting episode on Botticelli's Birth of Venus in late 2009 that the idea to start this site crystallised and became a reality.