Giorgione, Carpaccio and the Siege of Padua

January 9, 2011

History indeed is the evidence of the times, the light of truth, the life of memory, the teacher of life, messenger of antiquity.
Marcus Tullius Cicero
De Oratore

i. Giorgione's Paduan Tempest?

The following post will focus on Giorgione's famous Tempest and Vittore Carpaccio's Portrait of a Knight. There are many symbolic markers in both paintings, but the birds in particular give vital clues to the meaning of these works in a historical context - something that is often ignored when contemplating these works. Some writers, including art historians seem more content with emotional responses and ambiguity than looking for historical factors as to why something was painted.

Even in a united Italy of the modern era, there are still significant regional divisions, extending into language, cultural practises and racial biases. These of course are not as pronounced as previous eras, where regions were pitted against each other in a shifting set of alliances based on a mixture of spiritual, commercial and political factors.

In contemplating themes in Venetian art in the early 1500s, we must keep in mind that at this period in time Venice was embroiled in a series of battles against the Papal States, including the forces of Maximilian I, The Holy Roman Emperor. This became known as the Wars of League of Cambrai (sometimes also described as The Holy League.)

Pope Julius II, best known as the man whom commissioned Michelangelo for the Sistine Ceiling and Raphael's work in the Vatican Loggia was very much a warlike Pope. In April 1509 he issued an interdict against the Republic of Venice, excommunicating every member of the city.

Left a young Julius II (as Cardinal della Rovere), later called the Warrior Pope Right Maximilian I, essentially Julius II's hatchet man

We must be prudent in accepting the motivations for this were never entirely spiritual, nor based on Venice's historical links with Christian Orthodoxy and the Eastern Church. Like with many wars, it was also question of plunder and financial gain. Julius II envied Venice's fabulous wealth and dominance of the sea - which granted it dominion in matters of trade and commerce, as well as a superior ability to recruit mercenaries to defend itself.

Hence, the interdict, along with the formation of the League of Cambrai was a concerted effort by the Papal States and their allies to curb Venetian influence in the North of Italy and surrounding regions. For further information on this, a wonderful reference is A History of Venice by John Julius Norwich.

Giorgione's Tempest has long been touted to the public as a painting with no meaning or at the very least one whose meaning is deliberately ambiguous. Over recent decades, Giorgione researchers have worked hard to uncover historical aspects of the painting commonly omitted in textbook descriptions. Many will ponder the identity of the figures, the symbolism of the storm and the broken columns. Readings abound for this work with over 150 published volumes - ranging from classically inspired themes to more spiritual readings such as those described by Salvatore Settis and Frank DeStefano.

A robust explanation of Tempest and Carpaccio's Knight will attempt to fit these works into the historical Venice of the early 1500s. It is nice to think of art as timeless and ethereal, but it is quite difficult for any creative artist to fully dissociate themselves from their surroundings - particularly in an era where patronage drove the arts - not simply a personal journey as more modern artistic movements had the freedom to explore.

In Tempest, one of the historical elements being fleshed out is the identity of the city depicted in the background. Research by Enrico Guidoni and Antonio Boscardin among others has suggested the city in the background is Padua - which was a historical and commercial ally of Venice.

To summarise this, please view the clip below. This video was presented on the website of the Giorgione a Padova (Giorgione in Padua) exhibition, which featured Tempest. This exhibition attempted to demonstrate the link between the painting and the town.

I would like to thank Italian art historian Sergio Momesso and translator Andrew Curran for heir help in facilitating the English subtitles for this video. I did originally contact the people running the exhibition for English language resources, but they were unhelpful. Thanks to Sergio and Andrew we now have a version of this short but interesting resource in English!

As the video demonstrates, there is a compelling argument that the town depicted in Tempest is a section of Padua itself.  What the video did not do was extrapolate the historical meaning of why Padua was depicted. It is important to note that Padua had fallen under the dominion of the Venetian Republic since 1405.

Fascinatingly, there is an event that links Venice and Padua, against the forces of the Holy League. This event is known as the Siege of Padua, which took place in September 1509.

Here is a summary of the events wonderfully explored in J.J Norwich's History of Venice:
  • June 1509: Padua captured by Imperial Roman Troops
  • July 1509: Padua regained by Venetian commander Andrea Gritti (who later became a Doge of Venice)
  • August 1509: Maximilian I's force of 35,000 set out from Trento, joining with French and Papal forces.
  • September 1509: Imperial/allied forces arrive in Padua, siege begins September 15th. The walls of the heavily bombarded Codalunga sector are besieged, but invaders repelled by mines - killing at least at 300 Imperial/allied troops.
  • September 30th 1509 - Maximilian I lifts the siege, due to the casualties suffered, and a lack of funds to continue funding mercenaries. The defeat was a humiliating blow for both Maximilian I and Pope Julius II.

ii. The Carpaccio Connection? A Tale of Two Rooftop Birds

 ..the portrait, assuming it is one, constitutes an element of minor importance from an art historical point of view. In other words, the identification of the person depicted has little bearing on our capacity to interpret the theme and decipher the allegorical message. -Simona Cohen

Simona Cohen is a professor of art history at the University of Tel Aviv, and author of the fascinating Animals as disguised symbols in Renaissance art. An iconographic analysis does not hinge around naming the Knight, but at the same time disregarding the historical events of the time severely short-change the power of any analysis. The best analogy I can give in a modern sense is trying to understand the Vietnam war by music and art of the era alone - it will tell you a great deal - but the concepts make more sense when understood in terms of the historical events which inspired them.

Cohen does go onto look at a parade of theories, made by art historians - , trying to identify the Knight and looking for heraldic and botanical markers as well as documents pertaining to Orders of Knights. Some looking at the painting even suggested that it represented Dubrovnik (in modern day Croatia).

It is here we may suggest the possibility of a less imaginative, but perhaps more plausible reading: this is a commemorative painting for Knights which fought in the Siege of Padua.

It is not even necessarily the likeness of a specific Knight. As outlined by a Spanish researcher Caballero Bonald - the youth depicted is hardly a specimen of a battle-weary mercenary. It is a slender, idealised youth, a symbol of innocence and Christian virtue.

No slender youngster here, Niccolò di Pitigliano was the Venetian Mercenary Captain during the September siege. Upon his death in January 1510 he was honoured by burial at Santi Giovanni e Paolo, the same church reserved for the Doges of Venice.

For more on the symbols in the Carpaccio work, watch this video from the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum in Madrid. For some explanations the Museum and others seem unable to provide.... read on!

English subtitles provided by the Museum have been enabled by default

There are symbolic markers in Carpaccio's Knight which suggest death. This does not mean that it is a memorial portrait. The mottoes included in the work such as "Death before dishonour" are common to military units even in the modern era. They do not necessarily suggest the depiction of a fallen soldier.

The most famous example of a Virtuous Knight beset by evil - Albrecht Dürer's Knight, Death and The Devil (1517) shares many iconographical similarities with Carpaccio's work. Although Dürer visited Venice at least twice, it is unlikely he saw Carpaccio's 1510 piece, though may have seen similar works. He did go on to paint Maximilian I (pictured above).

It should be mentioned that at the Siege of Padua, over 300 soldiers fighting for the Papal States were killed by mines - which is not suggested in any way in the painting.

As we have no primary documentation regarding the original patron or owner(s) of this work - we can not definitively state the Knight's allegiance. We do know that, like many Venetian artists, Carpaccio did not travel extensively, particularly during the period before 1510. Hence, the likelihood that this work was for a non-Venetian patron is somewhat reduced.

It is interesting to note the location of the painting. Identifications of the location have varied - primarily revolving around the supposed identity of the Knight - ranging from Ancona to Dubrovnik. The answer is perhaps in Padua - as suggested by Giorgione's Tempest. Of particular note is the tall building with a sloped roof, with a bird perched on it - which seems to be eerily mirrored in Carpaccio's work.

In Tempest, the bird is solitary and 'above the storm' - meeting the symbolic attributes of the heron as a bird depicting piety. In Carpaccio's image, we have a bird feeding its young - which we know from (later) emblem books was used to signify "a favour ought to be returned" - this is perhaps the clearest marker for a Venetian patron - with Venetian forces liberating Padua from the Siege of Maximilian I's forces.

Pre and post siege: The rooftop birds in Tempest and the Carpaccio work explain the historical context of these works.

We know in 1507 Pope Julius II encouraged the newly elected Maxmillian I to attack the Venetian Republic. Completed by 1508, Giorgione's rooftop bird is vigilant - allies and territories protected by Venice - such as Padua - were under threat.

Detail from Tempest - The Lion of St. Mark is the perennial symbol of Venice

Hence, Tempest signifies a warning of the potential for trouble for Padua. The banner of the Lion of St. Mark proclaims that Venice will proudly stand by the territory it had overseen since 1403. As the Carpaccio work was completed in 1510, after the Paduan siege - the symbolism of "a favour ought to be returned" makes more sense. Venetians are signalling Paduan allegiance, in a commercial, military and spiritual sense.

What was significant about this battle to result in a commission for Carpaccio to paint it? The Siege of Padua was an important victory as far as Venetian morale was concerned, as otherwise the war against the Holy League was going pretty badly at that stage, particularly after the Battle of Agnadello in May 1509, immediately preceding the Siege at Padua. At Agnadello the Venetian forces lost much - including over 4000 casualties - hence the subsequent Venetian success at Padua was a glimmer of hope at an otherwise quite glum time in their history.

Whilst it would be delightful for an archivist to stumble across a vital primary document that establishes the patron of the Carpaccio work once and for all - in the absence of this we must fully explore all available information to shed the most light on a topic. Literary sources(poems, allegorical tales) and other symbols are important, but without historical context, have less power.


Alberti's Window said...

Very interesting! I think it's especially great that you got that video clip to be translated into English (what a great resource for English-speaking scholars!)

In your research of Padua, have you come across any possible idea as to who the patron of the Carpaccio work might be? Are you at a point at which you could pinpoint individuals? (That being said, I can see how it might be difficult to pinpoint a specific individual, though. I can imagine that there are a lot of people who might be interested in a commemorative portrait of the knights/siege.)

Hels said...

You are a scholar after my own heart. I think of myself as a historian who chooses to use objects (paintings, architecture, decorative arts etc) to analyse history, just as other historians choose to use contemporary texts.

Timeless and ethereal art (or music, literature or any other creative endeavour) is an ahistorical concept. You are spot on to point out that any creative artist could not dissociate himself from his surroundings - particularly in an era where patronage drove the arts.

I am particularly fascinated with the politics of Pope Julius II, the warrior pope.

Unknown said...

Cheers for the comments!

@M - The whole problem is the great lack of evidence! I was weary to make any guesses myself, but preferred to focus on some historical facts!

With regards to who would want a picture showing their city in a virtuous fight against an immoral enemy.... who wouldn't want to display such a thing?! Consider the multitude of portraits of Duke of Wellington that would have sprung up in the houses of nobility after Waterloo - this does not make any of those houses intrinsically related to the man famous for defeating Napoleon!

@Hels - It is unusual Julius II's legacy is such a profound and positive one, simply due to his fervent wish to aggrandise himself through art an monuments. In reality he seemed like quite an ambitious and ruthless character. Michelangelo's low opinion of him is well known, not to mention numerously referenced in off colour puns and gestures in the Sistine works.

Yet, he was a man of the Age he lived in, the Pope that had to take over after the Borgia couldn't afford to be shrinking violet!


Dr. F said...

Yes, it's important to understand the historical background of these paintings but at the risk of seeming trivial, I would like to comment on your version of the history.

1. Venice was over confident before the battle of Agnadello in May, 1509. It was their bravado and refusal to negotiate that led Julius II to join the alliance of France and the Holy Roman Emperor. Julius was more concerned with the expansion of Venice into territory formerly under the control of the Papacy on the mainland than about the Venetian overseas empire.

2. As far as the Tempest is concerned I think it was done in 1509 otherwise there would be no reason for a storm over Padua. After Agnadello. the Venetians lost all their lands in the Veneto and only managed to take back Padua which was subsequently besieged.

3. The bird on the roof in Giorgione's painting symolizes lamentation, not vigilance.

4. You did a great job on the Padua video but while the people you cite certainly deserve credit, primacy about the Paduan key to the Tempest should go to Deborah Howard and Paul Kaplan for their work over a decade ago.


Unknown said...

Hello Frank - thank you for the comments!

Addressing your points:

1. I'm quite sure I did not state Julius II was looking to usurp Venice's dominion of the sea, simply stating it as a fact, and source of their wealth - and perhaps bravado!

2. 1509 as Tempest's date is speculative - this whole discussion is speculative! Are you inferring that Giorgione could only have painted it after the interdict and before the first incursion? The interdict was placed on April 27 1509, and Imperial forces actually took Padua in June 1509. You're giving poor Giorgione a very narrow window! The accession of Maximilian I, and Julius II's urging him in 1507 to reacquire the cities in Venetian hands gives a wider window for the depiction of a storm brewing for any city under the Venetian banner(regardless of whether it is Padua or not!) This seems safer as it does not require the city to be Padua, but does include it if required. We have no definitive date on Tempest and that is simply a fact we must swallow!

3. Why are you limiting this to the interpretation in the Jerusalem bible? The Latin Vulgate psalm you yourself supplied describes keeping vigil... "vigilavi" It also fits the Christian bestiary tradition of the heron, a symbolic bird of piety that can fly above the storm - this being an allegory of the storms that exist between men. Symbolically, a heron (or any white bird) is usually not a bird of lamentation. This symbolism is more often reserved for birds such as ravens, often depicted sitting on crucifixes, scenes of carnage etc.

4. The video is a translated piece. I did not write or produce it! I imagine it being an Italian production has something to do with the omission of the names you mention :) In did make sure to mention 'Giorgione researchers spanning recent decades', which would cover them too.

Kind Regards

Dr. F said...


I'll stick with 1509 for the date of the Tempest. No one imagined Padua in danger before Agnadello. The Venetians had no qualms about their ability to face the combined forces of the Holy League. If they had merely waited instead of provoking battle, the enemy army would have had to dissolve. The storm clouds raged over Padua from the time of Agnadello to the lifting of the seige by Maximilian in September.

I'll also stick with "lamentation" for the role of the bird on the rooftop. The whole Psalm is about lamentation not vigilance. Moreover, a minor detail like the bird should not drive the whole interpretation. It fits in very well with the theme of the Flight into Egypt and the massacre of the Innocents.

Coincidentally, today's Yahoo headline mentioned an all night "vigil" of lamenting mourners at the Arizona state house after the terrible shooting spree.


Unknown said...

Very interesting Frank. I admire your dedication to your reading!

I'm not sticking with anything, apart from the fact that there is no hard evidence to stick with! This is the lot of a scientific mind.

Still, it's a fun mental exercise, as Giorgione always is. How dull would things become if an archivist found a primary document meticulously dating and explaining Tempest?!

That Arizona business was horrible indeed, but not really a topic to be explored here.


Dr. F said...


I did not mean to be offensive. I only mentioned the Arizona tragedy because the Yahoo headline writer used "vigil" to mean lamentation.


Unknown said...

Hi Frank, no offense was taken - I just like to keep 3PP free of the politics of the present!

I often wonder what I would write about if I lived during the period I spend most time writing about - most likely I would write about the past as it is always more fascinating than the present!


Unknown said...

Edit notes: Image of Julius and Maximilian edited to correctlty identify a young Julius II(whilst still cardinal) as depicted in a Melozzo da Forli work.


Margaret said...

I'm not sure if it would be too terrible if an archivist found a document that dated and explained Giorgione's intentions with the Tempest. People would still find ways to argue about it! I really enjoyed this post. It's a fascinating painting, and your piece helped clarify things for me.

Gina Collia-Suzuki has written another post about the painting that will be included in this month's Art History Carnival. It goes into detail about other aspects of the painting, like the pentimenti, without even mentioning the Siege of Padua. I really enjoyed both your posts, but it's fascinating how differently two people can approach the same work. Thanks again for the great post!

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