Giorgione in Early Modern sources

October 14, 2011

Giorgione's David is widely regarded as a self-portrait

Giorgione and archival entanglements

In the June 2011 edition of The Burlington Magazine, Renata Segre revealed the discovery of an important document —an inventory (dated 14 March 1511) of the property of “the late master Giorgio the painter” who died in a plague hospital in Venice. This important new evidence confirmed the old assumption that Giorgione was a plague victim. In addition, Giorgio the painter was described as the heir of “sier Iohannis Gasparini”. This led Segre to the assumption that Giorgione's family name was in fact Gasparini, and not Barbarelli, as cited by scholars until this point.

Responding to this is Giorgione scholar Lionello Puppi. Published in several outlets in Italy recently, including this October 12 piece in the Corriere del Veneto, he points out that that the painter Giorgione di Castelfranco was “Giorgio son of Giovanni Barbarella son of Gasparino”—as noted in the other documents that Puppi cites, and which Segre evidently did not take into consideration.

Gasparino was a first name and Giorgio’s grandfather might well have been called “Gasparino Barbarella”, like his son. However, the use of regular family names cannot be taken for granted in the fifteenth century (especially below the upper echelons of society.)

Puppi’s argument is that “Johannis Gasparini” is meant to be read as “Giovanni son of Gasparino”—not “Giovanni (first name) Gasparini (last name)”. This makes logical sense since we know from other documents that Giorgio was indeed the son of Giovanni and the grandson of Gasparino.

Puppi supposes that the notary who registered the inventory was rather careless in his insertion of the formulaic “quondam” (“the late”) and that Giorgio’s descent would have been more immediately clear if he had introduced another “quondam” between “Johannis” and “Gasparini” in “fili dicti quondam sier Iohannis Gasparini”.

However, notaries were often sloppy or inconsistent in this kind of way. And we need to consider the other evidence for Giorgio being the son of Giovanni Barbarella and the grandson of Gasparino. Ultimately, this offers yet another valuable lesson on the danger of (1) taking a single document out of context, and (2) not taking into consideration characteristic flukes in the documentation of the time. 

Renata Segre is a major scholar but in this case, it seems that her reasoning is somewhat incomplete. If Giorgione documents are so “rare”, she should have more thoroughly explored the existing documents in her Burlington piece —the footnotes of which reveal she does cite Chiuppani and Cecchetto, but ignores their findings in the main article:

The recent quincentenary of Giorgione’s death gave rise to some important new publications. These include E.M. Dal Pozzolo and L. Puppi, eds.: exh. cat. Giorgione, Castelfranco (Museo Casa Giorgione) 2009–10; and E.M. Dal Pozzolo: Giorgione, Milan 2009. Two other recent publications are worthy of note: G. Nepi Sciré and S. Rossi, eds.: exh. cat. Giorgione. ‘Le maraviglie dell’arte’, Venice (Gallerie dell’Accademia) 2003; and E.M. Dal Pozzolo, ed.: Giorgione a Montagnana, Atti del Convegno (Montagnana 2003), Padua 2004. However, it was the first two publications that helped me in this work in a field that, for an historian, seems like a minefield. Most of the relevant documents on Giorgione in Castelfranco may be found in the work of two scholars, Giovanni Chiuppani and Giacinto Cecchetto; see G. Chiuppani: ‘Per la biografia di Giorgione da Castelfranco’, Bollettino del Museo Civico di Bassano 6 (1909), pp.73–81; and G. Cecchetto: ‘Castelfranco tra la fine del XV secolo e i primi decenni del XVI: “mappe urbane” e i paesaggi del contado’, in Dal Pozzolo and Puppi, op. cit., pp.63–67. [Footnote 2, Segre]

In addition, she makes a comment against Puppi's contribution, labelling it as "sadly rather too imaginative":

Lionello Puppi also deduces this from the exchange of letters between Isabella d’Este and her agent in Venice, giving a picture that is sadly rather too imaginative compared to the snapshot provided by the new inventory: ‘del defunto [Giorgione], restava lo spazio fisico dove aveva abitato e lavorato allorché s’ammalava: la casa, dunque, l’atelier, dove stavan disposti gli oggetti mobili che li arredavano, comprendendo l’armamentario dell’attività pittorica – cavalletti, tele, carte, pennelli, spatole, tavolozze, vasi e vasetti di colori; e dipinti finiti e già pronti per il commercio con altri appena sbozzati o in attesa degli ultimi ritocchi –, ma anche dei sollazzi musicali; e libri e – chissà – qualche piccolo reperto archeologico’; L. Puppi: ‘Tracce e scommesse per una biografia impossibile’, in Del Pozzolo and Puppi, op. cit. (note 2), p.22. [Footnote 7, Segre]

*Via e-mail correspondence between Dr. Edward L. Goldberg and 3PP (extracted with permission)

Editor's comment
3PP would like to thank Dr. Goldberg for providing a timely account of the update to this exciting development in Giorgione studies. The role of the editors of The Burlington should also be mentioned. One can only surmise that the checks and balances usually afforded to scholarly articles were not fully applied in this instance? Whatever Segre's response to Puppi's assertions will be, that she framed her article without fully addressing the existing evidence does her contribution a disservice. -hn

Lionello Puppi: Il cognome di Giorgione è Barbarella. Corriere del Veneto. October 12 2011. Accessed 13 October 201. link

Niyazi, H. Giorgione's woman in red. Three Pipe Problem. June 4 2011. Accessed 13 October 2011 link

Segre, R. A rare document on Giorgione. The Burlington Magazine. Issue 153. June 2011. pp.383-386

Dr. Edward Goldberg is an art historian, archival sleuth and long-time resident of Florence. Along the way, he achieved a PhD at Oxford, taught at Harvard, founded the Medici Archive Project (MAP) and authored articles and books on topics ranging from Renaissance patronage to the letters of Benedetto Blanis, the Jewish 'Magician' at the Medici court. Ed maintains a group of blogs about his many projects at, including the remarkable Italy's Secret Places which provides a glimpse of Italy beyond the tourist trails and survey texts.

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Dr. F said...

Wow! I'm glad I didn't jump on the Gasparino bandwagon. I think the Burlington should have also provided an English translation of the inventory especially since the article was in English.

By the way, Gasparino is from Caspar, one of the Magi.


Unknown said...

Cheers for the comment Frank! I probably was a little guilty of riding along the Gasparini bandwagon - and did change another Giorgione post to include this name, now changed back - I think I was more excited by it as a demonstration of the flexibility of online publishing!

That I took Segre's word for it goes without saying - I'm glad the response from Puppi did ensue - we now have a fuller picture. I wonder if Segre will respond?

If anything, it shows just how marginal Giorgione studies are - anyone more intimately familiar with the documentation, or owning the aforementioned catalogues should have piped up immediately after Segre's piece came out - they didn't!

I'm wondering if there is some tension between these scholars? Language like "sadly rather too imaginative" just doesn't belong in a neutral, scholarly discourse, (in my humble opinion) - that's what opinion columns and blogs are for! But, I must remind myself, the humanities work a bit differently to what I am used to in medical and allied health literature.

Again, many thanks to Dr. Goldberg for the quick turnover in providing a description of Puppi's response for English readers.


Edward Goldberg said...

Apart from “getting it right or getting it wrong”, there are two fundamental considerations of archival methodology at play. First, it is dangerous to take a single document out of context and assume that we know exactly what it is telling us. (We don’t always have the luxury of coordinating several sources, but sometimes—as in this case—we do.) Second, it is dangerous to forget that each document was produced by one or more fallible human beings in a particular place and time in order to serve a particular purpose. So, there are often flukes,oddities and inconsistencies. I don’t know Lionello Puppi and Renata Segre personally (I wish I did, since they are both formidible scholars!) But in regard to Giorgione’s family name, “disguidi” (misdirections or miscarriages) of this kind often happen in the course of scholarship—and then we move ahead. This isn’t “Gasparini-gate”!!! I shudder to think of some of the “conclusions” that I presented with great confidence in early drafts of my own books and articles! But “it all comes out in the wash”, as the saying goes…

Unknown said...

Many thanks for the clarification Ed - moving ahead is indeed the key!

Mistakes are common to all humankind, and to those of us with a passion for knowledge, are instances of clarity where we become aware of how to adjust our methodologies in the future.

Learning experiences are good experiences in my book, even if transiently causing one to blush!

Kind regards

Alberti's Window said...

Very interesting news! It will be interesting to see if any more "rare" documents will confirm this new theory. As mentioned above, notaries were sometimes sloppy, which isn't helpful for the historians who come later! It's hard to guess which ones were precise in their documentation, and which ones just scribbled enough to get by...

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