Color and Meaning in Giorgione's Three Ages

January 27, 2012

The Three Ages of Man

Giorgione’s Three Ages of Man* is another one of his paintings that has so far eluded identification. The name of the painting that now hangs in the Pitti Palace is pure guesswork stemming only from the obvious disparity in ages of the three men. One appears to be in his sixties, another in his early thirties, and the last a young man in his teens.

In a 1995 survey, Painting in Renaissance Venice, Peter Humfrey said that the "picture actually represents a music lesson, and given the secular dress of the figures, it may be assumed that the boy at the centre is learning to sing a madrigal."

In his 2007 Giorgione catalog, Wolfgang Eller definitely attributed the painting to Giorgione but called it "The Three Ages of Man (Three Men with a Sheet of Music)." While leaning toward a "music lesson" Eller argued that the "picture contains, as almost throughout Giorgione’s works, several meanings at different levels."  Eller adds,
The youth in the center of the picture, accentuated by his cap, at first glance depicts a young ruler like Alexander or Marcus Aurelius, being instructed in music in contemporary Venice by learned teachers, but also in art and philosophy. He even guessed that the boy carried a flute in his hidden right hand.
It is difficult to see how the sheet of paper can be identified as a sheet of music. Neither Humfrey nor Eller offered an explanation. Eller referred to a description of a painting in a 1569 inventory of the collection of Gabriele Vendramin. "Un quadro de man de Zorzon de Castelfranco con tre testoni che canta." Yet, none of the figures in the Pitti painting are singing.

However, the most spectacular element in this mysterious painting has so far received little notice. Venetian painters were known for their coloration. Just look at the garments of the three men. Nothing in a Renaissance painting is there by accident or whim. The colors in this painting provide a major clue to its real subject.

As far as I know no one has suggested that the painting has a "sacred" subject, but yet, it appears that Giorgione has depicted a scene from the nineteenth chapter of the Gospel of St. Matthew. It is the story of the encounter of Jesus with the young man of great wealth.

In Matthew’s account the young man asked Jesus what he could do to attain eternal life. Jesus told him to keep the Commandments, and specifically named the most important. The man replied that he had done so but still felt that something was wanting. Jesus then uttered the famous words, 
If thou wilt be perfect, go, sell what thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me. 
The gospel relates that the young man went away sad for he had many possessions. How has Giorgione depicted this story and who is the third man? The man in the middle is obviously young and the golden lapels of his garment as well as his fashionable hat indicate that he is well to do. He is holding a piece of paper or parchment that contains some indecipherable writing that under magnification hardly looks like Renaissance musical notation.

On the right any Christian, Venetian or otherwise, would immediately recognize the visage of Jesus. There is no halo or nimbus but Giorgione never employed that device. The pointed finger is certainly characteristic of Jesus. Here he points not at a sheet of music but at the Commandments, which the gospel account has just enumerated.

Jesus wears a green garment or vestment, certainly an unusual color for him. In fact, it looks like the robe or chasuble worn by a priest during Mass. At the hand of Jesus we can also see the white sleeve of the "alb," a long white robe always worn under the chasuble. Green is the color used by the Catholic Church during Ordinary time, that part of the Church year not identified with any of the great feasts. In addition, green, the liturgical color used throughout the Church year, is also the color of hope.

The third man is St. Peter. He is the only other person identified in Matthew’s account of this incident. He stands on the left, head turned toward the viewer. Giorgione uses Peter as an interlocutor, a well-known Renaissance artistic device designed to draw the viewer into the painting and encourage emotional participation. The old man’s face is the traditional iconographical rendering of Peter, with his baldhead and short stubby beard. As Anna Jameson noted many years ago, Peter is often portrayed as "a robust old man, with a broad forehead, and rather coarse features." In addition, P & L Murray (1996) further clarify:

In art, Peter is invariably depicted as a stalwart man with white hair surrounding a tonsure, or bald patch, and a dark beard, but the image is not supported, as it is with
Paul, by a description in any text either canonical or apocryphal.

Giovanni Bellini and Albrecht Dürer, both Giorgione contemporaries, depicted Peter’s head in this fashion. About a hundred years later Caravaggio still used it in striking fashion in the Martyrdom of St. Peter in S. Maria del Popolo in Rome, and in the Denial of Peter now in New York’s Metropolitan Museum.

Caravaggio's Martyrdom (or Crucifixion) of Saint Peter

The color of Peter’s robe is also liturgically significant. Peter is rarely shown wearing red, but Giorgione has chosen to show him wearing the color reserved for the feast days of the martyrs. In the gospel account immediately after the young man went away sad, Peter, speaking for the other disciples as well as for the viewer of Giorgione’s painting, had asked, "Behold we have left all and followed thee: what then shall we have?"

In the first decade of the 16th century Venice was at the apex of its glory. It would suffer a great defeat at the end of the decade during the War of the League of Cambrai but until that time it was arguably the wealthiest and most powerful of all the European nations. It was certainly the only one that dared confront the mighty Ottoman Empire.

Nevertheless, some young Venetian patricians were wondering whether the whole life of politics, commercial rivalry, and warfare was worthwhile. One of them, Tommaso Giustiniani, a scion of one of the greatest families, did actually sell all his possessions, including his art collection, in order to live as a hermit in a Camaldolensian monastery. At one point he wrote to a few friends, who were also considering a similar move, about the futility of their daily lives. He argued that Venetian life was agitated, completely outward, and continually dominated by ambition. It was the reason for all their worry:
If, then, a Stoic philosopher appeared to free their minds from all these disturbances, his efforts would be in vain, so completely does agitation dominate and enfetter their whole lives. How can anyone not feel disgust for such an empty existence?
Peter and the other disciples were shocked when Jesus said that it would be harder for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven, than for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle. "Who then can be saved," they asked? The response of Jesus was full of hope: "With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible."  This reinforces the use of green in Jesus' robe to signify hope.

The Rich Young Man, the name we can now give to the painting in the Pitti Palace, would certainly appear to have an historical context in Giorgione’s time. Five hundred years after the death of this short-lived genius perhaps we can begin to understand that Giorgione was a unique and original painter of sacred subjects.

Peter Humfrey, Painting in Renaissance Venice, Yale, 1995, p. 124.

Wolfgang Eller, Giorgione, Catalog Raisonne, Petersberg, 2007, p. 45.

Murray, P & L. The Oxford Companion to Early Christian Art & Architecture, Oxford University Press, 1996, p.384

Dom Jean LeClercq, Camaldolese Extraordinary, The Life, Doctrine, and Rule of Blessed Paul Giustiniani, Bloomingdale, Ohio, 2003, p. 61-62. Although few followed the extreme example of Tommaso Giustiniani, his attitude was not unusual. See Margaret L. King, Venetian Humanism in an Age of Patrician Dominance, Princeton, 1986, pp. 240-241.

Image notes
Giorgione's Three Ages of Man via wiki link
Caravaggio's Martyrdom of Saint Peter via wikimedia commons link

*Editors Note
3PP is aware of the general discord surrounding Giorgione attributions - and the claim of authenticity made for a version of this work now in the US. We hope to report on this aspect of the Three Ages story in a later post.  -hn

Dr. Francis P. DeStefano is a retired associate professor of history, who now dedicates his time to writing and lecturing independently on history and art history. His key area of interest is Venetian Renaissance art, particularly the works of Giorgione. His ongoing research into historical and sacred themes influencing artists in the Renaissance can be read at Giorgione et al, and its parent site Tempesta News.


Wictoriane said...

thanks for all these explanations
I love so much Art with passion from those who know it !

Glennis said...

Thanks for another enjoyable interpretation. I wish every Renaissance painting would receive such a detailed colour interpretation as part of the symbolic reading. I would love to read an entire book discussing the liturgical significance of robe colours in sacred Renaissance art.

Nauplion said...

A splendid reading, and once you lay it out so lucidly, "Obviously!"

Unknown said...

Cheers for the comments!

@Glennis - you may be interested in this online resource from an exhibition on Medieval and Renaissance iconography - some of the cases in it describe symbolic colours: link


Dr. F said...

Thanks to all for the very kind words.


Edward Goldberg said...

Frank—I enjoyed your discussion of the Pitti Giorgione, which was intriguing and ingenious. However, if we are in fact looking at a religious picture, I wondered if the iconographic reference might be to “Christ Amidst the Doctors”—with Christ being the boy in the middle (a young and precocious Christ is an iconographic option and this one is dressed rather like a scholar.) In any case, I popped over to the museum yesterday afternoon and had a look at the picture. The first thing that struck me was the costume of the figure on the right—especially the embroidery which seems to feature a pseudo-kufic inscription. Ornamentalized squared Arabic appears quite often in European Renaissance paintings, especially on the embroidered borders of garments. Meanwhile, the garment itself seems rather Eastern in style (a sort of kaftan, perhaps). An argument could be made that we are looking at a non-European and also a non-Christian figure. In Giorgione’s Venice, I wonder if green would have been recognized as the color of Islam (since green does not seem to be common in the European depiction of Turks, etc. And there is, of course, no turban which is usually the give-away)? In the “Christ Amidst the Doctors” construction, it is certainly tempting to make the figure on the left into a Jew, but I don’t know that we can get there from here! Actually what struck me most forcefully in front of the picture is that the older figure in red (looking out of the picture and making eye-contact with the viewer) seems rather like a portrait and the other two rather more like idealized types. So, I have been entertaining the idea that it might be an allegorical or philosophical portrait of some kind—perhaps referring to the attainment of wisdom through age. In that case, the “three ages” thing would play out quite nicely. And—I almost hate to say it!—I left Palazzo Pitti nearly convinced that there are in fact two staves of music visible at the top of the paper. There is a perceptible darkening compatible with lined staves and a running pattern that can be construed as headnotes attached to ascending and descending strokes. This is not definitive, but the plausibly “concert-like” grouping of figures does seem to reinforce the perception of plausible “music-like” notations on the sheet. So, I think that the meaning of the Pitti Giorgione is likely to remain an open question for some time to come. Meanwhile, the old “Three Ages” and/or “Concert” reading is still on the table! Is it possible to reconcile that with a visual/iconographic link to “Christ Amidst the Doctors”? Eller was not the first to note that Giorgione often seems to operate on more than one level! Ed G.

Dr. F said...


In a "Christ among the Doctors" the facial expressions of the main characters would be markedly different. There is no hint of confident authority on the face of the young man in the middle. Nor is there the usual look of befuddlement or consternation on the face of the man in green. One of the reasons I like the attribution to Giorgione is because he was a master of facial expression.

Although I am the first to see Christ in this painting, every commentator has argued that the man in green is instructing the young man in the middle, and not vice-versa. Also, the usual features of the finding in the temple are missing. The priests are not looking in books for answers, and there is no agitation.

I agree with you that even the smallest details in a Renaissance painting are significant but sometimes the artists did just used filler. Still, I too have wondered about the writing on the paper. My guess is Hebrew letters representing the commandments. I think contemporary musical notation would have included black block notes, You suggest an Eastern design for the embroidery on the green garment but I've also wondered if it could contain Hebrew letters.

IN the end I believe that it is the larger details that matter the most. Giorgione was not the only painter to use color symbolism to identify his characters. I have argued elsewhere that he used it in the Three Philosophers and in the Boy with an Arrow.

Thank you for your close reading of my paper and for your thought provoking comment. I envy your ability to pop over to the Pitti to examine such a beautiful painting.


Edward Goldberg said...

Frank--Even after all these years in Florence, I am still amazed at the incredible privilege of being able to pop into so many great museums more or less casually! Please let me know if you might be passing through town, so we can go look at the Pitti Giorgione together. I am grateful to you for focusing my attention on it, since it is an astonishing picture but rather a "quiet" one--so it tends to get shouted out by other things around it. On Sunday, I was especially lucky because the guard on duty knew me and was able to close one of the window shutters. So, there was nicely diffused light without the usual glare on the glass of the picture. And nearby, there is also the Giorgionesque "Concert", now attributed to the young Titian. Ed G.

Unknown said...

Many thanks for thought provoking contributions!

As Ed notes, the "Three Ages" is - somewhat fortunately - hanging in a spot that places it eye level, unlike many of the pieces in the Pitti.

My own take on the sheet of the paper is that people describing it have spent more time thinking about its allegorical sgnificance than noting how clumsily it is executed: "it vaguely resembles writing or musical notation?" is quite a trick!

If you follow the actual trajectory of the top "line" or "stave" you can see it is written across the page on an awkward diagonal that terminates just past the middle of the page.

I have not seen many pages of music, let alone writing that do that. It is a detail that has been clumsily added - for an artist capable of skilfully indicating a bird on a rooftop far away in the distance (as in Tempest), why would such an important allegorical clue be obscured other than deliberately?

Can we even be sure that is part of the original painting layer and not a later addition - I have not read a technical report of the piece so would not be too quick to think it was always part of the original. I'm curious if there is an infared scan of the painting that can show us a clearer original intention for what is on the paper?

I am hoping something more fruitful may come of identifying the type of clothes the boy in particular is wearing. Other portrayals of "Christ among the Doctors" often indicate Christ in red - even going back as far as Duccio's Maesta - which can be seen on the predella panel: image.

Identification of the type of clothing the young man is wearing may be more fruitful. Unfortunately, of the handful of wonderful texts on Renaissance costume, I do not have any at hand - hopefully someone else has.

In addition, the striking similarity to the "portrait of a boy" sometimes attributed to Giorgione at the Barber Institute is food for thought as well, even as far as providing another version of the type of garb the young man is wearing: image

Kind Regards - and thanks for the fascinating discussion.

Edward Goldberg said...


That is obviously one of the drawbacks of having a scientific background and a logical mind, thinking that mere technology can resolve compelling philosophical issues like what is written on that sheet of paper!

Actually, I had not noticed the odd misallignment or nonallignment of whatever is on the sheet. This could be huge--considering how much ink has been spilled over the unforeshortened label on the beer bottle in Manet's "Bar at the Follies Bergere"!

In regard to the boy's costume, I at least know where we can all buy something vaguely similar--but alas, it only comes in black. Maybe if we made a special group order?

Ed G.

Unknown said...

Cheers Ed! I'm also thinking it may be some type of scholarly garb but am anxious to find a reference proving it.

Thinking that such pieces (including the similar portrait of a boy) were small, private works, we can imagine they may have been commissioned to mark a point in the educational journey of a young man. I don't know enough about how youngsters were educated in Venice in particular to add any more than that.

If we also accept 'Three Philosophers' as a Giorgione, we must also acknowledge that it too includes depictions of paper with far more clearly identifiable markings on them. Technically, he was most certainly capable of executing that detail to show what it was meant to be.


Unknown said...

Just an additional point of comparison - following a tweeted suggestion by the wonderful Anniina Jokinen from luminarium - The Portrait of a Man, sometimes called "The Musician" - widely attributed to Leonardo and his pupil Boltraffio. The sitter holds a sheet of music - whether they are an instrumentalist or singer is not clear as the identity of the sitter is not conclusively known.

The style of dress is particularly noteworthy. From the very recent NGL catalogue, it is described as unfinished - with the broad lapels being little more than underpaint. Interestingly, technical examination has revealed the black jerkin of this figure was once a dark red, though it is not known if the darker tone was added by Leonardo/a pupil or at a later stage. An image and discussion of the attribution/sitter can be read at universal leonardo: link

I'm curious to know whether this may also be why the traditional association of "Three Ages" has favoured a musical interpretation, whch seems to have stuck since Vendramin's description.

I'm also hoping to source the 2008 Thames and Hudson publication on Renaissance costume to see what else may turn up.

Thanks to Anniina and Jacqueline Roe for their help. If anything else turns up I will add it here as an update.

Kind Regards

Dr. F said...


As I noted in my essay the idea of a music lesson comes from the painting in the Vendramin inventory of three singers. Perhaps the regal colors (purple and gold) of the young man's robe have been responsible for the Marcus Aurelius interpretation. But the men are not singing and the boy's clothing can support my interpretation of the Rich Young Man.

I think one risks getting sidetracked by trying to decipher the wording on the paper. Here is a portion of Michiel's description of a little painting of St. Jerome in his Study that he saw in the house of Antonio Pasqualino in 1529.

"On the desk is a little label which seems to contain the name of the master, but by looking at it closely, one cannot distinguish any letters, as it is all a deception."

He noted confusion even then as to attribution. some gave it to Antonello da Massina, while others thought a flemish master like Jan van Eyck or Memlinc.


Unknown said...

Intersting Frank! I wonder if the St Jerome you refer to is a version of the one in Detroit attributed to van Eyck. It has just such a label on the desk though I'm not sure if its lettering is a deception - I could not get a decent magnification of it.

Intriguingly, there has been much speculation on its "possible" provenance. Provenance is either known or not, but the laws of evidence seem to get warped in art history for some reason! More info at the Detroit Institute's feature page for this delightful work: link


Dr. F said...


No, it's the one in London's National Gallery attributed to Antonello.


Unknown said...

Cheers Frank - What a wonderful version of the Eyckian antecedent! Antonello's fondness for Netherlandish style and technique is well known - the brothers van Eyck are of course introduced to us in Vasari's Lives in his entry.


Will Rose said...

good info!

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