We enter the mysteries of one of the most fascinating works of art, The Tempest (in Italian La Tempesta) (c. 1503) by the Venetian painter Giorgione in the Gallerie dell’Accademia in Venice, Italy. The theme is mysterious, a man and a woman immersed in nature. Who are they? What is the message?
The theme behind the work
The canvas is mentioned for the first time by Marcantonio Michiel, a Venetian collector and scholar who in the first half of the 16th century had compiled a catalogue of the works of art from Lombardy and Veneto collections. The manuscript would be published in 1800 with the title “News of drawing works”. Michiel saw the painting in Gabriele Vendramin’s collection and described it as “the village in canvas with the storm” with a gypsy and a soldier.
The description is rather vague and the male figure can hardly be a soldier because he has the typical two-coloured sock that marks him as a member of the “Compagnia della calza” [the Company of the sock/tights], an exclusive Venetian aristocratic club, famous for organising sumptuous parties.
Analysis of the piece
The landscape in the background catalyses how the painting captures our eyes. All the other elements, including human figures, are placed on the sides, much like the wings of a stage that opens up and reveals a city with Renaissance features, while a storm rages. The storm is quite far away, however it also dominates over everything. Lightning breaks through the clouds and its glow brightens the buildings.
Clouds swollen with rain reverberate the grey tones of the sky on the ruins placed in an intermediate plane and on the two human figures in the foreground. The woman, nearly naked, is placed on the right on a small hill and is nursing a baby – she looks at us as if aware she is being observed. On the lower left, isolated by a stream, a man is watching her, almost invites us to look with him. The river divides the two shores, yet at the same time visually connects the city on the lower portion, with the ruins placed on an intermediate level and the figures in the foreground. A bridge over the river horizontally separates the picture. X-ray studies and analyses have shown that the artist had second thoughts, and that at one point there was a woman in place of man.
The enigma behind the characters
Basically, there are three interpretative lines: mythological, religious and allegorical. On the mythological level, it could be Jupiter and Io, or Venus and Mars. Scholars also thought it could be a reference to a quote from the Bacchae of Euripides, the man would then be Dionysus under the walls of Thebes.
Along the religious line, there has been talk of the discovery of Moses, while Salvatore Settis believes they are Adam and Eve after the banishment from Paradise, to which the city in the background alludes – the lightning would symbolize the wrath of God and the ruins would be an allusion to the death that hangs over humanity after the original sin. Recently, comparisons were made with an engraving of 1496 by Albrecht Dürer The penitence of St. John Chrysostom, where a woman nurses a child behind a rock, and in the distance there is a fortified city.
This is the princess seduced by the saint, who then repented, and in order to expiate his actions he decides to live like a wild beast. This would explain the rural landscape. Furthermore, we know that the image circulated in Venice, where there was a special devotion to the saint. The woman is quite similar to Giorgione, who had also been commissioned a part for the high altar of the church dedicated to the saint, which was left incomplete due to the death of the painter.
Another interesting line is that of the allegorical interpretations, such as that concerning the foundation of the city of Padua, incorporated in 1405 by the city of Venice. In fact, on the right-hand tower, there is the Carrara crest of the ancient lords of the city. In this case, the man would be Antenore, the Trojan hero and founder of Padua. There are also those scholars, conjuring up the description of the Michiel, who have thought it could be the Tarots. The man is the soldier, symbolising Strength, and the woman that of Charity. These are the two principles that keep the world in balance.
Anna Maria Calabretta
End of part one, part two on 30 November 2018