A really good exhibition not only contains pictures that inspire but also has an argument. The Giorgione exhibition at the Royal Academy has both, and the argument is that in just a few years at the very beginning of the 16th century Giorgione changed Venetian art, moving it to new heights.
Little is known about Giorgione, and, as an Italian art historian said on the audioguide “Every age reinvents Giorgione.” Few of his paintings survive, and there are constant arguments over attribution of most that do survive: were they painted by Giorgione, the young Titian, both of them, or somebody else altogether? The artists in Venice were so inspired by what Giorgione was doing that they all experimented with his innovations. I was astonished by how many Giorgione pictures there are in the exhibition, even if the attribution of most is disputed.
The exhibition starts with an portrait by Giovanni Bellini of a young man in black, an intellectual. It has the exquisite stillness of Bellini and a beautiful Northern Italian landscape in the background. But the man is distant, not looking at us. In contrast, a portrait by Giorgione of another young man is much more engaging. He looks at us, and the absence of a background brings him closer.
There were other wonderful portraits by Giorgione, Titian, and Giovanni Cariani, a painter of whom I had never heard but who was clearly close to Giorgione. I was particularly taken by Giorgione’s double portrait and by his Terris portrait, which some argue is by Titian.
Having shown how Giorgione reinvented portrait painting, the exhibition moves to landscape. Giorgione’s most famous picture is the mysterious The Tempest, where a gypsy nurses her baby in the midst of a storm. Giorgione’s innovation was to make the landscape not a background but central to the painting, setting its whole mood. The best example in the exhibition was not by Giorgione but by Lorenzo Lotto, showing St Jerome tiny among a rocky landscape.
Giorgione also reinvented devotional and allegorical paintings, and I was particularly taken by Cariani’s picture of Judith with the head of Holofernes. This is one of the most painted scenes in Renaissance painting, perhaps because it combines sex, violence, and blood. Judith is little bothered by what she has done, while the old woman behind her is much put out. The old person closely resembles Giorgione’s famous picture of an old woman. I stood inches from the painting and stared into a face painted 500 years ago that, as was intended, sent a shiver through me, reminding me of my aging body and coming death.