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Searching for the real Giorgione

Giorgione’s Il Tramonto (the sunset) (1506-10). Courtesy of the National Gallery, London.

Giorgione (1477/8-1510) is a paradox. The facts of his short life and career are scanty; the attribution of his works, their chronology and their number—as few as 10 and as many as 40—have been strongly contested.

Yet his influence has never been in doubt. Between 1500 and 1530, his painterly innovations—his stylish adaptation of Netherlandish colour, his expressive use of Leonardo’s sfumatura, his innovative exploration of pastoral poetic subjects—had a deep and immediate impact. He influenced the young Titian and Sebastiano del Piombo (who were, according to Vasari, Giorgione’s “creati”, perhaps his students, but probably not in his workshop as it is unlikely he had one) as well as Palma il Vecchio, Lorenzo Lotto, Giovanni Cariani and Paris Bordone, among others.

There has been a lack of clarity regarding Giorgione going back even to Vasari. In the second edition of his Lives, the historian did not offer a single precise attribution to the artist, and even this account conflicted with the one offered in the first edition of his book. With no reliable documentary evidence at hand, art historians have hitherto relied on connoisseurship to try to resolve problems or to promote theories. 

Around 15 years ago, Charles Hope, then the director of the Warburg Institute, suggested in these pages that one way around this impasse would be a Hegelian compare-and-contrast of works produced in Venice in the first decades of the 16th century, as well as more archival research, to bring Giorgione into focus. Since then there have been the extensive 2004 monographic exhibition at the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, and the travelling show that situated Giorgione between Bellini and Titian at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, and at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in 2006.

Now the Royal Academy presents In the Age of Giorgione, which focuses on the first decade of 16th-century Venice with 50 works. Four of these, including the National Gallery’s

Il Tramonto (the sunset) (1506-10), are “secure” works by Giorgione that share the spotlight with attributed works and, above all, with paintings by the young Titian, as well as Bellini, Dürer and Lotto.

The exhibition has been organised by Arturo Galansino, the director of the Palazzo Strozzi, Florence, and Simone Facchinetti, the curator of the Museo Adriano Bernareggi, Bergamo. It is sponsored by Maserati.

• In the Age of Giorgione, Royal Academy of Arts, London, 12 March-5 June
Venue details
Royal Academy of Arts
Burlington House, Piccadilly
London W1J 0BD
United Kingdom
www.royalacademy.org.uk
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