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American Imago 57.4 (2000) 369-385

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Imagination, Identity, and the Poetics of Desire in Giorgione's Painting

Marianne Koos


Giorgione's art gives cause for irritation. Unlike the work of his contemporaries, the subjects of Giorgione's paintings and those of his circle repeatedly elude definitive identification. Neither can his pastoral paintings readily be associated with any specific antique or contemporary story (Figs. 1 and 2), nor can his idealized portraits of boys or women be securely identified as figures drawn from classical mythology or Christian iconography (Fig. 3). 1 Current art historical literature is not the first to address this difficulty. Even the early reception of Giorgione's painting was compelled to confront this issue as soon as it inquired after the narrative or allegorical content of his works. Perhaps the most eloquent witness to this fact can be found in the Artists' Lives of the Florentine Giorgio Vasari, who, referring to Giorgione's frescoes of the Fondaco dei Tedeschi, remarked that he himself had never understood them and had never found anyone who knew precisely what they depicted. 2

Contemporary art history has offered various suggestions on how to deal with this difficulty. William R. Rearick, for example, asserted in a recent study on the pastoral that Giorgione's paintings consciously opposed traditional subjects and that they had no other content than their own aesthetic appearance: ". . . the Venetians neither knew nor seemed to care about the meanings of these famous paintings. For them it was sufficient that the works be beautiful." 3 Salvatore Settis, who has criticized such an approach as reductive and ahistorical, responded to this difficulty with his own subtle and sophisticated thesis, that of the "hidden subject." According to Settis, Giorgione's paintings do have traditional themes, whose unusual depiction however should be credited to the specific interests of his patrons. One of these paintings' fundamental functions was the entertainment provided by the interpretation [End Page 369] [Begin Page 371] of their meaning, which Giorgione had veiled by means of omitting or effacing key elements. 4 In the wake of Gombrich's convincing identification of Andrea Previtali's four narrative panels in the National Gallery, London, with the eclogues of the Ferrarese poet Antonio Tebaldeo, Rudolf Wittkower however had opposed the notion of the "hidden subject" and had argued that more careful study of Renaissance literature could reveal meanings current at the time, but lost to us: "I would like to direct attention to the fact that contemporary pastoral poetry was illustrated in Giorgione's circle and this probably happened much more often than we are aware of at present." 5 [End Page 371]

This proposal certainly warrants consideration, if in a different sense than Wittkower intended. For Giorgione's paintings do not show the same narrative structures as Tebaldeo's panels. Wittkower seems to have followed a traditional understanding of iconography which recognizes only two possible modes of identifying a pictorial subject: either as allegory or as narrative. Talking of "illustration" Wittkower presumed a relation between image and text, which is decidedly too narrow and neglects a substantial literary domain: non-narrative poetry, that is lyrics. Rather than telling stories, this genre describes the internal states or qualities of the soul. It deals not only in symbols but also in metaphors and metonymies.

Giorgione's art results from a lyrical permeation, or poeticization, of painting, and must be seen within a larger discursive framework: that of the discourse on love. Such a reconsideration of his art is based less upon an inquiry into the assumed narratives than into the motifs and structures of his paintings. On the other hand, it also means to consider the conceptual, which inspired Giorgione's specific pictorial inventions (invenzioni) and painting techniques.

To a greater extent than the rationally determined humanistic treatises on love, contemporary "volgare" poetry described a subjectively experienced desire and a striving towards identity. These latter are psychological qualities which, in the literature on Giorgione, have frequently been remarked upon as an effect of his paintings and described enthusiastically, yet were not considered...


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