Giorgione, the mystery behind the Tempest

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A lightning bolt suddenly splits the sky. The lightning penetrates the threatening clouds and they get an unusual and surreal color. It is a green of an indefinite reality, which seems to dominate the helpless city that can be seen on the horizon. There are echoes of classical and Oriental architecture. Some towers, a dome, a bell tower are signs of the life being overwhelmed by the storm.

The Tempest by Giorgione

Some windows are locked, everything is quiet. Even the trembling trees are suspended in a state of indefinite stillness. It is the jump before the storm, the last wait before the challenge. Soon its branches are going to be shaken by powerful gusts of wind. At the meantime, the painting seems not to be permeated by excessive worry: nature is shown to be resigned, and overloads each element of the painting. The vegetation almost envelops the landscape, as if it were simply an unexpected event emerging from a stunning perspective.

Is it possible to find refuge in the city? Or the incumbent danger threatens to overwhelm what the human being has laboriously built? That wooden bridge, which crosses the river, is safe or maybe it is going to collapse, who knows? The city, allegory of life, is located on the right bank of the river; on the other bank, some ruins appear: remains of an abandoned house and two broken columns.

Description of the painting

Slowly, the eye of the observer discovers new details, new protagonists. This is Giorgione’s extraordinary Tempest. As in an inverted painting, it is the background that captures the attention; only a few enigmatic characters and other elements bring everything into question. A half-naked woman is sitting, as if she has been abandoned, on a lawn covering a rocky ledge. The girl, with her hair pulled back in a Renaissance style, sadly stares at the viewer while nursing her baby. She has no shelter from the storm, only a fragile mantle covering her shoulders. Protection is a mere illusion, it is a figuration of false safety. Every man, people or nation, wears a shroud, thinking to be sheltered from the turbulence of life.

The cloak partially covers the defenseless and innocent child. He is the real emblem of unawareness in front of the existence precariousness. The incoming storm and the woman with her child, in their primordial nakedness, are in antithetical and shocking contrast. What torments the observer is why the woman has no shelter. Why does no one host her in the city? Is it possible that the woman has no place to stay? So, the girl is an excluded person, who knows for what reasons. She does not seek a refuge, she is aware, in her disillusion, that no one will save her. This is sadly proven by the man watching her across the river. A small jump could allow him to reach the woman and help her, but he looks at her with derision.

In the Tempest by Giorgione everything is constrast and hostility, everything is an indecipherable enigma.

Giorgione: an enigma inside the enigma

Giorgione’s life is also an indecipherable mystery. The personal events and biography of the painter are the result of a posthumous reconstruction, corroborated by a few written documents. His existence is attested by an important art collector in sixteenth-century Venice, Marcantonio Michiel. He had the merit of cataloguing several works belonging to private collections. Michiel certified that a man called Giorgione painted two masterful works, the Three philosophers and the Tempest.

However, little information exists about this author, since his activity lasted only ten years. Over time, even his works became of uncertain attribution, sometimes confused with those of a young collaborator, Tiziano. Giorgione was one of the masters of the Venetian Renaissance. His works are characterized by an extraordinary mastery and he can be considered one of the greatest painters in history. The difficulty of historiographic interpretations derives from the lack of a signed work. This leads to enormous controversy over the reconstruction of his catalog1.

Little information is available about Giorgione’s life. A first indication of his date of birth is given by Vasari, 14782. Each of the 16th century sources states that Giorgione was born in Castelfranco Veneto. At that time, the artist’s full name was Giorgio da Castelfranco, known as Zorzi. Instead, the appellation Giorgione may have come from his imposing stature.

No one knows how Giorgione moved to Venice where he completed his apprenticeship in the workshop of Giovanni Bellini. Here he developed the valuable technique that made him famous throughout the world: the tonalism.

Tonalism technique

At the time of the artist it was a revolutionary technique. It called into question the concept of incisive and well-defined contours, typical of the Florentine Renaissance. Giorgione gave a decisive breakthrough to the use of more nuanced contours, using a clever combination of overlapping colors. His artistic production focused mainly on works of sacred subjects and easel paintings. This makes the Tempest an enigmatic painting, so difficult to be understood. It is like a painting out of time.

The Tempest (circa 1502-1503?) could be the result of the will of a prestigious private client, whom requested an allegorical representation. Indeed, despite some controversial attributions, from 1500 Giorgione’s paintings became more mysterious and with an almost esoteric language. The themes became more profound, or idealistic, as in the Three Philosophers. In 1506 was made the only autograph work of the author: the portrait of Laura, preserved in Vienna.

Unfortunately, Giorgione died very young in 1510 due to a plague epidemic, leaving thousands of unanswered questions about his works and existence. The artist’s painting technique and innovations persisted in his followers, including Tiziano and Sebastiano del Piombo.

Historiographical notes about the Tempest

The Tempest is an oil painting on canvas, whose dimensions are very small (83×73 cm). First, the attention of scholars has focused on the commissioner of such an enigmatic work. For the first time, the painting was mentioned by Marcantonio Michiel in 1530. The collector catalogued it as a “village in canvas with the storm with the nurse and the soldier, by Zorzi de Castelfranco“. So, the Tempest was kept in the private house of Gabriele Vendramin, who is supposed to be the commissioner. After several changes of ownership, the painting was bought by the Municipality of Venice in 1932. Now, the painting is preserved at the Accademia Gallery in Venice.

Tempest as an allegoric painting

Over the centuries, Giorgione’s painting has been widely debated by scholars. It is intuitive that it is an allegorical painting with significant symbolism. The Tempest anticipates the artistic modernity. The great difficulty for critics is the identification of allegory and meaning. According to Edgard Wind, the work proposes the allegorical dualism between Strength and Charity, respectively the man and the woman in the painting3. In fact, these were the virtues of ancient Rome, which made it possible to survive the unexpected events of existence.

Some scholars have suggested an alchemical interpretation due to the presence of the four elements: earth, fire, air and water4.

Another suggestion is based on the interpretation of the Divine condemnation and fate of the ancestors after the original Sin by Amadeo (Cappella Colleoni, Bergamo). Salvatore Settis has argued that the two figures of the Tempest represent Adam and Eve, the latter in the act of suckling her son Cain, after the expulsion from Paradise. Thus, the Tempest could be an interpretation of the human condition after the original sin5.

The Tempest, a contemporary picture

Regardless of its interpretation, The Tempest has an intrinsic universal meaning. It is truly an allegory of the human condition. This work is modern in its meaning. The Tempest represents the fragility of the human being in front of the unpredictability of nature. The woman’s cloak and the man’s stick are the illusory tools with which humanity builds its false safety, the claim to order and govern the laws of nature. People can face the sad events of life with love, of which breastfeeding is the figuration, or with indifference.

The city is sometimes an inaccessible and exclusive place, in the sense of excluding. In general, The Tempest anticipates the lack of humanity that frequently pervades the present times. Perhaps, that woman could be a homeless person at the station, or a migrant, or a neighbor in difficulty, whom we sometimes look at with derision, keeping him at a distance. In this sense, the ethical and moral values of the ancients are declining, like the crumbling ruins of the painting. The city is destined to be swept away by the storm.

Samuele Corrente Naso


  1. A. Fregolent, Giorgione, Electa, Milano, 2001. ↩︎
  2. G. Vasari, Le vite de’ più eccellenti pittori, scultori e architettori, Seconda edizione, 1568. ↩︎
  3. E. Wind, L’eloquenza dei simboli, Adelphi, 1992. ↩︎
  4. G. F. Hartlaub, Giorgiones Geheimnis: eis kunstgeschichtlicher Beitrag zur Mystik der Renaissance, Munchen, Allgemeine Verlagsanstalt, 1925. ↩︎
  5. S. Settis, La “Tempesta” interpretata. Giorgione, i committenti, il soggetto, Einaudi, 2005. ↩︎


Samuele avatar

Samuele is the founder of Indagini e Misteri, a blog on anthropology, history and art. He has a degree in forensic biology and works for the Ministry of Culture. For pleasure he studies unusual and ancient things, such as unclear symbols or enigmatic apotropaic rituals. He pursues the mystery through adventure but inexplicably it is is always one step further.

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