In The Age of Giorgione at the Royal Academy

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Portrait of a Man, c.1506. This picture is one of the most confident attributions to be painted by Giorgione. The really distinctive feature of this portrait is the degree of emotional connection created between the subject and the viewer by the penetrating gaze. This is clearly a real man with real emotions which leap at you from the painted image. As such it is very much a ‘modern’ portrait.

Giorgio da Castelfranco (d. 1510), known as Giorgione (“Big George”), hovers like a spectral presence over the Venetian art of the C16. He died young, in his early 30s, little is known about his life and the number of pictures which can be confidently attributed to him is very small. And yet, despite this, he is seen as the starting point for the development of Venetian Renaissance art, the foundation upon Titian and others built, and hence an artist whose reputation and importance is out of all proportion to what is known about him.

Given this context the current exhibition ‘In the Age of Giorgione’ at the Royal Academy is less a show of works by Giorgione, though there are a few, and more about that pivotal period in the late C15 and early C16 when Venetian Renaissance art emerged. The features of that emergence were a throwing off of stylistic rigidity and conformity and embracing a commitment to recording real people and the real world as it is seen. It is essentially a Humanist school of painting that puts people and the world, rather than God, at its centre.

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La Vecchia, c.1508-10. The old lady holds in her hand a piece of paper inscribed ‘Col Tempo’, or with time. She again looks directly at the viewer reminding us all that the passage of time and the arrival of old age is a fate which we cannot avoid. The ledge or sill at the bottom of the picture places some distance between subject and viewer but there is nevertheless an intensity in the way she holds us in her gaze.

In portraiture, the age of Giorgione is the age in which the artist starts to paint the person not the position, to explore the individual and to expose their mood and character in the composition. Rather than stiff formal pictures we have much looser compositions, which seek to tell us something about the person being painted; their air of melancholy, their thoughts and concerns. And using subtle ranges of colour and tone, the portraits are infinitely more three-dimensional than those of an earlier period. Giorgione was apparently heavily influenced by a meeting with Leonardo da Vinci who had taken Tuscan art down a similar path.

The other great feature of the age of Giorgione is the emergence of landscape as an integral part of painting, providing the setting for portraits and narrative paintings. Of course, Giorgione and his contemporaries were not the first to paint the broader world but they gave it a new importance as a central part of the picture. And they used landscape as a key part of setting the mood and tone of a picture. The age of Giorgione can plausibly be described as giving birth to landscape painting.

Of course, moments of great change in art history are rarely quite as precise as they seem. The moment from ‘medieval’ to ‘renaissance’ art in Italy did not happen suddenly, or in a single place. It happened over centuries. So they age of Giorgione was a critical age for Venice but one of several movements across Europe that relaxed the rigidity of medieval art, brought the individual to the centre of art and pursued realism rather than formalism.

Overall, this is a small but intense exhibition. It can be seen as a fascinating essay in a period of art history, or as an exhibition of some fascinating and beautiful paintings which brilliantly succeed in bringing to life the Venice of the early C15. Well worth a visit.

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