The Myth of Beauty : The Intertwined Narratives in the Paintings by Giorgione (Shinjini Dey, UG-III, 04)

My own approach to literary problems is very like the one Dr. Johnson’s blind housekeeper used when she poured tea —she put her finger inside the cup.  – Flannery O’Connor “Mystery and Manners : Occasional Prose”

While it would be sacrilegious to poke through Giorgio Barbarelli da Castelfranco’s paintings, pushing until one scratches the surface of soft shaded oils, layer by layer until with finality one hits the seasoned poplar or willow wood of the panel – it would not be surprising to find Giorgione himself, standing with Gaston de Foix[1], large and imposing, ‘more a myth than a man’. [2]

Little is known about Giorgione’s life except what can be gathered from B. Castiglione’s Il Cortegano (The Book of the Courtier), a book in the form of a renaissance dialogue on the perfect courtier. This ideal renaissance man should have, among other desirable features, a knowledgeable opinion on the classics, humanities and fine arts. In a passage he mentions Giorgione in the same instance as Leonardo Da Vinci, Raphael and Mantenga.[3] From Vasari in the two editions (1550 and 1568) of his ‘Lives of the Artists’[4] we learn of the poetic heroism attributed to Giorgio born in 1477 of ‘humble stock’, of a size and nature both great[5] and traversing Venetian cinquecento history with a lute in one hand and a paintbrush in the other. Through Vasari’s prose, one can account for atleast a dozen paintings (both portraits and frecoes) drawn by the hand of Giorgione. Vasari also notes of Giorgione’s acclaim and prowess in the manner that Castiglione employs and names patrons of high social standing and wealth. He also paints an image of Giorgione ‘surpassing his masters’ and learning from Leonardo Da Vinci – to boot, he ends with a classic tragedy, that of love gained then lost in the casualties of the plague in 1510.

But when one talks of Vasari’s prose one must also recognize the mythical objective of biography – Vasari rewrote the artists as heroes, and his chronicling was not meant to be, nor is – completely objective. Vasari stories are both fiction as well as a historical catalogue – including many amusing anecdotes of artists valorised in heroic tropes, including the signatures of Michelangelo, and the brutal reputation of Caravaggio. He thus created in the capturings of a history, the bare bones of the myth.

During Giorgione’s lifetime as well as the next few decades, Giorgione himself became somewhat akin to an urban legend. His paintings as well as his style were imitated and perfected. One of the famous examples of Giorgione’s influence is Titian’s ‘Venus of Urbino’, where Venus’s slumbering posture is mirrored in Giorgione’s ‘Sleeping Venus’. The only tell-tale differences are the Giorgione’s pastoral setting, compared to Titian’s darker, indoor one and the open, inviting gaze of Titian’s nude. The works of Palma Verrochio, Domenico Mancini, Paris Bordone, Lorenzo Luzzo and quite a few were not only influenced by Giorgione but are so entangled that the authorship of paintings are difficult to substantiate.[6]

Carlo Ridolofi  in his biography of the Venetian painters in 1648 titled Le maraviglie dell’ Arte ovvero, Le vite degli Illustri Pittori Veneti and dello Stato bestowed upon Giorgione a noble ancestry, that of the Barbarella family of Castelfranco. His death is recorded in the form of an exchange between Isabella d’Este and Taddeo Albarno[7], who had requested a painting by the acclaimed artist after his death. Isabella d’Este was the Marchesa of Mantua, a diplomat, a major political figure and also an influential patron of the arts. The letter she received from Albarno corrected her mistake, attributing two other very different paintings to Giorgione[8] and then politely but firmly refused her request.

On the other hand, Giorgione himself began to weave the strands of his myth. In his allegorical self portrait he aligns himself with one of the conventionally valorised figures of Renaissance Italy, the figure of David. (Self portrait as David)While the self portrait is mentioned by Vasari[9], the size and the attribution of the painting has been up for debate through the ages.


Self Portrait as David
The uncropped original, recovered and redone from an etching by Wenzel Hollar
1650 Engraving
British Museum, London (fig 1)
Self Portrait as David
Oil on canvas, 52 x 43 cm
Herzog Anton Ulrich-Museum, Braunschweig (fig 2)

Yet, if one assumes that the painting of David, including the severed head of  Goliath is the painting Giorgione intended for his audience one can arrive at a few conclusions. The David portrayed was the story of the adolescent whose myth embodied not only the classical concept of friendship and the neo-platonic ideals of love, but also the Renaissance ideal of man standing up to the adversity of the human world.

While it is not surprising that a man alive during the humanist discourse and classical revival would aim to cast his image with the triumphant and courageous David, it is surprising that the head of the tyrannous giant is of the same size as the man in the painting. One must either surmise that both the figures were Giants, or that they were both merely men. In 1969 Edgar Wind proposed that this issue of discrepancy in size could be attributed to Giorgione’s name literally meaning ‘big George’. Hence they were of the same size, and Giorgione depicted himself as he conquered another creative challenge, conjuring the image of Goliath to defeat his own treacherous mind[10]. Yet, the equality of Giorgione(as David) and Goliath, can also be seen as transgressive, and may also be highlighting the secular (yet, non pagan) quality of the painting. The sombre, weary look on Giorgione’s (as David) face humanizes the struggle of winning over adversity.

The only other allegorical self portrait of the period is that of Durer, who painted himself in the image of Christ, a dark portrait of a symmetrical nature with hands raised in the iconic act of blessing. The art of the self portrait in itself recalls the nature of one casting and moulding themselves, along the lines of a narrative they have chosen. These allegories in painting may allude to the renaissance concept of the artist as a creator, but that brings one to the difficult of the nature of allegory in paintings and especially portraits themselves. An iconographic reading would not reduce the picture as a merely personal spiritual experience but look at the making of the allegory itself, keeping in mind the epoch of the Renaissance. Thus, the conundrum that will begin to address itself as we go along already makes itself manifest in the self portrait. Is the representation, of Giorgione as David meant to be poetic or is it meant to stand for the art itself?

This idea pervades through most of Giorgione, As he was the pioneer to paint allegories into his paintings, he should be subjected to the iconographic discourse[11] wherein we may find the issues of representation manifest themselves. Giorgione’s portraits have thus been subjected to such complex interpretations. Another example is the portrait of Laura,(fig 3) with her baring/covering her own breast and the laurel wreath around her, yet not over her brow.

Thus, who is the poet and what of the representation – and are these creations as well as substantial evidence of Giorgione weaving his own life into the strands of myths?

Giorgione’s Wife

In 1816-17, Byron spent his first winter in Venice – creating his own myths, weaving the first strains of poetry that were to form his lengthy poem on Venetian beauty, the city and his romantic affair with Giorgione’s women.  In a letter to John Murray, he identifies an unnamed painting of a woman as  ‘Giorgione’s wife.’

Vasari in his Lives makes no mention of a family, yet Byron goes on to state in Beppo –

“And that’s the cause I rhyme upon it so:
‘Tis but a portrait of his Son and Wife
And Self; but such a Woman! Love in life! “
(Byron, Beppo)

Attribution of the woman in the painting as a ‘wife’, may very well be the product of Byron’s attitude on love and romance rather than circumstantial interpretation. But it is clear that Byron composed the above lines in relation to the Tempest, one of the rare few paintings unanimously attributed to Giorgione.


The Tempest
Oil on canvas, 82 x 73 cm (height of detail: 22 cm)
Gallerie dell’Accademia, Venice (fig 3)

In 1530 Marcantino Michiel records “the little landscape on canvas with the storm, with the gypsy woman and a soldier by the hand of Giorgio da Castelfranco” and in 1569 an inventory of Gabriele Vendramin’s house recorded it as ‘the painting of a gypsy and a shepherd in a landscape with a bridge.” Already the questions of representation have been found in these early records. Is the man a shepherd or is he a soldier, and what of the ‘gypsy’?

La Tempesta, infamous for being the most interpreted painting to ever exist comes with its own glorious catalogue of interpretations ranging from the blasphemously pagan to the secular. Critics have found in the image allegories of Adam,Eve and Cain, Joseph and Mary, Paris and Ione and even Virgil. The interpretation of Modern art is also ascribed to the painting and themes of ‘non’ subject and ‘anti-subject’ also arise.  Vasari is famed as stating that Giorgione’s paintings had no subject.[12]

Caught in an atmospheric moment, the canvas depicts a nude woman seated on the grass suckling a possibly new born child. Parallels to the nurturing and nursing mother are easily drawn from this picture but it is debatable if they were meant to represent the Virgin Mary herself. If this belongs to the category of Madonna Lacatans, a traditional form of religious painting – it could be compared to the work of Pisanello. On comparison, the nudity may just as well signal what was considered the most important virtue of a  renaissance woman, chastity.[13] However something of the posture of The Tempest’s, ‘Madonna’ stands out, her body is painted angled at a slightly horizontal direction. The woman seems to be facing the viewer, and the baby is suckling her bare breast at a rather uncomfortable angle.  The style of the posture may be attributed to Leonardo Da Vinci who studied the anatomy of the nude body, and in practice focused on the twirling, twisting of the body to signify movement. However, it can be assumed that while interest in the anatomy was on the rise, the artists would not have had women posing as live models like they would for the ‘garzoni’ painting. The women were painted entirely from secondary sources.  Giorgione may have learnt to construct the bodies from Leonardo (Leda and the Swan) so that they seem to have ‘unravelled outwards from a central axis into the pictorial space’[14].

The Tempest : detail
Oil on canvas, 82 x 73 cm (height of detail: 22 cm)
Gallerie dell’Accademia, Venice (fig 4)


The aesthetic of the pictoral space however was compounded so that the figure may have all the qualities of the “venusta, leggiadria and grazia” which translates respectively as ‘comliness’, ‘prettiness’ and ‘grace’ (Firenzuola) which were the basis of the feminine aesthetic. The question however is whether the basis of this new model of painting was an eroticization and if it was – whether it was located within a Petrarchan sense of beauty, a Rabelaisian debauchery or in the cinquecento interpretation of nudity as chastity. In Giorgione, unfortunately we do not find a Rabelaisian celebration of sex but the two other concepts mentioned merely graze the surface.

The Nipple

If in the nude woman of the Tempest(1505) we find the eroticization of the image of the nursing mother, then this sexualisation itself must be part of the evolving renaissance ideal of beauty. For one to be able to talk on beauty, one must return to the most poetic of representations of beauty, that of Petrarch on his muse – Laura. Petrarch’s Laura is a pale and elusive figure, her beauty lies in her unattainability. It would not be too presumptuous for us to assume that for a man living in cinquecento Venice would know of Laura. She, like must have hovered over  Giorgione when he painted the portrait of the woman framed by the laurel branch.

Portrait of a Young Woman (Laura)
Oil on canvas mounted on panel, 41 x 34 cm
Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna (fig 5)

Giorgione’s Laura is brown eyed and brown haired, with eyes peering beyond the corners. Over her is draped a red garment, and over her head is extends a leafy laurel tree. The woman in the painting is not the idealistic beauty of the Venetian Renaissance, characterized by their blonde hair, blue eyes and decadent clothing. She would not pass the criteria of Pietro Testa, nor of Firenzuola (Elizabeth Cropper). Yet in the characteristic style of Leonardo and his work on movement, this Laura’s hand is ambiguously in movement over her bared breast, holding the garment. Critics have long debated whether the hand depicts the movement of baring or covering her naked pale breast – but no conclusion has been reached and as such adds to the enigma of Laura.

This is the prototype for the ‘Bella’ images, a type of portrait that exalted young beautiful women and had a hint of the sensuous and erotic. If one must look to Titian’s Sacred and Profane Love, one must remember that its seductive element may as well have begun from the ambiguity held in the hand of Giorgione’s Laura.

The Bella paintings, mostly attributed to Titian, Palma Verochhio, Raphael, Parmigano and few others were characterized as such firstly on the aesthetic or the ‘varghezza’(beauty). Within the aesthetic one found, more often than not, the hints of a sexual connotation. The sexual nature of the images is however never explicit, its eroticism is always suggestive. The aesthetic is described by Luke Syson as distant – “unscented, untouchable and therefore ultimately remote and ideal.”

That however, brings us to the question – are these women real or are they ideal? A critical approach that has been suggested of these paintings are that they are paintings of courtesans but that is not congruent with the Renaissance ideal, that of the unattainable. Furthermore, Neo-platonic principles that existed during the time stated that love was meant to be disinterested and chaste, “nothing other than a certain desire to enjoy beauty.”[15] If ideal then it must have evolved to include the erotic. The inclusion of the erotic itself however pointed towards myth and fiction as Panofsky notes on Sacred and Profane Love (Titian), finding in it the ‘Germaine venus” or the twin venuses that stood between a tangible and a divine beauty. It also celebrated an aesthetic of an ‘inner beauty’, noted by Petrarch – as the bared breast stood for the exposed heart and soul. Not only is it difficult to say that these portraits were those of courtesans for/as patrons, eroticism itself as a purpose cannot be determined.

Agastino Nifo in (1453- 1538) noted that the aesthetic theory of the period was compounded by a strange mix of Aristotle, eroticism and courtly love.

Within the eroticism, is both the fiction as well as the ideals of the time. Thus to term the bella paintings as simply erotic would be a stretch. For while Giorgione created the prototype of the Bella paintings, he was at the same time going against the grain and setting the erotic to highlight and enhance the fiction.

Guorgione was no Ghirlandio, who is often remembered as a chronicler of faces and expressions. If Giorgio’s portraits began with a real figure, or a sitter then he infused with them the mystery of the myth. If Giorgione was creating in Laura and her bared tit, a picture of a young woman then she is not the young woman.

What’s in a Name

Giorgione’s Laura, much like himself points to many myths – that of Petrarch’s muse, of the ‘Lauras and Daphne’s of brothels(Luke Syson), and to its source, the one entwined with Apollo in Ovid. Therefore, does Laura then have an implied narrative instead of being a portrait celebrating an exalted individual or a wedding gift?

Elizabeth Cropper argues that description lies in the ‘rhetorical amplification of descrptio, particularly by effectio … the description of physical beauty in the ornate style. Does Giorgione then too, wax poetically about Laura in his own style? Does she then, like in the platonic tradition – begin to stand in as a representative for poetry itself?

In interpretation of the portraits, problems of identity arise, it is essentially difficult when the beauty is both the object as well as the subject[16]

We must begin to see Laura beyond Petrarch, for she cannot be the poetic muse as she does not resemble the poet’s description, however Petrarch himself notes that Laura’s beauty was beyond description. Does Giorgione then employ metaphors to depict the challenge of the portrayal of beauty? We  have already discussed that Laura cannot be a portrait of a courtesan -and here we are left with the original myth itself. Giorgione’s background of the laurel leaves, modeled on Da Vinci’s Ginereva are very consciously included. They do not adorn her brow. Does Ovid then have a hand in creating the paradoxical, quixotic myth of Laura?

So what can be said of Laura, for if the portrayal of the beautiful woman begins to stand for beauty itself then Giorgione’s purpose must have been to employ the laurel branch and the bared breast to create the representation of a beauty and at the same time make it obvious that the metaphors are no match for natural beauty. Laura then becomes both poetic muse as the original myth, and the personification of poetry in her beauty.

Going against the grain

There is something visually transgressive about Giorgione’s women, the discrepancies in Judith, a painting that Vasari claims may represent Germany itself. The distance from the myth of Judith of Holofrene to the picture represented creates a dissonance that one slowly associates as common with the painting of Giorgione. In the nipple in Laura, the erotic stems in the form of both beauty and the challenges of beauty itself, while recalling the mythical fiction as a whole. Of La Tempesta, nothing can be said that isn’t refuted but every parallel drawn shows a novelty that had not been explored before Giorgione. The old woman clutching the sign ‘Col Tempo’ that Berenson reads as a warming is also stark in its grim reality of beauty.Giorgione then is the pioneer of many things, from visible brushstrokes to entwined allegories. Giorgione seems to be making various points on the nature of beauty itself, providing alternate narratives.

Giorgione thus makes his own point about art, and as seen through his self portrait he participates in the weaving of his own narrative and myth. Giorgione in understanding and representing art blurs the lines of individual history, beauty and beauty represented as myth.

Giorgione then becomes an emblem for the evolution of myth and myth itself, creating and untangling, then meshing together all the poetry to lose himself.

Maybe this is the nature of the artist, to be so entangled in their creations that their lives are only translated in this handiwork.


  • Castiglione, Baldassarre. The Book of the Courtier. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1959.
  • Vasari, Giorgio, and Julia Conaway Bondanella. The Lives of the Artists. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1998.
  • Annunzio, Gabriele. Il Fuoco. Roma: Il Vittoriale Degli Italiani, 1939.
  • Zampetti, Pietro. The Complete Paintings of Giorgione;. New York: Abrams, 1968.
  • Cropper, Elizabeth. “On Beautiful Women, Parmigianino, Petrarchismo, and the Vernacular Style.”The Art Bulletin 3 (1976): 374-394.
  • Ferguson, Margaret W., Maureen Quilligan, and Nancy Vickers. “Rewriting the.”Renaissance: The Discourses of Sexual Difference in Early Modern Europe(1986).
  • Richter, Jean Paul, and Mrs RC Bell.The notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci. Vol. 1. Courier Corporation, 1970.
  • Bayer, Andrea.Art and love in Renaissance Italy. Metropolitan museum of art, 2008.
  • The Metamorphoses of Ovid. Penguin Books, 1955.
  • Berenson, Bernard. The Venetian Painters of the Renaissance: With an Index to Their Works. 3rd ed. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1894.
  • Brown, David Alan, et al.Bellini, Giorgione, Titian, and the Renaissance of Venetian Painting. Yale University Press, 2006.
  • Panofsky, Erwin. Studies in Iconology: Humanistic Themes in the Art of the Renaissance [1962]. ed. New York [NY] [etc.: Harper & Row, 1962.
  • Schuler, Carol M. “The courtesan in art: Historical fact or modern fantasy?.”Women’s Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal2 (1991): 209-222.
  • Bernstein, Joanne G. “The Female Model and the Renaissance Nude: Dürer, Giorgione, and Raphael.”Artibus et Historiae (1992): 49-63.
  • Ridolfi, Carlo.Le maraviglie dell’arte: ovvero Le vite degli illustri pittori veneti e dello stato. Vol. 2. Cartallier, 1837.
  • Alazard, Jean.The Florentine Portrait. Schocken Books, 1948.
  • Firenzuola, Agnolo, and Konrad Eisenbichler. On the Beauty of Women. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania, 1992. 




[1] Pictures called ‘Gaston De Foix by Giorgione’ were circulated in the 1600’s. Gaston De Foix was a celebrated military general who diead at the Battle of Ravenna in 1512. Zampetti,Pietro The Complete Works Of Giorgione (1968, Abrams,) pg 7

[2] Gabriele D’Annunzio, il fuoco

[3]B.  Castiglione, The Book of the Courtier (1959), translated by Charles S. Singleton, Norton Critical edition

[4] Giorgione’s name is given in two surviving documents of 1507 and 1508 as Zorzi da Castelfranco ,G.  Vasari, Lives of the Artists.

[5] Great enough for him to be known as ‘big george’, Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1905

[6] For more on Giorgione’s style, its influences and entanglements Zampetti, Pietro in The Complete Works Of Giorgione (1968, Abrams,), Note on the Giorgionesque, pages 15-16

[7]Alan Brown, David, Bellini, Giorgione, Titian, and the Renaissance of Venetian Painting, National Gallery of Art (U.S.)

[8] On a nuanced reading of her collection San Juan, Rose Marie, “The Court Lady’s Dilemma: Isabella D’este and Art Collecting in the Renaissance”Oxford Art Journal 14.1 (1991) 67–78.

[9] G. Vasari on Giorgione’s self portrait

[10] Wind. Edgar, Giorgione’s Tempesta with Comments on Giorgione’s Poetic Allegories. Oxford: Clarendon, 1969.


[11] Panofsky, Erwin Studies in Iconology: Humanistic Themes in the Art of the Renaissance Harper & Row, 1962

[12] Vasari, Lives of the Artists.

[13] Bembo, Pietro Testa and other references in Elizabeth Cropper, On Beautiful Women, Parmigianino, Petrarchismo, and the Vernacular Style, 1976

[14] Battisti and Krumine in Bernstein, Joanne G. “The Female Model and the Renaissance Nude: Dürer, Giorgione, and Raphael.”Artibus et Historiae 

[15] B. Castiglioni

[16] Cropper, On Beautiful Women, Parmigianino, Petrarchismo, and the Vernacular Style.”The Art Bulletin 3 (1976)’ 18.



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