The Tempest


The Tempest
(Accademia Venice)
2' 6 1/4" x 2' 4 3/4"

Very little is known about Giorgione, an Italian painter of the High Renaissance. The enigmatic quality attached to his life lends a certain sense of mystery to his works of art as well. Few paintings are attributed to him, as a result of there being no signed and dated works remaining. Some of his most famous paintings are: The Three Philosophers (image), Sleeping Venus (image), and The Tempest.

Giorgione was born circa 1477 in the Republic of Venice. There, during the last decade of the fifteenth century, he studied under Giovanni Bellini. Bellini's late style, including his technique, color, and mood, can be detected in Giorgione's work. Giorgione's treatment of the landscape, however, differs greatly from other Venetian painters of the time.

The Tempest marks a new approach at painting landscapes. The painting consists of two figures situated in the foreground, while in the background a thunderstorm brews above a rural landscape. The major change to be noted is that instead of accompanying the figures, the landscape is now prominent. Lionello Venturi writes: "Since they perform no action, the figures are not the most important elements, and they leave the center of the picture open toward the background while the background assumes the role of the protagonist of the scene" (13).

There is much debate over the identity of the two figures. The woman, sitting on the right, is nude except for a white sheet which covers her shoulders and on which she sits. Her young infant suckles at her breast. She looks out towards the viewer, an impassive glance that indicates none of her emotion.

The woman can be seen as a fertility figure. Her naked state, her round stomach, her full breasts, and the fact that she is nursing her young child enhance her femininity. The young woman, however, symbolizes a fertility figure that emphasizes procreation rather than sexuality. Marilyn Stokstad writes: "Her nudity seems maternal rather than erotic..." (707). The young woman and her child therefore symbolize the regeneration of life, which enhances the lushness of the nature that surrounds her.

The young man is dressed in a military uniform, although Jaynie Anderson suggests that it may be the costume worn by members of the Compagnie della Calza, a club for young unmarried men, who organized feasts, banquets, and plays (168). The figure is shown in contrapposto. However, the shift in his weight does not seem to be supported in any way by the long staff he holds in his right hand. He looks over at the young woman with an amused smile on his face. His figure is more open and inviting, compared to the woman who sits hunched over on the ground, yet he seems more distant and naive.

The colors associated with the two figures contrasts with the impression they give. Red symbolizes fertility, while white symbolizes purity and innocence. The young man, who is innocent figure, wears red garments, and the woman, a symbol of fertility and procreation, is covered by a white sheet.

Marcantonio Michiel in 1530 identified the figures as a gipsy and a soldier. Radiography has revealed that the young soldier in the painting was previously a female nude (Day and Williams, 235). Venturi believes that the x-rays "...confirm that Giorgione painted without any subject matter in mind" (9). The change in subject matter also demonstrates that Giorgione drew directly onto the canvas instead of making preparatory drawings (Gerten).

There is no contact between the two figures, aside from the soldier's glance towards the gypsy. The lack of relationship is emphasized by the landscape. Anderson states: "The emotional division between the man and woman ... [is] emphasized by the stream that divides them permanently..." (168).

Although the figures occupy the viewer's attention for some time, the background is the most striking aspect of the painting. Giorgione painted a landscape with figures, rather than figures with a landscape background. Several techniques, including color and light, emphasize the landscape rather than the figures.

The colors used by Giorgione are lush and natural. The green-blue color of the sky complements the dark green of the trees and vegetation. The sky does not look particularly stormy except for the bolt of lightning that erupts from the clouds. The word tempest suggests a violent storm. Although the painting is called The Tempest, the storm depicted does not seem very ferocious. Giorgione seems more concerned with depicting the atmosphere of the impending storm rather than the naturalism of a true tempest.

Giorgione uses light to enhance the colors. The light and colors create the atmosphere that dominates the picture. "The lighting is soft and hazy and is used to create mood rather than to define sharply the objects in the scene" (Gerten).

Everything seems to anticipate the violence of the storm. The trees are still, the figures wait patiently, and the village is quiet. The peacefulness of the painting can also be seen in the stream: there are no ripples in the water, nothing that indicates that turmoil is approaching. The only indication of the tempest is the bolt of lightning. The flash of yellow interrupts the color of the sky. It seems to be an abrupt change because everything else in the painting seems restful.

The lightning illuminates the buildings found beneath it, drawing attention to the rural landscape in the background. The bridge serves as a horizontal line that separates the foreground and the background. The trees, found on either side of the bridge, create a sense of balance and symmetry.

Giorgione's landscape no longer serves solely as the background for the painting. In fact, the landscape plays as great a role as the figures. The viewer's attention encompasses the entire painting rather than a single aspect. The sense of equality in the painting is enhanced by the symmetry of the two figures and the two trees.

The mysteriousness of the subject matter is congruous with Giorgione's life in general. Little is known about the artists himself, including whether or not he painted this and other works of art. The enigmatic quality of The Tempest is enhanced by the knowledge that he painted with no specific subject matter in mind. The result, however, is one in which the landscape plays an important role in the painting instead of accompanying the figures portrayed.

Additional websites:
European Art in the Sixteenth Century
Art History Research Resources
More Giorgione Images
Sweet Briar College

Anderson, Jaynie. Giorgione: The Painter of 'Poetic Brevity'. New York: Flammarion, 1997.
Day, Fergus, and David Williams, eds. Art: A World History. London: DK, 1998.
Gerten, Carol L. Bio: Giorgione. [Accessed 20 September 1999].
"Giorgione" Encyclopaedia Britannica Online. [Accessed 20 September 1999].
"painting, history of" Encyclopaedia Britannica Online. [Accessed 28 September 1999].
Stokstad, Marilyn. Art History. Rev. Ed. Vol. 2. New York: Abrams; New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1999.
Venturi, Lionello. Four Steps Toward Modern Art: Giorgione, Caravaggio, Manet, Cezanne. New York: Columbia UP, 1956.

This page is written and maintained by Sophie Wackenhut. ©1999