Giorgione (GIORGIO BARBARELLI, ZORZO DA CASTELFRANCO), Italian painter, b. at Castelfranco in or before 1477; d. in Venice in October or November, 1510. Little is known of his life. His very origin has been disputed, some authorities claiming his father to have been of the great Barbarelli family and his mother a peasant girl of Vedelago, while later investigators find no proof of this, call the Barbarelli tradition false, and make him the descendant of peasants from the March of Treviso. Giorgione means “big George”; Ruskin calls him “stout George”; all agree that he was a large, handsome man, of splendid and attractive presence. In Venice he studied under Giovanni Bellini, with Titian as a fellow-pupil. His great artistic talent developed rapidly, he outstripped his master, broke away from the timid and traditional style of the day, and became a great influence in art, even Titian following his teachings and imitating his color, method, and style. Today there is much confusion even in the great Continental galleries concerning the attribution of pictures to Titian and to Giorgione. With rare musical skill on the lute and with a fine voice, the talented youth was early admitted to the best Venetian society, and painted portraits of nearly all the great people; Caterina Cornaro, Gonzales (Gonzalvo) of Cordova, and two doges being a few of his sitters. His portraits were the first to be painted in the “modern manner”, and are full of dignity, truth of characterization, simplicity, and a silvery quality unsurpassed even by Velazquez. The precocious and versatile young man was the first to paint landscapes with figures, the first to paint genre—movable pictures in their own frames with no devotional, allegorical, or historical purpose—and the first whose colors possessed that ardent, glowing, and melting intensity which was so soon to typify the work of all the Venetian School.
Giorgione was the first to discard detail and substitute breadth and boldness in the treatment of nature and architecture; and he was the first to recognize that the painter’s chief aim is decorative effect. He never subordinated line and color to architecture, nor an artistic effect to a sentimental presentation. He possessed the typical artistic temperament, and this, with his vigour and gaiety, made him the true poet-painter, a “lyrical genius” (Morelli). He is well called the “joyous herald of the Renaissance“. The vigor of his chiaroscuro, the superb “relief” in his work, the “grand style”, and his mastery of perspective may have come in part from a study of Leonardo da Vinci, who was in Venice when Giorgione was twenty-four years old; but no trustworthy records show that the two ever met. Giorgione painted the widest range of subjects from altar-piece to fete-champetre, employed few figures—usually three—in his compositions, and imitated the actual texture of draperies as none had ever done before. His method was to paint in tempera and then glaze in oil, a process contributing to great brilliance, transparency, and permanence of color. Giorgione introduced into Venice the fashion of painting the fronts of houses in fresco (in 1507-08 he thus decorated, with Titian, the magnificent Fondaco dei Tedeschi); and cassoni (marriage-chests) and other pieces of furniture were not too humble for his magic brush.
All his life was spent in Venice where his extraordinary personality started a School of Giorgione, and where his pictures, in great demand during his life-time, had a host of imitators and copyists. Very little of his work is authenticated, and only three paintings have never been called in question by any expert or critic. The first of these is the Castelfranco altar-piece, painted when he was twenty-seven years old for the church of his native town. Here are the Madonna and Child enthroned, with Sts. Liberale and Francis below, “one of the two most perfect pictures in existence” (Ruskin); it is full of reverie, serenity, and religious sentiment, the very landscape-background awakening devotional feelings. The other unquestioned works are the “Adrastus and Hypsipyle” (called for 350 years the “Giovanelli Figures” or the “Stormy Landscape with Soldier and Gypsy”), more sombre than the altar-piece but more romantic in treatment, and the “Aeneas, Evander, and Pallas” (the “Three Philosophers” or the “Chaldean Sages”), probably completed by Sebastiano del Piombo, Giorgione’s pupil. The greatest rival authorities are agreed that four other works are undoubted Giorgiones: the “Knight of Malta“, “Judgment of Solomon“, the “Trial of Moses” (all in the Uffizi), and “Christ Bearing the Cross” in Mrs. Gardner’s collection (Boston, U.S.A.). Many great canvases are denied Giorgione by modern negative criticism simply because they do not quite attain the high standard of excellence arbitrarily set for this master by connoisseurs. Tradition says his death was due to grief because his lady-love proved false; probably the plague—then raging in Venice—carried him off. He was buried on the Island of Poveglia. Other works attributed to Giorgione are: “The Concert”, Pitti Gallery, Florence; “Venus”, Dresden Gallery; “Fete Champetre”, Louvre; “Madonna and Child”, Prado.