The “Pastoral Concert” or “Homage to Giorgione”
Dr. Francis P. DeStefano
The “Pastoral Concert” and Homage to Giorgione
Dr. Francis P. DeStefano
The “Pastoral Concert” or “Concert Champetre” that now hangs in the Louvre is universally recognized as one of the world’s great masterpieces. Usually dated around 1510-1511 it is surrounded, like other famous products of the Venetian Renaissance, by an aura of mystery and enigma. Not only has scholarly opinion been divided about whether to attribute the painting to Giorgione or Titian, but also no one has been able to come up with a plausible explanation of the subject or meaning of the painting.
In this essay I offer a “working hypothesis” that provides an interpretation of the subject and also resolves the question of attribution. I argue that Titian used the famous Biblical story of Jonathan and David to provide a framework for a personal homage to Giorgione, his recently deceased mentor and friend.
Today, it is only with a great leap of imagination that we might be able to understand the grief and sorrow caused by the death of the young Giorgione at the height of his fame and artistic prowess in 1510. Five hundred years have passed since Giorgione died of the plague while still only in his early thirties. Modern day examples might help us understand. We just have to think of the outpouring of grief and sorrow that often accompanies the death of a young film or rock star. Michael Jackson, John Lennon, and Elvis immediately spring to mind. The grief is usually accompanied by elaborate memorial services featuring performances by other stars to commemorate the deceased hero.
During the Renaissance it was not uncommon for poets and humanists to pen elegies or panegyrics to recently deceased friends. Writing only a few decades after the death of Giorgione, and basing his information on personal visits to Venice, Giorgio Vasari, in his Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, noted that before his untimely death Giorgione had exceeded even the venerable Giovanni Bellini in the eyes of the Venetian aristocracy. Vasari understood that the young Giorgione’s death was a tragic loss.
This event happened in the thirty-fourth year of his age; not without extreme grief on the part of his many friends, to whom he was endeared by his excellent qualities; it was also greatly to the loss of the world, thus prematurely deprived of his talents.[i]
Vasari’s opinion was based in part on conversations with two young painters who viewed Giorgione as a mentor. One was Sebastiano, later known as Sebastiano del Piombo, and the other was Titian. The young Titian was no writer or poet but he could paint.
Before going any further it should be noted that my reading is speculative and unorthodox. As far as I know a painterly homage would be unique and unprecedented in the art of the Venetian Renaissance. Nevertheless, there is no settled opinion on the subject of the “Pastoral Concert”, and a Titian homage to Giorgione answers most of the questions that have surrounded the painting.
“Pastoral Concert” is just a descriptive title attached to the painting long after its creation. The provenance of the painting only goes back to the late seventeenth century when it was catalogued in the collection of Louis XIV. Nineteenth century connoisseurs generally gave the painting to Giorgione but in a very influential book of the early twentieth century Louis Hourticq gave it to Titian based on similarities between elements in the painting and other works known to be by Titian. With some notable exceptions modern scholars today give it to Titian.
There is also no agreement on the subject. Most commentators have been content to merely call it a pastoral. In 2001 Paul Joannides wrote:
its association of youth, nudity and music with a richly varied landscape projects an Arcadian ease and sense of nature’s beneficence, a compendium of the pastoral vision.[ii]
Still, Joannides argued that “no solution has proved persuasive,”[iii] and recognized that a mere pastoral vision was not enough, He went on to venture a guess of his own albeit with many qualifiers:
despite the heterosexual message of the forms and technique, and the painter’s reveling in the female body, the apparent concentration of the painting… is on men. The subject, then—although not the message—may be homoerotic. What the painter might be showing is the elegant lutenist courting if not seducing the shepherd…It may be that Titian was responding to the demands of a specific client.[iv]
A few years later in the exhibition catalog of the 2006 Bellini, Giorgione, Titian exhibition jointly sponsored by Washington’s National Gallery and Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum Jaynie Anderson called the painting “the greatest erotic masterpiece in the history of Western painting,” but also characterized it as a “meditative allegory on the creation of poetry.”[v] Even though she pointed out that scholars generally gave the painting to Titian, she did express her opinion, originally discussed in her 1996 Giorgione catalog, for Giorgione’s authorship, but for some reason relegated it to a footnote.
In his 2007 Giorgione catalog Wolfgang Eller also gave the Pastoral Concert to Giorgione based on its resemblance to his other works.[vi]
It is surprising that a painting showing all of the characteristics of Giorgione’s art was attributed to Titian in the past and still is by many art historians. This is also a good example of the typical incapability of art experts to judge a painting based on its painterly quality….
Its atmosphere is so Giorgionesque that is [sic] almost impossible to achieve a still higher degree. This is also applicable to the combined themes of love, music, and nature, whereby the painting, as is typical of Giorgione contains several levels of reality.
For Eller the painting is “a depiction in the style of antiquity showing two nobles inspired by two Muses making music.” The subject is “Male Pair in Love in a Landscape.”
However, a Titian homage to Giorgione settles the question of attribution, and explains why all the Giorgionesque elements would be in the painting. It also identifies the four large figures in the painting. Let’s take a close look.
Prominently figured in the foreground are two male figures, one elaborately dressed in striking finery, and the other wearing rustic garb. A sitting female nude with her back to the viewer faces the two men. A standing nude woman is off to the left pouring something into a well. There is also a smaller figure of a shepherd with a flock in the right mid-ground. In the background there is landscape that seems typical of Giorgione.
Most commentators have agreed that the two men are the key figures in the painting. Who are they and what is their relationship? In my reading there are many elements in the painting that identify the finely dressed man as Giorgione. Indeed, it is possible to say that this painting is a primary source that provides substantiation for much of what Vasari said about Giorgione in his short biography. Here is the way Vasari introduced the young rising star.
This was Giorgio, born in the year 1478, at Castelfranco, in the territory of Treviso…Giorgio was, at a later period, called Giorgione, as well from the character of his person as for the exaltation of his mind….
At the height of his fame Giorgione traveled in the highest circles of Venetian society. Vasari mentioned that he even counted Cardinal Grimani, a Venetian patrician and great art collector, among his patrons. Titian depicts him dressed accordingly in the garb of a young Venetian aristocrat of the time. The cap, the sleeves, and the stockings are characteristic. More than anything the lute should make one think of Giorgione in the same way that a jar of ointment identifies Mary Magdalen, or a broken wheel identifies St. Catherine of Alexandria. Vasari noted Giorgione’s prowess with the lute.
Brought up in Venice, he took no small delight in love passages, and in the sound of the lute, to which he was so cordially devoted, and which he practiced so constantly, that he played and sang with the most exquisite perfection, inasmuch that he was, for this cause, frequently invited to musical assemblies and festivals by the most distinguished personages.
However, there are significant signs in this painting that the young man with the lute has recently died. First, his face is in shadow. Commentators have wondered and theorized about this deliberate decision on the part of the painter. Scientific examination has shown that the face in shadow is not due to dirt or discoloration. Death can provide a plausible explanation for Titian’s decision. Why else would the most prominent figure in the painting have his face in shadow?[vii]
Second, it appears that there are no strings on the lute; a very curious omission that only makes sense if the musician will play no more. In the 2006 exhibition catalog entry cited above Jaynie Anderson discussed the underpainting and noticed that the music had stopped.
Originally the lute player played a smaller instrument, his right hand strumming its chords, before the instrument grew larger and his hand came to rest on it in repose. In rethinking the composition, the artist depicted the silence of music in this meditative poetic picture….
Rather than a temporary meditative silence, the lutenist has strummed his last note. Giorgione is dead. He will play no more.
The death of Giorgione is also symbolized by the action of the female nude standing at the left. She is pouring something from a pitcher into a well. Scholars have concluded from the position of her hand and arm that she is pouring and not drawing. But who is she?
In a 1957 paper Philipp Fehl identified the two nude females as wood nymphs who had come to hear the music. He argued that although they were as real as the landscape they represented, they were invisible to the two men.[viii] Two years later Patricia Egan acknowledged Fehl’s insight but went a step further. Rather than nymphs Egan identified the two females as “Poesia”. She pointed out that Tarocchi cards of the era show poetry or “Poesia” as a female with both a pipe and a pitcher. Egan called her a muse and argued that she had been twinned in the “Pastoral Concert” because her function as bearer of pitcher and pipe had been separated.[ix]
Muses were ubiquitous in the literature and art of the Renaissance.[x] Following Egan I agree that the nudes are one and the same. Both are the muse of lyric poetry, and by derivation the muse of music. There was no muse specifically for painting. Euterpe, whose name means ‘giver of delight’, is the muse of lyric poetry, and she is usually identified by the pipe that the seated female is holding. During the Renaissance muses are usually portrayed as clothed but could also appear in the nude. They represent a higher order of being and in the “Pastoral Concert” they are indeed invisible to the two men who seem oblivious to their presence. Edgar Wind referred to the “Pastoral Concert” when he wrote of the significance of nude and clothed figures in the same painting.
The same ‘philosophy of clothes’ can be studied in Giorgione’s ‘Fete Champetre’ in the Louvre. The nymphs, distinguished from the musicians by the absence of clothes, are meant to be recognized as ‘divine presences’, superior spirits from whose fountain the mortal musicians are nourished…[xi]
The presentation of one figure in two guises or roles was not unusual. Rona Goffen referred to a “visual tradition” in her discussion of the two women in Titian’s famous, “Sacred and Profane Love,” now in the Borghese Gallery.
in the visual tradition, when two figures look alike, they in fact represent the same person, usually in different moments of a narrative, sometimes in different conditions or states of being….[xii]
In my interpretation of the “Sacred and Profane Love” I agreed with Goffen that Titian depicted only one woman in two guises and playing two different roles.[xiii]
Vasari noted Giorgione’s skill with love lyrics and music but in the “Pastoral Concert” Euterpe has departed from him and stands off to the left pouring his spirit out into a well. We recall St. Paul’s statement, as his life was drawing to its end, that he was being poured out like a libation.
At the same time the seated Euterpe holding the pipe directs her gaze to the young rustic who will be Giorgione’s successor. The young rustic would then be Titian, himself, who deliberately put a number of signs of Giorgione into this painting as a homage to his departed friend.
The depiction of the front and back of the muse is perhaps the clearest evocation of Giorgione in the “Pastoral Concert.” The most famous anecdote in Vasari’s brief biography of Giorgione concerns the paragone or contest between sculpture and painting. Vasari related that certain sculptors had claimed a superiority over painting since “sculpture was capable of exhibiting various aspects in one sole figure,” and “from the fact that the spectator can walk round it,” whereas painting “could not do more than display a given figure in one particular aspect.” Vasari noted Giorgione’s counter-argument.
That in one picture the painter could display various aspects without the necessity of walking round his work, and could even display, at one glance, all the different aspects that could be presented by the figure of a man….He declared, further, that he could execute a single figure in painting in such a manner as to show the front, back, and profiles of both sides at one and the same time.
In the “Pastoral Concert” not only do we see the front, the back, and the profile of the muse but we also see her performing two separate functions. Titian could have thought of no better homage to Giorgione than this presentation of the muse.
While the standing nude symbolizes the passing of Giorgione, the seated nude symbolizes the arrival of Titian. Here he depicts himself as Giorgione’s social inferior but also as his successor. He wears rustic clothing to depict his humble origins, and it would appear as if he is somehow related to the shepherd and flock in the right mid-ground. But he stares directly at the finely dressed man and their heads almost touch. The men are not rivals but the closest of friends.
There is no more famous account of male friendship than in the biblical story of David and Jonathan. David, the youngest son of Jesse, was called away from his father’s flocks by the prophet Samuel to become the Lord’s anointed. He comes on the scene just as King Saul and his army are being cowed by Goliath, the Philistine giant. David’s defeat of Goliath is one of the most famous scenes in the Bible and Renaissance artists repeatedly depicted it. Saul takes David into his household after the victory, and David and the King’s son, Jonathan, quickly become soulmates.
After David had finished talking to Saul, Jonathan’s soul became closely bound to David’s and Jonathan came to love him as his own soul. Saul kept him by him from that day forward and would not let him go back to his father’s house. Jonathan made a pact with David to love him as his own soul; he took off the cloak he was wearing and gave it to David, and his armor too, even his sword, his bow and his belt. (1 Samuel 18: 1-5)
Saul even offers his daughter to David who at first demurs because of his lowly background: “does it strike you as an easy thing for me to become the king’s son-in-law, poor and of humble position as I am.” (1 Samuel 18:24)
Eventually, Saul comes to regard David as a rival and threat to his throne and plots to destroy him. Jonathan, however, continually intervenes to protect David from his father’s wrath. At one point they even go out into the fields to discuss strategy something that Titian might have been alluding to by placing his two men in a landscape.
Finally, both Saul and Jonathan are killed in battle and when David hears the devastating news he memorializes both Saul and Jonathan, but his words about Jonathan might very well reflect Titian’s own feelings about the death of Giorgione.
O Jonathan, in your death I am stricken
I am desolate for you, Jonathan my brother.
Very dear to me you were,
Your love to me more wonderful
Than the love of a woman. (1 Samuel 18: 26)
There are many famous depictions of David during the Renaissance. Indeed, it appears as if Giorgione painted a number of versions some of which scholars believe to be self- portraits. However, I am only familiar with one of David with Jonathan. It is a small painting by Cima da Conegliano that now hangs in London’s National Gallery. Cima was an older contemporary of both Giorgione and Titian and the Museum dates the painting between 1506 and 1510. In Cima’s painting the two young men are walking side by side after the defeat of Goliath whose head is being carried by David. Jonathan wears the fine armor that he will eventually offer to David, but David is dressed much more simply. Their friendship is obvious.
I am not the first to suggest that the numerous Giorgionesque elements in the “Pastoral Concert” were not put there by Giorgione but by Titian as an act of homage. A similar view was expressed years ago by famed Art historian S. J. Freedberg who believed that the painting gave Giorgione a “momentary posthumous existence.”
The Pastorale represents to us another, more advanced stage of Titian’s relationship to Giorgione: it is no longer imitation, but a demonstration of creation in Giorgione’s style, according to his most advanced precept and in a stature that resembles his. The painting should be, by my calculation, of late 1510 or 1511, just following Giorgione’s death, and it’s as if Titian were determined in it to deny Giorgione’s mortality, perpetuating the life of his idea.[xiv]
In 2001 Paul Joannides made a similar connection but saw rivalry more than emulation.
But it is apparent that the resemblance to Giorgione’s work was part of Titian’s aim: a deliberate invitation to compare the artists in work on relatively small canvasses, as earlier in large public frescoes. …In the Concert Champetre he wished to show that he could compete both with Giorgione’s poetic evocation and with his creation of unity between figures and nature.[xv]
The landscape, the figures, especially the female nudes are reminiscent of Giorgione. It would not surprise me if Titian even used Giorgione’s drawings or cartoons. Rather than competition, I believe that the parallels with the story of Jonathan and David indicate that Titian was offering homage to his departed friend.
Admittedly, in his biography of Titian Giorgio Vasari mentioned an incident that led to a rupture between the two young artists after a period of early collaboration. Vasari’s biography of Titian only appeared in the second edition of his Lives. We are not sure of Vasari’s sources for the young Titian but in any event he took great pains to show Titian’s early dependence on Giorgione.[xvi]
Having seen the manner of Giorgione, Titian early resolved to abandon that of Giovanni Bellini, although well grounded therein. He now therefore devoted himself to this purpose, and in a short time so closely imitated Giorgione that his pictures were sometimes taken for those of that master…
For example, Vasari notes a painting done by Titian of a member of the Barberigo family, “so well and carefully done that it would have been taken for a picture by Giorgione, if Titian had not written his name on the dark ground.”
But then Giorgione won the contract to do the exterior fresco work on the recently rebuilt Fondaco dei Tedeschi, the commercial center of the German community in Venice. Giorgione did the work on the facade facing the Grand Canal but for reasons not clear the less visible Merceria side was given to Titian.
According to Vasari certain gentlemen friends of Giorgione mistakenly praised him for Titian’s work on the Merceria side and even declared “he was acquitting himself better on the Merceria than he had done on that of the Grand Canal; which remark caused Giorgione so much vexation that he would scarcely permit himself to be seen until the whole work was completed and Titian had become generally known as the painter.”
From that time on Giorgione, according to Vasari, refused to “hold and intercourse” with Titian, and “they were no longer friends.” Even if the story is true, a careful reading casts no reflection on the young Titian or his regard for Giorgione. Of course, it is possible that decades later the older Titian himself related the story to Vasari in an attempt to embellish his already established fame.
Nevertheless, the evidence in the “Pastoral Concert” indicates that the young Titian deeply regretted the untimely death of his recently deceased friend and mentor. One final note might help. In his study of the young Titian, Paul Joannides was inclined to accept Hourticq’s opinion that while the “Pastoral Concert” was originally “laid in” around the time of Giorgione’s death in 1510, it was not completed until two decades later.[xvii] To me, this would imply that the painting was never commissioned, and that Titian did it for himself.
Many have seen that the relationship between the two young men in the “Pastoral Concert” is the key to the painting. Some have even called it “homo-erotic”. In my opinion the bond between two young warriors, or two young artists, is sufficient to explain the painting. Both Giorgione and Titian were ladies’ men, but in the era of the Renaissance the bond between two young men could be stronger than erotic. Look at the painting and consider again whether the young Titian’s grief might have recalled David’s lament on hearing the news of the death of Jonathan.
O Jonathan, in your death I am stricken
I am desolate for you, Jonathan my brother.
Very dear to me you were,
Your love to me more wonderful
Than the love of a woman.
[i] Giorgio Vasari, Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, selected, edited and introduced by Marilyn Aronberg Lavin, Vol II, New York, 1967, p. 227. All quotes from Vasari are taken from this source. See pp. 225-233 for the Giorgione biography.
[ii] Paul Joannides, Titian to 1518, Yale, 2001 p. 104.
[iii] Joannides, p. 98.
[iv] Joannides, p. 104.
[v] David Alan Brown, and Sylvia Ferino-Pagden, Bellini, Giorgione, Titian, and the Renaissance of Venetian Painting, Washington, 2006. Catalog entry #31 by Jaynie Anderson.
[vi] Wolfgang Eller, Giorgione Mystery Unveiled, Petersberg, 2007, pp.133-136.
[vii] Almost 50 years later Titian would cover the face of the dying Christ in shadow in a “Crucifixion” that now hangs in the church of San Domenico in Ancona.
[viii] Philipp Fehl: “The Hidden Genre: a Study of the Concert Champetre in the Louvre”, The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol. 16, No. 2 (Dec. 1957), pp. 153-168.
[ix] Patricia Egan, “Poesia and the Fete Champetre”, The Art Bulletin, Vol. 41, No. 4 (Dec. 1959), pp. 303-313.
[x] See the Muses entry by Penelope in The Classical Tradition, Harvard University Press, 2010.
[xi] Edgar Wind, Pagan Mysteries of the Renaissance, New Haven, 1958. P.123, n.1. Wind’s footnote might have been inspired by the Fehl article cited above.
[xii] Rona Goffen, “Titian’s Sacred and Profane Love and Marriage,” in The Expanding Discourse, Feminism and Art History, ed. Norma Broude and Mary D. Garrard, NY, 1992, pp. 112-113.
[xiii] I have identified the two women in the “Sacred and Profane Love” as Mary Magdalen: first as a finely dressed courtesan, and second as a repentant sinner in the act of casting off her finery. See essay on the “Sacred and Profane Love”, at website, MyGiorgione: Giorgione, Titian, and the Venetian Renaissance, http://giorgionetempesta.com/?page_id=42
[xiv]S.J. Freedberg, Painting in Italy, 1500-1600, London, 1990, pp. 139-140.
[xv] Joannides, p. 102.
[xvi] Vasari, pp. 233-253 for the biography of Titian.
[xvii] Joannides, p. 100.