Discovery of Paris

 

 

Giorgione: “Discovery of Paris,” or “Encounter with the Robbers on the Flight into Egypt” 

Dr. Francis P. DeStefano

[Most of this paper is included in my paper on the Tempest but I include it here since this lost Giorgione has been the source of much speculation about Giorgione. Many scholars believe it to be of great importance although they universally mis-interpret its subject. I also include some additional speculation of my own linking this painting to a “Notte” in the famous correspondence between Isabella d’Este and her agent in Venice.]

A “lost” Giorgione painting which has been misidentified for almost 500 years can shed new light on the work and career of the most mysterious and perhaps the greatest of all Venetian Renaissance painters.

In 1525, fifteen years after the death of Giorgione, Marcantonio Michiel noticed a painting in the home of Venetian patrician, Taddeo Contarini, and described it as a “picture on canvas, representing the birth of Paris, in a landscape, with two shepherds standing.…” Michiel noted that it was one of Giorgione’s “early works.”[i]

This painting has been lost, but copies exist from the 17th century. The editor of the 1903 translation of Michiel’s notes cited a description in an “old manuscript catalog of the time.”

A landscape on canvas, in oil, where there are on one side, a half nude woman and an old man, seated, with a flute.[ii]

One of the copies, made by David Teniers around 1655, is currently in a private collection but was discussed in two recent catalogues. The authors of both catalogues agree that it is a copy of an early Giorgione and also accept, although with some puzzlement, Michiel’s identification of the painting as “the birth of Paris.”[iii] However, details in this early Giorgione indicate that it has quite a different subject than the one imagined by Michiel.

The subject of this “lost” Giorgione comes from a legendary episode on the flight of the Holy Family into Egypt. Here is the version from the apocryphal “Arabic Gospel of the Infancy.”

Joseph and the lady Mary departed and came to a desert place, and when they heard that it was infested with raids by robbers, they decided to pass through this region by night. But behold, on the way they saw two robbers lying on the road, and with them a crowd of robbers who belonged to them, likewise sleeping. Now these two robbers, into whose hands they had fallen, were Titus and Dumachus. And Titus said to Dumachus: ‘I ask you to let these (people) go free, and in such a way that our companions do not observe them.’ But Dumachus refused and Titus said again:

‘Take from me forty drachmae and have them as a pledge.’ At the same time he reached him the girdle which he wore round him, that he might hold his tongue and not speak.[iv]

In Legends of the Madonna Anna Jameson called the encounter with the robbers an “ancient tradition,” and added another detail. After the acceptance of his offer, “the merciful robber led the Holy Travellers to his stronghold on the rock, and gave them lodging for the night.”[v]

The landscape in the background of the painting is commonplace in depictions of the Flight into Egypt. The stream is often seen in versions of the “Rest.” It was used by the Madonna to either bathe, or to wash the swaddling clothes of her Son.

Bathing might explain Mary’s exposed leg and arms but the disarray of her clothing could also be Giorgione’s way of representing her obvious danger from the robbers. In a painting now in the Hermitage Giorgione exposed the thigh of Judith, the famous Jewish heroine whose virtue was also threatened.[vi] In any case Mary sits with her back to Joseph with her eyes intent on her Son, her real protector. Joseph is portrayed as an elderly graybeard as in Giorgione’s well-known Nativities. The infant Christ lies on a white cloth and returns his mother’s imploring look. The white cloth recalls the corporale, used to cover the altar on which the Eucharist is placed.[vii]

The two men on the right side are not shepherds but robbers. A Giorgione shepherd would be kneeling or bending over the Child in adoration. The one with the red jacket has just convinced the other to leave the Holy Family in peace. He has taken off his “girdle” leaving himself somewhat exposed and given it to the other who is in the process of fixing it around his waist. The band of robbers can be seen lounging in the middle ground. Joseph’s flute recalls the well-know verse from Juvenal: “A wanderer who has nothing can sing in a robber’s face.”[viii]

In “The Encounter with the Robbers in the Desert” Giorgione did not attempt to hide the subject of that early work. If no one has recognized its subject from Michiel’s time to ours, it is because the very popular apocryphal legends have largely been forgotten. Early in his career Giorgione was working not on a pagan subject derived from the legend of Paris but on a depiction of an apocryphal legend based on the Flight into Egypt. Moreover, he showed an inclination, even at this early stage in his brief career, to depict the Madonna in a very unusual way.

Marcantonio Michiel may not have been the first to describe this painting. In 1510, the year of Giorgione’s death, Isabella D’Este, the Marchioness of Mantua and a noted collector, was trying to acquire a work by Giorgione for her camerino. When she was informed by Taddeo Albano, her agent in Venice, that Giorgione had just died, she urged him to try to acquire a “Notte” from his estate:[ix]

we hear that among the possessions left by Zorzo da Castelfranco, the painter, there is a picture of a Notte, very beautiful and original. If this is the case, we wish to have it, and beg your Lorenzo da Pavia or any other person of taste and judgment to go and see if it is a really excellent thing. If it is, I hope you will endeavor to secure this picture for me, with the help of our dearest compare the Magnifico Carlo Valerio, or of any one else you may think fit. Find out the price and let us have the exact sum; but if it is really a fine thing, and you think well to clench the bargain for fear others should carry it off, do what you think best…”

Albano replied,

I have spoken in your interests to some of my friends who were very intimate with him, and they assure me that there is no such picture among his possessions. It is true that the said Zorzo painted a Notte for M. Taddeo Contarini, which, according to the information which I have, is not as perfect as you would desire. Another picture of the Notte was painted by Zorzo for a certain Vittore Beccaro, which, from what I hear, is finer in design and better finished than that of Contarini. But Beccaro is not at present in Venice, and from what I hear neither picture is for sale, because the owners have had them painted for their own pleasure, so that I regret I am unable to satisfy Your Excellency’s wish.

According to Michiel’s notes the only painting in the home of Taddeo Contarini that could be a “notte” would be the “Discovery of Paris,” or as we have called it, “The Encounter with the Robbers on the Flight into Egypt.” Scholars have never agreed about what Isabella D’Este could have meant by “Notte.” Some think she was referring to a Nativity but Isabella knew a Nativity when she saw one, or when she requested one from Giovanni Bellini. No, the “Encounter with the Robbers,” indicates that a “Notte” was an evening scene where the sun was setting over a landscape at the end of day.

What about the other “notte”? It is certainly possible that the one done for Vittore Beccaro, the one finer in design and better finished; the one described by Isabella as “very beautiful and original” could have been the Tempesta. In the “Encounter with the Robbers” Giorgione was “stretching the envelope” with a presentation of a disheveled and partially nude Madonna. Later he would go even further in the “Tempesta.” But that is another story.[x]

 

Francis P. DeStefano

7/19/2010

Email: drdestefano@mac.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 



[i] The Anonimo, Notes on Pictures and Works of Art in Italy made by an Anonymous Writer in the Sixteenth Century, ed. George C. Williamson, London, 1903. p. 104.

 

[ii] ibid. note 1.

 

[iii] Jaynie Anderson, Giorgione, 1997, p. 317; and Wolfgang Eller, Giorgione Catalog Raisonne, Petersburg, 2007, pp. 171-173.

 

[iv] Extract from the Arabic Infancy Gospel in Edgar Hennecke, New Testament Apocrypha, edited by Wilhelm Schneemelcher, English translation edited by R. McL. Wilson, Volume One, Philadelphia 1963. p. 408. On the web a search for theFirst Gospel of the Infancy of Jesus, Chapter. VIII, will give the story with slightly different wording.

 

[v]  Jameson, Legends of the Madonna, Boston, 1885. pp. 361-362. Mrs. Jameson noted that the encounter with the robbers has been “seldom treated” as an artistic subject but did indicate that she had seen two representations. “One is a fresco by Giovanni di San Giovanni, which, having been cut from the wall of some suppressed convent, is now in the academy at Florence. The other is a composition by Zuccaro.” In a later edition she provided a sketch of the Zuccaro “Encounter,” which shows Joseph assisting the Madonna down from the Ass at the behest of the armed robber.

 

[vi] In Judith’s famous prayer she recalled her ancestor Simeon who took vengeance on the foreigners “who had undone a virgin’s girdle to her shame, laid bare her thigh to her confusion…” Judith 9:2, Jerusalem Bible.

[vii] For the corporale see the discussion of Titian’s Pesaro Altarpiece in Rona Goffen,  Piety and Patronage in Renaissance Venice, Yale, 1986, p. 114.

 

[viii] Juvenal, Satires, X, 22. I thank Dr. Karin Zeleny of the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna for the Juvenal reference.

 

[ix] The correspondence is in Julia Cartwright, Isabella d’Este, Marchioness of Mantua, 1474-1539. London, 1932. Pp. 390-391.

 

[x] See Francis P. DeStefano, “Giorgione’s Tempesta,” website address http://giorgionetempesta.com.

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