The Tempest by Giorgione
Interpretation of Venetian High Renaissance Landscape Painting

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The Tempest
By Giorgione.
Considered to be one of the
Greatest Paintings Ever.

The Tempest (1508)


What is the Meaning of the Tempest?
Other Venetian Paintings Explained


Name: "The Tempest" (La Tempesta)
Date: 1506-8
Artist: Giorgione (Giorgio Barbarelli da Castelfranco) (1477-1510)
Medium: Oil painting
Genre: Landscape painting/ or history painting
Movement: High Renaissance painting
Location: Venice Academy Gallery

For analysis and explanation of other important pictures from the Renaissance, see: Famous Paintings Analyzed (1250-1800).

For analysis of paintings by
High Renaissance artists
in Venice like Giorgione,
see our educational articles:
Art Evaluation and
How to Appreciate Paintings.

Analysis of the Tempest

The fame of Giorgione, an important contributor to Venetian painting during the High Renaissance, rests chiefly on his mysterious, poetic paintings like The Tempest. Although composed as a landscape painting, the work also contains figures as well as a host of complex allusions, causing Giorgio Vasari (1511-1574) - the biographer of the Italian Renaissance - to admit that he never fully understood his pictures. Trained by Giovanni Bellini, the "father of the Venetian school", Giorgione developed his own style of soft focus painting, which - not unlike that of Leonardo da Vinci - incorporated more landscape than usual and a more gradualist application of colour. Unlike many other High Renaissance artists of the Venetian School, who favoured a more sensualist and less intellectual approach to art, Giorgione tended to imbue his works with a range of hidden meanings, more in line with that of Leonardo, Michelangelo and other artists of the Florentine Renaissance (1400-1500). (See the comparison between colorito and disegno.) That said, the exact meaning of The Tempest continues to elude artists and art critics alike. While its mysterious nature certainly adds to its value, the painting is important largely for two reasons. First, it is one of the first works in which landscape plays the major role. Second, both its composition and colouring make it one of the most lyrical and atmospheric works of the Venetian Renaissance. It has far outlived its creator who died from plague at the age of 33.

Reputedly commissioned by the Venetian nobleman Gabriele Vendramin, The Tempest is one of the earliest paintings in which landscape dominates, despite its allegorical motifs. As a pioneering landscape it ranks with works such as Journey into the Underworld (1522) and Rest on the Flight into Egypt (1515) (both Prado Museum, Madrid), by Joachim Patenier (1485-1524). Both Patenier works are religious paintings, but both are dominated by scenery.

The Tempest is a painting of two (seemingly unrelated) halves - foreground and background. In the foreground, to the right, a nude woman is sitting on a small bank overlooking a stream. She is holding a baby to her breast. She uses her thigh to give added cover and protection to the child. On the opposite side of the stream a fashionably dressed young man with a stave, has stopped to look at the woman. He is smiling at her but the woman is looking at the viewer, not at the man. His two-toned hosiery seems to identify him as a member of the Campagnia della Calza (Companions of the Order of the Stocking), a fraternity of young aristocrats in Venice.

Note: X-ray analysis shows that originally a second female nude stood in place of the male figure, before Giorgione erased it.

Behind the two figures is a stub of masonry topped with two broken pillars. There is no consensus on their meaning or significance. If the painting is a Christian allegory or a work of Biblical art, the pillars may symbolize the truths which support the church, after the words in the Book of Job: "God, who shaketh the earth out of her place, so that the pillars thereof tremble" (Job 9:6). If true, the fact the pillars are broken suggests that Christianity has suffered a significant set-back. (See below for more.)

The background is part of the same landscape as the two figures by the stream, but it seems somehow separate. At any rate it consists entirely of landscape - both countryside and urban. The stream has widened to form a river, crossed by a single bridge. There are several fine buildings next to the river which appear to be part of a city, complete with temple. The identity of the city is unclear: some historians believe it to be Padua; others, think it symbolizes Heaven.

In the sky above the city a storm is gathering. Lightning is visible, and Giorgone's evocative use of aquamarine and other blue and green colours - applied using Leonardo's technique of sfumato - creates an overall feeling of impending doom. According to several art historians, this refers to a coming conflict such as the war of the League of Cambrai (1508-1516), between Venice and the League of Cambrai, an anti-Venetian alliance organized by Pope Julius II. However, other art experts relate it to Biblical stories like The Flight from Egypt. Strangely, neither the man nor woman appears to be concerned or affected by the storm.

The painting also includes at least two other symbols, both very difficult to discern. One depicts The Lion of Saint Mark, the symbol of Venice; the other depicts four wheels (or a cart), which used to be the coat of arms of the Carrara family of Padua. Unfortunately, Padua was annexed by Venice during hostilities in 1406 and the family died out in 1435.

For more about 16th century art in Venice, see: Venetian Altarpieces (1500-1600) and Venetian Portrait Painting (1400-1600). See also: Venetian Drawing (1500-1600).



What is the Meaning of the Tempest?

There are numerous theories about the meaning of this picture. One theory suggests it was painted as a warning to the rulers of Venice to avoid war. In this theory, the city is Venice and the threatening storm is the impending conflict with the Pope-led League of Cambrai. The reference to Padua and the Carrara family is Giorgione's way of saying - if you don't opt for peace Venice will suffer just like the Carrara family suffered in the earlier hostilities with Venice.

Another theory suggests that the city in the painting is Heaven, and that the figures represent Adam and Eve. (Obviously the original second woman is a problem here.) In this theory the storm represents the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise.

For analysis of another great masterpiece by Giorgione, please see: The Sleeping Venus (1510, Gemaldegalerie Alte Meister, Dresden).

Other Venetian Paintings Explained

For an interpretation of other Venetian paintings of the 15th and 16th centuries, see the following articles:

Ecstasy of St. Francis (1480) Frick Collection, New York.
By Giovanni Bellini.

Portrait of Doges Leonardo Loredan (1502) National Gallery, London.
By Giovanni Bellini.

San Zaccaria Altarpiece (1505) S. Zaccaria, Venice.
By Giovanni Bellini.

Assumption of the Virgin (1516-18) S. Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, Venice
By Titian.

Venus of Urbino (1538) Uffizi Gallery, Florence.
By Titian.

Pope Paul III with his Grandsons (1546) Capodimonte Museum, Naples
By Titian.


• For the meaning of other Venetian High Renaissance paintings, see: Homepage.

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