Giorgione’s Last Painting
Giorgione suffered a premature death which thereby prevented him from finishing his commission of the first reclining female nude. Nevertheless, this image survived as a popular motif in Western painting for centuries. When Giorgione died of the plague in his early thirties, Titian completed the artwork so it could hang in the home of Giralomo Marcello to commemorate his wedding to Morosina Pisani, which took place on October 9th 1507. Everything about Giorgione, his artwork, and this canonical painting is shrouded in mystery. By researching and reproducing Sleeping Venus, I hope to gain a better understanding of the artist and the allure of his painting. Little is known about Giorgione, and only a few historical clues offer guidance about the painter and his work. To understand ‘Zorzi’ as an artist, I have painted a master copy with questions of attribution, intent, technique, and audience in mind. In doing so, I hope to better understand the enduring allure of a naked woman, commissioned by a male patron, and painted by a male artist.
This master copy is not meant to be a convincing forgery of the original. I consider this an exercise in which I can experiment, explore, and bridge gaps in time and documentation. My intention is to recreate the experience of making the painting, including areas that have been obscured by subsequent layers of paint. The surface of the painting as we know it today holds ample clues, but in order to imitate the history of its conception I will also work from infrared and UV imaging as well as the X-ray of what lies beneath. My interpretation will attempt to reverse the inevitable patina of time, as well as damage and repairs caused by numerous restorations and anonymous additions over the centuries. In an attempt to resolve questions of where Giorgione’s work ended and Titian’s began, I am comparing each element of the painting to Giorgione’s secure attributions and Titian’s early work. By replicating the painting process, I hope to create a direct connection between my hand and the enigmatic hand(s) that created this masterpiece.
Stretching The Canvas
In my painting practice, I make intimately scaled and meticulously rendered drawings and paintings, following in the tradition of my Dutch ancestors. My preferred support is a smooth, white, carefully prepared panel. To begin my painting process, I lightly draw the outline of the composition, and then add value with a grisaille underpainting. I am careful to reserve the white of the ground in the brightest areas of the composition. Once the drawing is sound, I glaze and scumble layers of translucent color to create luminosity and depth. Finally, I add the slightest opaque white highlights and delicately feather them with a soft badger hair brush. Each layer of paint must dry before the next is applied. The result is a smooth, vibrant, and detailed painting.
Giorgione did the opposite. Although artists occasionally painted on canvas during the 15th century, Venetians popularized the support. To this day it remains the standard surface for amateurs, students, and professionals. As I was shopping for the most appropriate and authentic material, an enthusiastic employee suggested cotton sailcloth, since it’s the thickest and most durable option for the size of stretcher bars I was carrying, 43 x 69”. They did not have the exact linen Giorgione used: 13 x 14 cm fiber (warp x weft). After further research, I realized that Giorgione didn’t have access to fabric of this size, either. He stitched two lengths of linen together, with a seam running horizontally across the canvas. Nevertheless, I was elated to discover this material was actually called sailcloth! I began chatting with the employee about why Venetians began using canvas. The climate was too humid for frescoes. The network of islands in the lagoon were inhospitable to trees, so wood was scarce and expensive to import. Typical of Venetian aesthetics, artists worked on an ostentatious scale. Therefore, large wood panels were scarce and reserved for the finest altarpieces. The city did have a different, abundant resource: canvas! After all, they were known for shipbuilding, and sails were made from canvas. Fortunately, the employee shared my passion for the history of art supplies.
Stretched canvas offers a pronounced texture and has some bounce to it. At this size, the fabric is more like a trampoline than a drum. The experience of applying paint is completely different from panel. It feels like jogging in the sand versus sprinting on a track. More pressure and scrubbing is required to embed paint into the weave, which requires firmer bristles than I am used to using. Achieving accuracy or precision is challenging, even with the highest quality boar bristle brush. I always select small to medium panels, so I can comfortably paint on a tabletop as if I were writing a letter. A canvas of this size requires the artist to sit or stand parallel to an easel, which uses an entirely different set of muscles. The benefits of a large canvas outweigh the discomfort. You have more room for error within the larger design. 1mm of error on a big canvas is nearly invisible, but on a small panel it is devastating. Oil paint dries quicker on canvas; some pigments can take ten days to dry! Actually, it takes about one hundred years for oil paint to dry completely, but it becomes touch dry overnight on canvas. The weave of the canvas is very forgiving. An artist can blend colors right into the surface instead of premixing on the palette. The surface looks better with thicker paint, and can be repainted numerous times. What looks great on a canvas looks terrible on a panel. That style would get muddy and have a distracting texture, like the sheen on spread jam. Painting colors into one another on the canvas feels magical, somehow it always looks pretty good. Painting colors with layered glazes requires tedious precision. The brush must remain perfectly clean and enough of the glaze must be premixed following a specific set of sequential rules. By the third session of canvas painting, I actually started to enjoy myself!
Any canvas larger than 36” requires a cross brace, since the frame will warp without the added rigidity. To ensure my stretchers remain rectangular, I used traditional mortise and tenon joints to create a brace. Before the invention of the staple gun, canvases were held in place with tacks. While stretching the canvas as tightly as possible from the center outward, I hammered over 100 tacks through the canvas and into the wooden stretchers two inches apart on alternate sides.
Venetians flaunted the material upon which they painted, letting the weave show through the thinly painted ground. I was surprised to discover that Sleeping Venus was not painted on a bright white gesso (from the latin gypsum, or chalk in Italian). Instead of a lustrous concoction of gypsum, marble dust, lead, titanium dioxide, and/or calcium carbonate, Venetians began their paintings with a brown, mid-toned ground. Instead of gradually deepening color around reserved whites, Giorgione and his peers used opaque white paint to create brightness and volume. In order to reproduce this look, I mixed traditional white oil ground with Gamblin mars black and transparent red earth pigments and thinned the mixture with a splash of Gamsol solvent. To prevent the canvas from rotting prematurely, I first applied PVA (poly vinyl acetate) sizing, which is non-toxic and archival. Traditionally, artists used rabbit skin glue and other types of animal hide including sturgeon to isolate the canvas from the oil paint. Fortunately, this stinky emulsion has been largely discontinued. Hide glue requires animal cruelty, it attracts mites, and worst of all it expands and shrinks with humidity levels, causing the surface of the painting to crack.
Preservation and proper technique are regular topics among painters and paint manufacturers in the 21st century. Frankly, it’s shocking that Renaissance oil paintings executed with experimental techniques have lasted, in any capacity, as long as they have. Still, it takes expert knowledge to interpret how a painting might have looked fresh of the easel five hundred years ago. One must take into consideration fugitive pigments, binders that blacken, varnishes that yellow, and the dull film of pollution.
Unfortunately, Giorgione was one of the first to experiment with oil on canvas and his techniques were not archival. One theory is that Titian finished Sleeping Venus because by 1510 the painting had already begun to deteriorate. Giorgione’s work was chalky and thin, as you can see in untouched areas of Sleeping Venus. All of his paintings have begun to deteriorate, but Sleeping Venus was in such treacherous condition that it was actually transferred onto a new canvas. This Parisian technique was complicated and required precision. First, the front of the painting was glued to gauze to keep the surface of the paint intact. Once that was dry, the canvas was flipped over, and the stiff, crumbling linen was gently scrubbed off with a pumice stone. The back of the isolated oil paint layer was then glued onto another canvas. Once that was dry, the gauze and glue from the front was removed, almost completely.
However, the patina of a poorly executed painting provides clues as to how it was made. The provenance of Sleeping Venus is vague, but I believe the integrity of the paint must have been damaged in transit from Giorgione’s easel to Titian’s, then to Girolamo Marcello’s bedroom, next to Augustus the Strong of Saxony in 1695, and finally to Dresden in 1721. At this point, the painting was attributed to Titian, and by the time it arrived in the Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister in 1837 it was thought to be a copy of Titian by Sassoferatto. Not long after, Sleeping Venus was rediscovered in storage and considered a treasure once more. The painting endured several alterations over the centuries, such as poorly painted grass around the Venus’s foot.
Martin Schirmer, a third five year old employee of the Gemaldegalerie, was given the task of removing the mismatched green grass. Underneath, he discovered what looked like a cupid. Sadly, after a week of careful removal, the cupid’s remains were still indecipherable. Only conflicting fragments of the original and repainted version(s) were visible. Rather than attempt to repaint Cupid based on speculation, the area was considered a loss and concealed again. Hans Posse, who conducted the x-ray analysis nearly a hundred years later, drew several versions of what Venus’s son may have looked like. The range in poses are evidence of the perplexing task of interpretation.
The obvious explanation for this tragic loss is that the original cupid was painted ‘lean over fat’. In oil painting, the layers of paint (fat) need to be thinned with solvent (lean) in the beginning stages, and each subsequent layer must contain the same amount of oil or more oil. This is because a thin layer dries faster and is less flexible than a thick layer. An excellent example of premature cracking can be found in the Smith College Museum of Art. Edwin Romanzo Elmer’s Mourning Picture was painted in 1890. The clouds must have been an afterthought, and the lean white on top of a fatty blue sky cracked within a century. If not properly preserved, the paint will quickly flake off.
Fortunately, the majority of the Sleeping Venus remains in good condition considering her age. Only small patches of her body have been filled and retouched, probably in the 1950’s, which is visible in the UV image. This is because the figure is the only part of the composition that didn’t change, since her body was probably painted first and all prima. Because the cupid was in particularly bad shape, I suspect it was added as an afterthought on top of a finalized landscape. Wether it was begun by Giorgione or Titian remains a mystery. The only clue as to Titian’s certain involvement was an observation by Marcantonio Michiel at Marcello’s house in 1525. This nobleman was a respected art enthusiast, antiquary and connoisseur who also owned a Giorgione. Michiel frequented the houses of patrician art collectors in Northern Italy in the early- to mid-sixteenth century. Although the visits were social in nature, he took the opportunity to scribble notes in a journal describing the hosts’ artwork. Michiel saw Sleeping Venus and described it with one laconic sentence: 'La tela della Venere nuda, che dorme in uno paese, con Cupidine, fu di mano de Zorza da Castelfranco; ma lo paese e Cupidine furono finiti da Tiziano.’ Which translates to: 'The canvas of the naked Venus, who sleeps in the countryside, done by the hand of Zorza da Castelfranco (Giorgione); but the countryside and cupid were finished by Titian.’
I have had the privilege of corresponding with Aengus Dewar, a knowledgable painter who was classically trained in Italy. Dewar wrote an intriguing article on Sleeping Venus, and proved to be a great resource. At the beginning of my research, I contacted Dewar regarding the legitimacy of Michiel’s statement. His reply was reassuring:
How reliable was Marcantonio? When it came to identifying paintings, he was excellent. His notes have helped identify several noteworthy pieces over the years. As a reader of paintings however - someone interested in their iconology, their meaning - he had almost nothing to offer. He would simply describe the picture's overall appearance and leave things there. As an appreciator of the technical issues involved in painting, he was even worse.
Another less reliable source, Carlo Ridolfi, saw the painting about a century later and described the cupid as having a bird in his hand. I believe he misinterpreted the image, seeing one of the wings or the fletching on his arrows as a bird. Or, Cupid's bow may have resembled wings. Another possibility is that the cupid was repainted by a third artist between Michiel and Ridolfi’s accounts. Perhaps Titian did paint the cupid holding a bird, and Michiel failed to mention it in his brevity. Or, Ridolfi may have been describing a similar painting that was not actually the Sleeping Venus in Dresden. I have searched the x-ray for any sign of a bird, but I am not convinced of its existence.
The intrigue of the cupid is layered: Why was that alone in such terrible condition? Was it part of the original composition? Did Giorgione really begin the Cupid, and did Titian just ‘finish' it? Perhaps Michiel’s words were not so literal, and Titian didn’t finish the cupid, but finished the painting by including the cupid. Was it an impromptu request on behalf of the patron, who was anxious about owning an enormous painting of a masturbating woman, unaccompanied by Cupid to identify her as Venus?
My instinct is that Titian added the cherub at the request of Marcello, in the only area that could accommodate the little figure. Hans Posse rejected the idea of a missing cupid in the initial composition. In his convincingly written argument, he doesn’t question that the cupid was an original element. Without it, we are left with an unbalanced painting. There would be too much grass, not enough light, and no counterbalance to the downward angle without the putto.
Perhaps Giorgione did always intend to paint the cupid over the grass (or bedsheet), and he may have even started cupid as Michiel suggests. Even so, he was still added late into the painting process. The formula is to work from background to foreground in a painting, layering the components as they are in actual space. Superimposing the figure over the landscape would be easier, and look better. It is also a logical choice to avoid finessing a thick layer of dark color around the intricate outline of cupid, laboring to match the greens around the body. This leads to the next conundrum: did Giorgione paint grass over the original bedsheet, or did Titian truncate the drapery? I believe Giorgione integrated the landscape into the foreground. Melding the bedroom and landscape together into a surreal but successful unified image is an example of his ‘poetic brevity’. I doubt Titian would have chosen to work harder by concealing existing fabric with grass for the sake of aesthetics. In any case, the cupid inspires endless obsession. Like Giorgione’s art, the enigma of the cupid “seems calculated to frustrate”.
Dewar has an interesting theory I plan to pursue in future experiments:
On the cupid, I think you have it exactly right. We'll never know for sure as it's been so thoroughly scrubbed off. But it seems likely that it was painted in haste, lean over fat. And I'll bet you anything zinc sulphate was included as a drier in the flesh - a notoriously quick but unstable compound for the job; one that we find in other works of Titian's (assuming it was indeed Titian who added the cupid).
Once the canvas was stretched, sized, and primed, I was horrified. The massive scale, rough texture, thinly applied ground, and dark base color make it difficult to create a detailed drawing or outline of the composition. Broad, loose brushstrokes or gestural lines work better in this context. Unlike their Florentine and Northern counterparts, Venetian painters in the cinquecento concerned themselves more with color than line. Giorgione did not create preliminary sketches in his later years, instead, he took a bolder approach and drew directly onto the support. This marked the beginning of a new style of painting that would inspire the work of artists henceforth, particularly the Impressionists. This process was possible due to the nature of oil paint. Unlike tempera, which requires nuanced technique and forethought, oil paint is enormously forgiving. Before converting to oil, painters like Giovani Bellini exploited the sharp edges of egg tempera medium to create crisp contours. Even after Bellini began using oil paint, his work remained calculated and formulaic. Giorgione’s generation began a new style. Using oil on canvas, the slower drying time and flattering texture of the canvas allow an artist to make unlimited adjustments within a studio session by wiping off paint or applying another opaque layer if the previous one has already dried. Every additional coat adds a layer of depth and dazzle to a painting, unlike water-based paints of the time.
By beginning and finalizing a drawing directly onto the canvas instead of closely replicating a preliminary drawing, an artist inevitably alters and adjusts elements of the composition. These little changes were called pentimenti, or regrets. Venetians were criticized for divorcing the process of drawing and painting, because it was new and unconventional. Vasari wrote that Titian and Giorgione hid their ineptitude at drawing with dazzling, painterly coloration. After studying Titian’s drawings, especially in contrast to Michelangelo Buonarotti, Leonardo da Vinci, Albrecht Dürer, and Netherlandish silverpoint, I have to agree. They were not exactly gifted draftsmen with dry media.
Giorgione had unique rendering skills, which I learned while replicating his macchia, or rough sketch. Using the point of a round brush and his characteristic burnt umber, Giorgione doodled more than he drew. Originally, I included what I thought was example of this brushwork on the ruins in the top right of the landscape. The gestural mark-making and carefree flow felt right, but the contours struck me as odd. I later discovered that this was an 18th century Neoclassical addition! I discovered this through Giebe’s analysis and by recognizing that this linework was not underneath the paint but sitting above, like a glaze. Unfortunately, the drawing that had permeated the original linen was lost during the transfer to a new canvas.
Giorgione was revolutionary for more than just using oil paint the way he did. He did not attend a formal school, nor was he related to any of the families that were producing art in Venice at the time. Rather than continuing in the tradition of Bellini’s sacra conversazione themes, he painted secular artworks based on poesia pastorale. Large workshops producing anonymous art fell out of style, and emphasis shifted to the genius of the individual artist. Giorgione’s distinctive maniera, or style, is an individualistic as one’s handwriting. I agree with Elke Oberthaler, “there seem to be two types of underdrawing: slightly still strokes for outlining the forms, and more supple ones to render the volume of forms, to work out light and shadow”.
I began by outlining the figure with a large brush. According to Vasari, one witness of Venetian painters at work exclaimed that they used “brushes as big as a broom” to block in figures. I suspect this was a humorous exaggeration, but I did use a two inch wide bristle brush. I dipped the brush into a glass jar containing a solution of burnt umber, linseed oil, beeswax, turpentine, and crushed leaded crystal. This mixture is based on an authentic recipe I found through Rublev paints, the only commercial producer of luscious, carcinogenic mediums left in the world. To verify this list of ingredients, I did further research and discovered that Dr. Louisa Matthew read through the dusty archives of the color guilds from cinquecento Venice and found that powdered glass was a common ingredient. Aside from adding luminosity, crushed glass is a siccative (drying agent), perfect for the layers of paint that an artist would want to dry quickly, such as the gesso, initial sketch, and the first layers of impasto. It makes perfect sense that Venetians used glass powder in their paint, since Venice was known for its glass and the island of Murano is dedicated to the practice of glassblowing.
My mixture was ideal for the initial brushstrokes: wet and malleable, with a variable tonal range, like espresso thickened with molasses. As the figure developed on the canvas, I sensed that the original must have been painted from life. Painting the figure was thrilling because I was able to see the contours, and feel them with my hand. I was able to run my hand over every detail of her body, and the details began to inform my hypothesis that Giorgione had a live model. It is agreed that inspiration for this figure and other elements of the composition came from a woodcut illustration in an erotic antiquarian love story by Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, published by Aldus Manutius in 1499. Giorgione was friendly with a literary crowd, had a reputation of being well read, and therefore had access to this text. The composition is strikingly similar to the woodcut.
While it was not common practice to use a live model in his era, Giorgione was not traditional in most ways. In the spirit of the Renaissance, inspiration came from antiquity, and ancient Greek and Roman statues provided ample nudes in pudica pose. Giorgione would have seen the work of Tullio and Antonio Lombardo in the cathedral at Traviso, where he was raised. Although, some historians write that the inspiration was vice versa. While elements of Venus’s body are stylized to this popular antiquarian aesthetic, she has skin. The two areas which led me to believe she was painted from life are her eyelids and her neck. Her face is slightly compressed and relaxed against her arm. Her closed eyelids have a distinctive fold, which I have never seen on a classical sculpture, but I have seen on real, human faces. The folds of skin on her neck correlate perfectly to the pose, and the skin sits above the mass of her neck, rather than appearing as solid, sculptural, white marble. When I examined the sculptures of the Tullio Lombardo, I saw that he did incorporate subtle allusions to neck folds, but they look more like indentations on bulging flesh than true skin. I am confident that Giorgione had painted from life before, because of this portrait of the man who commissioned Sleeping Venus. In his portrait of Marcello’s profile, Giorgione has paid attention to the distinctive form of his ear. Although, many Giorgione enthusiasts throughout history have claimed pseudo-scientific hypotheses. Joshua Reynolds was obsessive; he even developed a medium that he was sure the Venetian School had invented, and he wasn’t alone in this pursuit. One conundrum is that the body has no hair, and that lack of hair does make her look like a marble statue. Was hair removal a trend of the time, like the Florentine aristocrats who altered their hairlines?
Many historians suspect that Titian painted from a courtesan, and a similar face reveals itself in Lady in a Blue Dress and Venus of Urbino. Giorgione may have also painted from his courtesan muse. Is there not a striking similarity between the face of the Judith and Sleeping Venus? The shadow above her chin, her small, cupid bow lips, her short philtrum, a long, straight nose with a pointed tip, the shape of her eyes, the musculature and bone structure of her forehead, and hairline are all nearly identical. I later realized that this unusually short philtrum may have been a deformation on the original canvas from where the seam had crossed her face between her nose and mouth, but I still see a resemblance.
Although Vasari lived after Giorgione had died and did not know him personally, he did hear and record second-hand tales from Titian and others about Giorgione’s reputation in his book Lives of the Artists. Not only did Vasari suggest that Giorgione contracted the plague from a sex worker, he implied that Giorgione was fellow with a large sexual appetite. One concrete fact that Giorgione had access to a female model can be found in an inventory of Giorgione’s house soon after his death. ‘One silk dress’ is listed among the other shabby items in his disorderly bachelor pad.
If my hypothesis is correct, and Giorgione used a live model, I imagine that she actually fell asleep during their session. While the woodcut he used as inspiration also features a sleeping Venus, his painted version has a more believable pose, especially in the arm, head and neck. I have professionally modeled for artists, and regularly drew from live models for years. We do regularly doze off, especially in a long, reclining pose. Since Giorgione was an imaginative and poetic artist, I imagine he seized the opportunity to create a dreamy, engaging, and powerful narrative.
As I continued to paint the model, I wondered if she was a real person, and if so, who? The courtesan who purportedly transmitted the plague to Giorgione? As I finalized the sketch, I began measuring to make sure my preparations were accurate. She would be approximately five feet two inches and about one hundred and forty pounds, according to My Body Gallery. She is seven and a half heads tall, the ideal proportion for the representation of an average person, as opposed to the eight head tall idealized figure found in classical sculpture. I measured the halfway point of the canvas, and discovered that her wandering hand was in the exact center! No accident, I’m sure.
Beginning with painted cassoni, erotic imagery of reclining nude women was common decor in the bedroom. Giorgione liberated the enticing subject from the private confines of a wedding trunk interior. Instead, he boldly offered a life-sized wall piece for the newlyweds. Although some may see her hand as a gesture of modesty, I interpret it differently. The fingers’ contact with the genitals is significant, since female masturbation was encouraged in the context of procreation. It was considered a medical fact that both partners needed to orgasm to produce a child. Who better to demonstrate than the Goddess of love and sexuality herself? A conspicuous stump stands out just above her hand, and to further draw the eye’s attention, two trees flank the central focus of the painting. The choices in the landscape carry significance and poetry and are quintessential Giorgione. According to Aengus Dewar’s article, the word ‘stump’ in Italian, ceppo, also means bloodline. Therefore, the sprouting stump indicates a growing family. He also notes that the two trees are rendered strategically to symbolize a masculine husband and a feminine wife.
I finished sketching the initial composition using a high resolution photograph on Google Arts and Culture as my reference. Although I have not seen the painting in person yet, I suspect this image is accurate. I worked from a life size projection on my studio wall, and tried to capture the model and fabric as if she were before me. I also included the landscape in my first session, because Giorgione did. For example, an infrared image of the back of one of his panels reveals a drawing he had gessoed over, featuring small figures in a landscape. He had started to fill in the drawing with impasto, but abandoned it.
The drawing experience was exhausting, mentally and physically. Working on this scale with a firm bristle brush is like a vigorous dance. Perhaps this activity is better suited for a large young man, like ‘Big George’. I worried about the fumes being emitted from the enormous surface area. That night I dreamt that Titian visited me in the form of his self-portrait as an old man, and I was comforted that he had lived into his late eighties, despite noxious fumes and poisonous pigments.
X-rays indicate that Giorgione used thick and heavily pigmented lead white paint to give volume to a figure and drapery. He used umber for the shadows in nearly every painting of secure attribution. His chiaroscuro is done in dark brown more often than black. I began by mixing shades of burnt umber and flake white, which is now sold as a lead white replacement. Due to regulations, it’s challenging to get real lead white. The tube I own is noticeably heavier than any other color. I was ready to begin painting like the Venetians, building up form and light with opaque white.
I began with the body, and worked my way down to the fabric surrounding her. I had already drawn the outlines, so I didn’t expect to make more discoveries. As I was checking the modeling I noticed that the reflected light on the leg looked lovely. I realized that the light on the underside of her calf was exactly as it would be if a real leg were above a white sheet. Reflected light should be about 40% less bright than the corresponding highlight on skin. The contour also correlates to real anatomy more than a sculptural form. Would Giorgione have been able to invent that luminous relationship between fabric and skin?
Blending oil paint is enormously satisfying. What Giorgione lacked in drawing skills, he compensated for with his Leonardesque blending. Giorgione blended his paint to oblivion. I felt liberated using oil paint this way, scrubbing and blending until the values within the form reached such subtlety that they were nearly gone. Then, I added more white. I can see why the X-ray shows a dense application of paint around her breasts and the area surrounding her hand. The physical volume of the paint is convincing and mimetic of nature.
The white fabric was equally fun to render, and must have been painted from life. It is much easier for the vast majority of artists to work from life than imagination, and fabric is an easy prop because it is not perishable and keeps its form. The simplified, stylized outline was easy to follow. The contours and folds were logical, as if they had really existed, until I reached the red bolster. Suddenly, the transitional area between the fabrics was no longer intuitive. The demarkation between the white fabric and the red fabric is awkward and angular. A long fold in the white sheet has an unbelievable contour that does not correlate to it’s shadows.
The discovery was clear when I finished the white drapery and began painting in red. As I prepared my palette, the color perplexed me. Despite classical training and twenty years of experience, I wasn’t entirely sure how to go about mixing the paint. Despite having the overall appearance of a cool red, there was a warm brightness, more typical of Giorgione’s reds. I mixed and applied three different variations and none of them were right. I decided that once this mess had dried, I would glaze over it to adjust the color. It looked similar to an alizarin crimson glaze over cadmium red over a light grisaille. I felt defeated, reverting to my Dutch technique of ‘coloring in’ my drawing instead of practicing Venetian colorito, or drawing with color.
I finished the bolster as a grisaille. When it was touch dry, I mixed my cadmium glaze. In an instinctive gesture, I mistakenly covered a portion of the white fabric and overextended my glaze onto the figure. In that moment, when my brush reached the tangent between where the red and white drapery meets the torso, I finally made a convincing discovery. Titian had glazed over the bolster. Finally, I was convinced that I found an area which is a clear example of where Giorgione ended and Titian began, because he made the exact same mistake that I did as he altered the color (Fig. 9). The tiny fold in front of Venus’s body is not really a fold of fabric at all. It is a mistake! I realized that a heavy red glaze had been added to the drapery, as well as some jagged, unblended, Titianesque black shadows. Immediately, it became obvious that this was Titian’s work because of the color, brushwork, and the lack of integrity. If Giorgione had decided to deepen the red, he would have honored the contour of the neighboring fabric that he had painstakingly rendered. He would not have allowed an overlap of glaze to rudely interrupt the curve of Venus’s back. The heavy but translucent glaze sits over the color of her skin, not the tone of the fabric. The bolster lacks the outlines and modeling found in the rest of the drapery because it has been muted in value. The peak of the longest fold of white fabric has been nearly obscured by the same concentrated red glaze, which is why the form of the fabric looks weird.
I later realized that Giorgione and Titian were not the only two contributing painters, and the red glaze could have been added in subsequent years or centuries. It is impossible to know how many times Sleeping Venus was repainted at the whim of its various owners. My grandmother once altered the expression of a portrait in her collection, reworking the mouth so the model looked less sad. The two restorers from the Gemäldegalerie (Schirmer and Remmer) could not resist adding their personal touch to the red fabric by her arm. The red paint has not been analyzed in detail, so it is impossible to know how many layers exist and who was responsible for what. I still believe that even though several ‘artists’ touched up the red, Titian was the first to add his signature ruby tone. All of Titian’s paintings are glazed from edge to edge, and his pigments blacken with the addition of asphaltum. The restorers only modified details, and used brown tones in their restorations.
As I continued painting I deduced that Giorgione painted the first iteration of this red fabric, but it was probably closer to his familiar rusty vermillion than Titian’s sumptuous version of cinnabar. As I did my best to see beneath the surface, I was able to decipher the contrast in the original fabric, which is obscured by Titian’s glaze. Before it was darkened, this tonal range and modeling matched the white sheet below, although the X-ray may have picked up lead or tin in the foundational layer from a color other than white. I studied Giorgione’s renditions of fabrics, and began to see patterns and tendencies. Giorgione’s fabric appears thicker and more fluid than Titians, like heavy silk, and seems to defy gravity. The fabric in Judith is literally floating (Fig. 10). Titian’s fabric is more like gauze: thin, wrinkled, rumpled, and more susceptible to gravity.
Giorgione’s reds are light in value, chromatic, vibrant, and blended. His shadow shapes resemble the letter U. This can be seen in The Three Philosophers, Adoration of the Shepherds, and the Castlefranco Altarpiece. Titian’s reds are deep, sensuous, and layered. His shadows and highlights are more angular and less blended, like the letter V. His fabric is darker in value than Giorgione’s and his shadow colors were black or have blackened. This can be seen in Man In a Red Hat, Venus with a Mirror, and Venus and the Organ Player. Of course this is not a set formula, and there are examples of Giorgione using a dark red, like in Laura. In Titian’s Portrait of Cardinal Pietro Bembo, the fabric is a brighter red, but the brushstrokes are Titianesque. With enough scrutiny, it becomes easier to recognize the intuitive habits of the artists’ hands.
Working from the X-Ray
I began painting the saturated highlights I saw through the glaze within the red fabric. In order to compare the surface of the paint and what lies beneath, I used digital editing software to overlay the painting onto the X-ray. I overlapped the fabric as accurately as possible, and compared the drawing at various opacities: 20%, 40%, 60%, and 80%. I discovered more evidence that the initial design was by Giorgione. Within the largest plane of the pillow, there is a meandering highlight similar to the intuitive shapes of the paths in his landscapes. This is easiest to follow in the overlays, and barely visible in the painting.
Many art historians agree that it is difficult to distinguish between Giorgione and Titian’s early work because although Titian was younger, they had worked side by side and developed their styles together. This makes attribution all the more vexing. However, there is enough evidence in the secure attributions to suggest that they had specific color and style preferences. This intensive visual analysis revived questions of attribution beyond Sleeping Venus. Because the duo were alive at a time when few other artists in Northern Italy gained individual fame, there is a problem of over attribution. Charles Hope explains that many paintings are attributed to both Giorgione and Titian because no one can agree on an alternative candidate. In his review of the show ‘In The Age of Giorgione’ he argues:
There were no other painters of real talent working in this general idiom in North Italy in the years around 1510. So its not surprising that Giorgione and the young Titian are now each commonly credited with unrealistically vast numbers of paintings in a remarkable variety of styles…. Although the term connoisseurship normally carries associations with discernment and a certain rigor in aesthetic judgement, when applied to the study of Giorgione, these qualities have been, and remain, conspicuously lacking. Optimistic guesswork would better describe the process.
This is why even connoisseurship will never be entirely accurate. I still yearn to discover something new, to be the one who truly understands. I wanted the attribution to be a certain way, and my mind manipulated information in favor of my theory. Naturally, I am reaching the same dead ends as everyone else, and my assumptions are just that. This master copy has been an exercise in self-exploration as much as exploration into a painting. Of course, this is a major function and purpose of Art. The relationship between the viewer and the artwork sparks a symbiotic search for meaning and understanding. What one sees, how one reacts, and the associations one makes are an analysis of oneself as much as an analysis of the painting.
The problem with interpreting X-rays is that every layer appears compressed. It is impossible to differentiate between layers of paint, and even more difficult to assign a sequence. Heavy metals such as tin and lead are found in white, yellow and sometimes red. I look forward to honing my skills of X-ray, infrared reflectography, and UV imagery rather than relying on an eye which is attuned to subtle gradient shifts.
The X-ray and overlay chart show the transformations in the landscape. Giorgione’s first idea featured a body of water over which he painted a field. There was also a path that led to Venus’s thighs, and the rocky outcropping was not as large and did not surround her face. Small shrubs separated the foreground from the middleground above her legs, which may have been lost in the restoration. Aside from these modifications, the general contours remain the same. The other radical shift was the transformation of the bed and sheets, which occupied the lower half of the canvas, into a green pasture. After loosely painting this composition, I was happy to cover it with the version we know today. The modifications and additions add poetry, significance, and complexity.
At this point I was faced with the decision wether to add the cupid according to my intuition, or eliminate it as they did in previous restorations. Because I am not working on the actual painting, and this is an experiment in recreating history, I decided I would do my best. Fortunately, I found an image of a cupid by Titian which was uncanny, and realized it was the same one Hans Posse had drawn as an option. I have discovered two paintings by Titian that incorporate the same exact landscape, including this one. The relationship between the matching backgrounds is further evidence that this cupid was at least partially recycled from Sleeping Venus. Titian’s later cupid is sitting on a wall, and I suspect the pose was modified to fit that scenario. In order to experiment with different poses, I modeled in front of a mirror. He is grabbing an arrow out of his red quiver, and looks outward and downward at the couple, ready to strike. I doubt the repainted face would have strayed too far from the original, although amateur restorers frequently take accidental liberties that yield hilarious monstrosities that look nothing like the original.
After research, modeling, sketching and two weird nightmares, I was ready to begin. Between Titian’s cupid, the x ray, Hans Posse's drawings, the patch of repainted grass and my intuition I was able to construct the outline of a believable option. As I began the face, I realized I had no idea what a baby looks like. A friend sent me reference photos of her baby, and I created an album of stock photographs of babies in a seated position. I worked from different elements of each reference, but my first attempt looked like a superimposed stock photograph into a Renaissance painting. I let that baby dry, and planned to use it as a guide for a more authentic putto. After studying many 16th century Cupids, I realized the artists also had a vague understanding of toddler anatomy, and that is what gives them their distinctive homunculus appearance. I intentionally misplaced Cupid's eye to match Giorgione's portraiture, particularly in his self portrait, Giovanni Borgherini and His Tutor, and La Vecchia. As I completed his outstretched arm holding an arrow, I felt like something was missing. Where is his other arm? That night, I discovered the analysis written by Hans Posse and within the pages was the high resolution image of the X-ray I had been craving. Not only could I see the placement of his individual toes, I could see the other hand, clearly raised above his head! Although Hand Posse drew the hand clutching a bird to satisfy the Ridolphi theory, I suspect he was holding a bow. Cupid is in action, twisting his body to spring upward and strike the couple with his bow and arrow. His gaze is downward, toward the couple, presumably in bed.
When I finally saw Cupid in place, the painting regained harmony. Now I see that the eye is meant to follow Venus and her fabric from left to right, land on the cupid, follow his arrow up to the bow, and the bow leads to the manor house on the hill. The pathways lead upward toward the sky, and the swirl within the grey cloud leads the eye to spiral into the depths of the painting. Even if my version of Cupid is inaccurate, the satisfaction of seeing Sleeping Venus whole again was a triumph and a relief.
I plan to continue my detective work and exhibit this experimental painting throughout its phases of completion. I am eager to locate and visit every painting by Giorgione throughout my life, starting with Sleeping Venus. This experiment has broadened my perspective as a painter and art enthusiast. This Master Copy was a deep exploration that consumed me during my waking hours and my dreams. I began the project feeling like an outsider, and could only relate to the work by comparing it with Florentine and Flemish art of the time. Nearly everything about Venetian Renaissance painting felt foreign to me.
I am Belgian-American and have always worked in the tradition of the Dutch Masters. My grandparents were collectors, and I recently realized that the painting above the mantle in our family home in Brussels is a Jan Davidsz de Heem. Because of genetics, exposure, or an excellent Golden Age class with Jeffrey Müller at Brown University, I am truly obsessed with Northern Renaissance paintings, and they will always be my first love. Until now, I have followed in the tradition of my ancestors, making intimately scaled and meticulously rendered drawings and paintings. Now I have a greater appreciation for oil on canvas, Giorgione, Titian, painting in cinquecento Venice, and the Italian Renaissance.
Like all Giorgione historians and admirers, I have been determined to discover some satisfying explanation. Even if I knew which historian’s assertions to believe, they are all mostly speculative anyway. The only two people who really know the answers to my questions are long deceased: Giorgione and Titian. About an hour into the macchia, in desperation, I asked the spirits of the dead for direction. I hoped Giorgione would possess my hand. Perhaps these answers are best left unknown. The experience of a painting is the responsibility of the viewer more than the artist, anyway. What differentiates painting from illustration is that there is no absolute meaning or message. Do the finishing details or minor adjustments detract from the experience of Giorgione’s last painting? Maybe her presence is strong enough to withstand changes in her environment. After all, the beguiling nature of Sleeping Venus is her allure.
Anderson, Jaynie. Giorgione: The Painter of ‘Poetic Brevity.’ Paris: Flammarion, 1997.
Anderson, Jaynie. “Giorgione, Titian and the Sleeping Venus.” In Tiziano e Venezia, edited by Neri Pozza. Venice: 1980.
Barry, Michael. The True Moor of Venice: Giorgione and the Mystery of “The Three Philosophers.” Metropolitan Museum of Art, podcast audio. August 15, 2009.
Beard, Mary. Shock of The Nude, episode 1. https://www.dailymotion.com/video/x7xta18
Calabrese, Omar. Venere svelata: La Venere di Urbino di Tiziano. Milan: Silvana Editorale, 2003.
Cook, Herbert. Giorgione. London: G. Bell & Sons, 1900.
Dewar, Aengus. “What They Don’t Tell You About Paintings - Sleeping Venus.”
Eastlake, Charles L. Handbook of Painting: The Italian Schools. Based on the Handbook of Kugler. London: Murray, 1874.
Ferino-Pagden, Sylvia, and Giovanna Nepi Sciré. Giorgione: myth and enigma. Milan: Skira, 2004.
Giebe, Marlies. ““Venere dormiente”, Dresda, Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister.” In Tiziano: Amor sacro e amor profano, 369-385. Rome: Electa, 1995.
Goffen, Rona. “Renaissance Dreams.” Renaissance Quarterly 40 (1987): 682-706.
Goffen, Rona. "Sex, Space and Social History in Titian's Venus of Urbino.” In Titian’s "Venus of Urbino”, edited by Rona Goffen. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.
Gould, Cecil. "The Vendramin Inventory and Giorgione: A Note of Caution." The Burlington Magazine 121, no. 921 (1979): 801.
Hayes, Matthew. 2017. What Burckhardt Saw: Restoration and the invention of the Renaissance, c 1840-1904.” 115-134 PhD diss,. New York University.
Charles Hope, “Giorgione and the Problems of Attribution.” London Review of Books Vol. 38 No. 7 (2016)
Humphrey, Peter. Painting in Renaissance Venice. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995.
Luchs, Alison. “An Antiquity of Imagination: Tullio Lombardo and Venetian High Renaissance Sculpture,” National Gallery of Art, 2009.
Matthew, Louisa. “Colors and Colorants of Renaissance Venice”. National Gallery of Art, 2012.
Meiss, Millard. “Sleep in Venice.” In his The Painter’s Choice: Problems in the Interpretation of Renaissance Art, 212-37. New York: Harper & Row, 1976.
Michiel, Marcantonio. ‘In Casa De M. Ieronimo Marcello A S. Tomado.’ In his Notizia d’opere di disegno.
Moncada, Valentina. "The Painters' Guilds in the Cities of Venice and Padua." RES: Anthropology and Aesthetics, 15 (1988): 105-21.
Morelli, Giovani. Italian Painters: Critical Studies of Their Works. London: 1907.
Pardo, Mary. “Artifice as Seduction in Titian.” In Sexuality and Gender in Early Modern Europe, edited by James G. Turner, 55-89. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993.
Posse, Hans. "DIE REKONSTRUKTION DER VENUS MIT DEM CUPIDO VON GIORGIONE." Jahrbuch Der Preuszischen Kunstsammlungen 52 (1931): 29-35.
Richter, George Martin. "Landscape Motifs in Giorgione's Venus." The Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs 63, no. 368 (1933): 211-23.
Rosand, David. Painting in Cinquecento Venice: Titian, Veronese, Tintoretto. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1982.
Rosand, David. “‘So-And-So Reclining on Her Couch’.” In Studies in the History of Art 45 (1993): 100-19.
Rublev. “Venetian Medium.”
Rumberg, Per. An Introduction to: In The Age of Giorgione. Royal Academy of Arts, podcast audio. March 14, 2016.
Ruvoldt, Maria. “Sleeping Beauties.” Renaissance Quarterly 58, no. 2 (2005): 603-05.
Segre, Renata. "A Rare Document on Giorgione." The Burlington Magazine 153, no. 1299 (2011): 383-86.
Webber, Gregor J.M.. “Velata dal tempo. La Venere di Giorgione.” In Venere svelata: La Venere di Urbino di Tiziano, Edited by Omar Calabrese. Milan: Silvana Editorale, 2003.
Wittkower, Rudolf. "Individualism in Art and Artists: A Renaissance Problem." Journal of the History of Ideas 22, no. 3 (1961): 291-302.