Mystery is the key ‘Giorgionesque’ word. We know very little about his short life and despite the furious endeavours of tribes of art historians it is impossible to agree on which paintings are certainly by him, outside a tiny core of perhaps six works. No signed and dated pictures by Giorgione have survived although two portraits carry inscriptions on their backs which are probably contemporary and which seem to confirm him as the artist. Only a handful of contemporary documents refer to him providing the barest biographical detail. But despite all this uncertainty Giorgione is universally regarded as the founder of the innovative Venetian style of painting in the sixteenth century, laying the foundations for Titian and greatly influencing many artists from later centuries such as Poussin.
The sense of mystery spills over into his paintings, for notwithstanding the efforts of those historians we are no nearer to a coherent interpretation of much of his output. Unlike his predecessors in Italy and Flanders Giorgione leaves very few keys which might enable us to unlock his inscrutable compositions. His paintings are not meant to be direct illustrations of biblical or other texts — he did not set out to make them explicit statements. Rather they should be seen as poetic inventions striving to evoke a mood.
The Sunset is not one of the paintings which make it into the charmed circle of works which all scholars agree are by Giorgione. But as Erika Langmuir points out in the National Gallery Companion Guide, the painting is so redolent of his style that in a way it does not matter. The picture was discovered in a villa just to the south of Venice in 1933; it was badly damaged and has been quite heavily restored.
In the foreground two travellers have stopped by a pool which seems to be inhabited by very strange creatures. Behind the pool a hermit can be made out and St George is busy dispatching a miniature dragon. It is known that the St George cameo is the product of a restorer working to cover a damaged area of paint with only the hint of a dragon’s tail to go on. It is just possible that the travellers may be St Roch and his companion. St Roch cared for those afflicted with the plague but predictably became a victim himself. It is possible that the kneeling traveller is inspecting the ulcer that traditionally appears on the saint’s leg. But it is impossible to know if this interpretation is valid or not.
What is so appealing about Giorgione is the enigmatic quality of his work and the mood of mystery he evokes. He represents the genesis of a way of making art — a current which extends through Claude and Watteau to de Chirico and Magritte.
Image: Courtesy of the National Gallery, London
1506 Albrecht Dürer: Feast of the Rose Garlands, Prague, Národní Gallerie
c1507 Giovanni Bellini: The Assassination of St Peter Martyr, London, National Gallery
c1510 Hans Baldung Grien: Death and the Maiden, Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum