Foto Giorgione
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The life of Giorgione

There are few certainties surrounding the life of Giorgione: the documents that outline his biography can be counted on one hand and are all limited to the final stage of his life, which the plague brought to a premature end in 1510.

Giorgione isn't even mentioned by name in the 16th century, but is always referred to via his place of origin as the painter "from Castelfranco" or - as in a 1528 inventory - as "Zorzon", a nickname that according to Vasari derives "from the build of the man and his greatness of soul". The first unambiguous document is the inscription dated 1 June 1506 on the back of the Laura from Vienna, which attributes the work to "master Zorzi from Castelfranco" (maistro Zorzi da Chastelfranco), here described as a "colleague" (cholega) of the Bellinian artist Vincenzo Catena. Payments to Giorgione are attested between 1507 and 1508 on the part of the Senate of Venice for the painting of a telero, or large canvas, with an unspecified subject, intended for the new Audience Hall of the Council of Ten in the Ducal Palace. Another certain piece of information can be derived from the document dated 8 November 1508 which concerns legal proceedings instituted by the artist for the failure to pay him for the frescoes he had painted in the Fontego dei Tedeschi in Venice.

Finally, the brief epistolary exchange of 1510 between Isabella d'Este and her official in Venice, Taddeo Albano, not only mentions the premature death of the artist "a few days earlier", but also attests to Giorgione's fame in the land of the Este. Isabella, however, does not appear to be very familiar with the painter's work and asks her "agent" to gather information regarding the chance to purchase "a very beautiful and unique night painting left as part of the painter's ‘inheritance'", in order to find out if it really is a fine piece of work. The uncertainty surrounding the artist's biography also struck Giorgio Vasari, who in the two versions of his Lives made numerous changes to his biography of Giorgione.

In the first version of the biography, in 1550, Giorgione is said to have been born at Castelfranco in 1477. Vasari here writes that the artist even received his early training in an unnamed workshop in Venice, where he also established contacts with aristocratic circles that shared his passion for love matters and music. He "took unceasing delight in the joys of love; and the sound of the lute gave him marvellous pleasure, so that in his day he played and sang so divinely that he was often employed for that purpose at various musical assemblies and gatherings of noble persons." In the 1568 version of the Lives, however, Vasari corrected the artist's date of birth, altering it to 1578, "when the Doge was Giovan Mocenigo, brother of Doge Piero." Another precious document that helps draw some light on the life and career of Giorgione is the notebook of the Venetian nobleman Marcantonio Michiel. From 1525, this young art lover wrote down short descriptions of the paintings he had seen in the homes of Venetian collectors, including notes on their authors: it is thanks to him that we possess sure evidence regarding works by Giorgione such as The Tempest.

On the whole, Giorgione's works continue to elude us, not merely in terms of autography, but also in their most profound meaning. While the surviving and acknowledged paintings by the artist reflect exclusively secular, civic or "private" forms of engagement (even the Castelfranco Altarpiece was actually commissioned by the famous condottiere Tuzio Costanzo), many interpretative keys have been suggested for Giorgione's work: they have been regarded as philosophical exercises of a Neoplatonic bent on the theme of love, as depictions related to Classical literature, even as manifestos of Jewish culture in Venice. Then comes legend, and what has been constructed on the basis of a very limited number of sources. Among these "inventions" is that concerning the painter's death from "love sickness" when his lover fled with his disciple Pietro Luzzo da Feltre. This episode, which appears to have been told for the first time only in 1648 by Carlo Ridolfi, ultimately confirms an established fact: that by then the making of myths about Giorgione was already underway.

The life of Giorgione