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Giorgione, "Laura" (1506), oil on wood (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna/Bridgeman Images)

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In 1568, the Italian historian Giorgio Vasari published a biography on the Venetian painter Giorgione in which he complains that his subject “thought of nothing save making figures according to his own fancy.” About Giorgione’s paintings, Vasari grumbled that “I for my part, have never understood them, nor have I found, for all the inquiries I have made, anyone who understands them.”

Vasari was onto something. To this day, Giorgione, or “Big George,” is one of Western art history’s most enigmatic figures. The Renaissance artist produced some 30 paintings before his death, impoverished and in his mid-30s, from the plague in 1510. We know precious little about the painter’s life, and, as Vasari laments, we know even less about his work’s meaning. A new book, Giorgione’s Ambiguity (Reaktion Books, 2021) by Tom Nichols, argues that the artist wanted it that way.

Nichols contends that everything about Giorgione’s paintings — from their hazy brushstrokes and unconventional colors to their peculiar compositions and enigmatic figures — is meant to puzzle us, and thereby draw us in. Giorgione lived in an era that defined itself through rationality and intellect. Prized istorie, or history, paintings were self-explanatory, with clear plots and fixed meanings that reinforced the social order. Giorgione’s ambiguity is not just his legacy, Nichols says, but his radical push against the prevailing norms of his time.

(Reaktion Books)

Giorgione was from the small town of Castelfranco. Details about his past are few, though Nichols’s research suggests that the artist spent time in prison as a teenage delinquent. Giorgione arrived in Venice around 1500, where he catered to a small group of wealthy patrons. He was commissioned for very few public projects and remained an outsider to the Venetian art world dominated by monumental religious and patriotic works.

According to Nichols, Giorgione never wanted to be mainstream. While other artists of the Renaissance aimed for grandeur, Giorgione’s works stayed small, with figures that are often dwarfed by their surroundings. Stylistically, he was an originator of the colorito aesthetic, which prized a sensual, soft focus over the exacting disegno painting that was popular in central Italy. But Giorgione’s most revolutionary move, Nichols argues, is his intentional visual elusiveness, a pervasive quality that makes it difficult for viewers to discern what’s happening in his paintings, and what his scenes could mean.

Take, for instance, “Laura,” a portrait from 1506, where the ambiguity of the sitter’s gesture makes it impossible to tell whether she’s revealing her bare breast or covering it. In another painting, “La vecchia” (c. 1506-7), the old woman speaks to the viewer while gesturing towards her heart, but it’s impossible to know what she’s saying. And in “Venus” (c. 1510-11) — a reclining nude completed by Titian after Giorgione’s untimely death — the woman’s closed eyes and curled hand suggest that she’s pleasuring herself, but it’s impossible to be sure.

Giorgione, “La vecchia” (c. 1506–7), tempera and oil on canvas (© Archivio fotografico G.A.VE – su concessione del Ministero dei beni e delle attività culturali e del turismo – Gallerie dell’Accademia di Venezia)

Why so much mystery? Nichols explains that Giorgione sees the viewer “as intensely subjective and sensual,” someone who will delight in the overlapping and often contradictory interpretations that his works inspire. Indeed, Giorgione’s most famous work, “Tempest” (c. 1509), has perplexed scholars and viewers for centuries. Here again, the artist resists narrative clarity. He presents solitary figures whose purposes are resoundingly unclear within a landscape that — with its dark clouds and flashing lightning — is oneiric and inscrutable. Giorgione’s works are deeply psychological and uniquely interactive. As Nichols insists, they lend themselves to countless readings, drawing us in time and time again.

 Giorgione, “Tempest” (c. 1509), tempera and oil on canvas (© Archivio fotografico G.A.VE – su concessione del Ministero dei beni e delle attività culturali e del turismo – Gallerie dell’Accademia di Venezia)

Although Giorgione’s biography and artwork are ambiguous, Nichols’s text is not. His survey of Giorgione’s portraits, landscapes, and nudes is evenly paced, meticulously researched, and persuasively argued. The author presents a lucid examination of what we do and do not know about Giorgione that ultimately opens the viewer to a richer engagement with the artwork. The book would appeal to scholars, artists, history buffs, and even Vasari himself.

Giorgione’s Ambiguity by Tom Nicholson (Reaktion Books, 2021) is now available on Bookshop.

Lauren Moya Ford

Lauren Moya Ford is a writer and artist. Her writing has appeared in Apollo, Artsy, Atlas Obscura, Flash Art, Frieze, Glasstire, Mousse Magazine, and other publications.