RA’s Giorgione show is so rich it’s worth returning to several times

But which paintings are in fact by Giorgione? It’s impossible to resist playing the attribution game

19 March 2016

9:00 AM

19 March 2016

9:00 AM

In the Age of Giorgione

Royal Academy, until 5 June

Bruegel in Black & White: Three Grisailles Reunited

Courtauld Gallery, until 8 May

Light, Time, Legacy: Francis Towne’s Watercolours of Rome

British Museum, until 14 August

Walter Sickert was once shown a room full of paintings by a proud collector, who had purchased them on the understanding that they were authentic Sickerts. The painter took one look around, then announced genially, none of these are mine, ‘But none the worse for that!’ Were Giorgione to return to life, and take a stroll around the Sackler Galleries at the Royal Academy, he might echo those words.

Few of the works on show, in all probability, were actually executed by Giorgione, but they are none the less magnificent for that. This is — wisely — not an exhibition that attempts to reassemble the artistic personality of that enigmatic figure (there have been quite a few of those over the years). It is concerned with a moment, one of the most fascinating in Western art.

Multiple influences came together in Venice in the first decade of the 16th century — those of Leonardo and Albrecht Dürer, both of whom briefly passed through La Serenissima, of classical antiquity and of the local maestro Giovanni Bellini. Out of this came a novel way of working — at once more softly and more boldly — in oil paint, often on canvas. Here, more than in Rome, Bruges or Florence, began the grand European tradition that runs from Rembrandt and Velázquez through to Manet and Freud. Portraiture, landscape and the female nude started to become dominant subjects. In the exhibition, three rooms are devoted more or less to portraits, and one to landscape (though always populated by a few figures). And in the middle of it all, somewhere, was Giorgione.

The curators have put together an exhibition that is so rich it’s worth visiting not just once, but returning to several times. Among the attractions is a series of masterpieces by the young Titian, who dominates the long gallery assigned to religious paintings with three big, confident works painted around 1510. At the age of 20 or so he already had the quality of fleshy vigour that he retained to the end of his career more than six decades later. ‘Christ and the Adulteress’ and ‘Jacopo Pesaro Being Presented by Pope Alexander VI to St Peter’ seem to announce, as they were probably intended to, that there was a new genius in town.

'Christ and the Adulteress' (1508) by Titian

‘Christ and the Adulteress’ (1508-10) by Titian

A little altarpiece from the Prado (c.1509–10) is more Giorgione-like, in that the figures seem lost in their own thoughts, giving the picture a marvellously contemplative mood. Even so, it has a robustness that clearly signals ‘Titian’. This, like several pictures on show, was once attributed to Giorgione. Others are now assigned to Cariani, an artist with a hard-edged, sharply realist style — good at portraits, a bit hopeless when more imagination was required. There’s a delightful little Lorenzo Lotto of St Jerome mortifying himself in a landscape of gnarled rocks — in fact, lovely things on every wall.

Quite a number of works on show are not definitely assigned to anyone — and none the worse for that. You quickly learn that, in the language of labels, ‘Attributed to Giorgione’ means ‘Very likely not’, and ‘Giorgione’ means ‘Possibly by Big George Himself’. It is folly to play the attribution game, partly because it’s not the point of the show, partly because it’s impossible (Bernard Berenson noted that ‘every critic has his own private Giorgione’, which is still true). But I couldn’t resist.

By my count there are three indubitable Giorgiones at the RA. The ‘Terris’ ‘Portrait of a Man’ in the first room, the dawn landscape ‘Il Tramonto’ — or the part of it not by a 20th century restorer — and the picture of an aged woman carrying the message ‘Col Tempo’ in the last. Each of these gently dominates everything else in its room. They are naturalistic in the manner of the Dürer portraits on display, but have a delicate, airy, living quality that is distinctively Italian. In other words, they are right at the centre of European painting, at the point where Northern and Southern traditions come together. That’s why Giorgione was so important.

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‘Christ and the woman taken in adultery’ (1565) by Pieter Bruegel the Elder

By chance there are also just three authentic works by a great artist on show in Bruegel in Black & White at the Courtauld Gallery. There is unlikely ever to be a blockbuster devoted to Pieter Bruegel the Elder, for the unusual reason that one always exists in the room at Kunsthistorishes Museum, Vienna, where most of his great works are hung. But the Courtauld has put together a micro exhibition bringing together all Bruegel’s surviving works in grisaille — that is, monochrome: ‘Christ and the woman taken in adultery’ from its own collection, ‘The Death of the Virgin’ from Upton House, and a little panel of three soldiers from the Frick.

What this reveals is Bruegel’s extreme subtlety and finesse. Working on an almost miniature scale, with a limited palette — with only a few notes of brownish grey for warmth — he created space, complex drama and texture. The copies and imitations on view — even by his talented son Jan Brueghel the Elder — only demonstrate the indefinable extra quality in the originals.

Inside the Colosseum (1780) by Francis Towne

Inside the Colosseum (1780) by Francis Towne

Francis Towne’s watercolours of Rome, on show at the British Museum, depict a city at once familiar and unfamiliar. Most of the monuments Towne visited are still there, but when he drew them — using, one would guess, a portable camera obscura — they were luxuriantly overgrown with vegetation and almost empty of tourists (even grand ones). The best of them constitute a sort of virtual time travel, taking you back to the Coliseum or looking over the rooftops towards St Peter’s 230 years ago.

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