Although no more than six famous paintings are inarguably attributed to Giorgio da Castelfranco, or Giorgione (ca. 1477-1510), he nonetheless is a legacy in the history of painting.

Giorgione was born near Venice in its heyday as the European center of trade, culture and famous artwork, and when its most famous painter was Giovanni Bellini (c. 1430-1516).

Giorgione.  Three Philosophers, 1508.  Oil on canvas, 4’1″ by 4’9″.  Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.

Giorgione surpassed this master of Renaissance art with his innovations:

  • he was an early adopter of the new Venetian technique of painting on canvas in lieu of wood panel;
  • he mastered the use of oils rather than tempera; and
  • he didn’t make preparatory drawings on paper before painting, breaking with the Florentine tradition of Michelangelo, Raphael, and Leonardo (and earning scorn from the great Italian painter and biographer, Giorgio Vasari).

Like all Giorgione artwork, the meaning of Three Philosophers is elusive.  X-ray examination reveals that he initially portrayed the three figures as the Three Magi or ‘wise men’.  As noted by Honour and Fleming in The Visual Arts, ‘philosophers’ meant, during Giorgione’s era, either astronomers or astrologers, leading some to conclude these are Magi awaiting the star signaling Christ’s birth.

But the figures have been interpreted in a multitude of other ways, too – as representatives of the three stages of man’s life; of three religions, of three philosophical schools, and even of three philosophers (with Pythagoras seated, and two of his teachers, Pherecydes and Thales, standing). Three Philosophers is also evocative of Raphael’s School of Philosophy.  With Venice’s stature as a cultural crossroads, it is likely Giorgione was influenced by famous paintings in Europe and the East.  Countless interpretations of Three Philosophers are thus possible – and miss the point.

What’s revolutionary here is that Giorgione’s rendering of mood and color trumps the Roman and Florentine preference for sculpturesque form. His dramatically assymetrical composition flaunts his skill with three classic poses — profile, three quarters and frontal – whose combined mass is offset by the dark, mysterious opening to the cave. His brilliant modelling of the robes and use of sfumato reminds us that Giorgione met Leonardo in 1500.

It’s all about mood and atmosphere over interpretation: Giorgione spearheaded the Venetian tradition of color’s prominence over line and form, transforming the history of painting. As noted by Fred Kleiner in Gardner’s:

Venice paints the poetry of the senses and delights in the beauty of nature and the pleasures of humanity.  Florence and Rome attempt the sterner, intellectual themes… Much of the history of later Western art can be broadly understood as a dialogue between these two traditions.

How amazing that the history of painting was altered so dramatically by one Renaissance painter with a career of thirty years!

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