Philosophers in a landscape

IT would be really hard to say more about Giorgione than this, that his pictures are the perfect reflex of the Renaissance at its height.'' So wrote Bernard Berenson, connoisseur of Italian art, in the 1890s. While many subsequent art historians have agreed with Berenson's superlative estimate of the Venetian painter's achievement (the change his paintings wrought on the course and taste of art and artists has been called ``revolutionary''), they have said considerably more, in numbers of words, than that.

In fact, it might be claimed the amount written about Giorgione's art is in inverse relation to existing evidence of his work. Put a little conservatively, there are only three paintings known today that nobody disputes are his; the total rises to no more than 10 for pictures ``almost certainly'' by him.

``The Three Philosophers'' is one of the indisputable trio. It is a warm, atmospheric, sunset painting, in which the three figures seem as deep in thought as the landscape is bathed in evening light. The enigma of Giorgione's style is here epitomized: His forms are simultaneously pervaded with light and clarity and softened with gentle shadows.

Art historians frequently point out that the outstanding innovation of his work is that the landscape in it carries as much poetry and significance as figures, if not more. A new harmony between ``man'' and ``nature'' is perceived in his paintings. Man is not separate from the world he inhabits. He is part of it no less than are silhouetted tree trunks, blue distances, the dark mouth of a cavern. He may be in the foreground, but so, as viewers, are we; and beyond him (her, or them) is an enveloping coun tryside that includes, or could include, us. It is not a mere backdrop. It feels accessible and explorable, though paradoxically we are also distant from it. In this painting the three men are placed unconventionally to one side, as if to emphasize they are not necessarily the dominant feature. The same is true in another undisputed Giorgione, ``La Tempesta.''

It is all the stranger, then, that it is the people in his paintings that have prompted most of the art-historical theorizing and controversy. Endless attempts to explain the ``meaning'' of Giorgione's pictures have concentrated on his figures. Evidently it is easier to accept the fact of a landscape just being -- simply having existence and beauty -- than it is to grant the same status to men and women; but that is exactly what Giorgione's vision does, and with a remarkable, mysterious sense of awe or tranquillity.

Sometimes this artist is presented as a kind of early-16th-century precursor of the 19th-century Romantics. Already in his work humans can be seen moving through trees or fields in dreamy contemplation, seated, standing, lying -- remote from each other and away from dwellings. There is an ``outside the city walls'' feel that we now think of as ``Romantic.'' Perhaps to Giorgione and his patrons, and to the poets of his time whose writing informed his art, it was more of a ``classical'' allusion, associat ed with the ancients, with the pastoralism of a poet like Virgil, for example.

One of the pleasantest recent theories regarding ``The Three Philosophers'' (and they are called that still because a Venetian diarist, in 1525, only 15 years after Giorgione's passing, so described them) was put forward in 1974 by someone whose insights into the artist's vision convinced him that the Louvre's ``F^ete Champ^etre,'' which is usually given to Titian today, is by Giorgione. This was Ellis Waterhouse.

He considered much too specific such ``explanations'' as the one that describes the men in ``The Three Philosophers'' as ``the Three Magi visiting (in disguise) the cave in which the nativity took place.'' Presumably he likewise discredited notions of them as astronomers or astrologers or surveyors, or ``Aristotle, Ptolemy and Regiomontano,'' or an Allegory of the Three Ages of Man. These make up only a sampling of the many ingenious analyses which all seem slightly irrelevant. Waterhouse was perhaps mo st dismissive of Edgar Wind's approach to Giorgione, which in the case of ``The Three Philosophers'' had been an eager display of scholarship:

``Their learned professions are easy enough to make out,'' he claimed. ``The aged scholar . . . holds a sheet with celestial figures and calculations, while the young one . . . is a geometrical draughtsman measuring the earth.'' Between them is the turbaned sage who ``signifies the link which keeps earth and heaven united.'' Wind then goes on to identify the figures with an ancient Chaldean revelation, circulated among Renaissance Platonists, that the sou l has a ``triple habitation'' -- ``celestial, spiritual, and earthly.''

But Waterhouse said that, as he read Wind's book, he found he was feeling ``convinced about one thing concerning Giorgione, which is that his mind was very unlike that of Professor Wind.''

Waterhouse's own theory was that the men are ``three sages -- possibly with a side glance at the Magi -- who represent the wisdom of the Ancient World.'' But in his reasoning this identification is not of central importance to the painting's motivation. He points out that the collector who first owned it also owned a ``wonderful picture,'' now in the Frick Collection in New York -- Bellini's exhilarating, marvelous ``St. Francis.''

Bellini was an early influence on Giorgione, and in the ``St. Francis'' is an inspired rapport between the nature-loving hermit and the landscape into which he has retreated. As Waterhouse said, this ``anticipates'' Giorgione and his ``use of landscape.'' The Bellini seems ``to be a picture of dawn or of early morning light. It is pretty well the same size as `The Three Philosophers' . . . and I would suggest that what Contarini [the collector] commissioned was a picture of eveni ng which should be its companion. In the discussion of the subject matter it might have been suggested that, since Bellini's picture was concerned with the Christian dispensation, Giorgione's companion piece might be concerned with the old order.''

Such attractive interrelationships are prompted by the thought of these two Venetian masterpieces in juxtaposition that it is hard not to hope that Professor Waterhouse's mind was like Giorgione's -- and that his guess is right.

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