Laura: Giorgione

Laura: Giorgione

Laura is a 1506 painting by Italian artist Giorgione, a founder of the Venetian school of Italian Renaissance painting during the late 15th century. This work is located in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, Austria.

This Giorgione painting is particularly exceptional in that an inscription on the rear makes its attribution to the artist and its dating unquestionable. Almost the entirety of Giorgione’s collection is otherwise doubtful.

This canvas, which was originally part of a wooden panel, shows the bust of a woman in a three-quarter profile with several branches of a laurel occupying the space behind her over a black background.

Who exactly the woman represented was supposed to be is not known. On the basis of the painting’s title — a conventional name, not documented as the original — she has been fancifully identified as Laura di Noves, the Provençal noblewoman who might have been Petrarch’s true “Laura”.

In that case, Giorgione would have imagined this largely obscure person who had died a century before his birth. Otherwise, she has been tentatively identified as Flora, the goddess of seasons. Yet she might also have been a simple courtesan.

The imposing laurel behind the woman must carry a symbolic content. It seems both to allude to the name “Laura”, through an alliteration emblematic of Petrarch, and to represent an attribute of Flora’s. It is not, in the end, clear what it represents.

Wearing a red fur coat, Giorgione’s Laura has just raised her left hand to uncover her bosom while she looks in front of her and out of frame to the left. Her gesture, which reveals her to be naked under the coat except for a thin strip of the veil, is most certainly intended, by both the artist and her, as a sensual exhibition.

But to clarify that the meaning of her gesture is not (simply) that of erotic encouragement, we observe the confident seriousness of her face and remind ourselves that in the Renaissance, as in the classical world, a woman’s breasts represent fertility.

It is in Laura that we have a fine example of Giorgione’s tonalism: broad areas of monochrome paint applied without the aid of underlying drawings and border lines. Chromatic opposition is what gives us, especially at a distance, a vision of vivid shapes — an effect we may call Impressionistic.

Giorgione’s extraordinary technical skill has then made it possible for this solid mass of paint to bear reflections and shadows (see, for example, the hand).

Also in Laura, we observe Giorgione’s acquisition of da Vinci’s fading effects, as in that curl that we barely see but serves so well to frame the woman’s face. In the lineaments of her face, again, we espy the soft models of Leonardo’s brush.

It is believed that Giorgione’s contact with the work of the great master would have occurred in Venice (where Leonardo touched down briefly in 1500), through the paintings of Leonardo’s professional imitators.

Laura has not only enjoyed a straightforward attribution over the centuries; its ownership has also been linear: it was purchased from the collection of the Venetian art collector Bartolomeo della Nave by the Duke of Hamilton (1606—1649).

It was later purchased, following Hamilton’s execution, by the Archduke Leopold Wilhelm of Austria, which is why we find it at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna today. That institution has opted for the more exciting interpretation of the painting by claiming that it in fact depicts Petrarch’s, mysterious true love.

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