The Tempest is a 1508 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 Gallerie dell’Accademia in Venice, Italy.
The Tempest is one of the few mainstays of the highly contentious Giorgione catalogues where authorship and dating are variously attributed from critic to critic. But, as if in homage to the critical uncertainty surrounding this premature master of the Venetian School, The Tempest is a remarkably obscure painting as far as its reading is concerned.
In the foreground to the right, a semi-nude woman is suckling a newborn. Her body, whose upper half is partly covered by a white mantle and the rest partly screened by a slender plant, is turning our away in profile. She is otherwise oriented toward the left as she sits on a section of her white mantle. Her suckling baby is positioned strangely to the right of her, beyond her extended leg, and not centrally in her lap as was customary for such figures. Her pubic area is therefore exposed.
She is commonly identified as a gipsy woman because such was her naming from the earliest extant records. In Italian, the painting is in fact sometimes styled The Gipsy Woman and the Soldier (“La Zingara e il Soldato”).
The male figure to the right has instead been traditionally called The Soldier. This is a man in a scarlet vest and shorts holding a wooden pike alongside his right flank while he turns in the direction of the woman with something like curiosity. His left arm is behind his back.
Although the man is looking in the woman’s general direction, there is no sign of reciprocity between the two figures, and he may as well be looking past her. Indeed, as we realise when we look more carefully at the lower centre, there is a brook separating the two banks on which one apparently stands while the other one is sitting. As if to balance a disproportion, the soldier’s bank is flat and at a distinctly lower plane.
An alternative to being a soldier, the man has also been identified as a gipsy or a shepherd, but also as a Venetian soldier.
In the peculiar background beyond, we see a river traversing a city. A wooden bridge spans above it at a medium distance while further back we see the detailed outlines of a city. We realise at once that a tempest is approaching: the sky is overcast and dingy, and lightning is flashing to the right.
The weather condition selected by Giorgione as context to this fascinating scene has ensured a pervasive softness to the colour tones all over the canvas. The greens of the vegetation and the blues of the sky come to predominate, finding a certain fusion in the darkened body of water in the middle. It is this pervasive influence of the background upon the landscape and the sheer scope of the landscape itself that has convinced generations of critics that therein hides the true subject of this painting.
The rich shading of colour in The Tempest takes Giorgione away from the minute detail of his other compositions, such as The Trial of Moses and Solomon’s Judgement. Leonardo’s aerial perspective, which Giorgione may have learnt from da Vinci’s followers in Venice, and the lush greenery of the Danube School appear to have exerted an influence.
The Tempest has been called the first landscape in the history of Western art. If, however, we are to bear in mind da Vinci’s 1473 drawing Landscape with River, and possibly Dürer’s watercolours, then Giorgione’s artwork might claim the title if the world “painting” displaces the word “art”.
Many have been attempts to give a systematic reading to the many suggestive elements enclosed in this canvas. A subject matter articulated with such detail and sense of measure is bound to have an intellectual meaning, one that, given the Neoplatonist fashion of Giorgione’s time, is likely to imply philosophical and theological doctrines.
Yet, no conclusive interpretation of The Tempest has so far been recognised by the critics.
Several times the painting has been read as a narrative replicating the story of Adam and Eve from Genesis. In that variant, the man on the left is obviously Adam, the staff that he holds being perhaps the rod that medieval legends claimed Adam had fashioned from the Tree of Good and Evil and which was subsequently used to construct the cross of the Crucifixion.
The woman, in that case, is Eve, suckling Cain sometime immediately after the Fall from the Garden of Eden. Other critics have instead opined that the newborn must be Seth, he who plays a role in the medieval legend of Adam’s rod as well.
Lending credence to the Seth hypothesis, 20th-century radiography has detected the figure of a wanderer on the wooden bridge, later erased by the artist. Critics have recognised in him the traditional figure of Seth. Interestingly, the otherwise incomprehensible broken pillars beside the Adam/Soldier figure appear in that case explicable as “the pillars of the sons of Seth” mentioned by Josephus.
These pillars reportedly held all of the antediluvian knowledge humanity possessed. This image would have been highly attractive to the cultured men of the Renaissance, who perceived themselves to be searchers after the wisdom of the ancients in a time of ignorance.
It should also be noted that some critics have recognised parts of the city of Padova in the architecture surrounding the scene. These include the city’s ancient walls, St. Thomas’ bridge, and the Church of the Carmini. There is even a hypothesis that the building to the right displays, in the trace, the coat of arms of the Carraresi ruling family (a cart with four red wheels).
Assuming the scene to be an allegory of the fate of Padova, these critics have been able to see in the female figure a representation of the city itself, forced to feed Venice, its conqueror. The armed man might in that case be a Venetian mercenary from Albania.
Finally, given the classicist and moralistic taste of Giorgione’s time, some critics have read into the male figure the classical and Christian virtue of Strength (fortitudo) and into the woman’s figure Charity (caritas). The painting would then imply the need for the two virtues to coexist in the face of the adversities of nature, represented by the lightning.
But, once again, the painting has also been read otherwise: as an alchemic metaphor or as a representation of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V (1500-1558) as the child and Emperor Maximilian I as the soldier.
The Tempest — whose dating by critics swings in between 1500 and 1510, the year of Giorgione’s death — may have been commissioned by Gabriele Vendramin, a nobleman from Padova whose tower some critics believe they can recognise in the painting’s architecture.
The painting likely passed on to Vendramin’s heirs after 1522, who then kept it as part of their family collection. The Tempest was acquired by the City of Venice in 1932.