The Tempest

(click for larger image)

Artist  Giorgione
Year c. 1508
Type oil on canvas
Dimensions 33 in × 29 in)
Location Gallerie dell'Accademia, Venice


Giorgione's mysterious painting, "The Tempest" is the perfect choice for any introductory art history or art appreciation course. The painting has for hundreds of years enticed critics to offer interpretations; as there is no definitive interpretation and Giorgione left  no written clues, anyone can play.  If you ask students for their interpretation of the painting, the results range from amusing to astounding. Many students have a great eye for art, while others are noticeable less gifted.   One less gifted student stands out in my mind.  He was a baseball player, perhaps a baseball major. He wore his cap pulled down over his eyes and brought his glove to class, just in case the teacher might toss a ball his way.  I nicknamed him, Joe Baseball. After completing a basic humanities course, he then enrolled in a self-paced course based on Kenneth Clark's Civilisation series that included The Tempest among the teaching materials.  As I remember our exchange on the painting was something like this:

Teacher, "What do you think the clouds and lightning symbolise?"

Joe, "It's going to rain?"

Teacher, "How about the broken columns, what might they symbolise?"

Joe, "There use to be a building there?"

We then moved on to the another question. Joe earned a passing grade, as attempting to change literal minds is tricky - they might go from seeing only the obvious to spotting angels in the wood work and space aliens in a Leonardo painting.  Over the years I learned to let them be.

Others, students or otherwise, make up for the lack of a good eye for art with with an active imagination. There are many published interpretations of the painting.  Some critics have taken the man to be a shepherd, a soldier, or a Venetian noble. The woman has been taken for a gypsy, a hooker, or the Madonna. Here are a few well know interpretations, followed by my two cents worth:

1) The painting depicts Adam and Eve with the infant Cain.  The city is Paradise and the figures are shown just after their expulsion. The lightning bolt is the angry God. (What happened to Abel?)

2) The figures are Joseph, Mary and the baby Jesus  resting on their flight into Egypt. (Perhaps the donkey is offstage grazing.)

3) This is an allegorical depiction of the virtues, Fortitude and  Charity - set against Fortune, the rising storm. (Should not Fortitude be more heavily armed? Only a stick?)

4. The young mother is Mother Earth, a personification of the nurturing aspects of nature. (Are not all nursing mothers personifications of nurturing?)

5. Another suggestion is that the young woman is Hypsipyle, the nursemaid in The Seven Against Thebes. The soldier is Capaneus, one of The Seven Against Thebes, who stood at the wall of Thebes and boasted that Zeus could not stop him from invading the city. Zeus responded with a lightning bolt to the head of Capaneus. (The bolt in the painting is way off target.)

6. The woman is the Greek goddess Demeter and the man is Iasion.  The two met at a wedding and, in Greek fashion, made love in a thrice-ploughed field.   Zeus spotted mud on Demeter's back side, guessed what happened and struck Iasion dead with a thunderbolt. The union resulted in the birth of twins, Ploutos and Philomelus.  (Where is the other twin? Was not Iasion long gone before the birth of the twins?)

7. Interpretation doesn't halt with the figures, they go on to the bird on the roof and to the column. The bird is either a crane, one of the attributes of Demeter, or a stork, symbol of fertility. The broken column just behind the young man signifies a life cut short. (Or, as Joe pointed out, a building used to be there.)

8. The poet Byron thought the male was Giorgione himself, and the other figures his wife and child. (Did the husband spent all their money on his fancy clothes, leaving wife and child naked and exposed to the elements, not even an umbrella for the coming storm. Tut, tut.)

What can we reasonable say about the painting? The man is perhaps dressed as a member of the Compagnia della Calza (Companions of the Order of the Stocking), a group of young Venetians in the 15th and 16th centuries who organized theatrical and musical events (see below). The staff may indicate a shepherd, but probably not the weapon of a soldier. The man and woman don't seem to be a family group, the figures are separated by the stream and hardly seem aware of each other. He glances over his shoulder beyond her; she looks out of the painting at the viewer and seemingly pays the man no attention at all.

In conclusion, the earliest interpretation available is appealing. A 1569 inventory of the collection of the Vendramin family, who owned the painting, records the work as a 'una cingana, un pastor in un paeseto con un ponte' (a gypsy, a shepherd in a little landscape with a bridge).  Very well, but how did they identify the woman as a gypsy? Also, we can see one breast, but I am unable to ascertain if it is right or left breast?


"What about the bird, Joe Baseball?"

"In the background behind the broken columns there is a Mosque. What might that suggest to you?"

 I did find this image of a Compagnia della Calza costume. Certainly no dead ringer for the shepherd's costume. 



Xrays have shown two more figures, but as Giorgione painted them out, I am unable to see how they effect the interpretation of the finished painting. How can you reasonably comment on figures that are not there?

My wife complains that she has never seen the painting. Although we have visited the Accademia several times, she is never able to see over the crowd seemingly perpetually gathered in front of the painting.

Also, I reacted to a New Yorker  piece stating another artist "cribbed" the Giorgione nude. You might find my reaction of interest.

Gallerie dell'Accademia, Venice Gallerie dell'Accademia, Venice