The Royal Academy's In the Age of Giorgione promotes a little known but pivotal painter of the Italian Renaissance

 
Olivia McEwan
Portrait of a Young Man ('Giustiniani Portrait'), c. 1497-99.

Royal Academy | ★★★★

In the Age of Giorgione argues that this elusive painter, of whom little is known and to whom only a handful of surviving paintings have been definitively attributed, was a pivotal figure in Venetian art in the 16th century.

It says, “his influence was profoundly felt by contemporaries”, yet the show is dominated by the towering – and more celebrated – works. Take Titian, who lived longer than Giorgione and therefore enjoyed more commercial success: his larger works pack a far bigger visual punch, physically dwarfing those of the supposed headliner.

It’s a similar story with Bellini, and even the lesser-known Giovani Cariani enjoys a greater spotlight. It becomes ever more a case of the mysterious missing man: while Giorgione’s contemporary influence may have been profound, the lack of surviving works sorely under-represents him.

But if you take the exhibition as a survey of Venetian art at the peak of its power, it’s a treat, and a much needed insight into an overlooked area of the Italian Renaissance.

A consistency of style and mood is much in evidence, characterized by smoky modelling or “sfumato” (more popularly seen in Da Vinci), softly sensuous use of colour and a greater leaning towards naturalism.

This is most successfully demonstrated in the portraiture section, in which this distinctive loose brushwork gives subtle nuance to the faces gazing out from the gloom. The results are both unsettling and compelling, conjuring the dim murky feel of the Accademia in Venice, from which many of these pieces originate.

The RA makes a brave stab at covering an under-explored period in art history, which suffers from huge gaps in surviving pieces. Giorgione was clearly capable of knockout works, visible here in the remarkable but anomalous La V­­ecchia, an old woman clutching the motto Col Tempo (With Time).

The unflinching realism of the ravages of age is startling yet curiously and ironically defiant of the contemporary Venetian concerns for beauty. But if anything, this compelling exhibition adds to the mystery surrounding Giorgione rather than providing clarity; it shines a light on a fascinating period but the artist himself remains an enigma.

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