A few years ago, I wrote an article which compared the narrative modes of “The Tempest” by Giorgione and “Correspondances” by Charles Baudelaire. I indicated, among other things, that the similarity in the experience of the spectator and the reader came from the false unity at the center of the two compositions: indeed, if, from a distance, the painting and the poem seem to display a visual or stylistic coherence, we quickly realize that the real center, the “meaning”, is elsewhere, and even, in the case of “The Tempest”, untraceable or absent. Indeed, if these two works can be considered without hesitation as metaphors, Baudelaire’s poem is the most telling: it is an image of poetry itself, as pure “artifice”, a radical mise-en-abyme of the poetic object as such, and I believed that it was the same for Giorgione in view of the 57 different and divergent interpretations listed by Salvatore Settis in his excellent book “The Invention of a Painting”, published in 1978.
However, in 2016, participating in a conference of the A.C.L.A. (American Comparative Literature Association) which took place at Harvard University, I visited its beautiful museum and came across the small painting attributed to Titian, entitled “An idyll: a Mother and a Halberdier in a Wooden Landscape . ” Its direct link with “The Tempest” immediately appeared to me, as it did to many others before me - the museum's notice also indicates the proximity of the two works, but only as belonging to the same wave of fashionable subjects during the Renaissance in Venice, i.e. the “Bucolics”:
“ The subject of printed, painted, and drawn images, landscapes of shaded groves, musicians, shepherds, and languid nymphs were a quintessentially Venetian genre in the early sixteenth century. The most celebrated, and perhaps most enigmatic, of these is Giorgione’s Tempest, which shows the same configuration of a seated woman and a standing figure found here.”
This similarity however seems to me much more important than it is suggested. Indeed, Titien’s painting is literally the inverted mirror of "The Tempest". All the elements are in fact there: the soldier, the seated woman and her child, nature, the sky, etc., but in opposition. The soldier, armed in Titian’s work, is weakened in Giorgione’s, without a breastplate and with a simple staff in place of the halberd. The seated woman, naked and breastfeeding in Giorgione, is dressed in Titian's painting, and the child does not suckle. Nature is welcoming and the sky is blue in the “Idyll”, somber and threatening in “The Tempest”. Likewise, where a river forms an obstacle between the characters in the foreground and the city in Giorgione's work, it has disappeared in Titian's painting, replaced by a welcoming village which is just a stone's throw away.
We know that Titian was the pupil and the disciple of Giorgione, and the approximate dates of the two paintings correspond to this period: 1505-1508 for “The Tempest”, 1505-1510 for “An Idyll”. The link between the two paintings therefore becomes obvious and is established as the center of a double narration: one, imagined by us, of the student with his master, and the other, of the subject, of the real meaning of the metaphor, which is split in two. Titian explains Giorgione, and places “The Tempest” at the heart of a dialogue, and no longer as an isolated mystery. If we compare the motifs of the two paintings one by one, everything becomes clear - or at least in part, because, to be honest, I am absolutely no specialist in the Italian Renaissance, nor in art history in general.
The soldier of Idyll could represent Strength, and his gaze that leads out of the picture is that of the guard, who observes and protects, while the fallen soldier of Giorgione would embody Weakness and Lust - his staff is not an efficient weapon and his gaze is on the naked woman, whose oblique is accentuated by the swelling of his sex.
The woman, in the “Idyll” could be Virtue, symbolized by the simplicity of her clothes and her gaze directed towards Strength, avoiding crossing that of the spectator. Her child, a Christ-like symbol, sits peacefully on her knees and is standing facing the spectator. He does not suckle, because he is divine. In Giorgione's painting, the woman is naked, barely covered with a cloth, and breastfeeds her child. It is the Eve of the Fall, carnal and mortal, who turns her back on the City, from which she may have been cast out. Her gaze is on the viewer, perhaps to remind him or her of their own mortality, and the child who needs milk to survive could thus symbolize human vulnerability.
As for nature in the composition of Titian, it is peaceful and harmonious. All the elements of the decor are interconnected, and if the tower, symbol of power, dominates the landscape in the background on the left, the village and the city located in the background are accessible, because peace reigns. In “The Tempest”, on the contrary, the elements are unleashed (the lightning) or threatening (the gray clouds rolling in the sky), the city is hidden behind a wall and is only accessible by a fragile bridge, and nature is strewn with ruins, including a broken column, which in all probability symbolizes Death.
We therefore see clearly that all the essential elements of the two works correspond to each other, and can only be understood in relation to each other, and that it is indeed a dialogue, and not simply a similarity or thematic proximity. The meaning, or the key, is the fruit of this connection - or rather, the meaning becomes only visible through this connection. It is a mirrored philosophical and spiritual metaphor, but physically separated into two works where they are usually combined into one.
If my interpretation is limited and certainly open to criticism, even laughable for specialists, it simply seeks to show that the identity imposed on “La Tempête” as a “mysterious” work because it is “unique” is not entirely accurate, because it is in fact part of a philosophical dialogue which should, on the contrary, have been perfectly explicit for the intellectual circles of the time. To be clearer, “The Tempest” would not be an individual meditative work of which the meaning is “hidden” or “lost”, but rather “half” of a philosophical and moral metaphor, quite clear if one contemplates it in its entirety. If there is a mystery, it lies therefore elsewhere: in the particular choice of the commissioner, who seems to have favored the “Ominous” over the “Ideal”, and in the genesis of Titian's painting - exercise, command, dialogue? This is perhaps the greatest of mysteries, no longer in the object, but in the intention - a deeply and radically human enigma.
Doubinsky, Sébastien, « Vanishing Point »- a contrastive study of Baudelaire’s « Correspondances » and Giorgione’s “La Tempesta”, Orbis Litterarum, volume 69, issue 6, December 2014 pp. 441-469.
Settis, Salvatore, L’invention d’un tableau, Paris, Éditions de Minuit, 1978.