The 'Hidden Subject' as Catalyzed by Giorgione's Tempest


J. Eric Morales




June 02, 2003













            Giorgione's, La Tempesta (1505-1510), distinguishes itself among Italian Renaissance paintings for countless attributes.  However, chief among its distinctions is the enigmatic quality of its subject resulting in scholarship rivaled by the likes of da Vinci's Mona Lisa; interestingly enough, a painting nearly contemporaneous with The Tempest.   I was not at all surprised to learn that a full spectrum of scholarly texts and journals have been published on this work over the centuries, far more accomplished intellects than mine have made lifework of this painting.  In fact, one authoritative text published only thirteen years ago, critiques no less than twenty-eight independent scholarly interpretations.  In considering the scope of this assignment, one might be inclined to review the few, most widely accepted interpretations of the image or subject; thereafter, supporting or critiquing their learned assertions.  This seemed like such an uninspired route.  After further investigation and learning many plausible theories, I in fact do find one in particular to be most compelling; this will be elaborated later. 

More significant than obtaining any solid, iconographic interpretation was the discovery of the connection between this work and my own intellectual pursuit˝of which this undergraduate program is the foundation.  And therein lies the painting's most distinguishing feature for me.  The results of this discovery are twofold:  first, a compelling path for me to explore, and second, by implication, an unapologetic divergence from trodden fields.  The Tempest demonstrates a level of sophistication that transcends a mere pictographic treatment and demands a more thorough investigation before it is proved to be the conceptual work it really is.  It is a perfect Ouroboros:  the snake that eats its own tail, the renewal of life from death, the union of all that is opposed.  For, to probe the meaning of The Tempest is to explore the dichotic archetypes of the human psyche through its circle of development toward individuation.  A bold assertion, I realize, but that is my argument.  This was not only true during the artist's own lifetime, but is still true today as evidenced by the ongoing argument of its Hidden Subject.  The Tempest is profoundly provocative and whether conscious of its implications or not, the artist is properly credited with the genius embodied in this painting.  Therefore, the foundation is set for a farther reach when considering the subject of the work.



            I first became aware of The Tempest when randomly turning through a book of Italian Renaissance painting.  It immediately struck me in a way no other work ever had.  It moved me, but I could not say how.  In fact, I could not determine if its affect on me was intellectual or sensual.  This detail will soon prove its significance.  Its amazing power to bewilder urged me to learn more about the work and its creator.  I hadn't yet acted on this notion before I saw the painting again, this time in a catalog of artwork associated with Alchemy. 

            My understanding of Alchemy is shallow at best; however, I do understand some of the fundamental principles.  One principle of Alchemy significant to this discussion is the enigmatic character of its associated imagery.  Secrecy was a major mode in Alchemy; thus, their communications to each other, whether intended for contemporary or future kin, were coded.  One might wonder why the Alchemists communicated in coded pictures rather than written codes.  This is quite easily explained by another fundamental principle of Alchemy, which is, the Work they did was of such a divine nature, that it transcended the intellect and spoke on other wavelengths where words are inadequate.  "Whenever we [Alchemists] have spoken openly we have actually said nothing.  But where we have written in code and in pictures we have concealed the truth."[1]  I am not arguing that Giorgione was an Alchemist.  I instead inject the Alchemical principles into this discussion to illustrate the prolific dissemination of codified imagery during this period of art history.  The Alchemists were not the only constituency speaking through coded images. 

            In his book, Giorgione's Tempest, Salvatore Settis creates a palpable setting of Venice and her tenor surrounding artwork of the time.  He describes an elite class of pious Christian connoisseurs who collected and commissioned paintings for private reflection on God's glory as revealed through allegories found in the scriptures.  It is at this time that the emblematic work proliferated; that is, pictorial representations of religious myths or sacra conversazione (sacred allegories) conforming to a tripartite formula of the Pictura, Inscriptio, and Subscriptio.  The Inscriptio, or motto, was a contracted explanation of the Pictura, while the Subscriptio was a detailed rhyme or narrative that accompanied the other two.

            Coming slowly into fashion among this elite class of noble persons was the solitary act of private piety.  Commissions abounded for painters of devotional imagery with a personal touch˝not the artist's but the patron's personal touch.  As Settis explains, "By adapting the painting to the taste of one man, and camouflaging its meaning from general view, the painter isolates it from the large mass of religious subjects and shifts it to the realm of an individual, inner experience." [2]   Giorgione, it is recorded, was considered a painter quite gifted and inventive, yet sensitive to concerns of taste and for this reason, received very respectable commissions.  On his demonstrable talent as a painter, Giorgio Vasari wrote of Giorgione,

And nature gave him such a gracious spirit that, in either oil or fresco, he created living forms and other images so soft, so harmonious, and so carefully shaded off into the shadows that many of the most skilful artists of those times agreed he had been born to infuse life into his figures and to represent the freshness of living flesh more than any other artist who had ever painted, not only in Venice but anywhere.[3]


His patrons had so much faith in his work that they often refused to direct his compositions.  Because he is known to have completed most of his commissions free from the creative control of his patrons, Giorgione is credited with being the father of modern painting.   In this case, modern signifies this shift in creative control from patron to artist.  Giorgione's inventiveness served him well within this trend.  Settis firmly establishes Giorgione's mastery of riding the line between the pious and profane, though may still be underestimating Giorgione's talent for disguise.




            A lingering subculture of the Church in Giorgione's time began over a thousand years prior with the split between the Gnostics and the Christians.  The principle difference between the two was that the Gnostics favored an intellectual path in pursuit of spirituality and the Christians favored a sensual, non-intellectual path.  This epic battle for the spiritual salvation of mankind occurred around 200 AD with the fierce division between Tertullian and Origen, the two most influential thinkers of their day.  So entrenched in his belief that knowledge was spiritual death, Tertullian rejected all logic claiming, "And the Son of God died; this is therefore credible just because it is absurd.  And He rose again from the tomb; this is certain because it is impossible."[4]  It is written that it was through his wisdom he recognized the impenetrability of the spiritual by the intellectual and therefore rejected it wholly.  Origen, was equally emphatic about his opposing opinion that the intellect held reign over the sensual and as a result, castrated himself at the age of 26.

Giorgione may well have been an active or inactive participant in the revival of or resistance to the secretive, Gnostic philosophies flowing from Platonic circles in Florence.  Either way, the influences of the secretive manner were abundantly upon him.  Settis explains, "This principle [the attenuation or concealment of meaning] was already in force long before [Paulo] Giovio's codefication [5] : the deliberate exclusion of the plebei from the pleasures of the educated class played a natural and fundamental part in finding the balance between subtlety and accessibility." [6]   The Hidden Subject was all the rage.




            Senior by several centuries and concurrent with the development of Christianity, Alchemy suffered a similar ideological split twelve hundred years later and much closer to Giorgione's day.  Alchemists, or the mystical group of pre-Renaissance scientist-philosophers, eventually bifurcated into the chemists who assimilated into the natural sciences and the philosophers who eventually bore the Free Masons, Rosicrucians, Theosophists, Anthroposophists and many other related, secretive spiritual groups who, like the Gnostics, believe in the indispensable power of the intellect in the search for the Devine.   Thus, the undercurrents of mysticism were prevalent among the artists of the time.

One such artist at the center of this cultish movement was Albrecht DŘrer.  The significance here, is that DŘrer illustrated a widely disseminated treatise called Hieroglyphica by Horapollo.  This fifth century Egyptian philosopher identified the symbolic key to over two hundred symbols of Egyptian hieroglyphics.  This book became the basis of symbology used in the emblem paintings for decades to follow, a book that is known to have "prompted the artists of the Renaissance, including Bellini, Giorgione, Titian, and Bosch, to develop the language of signs in their own imaginative way."[7]  It is of no small significance that the symbology Giorgione employed in his commissions, due to the influences and demands of his time, is parallel with Alchemical symbology, for the latter, having roots back to the waning days of the late Egyptian dynasties, employed many of the same motifs found in the Egyptian hieroglyphs that DŘrer illustrated and his contemporaries utilized.  DŘrer's contribution to this history is no small matter either, for he did not simply transcribe the hieroglyphs, but illustrated in his imaginative way, the concepts that each hieroglyph represented thereby giving birth to a whole new modern vernacular on an ancient way of communicating ideas through icons.  This clarification is intended to anticipate the reader who is expecting to see an Ankh or an Osiris alongside Adam and Eve.



            Arguably the most visible revival of Alchemical philosophy in recent times is found in the work of Dr. Carl G. Jung, early in the twentieth century.  Jung's work reached an impassioned level when he made a direct connection between his work in psychoanalysis and his intellectual fascination with the Alchemists.  This resonance prompted his theory of the Collective Conscience which became the basis of all the work that followed.

 Jung theorized that the psyche is oriented toward one of two archetypes.  Introversion is subject related, while Extroversion is object related.  Jung's theory asserts that the human psyche is in a constant state of tidal flux in an attempt to find the perfect balance of both object and subject relation with the ideal end found in 'individualization' - a state wherein the individual's psychology is perfectly balanced between the self and the collective, or (loosely) society.  The implication, though, is that as an individual's psyche changes toward refinement, so it affects˝albeit in a miniscule way˝the state of the collective.  And as more individuals change toward one psychic direction, the tides change to reflect that shift thereby perpetuating a restless power dynamic between Introversion and Extroversion.  Jung's theory of the psychological types is directly related to the opposite poles˝the intellectual on one end and the sensual on the other˝debated and even battled over by nearly all religious philosophies.  This battle is not waged only in religion, but in academia as well.  Settis:

The Tempest is certainly an extreme case in the history of painting's exegetical disputes over the figurative art of the Renassaince.  The painting's modest surface has become a kind of forum for the polemics on methodology that have little to do with the Tempest Giorgione painted.  For behind the 'subject or not-subject' question the old dispute between the study of meanings and the study of style is still more or less apparent.




The implications of this Hidden Subject I now extrapolate from the concepts of 'framing' put forth by Andrews and others:  Because a recognizable distribution of icons is depicted, the interpretive boundaries of the subject have been framed-in leaving no room to explore 'the other.'  Settis develops a brilliant and airtight argument that the Tempest is an emblem, a sacra conversazione intended to satisfy an audience of one˝the commissioning patron, Gabriele Vendramin˝cleverly attenuating The Fall of Man through a most delicate and tasteful manner in the style of the immagini profane.  In a chapter called The rules of the jigsaw, [8] Settis asserts the two rules for successfully completing a jigsaw puzzle: all the pieces must join-up without gaps, with none left out of the field; and, the completed jigsaw must make sense˝regardless of how well the pieces may fit together, the final image must be consistent and coherent.  It is by this model that he so successfully establishes his interpretation; for, as he asserts, he is the only one who has accounted for all the agreed upon pieces of the puzzle and does so quite thoroughly.  However, might they be framing the puzzle too tightly with an inventory limited to visual pieces?

In considering Settis' excellent, and probable depiction of The Fall, I think it prudent to take a step even closer to the subject.  What is at the root of this fall from grace?  Knowledge.  By depicting the Fall, might have Giorgione been directly challenging the Alchemists and other gnostiphiles of his time, through their own symbology?  Does the language that this work speaks even reach the ears of an informed audience; or, does it babble-on like a long-forgotten tongue?  Has the knowledge required to accurately decode this work disappeared through a gradual erosion of detailed nuances that together form the key to its message.  "[In relating a complex message] a selection is made and what fits or coincides with what is already known is handed on, while other details tend to get dropped, because they seem strange and one does not know how to deal with them."[9] 

On the other hand, by means of secret knowledge, perhaps Giorgione has cleverly articulated a message which resonates at a super or subconscious level.  "We see colors, not wavelengths," writes Jung.  Of course this suggests that all we can identify is not necessarily the extent of the phenomenon.  Jung goes on, "The personal psychological equation becomes ever more important in the presentation and communication of observations, to say nothing of the interpretation and abstraction of the experimental material."[10]  This is where the snake's tail enters its own mouth.  For, in examining the experimental material before me, I have made choices about what to consider or not thus creating a new psychological phenomenon from the material and thereby perpetuating  the psychic continuum that is the real Hidden Subject of The Tempest:  I see me examining myself.







Settis, by so strongly affirming his methodology, might have not passed through the sieve of his own qualification by unintentionally omitting the pieces he cannot see and thereby not accounting for all the puzzle's pieces.  These missing piece not considered by Settis will not be found in the form of a colored shape on the canvas, as he has thoroughly accounted for all that can be found there (including the figure NOT seen unaided by X-ray).  The missing piece(s) will be found outside of the canvas and therefore outside of that literal and metaphorical frame around the work's true subject.  This unaccounted element is in the work's effect–its ongoing role as catalyst to an ancient debate over the value and use of knowledge from the ancient days of the scriptures, in Giorgione's own day (found in the dialogs of the Christian elite), and through today in the hallowed halls of academia thereby firmly establishing a human thread connecting our mythological past through to our ambiguous future. 

Does a work that has endured so much investigation without so much as a flinch not deserve a much less limited field of inquiry than a relationship of figures in a landscape?  I posit that Settis' interpretation of the Hidden Subject as that of The Fall is no more than the actual Subject which masks the real Hidden Subject: a conceptual work, manifest through the dialog created by its enigmatic modification of accepted practices of visual composition.








I have argued that Giorgione's Tempest is a work of such grand wisdom, that only its shadow falls on the painted surface and therefore only a single facet of its meaning will be found by any narrow focus upon it.  Further, that the true subject of The Tempest reaches far beyond the walls of a patron's home or museum as evidenced by the scholarship amassed in the wake it continues to cut on humanity's perplexed surface.  My argument rests on the authority of the sources I've knitted together. 






Through this class I set out to learn about the Hidden Subject in landscape painting and have succeeded to an indescribable degree.  This is not to suggest I've attained any level of mastery on the topic, only that my path has been made so much clearer through these studies.  Even more rewarding than this fascinating academic pursuit was the clarity I gained for my own professional, academic path following this undergraduate phase.  I an excited to be able to articulate the nature of my post-baccalaureate work through the following phrase:  A study of the composition of visual imagery with respect to the laws of fluid, thermo and electro dynamics with the intention of establishing a new semiology relating to Jungian philosophy.










Conway, Sir Martin. Giorgione: A New Study of his Art as A Landscape Painter London: Ernest Benn, Ltd., 1929


Edinger, Edward F. Anatomy of the Psyche:  Alchemical Symbolism in Psychotherapy Illinois: Open Court, 1985


Jung, Carl G. Psychological Types London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, Ltd., 1923


Roob, Alexander. Alchemy & Mysticism Cologne: Benedikt Taschen, 1997.


Settis, Salvatore. Giorgione's Tempest Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990


Vasari, Giorgio. The Lives of the Artists Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991


von Franze, Marie-Lousie. Alchemy: An Introduction to the Symbolism and the Psychology Toronto: Inner City Book, 1980




[1] Alexander Roob, Alchemy & Mysticism (Cologne: Benedikt Taschen, 1997), 11.

[2] Salvatore Settis, Giorgione's Tempest (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990), 138.

[3] Giorgio Vasari, The lives of the Artists (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), 300.

[4] Carl G. Jung, Psychological Types (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, Ltd., 1921), 21.

[5] Paola Giovio's principle: "that [the subject] be not obscure than it neede a Sibilla to enterprete it, but ye not so appearant that every rusticke may understand it." 6

[6] Ibid., 129.

[7] Roob, Alchemy, 12.

[8] Ibid., 76.

[9] Marie-Lousie von Franze Alchemy: An Introduction to the Symbolism and the Psychology (Toronto: Inner City Book, 1980), 16.

[10] Ibid., 16.