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Art: Confusion in Venice

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“You know, until I saw this exhibit, I had a rather clear idea of Giorgione,” a British tourist said last week, on emerging from Venice’s current Giorgione show which spread out lavishly through one entire wing of the Ducal Palace. Most of Italy’s art experts had reached the same state of confusion long before. Reason: almost everything about the Renaissance master, except his fame, is in doubt.

His birth date is unknown. No copy of his autograph is known to exist, and none of his paintings was signed. The only completely reliable contemporary reference to him appears in documents drawn up only three years before his death in 1510. What is known is that when he died in Venice from the plague, at about the age of 33, the gentle beauty of paintings like his famous Tempest had established such a vogue for scenes of Arcadian reverie that a decade later, even Titian was still turning them out to meet the customers’ demands.

When they decided to hold this year’s Giorgione exhibit, the Venice authorities announced a pious desire “to resolve through the confrontation of so many masterpieces the problems relative to the Giorgione school.” The nature of the problem was soon evident. Leading art critics can get together on only eight paintings as definitely Giorgione’s.* But Venice’s first call produced some 700 offers of Giorgionesque paintings from private collections. Faced with this embarrassment of riches, the Venice committee chose 136 oils, attributed only 62 of them to Giorgione or his anonymous followers. Even of these, one called The Three Ages of Man, from Florence’s Pitti Gallery, has been attributed at various times to Lotto, Morto da Feltre, Pier Mario Pennacchi, Francesco Torbido, Giambellino, an anonymous Venetian, and Giorgione; five years ago, it hung at another Venice exhibition devoted to the works of Giovanni Bellini.

To clear the air, Venice last month quietly issued a revised catalogue for the Giorgione show. A Self Portrait, originally called “unquestionably an original,” became “probably” one. A Masculine Portrait now became “probably” Titian’s; a Pieta, “tenably” the work of Titian’s little-known brother, Francesco Vecellio. In Rome, one art authority snorted: “The Giorgione show is a scandal. It’s costing everyone connected with it face.” A more serious problem facing an art market already overloaded with fake Giorgiones was pointed out by Turin University’s Anna Maria Brizio: “Unfortunately, there is in the show more than one picture which fails to meet the indispensable minimum level of artistic quality . . . but which will retain always the title of nobility from having been part of the Giorgione show . . .”

*The eight: The Tempest, Female Nude, Three Philosophers, the Giustiniani Portrait, the Enthroned Madonna from the Duomo of Castelfranco, Laura, Tramonto, and the Louvre’s Country Feast (TIME, May 9).

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