Sacred and Profane Love

Sacred and Profane Love

Wednesday 29 February 2012

Meaning of the Fondaco dei Tedeschi murals: Giorgione's 'Cupid/Mercury' prototype from the Fondaco reappears in the Sacred and Profane Love: Reliefs on the Fountain/Sarcophagus (Fountain Cyane) explained.

Nuda, Giorgione, Fresco c.1507. Galleria Franchetti, Venice.

Discerning the narrative of the Fondaco dei Tedeschi murals:

"...I for my part have never been able to understand his figures, nor for all my asking, have I ever found anyone who does."
                                                                    Vasari: Lives of the Artists.
When the Fondaco dei Tedeschi (the trading and accommodation centre of the German merchants) was destroyed by fire in Venice 1506, the city fathers quickly decided to build a new structure that would reflect the sites prominent position on the Grand canal. Giorgione received the commission to decorate the external walls of the new building in fresco, while the young Titian seemed to have been employed as an assistant to Giorgione, although according to Giorgio Vasari (1511-1574), Titian achieved his commission independently:

"...through Barberigo Titian was commissioned to paint some scenes for the same building, above the Merceria." Vasari: The Lives,  445.

Either way, almost all of the murals have been destroyed by sea and salt. On this subject Vasari, himself a painter, remarked:

"...I know nothing more harmful to fresco painting painting than the sirocco, especially near to the sea where it carries a salt moisture with it." Vasari: The Lives, 274.

For Vasari, the murals must have been showing early signs of corrosion, as he was writing perhaps only thirty or forty years after their completion. Now, over five hundred years later and with the murals long since destroyed or removed, the Fondaco stands stark and undecorated on the Grand Canal adjacent to the Rialto bridge. 
Fig 1.The Fondaco dei Tedeschi.

Fortunately in 1966 a plaster facing was removed that had been installed over the facade of the building and some damaged relics were recovered from under the plaster and removed to the Galleria Franchetti in Venice. The recovered murals portrayed some large and very brightly coloured figures though typical of Giorgione, the identity and meaning of those figures and the narratives they were to inhabit have long since been lost.

Fig. 2. Nuda, Giorgione, Fresco c.1507. Galleria Franchetti, Venice.

But there should be no doubt as to Giorgione's manipulation of the site through the boldness of colour and the jewelled reflections that would have been cast across the waters of the Grand Canal.

Fig 3. Venice; Fondaco dei Tedeschi; engraving after fresco; Giacomo Piccini after Giorgione, Titian; 17th c.

Of the life of Giorgione Da Castelfranco and those murals on the Fondaco, Giorgio Vasari wrote:
“…over the main door which opens into the Merceria there is the seated figure of a woman who has at her feet the [severed] head of a dead giant, as if she were meant to be a Judith; she is raising the head with a sword and speaking to a German standing below her.” Vasari: The Lives, p. 275
Vasari appears to have been embellishing quick notes taken from an earlier observation and these most likely had been taken back to the writing room for refinement because he states:

"...she is raising the head with a sword..." Vasari Ibid.
This statement is clearly incorrect and cannot be considered directly observational. Vasari attempted to align the iconography of the figure to a Judith figure that had been known to belong to the oeuvre of Giorgione. But then Vasari, wavering in the veracity of his conviction, abandons the Judith attribution to suggest Germania - the feminine representation of Germany:

“I have not been able to interpret the meaning of this, unless Giorgione meant her to stand for Germania.” Vasari: The Lives, p. 275

If in the beginning Vasari was uncertain, he was now completely confused. Perhaps Vasari was confronted by the figure of the German soldier who, in a classic display of dramatic irony holds a dagger behind his back to telegraph the idea of treachery to the observer (Fig 3). Putting aside the identity of the woman or the context of the remaining figures on the Fondaco for just a moment, this simple act of dramatic irony will stand alone as a small piece of theatre in a much larger play.  

Fig 4. Giorgione: Judith with the Head of Holofernes c.1507. Hermitage, St. Petersberg

It is easy to understand why Vasari's attribution of a Fondaco Judith might seem plausible, after all, it can be seen that in Giorgione's earlier Judith (Fig 4), there is also a sword; an exposed left leg; and a severed head with a foot placed upon it. But three apparent motifs do not necessarily a Judith make, and what Vasari really noted in the reappearance of the three motifs of the earlier Judith was the iconographic superficiality because in the mural on the Fondaco Giorgione has chosen to contextually re-invent three similar motifs from his oeuvre (so drawing from known competency) to form a new narrative.

The grasp that is required (in the same manner of the winged prepubescent cupid/mercury under discussion shortly) is the twist that Giorgione brings to the invention in the development of his own visual language. This 'tampering' belongs as much the oeuvre of Giorgione as does genius of colour or stroke of the brush; perhaps it is even more so because like any symbolic language (which includes common text) it is simply a system of signs contextualised and re-contextualised - fluctuating between sign, context, logic, and disambiguation in the ardent desire to advance meaning through purely visual communication. Therefore if Giorgione chooses to incorporate the motifs of sword, severed head etc. there is every reason to consider that these motifs were intentionally disconnected from the original information cluster for which they were once employed, and then re-contextualised to deliver quite different meaning to the Fondaco 'Judith'. Divorced from all preconception these motifs are merely combinations of sets of visual imagery which are completely within the power of the artist to draw upon to weave fresh narrative - albeit from the same spool of thread. Besides, the works were for two different audiences, one very private and the other very public, and even then one would be hard pressed to find complaint even in iconographic similarity. We just need to look at Vasari's situation; confusion definitely - but complaint, no.

There were many other figures and scenes on the Fondaco which could have been mentioned by Vasari but weren't, so it is fair to say that Vasari only intended to raise an important highlight in the careers of Giorgione and Titian rather than structure a critical elucidation on the facades possible grand theme. This again indicates that Vasari was working from notes made at an earlier time and was not able to consider more than those brief descriptions he had previously sketched.

Was Vasari too preoccupied with the Judith/Germania attribution to note the arrangement of the two woman that were supposed to have occupied the position on the upper level directly above the woman brandishing the sword?

[As noticed by Paul Joannides and brought to my notice in Dr Stefano's blog here - these figures (Fig 5.) imitate (or vice versa) the physical attitudes of the two women at the sarcophagus /fountain in the Sacred and Profane Love.]

Fig. 5. Venice; Fondaco dei Tedeschi; etching after fresco; Antonio Zanetti; after Giorgione, 18th c.

Fig  6.  Fondaco dei Tedeschi,Venice. Etching after fresco; Antonio Zanetti; after Giorgione.18th c.

According to Joannides and Stefano, the two women (Fig 5) were positioned above the seated figure with the sword (Fig 6), by and large appearing together as those figures are presented on this page i.e, the two women look down onto the scene below involving the German soldier and Vasari's Judith/Germania figure who holds a sword while her foot is supported on the severed head of a dead 'giant'. We will return to this pair further along in this post, but it is imperative to find a context that does not rely on the singular attribution of this persistent iconographic speculation i.e., Judith/Germania

It will be helpful to list any evidence that can be introduced to form a unifying umbrella theme or grand narrative. Fortunately Vasari has also thrown off a quick sketch of two other images present on the Fondaco. These were:

“…one figure accompanied by the head of a lion, another by an angel in the guise of a cupid…” Vasari: The Lives, p. 275

These two iconographs are contextually illuminating and critical to this reading but now, by combining six available evidence based reasons (two textual and four visual) it is possible to suggest an alternative identity to the woman holding the sword.

Below, numerated and in list form are the observations under consideration. Only those which are documented to have existed through either textual record or sketches can be considered. Again; six evidence based reasons - two textual and four visual: 

      1. The identities of the two women above the figure with the raised sword.

2. The identity of the woman with the raised sword. 

3. The identity of the severed head.

4. The figure accompanied by the head of a lion.

5. The 'angel in the guise of a cupid'.

  5a. This ‘cupid’ is in the vicinity of apples.

  5b. This 'cupid' also holds a wand, short rod, or staff.

6a. One of two remnants of the Fondaco murals were revealed when an old plaster covering was removed.The very colourful Nuda (see fig. 2) appears to be solitary and emblematic. 
6b. The other is the remnant of a battle frieze which is depicting the slaying of the Stymphalides of Arcadia by Hercules.

These observations must be responded to number to number:

Numbers 1, 2, 3, belong to the (visual) series of etchings by Antonio Maria Zanetti (c.1771). Number 1 assumes that placing the two women above the figure brandishing the sword is the intentional and correct position.

Numbers 4 & 5 are described (textual evidence) by Vasari in the Lives.

Finally, number 6 (a & b) are remnants of the Fondaco murals that were uncovered during the 1966 renovation.

The Murals on the Fondaco dei Tedeschi refer to the 12 Labours of Hercules.

Fig 7. Venice; Fondaco dei Tedeschi: Etching after fresco; A. Zanetti; after Giorgione, 18th c.

1.  Juno/Lucina:   Those two women (Fig 7) seated above the figure holding the sword are Lucina (at left), and Juno (bearing the raised arm).

The myth:
     Juno, jealous of Jupiter's amour with Alcmena, made Jupiter swear an oath that the first child born (Hercules and Eurystheus were cousins) would hold dominion over the other. Juno's cunning was rewarded by the goddess Lucina the daughter of Juno (thereby recalling the mother/daughter theme of Ceres/Proserpine of the Sacred and Profane Love) sitting at the door of Amphitryon's house with her arms and legs crossed when Alcmena was labouring, and so withholding the birth of Hercules and therefore allowing time for Eurystheus to become the first born, and the reason for this had been willed by Jupiter:

"...the younger of the two was doomed by Jupiter to be subservient to the will of the other" J. Lempriere p.235

Juno then hastened the birth of Eurystheus; the tyrant to whom Hercules was now subordinate 
      and who, jealous of Hercules, sent the latter on the fabled twelve labours intending his demise.

Fig 8. Fondaco dei Tedeschi; The [so-called] Triumph of Justice; Giorgione, Titian Galleria Francetti, Venice.

2.  Alcmena: The woman above the doorway is Alcmena, the mother of Hercules by Jupiter. Alcmena recieves the severed head of the tyrant Eurystheus - killed by the son of Hercules - and attacked it furiously knowing the ill will the tyrant held toward her dead son.

The myth:
    Alcmena was deceived by Jupiter who took the form of her betrothed Amphitryon while he was away. Later in heaven, Jupiter boasted that a son would soon be born to whom he would give absolute power over men. Jealous Juno delayed the birth of Hercules and quickened the birth of his cousin Eurystheus. The now first-born Eurystheus imposed the twelve labours upon Hercules in the hope that the hero would meet his doom.

The narrative on display here in the Fondaco mural (that little piece of dramatic irony referred to earlier) is that this almost deified Italian matrona Alcmena - mother of Hercules - would treat any deception against her kin with the same vengeance shown toward the tyrant Eurystheus. Alcmena would be seen as saying: 

'If this is how I treat a tyrant of my own kin, any foreign tyranny will be met with full fury of the mother (the Venetian state) for her wronged children'.

    This barely concealed threat seems to articulate a mistrust between the Italians and Germans and it should be noted that in just ten years Luther will have (supposedly or actually) nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to the door of the Wittenberg church, an act which would successfully announce the frustrations of the Germans toward the Italians and undermining Papal authority in Germany. 
     By placing Alcmena in position as the prominent player in this theatrical comment Giorgione actually confronts German animosity and in position above the door might even be seen as both accusing and threatening. Did the government now put to repair the damage quickly, have any suspicions surrounding the cause of the fire at the Fondaco?  The fire ultimately led to an improvement in the site and the bettering of conditions for the Germans staying and trading there - all done at the expense of the Italians.

3.  Eurystheus: The severed head is that of Eurystheus:

Fig  9. Detail. Justice. Etching after fresco; Antonio Zanetti; after Giorgione.18th c.

The myth:
"He [Eurystheus] was killed... by Hyllus the son of Hercules. His head was sent to Alcmena the mother of Hercules, who, mindful of the cruelties which her son had suffered, insulted it and tore out the eyes with the most inveterate fury." J. Lempriere, p.235.

4. The lion of Nemea:             
“…one figure accompanied by the head of a lion..." 
                                                      Lives of the Artists, p. 275
     Contextually, the figure with the head of a lion should refer to the first labour forced upon Hercules by Eurystheus, which was to slay the Nemean lion.

The myth:
"The hero, unable to destroy him with his arrows, boldly attacked him with his club, pursued him to his den, and after a close and sharp engagement he choked him to death".
                                                                                                                 J. Lempriere p.268

5.   Winged cupid:

" angel in the guise of a cupid…”
                                                           Lives of the Artists, p. 275
The angel in the guise of a cupid is a winged Mercury - and who is also the prototype of the child at the Fountain/sarcophagus represented in the Sacred and Profane Love.    

It is uncommon to find Mercury prepubescent and winged - iconographically he was generally cast as a bearded youth, yet in the Sacred and Profane Love and here Mercury is represented as a winged babe.  

As the murals on the Fondaco were documented to have been given to Giorgione to execute, Giorgione can be considered as the author of this peculiar iconological take, both on the Fondaco and in the Sacred and Profane Love.    


5(a). Mercury the 'god of cunning and theft' in the vicinity of apples recalls the theft of the Hesperidean Apples - the eleventh labour of Hercules.

The myth: Of several accounts, this simplicity will suit:
"Hercules gathered the apples himself, without the assistance of Atlas, and he previously killed the watchful dragon (Ladon) which kept the tree."

                                                                                         J. Lempriere p.274

The reason that Mercury is in the vicinity of the apple tree (also the Hesperidean apple was actually an orange - the medici mala - the apple of health from the Hesperides (West = Spain)). By employing Mercury and not Hercules to create the idea of 'theft' actually involves Giorgione's commitment to allegory over direct narrative:

 "[Mercury] was also the god of thieves, pickpockets, and all dishonest persons"

                                                                         J. Lempriere p.364

Giorgione is referencing the art of theft using the veil of allegory, whereas a brute act by Hercules might render the work as a narrative rather than an allegory which should be a system of veils.

5(b). (digression) This is not an 'angel with a wand' because in context with the allegorical reading the winged child holds the caduceus of Mercury and contextually the cherub is Mercury.

The myth:
"[The caduceus] was the attribute of Mercury and the emblem of power, and it had been given him by Apollo in return for the lyre".
                                                                                                    J. Lempriere p.114

Traditionally here were two serpents wound around the wand in two semi-circles and two full circles.

Fig 10. The caduceus. 

However in art, the serpents do not always appear in this strict format - as in Botticelli's Primavera - which is a far more decorative invention (and which is ripe for analysis in due course...). It can also be simply a 'wand'. Again; Giorgione is referencing Mercury and the art of theft using the veil of allegory. 

Professor J. Anderson reproduced the original image of the 'angel in the guise of a cupid' in the 1997 publication Giorgione: The painter of poetic brevity. 

Fig. 11

Taking the lead from Vasari, Anderson describes this child (Fig. 11) as a 'cupid tapping apples'. Yet what we actually see is a winged babe in the vicinity of apples holding a rod or wand; a tri-referential iconograph. He is not 'tapping apples' because this is a still image and to make that claim is to anticipate the sequence of logical frames which we moderns might attribute to the medium of film; but that presumption cannot exist here.

6.  The fragment representation (Fig. 12) shows the ninth labour of Hercules - the slaying of the Stymphalides of Arcadia:

The myth:
"For his sixth* labour he was ordered to kill the carnivorous birds which ravaged the country near the lake Stymphalis (sic) in Arcadia."
                                                            J. Lempriere p.268
Fig  12. Venice; Fondaco dei Tedeschi; Battle frieze; Giorgione; c.1508

:Lempriere describes these creatures

"...voracious birds, like cranes or storks, which fed upon
 human flesh, and which were called Stymphalides"

                                                                                                     J. Lempriere p.581

In Fig 12. Giorgione has created them as monstrous beasts with swan or crane like necks. The image at the left sees the birds overcoming a yielding figure, and to the right stands the dominating  figure of Hercules in the role of vanquisher with the hero's right arm raised above the height of the bird.


If it can be said that these three Labours - the Nemean lion, the Hesperidean apples, and the Stymphalides are represented - and then combine them with the drama of Juno/Lucina & Alcemena/Eurystheus, there should be little doubt as to the meaning.

There are two main points to pursue in regard to this interpretation, the first is to insist on allegory as the defining form of communication found in this work and (several other works) by Giorgione.

But the second and main thrust (which is the fundamental interest here) is to expose the authorship of Giorgione in regard to the motif of Mercury as the winged babe in both the Fondaco murals and the Sacred and Profane Love. As Giorgione was the known author of the Fondaco murals, his processes, his thoughts and plastic interests are a telling part of his oeuvre: Both the Fondaco murals and the Sacred and Profane Love inform each other through Giorgione's peculiar iconology.

Whether or not the Sacred and Profane Love can be ultimately accepted as the 'una nocte' sought by Isabella d'Este shortly after the death of Giorgione (although it very likely is) one would surmise the Sacred and Profane Love and Fondaco murals may have been in a stage of mutual development. These Giorgionesque themes; the placements of the dual feminine (in nudity & posture), the exposed left leg surrounded by a red gravity defying fabric (Judith & Ceres) and the child cupid/mercury portrayed as a winged babe (Sacred & Profane Love and the Fondaco) - all of these elements re-articulate previous iconological statements and are directly related as a body of work. Giorgione's  oeuvre has developed a visual language peculiar to his personal interests, selecting from the past and re-wrapping it in the creative, intellectual and classically inspired milieu that was the Venetian Renaissance. 

There are many other figures on the Fondaco walls that do not qualify an interpretation. Within the narrative that can be reconstructed there are several solitary figures that in isolation appear to present as 'emblematic grandeur'. Not every component need participate in a works overall meaning; the enigma of silence is as profound as it is provocative and this silence can instil an atmosphere of stateliness and of splendour.

The link below reproduces the watercolours of Zaccaria Dal Bo and contains some interesting images before the Fondaco frescoes complete ruin.

This consideration concludes that the Sacred and Profane Love was likely begun by the reluctant Giovanni Bellini who, hesitant to offend the Council of Ten who had recently outlawed alchemical works, then passed it and the paintings rigidly defined programme to Giorgione. Titian possibly absorbed many of Giorgione's works after the latter's death in 1510 - including authorship - but with only a superficial understanding of the complexity involved in the paintings programme.

Comparative motifs: The Fondaco dei Tedeschi and the Sacred and Profane Love.

Fig 12. Venice; Fondaco dei Tedeschi: Detail Etching after fresco; A. Zanetti; after Giorgione, 18th c

Fig 13. The Sacred and Profane Love (Detail). c.1514, Galleria Borghese, Rome. Attributed to Titian

The two women of the Sacred and Profane Love are identified in this blog - and this blog alone - as Ceres and Proserpine. These representations of the dual feminine encapsulate the notions of the earthly and the divine, and in the Fondaco mural it is Juno - the Great Mother archetype - who is semi-nude with upraised arm while her daughter Lucina (goddess of childbirth) is clothed. A comparison must be considered.

Fig 15. Sacred and Profane Love (Detail).

Fig 14. Giorgione: Judith (Detail) c.1507. 

Comparing details of Giorgione's Judith and the Ceres of the Sacred and Profane Love (figs. 14 & 15) note the exposed left leg and a billowing red fabric. If one were to write a visual analysis of Giorgione's Judith with the Head of Holofernes, the same mystical breeze floats the garment to expose the left leg of a Giorgione 'Great feminine' archetype. Distinct from the Great mother, Judith is a beautiful widow whose husband bequeathed her valuables for her comfort. 

Fig 16. The Sleeping Venus, c. 1510. Oil on canvas, Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Dresden

On the one hand Judith is not the archetypal equivalent of the Sleeping Venus (fig. 16) or Ceres (fig 15) but archetypally she would have more in common with the Venus of Urbino (fig. 17).

Fig. 17. Venus of Urbino, c. 1534. Oil on canvas, UffiziFlorence.

Take note of the exposed left legs on all of these goddesses and consider whether Giorgione has initiated the form as an archetype.

The reliefs on the sarcophagus/fountain (Fountain Cyane) - fully explained.

Fig 18. Sacred and Profane Love (Detail). c.1514, Galleria Borghese, Rome. Attributed to Titian.

Ceres as mare: (viewers left) 

Fig 19. Sacred and Profane Love (Detail).

 On the sarcophagus/fountain at the viewers left (divided into two halves by the rose bush) is a horse (a mare) surrounded by dancing youths.The myth:

    "Ceres, when she travelled over the world in quest of her daughter Proserpine, had taken the figure of  mare, to avoid the importuning addresses of Neptune. The god changed himself also into a horse, and from their union arose a daughter called Hera, and the horse Arion..." Lempriere, Arion p.75

Of three reasons why this is a relevant emblem on the front of the Fountain Cyane, the first can be stated (yet in fact there is no real order of importance). The first reason is that of the attributes of Neptune:

 "Not only the ocean, [but] rivers, and fountains were subjected to him [Neptune]...".                                                                                              Lempriere, Neptunus p.391.

The second reason for this attribution is that here on the Fountain Cyane, is the reference to the search of Ceres for Proserpine, recalling that Neptune had assumed the form of a horse and took advantage of Ceres while she was searching for Proserpine.

The third reason is that only occasion that Ceres ever assumed the form of a mare.

The Demetria: (viewers right)

Fig 20. Sacred and Profane Love (Detail).

 During the Demetria, a festival in honour of Ceres, Lempriere states:

"it was customary for the votaries (both male and female) of the goddess to lash themselves with whips made from the bark of trees".

                             John Lempriere. p.196

Most importantly whipping in one form or another, seems to have been a consistent religious practice around the Mediterranean, but the rites of the Demetria specifically refer to Ceres: Demetria = (Demeter in the Greek = Ceres) and here is the reason behind the motif of the enigmatic mare; the whipping, and the link to the tree. The reliefs on the sarcophagus/fountain again confirm Ceres as the Great Mother of the Sacred and Profane Love.

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