Listen to Chief Curator Xavier F. Salomon's tour of this exhibition.
Speaker: Xavier F. Salomon, Deputy Director and Peter Jay Sharp Chief Curator
This exhibition reunites two of the most famous paintings of Renaissance Venice for the first time in almost five hundred years: Giovanni Bellini’s St. Francis in the Desert and Giorgione’s Three Philosophers. Both works are enigmatic in that we know neither who they were painted for nor what they were meant to signify. The paintings were first recorded, and given their current titles, in 1525. In that year, an aristocratic scholar, Marcantonio Michiel, wrote about paintings he had seen in various private collections in Venice and the Veneto. Among a group of ten paintings he had seen in the palazzo of the nobleman Taddeo Contarini, Michiel described the following: “the panel of St. Francis in the desert, in oil, was the work of Giovanni Bellini, begun by him for Messer Zuan Michiel, and it has a landscape nearby, wonderfully composed and detailed” and “a painting in oil of three philosophers in a landscape, two standing, and one seated who contemplates the rays of the sun, with an admirably rendered rock, begun by Giorgione of Castelfranco and finished by Sebastiano Veneziano.” A successful merchant, effectively in control of the meat market in Venice, Taddeo Contarini was one of the wealthiest men in the city, where he lived in a palazzo in the parish of Santa Fosca. He was also an important collector, owning a number of other paintings by Bellini and Giorgione, unfortunately lost today.
The Bellini and the Giorgione were on display in Contarini’s palazzo for most of the sixteenth century, before being separated. They were still with his heirs by 1556, as they appear in an inventory of the palazzo: Giorgione’s Three Philosophers in the main hall and the Bellini in an adjacent room. A few decades later, the paintings were separated. By 1589, the Bellini had passed to Taddeo’s great-granddaughter Elisabetta, who had married Giulio Giustinian. At that point, the paintings moved to another palazzo in Venice. In 1636, the Giorgione is documented in the collection of Bartolomeo della Nave, before eventually entering the collection of Archduke Leopold Wilhelm in Brussels, along with other works from the Contarini collection.
The two paintings can now be seen in isolated splendor in one of the most iconic rooms at Frick Madison. Their compositions are similar. Human figures are placed in extensive, wild landscapes, with settlements visible in the far distance. St. Francis and the three philosophers commune with nature and with its mysteries and miracles. It is unclear if the scenes are set in the stirring light of dawn, during the day, or at sunset. St. Francis is shown praying and, most likely, in the act of accepting the Stigmata—the wounds Christ received during his Passion—an event said to have occurred on Mount La Verna, in central Italy, in the summer of 1224. In contrast, the identity of the three figures in Giorgione’s painting has been vigorously debated. The “three philosophers in a landscape” described by Michiel may be the three Magi of the Christian Gospels, who came from afar, following a star that led them to the grotto of the Nativity in Bethlehem. But more likely, they are meant to depict ancient philosophers. It has recently been proposed that they may be the first three philosophers recorded in the Western tradition: Thales of Miletus and Pherecydes of Syros (shown standing), with their, more famous, pupil—Pythagoras—seated.
The iconography and meaning of the paintings by Bellini and Giorgione remain speculative, but we can be certain of one thing. Both artists focused on the role of human beings in the larger world they inhabit, the relationship between humankind and nature. They point to the divine creation that surrounds us and deserves to be worshipped or an entity that is much superior to us and defies understanding—though we attempt to measure it, contain it, and make sense of it. Mankind’s relationship to nature—a central concern during our brief time on the planet we inhabit—is exemplified in these two masterpieces painted half a millennium ago.