In 1525, the scholar Marcantonio Michiel recorded the collection of the Venetian aristocrat Taddeo Contarini (ca. 1466–1540), in his palazzo in the parish of Santa Fosca in Venice. Michiel listed ten paintings in Contarini's collection (many of them now lost) by significant artists such as Giovanni Bellini, Giorgione, Palma il Vecchio, and Romanino. Two of the masterpieces in the collection were described in detail. Michiel opens his account with an entry on 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.” His final entry reads: “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.”
The two paintings—known since Michiel's descriptions as Giorgione's Three Philosophers and Giovanni Bellini's St. Francis in the Desert—are among the most celebrated paintings of the Venetian Renaissance. According to a 1556 inventory of the Contarini collection, both paintings were still at the Contarini palazzo at that time. The two works were, therefore, displayed in the same residence in Venice for at least thirty-one years and likely even longer. By 1589, the Bellini had passed, through inheritance, to the Giustinian family. In 1636, the Giorgione is documented in the collection of Bartolomeo della Nave in Venice, before eventually reaching the collection of Archduke Leopold Wilhelm in Brussels and soon after the imperial collection in Vienna. This display reunites these two masterpieces for the first time since they were last seen together in sixteenth-century Venice.