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Koos, M. (2000). Imagination, Identity, and the Poetics of Desire in Giorgione's Painting. Am. Imago, 57(4):369-385.

(2000). American Imago, 57(4):369-385

Imagination, Identity, and the Poetics of Desire in Giorgione's Painting

Marianne Koos

Giorgione's art gives cause for irritation. Unlike the work of his contemporaries, the subjects of Giorgione's paintings and those of his circle repeatedly elude definitive identification. Neither can his pastoral paintings readily be associated with any specific antique or contemporary story (Figs. 1 and 2), nor can his idealized portraits of boys or women be securely identified as figures drawn from classical mythology or Christian iconography (Fig. 3).1 Current art historical literature is not the first to address this difficulty. Even the early reception of Giorgione's painting was compelled to confront this issue as soon as it inquired after the narrative or allegorical content of his works. Perhaps the most eloquent witness to this fact can be found in the Artists' Lives of the Florentine Giorgio Vasari, who, referring to Giorgione's frescoes of the Fondaco dei Tedeschi, remarked that he himself had never understood them and had never found anyone who knew precisely what they depicted.2

Contemporary art history has offered various suggestions on how to deal with this difficulty. William R. Rearick, for example, asserted in a recent study on the pastoral that Giorgione's paintings consciously opposed traditional subjects and that they had no other content than their own aesthetic appearance: “… the Venetians neither knew nor seemed to care about the meanings of these famous paintings. For them it was sufficient that the works be beautiful.”3 Salvatore Settis, who has criticized such an approach as reductive and ahistorical, responded to this difficulty with his own subtle and sophisticated thesis, that of the “hidden subject.” According to Settis, Giorgione's paintings do have traditional themes, whose unusual depiction however should be credited to the specific interests of his patrons.

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