(b. 1477, Castelfranco, d. 1510, Venezia)
The Sunset (Il Tramonto)1506-10
Oil on canvas, 73 x 91 cm
National Gallery, London
Very little is known about Giorgione: only a handful of contemporary documents refer to him, and only some six or seven surviving paintings are now considered 'almost certainly' by him. Yet he is universally accepted as one of the most influential of Western artists. Probably trained by Giovanni Bellini, he originated a poetic painting of mood, based on colour, light and a new vision of landscape, which we still call 'Giorgionesque'. Although we attribute to him an altarpiece in his native town of Castelfranco, a ruined nude figure in fresco detached from a building in Venice which he and Titian decorated, and two portraits inscribed with his name in the sixteenth century, he seems to have specialised in small, enigmatic 'subject' pictures like this one for private collectors. Whether or not the picture, which was rediscovered, badly damaged, in 1933 in a sixteenth-century villa in Poste Casale, south of Venice, is by Giorgione himself is not very important to us as viewers; it is certainly 'Giorgionesque'.
The Italian title, Il Tramonto, captures the painting's special temper better than the English translation, for in Italian the sun sets literally 'beyond the mountain'. Within a deep landscape meeting the horizon in a startling band of blue, two travellers halt besides a pool, from whose murky waters a little beaked monster emerges.
A hermit inhabits the dark cave on the far side. The mounted Saint George in the middle distance is a restorer's reconstruction, added in 1934 to cover an area of flaking paint, and to account for what appears, in a photograph of the period, to be the vestigial tail of a dragon. Other reconstructed areas include the larger monster in the water. The modern additions make unsafe any reading of the picture's intended meaning. If Saint George was originally present, the hermit may be Anthony Abbot a saint distressed with sores, protector against epidemics - of whom it was told that demons in the shape of monsters came at nightfall to 'tear his body with teeth, with horns, and with claws'. The two men in the foreground may be Saint Roch, a medieval French pilgrim who caught the plague while nursing the sick, and his companion Gothardus tending the ulcer on the saint's leg. The body of Saint Roch, one of the main protectors against pestilence, is one of Venice's great relics.
If we compare II Tramonto with, for example, Patenier's landscape painted a few years later , it is possible to understand the great impact of Giorgione's work. For all its artificiality, this landscape invites us to enter it in imagination; the construction, in wedge-shaped planes alternately light and dark, stresses continuity from foreground through well-defined intervening space to the blue horizon. The wispy tree in the centre, like the cliff and foliage on either side, pushes back the far from the near. Soft gradations from shadow into light, contours and reflections blurred as if by haze, the isolated and mysterious figures, the barely visible, perhaps imaginary monsters, the alpine town in the distance, combine to create a sense of profound yet indefinable emotion, as 'Brightness falls from the air...' Thomas Nashe's haunting line may be more than visually apt: it comes from a poem entitled 'In Time of Pestilence'.