The Tempest by Italian Master, Giorgione

Learn about Giorgione’s The Tempest with topics including:

  • Lightning’s inherent mystery.
  • Renaissance nudity in The Tempest.
  • The popularity of pairs.
  • Answers to Frequently Asked Questions such as, “What is the Giorgione painting The Tempest most known for?”

People love to talk about The Tempest by Italian Master Giorgione. There are a few reasons behind its appeal. Of course, it’s gorgeous and portrays a fantasy with expertise. It’s mysterious. Those are obvious answers. Women didn’t breastfeed nude outside in the early 1500’s. Controversy noted. But there’s also binary imagery and composition throughout this painting. Two of everything with few exceptions. That makes it easy to categorize and discuss. People are comfortable with pairs: new and old, male and female, urban and rural, etc. So, The Tempest’s a frequent discussion target.

Click below for the podcast version of this piece.

The composition even works like two paintings. At the front we see figures in a lush rural setting. In the back the city looms with tall, crisp buildings – white against grey clouds. But you can also see a dichotomy between the painting’s left and right sides. The man stands before ruins and the city’s older architecture. This shows how the viewer’s left represents the old order. While on our right, a fresh burst of greenery surrounds mother and child. Architecture here’s boxy and more modern. It speaks to new approaches, vitality, and youth.

But the heart of this painting reaches beyond the binary. It’s that lightning bolt shooting through the sky. The Tempest reflects several pairings. Still, it’s a singular storm. Electricity strikes the clouds to ignite The Tempest. This flash brings more than furious wind and rain, though. They call it lightning because it brightens stormy skies with a brilliant bolt. That’s what happens with this painting too. It’s a singularity here. Everything else works in a pair – all but the lightning bolt.

Vivid Insight Beyond the Binary

That flash slices the sky. It signals the coming storm and spotlights the scene below. Giorgione uses this symbol to say, “Here’s what I see – boom!” But the bolt works on a deeper level as well. Those grey clouds signal foreboding. The storm’s coming to disrupt a serene and strange setting below.

Peace resonates in The Tempest‘s rich greens and blues. It’s an ultra natural place. Giorgione uses neutrals like white and brown along with these agrarian colors. But one exception stands out – that gentleman’s jaunty red jacket. It matches his brazen stature. He’s confident and watchful. His eyes may be on the breastfeeding woman. If not, they’re at least gazing in her general direction. One of his legs juts out before him, tanned and sunlit. The other leg’s bright white but bent into shadow. So, even this single figure represents a binary. He’s human. Yet his leering in the woman’s direction hints at animalistic urges.

This Renaissance painting depicts a fantasy for this man. Perfect representation of the male gaze – built right in for our convenience. Modern viewers see this and our gut says, “She’s just doing her job. Let her be. Turn away”. That’s because we have the luxury of not living within Giorgione’s masterwork. Out for a walk, this man happened upon a nude woman breastfeeding. Lightning struck. Of course he saw her. Even if he’s no longer looking right at her. Her nakedness sits in his eyeline. That’s Giorgione’s point. Humanity can’t help its animalistic nature. Much like the man’s view of this naked woman – it’s unavoidable. She’s like the car crash of Renaissance painting. He may not look directly at her in this moment. But he certainly saw her and isn’t looking away.

Some art historians say that the man represents activity. That his standing posture and walking stick indicate this. He may even be a soldier – some point out. They also claim the woman thus corresponds as contemplation. That would mean she’s passive. In some ways breastfeeding may seem inactive. We certainly can’t compare it to a soldier at battle. It’s more exhausting than leaning on a walking stick, though.

Other art historians focus on the attraction and indifference at play between these two in The Tempest. This perspective tells a familiar story. He’s intrigued. Whether it’s with her or just the situation. The man’s still looking over there. Considering how awkward such a sight would be, this shows his interest. Meanwhile, she’s otherwise engaged. Busy. This woman doesn’t even look in his direction. It’s a tale as old as time.

There’s novelty in this lightning, though. It tells a new and different story. This was the early 1500s – before electricity illuminated evening hours. So, imagine the intense darkness of those nights. A flash bolt in the sky would cut through that thick blackness like a sword. Where it was once dark, we can now see. That’s how the man sees this woman feeding her child. But she doesn’t see him at all. In fact, Giorgione portrays her looking at us, the viewer. So, her awareness transcends that of the man in the red jacket. He’s stuck in their world. She’s gazing into ours. The Tempest captures a moment of vivid insight. With its seeing and unseeing, this masterpiece reminds us of our own ignorance. It also brings hope for a future when we might see the light and have vivid insight.

The Tempest – FAQs

Where can I see The Tempest painting by Giorgione?

This marvelous painting awaits in my favorite city, Venice, Italy. The awe-inspiring museum Gallerie dell’ Accademia houses this masterpiece. Many Italian masters have works in this historic collection. That includes Lorenzo Lotto and Giovanni Bellini. So, The Tempest is one of many Renaissance masterworks in house. This museum includes the name L’Accademia. But the school broke off from it in 1879. The building itself dates all the way back to 1343.

Is The Tempest the only title for this Giorgione painting?

There are colloquial titles for this Renaissance masterpiece. The woman breastfeeding was often called the “Gypsy” in 1500s Italy. For that reason, it was also sometimes known by other names. The Italian for “The Gypsy Woman and The Soldier” La Zingara e il Soldato. Or, the more inaccurate La Zingarella e il Soldato – meaning “The Gypsy Girl and The Soldier”.

What is the Giorgione painting The Tempest most known for?

Due to its mysterious nature, art historians love to debate its meaning. But the painting’s secret histories keep it interesting through the years. For instance, X-rays revealed that Giorgione initially painted another nude woman where the man now stands. Then he painted over her. So, she remained a secret for hundreds of years.

Also, during World War II the whole painting was a hidden secret. A strategic Italian Arts General tucked the masterpiece under his bed. This prevented German troops from seizing it in 1943.

Where have I seen or heard of The Tempest by Giorgione? It’s so familiar.

This is an ultra famous painting with many references in popular culture. Neil Gaiman put this piece in his Sandman character, the Dream King’s, dining room. Romantic poet Lord Byron declared The Tempest his favorite painting. Byron said he found its ambiguity inspiring. Another poet, Ladislav Novák, wrote a poem called Giorgione’s Tempest about the masterpiece. This painting also plays a major role in the novel A Soldier of the Great War by Mark Helprin.


Check out these other essays on Italian painters.