I had a lot to learn from Giorgione. Having been taught in the fresco technique by Ghirlandaio, I was not acquainted much with oil painting and did not truly know the mastery of this type of painting. How to mix the oil and the paints so that one was in enough quantity? More so, how to use enough oil so as to obtain the right amount of darkness or pale shade of a color? It was Giorgione who taught me the technique of oil painting on canvas and it was during this time that I started this type of painting.
A liked to take my subjects from popular Venice, from the streets, from common people and Venice had plenty of these to provide. Of course, this was the time of religious painting, not only in Venice, but throughout Italian Renaissance, yet I was taken by the mystery that common subject could provide and their stroke of realism. The Bellini brothers had shown me some reproductions of Dutch and Flemish paintings and I noticed that they were more used to painting casual subject and that even in religious paintings, ordinary people had their place. There was something that I didn't like with religious paintings: you had to paint idealized bodies of idealized characters. It was the same with mythological painting: how could I portray Jupiter as an old and crippled man. I wanted to see realism in my painting, I wanted to see the traces of humanism there, so I took to the streets to find my characters.
And I did. I started painting the landscape of Venetian streets, the Place of Saint Mark, the canals, ordinary people on the street. Somehow, this interest in their state brought me to meet the Doge, who wanted to commission a portrait of himself and hearing that I had a gift for displaying people, asked that I would be brought to him. At this time, the Doge of Venise was Leonardo Leonardi, who had commissioned an older portrait of himself to Gentile Bellini. How could I rival with that?...However, as I began work on his portrait, I discovered that drawing a profile bust could prove an easier enterprise than what a landscape for example. This was because in this case, there was no perspective I had to ponder on, but was only interested in the foreground, the Doge's bust. It was also easier than painting full-size humans, as Leonardo's rule on body proportion had no application here. As I had mastered through time the art of oil painting on canvas, I trusted that the result would be to the Doges liking. And it truly was a masterpiece...Even now, decades later, my portrait of Doge Leonardo Leonardi still hangs in one of the corridors in the Doges' palace.
My fame was now throughout the whole of Italy. Everyone had heard of the innovative painter that revolutionized art by bringing in acute traces of realism in his painting and that mastered all the modern techniques of the time: perspective, fresco or oil painting on canvas. In the meantime, Julius II, Michelangelo's patron had died and was followed to the throne by my old acquaintance, Giovanni de Medici, who became pope as Leo X. A few words are in order about this most original character. He had inherited from his family a taste for luxury and the arts and was said to have declared upon becoming a pope: "Let us enjoy the papacy since God has given it to us." Highly cultivated, he encouraged art, poetry and theater, but he also had a negative side: he was an incredible spender. It was said upon his death that he had consumed three pontificates: that of Julius II (who had never been a great spender and who had kept the costs for the papal household at 48,000 ducats, half of what Leo spent), that of himself and that of his follower to the Papal throne. He was to suffer the embarrassment of having his treasury totally emptied and left huge debts after his death.
However, he spent much money on commissioning works of art and this could only be to my best interest. He wanted someone who would paint some of the chambers in the Vatican Palace and my interest in fresco painting had still remained over time. I immediately stepped up for the challenge and packed my bags for the Eternal City. What was to become known as the Stanzas is probably my masterpiece.
In the first chamber, I thought to describe an intellectual debate between Aristotelis and Plato. Plato points his finger upwards, in order to express his alignment to the world of ideas and idealism, while Aristotelis points downwards, towards the Earth. I wanted to picture a few of the philosophers of Antiquity, among which Pytagoras stands out at the bottom of my painting. As a little humor, I chose to make my self-portrait as Pythagoras, but for the rest I used common models from the street, as I had done for many years now. I found old men with beards to picture the philosophers and carefully studied their faces to create the perfect setting for a philosophical debate.
My study of human anatomy that was induced by Leonardo and his paintings and that I had conducted for several years now came in quite handy when painting the second room, with the Fire of Borgo theme. Borgo was one of the quarters in Rome, consisting mainly of shacks that caught fire on a terrible day. The foreground of the painting displays a strong man carrying an old man over a wall and thus saving him from the fire. The man displays every inch of human muscle, carefully thought out and portrayed. I wanted to give out a sense of physical human idealism here and perhaps I have succeeded. Wanting to make a gesture towards my commissioner, in a good Flemish tradition, I portrayed him in my painting as he blesses and encourages the people from his balcony.
A found my true artist expression in Rome. I continued to paint for Pope Leo and for his successors and became a milestone in Renaissance art history. To my honor, Giorgio Vasari, who was at that time writing a biography of the most well-known artists from Cimabue onwards, asked me to give him a keen accounting of my life and works. I was thus included in his book, "The Lives of Painters, Sculptors and Architects" which became a reference for generations to come in the study of art in Italy in our times.
What have I left behind as an artist I sometimes wondered myself? My life was rich in experiences: I had the greatest opportunity of all- to meet fellow artists like Giorgione or Ghirlandaio and I knew how to learn something from each of them, something to which they excelled. I perfected their techniques and was able to work from there so as to create more beautiful works. I trust that history will be mild towards me and will remember me not as a plagiator, but as one who continued the tradition of great Italian artists.
http://www.artcyclopedia.com/feature-2000-06.html (for Giorgione's the Tempest)
4. Vasari, Giorgio. The Life of Painters, Sculptors and Architects. Bucharest 1968. I used this extensively for accounts on Ghirlandaio, Giorgione and the Bellini brothers. Even if somewhat subjective, it gives a good knowledge of the times.
5. La Pittura Italiana. Mondadori, Rome, 1997. Used for all accounts on different paintings.
La Citta Eterna. Roma. Lozzi roma. 1996. As an inspiration for the part describing the paintings done in Rome.
Enciclopedia Generale. DeAgostini.1997
Chiaroscuro is a technique that involves combining dark shades of colors with brighter colors in order to achieve a sense of unnatural light in the painting.