'It is as if I am being singled out by that woman’s look and told that I do not matter—a worthwhile lesson from time to time!'

The Tempest, about 1507, by Giorgione (Giorgio da Castelfranco, 1476/78–1510), 32¼in by 28 ¾in, Accademia, Venice. Bridgeman Images. 

Roger Scruton says:
This work is a mystery. How come that woman has removed her clothes? Not, surely, for the man who stands so limply guard over her. Not for the baby she’s feeding. Certainly not to enjoy the approaching storm. Where is this happening and why? Is it a real place, a real time, or some rarely visited region of the imagination? Of course, art historians have theories about it. For me, however, it is as if I am being singled out by that woman’s look and told that I do not matter—a worthwhile lesson from time to time!

Roger Scruton is a writer and philosopher—his novel The Disappeared was published by Bloomsbury Reader last year.

John McEwen comments on The Tempest:
‘Giorgione’ is best left in Italian. Translated into English, it means ‘Big George’. Did that refer to his physical or artistic stature? One hopes the latter, in the way Glaswegians confer ‘Big Man’ on quite slight people such as Billy Connolly as a term of respect. Giorgione is the embodiment of what Cecil Gould called that ‘magic moment in Italian and Venetian art, when new ideas about Nature and God and Antiquity, and man’s relation to them, were being discussed just when…technical advance had given painters the full power of illustrating them’. The Tempest is the quintessence of that epitome.

The picture’s deference to nature was particularly innovative. In this, Giorgione was indebted to the teaching of the Venetian Giovanni Bellini and the example of the Florentine Leonardo, but it was he more than anyone who invented the genre picture: domestic in scale, easily transported and on a subject imagined by the artist, soon known as poesie because this invitation to daydream had previously been associated only with poetry.

What we know of his brief, plague-terminated life wouldn’t fill a postcard. ‘He is more of a myth than a man,’ wrote D’Annuncio. What is certain is that Giorgione inspired Titian; that the demand for his work was so great on his death that even Isabella d’Este was unable to find someone willing to part with one of his precious pictures; that, within no time, fake Giorgiones were being marketed. And The Tempest? Here is a progenitor of all fanciful art up to and including today’s dominating Surrealism.

‘In the Age of Giorgione’ is at the Royal Academy of Arts, London W1, from March 12 to June 5.