This genre became one of the most important artistic contributions of Renaissance Venice.
Farewell, peoples and cities. The countryside will offer delightful displays for my eyes.Jacopo Sannazaro, Elegies, Book 1, Poem II, line 24
I know that then my verses will appear/ unpolished and dark, but I hope that even so/ they will be praised by the shepherds in these woods./ . . . And that which I sing now the springs and streams will recite along the valleys, murmuring/ with their far-shining crystal waters. / And the trees that I now consecrate here and plant/ whispering will make answer to the wind.Jacopo Sannazaro, Arcadia, Eclogue 11, lines 130-140
An Intimate Moment
On a shady hillside overlooking sunny glens and a distant mountain vista sits a fashionably dressed young man with long, dark locks, a full-sleeved red and black garment, and bi-colored stockings. As he plays his lute, he turns attentively to his companion, a young man with unruly hair and bare feet wearing a simple garment of coarse, brown fabric. Though their faces are in shadow, the intimacy of this moment is palpable. The two lean toward each other, their heads almost touching. The lute-player gazes toward his companion who looks down, listening to the music that resonates in the air between them. They are the center of the composition, oblivious to all else around them.
But they are not alone. Seated close by and forming part of their intimate group is a nude woman holding a wooden flute, her back turned toward the viewer. To the far left stands another nude woman. This one turns away from the group in an elegant contrapposto as she prepares to pour water into a stone well, perhaps fed by the sparkling stream visible in the middle distance, just behind her to the right. Bright, impasto dabs of white paint describe both the small waterfall created by this stream and the reflections on her glass pitcher. The Pastoral Concert (also known by its French titles, Fête champêtre or Concert Champetre) has long been recognized as a masterpiece of Venetian Renaissance painting; it has also sparked much debate regarding both its authorship and its subject matter. Often attributed to Giorgione, most scholars now favor an attribution to Titian. This fluctuation of attribution is not surprising given Giorgione’s influence on the young Titian, who worked closely with Giorgione early in his career and even completed Giorgione’s Sleeping Venus upon the latter’s untimely death in 1510.
Giorgione laid the groundwork for Titian both in terms of subject matter and technical innovations. Giorgione was the first Venetian to move away from the highly polished application of oil glazes of his teacher, Giovanni Bellini (see the image above). Giorgione, and Titian after him, embraced the tactile potential of oil painting, applying it with varied densities, at times allowing the weave of the canvas to show through and at others building up the surface with thick impasto.
The rougher texture created by this technique endows the forms in the Pastoral Concert (see the nude above for example) with a certain haziness or sfumato which has the effect of softening forms and thus effectively conveying both the tactile softness of the nudes’ flesh and the ephemeral, soft light of late afternoon.
Debates about the Subject Matter
The debates about the painting’s authorship, however, pale in comparison to the debates about its subject matter. Who are these figures? Why are the men clothed and the women nude? Why do the young men not acknowledge their female counterparts, despite their proximity and their nudity? What circumstances brings them together in this manner? These questions have puzzled art historians for centuries and have resulted in many attempts to secure specific identities for the figures. These attempts consistently disappoint and serve ultimately to highlight the painting’s ambiguities and its resistance to a single fixed interpretation. The most successful interpretations are not those that attempt to identify a particular narrative or specific characters, but those that see the painting as the visual equivalent of a pastoral poem.
Pastoral poetry (which originated with the Idylls of the ancient Greek poet Theocritus) extols the rustic world of the simple shepherd. It celebrates the physical, sensory beauty of the natural world—it speaks of shady forests, gurgling brooks, lowing herds, and gentle breezes. Musical contests between shepherds are a common motif in pastoral poetry, which is often tinged with melancholy as the contestants sing of lost loves and deceased comrades. The contestants frequently call upon the Muses for inspiration and, when blessed by them, create music of such power and beauty that even the woodland nymphs emerge to listen.
Like so many aspects of ancient culture, pastoral poetry also witnessed a revival during the Renaissance as poets vied to emulate their ancient Greek and Roman predecessors. A key figure in this revival was the poet Jacopo Sannazaro (quoted at the top of the page), whose popular poem Arcadia was published in Venice in the first decade of the sixteenth century. Its narrator is a poet from the city who sets aside his lofty aspirations of writing heroic epics and achieving success among cultured city dwellers in order to enjoy the purity and simplicity of the shepherds’ rural existence. He listens to their songs of love and loss, and is inspired to create his own pastoral poetry. Titian’s painting alludes to this hierarchy of poetic genres by juxtaposing the lute—a sophisticated instrument capable of producing complex harmonies, with the primitive pipe—the shepherd’s favored instrument.
Rather than illustrate a particular scene from a pastoral poem, Titian visualizes the mood and motifs of this genre. As in Sannazaro’s Arcadia, the lute-player is a cultured city dweller, perhaps even a member of the Compagni delle Calze (the Companions of the Stockings)—a fraternity of wealthy Venetian youth known for their fashionable attire and for organizing elaborate entertainment (including music and poetry) for aristocratic weddings. Here he has retreated beyond the city visible in the background to the idyllic world of the pastoral poet.
In this imaginary world, each woodland locale, each stream and cave has its own spirit, or nymph. Perhaps the women are the nymphs who embody the spirit of the place, or the muses who inspire the poet, or personifications of Poetry and Music. In a north Italian set of Tarocchi (Tarot) cards, the personification of music (above right) holds a musical pipe, as does the personification of poetry (above left). The latter, notably, also pours water from a pitcher, presumably from the fountain into the stream in front of her. This fountain represents the waters of inspiration that originate on Mount Parnassus, the realm of Apollo, god of music and poetry, and his nine Muses. The women may not be visible to the young men, but their presence is felt in the beauty of the poet’s song.
A Venetian Genre
The Pastoral Concert exemplifies a distinctly Venetian invention focused on the idyllic landscape populated by gods and goddess, nymphs and satyrs, shepherds and peasants. Introduced by Giorgione and developed in the works of Titian and other Venetian artists, this genre became one of the most important artistic contributions of Renaissance Venice—its impact lasting far into the nineteenth century. In its conception, it reflects the dictum “ut picture poesis” (as is poetry so is painting)—a central principle in Renaissance art theory, upheld by artists as evidence of the intellectual status of their art. The comparison with poetry placed emphasis not on painting’s manual production, but on the conceptual activity of the artist’s mind. The creation of the visual equivalent of poetry—in which the artist draws on a variety of sources but ultimately creates something original—was one of the reasons Titian attained international fame later in his career. His poesie (as he called them) were coveted by patrons near and far, including the king of Spain.Such paintings were produced for the private collections of discerning and educated patrons who understood the evocative, poetic subject matter. The Pastoral Concert was familiar enough in theme to be identified with a particular poetic genre, but elusive enough in details to invite contemplation and conversation. It thus provided a form of recreation that served as a visual and mental retreat for the patron—much like the one experienced by the painting’s fashionable lute player. By looking at the painting and reflecting on the poetry it called to mind, the patron could—at least momentarily—escape to the countryside to enjoy the sights and sounds of the shepherd’s world.
- This painting at the LouvreBellini, Giorgione, Titian and the Renaissance of Venetian Painting: Allegories and Mythologies
- Robert C. Cafritz, Lawrence Gowing, and David Rosand, Places of Delight: The Pastoral Landscape (Washington, D.C.: Phillips Collection, 1988).
- Patricia Egan, “Poesia and the Fete Champêtre,” The Art Bulletin, vol. 41, no. 4 (Dec., 1959), pp. 303-313.
- Peter Humfrey, Painting in Renaissance Venice (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995).
- Paul Joannides, Titian to 1518: The Assumption of Genius (Yale, 2001).
- National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. Bellini, Giorgione, and Titian and the Renaissance of Venetian Painting (2006).
Originally published by Smarthistory, 11.21.2015, under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International license.