The subject of this painting is obscure – a melancholy enthroned figure sits with books at his feet. A young man sitting on the step plays a lute as a boy approaches the throne and a kneeling man offers a bowl of flowers. All have respectfully removed their hats. A hermit appears in a cave in the rock face to the left.
It has recently been suggested that the subject is Saturn exiled by Zeus; another theory is that it may represent Joseph and Pharaoh’s dream. The leopard licking his paw is also included in the Orpheus of about 1515 by Giovanni Bellini (National Gallery of Art, Washington).
It is unclear whether this is a work by Giorgione himself or by one of his followers. It was likely painted by the same artist as the Judgment of Solomon and Moses and the Proof by Fire, usually given to Giorgione (both Uffizi, Florence). It is probably the painting described in the 1603 inventory of the collection of Cardinal Pietro Aldobrandini in Rome.
A middle-aged man dressed in dark clothes and a golden cloak sits on a throne in a verdant landscape, his head crowned with a laurel wreath and shaded by a pink and gold parasol. He faces towards us but gazes upwards, his eyes unfocused as though he is lost in thought. The arm of his throne is draped with an oriental carpet and one of his feet rests on a book. Several other books, bound in leather with metal clasps, lie on the steps and the ground. A young man sits on the step playing a lute as a boy in fur-lined robes approaches the throne and a kneeling man offers a bowl of flowers. All have removed their hats as a mark of respect.
On the left a leopard licks its paw, while a peacock, often a symbol of immortality, perches above on the bare branch of a tree. A figure, perhaps a hermit, appears in a cave in the rock face to the left – they seem to be covering their face with their hand. A town nestles beneath a rocky mountainside and a herd of deer graze in the middle distance. Three small birds sit on leafy branches and in the foreground the grassy meadow is carpeted with ghostly plants and flowers.
Various suggestions have been made as to what the image represents: the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle surrounded by emblems illustrating his philosophical thoughts; Jason, the ancient Greek mythological hero, with his sons Plutos and Filomelos; and the Renaissance engraver Girolamo Campagnola with his lutenist son, Giulio. It has also been given more generic titles such as ‘The Golden Age’ and ‘Homage to a Poet’. Most recently the theory has been advanced that this is the god Saturn sent into exile by his son Zeus. Normally Saturn is represented devouring his children, but here it is suggested that he is shown deposed, perplexed by his deeds and wondering whether to kill the child before him. The image may also relate to a subject particularly relevant in Venice at the time: the degree to which Jews should be admitted to Venetian society. The tall hat at the foot of ‘Saturn’s’ throne is typically Jewish, and Jews were also made to wear yellow, Saturn’s colour. It has also been suggested that the painting may represent the biblical subject of Joseph and Pharaoh’s dream.
This is probably the painting described in the 1603 inventory of the collection of Cardinal Pietro Aldobrandini in Rome as ‘a picture on panel with a poet crowned with laurel with three other figures, a tiger, and a peacock, two and a half hands high by the circle of Raphael of Urbino.’ The picture is painted with the tip of the brush with the technique and style of a miniaturist, which is particularly evident in the plants and animals. The leopard licking his paw also appears in the Orpheus of about 1515 attributed to Giovanni Bellini (National Gallery of Art, Washington). The format with the enthroned figure and expansive landscape is similar to the Judgment of Solomon and Moses and the Proof by Fire (Uffizi, Florence) usually given to Giorgione, and is likely to be by the same artist.
Since its arrival in the National Gallery’s collection, the painting has oscillated between being considered an early work by Giorgione himself or the work of one of his followers. It has been suggested that it may be by, or made with the assistance of, Giulio Campagnola, Giovanni Agostino Da Lodi or an unknown Ferrarese artist. The group of houses and rocks in the distance is based on an engraving by Albrecht Dürer, The Prodigal Son, of 1496, and the plants from his woodcut of Hercules of 1498. The pavilion just above Saturn’s throne recalls that in Giovanni Bellini’s Sacred Allegory (Uffizi, Florence) dating from about 1485–1490, suggesting our picture was probably painted in about 1500.
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