It has divided leading experts in the art world, split for decades on which Renaissance master painted this young man’s portrait. But now the Royal Academy is relying on amateur enthusiasts to decide whether Giorgione or Titian created the central canvas in their upcoming Venetian collection.
Curators of the exhibition have asked the public to vote on the attribution of the painting, presenting evidence for and against two of Western art’s greatest masters as the possible creator of the enigmatic Giustiniani Portrait.
The oil on canvas, dated to the late 1490s, will be among exhibits in the Academy’s major exhibition, titled In the Age of Giorgione, which opens next month. It will be in London on loan from the Gemäldegalerie in Berlin.
Although labelled as a Giorgione, the exhibition curator Per Rumberg told the Guardian that he has his doubts. “I happen to think it is by the young Titian,” he said.
Peter Humfrey, emeritus professor of art history at the University of St Andrews, is to write a piece for the Academy that argues for Giorgione as its creator. Meanwhile, Paul Joannides, emeritus professor of art history at Cambridge University, will take Titian’s side.
Humfrey told the Guardian: “When most people go to an exhibition, they want to hear the authoritative point of view. This is probably saying that, quite frankly, there isn’t one and that there are as many opinions as there are scholars.”
Giorgio da Castelfranco, known as Giorgione, introduced a softer and more naturalistic style that inspired Titian and other masters. Little is known about his short life, having died aged about 33 in a Venetian plague hospital in 1510. Although about 40 works are attributed to Giorgione, barely a handful are generally agreed to be by his hand.
Titian was described in the 16thcentury as “the sun amidst small stars” and his influence on later artists was profound. His portraits are revered as highly expressive, conveying the sitter’s character.
In the Giustiniani Portrait, an anonymous sitter is depicted behind a parapet on which he rests his right hand. His upper body is set at a slight angle, but he gazes directly at the viewer. The painting’s name is derived from the earliest documented owners, the Giustiniani family of Padua.
In the 19thcentury, it was attributed to Sebastiano del Piombo. A connoisseur, Giovanni Morelli, attributed it to Giorgione, according to an 1887 letter in which he wrote: “It appears to me almost too vivid and ingenious for Sebastiano.”
Joannides, author of an important book on early Titian, said: “The dating and attribution of portraits by Giorgione is diverse and controversial, but there is nothing in even the most expansionist account of his oeuvre with which the Giustiniani Portrait may positively be compared.”
He added: “The unfixed characterisation – delicate, tentative, somewhat abstracted, perhaps melancholic – differs from that of Giorgione’s secure portraits, which are confident and energetic, whereas it is central both to Titian’s … Young Man and, later, his … Man with a Glove.”
He described the “interplay of forms and textures” as characteristic of the young Titian.
But Humfrey said: “There aren’t so many completely accepted works by Giorgione, so which ones are you supposed to compare it with?”
He added: “[It] does look like the Castelfranco altarpiece … and almost everyone agrees that it is by Giorgione. There is that parallel.”
In his text, he wrote: “In both works, the figures are dreamily introspective, absorbed in thought. Their poses are also passive, with only the slightest indication of movement, and their physiognomies remain slender. Very similar is the way that the left hand of the Virgin and the right hand of the young man are represented in somewhat delicate and tentative foreshortening on top of an almost abstract ledge.”
• In the Age of Giorgione, at the Royal Academy from 12 March to 5 June, will include masterpieces by Giovanni Bellini, Titian and Sebastiano del Piombo, among others.
For all other news on the health