A S we look back upon the lives of the great painters we can see how each one added some new knowledge to the history of Art, and unfolded fresh beauties to the eyes of the world. Very gradually all this was done, as a bud slowly unfolds its petals until the full-blown flower shows forth its perfect beauty. But here and there among the painters we find a man who stands apart from the rest, one who takes a new and almost startling way of his own. He does not gradually add new truths to the old ones, but makes an entirely new scheme of his own. Such a man was Giorgione, whose story we tell to-day.
It was at the same time as Leonardo da Vinci was the talk of the Florentine world, that another great genius was at work in Venice, setting his mark high above all who had gone before. Giorgio Barbarelli was born at Castel Franco, a small town not far from Venice, and it was to the great city of the sea that he was sent as soon as he was old enough, there to be trained under the famous Bellini. He was a handsome boy, tall and well-built, and with such a royal bearing that his companions at once gave him the name of Giorgione, or George the Great. And, as so often happened in those days, the nick-name clung to him, so that while his family name is almost forgotten he is still known as Giorgione.
There was much of the poet nature about Giorgione, and his love of music was intense. He composed his own songs and sang them to his own music upon the lute, and indeed it seemed as if there were few things which this Great George could not do. But it was his painting that was most wonderful, for his painted men and women seemed alive and real, and he caught the very spirit of music in his pictures and there held it fast.
Giorgione early became known as a great artist, and when he was quite a young man he was employed by the city of Venice to fresco the outside walls of the new German Exchange. Wind and rain and the salt sea air have entirely ruined these frescoes now, and there are but few of Giorgione's pictures left to us, but that perhaps makes them all the more precious in our eyes.
Even his drawings are rare, and the one you see here is taken from a bigger sketch in the Uffizi Gallery of Florence. It shows a man in Venetian dress helping two women to mount one of the niches of a marble palace in order to see some passing show, and to be out of the way of the crowd.
There is a picture now in the Venice Academy said to have been painted by Giorgione, which would interest every boy and girl who loves old stories. It tells the tale of an old Venetian legend, almost forgotten now, but which used to be told with bated breath, and was believed to be a matter of history. The story is this:
On the 25th of February 1340 a terrible storm began to rage around Venice, more terrible than any that had ever been felt before. For three days the wild winds swept her waters and shrieked around her palaces, churning up the sea into great waves and shaking the city to her very foundations. Lightning and thunder never ceased, and the rain poured down in a great sheet of grey water, until it seemed as if a second flood had come to visit the world. Slowly but surely the waters rose higher and higher, and Venice sunk lower and lower, and men said that unless the storm soon ceased the city would be overwhelmed. No one ventured out on the canals, and only an old fisherman who happened to be in his boat was swept along by the canal of San Marco, and managed with great difficulty to reach the steps. Very thankful to be safe on land he tied his boat securely, and sat down to wait until the storm should cease. As he sat there watching the lightning and hearing nothing but the shriek of the tempest, some one touched his shoulder and a stranger's voice sounded in his ear.
"Good fisherman," it said, "wilt thou row me over to San Giorgio Maggiore? I will pay thee well if thou wilt go."
The fisherman looked across the swirling waters to where the tall bell-tower upon the distant island could just be seen through the driving mist and rain.
"How is it possible to row across to San Giorgio?" he asked. "My little boat could not live for five minutes in those raging waters."
But the stranger only insisted the more, and besought him to do his best.
So, as the fisherman was a hardy old man and had a bold, brave soul, he loosed the boat and set off in all the storm. But, strangely enough, it was not half so bad as he had feared, and before long the little boat was moored safely by the steps of San Giorgio Maggiore.
Here the stranger left the boat, but bade the fisherman wait his return.
Presently he came back, and with him came a young man, tall and strong, bearing himself with a knightly grace.
"Row now to San Niccolo da Lido," commanded the stranger.
"How can I do that?" asked the fisherman in great fear. For San Niccolo was far distant, and he was rowing with but one oar, which is the custom in Venice.
"Row boldly, for it shall be possible for thee, and thou shalt be well paid," replied the stranger calmly.
So, seeing it was the will of God, the fisherman set out once more, and, as they went, the waters spread themselves out smoothly before them, until they reached the distant San Niccolo da Lido.
Here an old man with a white beard was awaiting them, and when he too had entered the boat, the fisherman was commanded to row out towards the open sea.
Now the tempest was raging more fiercely than ever, and lo! across the wild waste of foaming waters an enormous black galley came bearing down upon them. So fast did it approach that it seemed almost to fly upon the wings of the wind, and as it came near the fisherman saw that it was manned by fearful-looking black demons, and knew that they were on their way to overwhelm the fair city of Venice.
But as the galley came near the little boat, the three men stood upright, and with outstretched arms made high above them the sign of the cross, and commanded the demons to depart to the place from whence they had come.
In an instant the sea became calm, and with a horrible shriek the demons in their black galley disappeared from view.
Then the three men ordered the fisherman to return as he had come. So the old man was landed at San Niccolo da Lido, the young knight at San Giorgio Maggiore, and, last of all, the stranger landed at San Marco.
Now when the fisherman found that his work was done, he thought it was time that he should receive his payment. For, although he had seen the great miracle, he had no mind to forgo his proper fare.
"Thou art right," said the stranger, when the fisherman made his demand, "and thou shalt indeed be well paid. Go now to the Doge and tell him all thou hast seen; how Venice would have been destroyed by the demons of the tempest, had it not been for me and my two companions. I am St. Mark, the protector of your city; the brave young knight is St. George, and the old man whom we took in last is St. Nicholas. Tell the Doge that I bade him pay thee well for thy brave service."
"But, and if I tell them this story, how will they believe that I speak the truth?" asked the fisherman.
Then St. Mark took a ring off his finger, and placed it in the fisherman's rough palm. "Thou shalt show them this ring as a proof," he said; "and when they look in the treasury of San Marco, they will find that it is missing from there."
And when he had finished saying this, St. Mark disappeared.
Then the next day, as early as possible, the fisherman went to the Doge and told his marvellous tale and showed the saint's ring. At first no one could believe the wild story, but when they sent and searched in St. Mark's treasury, lo! the ring was missing. Then they knew that it must indeed have been St. Mark who had appeared to the old fisherman, and had saved their beloved city from destruction.
So a solemn thanksgiving service was sung in the great church of San Marco, and the fisherman received his due reward.
He was no longer obliged to work for his living, but received a pension from the rulers of the city, so that he lived in comfort all the rest of his days.
In the picture we see the great black galley manned by the demons, sweeping down upon the little boat, in which the three saints stand upright. And not only are the demons on board their ship, but some are riding on dolphins and curious-looking fish, and the little boat is entirely surrounded by the terrible crew.
We do not know much about Giorgione's life, but we do know that it was a short and sad one, clouded over at the end by bitter sorrow. He had loved a beautiful Venetian girl, and was just about to marry her when a friend, whom he also loved, carried her off and left him robbed of love and friendship. Nothing could comfort him for his loss, the light seemed to have faded from his life, and soon life itself began to wane. A very little while after and he closed his eyes upon all the beauty and promise which had once filled his world. But though we have so few of his pictures, those few alone are enough to show that it was more than an idle jest which made his companions give him the nickname of George the Great.