Perhaps the most important precursor of nineteenth-century Symbolism was Giorgione who was at the forefront of an innovative new departure for Venetian art – Poesia – a type of enigmatic painting which works in the indirect manner of poetry – describing no particular theme or content. One can see them as poems in paint – not intended to illustrate a specific text or story but instead invoking a mood or emotional response. It is interesting that the poet Pietro Bembo wrote that Giovanni Bellini, who was probably Giorgione's teacher, believed that the content of paintings should not be dictated patrons, who should allow the artist to use his imagination and 'wander as he pleased in his paintings'.
A key example is a painting known as the *Tempesta* because of the lowering sky, full of dark billowing clouds and shaft of lightening which dominates the centre of the picture – even though confined to the background (such an important role for landscape was unusual for an Italian work of this period). But the viewer's attention is immediately taken by the two figures strangely situated far from the expected central position - banished to the extremities of the composition.
The painting was originally owned by Gabriele Vendramin, a leaded man from a noble family who was interested in works with a philosophical content. He might have interpreted these figures – a man holding a halberd or staff, perhaps a soldier of some sort and a near naked “gipsy girl” who is nursing a baby – as symbols (or 'familiars') of Fortune. The lightening bolt would have reinforced this interpretation due to its association with chance. As for the two mysterious broken columns, they may have been seen by contemporaries as linked to strength - in this case perhaps, strength in adversity.
Alternatively, Vendramin may have consulted the epic poem *On the Nature of Things* by the Classical Roman poet Lucretius who was a follower of the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurius. Here he would have found another possible interpretation. Lucretius posits that rather than natural phenomena, such as storms, thunder and lightening, being a manifestation of the anger of the gods, their actual source was related to the movement of atoms and therefore not to be feared. This painting then becomes a contemplation of contemporary man's place in the natural world where the man and the woman appear to be undeterred by the advancing storm.
But these differing insights do not entirely explain the mysterious power of the painting. Notwithstanding the two possible explanations above, it is difficult to build a coherent story or overarching explanation from the various elements displayed before us. In the end each viewer will extract his or her own understanding - this is the special power of poesia - ambiguity and suggestion are the essential components. Centuries later these same elements continued to underpin the paintings of the Symbolists.
1508 Raphael: The Madonna of the Pinks, London, National Gallery
1508 Lorenzo Lotto: Portrait of a Youth against a White Curtain, Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum