Some art historians, however, believe that Giorgione died before the portrait was completed and that the painting was finished by Titian while others maintain that the entire painting was created by Giorgione’s teenaged disciple. Giorgione, who died in his thirties, left many of his masterpieces unfinished and for this reason it can be difficult to identify which paintings were executed by him and which works were finished by other artists.
The mysterious subject of the portrait, believed to be a high-ranking member of Venetian society, fixes the viewer with an intense stare and rests his clenched fist on a closed book that is positioned on a structure of white marble. A piece of green cloth is gripped by the Venetian gentleman’s fist, the significance of which confounds art historians to this day, while three letters are inscribed onto the face of the stone parapet. The closed book, with its green cover, could indicate that the man in the painting is educated or it may suggest that he is a guarded figure whose mind is difficult to read. It is worth noting that Banner of Saint Mark, in times of war, features a lion with its paw resting upon a closed book.
Venice, at the time of the painting’s composition, was the cultural heart of Southern Europe as well as the centre of a powerful maritime empire in the Aegean region and its merchant class had become some of the city state’s most wealthy citizens. The gentleman in the painting, with his fine clothing and confident posture, may have been one of the prosperous merchants who commissioned paintings from the most respected artists in order to exhibit their wealth and cultural sophistication. Giorgione, born in the province of Veneto, was one of the most celebrated painters in the Venetian Republic during his short life.
The walls of a city, buttressed with round and crenellated towers, can be seen through an opening in the wall while the blueness of the sky suggests that it is a summer’s day. It is possible that the window, visible at the top corner of the left-hand side of the canvas, is in fact a painting that is displayed in the Venetian gentleman’s home. The portrait, displayed at the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC and measuring 76.2 cm by 63.5 cm, is considered to be one of the finest examples of High Renaissance painting and the identity of its subject has mystified viewers for centuries.