Il Tramonto (1506-1510)

Giorgione (c.1477-1510)

Il Tramonto (The Sunset)
Oil on canvas, 73.3 cm x 91.4 cm
National Gallery, London

The meaning of this scene, which takes place in a rocky landscape at sunset or sunrise, is difficult to decipher, largely because the painting is very damaged and many areas are not original.

The sunset and the foreground pebbles appear to be by Giorgione and are well preserved. The two foreground figures are genuine and they may represent Saint Roch and his attendant Gothardus, who tended the plague sore on Saint Roch’s thigh. If this is the case, the picture may have been painted to commemorate relief from the plague, against which Saint Roch was invoked in the Veneto in 1504. The sinister little beaked creature or devil emerging from the water also seems to be genuine, although its meaning is unclear.

The other figures are more puzzling. The ‘hermit’ in the cave on the far right is extensively repainted, but his head and arms could be based on original fragments. The Saint George on a rearing horse attacking a dragon is a later addition to cover a large area of damage, as is the monster in the centre of the lake. What now appears as the dragon’s tail is original paint, but might have begun life as tree roots.

After its rediscovery in a villa not far from Venice in the 1930s, this painting underwent several phases of restoration. It had suffered substantial damage and loss of paint in the trees on the left, in the very centre of the canvas and in the rocks at the upper right. Lower down on the right there was a hole through the canvas, surrounded by considerable flaking and overpaint.

The picture was sent to a restorer called Augusto Vermehren, who also worked for the Uffizi in Florence. He cleaned and lined the canvas before filling the losses with putty and retouching. Shortly after this, the picture was bought by a young Russian art dealer called Vitale Bloch, who, having obtained a licence to export the work from Italy, sent it to Theodor Dumler in Rome to be restored again in 1934. Subsequently, the mounted figure of Saint George appeared in the area of the large loss on the right, as well as three rocks in the water. The restorer constructed Saint George using patches of old painted canvas, suggesting that he and the dealer were hoping to conceal the extent of damage to the painting from a future purchaser.

After restoration, the painting was moved to a London bank vault, where it remained unseen until the important Giorgione exhibition in Venice in 1955. Following the exhibition, the National Gallery decided to buy the painting and it was eventually purchased in 1961. The Gallery’s restorer, Arthur Lucas, removed the three rocks in the centre of the pool, but replaced them with the monster – perhaps when he realised the extent of the damage in this area.

Although various parts of the picture that we see today are not original, the distant landscape with its atmospheric dissolution of light is evidence of Giorgione’s work. (NG)