Timeless themes emerge from Giorgione’s “La Vecchia”

It’s just a single painting, one of hundreds on display at the Cincinnati Art Museum.

But, oh, the stories it tells.

The painting is “La Vecchia,” Italian for “the old woman.” It’s on loan to the Cincinnati Art Museum from one of Europe’s greatest repositories of paintings, and will be on display through May 5.

It is an exhibition of a singular painting, the second time in recent years the museum has created a presentation around a single work of art by a European master.

In viewing the piece, which has been newly restored, history — as well as grand, timeless themes — become real.

I contemplated the work on its opening day, February 15, at the Art Museum, and discussed it in detail with Peter Jonathan Bell, an expert on European art, and the curator who’s overseeing the exhibit.

“On one level, this painting is an allegory,” he told me. “An allegory of time, of aging, of mortality.“

The artist is Giorgione, and he created this work of art more than 500 years ago, in Venice, at the height of the Italian Renaissance. For perspective, he was a contemporary of Leonardo da Vinci’s, the artist and scientist who has become the symbol of the Renaissance period.

Giorgione’s subject is an elderly woman who remains nameless. She looks directly at the viewer, whom she appears to be speaking to. “Her gaze meets our gaze,” Bell says.

She is pointing to herself. A slip of paper emerges from her sleeve with the words “col tempo,” or “with time.”

She appears weary, careworn, as if her life has been hard. The artist renders the effects of aging unsparingly. Her hair is thin and gray. Her skin is loose and wrinkled. Fatigue shows in her eyes. But she retains her humanity and delivers a timeless message to anyone who contemplates the piece.

“Part of the message is that, with time, we the viewers will also age and die, and all things come to an end,” Bell said. “The extension of that is to live a good life.”

Giorgione had a short career, dying in 1510 at the age of 33. He left behind little more than a handful of paintings that still exist. “La Vecchia” is one of them.

“He’s one of the most important Italian Renaissance painters,” Bell says. “He left behind relatively few paintings; little documentation exists about him and aspects of his biography are very much shrouded in mystery. But his artistic legacy is really vast.”

A profile on Giorgione, the artist.
He challenged the artistic style of the day, and was one of the first painters to include landscapes in his work, with some experts believing that his paintings led to the creation of the landscape genre itself.

“La Vecchia” is one of the most startling and engaging images of the Renaissance, according to Bell.

Many painters of the time rendered their subjects with reverence, in formal settings. The subjects were accomplished men, politicians, merchants, people of consequence. Giorgione’s subject is an elderly, haggard woman, possibly near the end of her life, seeking to deliver a lesson from that life.

An eternal theme, an artifact of a remarkable period of world history, and a work of art from one of the most mysterious yet influential figures of the Renaissance — all of that resonates when standing in front of this work, now on display at the museum’s Sara M. and Michelle Vance Waddell Gallery.

Viewing the work, displayed alone in the small, softly lit gallery, it’s possible to be transported to another time, and marvel at how the grand themes that moved a young artist in 1502 still mystify us today, which is precisely the effect that great museums can have on their audiences.

The painting is on loan from the Gallerie dell’Accademia, a museum gallery in Venice whose history dates to the 1700s. The Cincinnati Art Museum is collaborating with the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in Hartford, Conn., which will showcase the artwork after it departs Cincinnati in the summer of 2019.

The process of borrowing the historic work took nearly two years, Bell says, from its inception as an idea to its mounting in the gallery.

The organizations also worked with the Foundation for Italian Art and Culture in New York City, which helped complete the arrangement and funded a painstaking restoration of the work.

This is museum’s second exhibit in recent years of a single master work. In 2015, they displayed “Portrait of a Lady with a Unicorn,” a piece by the Italian artist Raphael that dates to 1505. That painting was borrowed from a museum in Rome, also with the help of the Foundation for Italian Art and Culture.

“The presentation of singular works of art of the highest quality like this can be as important and illuminating and educational and engaging for our visitors as a larger exhibition,” Bell says. “It’s a sustained encounter with one important work of art to see where it takes you.”

The Giorgione piece goes on display as the museum is mounting a much larger show, “Paris 1900: City of Entertainment,” more than 200 works of art made at the turn of the century in that city. And on February 1, its retrospective celebrating the 150th anniversary of the Art Academy of Cincinnati went on display. That’s an exhibit of more than 90 drawings and prints by academy alumni and faculty, dating back to the school’s 1869 founding.

“It’s incredibly meaningful to have an institution like the Cincinnati Art Museum here,” says Bell, who joined the staff of curators in 2017. “There’s absolutely nothing that compares to being in the same room with a given work of art. No amount of reproductive technology will ever give you that sense of presence, that connection. To be able to do that on this level is rare in American cities.”

When you go: Giorgione “La Vecchia” will be on display at the Cincinnati Art Museum through May 5, 2019 in the Sara M. and Michelle Vance Waddell Gallery. Parking and admission are free.

Read more articles by David Holthaus.

David Holthaus is an award-winning journalist and a Cincinnati native. When not writing or editing, he's likely to be bicycling, hiking, reading, or watching classic movies.