Farewell, peoples and cities. The countryside will offer delightful displays for my eyes. —Jacopo Sannazaro, Elegies, Book 1, Poem II, line 24I know that then my verses will appear/ unpolished and dark, but I hope that even so/ they will be praised by the shepherds in these woods./ . . . And that which I sing now the springs and streams will recite along the valleys, murmuring/ with their far-shining crystal waters. / And the trees that I now consecrate here and plant/ whispering will make answer to the wind. —Jacopo Sannazaro, Arcadia, Eclogue 11, lines 130-140
An intimate moment
But they are not alone. Seated close by and forming part of their intimate group is a nude woman holding a wooden flute, her back turned toward the viewer. To the far left stands another nude woman. This one turns away from the group in an elegant contrapposto as she prepares to pour water into a stone well, perhaps fed by the sparkling stream visible in the middle distance, just behind her to the right. Bright, impasto dabs of white paint describe both the small waterfall created by this stream and the reflections on her glass pitcher.
Giorgione laid the groundwork for Titian both in terms of subject matter and technical innovations. Giorgione was the first Venetian to move away from the highly polished application of oil glazes of his teacher, Giovanni Bellini (see the image below). Giorgione, and Titian after him, embraced the tactile potential of oil painting, applying it with varied densities, at times allowing the weave of the canvas to show through and at others building up the surface with thick impasto.
The rougher texture created by this technique endows the forms in the Pastoral Concert (see the nude at the left for example) with a certain haziness or sfumato which has the effect of softening forms and thus effectively conveying both the tactile softness of the nudes’ flesh and the ephemeral, soft light of late afternoon.
Debates about the subject matter
Pastoral poetry (which originated with the Idylls of the ancient Greek poet Theocritus) extols the rustic world of the simple shepherd. It celebrates the physical, sensory beauty of the natural world—it speaks of shady forests, gurgling brooks, lowing herds, and gentle breezes. Musical contests between shepherds are a common motif in pastoral poetry, which is often tinged with melancholy as the contestants sing of lost loves and deceased comrades. The contestants frequently call upon the Muses for inspiration and, when blessed by them, create music of such power and beauty that even the woodland nymphs emerge to listen.
Like so many aspects of ancient culture, pastoral poetry also witnessed a revival during the Renaissance as poets vied to emulate their ancient Greek and Roman predecessors. A key figure in this revival was the poet Jacopo Sannazaro (quoted at the top of the page), whose popular poem Arcadia was published in Venice in the first decade of the sixteenth century. Its narrator is a poet from the city who sets aside his lofty aspirations of writing heroic epics and achieving success among cultured city dwellers in order to enjoy the purity and simplicity of the shepherds’ rural existence. He listens to their songs of love and loss, and is inspired to create his own pastoral poetry. Titian’s painting alludes to this hierarchy of poetic genres by juxtaposing the lute—a sophisticated instrument capable of producing complex harmonies, with the primitive pipe—the shepherd’s favored instrument.
In this imaginary world, each woodland locale, each stream and cave has its own spirit, or nymph. Perhaps the women are the nymphs who embody the spirit of the place, or the muses who inspire the poet, or personifications of Poetry and Music. In a north Italian set of Tarocchi (Tarot) cards, the personification of music (above right) holds a musical pipe, as does the personification of poetry (above left). The latter, notably, also pours water from a pitcher, presumably from the fountain into the stream in front of her. This fountain represents the waters of inspiration that originate on Mount Parnassus, the realm of Apollo, god of music and poetry, and his nine Muses. The women may not be visible to the young men, but their presence is felt in the beauty of the poet’s song.