Giorgio Barbarelli da Castelfranco, the painter known as Giorgione – Big George – died, most probably of the plague, in 1510 aged about thirty-two. Of the sixty or so works of his thought to have survived, contemporary art historians only attribute five or six paintings to him with absolute certainty. Yet several of his known works seem to have broken new ground in both technique and subject matter, so that he became a serious influence on his fellow Venetian painters. An exhibition mounted in Castelfranco Veneto offered the chance to consider and judge his status as an artist.

The Castelfranco Madonna is an altarpiece in the form of a sacra conversazione, with Mary flanked on either side by figures of religious significance (in this case Saints Francis and Nicasius); this kind of picture was pioneered by Giorgione’s master Giovanni Bellini, but Giorgione places his figures against a vivid landscape, an idea copied by Bellini in his later paintings. Landscape and sky also feature in Giorgione’s small painting called The Tempest, usually in Venice’s Accademia. A sitting nude female with a baby is separated by a stream from a clothed and standing young man; the town behind them is framed by darkening storm clouds. Some art historians regard this puzzling work as one of the first landscapes in European art.