Galerie, Giorgione: Old Woman (c1508)

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Nobody likes being labelled, or so they say, but it depends on the label. There are badges of pride, as well as badges of shame. The "A" (for Adulteress) that Hester Prynne has to wear, stitched on to her dress, in Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter is one kind of tag. The D&G logo embroidered on your shirt is another. There are many ways that people carry visible written signs upon their persons - tattoos, campaign stickers, T-shirt mottos, the corporate ID, the ticket on the corpse's toe, the beggar's placard.

In his long autobiographical poem, The Prelude, Wordsworth recalled seeing a beggar in London: "...'twas my chance/ Abruptly to be smitten with the view/ Of a blind Beggar, who, with upright face,/ Stood propped against a Wall, upon his Chest/ Wearing a written paper, to explain/ The story of the Man, and who he was./ My mind did at this spectacle turn round/ As with the might of waters, and it seemed/ To me that in this Label was a type,/ Or emblem, of the utmost that we know,/ Both of ourselves and of the universe..."

It is one of those occasions when Wordsworth is overcome with a feeling that he doesn't quite articulate. But it must be important that the man is blind, so cannot see or know who is looking at and "reading" him' and that the label describing him is physically attached to him. He stands before the world, revealed, indelibly identified with the story of his life. He is like a soul at the Last Judgement.

Words affixed to a body can have this inescapable, exposing, judgemental quality. They encapsulate the individual on which they're stuck, and make them into an object for the public gaze. They are reductive, compromising, objectifying. They are an offence against the person - as we think of the person, with its limitless potential and uniqueness.

Giorgione's Old Woman shows an old woman. She appears in a format used in many Renaissance Venetian portraits, a head and upper body behind a stone ledge. And everything suggests that the model here is a particular person, a real individual, closely observed from life. But despite this, it is not a portrait - it's not a picture of someone, painted for that someone or their peers. The old woman is poor and dishevelled and open-mouthed. (No portrait of this period is open-mouthed.) She is "in a state". And the point of the picture, it seems, is not to depict her, but to illustrate this "state".

She carries a label. It's a scroll, with two words written on it in Roman script - the consonants are big, the vowels squeezed in, and there are punctuating dots, as in a carved inscription. The words are "COL TEMPO". "With time", or, as we might say, "in time". She doesn't hold this label in her hand, but it seems to be attached to her. It's tucked into her cuff, behind her hand. And with this hand she is pointing at herself.

The image consists of a written label, and a body, and between them a bit of body language. The indicating gesture is an arrow that applies the caption to the person, and together they make a skeleton sentence that goes roughly: with time, this body. With time I became, you'll become, we all become, like this body that you see. Old. It will happen.

Now, you might ask what exactly the caption adds. Plainly and vividly, this is an image of an old woman. We know how people change when they age. We don't need telling that it takes time for someone to get into this state. So what the caption actually does is to focus our attention, directing it away from this old woman herself, and on to the ageing process. It says: she wasn't always like this. It makes you see her features, not as simply her appearance, but as things that have happened to her. It refers you back to the (quite possibly beautiful) woman she once was, before il tempo got to work.

Whose caption is it? Beggars do go around with their own placards. But old people don't carry pieces of paper that cast them as living examples of old age. This classically lettered scroll is not the woman's own label (presumably, she's illiterate). She is being made an exhibit in an imposed literary/moral agenda. What is more, the caption is entirely general. Col tempo: it would apply to any old-looking person. Yet what Giorgione gives us is this very particular old person.

The Renaissance moral is familiar. "Beauty is but a flowre/ Which wrinkles will devoure/ Brightness falls from the ayre..." as Thomas Nashe put it. But in this picture, there's a tension between the moralising tag and the woman, and it gets into the very grain of what the painting depicts. You can look at this figure as a checklist of sorry symptoms - loose, wrinkled skin' grey, thinning hair' watery eyes' blobby nose' toothless gums' gaga mouth - an awful warning made flesh. Or, you can meet an old woman who is portrayed with attentive tenderness, with humanity and dignity, without any humorous grotesqueness, with a beauty of her own. It can go either way.

Nowadays, we're touchy about labels and demeaning stereotypes. We say that people, in all their infinite variety and distinctive individuality, shouldn't be identified with one specific disabling condition. We try to believe that old age is not a series of afflictions, pure deficit, presaging death, but a dignified stage of life to be enjoyed to the full. And though it seems unlikely that Giorgione would have shared this sensitivity, his careful, solemn, elegiac depiction allows it a foothold. Yet the label is there, too - a reminder that, like it or not, we are all up for judgement, whenever we meet another pair of eyes, not just in time, but all the time.

THE ARTIST

Giorgione (1476-1510) is an enigma of an artist. Shortlived, almost nothing known of him, he left a small and uncertain body of work - much lost, much disputed - whose meaning is invariably perplexing.

He is the founder of "Phase 2" Venetian painting, the bridge from Bellini to Titian. His sacred scenes, nudes, portraits, human groups have an inscrutability that is possibly deliberate - an "open" art that makes the most of the image's muteness, and the mystery of the human face, and invites the viewer's fantasy. His picture of figures in a landscape called The Tempest is probably the most interpreted image in the history of art.

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