Leonardo Loredan knows that he is being looked at, but he does not return our gaze. He is the doge, the ruler of the Venetian Republic; elected in 1501, he ruled until his death in 1521.
He wears white silk damask robes woven with gold and silver metal thread, clothing reserved for the most splendid occasions, including the feasts of Candlemas and the Annunciation. The armless, half-length representation recalls classical marble busts of emperors. Often placed on plinths – recalled here by the parapet – these were adopted in the Renaissance period for sculpted portraits of the powerful and wealthy.
Bellini no doubt wanted to make this visual connection, but here he shows how he can surpass sculptural portraits through his mastery of oil paint. The subtle blending of colour in this slow-drying medium allowed him to create convincing tonal transitions when painting flesh. Oil paint also lends itself to slightly blurred contours; Loredan’s expression seems changeable, making him appear lifelike and immediate as well as distant and imposing.
Leonardo Loredan knows that he is being looked at, but he does not return our gaze. To do so would be to treat the viewer as an equal – but Loredan is the doge, the ruler of the Venetian Republic, and so no one looking at this picture could have been equal to him. He was elected in 1501 and ruled until his death in 1521.
Loredan appears to be scrutinising something. The intensity of his gaze, which suggests his intelligence, is reinforced by the pale blue of his small, deep-set eyes. This sternness is balanced by the enigmatic expression of his mouth: the slightly deeper crease in the wrinkle to the right of his lips suggests that he is about to break into a wry, one-sided smile – a smirk, maybe. This is counterbalanced again by the light around his left eye, which gives his expression an open sincerity. It’s as though Giovanni Bellini is showing all of the doge’s potential moods and dispositions, his capacity for severity and judgement as well as a sharp wit and openness to the truth.
Previously, portraits of Venice’s doges had traditionally followed the normal conventions for portraits of rulers, showing them in strict profile. Bellini has used the more contemporary three-quarter view, popularised in the city by artists like Antonello da Messina from the 1470s onwards, to explore Loredan’s character. His brother Gentile used it too, in his portrait of Doge Agostino Barbarigo (now in a private collection), but it was Giovanni who – in this portrait – fully developed its potential for realism as well as psychological expression.
As in portraits by van Eyck and Antonello, Bellini created the illusion that the sitter is lit by a strong light source coming from the left. It allowed him to give shape to the face, and to create the impression of three-dimensionality, by painting any protrusions that catch the glare in lighter shades and the flatter areas in shadow. The effect was enhanced by Bellini’s absolute mastery of painting in oil by this stage in his career. This slow-drying medium enabled him to blend colours together, avoiding harsh transitions and making changes in tone – particularly the flesh tones – appear natural. Subtle shading enabled him to describe the skin’s texture convincingly; the skin of Loredan’s neck is soft and loose and he has very fine wrinkles around his eyes – details that record his age, seen as a crucial component of wisdom.
Loredan is shown in the white robes he would have worn on the most splendid occasions, and the contrast of white and gold against the blue background makes him appear even more striking and dazzling. The gentle curve of the horned corno ducale (dogal cap) sweeps upwards gracefully. Several widths of expensive white silk damask fabric, woven with gold and silver metal thread, were sewn together to make the mantle. The pomegranate design came from eastern Mediterranean textiles and was popular in Renaissance fabrics. Loredan himself introduced white dogal robes for the processions celebrating the feasts of Candlemas and the Annunciation. If you look closely, you‘ll see that the design is upside down; the back – the view most people would see in ceremonial processions – showed the design upright. This kind of detail indicates that Bellini was observing and recording what he saw accurately, rather than imagining it: he probably borrowed the mantle so that he could take his time to paint it.
The blue background was painted using plenty of ultramarine – one of the most costly pigments available – mixed with white. It gives the sense that, while he is separated from us by the marble parapet, the space the doge occupies is infinite. This sense of openness makes it easier to imagine that if it weren’t for the parapet we might actually be able to walk around Loredan, as though he were a sculpture – an effect almost certainly sought by Bellini. The concealed arms and half-length representation recall classical marble busts of emperors; often placed on plinths, recalled here by the parapet, these were adopted during the Renaissance for sculpted portraits of the powerful and wealthy. The deep folds of the mantle and the shadow cast by the ornamental buttons (called campanoni d‘ori, ’golden bells‘) give the impression of a stiff, solid form resembling carved stone. But the short strokes of thick paint Bellini used to achieve a slightly rough texture where the light catches the gilt thread woven through the silk remind us that this isn’t a cold stone sculpture after all.
Rather than inscribe his name onto the picture, or paint it as though it was carved into the marble of the parapet, Bellini has made it look like a casual afterthought: his signature appears on a piece of paper that looks as though it has just been unfolded and stuck onto the marble. This is an astonishing act of false modesty, as it shows off Bellini’s skill at painting a range of materials, reinforcing their different textures by painting the one on top of the other.
The council room of the doge’s palace – the seat of government and the dogal residence – was decorated with a frieze of portraits of successive doges, recording their appearance for posterity. From 1474 Gentile Bellini was responsible for these portraits, which were destroyed by fire only one hundred years later. This picture was not part of that series – it was probably painted as a private commission. A poem by Lydio Catti, published in Venice in 1502, mentions Giovanni Bellini as Loredan’s portraitist and proves this was made before 1502.
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