The Emergence of the Venetian Portrait
by Raichel Le Goff

Courtauld Insitute of Art, London University

By the latter half of the fourteenth century, the profile form of portrait head, largely inspired from antique coins, was already considered old fashioned. It did not suit the growing Renaissance concern for individualism as the profile only presented one dimension of the sitter's appearance. A demand for a more life-like portrait was infiltrating Italy, largely in response to works by Northern artists that had entered southern collections and most likely been viewed by artists such as Antonello da Messina and Giovanni Bellini.

In 1475 Antonello, an artist from Sicily who may have himself visited the North, arrived in Venice and painted portraits there in a Netherlandish style that would have seemed novel to the Venetians. The figure, seen bust-length and often behind a parapet, is turned in three-quarter view to the plane of the picture, so that space is displaced and the volumes of the figure are given the maximum solidity. The gaze is now directed at the viewer allowing a form of psychological confrontation between sitter and beholder. This element of communication is important if you consider the basic aim of having one's portrait painted is to preserve a vivid living image for family members, loved ones and generations to follow. Bernardino Licinio inscribed on a family portrait that the painter "prolongs life for them with their image, and his own with his art." Eye contact is going to bring the image a lot closer to the viewer than a profile staring off into space. Of course, this was already the manner in which saints had been portrayed in quattrocento painting but the pose had not been translated into secular representation.

Antonello is often credited with single-handedly introducing this three-quarter view to Venice, but it must be stressed that such portraits existed in Venetian collections. Evenso, it is evident that Antonello had a deep understanding of the Netherlandish style and during his one year stay in Venice Antonello seems to have met with and influenced other artists. Of these, the most important to visit his studio was Giovanni Bellini who, largely inspired by the work of his brother-in-law Mantegna, had already been experimenting with three-quarter view portraits before Antonello's arrival.

From the Bellini portraits that remain to us, it is apparent he never fully imitated Antonello's 'Netherlandish' manner, but retained a secure psychological distance from the viewer by displacing the gaze. This is conspicuous in his portrait of Doge Loredano in the National Gallery painted circa1500 where the sitter retains his aloofness from the beholder by staring at an unfixed point in the distance. Although we are struck by the truth and reality of the likeness and recognize the Doge as a figure of flesh and blood, the rigid gaze gives the figure a formality that is absent from Antonello's more informal discourse with the beholder. This is of course intentional on the part of Bellini who is being asked to portray the Doge's status and authority as supreme head of the Serennissima, even though this portrait is thought to have been destined not for a public building but for the Loredano family palazzo. It seems to me that Bellini could never reconcile himself to informalizing the relationship between sitter and viewer, even when portraying young males with no apparent official status. However the Loredano portrait with its rich treatment of the Doge's silver and gold brocade costume contrasting to the smooth softly lit flesh begins a movement in which colour and surface the basic premises of Venetian painting, reassert their importance and become primary to Bellini's style.

By the time Bellini painted Doge Loredano portraiture in central Italy was reacting to the work of Leonardo. In the Portrait of Cecilia Gallerani (Crakow) Leonardo employs a three-quarter length format with the head placed high in the painting, the sitter's arms are folded and the parapet is dispensed with. This was picked up by Lorenzo Lotto, Titian and possibly Giorgione but not by Giovanni.

Simultaneously, there was a movement away from the hard edged austerity of Giovanni's "duro" manner toward Leonardo's softer "morbido" style. Vasari saw Leonardo, Giorgione and Correggio as being the three artists who united by their exploration of this morbido quality issued in the "modern era" of sixteenth century painting. At the turn of the century there was a rapidly growing demand for individual portraiture as it became fashionable with both the merchant and patrician classes. When Vasari visited Venice in 1541, he was impressed by portrait collections going back several generations. Despite his age, Bellini maintained his position as the leading portrait artist in Venice at the beginning of the new century. In 1498, whilst considering the best artist available to commission a portrait from, Isabella d'Este had made a practical comparison between Leonardo's portrait of Cecilia Gallerani and "certain beautiful portraits by the hand of Bellini." It seems the special quality in Bellini's portraits which appealed so much to his sitters, was his ability to render a sharp perception of character. As in the Doge Loredano portrait, it may only be revealed by a slight glint in the eye, the subtle curve of the lips or the telling furrows in the brow but Bellini's rare talent was for capturing the sitter's inner as well as outer self.

It is clear that Giorgione studied this element in Bellini's portraits and developed it to the point where he used the individual's physical characteristics as a vehicle to portray the sitter's personality, or 'state of mind'. Instead of the intense light of Bellini's Doge Loredano, Giorgione employs dark shadows to create a melancholy mood and introduces props that add mystery. Perhaps Giorgione's aim was to make the experience of viewing a portrait not only a visual one, but an intellectual one.

This concept is already realized in Bellini's work as a poem written by Pietro Bembo in praise of a portrait of a lady shows :

"I believe that my Bellini with his art

has given to you also her manner

so that you burn me when I look at you

although of yourself you are cold paint

which has received good fortune."

Bembo has entered into a discourse with the painted image herself. His reaction to the portrait passes through three stages; at first he sees the figure as a perfect imitation of the woman he knows in life, secondly he sees the painting actually come alive and thirdly he finally is reconciled to the image as a fabrication of paint. The poem points to the psychological effects a comparison of the model and nature stimulates.

As this painting is now lost, we may not refer to it as a prototype for the enigmatic genre of portrait paintings of young women that have been called the belle donne type. Instead, we turn to Giorgione's Laura.

Bembo's sonnet on Bellini's painting is typical of a type of short poem on a work of art fashionable in the Renaissance that seems to have been invented by Petrarch. In one of two sonnets on Simone Martini's lost portrait of Laura Petrarch praises the artist's depiction of his beloved's heavenly beauty. Giorgione painted his Laura in 1506, according to an inscription on the reverse. The sitter is identified by the laurel leaves that surround her and the romantic viewpoint is that the artist has attempted to portray Petrarch's own mistress. Giorgione's picture occupies a key place in the history of the Venetian portrait, since the artist has seen his model through a poetic veil making a very personal interpretation of what for him constitutes 'a portrait'. The Laura is no longer a simple mimetic representation as we are permitted access not only into the world of the sitter, but into the artist's own elusive inner world. This is not an explicitly 'new' way of painting, for quattrocento saints and secular figures in fresco cycles had been portrayed this way, but in Venice it was a new way of representing the contemporary individual in single portrait form.

Stylistically the Laura heralds new developments in Venetian portrait painting with its incredible sensual treatment of both the model and the paint medium. The sensitive sfumato rendering of soft flesh against the brown fur lining of her red robe, contrasts textures making it an image that evokes the sense of touch. Laura also introduces that problem peculiar to Venetian portrait painting of when is a portrait a calculated likeness of an identifiable person and when is it not? The touchstone for deciding when a portrait is really a portrait is usually the degree to which those much abused terms, 'realism' or 'naturalism', are present in the features of the sitter. This dilemma is actually the reason the lose art historical term 'belle donne pictures' evolved for modern eyes cannot accept the degree of flawless perfection with which these women are depicted and conclude that they must not be portraits from the life, but concoctions of the artist's imagination.

The Laura however is not in this category, she simply teased it into being. Imposing our modern concept of beauty upon the Renaissance, we have decided Laura is too plain to be anything but a portrait. Indeed, if she were fully clothed, she would be far less remarkable. It is the fact that this girl is holding open her robe to show us her small vulnerable breast that makes the painting erotic. This is a forbidden action, one that can only take place in the intimacy of the bedchamber or the artist's studio and we imagine, only with a woman of a certain ilk.

As a wife or daughter could hardly pose in this fashion, it is probable that Giorgione's mystery model was a member of the Cortigane class. Cortigana was a euphemism for a high-class prostitute and the aristocrats of the profession were to be found in Venice. These courtesans were distinguished not only by their beauty and their high price but also by their graceful manners and splendid clothes and jewels.

In 1543 the Venetian Senate decreed that :

"no whore living in Venice may dress in, or wear on any part of her person, gold, silver or silk, except for her coif, which may be of pure silk; and such women may not wear necklaces, pearls, or rings with or without stones, either in their ears or in any other imaginable place."

The reason given for this decree is that the whores "are so well dressed and adorned that on many occasions our noble and citizen women have been confused with them" .

This means that prior to 1543 we can presume the courtesans of Venice were dressed, bejewelled and coiffured to the highest standard which makes identifying who is a recognized gentildonna and who is an anonymous cortigana difficult in numerous Venetian portraits.

A good example of this ambiguity is Titian's, La Bella, (Pitti). Painted in 1536, it presents an image of a beautiful young woman who gazes directly out of the picture. Her hair is dark blonde and her decollete is bare, but she wears a splendidly rich gown and gold chains. There is nothing in the painting that gives clues to her identity, no coat of arms, no symbolic reference to the emblema of her family, no inscription and no domestic setting such as Titian would employ for his portraits of grand ladies Eleonora Gonzaga della Rovere, (Uffizi) and Empress Isabella (Madrid).

La Bella was commissioned by the Duke of Urbino, and he refers to her in his correspondence only as "the woman in blue".

This suggests that the name and the personality of the woman who sat for this picture was of less importance than the image she inspired.

La Bella is neither respectable nor unrespectable until we look at her near identical image in Titian's Girl in a Fur (Vienna) where she appears almost naked. Once a model appears in a state of undress, we no longer view the picture as a standard portrait, but an erotic portrayal and the imagined social status of the sitter changes too.

When we are confronted by Titian's Flora in the Uffizi or Palma Vecchio's Blonde Woman (sometimes also called Flora) in the National Gallery, we are no longer thinking 'wives and daughters' but 'mistresses and prostitutes'. Only a woman groomed for love-making, for seduction of the opposite sex, could appear so calm and serene in a state of undress. In some cases, we know for certain that the models were mistresses. Giovanni della Casa composed this Petrarchan sonnet in praise of a portrait (now lost) of his mistress Elisabetta Quirini Massola, painted by Titian:

"Well I see, Titian, in marvellous forms

my idol, who opens and moves her

beautiful eyes on your living canvas,

and she speaks and breathes truly

and moves her sweet limbs."

I think the main achievement of the artist with quasi-portraits of the belle donne category, was to convince the viewer of an ideal of natural beauty. Titian's Flora is devoid of all jewellery, and artifice, save for the lovely pink stole that enhances the natural flesh tones. She appears 'as nature intended her' and her erotic appeal lies in this very fact.

I don't believe they were ever intended as conventional portraits, but that they do bear a resemblance to a sitter. Further, I would say that this type of erotic image did not greatly influence standard portraiture in Venice in the 16th century, but remained a genre on its own, influencing more the depiction of women in allegorical and mythological paintings. These pictures could be seen as composing part of the 'Myth of Venice', an erotic advertisement that everything in the city was as perfect and surreally beautiful as the city itself could appear in its glamorous natural setting.

This begs the question that if paintings of ideally beautiful women are in a category apart, is it necessary to look for similar pictures of handsome men?

Again, we can turn to Giorgione and look at his Self-Portrait as David, to see the emergence of what is sometimes called the "bravo" type possibly after an early picture by Palma Vecchio entitled The Bravo which for a long time was attributed to Giorgione. Like the belle donne type, the new class of poetic male portrait was focused on exploiting physical beauty. The sitters most often wore their hair long and lose and their poses were more unrestrained than the traditional formal portrait. In most cases a narrative element was introduced such as a musical instrument, a skull or even a furtive figure in the background, in order to create an atmosphere of mystery and intrigue.

Giorgione's Self-portrait as David (recorded in an engraving by Wenzel Hollar) is perhaps the earliest example of this new genre. That it was a picture which influenced other Venetian artists cannot be disputed, (one only need to look at the Licinio in our own Ashmolean), or more particularly we can look at another presumed self-portrait in Munich attributed to Palma Vecchio. In the 17th and 18th centuries this picture was known as a self-portrait of Giorgione. Since then, it has been variously attributed to Titian, Dossi and del Piombo. Philip Rylands, author of a monograph on Palma Vecchio, calls it a Self-portrait of Palma in his catalogue raisonne and dates it to 1516-18. The man in this picture has the same long hair, critical gaze and sensual lips of the Giorgione image, if none of the intensity. If it is a self-portrait of a Venetian artist, it has been painted by someone who has not only tried to emulate Giorgione's portrait style, but to look like Giorgione himself. It is thought to be the same picture as one described in Vasari's Life of Palma. Vasari goes into a fit of purple prose over this self-portrait which he says was better than anything that had ever been done in Venice and that if Palma died after executing this work, it alone would have been enough to ensure his everlasting fame. Described by Vasari as :

<<the best of all, and surely the most stunning, is the self-portrait he did by looking in a mirror, of himself draped in camel skins, with tufts of fur, giving such a vivid impression that nothing better can be imagined.>>

He is particularly astounded by "a certain look in the eyes" that Palma had achieved. A look which I would describe (if this is indeed the picture) as slightly ironical, very alert and acutely penetrating, a look which we see first in Giorgione's self-portrait.

Included in this cryptic category of male portraits are a group of half-length shepherd types and other youths. These relate perhaps even closer to the belle donne type in that they seem less true-to-life portraits than generalized images of ideal types and again, it is Giorgione who seems to have set the trend with pictures like Shepherd with Flute in the Royal Collection at Hampton Court.

It was not only in this idyllic realm of poetic or 'fancy' portraits that Giorgione led the way. There is a Portrait of a Gentleman in Washington, dated to no later than 1510. It is remarkable in that it takes the traditional form of a half-length portrait behind a parapet but with the emphatic gesture of the clenched fist and the disturbing oblique glance it becomes a powerful translation of the sitter's character to the point where intensifying the abstract emotions supersedes the importance of recording his physical appearance. What is the object that he clenches so tightly and why the element of suspicion and disdain in the glance? Up till recently it was attributed to Giorgione and is now catalogued as Giorgione/Titian and involvement at some level by the elder artist seems likely. Again, Giorgione has not been able to resist inserting the narrative element, to add another dimension to the straightforward representation of his sitter.

The Washington picture is counterpart to Titian's Portrait of a Man in the National Gallery (c. 1510). The connection goes beyond superficial similarities with hairstyles and beards to emulate the same psychological overtones in the intrusion of the figure upon the parapet and the penetrating sidelong glance.

Vasari puts forward the idea that Giorgione nurtured the talents of Titian and Sebastiano del Piombo in order that his own art should be perpetuated. A measure of how faithfully the two younger artists adopted their master's style is evident in the body of works where attributions remain confused between the three artists even today. An example of a picture where all three have been cited as author is The Three Philosophers (or Three Ages of Man) in the Pitti.

Sebastiano left Venice forever a few months after Giorgione died and no portrait survives from his Venetian period which is unequivocally that of a 'real' personality, they are all in the ambiguous portrait genre developed by Giorgione. When Sebastiano reached Rome, he floundered for the first years there and painted some appalling portraits as he sought to find his footing on new ground. A marvellous assimilator of other artist's styles however, it was not long before his portraits were to be mistaken for those by Raphael.

One of the earliest portraits by Titian, the Portrait of a Man in Copenhagen, was probably executed whilst he was still with Giorgione around 1510 when Titian was barely twenty, placing it contemporary with the Washington picture. It adopts the same clenched fist and with the distracted gaze of the eyes, pursed lips and arched eyebrows, attempts to express a profound state of mind in the sitter. It was only a short step from here to a whole series of male portraits where Titian barely changes the expression or pose at all, but with each one, develops his own distinctive style that departs from the abstracted 'other worldly' atmosphere evoked in Giorgione's works where the sitters where in effect devices for the artist to project his own world onto. Titian's sitters were to occupy space with greater confidence and take up more of the canvas.

Although Titian wold go on to become the most celebrated portrait artist throughout Europe, I personally think Giorgione's role in the development of Venetian portrait painting cannot be overly stressed. We need only refer to Palma Vecchio's Portrait of a Man (London) painted some ten years later than the Laura or Titian's Girl in a Fur (Vienna) painted three decades onward to demonstrate the repercussions of just one of Giorgione's portraits.

Even though the surviving oeuvre of Giorgione is slim, we must not neglect the vast company of sixteenth century Venetian paintings which are labelled "circle of" or "follower of" Giorgione and the numerous copies of portraits which testify to his unique influence.

 Bernardino Licinio, Portrait of Arrigo Licinio and his Family, Galleria Borghese, Rome. cf. R.A. Exhibition cat. The Genius of Venice 1500-1600, 1983, cat. no. 41.

 Venetians were ardent travellers and brought back works of art from the North. Marco Barbarigo, Consul of Venice's merchant community, owned a portrait by a follower of Jan van Eyck in the late 1440's and Dierik Bouts' "Man in Red Hat and Gown" dated 1462 was in a Venetian collection. Notherners like the German family of Fugger, also came to Venice to live and work, bringing works of art with them.

 Mantegna had been painting portraits in three-quarter format from the 1450's: Portrait of Cardinal Ludovico Mezzarota (Berlin), c. 1459 and Portrait of Duke Francesco Sforza (Washington) c. 1460. Two three-quarter portraits by Giovanni datable to around 1474 are the Portrait of Jorg Fugger in the Norton Simon Museum and that of Raffaele Zovenzoni, the Triestino humanist whose portrait was painted by Giovanni on a page in the manuscript of Zovenzoni's book of Latin poems, the "Istrias", which was published in the same year.

 "Essendone hogi accaduto vedere certi belli retracti de man de Zoanne Bellino siamo venute in ragionamento de le opere de Leonardo cum desiderio de vederle al paragone di queste havemo." Isabella d'Este to Cecilia Gallerani, Documenti e memorie riguardanti la vita e le opere di Leonardo da Vinci, ed. Luca Beltrami (Milan, 1919), 51, doc.88.

 Pietro Bembo, Prose e rime, ed. Carlo Dionisotti, Turin, 1971, p. 521-22.

 Another interpretation is that the girl is pushing the robe toward her breast to cover herself.

 Prostitution and ostentation; the whore defined, 1543 From a Senate decree of 21 February 1542. Translated in Venice, A Documentary History 1450-1630, edited by D. Chambers, B. Pullan & J. Fletcher, Oxford, 1992 p. 127.

 Example : two paintings that appeared in The Genius Of Venice, R.A. exhibition of, 1983, fall into this category; the Portrait of a Woman, by Veronese, cat. no. 138 and Portrait of a Young Woman, attributed to Moretto, 60. Paris Bordone, Cariani and Lorenzo Lotto also painted ambiguous portraits of women who in reality might have been courtesans and mistresses. Bordone's Portrait of a Young Woman (c.1550) in the National Gallery has been variously described as "A Lady of the Brignole Family" and a "donna lascivissima", C. Gould, The Sixteenth Century Italian Schools, National Gallery catalogue, London 1975, 674, pp.36-37.

 "il ritratto di quella donna che ha la veste azzurra". cf. J. Wilde, Venetian Art from Bellini to Titian, Oxford 1974, (ed. 1991), p. 248.

 Much the same as the 20th century photographic fashion model, who, (up till the present decade) was used to provide images of beauty, but whose identity was hardly ever revealed.

 Giovanni della Casa, (Opere di Monsignor Giovanni della Casa), 4 vols. Milan, 1806.

 One does not find, for example, this type of erotic portrait in the work of Veronese. However he did employ it for his history paintings, see figure of Herse in Hermes, Herse and Aglauros (Fitzwilliam Musuem).

 Interesting to note that the so-called Self Portrait of Palma Vecchio (Munich) is recorded in the same collection in Antwerp as another painting thought to be a copy of Giorgione's original Self Portrait as David (now lost).

Back to Index Page for Raichel Le Goff


Best of the Web

©Electronic Publishing Corp.