National Gallery of Canada / Musée des beaux-arts du Canada

Bulletin 22, 1973

Annual Index
Author & Subject

Click figure 4 here for an enlarged image

Bartolommeo Veneto and His Portrait of a Lady

by Creighton Gilbert

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When we turn to the third type of record - the inscriptions - the pattern reverses. Bartolommeo signed his works and inscribed them with other information - much more, it seems, than the average painter of his time, possibly because he felt the lack of fame. (8) The custom of signing ail paintings was not yet in use, but we know of nine or ten by him from 1502 to 1530. They early attracted the attention of document-minded scholars - which is fortunate since Bartolommeo's paintings have, with frustrating frequency, been lost to view when sold from one private collection to another more secretive one. We thus know of inscriptions of two paintings that have not been seen for a generation or more. This includes the earliest, in which Bartolommeo refers to himself in 1502 as "half Venetian and half Creroonese." (9) Writers very naturally have spoken of the local traditions of Venice and Creroona in that connection, but he was certainly referring to his parentage or something similar. A far more important inscription has been much less discussed, indeed often omitted from studies of Bartolommeo, no doubt because of the remoteness of its own appearance. It was printed as early as 1815, quoting a manuscript inventory of a collection in Ferrara then already dispersed, and was not connected with Bartolommeo, who was entirely unknown; this was done half a century later, but with little effect. In this inscription of 1509 (Bartolommeo was very likely still in Ferrara in that year) he calls himself a "pupil of Gentile Bellini." There are several other cases in which Venetian artists about 1500 signed works identifying themselves as someone's pupil, usually Giovanni Bellini's. Thus Bartolommeo's would have relatively little interest if it were another of the same, and in fact the inscription is an abbreviation, naming the teacher "Ze. Be.," differing only in one letter from the abbreviation for Giovanni Bellini, "Zo. Be.," which may be another reason for the neglect of the statement. But the relation to Gentile Bellini (c. 1429 / 1430-1507) is, I think, one of the keys to understanding Bartolommeo and his art, so far out of the mainstream. (10)

When late nineteenth-century scholars first assembled works by Bartolommeo, on the basis of the inscriptions, they tried to include an altarpiece or two among them, such as appear in the work of every other artist, but this attempt was soon abandoned. He was left with only the two clusters of Madonnas and of single heads, the portraits, saints, and allegories. The Madonnas are predominantly early works, including the inscribed one of 1502 and another of 1505. The portrait-heads are mostly later in date, including seven inscribed works of the decade 1520- 1530. (11) While highly distinctive, the Madonnas are quite standard for their time in Venice in reflecting compositional types of Giovanni Bellini's, although this means somewhat less than is often thought. Bartolommeo, like several other painters (notably Cima), departs from Giovanni's model in more intimate factors of the works - in colour, modelling, and expressive facial features. This helps to relate the Madonnas to his later work, yet it is small wonder that historians, confronted with the two groups of paintings, and without the help of a Vasari life or the like to offer a focus or a general line, have found Bartolommeo to be a scattered figure. (12) The first scholar who did important work toward assembling the works called him "protean," and the one who has written most about him called him "an eternal student." (13)

Yet a study could, I am convinced, discover unifying elements in Bartolommeo's work, taking the available fragments of biography as its starting point. No work is now associated with the years at the court of Ferrara, his only documented residence, but I think that three can be. What is more, they are portraits, and a group of these could be firmly inserted into his early career. (14) Later, about 1512, he can, I think, be placed in Padua, where the young Titian was the magnetic modem figure, and there it can be shown that Bartolommeo painted his works most praised today, the Rome and Washington male portraits. (15) The broad, controlled ease of these portraits marks them, indeed, as of the one phase of his activity that was in the mainstream, and attached to the forefront of it, as distinguished from works of his later career when he is so oddly isolated and, correspondingly, so eccentrically piquant in his painting. The particular devices he used in this late phase refer obliquely to his early work in their technique in a way I shall try to illustrate. Thus while Bartolommeo's protean variety is real, and is even a startlingly quick jumping about in pictorial solutions (analogous to the rapid moves among cities where he pursued his career), nevertheless, moods, attitudes, and even concrete details of his works do emerge that seem to link his paintings together.

Here only one aspect of his development can be broached, through his relation to the tradition of portrait painting in his area, the north of Italy, up to his time. When the Renaissance in Italy made its first complete appearance in Florence, portraiture hardly played any role at all - in the teeth of our reasonable assumption that portraits are so typical a product of the Renaissance. Donatello, Masaccio, and Uccello produced no portraits; portraits were noticeably left to minor and more conservative artists now forgotten (whose surviving works have been honoured with attributions to these great contemporaries). In the following generation, leading central Italian artists produced just a few portraits which have great power and originality, though they account for a very slight proportion of their creative energy; we see this in Pollaiuolo and Piero della Francesca. At the same rime numbers of portraits were produced by artists not of the highest rank, but more distinguished and modern than in the generation before - notably by such sculptors as Mino da Fiesole. Stilllater, Botticelli and Leonardo painted a considerable number of portraits, though they yet remained a minor part of their oeuvre. But in northern Italy already in the early fifteenth century, a splendid portrait specialty already existed on the most brilliant level, starting with Pisanello. His work is at first associated with the courts of rulers, and with a nostalgic attachment to the traditions of ornamental pattern of the International Gothic; yet later, by an imperceptible transition, it bases itself on ancient Roman authority, as in coins and portrait busts. Thus the great painters of the next generation, Mantegna and Giovanni Bellini in Venice and nearby, were at home with portraiture, and worked at it with a variety of lively experiments stimulated also by Flemish art. In Milan, in their time, a very large but low grade production of portraits is noticeable in the Pisanello tradition, marked at the most mechanical level by the rows of profiles turned out by the hundreds to decorate the ceiling beams of mansions. More ambitious and successful, but hardly more accomplished, is the similarly very stiff portraiture of local nobility and visiting royalty executed there around 1500 by Ambrogio de Predis and Bernardino de' Conti.

It does not surprise us, therefore, to find portraiture a vehicle and a specialty in the courtly side of life in the ritual-conscious republic of Venice. This is the context of Gentile Bellini, who was the official artist required to make a portrait of each new doge, and in the second half of the fifteenth century he was certainly the one important specialized portrait painter in all of Italy (see fig. 4). He works a groove that had been opened chiefly by Pisanello, and had called for a profile with decorations, precise, linear, and intricate, motionless but individual, a set of coordinates that he amends toward irregular variability of pose, under the influence of his brother Giovanni and his brother-in-law Mantegna, so that something fixed in place can yet be informal and casual. At the same rime he takes into account in the designs the overtone of official record-keeping that is responsible for analogy to the Milanese production.

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