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

Bulletin 22, 1973

Annual Index
Author & Subject

Bartolommeo Veneto and His Portrait of a Lady

by Creighton Gilbert

Pages  1  |  2  |  3  |  4  |  5  |  6  |  7  |  8  |  9 

On the other hand, the X-rays do show a great concern with costume. The head-dress and the thin blouse in particular have been redone, and a specialist in the costume of the period, Mrs Stella Newton, concludes that the first version relates to the fashions of 1522 or thereabouts, the present state to those years of the period 1525-1530. Such dates would represent the earliest possible years of the painting. How long after each style had been introduced the lady might still have been happy to be seen in it is, of course, a large variable. It would depend on such unknowns as her age, whether she lived at court or in the country, and the degree of perceived difference in the styles from year to year. X-rays of other portraits might show that such changes were common, but few have been attempted. A critical point is that the later version seems to be by Bartolommeo's hand, so that he would have been called in again (perhaps on such an occasion as a portrait of her husband?). Therefore with respect to our tracing of the artist's development, the later revisions and their date must be taken into as much account as the first version. This is most satisfactory, since previously a date around 1530 had seemed to me right. It was based on the observation that, among all Bartolommeo's other works, this is most closely related to another portrait of a lady (see fig. 3) which he inscribed with the date 1530. This lady is apparently a different sort of person, or was so seen by the artist, more his usual kind, turning to look at us, distinctly individual in her middle-aged features, while, as it should, her costume shows the same fashion.

The portrait of 1530 is here made known for the first time through a published reproduction, but its existence in several private collections has been noted from the very first writings on the artist. (5) It owed its continuing printed notices mainly to its inscription, important because it and one other painting with an inscription, generally read as of the same year, are the last records of Bartolommeo's life and activity. The lady of l530 might, for several small reasons, be considered later than the Ottawa portrait by a short interval. An older woman might wear the same fashions longer, and the three-quarter-length portrait was just coming into fashion about this date, partially replacing the half-length. But these are not strong points - and half-length continued in use - and we do not have enough others or other works to pursue this matter further.

If we try to sketch the artist's life and career as a whole, we find difficulties of a kind quite exceptional in the study of artists of this place and time. In fact this discussion has to include notice of the special limited data we do have. For an Italian painter of the sixteenth century there are usually three kinds of written data from which to begin: inscriptions on paintings with signatures and dates, records preserved in manuscript archives (such as such as payments for work, or certificates of his purchases of property, taxes, and other matters of public record and finally the broader comments of contemporary writers like Vasari. This last source is normally the richest of the three, both in quantity of information and helpfulness as a directional guide, as anyone will agree who has gone through the process of checking the origins of conventional statements about Renaissance artists. In the case of Bartolommeo, we have no help from such writers whatever. Bartolommeo is not mentioned by Vasari nor by any of the many other writers who followed him, even in the seventeenth or eighteenth century. As Vasari wrote primarily about artists of Florence, he was imitated by others who matched his local pride by writing about the artists of their own towns, and even when they wrote a great deal later, they put down valuable local traditions. Bartolommeo seems to have worked in, or had associations with, Venice, Padua, Ferrara, Cremona, and Milan; but he appears in none of the corresponding local histories. I venture to suggest that he is unique in this respect, that no other painter of interest in his century anywhere in Italy has so little written about him. Aside from Bartolommeo, only assistants without individuality, peasant Madonna-makers and the like, are so treated. Of course one could speculate that he was thought to have no talent, but his success with sitters, and the many contemporary copies, seem to rule that out. (6) Several negative factors must have been at work cumulatively. One is that his chief place of work was Milan, and it is true that there was never a Milanese Vasari. No book was written on the painters of Milan until the nineteenth century, and this was by a scholar, after the Vasari tradition had become extinct. Yet most of the Milanese painters of the Renaissance were written about, perhaps having also worked in other towns, and the Cremonese and Ferrarese writers might have recalled Bartolommeo. What most led to his total obscurity, I think, was his specialty in small paintings for private owners - portraits, and small Madonnas. The biographers naturally paid much of their attention to public commissions which they themselves could see and which seemed more imposing; thus Vasari remarked in the case of Savoldo (act. 1508 - after 1548), a contemporary of Bartolommeo's in Venice, that because he specialized in these more personal works (although not quite to such an extent as Bartolommeo), there was nothing to tell of him - yet in the seventeenth century biographers of the artists of two cities dealt with Savoldo.

By the same token, we have very few documents of payment to Bartolommeo, for these tend to survive only in the public offices that preserve records of more or less public events. The account book of a nobleman buying a portrait has drastically less chance of preservation than a contract made by a church, though some old aristocratic family archives do exist in Milan still and one may hope for discoveries. Only one set of records about Bartolommeo is known, showing that he was active in Ferrara at the court of the rulers from the years 1505-1508. (7) (Thus the first published book in which Bartolommeo's name appears is by a Ferrarese archival scholar in the 1860s.) Bartolommeo was paid for gilding frames, for doing camival decorations, for painting a Madonna with two saints in half-length, and acting as consultant in estimating the proper price of another artist's work in the Cathedral. These records make up a typical miscellany, reflecting the random survival of documents and the variety of jobs that even prominent artists did. (The statement sometimes made - "These documents must refer to someone else of the same name, since so and so was too prominent to do minor labor" - is for the most part a fallacy.) They also illustrate a common tendency of records of small routine tasks to survive proportionately more often. A few years later, at the same court, Dosso appears in a similar way, but in a far larger quantity of documents, and his now vanished carnival decorations and designs for dishes are recorded to the exclusion of the major paintings by hill that survive, for these were likely to have been done outside the context of the paymaster's office. Similarly, the one painting mentioned as by Bartolommeo does not match the paintings by him we do have; therefore the records cannot at all be a basis for building up knowledge of his work.

Next Pagethird type of work

  |  2  |  3  |  4  |  5  |  6  |  7  |  8  |  9

Top of this page

Home | Français | Introduction | History
Annual Index | Author & Subject | Credits | Contact

This digital collection was produced under contract to Canada's Digital Collections program, Industry Canada.

"Digital Collections Program, Copyright © National Gallery of Canada 2001"