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

Bulletin 22, 1973

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Bartolommeo Veneto and His Portrait of a Lady

by Creighton Gilbert

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The Venetian government prized Gentile greatly, most conspicuously when it sent him on a mission to Constantinople, where the Sultan had expressed a very Renaissance yearning to have his face recorded. Today Gentile is wholly overshadowed by his genius brother Giovanni, one of the innovating ancestors of our later traditions in painting; the restrictions of Gentile's tightness and flatness are all too plain, the sharp edges of his rich forms keeping them rigid. Yet the usual assumption that he left no later influence, that it was all channeled through Giovanni, goes too far. Two comments may indicate how Bartolommeo Veneto can be better understood in the light of Gentile Bellini. The first is that even in his late works, Bartolommeo seems tenacious in retaining Gentile's drawing methods, giving us a precise layout of motionless, ornamental surfaces making up a human map, unparalleled in his generation. This connection is so deeply elemental that it presumably means he had been Gentile's apprentice, who accepted his teacher as exemplar not only of a persuasive ability to produce handsome results in making clear inventories of beautiful facts, but also in the accompanying personal quirks. What has been called "German" in Bartolommeo's art is rather, as Michalski has rightly remarked, this lonely attachment to the previous century - not the place but the time is the remote allusion. The second comment is a drastic qualification of this first one. Bartolommeo was a thorough member of his own epoch, the High Renaissance, the age of Giorgione and Titian, especially in his later works, after what I think was a direct contact with Titian. Thus along with the archaism it is just as integral to him to suffuse his colours in shadows and give his people sensitive, speculative expressions, thereby attracting us to day dream moodily along with them, flatteringly inviting us, as we experience these faces, to share their imaginative refinement.

In this way we might see the generic personality of the artist Bartolommeo. A separate group of qualifications would be needed in considering his late years in Milan, where he was evidently a success, judging from the fact that he remained there to the end of his life (16) (as well as from the evidence of the copies). The large but tenth-rate portrait tradition in Milan, mentioned earlier, had of course been completely transformed, like everything else in the arts in the city, by Leonardo's residence in the 1480s and 1490s. His portraits are, needless to say, best known in examples before he went there and after he left, in Ginevra de' Benci and Mona Lisa. But the portrait of Cecilia Gallerani (fig. 5), the Duke of Milan's young mistress, painted by Leonardo about 1484, marks the direct source of his influence on young painters there in portraiture. It is always rightly noticed that the young Milanese were so overwhelmed by Leonardo that they could never paint anything after he left but mannered copies of his figures. The only salvation was found by those who by inclination or incapacity were modest, applying Leonardo's ways to something old fashioned and limited that they already knew, such as frescos in the case of Bernardino Luini (c. 1481 / 1482- 1532) and portraits in the case of Andrea Solario.

Solario in particular, who had begun his work just before 1500 in Venice, was one of the major figures in painting in Milan in the years from about 1510 to just after 1520, following his return from a successful visit to France, where the family of the French commanding general occupying Milan had invited him. Solario, whose masterpiece, the portrait of the ducal Chancellor, Domenico Morone (fig. 6), is still in the possession of an aristocratic family in Milan, even reminds us somewhat, by these circumstances in his life, of Bartolommeo's career profile. It indeed seems likely that after Andrea died, Bartolommeo took over his successful local position as a portraitist; they are also alike in some essential qualities of their work. But Solario, a distinguished portraitist who would deserve to be better known, is closer to the norm of things, with none of the bizarre modulations that seem to mark Bartolommeo. The easiest way to suggest both his high quality and his normality is to point to his influence. Around 1519 a visitor to Milan from nearby Switzerland was the young Hans Holbein. He was evidently transformed by what he saw there, having come to look for the new Italian ideas. Before his trip, he had brilliantly followed current German patterns, decorating images traditional in their Flemish realism with Italianate surface ornaments that had the prestige of classical reference, friezes of putti and the like. After Milan, Holbein created the synthesis of northern and Italian vocabularies which makes his images seem the final authority on his sitters, because they convince us of their complete individual accuracy and at the same time of their simple and pure geometric balance. The Portrait of Catherine Howard (fig. 7), in the Toledo Museum of Art, is a fairly good instance of this persuasion. As the detailed similarities confirm, it can only be from Solario that Holbein learned the Italian idea. How close Bartolommeo Veneto is to this situation is suggested by the observation that, just as the Ottawa portrait was once called a Leonardo, his best known work, the male portrait in Rome, was once called a Holbein.

These associations allow us to place Bartolommeo's situation in history with unexpected grandeur. If Solario is the binding link between Leonardo and Holbein, through his Milanese portraits around 1520, his replacement Bartolommeo fits not quite so satisfactorily and simply between the two great artists, but is instead Solario with a small alteration to a different key. It is essentially the Gentile Bellini key, attractive to us in its added sumptuousness as well as in its convincingly additive truth, irrelevant to Holbein and other contemporaries because of its archaism, so that Bartolommeo remained an eccentric without influence. All his qualities of the loser, beginning with the commitment to the small scale and ending with the lack of fame, can help to make him attractive to US. (17) Yet the definition of Bartolommeo must include his sophistication and even worldliness, the refinement - a razor-cut, linear refinement - of his references to individuals and their situations. All these are factors of an unparalleled personality whom we are fortunate to encounter.


Since this article was completed in winter 1972-1973, a great gap in the biography of Bartolommeo has been filled by Camillo Boselli's discovery of documents of 1531 and later ("Il Pittore Bartolommeo Veneto alla luce di nuovi documenti," Arte Veneta, XXVIII) published in winter 1974-1975. That these refer to the same person is clear from the references to "magistri Bartholomey venetiani olim pictoris" who elsewhere is called "mediolanensis," and from the ties of his family to the nobility in Brescia, recalling his portrait of a Brescian nobleman in the preceding year. I have only one minor difference with Boselli's interpretation, in that it seems to me he is called "Milanese" because of his long residence in that city rather than because of his ancestral background in Cremona, a city of the duchy of Milan.

The documents make legal arrangements following his death, which we thus learn was shortly before December 12, 1531. They neatly confirm that his Martinengo portrait is not of 1546 and must be of 1530. Yet that should not be treated as a negative test result from Mrs Newton's dating method with costume; rather, it underlines that it must be accompanied by allowance for leeway.

As an unexpected point, we learn that Bartolommeo's daughter was employed as "ancilla" (handmaid or attendant) to two successive Brescian noblewomen. His apparent special interest in portraits of upper servants is thus reinforced.

Most important, as Boselli rightly noted, is the completely surprising information that he died in Turin and had been living there; the special qualities of his style may indeed be re-examined in that light, even though it seems more likely than not that he settled there well after his style had matured.

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