Giovanni Bellini’s portrait of Doge Leonardo Loredan in the Sainsbury wing of the National Gallery is a masterpiece of poise and reflection. It is one of those portraits so precisely rendered that you half expect the doge to turn and speak to you – in the Italian of 500 years ago, for this painting was completed around 1502. The way Bellini has captured the patterns on the silken robes is exquisite and demonstrates the skill that made him one of La Serenissima’s most successful artists.
It helped no doubt that he was born into an artistic family. His father was Jacopo Bellini, his brother Gentile Bellini. They were even related by marriage to Mantegna. The connections helped the artist to get the commissions that were necessary for his skills to come to the attention the Doge and other powerful patrons. By the time he died Giovanni had outshone all other members of his family and had popularised the painting of portraits in Venice.
Bellini’s choice of a simple blue background is part of the success of the painting. Nothing distracts from the Doge himself, as was the case in real life, where the Doge was the undisputed first citizen of Venice. There is no need for the glitz and golden baubles of monarchies – Venice was a proud republic and had no need for unseemly displays of wealth. Indeed it had enacted various sumptuary laws banning extravagance. However the background involves lashings of ultramarine, a pigment created from lapis lazuli. Shipped to Europe from Asia via Venice, this was an excessively expensive pigment – sometimes more costly than gold. So the Doge has slipped in a surreptitious comment about his wealth in a painting that appears to be relatively unostentatious.
The simplicity of the pose seems to have been drawn from Roman sculpture. The Room of the Emperors in the Capitoline museums displays busts of the Roman emperors and it is likely this portrait is based on that tradition. The doge was – again surreptitiously – claiming descent from the ancient Romans.
Bellini then would not have chosen the pose or the robes of state that the Doge is wearing. He would have been employed merely as official photographer, taking a snapshot for the government to use for propaganda purposes. He though has managed to give the image the solidity of a marble bust – yet he has retained the softness of the silk robes. This portrait is so much more than another official image. Bellini has taken his brief and created a remarkable portrait that seethes with quiet energy. It is a remarkable achievement.
You can see this painting in room