In 1506, Albrecht Durer made a return trip to Venice, taking with him “Self-Portrait At 28”.
The Italian masters were dazzled by Durer’s painting, especially Giovanni Bellini, greatest of the Venetian masters and teacher of Giorgione and Titian.
Bellini thought Durer’s painting was the greatest portrait he had ever encountered—and, in response, Bellini showed to Durer his own most compelling portrait, which he believed to be markedly inferior to Durer’s masterpiece.
The painting Bellini showed to Durer was “The Doge Leonardo Loredan”, the greatest Bellini portrait that has survived to modern times (many Bellini paintings were destroyed in a 1577 fire at The Doge’s Palace).
Giovanni Bellini (1430-1516)
The Doge Leonardo Loredan
The National Gallery, London
Oil On Panel
24 5/16 Inches By 17 13/16 Inches
In the summer of 2007, when we visited London, we spent an entire evening in the Sainsbury Wing of London’s National Gallery (the building in which paintings up to 1500 are housed), and we made a particular point of examining this great Bellini masterwork.
The sitter was 65 years old at the time Bellini painted this portrait. The sitter had recently been installed as Doge, a position he was to hold until his death twenty years later. As was typical of Doge portraits, Loredan was painted in his Doge vestments, including the odd hat that today looks so peculiar.
“The Doge Leonardo Loredan” is a very great portrait. Bellini’s handling of the Doge’s elaborate garment is breathtaking—but Bellini’s handling of the old man’s skin is perhaps more breathtaking still.
Bellini’s portrait shows that Loredan was not a warrior Doge. Loredan’s selection as Doge had been based not upon his military skill but upon his intellect and wisdom, qualities readily apparent in Bellini’s painting. There is both cool calculation and human empathy revealed in the Doge’s face and eyes. He exudes power and authority—but frailty and wariness, too, in equal measure.
“The Doge Leonardo Loredan” is probably the most complex portrait of the Italian High Renaissance.
Bellini was an old man when he painted “The Doge Leonardo Loredan”—he was in his early seventies at the time—and he had witnessed astonishing developments in painting over the previous seven decades of his life. Born during the Early Renaissance, Bellini lived until the end of the High Renaissance. He was a living link between the Quattrocento and Mannerism.
When we examined this particular Bellini painting in London in 2007, Andrew told me that there was a High Renaissance portrait of equal if not greater stature in Munich painted at precisely the same time, that both artists had enormously admired the work of the other, and that one day I must see this other great High Renaissance portrait.
Two years later, I have now seen that other great portrait.
I am doubly privileged.
Were it possible, the Durer and Bellini portraits should one day be displayed side-by-side.
They would provide an overwhelming experience.