This exquisite and enigmatic portrait and its pendant (1975.1.86) are most likely the works by the Venetian painter and illuminator Jacometto, recorded by the connoisseur Marcantonio Michiel in the collection of a Venetian patrician in 1543. Michiel, who praised them as "a most perfect work," identified the man as Alvise Contarini and the woman as a "nun of San Secondo" (a Benedictine convent in Venice). The paired portraits and the allusion to fidelity on the verso of the male effigy (a roebuck chained beneath the Greek word AIEI, meaning “forever”) would normally suggest a married couple; however, her possible status as a nun makes it difficult to determine their relationship. If the garment is a habit, which seems doubtful given her bare shoulders, she may have led a secular life as a nun or entered the convent as a widow. The portrait may have been commissioned platonically (such cases are known). Alternatively, the wimple-like headdress may represent an entirely secular and contemporary fashion trend. Perhaps the portraits, which probably fit together in a boxlike frame, were designed to hide their clandestine relationship. Illustrating the influence of Netherlandish painting on Venetian portraiture, the portraits are striking for their meticulous detail, highly refined technique, and luminous, atmospheric landscape backgrounds.
This important and exquisite miniature, together with its pendant, A Portrait of Alvise Contarini (Robert Lehman Collection, 1975.1.86), form the cornerstone of Jacometto Veneziano's oeuvre. Jacometto was a Venetian master known primarily through numerous descriptions in works of private collections written by the Venetian patrician Marcantonio Michiel in the early sixteenth century. A small corpus of portraits is now generally accepted as Jacometto's work, which is of particular interest because of the cultivated and unusual character of the imagery, including allusive painted reverses and uncommon depictions of women. Jacometto's fame among his contemporaries is suggested by a letter from the humanist Michele di Paciola written in September 1497 in which the already deceased Jacometto is called "the first man in the world" for his miniatures, his other preferred medium. Jacometto is now considered one of the Venetian artists most deeply influenced by Antonello da Messina's arrival in Venice in the mid-1470s.
The pair of portraits in the Lehman Collection have been the object of intense scrutiny in recent years regarding their original construction and function, the identity of the sitters, and the meaning of the imagery. Although great progress has been made in understanding the pair, it remains in certain ways enigmatic and some of our analysis perforce hypothetical. When the two panels are displayed as a diptych, they reveal a man and woman in contemporary dress who face one another; behind them is a complementary though not continuous landscape background that unites the two images. While the man is in characteristic late fifteenth-century Venetian garb (a black robe and cap), the woman's clothing is more unusual, combining a wimple-like veil (comparable to that seen in modified form in two other portraits by the artist) and a garment that leaves the shoulders uncovered. Each panel has a painted reverse. That of the man has a delicate depiction of a roebuck, symbol of faithful love since antiquity, tethered to a golden disk inscribed with the Greek word meaning "forever." The deer is set against a faux porphyry background, which may very well have funereal connotations. The reverse of the woman, painted to imitate gilt bronze, is the only one of the pair's four sides (rectos and versos) that lacks a gesso ground; instead it was prepared with a black paint layer covered with another, bronze-colored layer, and the composition was painted in shell gold. It is impossible to read the image fully because of surface damage; however, infrared reflectography more clearly reveals a male figure seated with legs spread on a rocky outcrop with trees in the foreground. A body of water extends to the left, and a gondola, with its distinctive oarlock, is moored near the shoreline. Although the subject of this grisaille has not been identified, it has been compared to related medallic images, most suggestively the reverse of Valerio Belli’s portrait of Pietro Bembo of about 1530, in which the writer reclines by a stream surrounded by trees. Under most circumstances, it would be sensible to think that the Lehman paintings depict a married couple, with the allegorical scenes enlarging upon the theme of conjugal relationships.
The pair of portraits was described in two separate Venetian collections in the sixteenth century. The first is that of Michele Contarini, as recorded by the patrician Marcantonio Michiel in 1543. A transcription of Michiel’s passage reads: "There is a little portrait of M(esser) Alvise Contarini q(uondam) M(esser)… who died some years ago, and a portrait across from [or opposite or adjoining] it on the same panel of a nun of San Segondo, and on the cover of these portraits a little deer in a landscape, while its leather case has foliage stamped gold. This most perfect work is by the hand of Jacometto." San Segondo (or Secondo) refers to a Benedictine convent on an island set in the Venetian lagoon. By 1565 the portraits were in the Vendramin collection, where they had received new attributions, to Giovanni Bellini; in that inventory, the woman is again described as a nun.
The questions concerning the pair’s original owner, function, and meaning are directly related to their initial construction, about which we can now speculate rather more fruitfully; even if inconclusively. The female portrait is somewhat smaller than that of the male, but its painted surface is complete and had not been trimmed. Indeed, the panel had edges of ungessoed wood, and from this we may surmise that the gesso ground was applied following the application of an engaged frame (now lost); conversely, that of the male portrait is gessoed to its edges, but it, too, has unpainted edges, that on the bottom of the portrait itself being noticeably greater (it is possible that both panels have been marginally cut down). These differences in size, preparation, and technique of the painted reverses, in addition to the discontinuity of the landscapes, indicate that the panels must have fit together in a somewhat unusual manner and were protected by the leather case mentioned by Michiel. Private portraits came in many forms: with painted covers, fitted lids, and so on. We even have examples of extant protective bags, such as a velvet one for a portrait diptych of King René of Anjou and Jeanne de Laval of about 1476 (Musée du Louvre, Paris).
Of these various possibilities, it is perhaps most likely that Jacometto’s pair was fitted into a small boxlike frame. The larger male portrait may have been at the top and was removable, perhaps sliding over the female portrait (pulled by the unpainted lower edge found on one side of the panel?), likely with the allegorical image of the resting deer uppermost. This is comparable to the construction of Albrecht Dürer’s Portrait of Hieronymous Holzschuher (Gemäldegalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin). When the upper panel was removed, the paintings could be seen side by side, explaining why both early descriptions focus on the front and back of the male portrait but do not mention the grisaille scene on the reverse of the female portrait, which might have often remained resting on a table. Perhaps this side’s more frequent contact with a surface accounts for its damaged state. The same would be true if the male portrait were fitted into a lid that lifted off the female portrait below, and the entire construction were a proper box. Portraits such as this could be kept entirely private – only the outermost image would normally be visible – and must therefore have had some personal meaning for the original owners, perhaps as a keepsake if the sitters were separated.
We do not know Jacomettos’ inspiration for attempting this complex construction. It is not in line with Antonello’s portraiture, which otherwise influenced him profoundly, but it is worth noting that in the Vendramin collection were two other portraits attributed to Bellini, both of which either had a cover or were set in a boxlike structure. Likewise, it has now been shown that Bellini’s Portrait of a Young Boy (Barber Institute of Fine Arts, Birmingham), painted in 1474, was probably the lid of a cabinet that included a marble bust and a painted momento mori as well. Thus small, personal portraits of unusual format were being created in the Bellini workshop.
There continues to be a lively debate about the identification of this mysterious pair. What was their relationship? Was she really a "nun of San Secondo?" How are we meant to read the allegorical scenes? Although Michiel helpfully identified the man as Alvise Contarini, we know of some eight men by that name who would have been the appropriate age when the painting was made. Perhaps he was the Alvise who married Daria Quarini in 1481 and who was related to the more famous Pietro Contarini, also the original owner of the palace where Michiel saw the paintings. More intriguingly, who is this placid woman with her hair demurely covered and her shoulders alluringly bare? As mentioned above, every aspect of Alvise’s portrait alludes to fidelity and love, and this, combined with the woman’s dress, had led many commentators to reject Michiel’s description and conclude that she must be Alvise’s wife or mistress, not a nun. At the same time, Michiel’s statement cannot be discounted easily; especially as he was fully aware of the female monasteries in Venice: two of his own sisters were abbesses, one of them Benedictine. Furthermore, his diaries include comments that reveal his awareness of conventual reforms at San Secondo, a site that may be represented in the painting by the small island with a walled building.
There are various paths out of this impasse. First, if Alvise was portrayed posthumously, as the porphyry reverse of his portrait suggests, then the woman may be his widow. The love between them could be eternal, yet the widow could have begun a new life with her involvement at the convent. There she may have enjoyed the privileges of her patrician status and been allowed an elegant and non-too-spartan environment, with fine clothing and many luxuries. The reforms that Michiel noted in his diaries and that led the convent to a stricter rule took place in 1519, some twenty years after the artist’s death. Many other instances of refined, beautiful nuns (and tertiaries) who led seemingly secular lifestyles have now been documented. Of course there are two other possible interpretations of this pair; that their love was clandestine and the portraits were designed to keep it that way; or that the piety of the woman was not in doubt, as the love being offered by Alvise Contarini was not meant to sully her, but rather was offered in the spirit of the Song of Songs: My beloved is like a roe or young hart."
[Adopted from Andrea Bayer 2011]
Possibly Michele Contarini (1543); probably Gabriele Vendramin (1565); Fürstlich Liechtensteinische Gemäldegalerie, Vienna, Austria, 1863 (cat. 1873, no. 1081 [as Antonello da Messina]; cat. 1885, no. 734 [as Antonello da Messina]); Wildenstein, New York from 1961. Acquired by Robert Lehman in November 1967.
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