Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Bellini's so-called Pagan Allegory

In the previous post I mentioned Giovanni Bellini's so-called Pagan Allegory. It seems useful to spend some time with this early work (c.1460) as background before further discussion of the later (c.1490) series of allegories. There don't appear to be many images of it online, although it can be found via Google Books in Rona Goffen's 1989 Giovanni Bellini. In describing this painting she also describes the kind of setting in which Bellini's later series of Allegories would have been found. In the image below I've given it a false golden frame, as I did with the previous picture of Bellini's Allegories, to provide some indication of the richness of the original setting.

Bellini's Allegory of Renunciation and Reward

Venetian Restelli

Bellini's so-called Pagan Allegory, dating from the late 1450s or early 1460s, is among the first known Venetian representations of [humanist allegory]. And this early Venetian picture of a classical subject was part of a decorative object—not an 'easel' or large-scale mural painting; until the turn of the sixteenth century in Venice, such objects were evidently banished to the intimate and secondary territory of personal furnishings.
Bellini's small panel surely formed part of a larger whole. Almost identical in size to his later Allegories in the Accademia, this picture probably served the same purpose as they seem to have done, namely, to decorate a restello. Bellini's early Blood of the Redeemer [above-right] was evidently also intended to adorn such an object—in this case, a tabernacle of the host. Restelli were luxurious secular objects, elaborate and costly mirrors enframed with carved and gilded wood, and surrounded by small paintings, the ostensible practical purpose of all this being the convenient storage (and the true purpose, the display) of toilet articles that were themselves luxurious, such as decorated combs, and to clean them, long brushes of horsehair with elegant fittings. The first mention of a restello seems to occur in an inventory of 1457 of a Murano household: if Bellini's Allegory was made for such an object, then it has the distinction of having been among the first of its kind, as well as one of the first such objects in Venetian art.

Restelli were apparently unique to Venice, and few have survived. Much of what is known about them comes from Gustav Ludwig's reconstruction, based on documentary evidence. Frida Schottmüller's 1921 book, Furniture and Interior Decoration of the Italian Renaissance, has this to say about restelli.

The clothes-rack (attaccapanno or capellinaro) was occasionally provided with a carved ornamental top, or it was of a shield shape with cartouche ornaments. Sometimes it was combined with a shelf, and with thus in Venice a peculiar small ornamented object of furniture was created known as restello di camera, to which a mirror was often added. Its pegs, however were not intended for suspending clothes, but small articles of wear.

It must not be forgotten that mirrors made of glass at that time were held as precious objects and therefore their framing worthy of every adornment; florid decorations which with paintings and reliefs would have diverted the attention from the chief object, were here in their right place. The earliest mirrors were round like bulls' eyes and often deeply set in their frames which were likewise round; the transition to oblong forms was brought about by adding ornamented wedges. The frames were sometimes so broad and elaborate, especially in the restello, that the mirror itself was relegated to a secondary place, the decoration being the chief thing.

G. Ludwig, in the above cited work gives full details as to the restello, and also mentions the restello di scrittura, serving for letters and writing materials. He derives the word from restellus (a small rack). The restello must not be confused with the restelliera or lanziera which was a large rack for holding weapons, lances, and banners.

Goffen also discusses the banning of restelli in Venice, which took place at about the same time that the Academy Allegories were produced.

If Bellini was a law-abiding citizen of the Republic, however, then he would not have painted a restello for Catena or indeed for anyone else after 1489, for that December the Senate decreed that such objects should not be made, bought, or sold. "For some time", the indignant senators declaimed, "it has been the custom to make new expenditures that are entirely vain and superfluous, ...that is, restelli and gilded chests [chasse], very sumptuous and of [monetary] value. And now, let it be decreed that all the said restelli and gilded chests be de facto prohibited and forbidden, so that from now on they cannot be used or possessed in any manner, under all penalties and strictures contained in the legislation of ornaments of rooms; this applies to those who desire to possess them, as to masters who work on them." The senators then forbade expensive wedding cakes and women's fur pieces. These so-called sumptuary laws, meant to curb frivolous spending, were frequently and conspicuously flouted by many Venetians. In the same year, the Senate felt compelled to reiterate its opposition to marzipan, which had already been declared a controlled substance in 1476 and 1483. In any case, the date of the law pertaining to restelli is consistent with the style of at least the first four Allegories; perhaps the restello was legal after all, if just under the wire.

Renunciation and Reward

Painted in gold on a black ground, Bellini's picture is like a gilded drawing or manuscript illumination; it is almost jewel-like, and the object that it once adorned must have been splendid. In technique, the panel resembles the handling of the cherubim surrounding Saint Vincent Ferrer, [above-right] also painted in gold striations on black, or the fictive reliefs on the parapet in the Blood of the Redeemer, which are related in their antique subject matter as well. With a fine brush, Bellini applied the gold sometimes in long striations, sometimes in shorter strokes that bend back on themselves, and sometimes in cross-hatching. The strokes almost merge to suggest highlight, whereas their absence, the absence of gold, leaves the black as shadow, including cast shadows. It is a tour de force of a drawing technique that becomes coloristic painting.
The subject of the Pagan Allegory, which remains an enigma, was probably always intended to be arcane—like the Hypnerotomachia, to take a frustrating literary parallel—but perhaps more readily understood in relation to the other panels that must have accompanied it. Surely he is a ruler or a god, seated on a block that resembles an ancient altar, he wears a diadem and a tunic with a mantle. The other figure, more modestly dressed, kneels to offer a palm branch and an orb. The way in which the orb is decorated with leaves (possibly myrtle) recalls the bands of precious metal and/or gems that adorn the orbs of Christian rulers, but now turned sideways rather than upright. The palm frond, too, is familiar in the context of Christian imagery—martyrs hold palm branches, and Christ's path is covered with fronds in the Entry into Jerusalem—but here the palm frond has been restored to its ancient usage as a sign or offering of Peace. Yet the supplicant's demeanor is not one of defeat; his sensitive and animated face suggest an intellectual or cultural offering to his prince. The idiosyncratic refinement of his features and the relationship between the two men may suggest an association like that of Octavian and Virgil, a ruler who is patron and recipient of the offerings of art and culture, in the frontispiece of Virgil's works published in Venice in 1508. In Bellini's composition, the two appear to address each other, and whatever the subject of their discourse, the artist has endowed it with considerable energy.

This is a poor iconographic analysis of a fairly simple image. All the elements are noted, but Goffen makes assumptions, (that it is a purely Pagan theme and that the palm is offered to the Lord rather than to the Supplicant), which hinder her interpretation.

The figure wearing a diadem is enthroned on an altar-like seat, itself on a higher plane than the kneeling figure. These major compositional elements are general rather than specific, but they make the general point very strongly. Based on those elements, the generic descriptive identifications "Lord" and "Supplicant" seem more like observations than interpretations. The superior's eyes are lowered, looking toward the meeting of right-hands; the inferior is looking up and appears to be making an earnest appeal. If that much is a given, then the salient questions involve the orb and palm. Who is giving what to whom, and what do these items symbolize?

Detail of Bellini's Pagan Allegory

With regard to the exchange, Goffen says that the orb and palm are offered to the Lord by the Supplicant, but this is simply assumed rather than being defended. Clearly the Supplicant is not offering the palm frond: his arm is not extended, whereas the Lord's arm is, indicating the source of the action. The Lord may be taking or giving, but in either case the extended arm illustrates his action. Enrique Enriquez pointed out that the curvature of the branch suggests it has moved from our left to our right, confirming the interpretation of action from Lord to Supplicant. Although the Supplicant is offering up the orb with his left hand, it is not being handed to the Lord, whose right hand is occupied with the palm and whose left hand is resting on his knee. (We can imagine a "next frame" of this scene in which the Lord's right hand might then accept the orb from the Supplicant; but the impression is that the orb is being ignored, despite being literally front and center.) As for the symbolism of the items, the palm, as Goffen noted, is a classical symbol of victory and a Christian symbol of martyrdom. The T-O globe (based on the common T-O mappa mundi design and reflected in countless images of orbs as symbols of sovereignty, most commonly the globus cruciger, ), is an obvious symbol of worldly power. These are extraordinarily ordinary, conventional rather than arcane. As for the species of plant depicted wreathing the world, there is no way to judge that without some additional information, so that determination can wait.

If those direct interpretations of the dynamic interaction, the palm, and the orb are correct, then a very simple explanation of the allegory exists: Bellini's so-called Pagan Allegory depicts a supplicant giving up the world in exchange for a victory (of some sort), acknowledged by his lord. It is difficult to state that without instantly going further, including the inescapable Christian implications of that reading. The supposedly "enigmatic" Pagan Allegory is in fact a straightforward allegory of Christian contemptu mundi and salvation, renunciation and reward. The Supplicant forsakes the World, either as an ascetic or martyr, and receives the palm of victory from the Lord. The world is prominently displayed, almost as if the Supplicant is showing it to the viewer, but it is also ignored by both figures, thereby placing equal emphasis on "mundi" and "contemptu". The moral may be phrased in different ways, and one can identify the figures variously, but the overriding idea is both simple and clear:

"I'd trade the world for victory over death."

This is the Martyrdom Clause of Jesus' teachings, and the Gospels put this idea very strongly. Here is Chapter 8, Verses 34-37, from the Douay-Rheims translation of the earliest Gospel, Mark:

And calling the multitude together with his disciples, he said to them: If any man will follow me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me. For whosoever will save his life, shall lose it: and whosoever shall lose his life for my sake and the gospel, shall save it. For what shall it profit a man, if he gain the whole world, and suffer the loss of his soul? Or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul?

Similar passages appear in Matthew and Luke. Other interesting passages include John 16:33, 18:36, James 4:4, 1-John 2:15-17, and 5:4-5.

Returning to the species of the foliage wreathing the orb, that is still uncertain. Goffen suggests myrtle, but in light of the interpretation above the intent might well have been olive. Olive leaves are consistent with the depiction, and in Genesis 8:11 the olive leaf symbolizes the peace God made with men after the Flood. A dove with an olive twig in its beak has long been used in funerary art [right] to indicate that the soul of the dead enjoys the peace of God, i.e., "Rest in Peace". The globe encircled with an olive branch seems to be a reasonable reading of the world being surrendered back to its maker.

That interpretation of the foliage surrounding the orb remains uncertain, as do other details. It is easy to offer more specific readings of the two figures than "Lord" and "Supplicant", just as it is possible to argue that the palm indicates martyrdom rather than mere asceticism. However, regardless of what one might think regarding these open questions, the basic contemptu mundi meaning of the allegory seems relatively simple and certain. Our goal, as usual, is an explanation and understanding that can be justified by the work itself, rather than an endlessly detailed but speculative elaboration about what it might have meant. Although that usually leaves some questions unanswered, we may sometimes improve on what was explained and understood before.

Pagan Themes in Bellini's Oeuvre

Goffen explains the relative dearth of classical subjects in Bellini's output as a function of working in Venice, rather than as any personal aversion to such material.

Mythological subjects and allegories, sacred and secular, concerned Bellini and his patrons primarily during the later part of his career. For this reason, and because Bellini is so closely associated in our minds with sacred subjects, his secular allegories and mythologies seem anomalous—though not in ways that have been assumed. What is remarkable about these works by Bellini is not that he painted them in spite of a presumed personal reluctance to do so but rather that he painted them at all, given the Venetian attitude toward humanistic studies.

Regarding the Pagan Allegory, Goffen writes:

The near-certainty that this work was once accompanied by others like it, and the classicizing reliefs of the Blood of the Redeemer, painted at approximately the same time, demonstrate Bellini's willingness to depict antique themes and his ability to do so with considerable sympathy and skill. Even such details as the cameo-like clasp of one angel's garment in the Rimini Pietà [above-right] or the reliefs on the throne of the Sacred Allegory [below-right] confirm Bellini's familiarity with ancient art. Looking at his father's drawings, Bellini would have found further encouragement, were it needed, for his interest in antiquity.
Giovanni Bellini and his brothers owned antiquities—Gentile had a Venus, Giovanni and Nicolo a bust of Plato that they hawked to Isabella d'Este. Among Bellini's patrons were at least two humanist scholars, Raffaele Zovenzoni, who memorialized the antique Venus in an epigram, and Leonico Tomeo, professor at Padua. Among his friends, Bellini counted such men of learning as Pietro Bembo and Pandolpho Collenuccio of Pesaro. It seems clear that the artist lacked neither knowledge nor inclination but rather opportunity to treat classical themes. What he painted—or did not—is explained by the needs and desires of his patrons, and not by any lack of interest or expertise.
Bellini's next surviving works of this sort—independent images representing classicizing themes—are the five Allegories in the Accademia, painted in the late 1480s and early 1490s. When they were produced, the master was occupied with his far more demanding and prestigious work in the Ducal Palace, to say nothing of such major private commissions as the Barbarigo votive picture and the Frari triptych. Moreover, Bellini could certainly reject or avoid commissions when he wished. By their very existence, the Allegories may be considered an illustration of Bellini's interest in such subjects.

We'll return to those Allegories at the Venice Academy in the next post, but an important point here is that even Renaissance humanist works depicting mythological or allegorical subjects, even classical illustrations of classical themes, were often illustrating a Christian subtext. The artists and patrons were Italian Roman-Catholics, not Greco-Roman Pagans.

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