Doge Leonardo Loredan

Giovanni Bellini (1501-2)

This is a miracle of almost breathtaking realism, combined with inexhaustible mystery. Look at how meticulous and lifelike the robes seem (painted with thick strokes we can almost feel, and giving the artist heightened control of the play of light), and their contrast with the thinner, more translucent strokes of the Doges face. In fact, the face offers more fascination the more we look: severity, compassion, irritation, even a tense half-smile all play across it – no doubt you can find many more – illuminated by what seems the light of late afternoon. At the time, most secular portraits were done side-on, but Bellinis use of an angle usually reserved for sacred subjects suggests a man of God, also perhaps reminding us of the permanence of a classical Roman bust, thereby aligning him with an intimidatingly potent lineage. With a flattened backdrop of lavish blue, eliminating any depth and bringing the man crashing through the canvas towards us, Bellini simultaneously turns Loredan into a symbol of the Venetian authority and influence he represents, and compels the viewer to focus on the man: the unsettling, endlessly absorbing ambiguities of a life at the intersection of power, religion, and politics.