Wednesday, 14 October 2009

A Tale of Two Doges

Jacopo Tintoretto
Doge Pietro Loredano (1567 – 1570)
oil on canvas (43x36.5")
NGV – Felton Bequest

For over a thousand years, the chief magistrate and leader of the City (and later the Republic) of Venice was elected for life and styled the Doge. Venice was a prime example of a "crowned republic" – the Doge was in practical terms a powerful monarch, with all the pomp and ceremony of high estate.

The noble Loredan (or Loredano) family of Venice exerted great power in the republic for five centuries. Today they are best known for the celebrated Capo di Stata wine. It is produced by the Conte Loredan Gasparini winery, located in Veneto, an area renowned for the production of wines since the sixteenth century. The winery was established by Count Pietro Loredan, direct descendant of the Doge of Venice Leonardo Loredan.

Among the high-flier scions of the Loredan family was Admiral Pietro Loredan, who was responsible for making Venice a dominant power in the 15th century. His greatest victory was over the Turks at Gallipoli in 1415. Sadly, he was there 500 years too soon - he might have done us a bit of good had he been there in 1915.

The foremost collector and patron of the arts in the family was Andrea Loredan. He commissioned a magnificent palazzo on the Cannaregio to designs by Mauro Codussi; it was paid for by his cousin the Doge Leonardo Loredan. By 1883 it had passed out of the Loredan family's hands and Richard Wagner, who had rented it, died there in 1883.

The palazzo now houses the Wagner Museum. It holds the the largest private collection dedicated to Wagner outside of Bayreuth, and contains rare documents, musical scores, signed letters and other heirlooms.

The Loredan family also produced three Doges: Leonardo Loredan (1501–1521), Pietro Loredan (1567–1570), and Francesco Loredan (1752–1762).

Our Doge in the NGV is Pietro Loredano, painted by Tintoretto during his brief three-year reign as leader of the Most Serene Republic of Venice. He was already eighty-five-years old but the aristos of Venice found themselves in a political deadlock and he was elected as a compromise candidate.

Despite his age and physical frailty, Doge Pietro stepped up to the crease when his country needed him. By the time stumps was called three years later, he had presided over famine, pestilence, a great fire at the Arsenal, and the onset of war with the Turks over the possession of Cyprus.

This catalogue of catastrophes would have taxed a much younger man, but Pietro did his best to deal with it all. One of his strategies was to issue tickets, which functioned something like ration books,for the purchase of bread. This was an excellent measure which enabled equitable distribution.

Another and perhaps a bit less successful strategy was to do a lot of praying: there is a painting by Palma Giovane in the Palazzo Ducale which is aptly titled "Doge Pietro Loredan Beseeching the Virgin for the End of the Famine and Victory over the Turks".

He didn't get much thanks for his efforts from a sullen populace, who held him responsible, not only for the famine, the war and the fire, but also for the "spotted fever" which raged in Venice at the time. The omniscient Google tells me that the "spotted fever" is otherwise known as "Queensland tick fever". However, Google doesn't say how Queensland ticks came to be biting people in Venice in 1570. Another of Life's many little mysteries.

In "Venice: a Documentary History", David Sanderson tells us that Doge Pietro's funeral was the scene of most unseemly behaviour, the crowd shouting:"Rejoice, rejoice, the Doge is dead / Who gave us tickets for our bread!" Not unlike the Munchkins in the Wizard of Oz, I couldn't help thinking. Ungrateful wretches.

Tintoretto shows his subject ruddy-faced and world-weary, giving physical expression to the weight of his obligations. His aura of vulnerabilty tempers the formality of an official portrait, although the Doge is wearing his ceremonial dress: the gold brocade, fur-trimmed robe; the ermine cape with golden harness-bell buttons and the distinctive corno dogale (doge’s hat), of which more later.

This painting was done directly onto the canvas, swiftly, in one sitting, to be used in the studio as a sketch for a formal portrait. To a modern viewer it looks complete, but it was by no means regarded as a finished portrait at the time.

Tintoretto painted two "finished" versions from it: one for the family's personal collection and another as the official portrait displayed in the Doge’s Palace. The latter was destroyed in a disastrous fire in 1577. The painting that belonged to the Loredan family, mentioned in the will of the doge’s son Alvise, is currently in the Kimball Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas.

It is interesting to compare the two portraits side by side. Tintoretto’s technical facility is evident especially in the vigorously modeled face and the swift, sure strokes of the cape. This proficient style recommended Tintoretto to the Republic’s officials, who typically commissioned portraits upon their election. As Court Painter, he was also given a lot of portrait commissions by the Venetian aristocracy and wealthy merchants.

The NGV painting was X-rayed in 1987 and this gives an interesting insight into the working method of a great painter: Tintoterro began with his sitter in an upright, regal stance, but altered the painting several times to change the neckline, bring the head more into the shoulders and lift the waistline to increase the sense of age, revealing the tired old man within the dignified, powerful figure of “the most serene prince” of the Venetian Republic.

Giovanni Bellini
'The Doge Leonardo Loredan', 1501-4
Oil, with egg tempera, on poplar, 61.5 x 45 cm
National Gallery, London

The London National Gallery's "Portrait of Doge Leonardo Loredan" by Giovanni Bellini (1501) is the more famous work and the one that immediately springs to mind when a doge is mentioned. Leonardo, who reigned seventy years before our Doge, was elected at the age of 65 and remained in office until his death twenty years later.

He presided over the republic during a dramatic period in its fortunes … I won't go into his Machiavellian plots and Byzantine struggles with the League of Cambrai, the Ottomans, the Mamalukes, the Pope, the Republic of Genoa, the Holy Roman Empire, the French, the Egyptians, the Portuguese and Uncle Tom Cobley and all…

Suffice it to say that wily old Leonardo outmanoeuvred and outgunned the lot of them, and by the end of his reign Venice was Top Dog and the Papacy was forced to pay the Loredan family approximately 500,000 Ducats, an enormous sum of money.

Doge Leonardo is buried in a magnificent monumental tomb in the Basillica di San Giovanni e Paolo, which any of our members who have been to Venice will undoubtedly have seen. Doge Francesco Loredan is interred in a sarcophagus at the foot of Leonardo's monument.

Bellini's portrait of Doge Leonardo is notable for being the first frontal portrait of a reigning doge. During the Middle Ages, only sacred subjects – gods, saints and martyrs - had been portrayed in a frontal view. Ordinary mortals were always shown in profile.

The Doge is shown in his robes of state for this formal portrait, which Bellini painted in the style of the sculpted portrait busts which were popular at the time.

The ornate buttons and the weird hat are part of the official wardrobe. It has always puzzled me why a man, as soon as he assumes a position of power, also assumes a weird hat. Napoleon had that coal scuttle. Mussolini had a beanie with a huge gold eagle on the front: goodness knows why the sheer weight of the gold didn't tip it over his nose. The less said about John Howard's assorted headgear, the better. Women don't have that problem: Queen Victoria, mistress of two-thirds of the known world, wore a little lace cap most of the time.

From the 14th Century onwards, the ceremonial crown and symbol of the Doges of Venice was the "corno ducale", a unique kind of a ducal hat. It is described in the National gallery's catalogue as "a stiff horn-like bonnet, which was made of gemmed brocade and worn over a fine linen cap".

The doge had to take good care not to forget it at a friend's house or sit on it or anything, because he was only issued one every year. To get his annual new hat, he had to head a procession from San Marco to the convent of San Zaccaria where the abbess presented him with a new symbolic "corno", lovingly handcrafted by the nuns. There is an Ingmar Bergman film in this, or at the very least an Oprah Special!

"European Masterpieces" NGV Publication
"Venice: a Documentary History", David Sanderson

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