Venetian Portrait Painting
Portraiture by Giovanni Bellini, Antonello da Messina, Titian, Tintoretto.

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Portrait of a Man with a Quilted Sleeve
(1510) By Titian.
National Gallery, London.
One of the great Renaissance portraits.

For details of art movements
and styles, see: History of Art.
For dates and chronology,
see: History of Art Timeline.

Venetian Portrait Painting (c.1400-1600)
15th and 16th Century Portraiture in Venice


Civic Portraits: Sala del Maggior Consiglio
Antonello da Messina
Vincenzo Catena
Bernardino Licinio
Lorenzo Lotto
Titian's Portrait Paintings
Portraits of Venetian Officials
Jacopo Tintoretto
Paolo Veronese
Girolamo Savoldo
Giovanni Battista Moroni

Portrait of Alvise Cornaro (1560-65)
Pitti Palace, Florence.
By Tintoretto.

For a list of the Top 10 painters/
sculptors: Best Artists of All Time.
For the best oils/watercolours,
see: Greatest Paintings Ever.

Portrait of Doge Leonardo Loredan
(1501) National Gallery, London.
By Giovanni Bellini. One of the
Greatest Portrait Paintings of the
Venetian school.


Portrait art developed at an early date in Venice. Soon after 1339 Paolo Veneziano painted the portrait of the defunct Doge Francesco Dandolo together with his wife, who was still alive, over Dandolo's tomb in the Sala del Capitolo of the Frari. The figures are on the same scale as their patron saints (a very unusual feature for the period) and the faces appear to be authentic portraits, even if the style still follows the conventions of Byzantine art.

In the reign of Doge Marco Dandolo (1365-68), a remarkable series of commemorative portraits of doges was started in the Sala del Maggior Consiglio in the Doge's Palace. These portraits, which were destroyed in the fire of 1577, constituted a complete portrait gallery of heads of state painted by the greatest artists of each generation, from Guariento to Jacopo Tintoretto (1518-1594). Between 1408 and 1422, in the same room, Gentile da Fabriano (c.1370-1427) and Pisanello (Antonio Pisano) (c.1394-1455) frescoed episodes from Venetian history (substituting an earlier cycle) and it seems likely that they introduced portraits into these scenes, particularly into that of the reconciliation of Frederick Barbarossa with the pope. Gentile was appreciated as a portrait painter in the early fifteenth century, when Antonio Pasqualino bought two 'very lifelike' portraits by him.

The first independent portraits in Venetian painting date from the second half of the fifteenth century. In the Portrait of Doge Foscari (1457-60, Museo Civico Correr, Venice) by Lazzaro Bastiani (1429-1512), the sitter is shown in profile, a format derived from Roman coins. Gentile Bellini (c.1429-1507) was a distinguished portrait painter and was sent to Constantinople to paint the portrait of Mahomed II. Several portraits of doges were saved from a fire in the ducal apartments in 1483, and some by Bastiani (possibly the same ones) were recorded in 1581 as formerly in the Collegio of the 25. Perhaps these included the fragmentary portrait of Antonio Venier and Michele Steno depicted seated in conversation (Museo Civico Correr, Venice).



Civic Portraits: Sala del Maggior Consiglio

In 1474 it was decided to substitute the historical fresco paintings in the Sala del Maggior Consiglio with paintings on canvas. This undertaking took almost a century to complete, only to be destroyed in the fire of 1577: Gentile and Giovanni Bellini (1430-1516), Alvise Vivarini (1445-1504), Vittore Carpaccio (c.1465-1525/6), Pordenone (1484-1539), Titian (c.1485/8-1576), Paolo Veronese (1528-88) and Tintoretto all contributed to the decoration. As well as Venetian patricians, famous Italian men of letters and poets were portrayed in these scenes; the list of names takes up a good four pages in Sansovino's Venetia Citta Nobilissima.

This example was followed by the scuole, the lay confraternities run by merchants and citizens excluded from politics because they were not of noble blood (Venetian nobles were barred from entry to the scuole after 1500). In the quattrocento members of the confraternities had been painted kneeling at the feet of their patron saints, as in Bartolommeo Vivarini's altarpiece in S. Maria Formosa (1474) and the one he painted for S. Ambrogio (1477; Accademia, Venice). But when the scuole established their own premises, the members decorated the assembly halls with large canvases in which the members were portrayed participating in episodes from the life of a saint (Carpaccio's St. Ursula Cycle; Accademia) or witnessing miraculous events which took place in the city (cycle for the Scuola di S. Giovanni Evangelista by Gentile Bellini and others; Accademia). During this period there was a vast growth in the number of individual portraits, which were by now fashionable both with the patricians and the merchant classes.


Antonello da Messina

The presence of Antonello da Messina (1430-79) in Venice around 1475-76 marked a turning point in the development of Venetian portraiture. See, for example, Christ Crowned with Thorns (1470, Metropolitan, NY). His sharp perception of character, revealed in the slight curve of the lips or eyes, is combined with a remarkable sense of volume and depth, while his intense light effects were derived from the work of Flemish painters like Petrus Christus (1410-76) - see, for instance, his masterpiece Portrait of a Young Girl (1470). The words of St. Jerome fit his portrait style perfectly: 'the face is the mirror of the spirit, and the silent eyes reveal the secrets of the spirit'. Giovanni Bellini immediately recognised the value of Antonello's compositional methods, but Bellini's instinctive habit of 'thinking in paint' was not accompanied by such a marked interest in the idiosyncrasies of the sitter's character, as can be seen in his masterpiece of abstraction, the enigmatic Portrait of Doge Loredan (National Gallery, London). The markedly three-dimensional quality of the figure, created by Bellini's use of light, underlines the relationship between painted portraits and contemporary Venetian sculpture.


According to the 16th century biographer Giorgio Vasari (1511-74), the enigmatic Venetian artist Giorgione (1477-1510) also painted a portrait of Doge Loredan, but this official painting has been lost, and the identity of sitters in Giorgione's surviving portraits is either uncertain or unknown. Instead of concentrating on the individual's physical characteristics, Giorgione either portrayed their state of mind or emphasised one aspect of their personality. The lighting is usually shadowy, and these portraits were almost certainly designed to be displayed in the intimacy of 'studioli', among books, curios, statues, and other collector's items. After the Venetian defeat at the rout of Agnadello in 1509, when the very existence of Venice seemed threatened, it was fashionable to cultivate the melancholy illusion that 'Litteris servabitur orbis' (the world will be saved by culture). The dark tonality and lack of outline of Giorgione's portraits are the artistic equivalents of the fleeting psychological glimpse we are afforded of the sitters, whose lips do not express character (as in Antonello's paintings) but are sealed, as if concealing a secret. Often the sitters are placed behind a parapet, and their hands are an important expressive element in the portrait. Objects with an emblematic significance and books are often included to emphasise the sitter's humanist culture and poetic sensitivity.

By the beginning of the cinquecento portraits, apart from recording a sitter's appearance for posterity, had become status symbols. By painting portraits the artist defeated both time and death: Bernardino Licinio (c.1489-1565) inscribed on the portrait of his brother's family that the painter 'prolongs life for them with their image, and his own with his art'.

Vincenzo Catena

Vincenzo Catena (1470/80-1531), a colleague of Giorgione's with connections in humanist circles, developed Bellini's schemes in his portraits, but adapted them to the taste and standards of High Renaissance painting. Palma Vecchio adopted the broad forms and fresh colour of Titian's youthful style, but rather than stressing the individuality of his sitters he tended to paint generalised ideal types, as is evident in his portraits of men and of voluptuous, blond women decked in luxurious clothes. Portraits of women became increasingly common during the sixteenth century; not only beauties were painted, but also solid citizens and women of a certain age.

Bernardino Licinio

The Bergamasque Bernardino Licinio was a follower of Giorgione, though for his portraits he developed a homely manner that suited his clients, who were often of modest stock. Paris Bordone was a pupil of Titian's, but also imitated Giorgione in his youth. In his Presentation of the Ring to the Doge (Accademia, Venice), painted for the Scuola di San Marco, he included a remarkable group portrait of dignitaries, each one highly individualised. But despite this he does not appear to have received any official portrait commissions.

Lorenzo Lotto

Lorenzo Lotto (1480-1556) remains apart from his contemporaries. In his youth in Venice he painted several portraits remarkable for their freshness, which retain something of the spirit of Alvise Vivarini and Albrecht Durer. Thereafter his restless spirit led him to Rome, to the Marche, and to Bergamo. His sitters seem to take on his own somewhat pensive, melancholic and God-fearing temperament. His figures are positioned obliquely, their heads slightly tilted; often his portraits have religious overtones; amulets, religious medallions, emblems and rose petals (an allusion to the brevity of life) are included; even the oblique lighting evokes a sense of transience. In spirit these portraits are very far from the assurance of the 'humanist' portraits of the beginning of the century: Lotto seems to oscillate between despising the base and vain qualities of earthly life and yearning for a return to simple Christian virtues. It is therefore understandable that he was never asked to paint the portrait of a doge or any other official, and that he himself preferred to paint portraits of married couples, even if they were a little unrefined and provincial ; such commissions could inspire him to produce more poetic images, and to express sincere human emotions.

Titian's Portraits

When Giorgione died in 1510, Titian, who must have been barely 20 at the time, was already a successful painter. From 1513 he secured several official commissions, and between 1521 and 1554 he painted the portraits of six doges in the Sala del Maggior Consiglio. Titian's sitters occupy space with greater confidence, and take up more of the canvas than in earlier portraits. Whereas Giorgione's portraits never exceeded the half-length, portraits now began to expand downwards well below the waist. At the same time full-length portraits first appeared in Italy (although not in Venice). These were derived from German portraits and were soon extremely popular in Italian courts. There were only two precedents for this format in Renaissance art: one by Carpaccio of 1510 (Lugano) and the other by Moretto of 1526 (National Gallery, London).

Celebrated Titian portraits include: Pope Paul III with Grandsons (1546, Capodimonte Museum, Naples).

A fundamental characteristic of Titian's portraiture was that from early in his career history painting exerted a fruitful influence on portraiture: motives and methods which had been invented for monumental compositions were drawn upon to enrich and transform the portrait. In addition both public and artists in the 16th century looked for a kind of likeness different from what the previous century understood by this word. The new likeness is intended to give not only the social position of the sitter, but also his character and the whole of his personality. This involves his status and rank, his profession, the power he wields and the position he holds. Still seen as one of the best portrait artists, Titian's workss, with their chromatic intensity, exuberant outbursts of colour, high rhetoric, ingenious compositional schemes and lucid and unrelenting psychological and moral understanding always enrich our intellectual experience. (See also: Titian and Venetian Colour Painting c.1500-76.)

Portraits of Venetian Officials

During the Renaissance in Venice, it was customary for each doge to commission a votive painting of himself with the Madonna and some chosen saints to be placed in the Collegio or the Senate (eg. Catena's painting of Doge Loredan of c.1505; Museo Civico Correr, Venice). By the middle of the century the cult of personality had become so strong that it was accepted that the magistrates would also commission votive paintings for their offices. The Provveditori al Sale who held office between 1552 and 1553 placed a large votive painting of themselves with the Virgin in their rooms at the Rialto: before that date it had been customary to commission pictures of their patron saints which only included their coat of arms. The Provveditori were followed by the Camerlenghi (Chamberlains), another group of financial magistrates of the Rialto, and later the practice was adopted by officials at the Doge's Palace (the Avogaria and Censori). Whereas temporary and collegiate magistracies commissioned group portraits, the Procurators, dignitaries inferior only to the doge, had their own individual portraits in their rooms.

Jacopo Tintoretto

The artist who had, in effect, a monopoly of these official portrait commissions was the inexhaustable Tintoretto (Jacopo Robusti). In addition to his Mannerist-style Venetian altarpieces, and a range of public portraits, he, assisted by his workshop, produced portraits of magistrates, senators and sea captains for their private residences. Even far less important officials would have their portrait painted, and the popularity of this type of portraiture demonstrates the extent to which Venetians identified with these official images of themselves and their society.

Tintoretto focussed attention on the face and hands of his sitters - the most revealing features - whilst the rest of the figure would be only summarily sketched; often he would repeat the same composition and lighting for different sitters; hence the obvious similarity between his portraits. Their success is proof that Tintoretto was the ideal interpreter of society at a time when the Renaissance conception of the individual was being superseded by a more conformist Counter-Reformation stereotype. To understand the change that took place in 30 years one only has to compare the Portrait of Ottaviano Grimani (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna), painted in 1541 by Licinio, which is still humanist in spirit, to Grimani's official portrait in the uniform of a Procurator painted in Tintoretto's workshop in 1571 (Accademia, Venice).

For details of drawings by Titian, Tintoretto and Paolo Veronese, see: Venetian Drawing (c.1500-1600).

Paolo Veronese

In contrast, Paolo Veronese, like the older Jacopo Bassano, rarely painted official portraits, although in about 1562 he did execute a painting including eminent contemporary Venetians (now destroyed) in the Sala del Maggior Consiglio. His style of portraiture was unsuitable for official portraits; his luminous style of painting and harsh colour harmonies appealed to a very different clientele, to rich merchants and the landed aristocracy (who perhaps, like Doge Alvise I Mocenigo, despised the commerce which had created the wealth of Venice) and to the gentry of the terraferma. Veronese's style was ideally suited to represent the aristocratic ideals of these individuals who, because of their great wealth, could easily imitate the customs of the nobility.

The British art historian Sir John Pope-Hennessy (1913-94) remarked that Veronese 'was not a face-painter like Tintoretto, and his independent portraits are more decorative and more opulent. But more often than not, once the head is excised from its setting, it looks nerveless and a little dull. Analysis was alien to the cast of Veronese's mind. Yet when his heads are animated, they shed much of their flaccidity and take on a new liveliness'. This is true of the portrait of the parish priest of S. Pantalon, Bartolomeo Borghi, shown holding the dead boy in the altarpiece from his church.

For building designs in Venice during the mid-sixteenth century, please see: Venetian Renaissance Architecture and the dominating influence of Jacopo Sansovino and Andrea Palladio.

Girolamo Savoldo

During the sixteenth century Brescia and Bergamo, two Lombard cities under Venetian rule, produced artists who combined the lusciousness of Venetian style colour pigments with Lombard realism. Girolamo Savoldo (1506-48), a Brescian who spent many years in Venice, was a complex artistic personality. His austere, intense and pensive portraits with a restricted range of colours combine a slightly Giorgionesque mood with the intimacy of Flemish painting of the fifteenth century.


Alessandro Bonvicino, called Moretto (1498-1554), worked exclusively in Brescia and its environs, portraying the provincial aristocracy. He was influenced by Lotto and Savoldo, yet preserved the silvery tonalities of earlier Lombard painters, despite the occasional hint of Titianesque colour. The decoration of a room in the Palazzo Martinengo, Padernello (1543) with the portraits of eight noblewomen who look out on a landscape which apparently represents the family estate is indicative of the feudal society for which Moretto worked.

Giovanni Battista Moroni

It is not clear exactly how Giovanni Battista Moroni (1520-78), a Bergamasque pupil and collaborator of Moretto, came to know Titian's portraits; in any case, he adapted Titian's compositions to a different end: that of producing 'natural' portraits, as they were dubbed by Titian (who evidently had a very different conception of portraiture). Moroni's clients were the jeunesse doree: city swells, country landowners and soldiers, who, following courtly conventions, would commission full-length portraits. They were acutely self-conscious, obsessed by their appearance, and their portraits are ostentatiously adorned with emblems and mottos in Latin or Spanish. It seems likely that Veronese knew these portraits. Moroni painted Venetian patricians who owned property in the provinces, but he also portrayed less exalted individuals, such as The Tailor (National Gallery, London); his sitters appear to have been caught unawares, and in their expressions reveal both their character and their idea of their position in society.

It is significant that for centuries many of Moroni's finest portraits were ascribed to Titian. Although we can see today the differences in their approach, we can also see not only that both artists, working at different ends of the Venetian domain, nonetheless shared basic assumptions about the role of art as a means of ennobling and recording the society of their day, but also that both of them exploited to the full the technical mastery in the handling of colour that was the special glory of the Venetian school. For its influence on European art, see: Legacy of Venetian Painting (after 1600).

Venetian portraiture can be seen in many of the best art museums in the world, including the prestigious Venice Academy Gallery.

We gratefully acknowledge the use of material from Lino Moretti's article on Portraits, published (1983) by the Royal Academy, London.


• For the evolution of Renaissance and Mannerist portrait painting, see: History of Art Timeline.
• For more about portraitists in Venice, see: Homepage.

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