My favourite painting: Gabriele Finaldi

'I love paintings by elderly artists, eloquent with accumulated skill and a lifetime’s experience'

Doge Leonardo Loredan, 1501–02, by Giovanni Bellini (about 1430–1516), 24¼in by 17¾in, The National Gallery, London

Gabriele Finaldi says:
I see this painting every day when I do my rounds of the gallery. I am tempted to run my fingers across the surface of the paint to feel if it is as smooth as the miraculously rendered silk cloak. Cover the right side of his face and Loredan appears serious, as befits a Renaissance doge. Cover the left side, and you sense a kindly bonhomie. Bellini knew how to make his people seem alive. I love paintings by elderly artists, eloquent with accumulated skill and a lifetime’s experience. Dürer said of Bellini shortly afterwards: “He is very old, and yet he is the best painter of all”.

Gabriele Finaldi is director of the National Gallery.

John McEwen comments on Doge Leonardo Loredan:
The Most Serene Republic of Venice was founded in 697. The office of chief magistrate or leader of the republic, the doge (from dux, leader), was instituted in 726 and ended with the Napoleonic Conquest in 1797. The doge was elected for life by a committee of aristocratic elders – the post was not hereditary and a doge could not name a successor.

Doge Leonardo Loredan’s distinguished career included governorship of Padua, the republic’s most important inland city, but the power of his wife’s family, the Giustiniani, was also to his advantage. As doge, he had to deal with the excommunication of the republic, the loss of Venice’s monopoly of the spice trade, defeat in battle by a papal alliance and the fall of Padua. Another papal alliance was shortlived and an alternative pact with the French won back all Venice’s territories. The Loredan family received a stupendous financial settlement from the papacy.

Fifteenth-century Netherlandish artists pioneered the minutely detailed realism achievable with the newly invented oil paint. Giovanni Bellini was one of the first Venetian artists to follow their example. He used it to popularise portraiture in Venice to an unprecedented degree.

This picture was probably painted the year of Loredan’s election at 65, as he wears a doge’s cape and horned cap. The pineapple pattern symbolises fruitfulness, its spikes self-sacrificial duty. The trompe l’oeil label bearing the artist’s signature is crumpled to advertise Bellini’s eye-deceiving technical brilliance. The pose, recalling a Classical bust, may allude to the Loredan family’s believed descent from a Roman hero, Gaius Mucius Scaevola.

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