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Peter Humfrey, “Titian/Cardinal Pietro Bembo/1539/1540,” Italian Paintings of the Sixteenth Century, NGA Online Editions, (accessed June 23, 2024).

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Mar 21, 2019 Version

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Pietro Bembo (1470–1547) wears the red biretta and cape of a cardinal. At the time Titian painted this portrait, Bembo had recently been elevated to that status in honor of his service to the Church and his scholarly career, although the writer’s literary output was almost entirely secular. Most significantly, he was responsible for the Aldine editions (printed in Venice, for the first time in a size that was portable and easy to read) of Dante and Petrarch, which served as a foundation for Bembo’s codification of the Tuscan language as a literary medium.

Bembo was also keenly interested in art and assembled an outstanding collection of paintings, sculptures, manuscripts, and other objects that reflected his personal interests and refined tastes. He is known to have been cordial with Titian, who produced other portraits of him. The present example depicts Bembo at age 69, his features alert with intellectual energy and his pose and gesture suggestive of rhetoric and debate.


The traditional attribution to Titian and the identification of the sitter as the eminent humanist and prelate Pietro Bembo (1470–1547) have never been seriously contested. Bembo’s distinctive features, with his long aquiline nose, are also known from two inscribed contemporary medals: one by Valerio Belli, probably of 1532 [fig. 1][1] and another by an anonymous medallist, sometimes identified as either Benvenuto Cellini or as Danese Cattaneo [fig. 2].[2] A 16th-century copy (Accademia Carrara, Bergamo) of a later variant by Titian of the present portrait (Capodimonte, Naples) [fig. 3], in which the head is turned at the same angle, is inscribed: P. BEMBO IMAGO/ EX PENNICILLO/ TICIANI.[3]

Bembo’s historical importance is owing above all to his Aldine editions of Dante and Petrarch, which lent these authors the dignity of modern classics, and to his role in promoting the supremacy of their Tuscan language for all Italian literature. In his own day, he was also celebrated as a lyric poet and as the author of a Latin history of Venice. Bembo’s literary vocation led him from an early age away from Venice, where as a member of a patrician family he would have been expected to enter public service, to the courts of Ferrara and Urbino (1506–1512), and subsequently to that of Leo X in Rome (1512–1521). After the death of Pope Leo, he pursued his literary and scholarly career chiefly at his family villa outside Padua, becoming official historian and librarian to the Venetian Republic in 1530. He was proclaimed cardinal in March 1539 and took up residence in Rome in October of the same year. He made a final visit to northern Italy, including Venice, in the autumn of 1543, and died in Rome as bishop of Bergamo and cardinal of San Clemente in January 1547.[4]

Although Bembo’s scholarly career was crowned with the award of a cardinal’s hat, his literary output was almost entirely secular, and his religious piety was no more than conventional. He was ordained as a priest only in December 1539, and although in his final years in Rome he was a friend of luminaries of the Catholic Reform, such as Cardinal Pole and Vittoria Colonna, he did not share their reforming zeal. By contrast, he took a keen interest in ancient and modern art, and during his years in Padua, he assembled one of the finest collections of paintings, sculptures, and manuscripts in northern Italy. His friend Marcantonio Michiel compiled a detailed description of Bembo’s “museum” as it had evolved by circa 1530.[5] Some of the objects listed by Michiel, notably a diptych by Memling (incorporating the Saint Veronica panel now in the National Gallery of Art),[6] and portraits by Jacopo Bellini and Jacometto Veneziano (including one of Pietro as an 11-year-old boy), must have been collected or commissioned by Bembo’s father, the distinguished diplomat Bernardo Bembo. But most of the works of art in the collection, including a portrait by Sebastiano del Piombo of the poet Sannazaro, and Raphael’s double portrait Andrea Navagero and Agostino Beazzano (Galleria Doria Pamphili, Rome), clearly reflect the refined aesthetic tastes and personal interests of Bembo himself. At the same time, Michiel’s description must be far from complete, since it does not mention any works by Giovanni Bellini or Titian, painters with whom Bembo is known to have had cordial relations. In two of his early sonnets, Bembo speaks of the portrait of his mistress painted for him by Bellini;[7] and according to Vasari, Titian had already painted a portrait of Bembo when the latter, in his capacity of secretary to Leo X, urged him to move to the papal capital—in other words, some time before February 1512.[8] A decade later, in 1523, Titian also included Bembo’s portrait, together with those of his literary colleagues Sannazaro and Ariosto, among the many bystanders in his narrative canvas the Emperor Frederick Barbarossa Kneeling before Pope Alexander III outside San Marco, in the Sala del Maggior Consiglio in the Doge’s Palace (destroyed by fire in 1577).[9]

The present portrait, in which Bembo wears the red biretta and cape of a cardinal, must have been painted between March 1539, the date of the official proclamation of his elevation, and May 30, 1540, the date of a letter sent by Bembo in Rome to his friend Girolamo Querini in Venice. In the letter Bembo asks Querini to thank Titian for the gift of the “second portrait” of him, which he has just received, and adds that although he had intended to pay the painter for it, he would instead find another way of adequately returning the favor.[10] On the reasonable assumption that the portrait was made from life, David Alan Brown pointed out that the date of the portrait could be narrowed down to the seven-month period between March 1539 and Bembo’s departure for the papal capital in October.[11] In the past the phrase “second portrait” has presented scholars with a problem of interpretation, since Titian’s only other extant portrait of Bembo, that in Naples (fig. 3), clearly shows him older; the lost portrait mentioned by Vasari had been painted nearly 30 years earlier and is unlikely to be the implied “first” portrait. But as recently pointed out by Matteo Mancini, a mediocre portrait in the Prado, Madrid, is almost certainly an exact copy of Titian’s “first” portrait [fig. 4].[12] Indeed, the fact that the features and turn of the head are identical to those of the Gallery’s portrait implies that the original of the “first” portrait, now lost, was painted only months before March 1539, and that Titian used the existing design as a basis for the “second” portrait, in which the robes of a knight of Malta were exchanged for those of a cardinal. It now appears possible, therefore, that instead of being painted from life, Titian painted the present portrait after Bembo’s departure for Rome, perhaps in the early months of 1540, before sending it off to reach the sitter by May.

Further circumstantial evidence confirming that both these portraits were painted in the brief period 1538 to 1540 is provided by the relative length of Bembo’s beard. Up to 1532, as shown by Belli’s medal (fig. 1), Bembo was clean-shaven. In a letter of 1536, Benedetto Varchi in Venice wrote to Benvenuto Cellini in Rome that Bembo was letting his beard grow.[13] In his autobiography Cellini recalled that when he visited Bembo in Padua in 1537, he wore his beard short, “in the Venetian fashion.”[14] But in a mosaic of 1542 signed by Francesco and Valerio Zuccato (Bargello, Florence) [fig. 5], Bembo’s beard flows down his chest,[15] and it is even longer in the late portrait in Naples. The date of the last, much-damaged picture is not known; but if taken from life, it must have been painted either during Bembo’s north Italian journey of 1543 or when Titian visited Rome in 1545–1546, a year before the sitter’s death at the age of 76.[16] (Konrad Oberhuber argued on stylistic grounds that the Washington portrait dates from Titian’s Roman visit, but this is to ignore the external evidence.[17]) In addition to the very early lost portrait, Giorgio Vasari mentioned a portrait by Titian of Bembo “after he had been made cardinal”;[18] but it is impossible to say to which of the surviving two Vasari was referring, or indeed, whether he knew yet another lost portrait, recorded in a number of engravings.[19]

Unlike the more contemplative image in Naples, in which the aged Bembo appears almost like an oriental magus, the present portrait shows him as a still-vigorous 69-year-old, his features alert with intellectual energy and his pose and gesture suggestive of rhetoric and debate. As pointed out by Peter Burke, it may be no coincidence that the outstretched hand, with the palm facing upward, corresponds to the gesture recommended by Quintilian for the beginning of a speech, in Book 11 of his much-consulted Education of the Orator.[20] Presumably commissioned to celebrate his elevation as cardinal of the Roman church, the portrait may be regarded as a re-elaboration of Raphael’s canonical Portrait of a Cardinal of circa 1510–1511 (Museo del Prado, Madrid). At the same time, it conveys the exceptional authority that Bembo had attained as supreme arbiter of Latin and Italian literary style.

Peter Humfrey

March 21, 2019


Probably commissioned by the sitter, Cardinal Pietro Bembo [1470-1547], Padua and Rome; by inheritance to his son, Torquato Bembo [1525-1595].[1] probably (Ferrante Carlo [1578-1641], Rome), and acquired from him before 1631 by Don Fabrizio Valguarnera [d. 1632], Rome.[2] Leone Galli; acquired 1636 by Cardinal Antonio Barberini [1608-1671], Palazzo Barberini, Rome; by inheritance to his nephew, Maffeo Barberini, Principe di Palestrina [d. 1685], Rome; by inheritance to his son, Urbano Barberini, Rome;[3] still in the Barberini collection, Rome, c. 1904-1905;[4] Elia Volpi [1858-1938], Florence; sold 1905 to (Colnaghi's, London and New York), on joint account with (M. Knoedler & Co., New York); sold 1906 to Charles M. Schwab [1862-1939], New York;[5] (his estate sale, Parke-Bernet Galleries, New York, 3 December 1942, no. 32); purchased by Stephen Pichetto for the Samuel H. Kress Foundation, New York;[6] gift 1952 to NGA.

Exhibition History

Fiftieth Anniversary Exhibition, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1920, unnumbered catalogue.
Recent Additions to the Kress Collection, National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1946, no. 826.
Tiziano [NGA title: Titian: Prince of Painters], Palazzo Ducale, Venice; National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1990-1991, no. 31, repro.
Treasures of Venice, Szépmüvészeti Múzeum, Budapest, 1996, unnumbered catalogue, repro.
Pietro Bembo e l'invenzione del Rinascimento, Palazzo del Monte di Pieta, Padua, 2013, no. 6.1, repro.

Technical Summary

The original, medium-weight, plain-weave fabric was last relined in 1943, and its tacking margins have been cropped. The off-white ground is thinly applied, and examination with infrared reflectography at 1.5 to 1.8 microns[1] has not revealed any underdrawing. Minor pentimenti can be seen with the naked eye: the cardinal’s hat, for example, was previously nearly 1 centimeter wider along all the contours and had a broader and more rounded peak. Both of his shoulders were altered, with the profile of that on the right raised by nearly 1 centimeter. There are also some changes in the fingertips, which were originally placed slightly farther to the lower right. The x-radiographs reveal a large white area under the sitter’s head and upper torso, which are also marred by traction crackle. This suggests that Titian repainted this area.

The paint surface is somewhat abraded, giving a misleading effect of smoothness and lack of finish, although the arm at the lower right does appear always to have been unresolved and without detail. Darkened repaint can be seen strengthening the hair, beard, contours of the cape, fingers, and palm.

Peter Humfrey and Joanna Dunn based on the examination reports by Sarah Fisher and Joanna Dunn

March 21, 2019


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