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
National Gallery of Art, Samuel H. Kress Collection, 1957.14.979.a. John Graham Pollard, Renaissance Medals, vol. 1, Italy, National Gallery of Art Systematic Catalogue (Washington, DC, 2007), no. 441.
National Gallery of Art, Samuel H. Kress Collection, 1957.14.1015. John Graham Pollard, Renaissance Medals, vol. 1, Italy, National Gallery of Art Systematic Catalogue (Washington, DC, 2007), no. 562. For recent surveys of portraits of Bembo, see Davide Gasparotto, “La barba di Pietro Bembo,” Annali della Scuola Normale Superiore di Pisa, ser. 4, quaderni 1–2 (1996): 183–206; and Debra Pincus, “Giovanni Bellini’s Humanist Signature: Pietro Bembo, Aldus Manutius, and Humanism in Early Sixteenth-Century Venice,” Artibus et Historiae, no. 58 (2008): 98–99.
See Francesco Rossi, Accademia Carrara, Vol. 1: Catalogo dei dipinti sec. XV–XVI (Milan, 1988), 303, no. D8. For a survey of portraits of Bembo, see Carol Kidwell, Pietro Bembo: Lover, Linguist, Cardinal (Montreal, 2004), 391–393; Susan Nalezyty, Pietro Bembo and the Intellectual Pleasures of a Renaissance Writer and Art Collector (New Haven, 2017), 74–86.
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.
For Bembo’s biography, see Carlo Dionisotti, “Bembo, Pietro,” in Dizionario biografico degli italiani, ed. Alberto Maria Ghisalberti (Rome, 1966): 8:133–151; Carol Kidwell, Pietro Bembo: Lover, Linguist, Cardinal (Montreal, 2004). For his literary achievement, see Giancarlo Mazzacurati, “Pietro Bembo,” in Storia della cultura veneta, Vol. 3, Pt. 2: Dal primo Quattrocento al Concilio di Trento (Vicenza, 1980), 1–59.
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.
[Marcantonio Michiel], Notizie d’opere di disegno pubblicate e illustrate da D. Jacopo Morelli, ed. Gustavo Frizzoni (Bologna, 1884), 44–63. English translation in Robert Klein and Henri Zerner, Italian Art, 1500–1600: Sources and Documents (Englewood Cliffs, NJ, 1966), 25–28. For Bembo’s collection, see also Jennifer Fletcher, “Marcantonio Michiel: His Friends and Collection,” The Burlington Magazine 123 (1981): 461–462; Sabine Eiche, “On the Dispersal of Cardinal Bembo’s Collections,” Mitteilungen des Kunsthistorischen Instituts in Florenz 27 (1983): 353–359; Irene Favaretto, Arte antica e cultura antiquaria nelle collezioni venete al tempo della Serenissima (Rome, 1990), 103–107; Clare Robertson, “Cardinal Pietro Bembo,” in The Dictionary of Art, ed. Jane Turner (New York and London, 1996), 3:698; Rosella Lauber, “La collezione Bembo,” in Il collezionismo d’arte a Venezia: Dalle origini al Cinquecento, ed. Michel Hochmann, Rosella Lauber, and Stefania Mason (Venice, 2008), 252–254; Guido Beltramini, Howard Burns, and Davide Gasparotto, eds., Pietro Bembo e le arti (Venice, 2013), 223–504; Guido Beltramini, Davide Gasparotto, and Adolfo Tura, eds., Pietro Bembo e l’invenzione del Rinascimento (Venice, 2013), 302–347; Susan Nalezyty, Pietro Bembo and the Intellectual Pleasures of a Renaissance Writer and Art Collector (New Haven, 2017), 103–182.
See Martha Wolff, in John Oliver Hand and Martha Wolff, Early Netherlandish Painting, National Gallery of Art Systematic Catalogue (Washington, DC, 1986), 193–201.
See Pietro Bembo, Prose e rime, ed. Carlo Dionisotti (Turin, 1960), nos. 19 and 20. Quoting these lines, Carlo Ridolfi, Le maraviglie dell’arte, overo Le vite de gl’illustri pittori veneti, e dello stato, ed. Detlev von Hadeln (Berlin, 1914), 1:73, also claimed that Bellini painted an early portrait of Bembo himself, but as pointed out by Hadeln in his annotation to this comment, it seems to have constituted a misunderstanding of Vasari’s mention of the portrait of Bembo’s beloved. Ridolfi’s claim has sometimes been used in support of the view that Bellini’s Portrait of a Man (Royal Collection, Hampton Court), evidently dating from the first decade of the 16th century, represents Bembo. For a skeptical reaction, see John Shearman, The Early Italian Pictures in the Collection of Her Majesty the Queen (Cambridge, 1983), 43. For recent arguments in favor of the identification, see Debra Pincus, “Giovanni Bellini’s Humanist Signature: Pietro Bembo, Aldus Manutius, and Humanism in Early Sixteenth-Century Venice,” Artibus et Historiae, no. 58 (2008): 98–99, 102; the issue is also debated in David Alan Brown, “Bembo and Bellini,” in Pietro Bembo e le arti, ed. Guido Beltramini, Howard Burns, and Davide Gasparotto (Venice, 2013), 309–327; and in Lucy Whitaker, “Bembo in Focus: A Fair Conclusion?” in Pietro Bembo e le arti, ed. Guido Beltramini, Howard Burns, and Davide Gasparotto (Venice, 2013), 329–338.
“Essendo chiamato a Roma dal Bembo, che allora era secretario di papa Leone X, et il quale aveva già ritratto,” Giorgio Vasari, Le vite de’ più eccellenti pittori, scultori e architettori (1568), ed. Rosanna Bettarini and Paola Barocchi (Florence, 1987), 6:160. Titian boasted of his invitation to Rome in his address to the Council of Ten in May 1513: see Joseph Archer Crowe and Giovanni Battista Cavalcaselle, Titian, His Life and Times (London, 1877), 1:153. This early portrait is possibly identical with one described as “A Picture of Torquato Bembo a famous Poet pal 6 & 5 Titian” in an inventory probably of the collection of Bartolomeo della Nave in Venice, and bought for the Marquess of Hamilton in 1638. See Ellis Waterhouse, “Paintings from Venice for Seventeenth-Century England,” Italian Studies 7 (1952): 15, no. 25; Simona Savini Branca, Il collezionismo veneziano del Seicento (Padua, 1965), 63. Clemente Gandini implausibly attempted to identify this lost early portrait with Titian’s Portrait of a Man in the Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen; more recently, Davide Gasparotto has tentatively identified it with a portrait attributed to Titian in the Musée des Beaux-Arts, Besançon. See Clemente Gandini, in Tiziano, le lettere, ed. Clemente Gandini from materials compiled by Celso Fabbro (Cadore, 1977), notes to pls. 24–25; and Davide Gasparotto, in Pietro Bembo e l’invenzione del Rinascimento, ed. Guido Beltramini, Davide Gasparotto, and Adolfo Tura (Venice, 2013), 208–209.
Francesco Sansovino, Venetia città nobilissima et singolare (1581) . . . Con aggiunta di tutte le cose notabili della stessa città, fatte et occorse dall’anno 1580 fino al presente 1663 da D. Giustiniano Martinioni (Venice, 1663), 334; Carlo Ridolfi, Le maraviglie dell’arte, overo Le vite de gl’illustri pittori veneti, e dello stato, ed. Detlev von Hadeln (Berlin, 1914), 1:157.
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.
“Renderete parimente grazie a M. Tiziano del dono del mio secondo ritratto, il qual Ritratto io volea scrivervi come io veduto l’avessi, che gli fosse pagato, come era conveniente. Ora, che la sua cortesia vuole che io gliene resti ubbligato, così sarà, e farò un dì alcuna cosa anco io per lui.” Pietro Bembo, Lettere, ed. Ernesto Travi (Bologna, 1993), 4:308.
David Alan Brown, in Titian, Prince of Painters (Venice, 1990), 238.
Matteo Mancini, “L’uso della copia del trivial pennello e l’attualità cronologica nella ritrattistica di Tiziano,” in Tizian versus Seisenegger: Die Portraits Karls V. mit Hund. Ein Holbeinstreit, ed. Sylvia Ferino-Pagden and Andreas Beyer (Turnhout, 2005), 138–142; for this issue, see also Sergio Marinelli, “Pietro Bembo nella storia della pittura,” in Pietro Bembo e le arti, ed. Guido Beltramini, Howard Burns, and Davide Gasparotto (Venice, 2013), 475; Susan Nalezyty, Pietro Bembo and the Intellectual Pleasures of a Renaissance Writer and Art Collector (New Haven, 2017), 78–82. Giulio Coggiola, “Per l’iconografia di Pietro Bembo,” Atti del Reale Istituto Veneto di Scienze, Lettere ed Arti 74, pt. 2 (1914–1915): 484, 493, unconvincingly argued that the present portrait and that in Naples are contemporary, and that the latter is the “second” mentioned in the letter of 1540. In the English edition of their biography of Titian (1877), Crowe and Cavalcaselle had already plausibly surmised that the Gallery’s picture, which they saw in Palazzo Barberini, was the one mentioned in Bembo’s letter; in the Italian edition, however (1878, pp. 422–423), they proposed that it was the Naples version instead. See Joseph Archer Crowe and Giovanni Battista Cavalcaselle, Titian, His Life and Times (London, 1877), 1:417–419; 2:28–29; Joseph Archer Crowe and Giovanni Battista Cavalcaselle, Tiziano: La sua vita e i suoi tempi (Florence, 1878), 2:422–423.
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.
Giovanni Bottari, Raccolta di lettere sulla pittura, scultura ed architettura scritte da’ più celebri personaggi dei secoli XV, XVI, e XVII (Milan, 1822), 1:14–16.
Opere di Baldassare Castiglione, Giovanni della Casa, Benvenuto Cellini, ed. Carlo Cordié (Milan and Rome, 1960), 700–701.
But if Suida was correct in attributing the design of the mosaic to Titian, it cannot have been taken from life. Bembo wears a similarly long beard in his portrait as a bystander in Vasari’s Paul III Distributing Benefices of 1546 (Palazzo della Cancelleria, Rome), and in the posthumous portrait bust by Danese Cattaneo, carved for the monument to the cardinal in the Santo in Padua (in situ). See Wilhelm Suida, “New Light on Titian’s Portraits, II,” The Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs 68 (1936): 281–282.
See most recently M. Utili, in Titien: Le pouvoir en face (Milan, 2006), 172–173.
Konrad Oberhuber, “La mostra di Tiziano a Venezia,” Arte Veneta 44 (1993): 74–82.
Giorgio Vasari, Le vite de’ più eccellenti pittori, scultori e architettori, ed. Rosanna Bettarini and Paola Barocchi (Florence, 1987), 6:168: “Ritrasse Tiziano il Bembo un’altra volta, cioè poi che fu cardinale.” Similarly, Ridolfi says that Titian painted a portrait of Bembo “in old age” (“nell’ultima età”). Carlo Ridolfi, Le maraviglie dell’arte, overo Le vite de gl’illustri pittori veneti, e dello stato, ed. Detlev von Hadeln (Berlin, 1914), 1:192.
A third portrait by Titian of Bembo as a cardinal in old age, this time showing him standing in profile and with a very long beard, is the source of the standard engraved image of him. The original supposedly still belonged to his descendant Cornelia Gradenigo in 1815, and to the Putnam Foundation, San Diego, between c. 1955 and 1965. See Giulio Coggiola, “Per l’iconografia di Pietro Bembo,” Atti del Reale Istituto Veneto di Scienze, Lettere ed Arti 74, pt. 2 (1914–1915): 498–503; Harold Wethey, The Paintings of Titian (London, 1971), 2:83, 154 cat. X–11.
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.
Peter Burke, The Historical Anthropology of Early Modern Italy: Essays on Perception and Communication (Cambridge, 1987), 157–158; Peter Burke, “Il ritratto veneziano del Cinquecento,” in Pittura nel Veneto: Il Cinquecento, ed. Mauro Lucco (Milan, 1999), 3:1100.
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]. probably (Ferrante Carlo [1578-1641], Rome), and acquired from him before 1631 by Don Fabrizio Valguarnera [d. 1632], Rome. 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; still in the Barberini collection, Rome, c. 1904-1905; 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; (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; gift 1952 to NGA.
Associated NamesBarberini, Antonio, Cardinal
Barberini, Maffeo, Prince
Bembo, Cardinal Pietro
Colnaghi & Co., Ltd., P. & D.
Knoedler & Company, M.
Kress Foundation, Samuel H.
Parke-Bernet Galleries, Inc.
Schwab, Charles M.
Valguarnera, Don Fabrizio
Volpi, Elia, Professor
- 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.
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
Infrared reflectography was performed with a Santa Barbara Focalplane InSb camera, fitted with an H astronomy filter.
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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- Humfrey, Peter, ed. The Reception of Titian in Britain: From Reynolds to Ruskin. Turnhout, 2013: 16.
- Marinelli, Sergio. “Pietro Bembo nella storia della pittura.” In Pietro Bembo e le arti. Edited by Guido Beltramini, Howard Burns, and Davide Gasparotto. Venice, 2013: 475.
- "Vasari and the National Gallery of Art." National Gallery of Art Bulletin 48 (Spring 2013): 20, repro.
- Villa, Giovanni C.F., ed. Tiziano. Exh. cat., Scuderie del Quirinale, Rome. Milan, 2013: 182-183.
- Nalezyty, Susan. Pietro Bembo and the Intellectual Pleasures of a Renaissance Writer and Art Collector. New Haven, 2017: 78-82.
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