Behind the Eyeball of Bellini, Titian and Parmigianino

The famous self-portrait (c.1524) below by the young Parmigianino is universally praised for its originality within the relatively new genre of self-portraiture. Christina Neilson has written that it was a conscious effort by the artist to present himself as the new Raphael and that the elongation of his hand in the convex mirror was "to indicate his artistic skill."1

There must be more to it than the hand because Renaissance artists were attempting to separate themselves from the idea that they were manual laborers so hand alone would have sent the wrong message: they needed intellect as well. The eye was the doorway to the mind and time and again we see artists emphasizing both their hand and eye, craft and intellect, rarely the hand alone. The eye here is the mirror itself which we see from the inside as it reflects back to us what the artist saw. The mirror is an "eyeball".

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Captions for image(s) above:

Parmigianino, Self-portrait in a Convex Mirror (c.1524) Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

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Rona Goffen has called Giovanni Bellini's Venus with a Mirror a representation of the sense of sight and by extension the art of painting.2 Exactly. Titian's later scene (left) conveys similar meaning but once again the emphasis on hand must be balanced by the eye. The woman's finger points and "paints", caressing her own brush-like hair.The other touches her ointment jar or "paint pot", using the same analogy Mary Pardo suggested in Bellini's Venus 3. Where, then, is the eye of intellect? The convex mirror, of course, which once again is linked to the hand above. We are behind the eye, on the inside of the artist's mind where the man prepares to "paint" Titian's feminine alter ego in a pose that suggests she "paints" herself.

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Captions for image(s) above:

Titian, Woman with a Mirror (c.1513-15) The Louvre, Paris

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The earliest of the three paintings here (1488) is probably the most magical, sitting in a side chapel of the Frari in Venice. The literal subject of Giovanni Bellini's triptych is clear enough: the Madonna and Child enthroned accompanied by four saints. Of special note is the frame, probably designed by the artist himself. Its pilaster strips provide a double illusion, that they both support the ceiling and are part of the painted image too. But there is a greater illusion never noted in print...

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Captions for image(s) above:

Giovanni Bellini, The Frari Triptych (1488) Santa Maria dei Frari, Venice

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....the dome above the Virgin and Child. It not only looks concave as a ceiling but convex too like a bulging eyeball with its pupil aimed upwards, towards the heaven of the masses. The Virgin and saints, though, are below inside the artist's mind. Heaven for people in the Renaissance, whether inside us or in the sky above, was the only true reality. Thus the inscription running around the golden eyeball states in translation: "Secure gateway to Heaven, guide my mind [our italics], lead my life, may everything I do be entrusted to your care."4The dome is the gateway to heaven above for the masses or, as an eyeball, to the heaven inside for others.

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Captions for image(s) above:

Giovanni Bellini, Madonna and Child, central panel of The Frari Triptych

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We know the setting is inside Bellini's mind because he signed it directly under the Virgin's throne facing us accompanied by the music of two winged putti bowing down on either side. They bow to Bellini's name, not the Virgin, and play the harmonic music of the cosmos as a metaphor for art.5

Should anyone forget whose mind we are looking at, whose Virgin and whose Child commands the throne, whose saints stand there as aspects of his own self, it is Bellini. He conceived it and what we see is his conception, literally. The Infant Christ is Bellini's Immaculate Conception which we and other aspects of his mind, like the putti below and saints on either side, stand in awe of.

Captions for image(s) above:

Giovanni Bellini, Madonna and Child (detail), central panel of The Frari Triptych

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Notes:

1.Christina Neilson, Parmigianino's Antea: A Beautiful Affair (New York: The Frick Collection) p. 11

2. Cited in Mary Pardo, “Artifice as Seduction in Titian” in in Sexuality and Gender in Early Modern Europe, ed. J. G. Turner (Cambridge University Press) 1993, pp. 82-84

3. See the theme Brush and Palette and Pardo, ibid., pp.82-4

4. The inscription itself has a double meaning. For the masses who think literally and believe in the historical truth of the Bible, heaven is above the dome which thus becomes the gateway to heaven. For those who thought allegorically and believed that both heaven and hell were inside each individual, heaven is below the dome/eyeball inside the artist's mind. Either way, above or below, the dome/eyeball is the gateway to heaven.

5. See a similar misleading gaze in Mantegna's Adoration of the Shepherds. Two shepherds appear to look at Christ but in fact, on closer inspection, they gaze past him onto Joseph.

Original Publication Date on EPPH: 06 May 2011. | Updated: 09 May 2013. © Simon Abrahams. Articles on this site are the copyright of Simon Abrahams. To use copyrighted material in print or other media for purposes beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. Websites may link to this page without permission (please do) but may not reproduce the material on their own site without crediting Simon Abrahams and EPPH.