Bellini’s Portrait of Caterina Cornaro, Queen of Cyprus (c.1500)

Although the queen whom this portrait by Gentile Bellini supposedly portrays was in exile, she was still allowed to maintain a court on the Venetian mainland hosting major cultural figures such as the humanist Pietro Bembo and the artist Giorgione. In this image, Gentile's only known female portrait, the tablet in the top corner pays more respect to Bellini as an artist than the sitter as a queen.  

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Captions for image(s) above:

Gentile Bellini, Portrait of Caterina Cornaro, Queen of Cyprus (c.1500) Szépmüvészeti Múzeum, Budapest

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The tablet, speaking even in the queen's voice, lists various qualities of her greatness. She ends, though: "You see how important I am, yet greater still is the hand of Gentile Bellini which has captured my image on such a small panel."1 It is impossible to believe that the queen herself thought up that inscription, granting greater glory to the artist than to herself. It can only have originated with the artist whose portrait, often thought to be a self-portrait, is at left.

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Captions for image(s) above:

Gentile Bellini (?), Self-portrait or Portrait of Gentile Bellini (c.1496) Kupferstichkabinett, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

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Bellini's near-total control over the end-product explains how even the queen's physiognomy is based on Bellini's features. Whoever drew the portrait of Gentile at left, the likeness is not coincidental because the odds against the similarities would be too great. Besides Gentile, in giving Caterina his small eyes, a version of his ski-slope nose, the creases by his mouth and his chin, was following the long tradition in portraiture of making the monarch's features similar to the artist's, as Peter Parler had done in the earliest known instance in the 1370's.2 

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Captions for image(s) above:

Left: Detail of Gentile Bellini's Portrait of Caterina Cornaro,Queen of Cyprus
Right: Detail of Gentile Bellini's Self-portrait, inverted

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There is a firm belief in art scholarship that the patron calls the shots, especially when the patron is powerful. This example, though, clearly demonstrates that Bellini was in charge and that the queen deferred to the artist. Many surviving letters attest to this problem: that Renaissance patrons could not get a good likeness from a great master. There does not appear to have been the same problem with minor painters who, no doubt copying exactly what they saw, provided a good likeness.3 

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Captions for image(s) above:

Gentile Bellini, Portrait of Caterina Cornaro, Queen of Cyprus (c.1500) Szépmüvészeti Múzeum, Budapest

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The catalogue to The Renaissance Portrait: From Donatello to Bellini, currently showing in the Bode-Museum, Berlin and soon to appear at the Metropolitan Museum, New York, comes to the correct conclusion about this portrait: "By having Caterina assert that his [Bellini's] artistry is of greater importance than herself, Gentile placed himself above the portrayed queen and thus underscored his claim to the throne of Venetian portraiture." They fail, though, to recognize that the Queen resembles Bellini and that the majesty of the artist's soul is the subject, on the spiritual level, of all royal portraits in the Renaissance done by great masters and by most of them since. In portraits of queens, specifically, the artist also informs his successors that his mind was both androgynous and fertile. Originality is not the only important aspect of art; tradition is too.

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Notes:

1. Dagmar Korbacher in The Renaissance Portrait from Donatello to Bellini (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art) 2011, pp.364-5

2. Georgia Sommers Wright, “The Reinvention of the Portrait Likeness in the Fourteenth Century”, Gesta 39, No. 2, Robert Branner and the Gothic (2000), p. 126

3. It was already acknowledged in the sixteenth century that a great master produced a worse likeness of the sitter than an ordinary well-trained painter. There were thought to be a number of reasons for this though no-one knew why for certain.

Original Publication Date on EPPH: 25 Oct 2011. © 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.