Double Binding Mirrors of Giovanni Bellini

Four Allegories by Giovanni Bellini are considered among the most enigmatic works of the late Renaissance art. Numerous theories exist about what and why is depicted on these four small wooden panels (each of them is just a bit bigger than A4).

But before  I go into Bellini’s own enigmas, I would like to record here my general bemusement about the lack of mirrors in the early Renaissance art of Italy.  I already told a few stories here about the mirrors in the works of French, Flemish/Dutch, even German artists. Yet I didn’t find any traces of mirrors in the works of any Italian artist – and that having in mind that it was Venice where contemporary way of making was born, and the city retained a monopoly on mirror-making for almost two centuries.

I start suspecting a conspiracy of some sort, that may be Italian artists did make a lot of works with the mirrors, but they were later confiscated (or destroyed by the Church). Or may be they are still kept in the secret Vatican’s archives? Or something else, similarly danbrownesque.

But Big Enigma aside, and back to Giovanni Bellini. He was, in fact, from Venice, moreover, he was from the family of painters: his father, Jacopo Bellini, was a known Italian master, and both his sons and son-in-law (Andrea Mantegna) eventually became  painters too.  Early in his career Bellini, similar to many of his colleagues, predominately painted religious works, and only later started to also take private commissions, such as these allegoric works.

Currently at the Accademia in Venice, they originally formed part of restello, a small dressing-table with a mirror and a rack on which to hang or otherwise store objects.

Restelli were luxurious objects, elaborate and often with costly mirrors enframed with carved and gilded wood, surrounded by small paintings; the ostensible practical purpose of all this being the convenient storage (and the true purpose, the display) of toilet articles that were themselves luxurious, such as decorated combs, and to clean them, long brushes of horsehair with elegant fittings.”

I have recently found an image of a contemporary reconstruction of how such restello with the Bellini’s paintings may look like:

This is of course an entirely imaginary object, including the design of the central frame for a mirror, gilded frame, and the composition of the four paintings, but it at least suggests how such an object could look.

The original restello belonged to the painter Vincenzo Catena who, writing his will in 1530, left it to Antonio Marsili. The spread of this kind of furniture was so great that in 1489 the Venetian Senate prohibited its manufacture, limiting it to what was strictly necessary. This could be a reason of the possible deconstruction of the object; we are lucky to at least have the paintings.

One of the panels depict a fully naked woman standing on a pedestal of some sort, surrounded by a few kids. In her right hand she holds, rather elegantly, a large convex mirror with a man’s head reflected in in. She also points to this image with a finger of her left hand.

 

One of the titles of this work is Prudence, the woman therefore symbolizes “the ability to govern and discipline yourself by the use of reason”, and the mirror should be seen as a tool to do so.   Latin prudentia also means foresight, and sagacity in general, so the mirror can be associated with insightfulness, knowledge and wisdom. Her nakedness can be seen as a manifestation of open, courageous behavior.

More widespread opinion is that we see here an allegory of Vanagloria, or vainglory, unjustified boasting, an excessive belief in own abilities or attractiveness to others (a more archaic name of what is now known as Vanity). The skull on the pedestal supports this argument, pointing to the ephemerality of beautiful flesh and inevitability of decay and death.

The face in the mirror could be interpreted as a self-portrait of the painter, but could also be a portrait, even if symbolic, of the client/commissioner. Such portrait would always have a dual meaning, both as a sign of self-glorification and a reminder to not engage in it too much.

In my terminology this is the Unicorn, the mirror points to something that we don’t see (whether it’s real or symbolical is another matter).

All other three panels have the similar dual meaning: is the lady with a strange blue sphere an allegory of Fortune – or Melancholy?  Is the man crawling from the giant shell a sign of Wisdom – or Falsehood? Does the woman with the fruit plate call for Lust – or Perserverance?

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