Donna con due specchi

However interesting all these enigmatic panels might be, in the context of ‘art mirrors’ Bellini will likely be known for his another work, described as “Young woman with a mirror”, or “Young lady at her toilette’, or “Young lady combing her hair” – or simply “Naked Young Woman in Front of the Mirror”.

It’s a very popular painting, to the extent it’s hardly possible to find any information beyond the ‘cheapest hand-painted copy!!!’ offers on 9 out 10 websites you visit 😦

As a side thought, it would be perhaps interesting to know how popular the paintings with the mirrors among those who commission all these ‘hand-painted masterpieces’.

Surprisingly, but even if you fight through all this foam, you will still learn too little about this work. It’s painted in by Bellini in 1515, when he was 85, and just a year before his death. It’s described as “the Bellini’s first female nude” which is obviously a rubbish in view of the above described allegorical works.  Yet there is not much more beyond this superficial description. There is no information about the exact title of the work, nor about its context and meaning.  At the very same time Bellini was painting a number of works related to various Biblical motifs, including the Deposition of Christ(1515). He also  painted a few ‘bacchanal’ works, such as The Feast of the Gods and Young Bachus (both 1514), and later in 1516 the Drunkenness of Noah.

To suggest that in between all these works the master would just paint a “naked girl with hand-held mirror” is a sign of serious lack of mind and historical and cultural ignorance; yet it apparently goes unnoticed, for centuries 😦

I wrote about duality of possible interpretations of the earlier, allegorical works by Bellini, and most likely such dualism was a deliberate strategy of the master. Bad (but may be also good), both bad and good (neither bad or good? sorry, that’s too postmodern.)

Bellini’s Naked with the Mirror is almost a canonical depiction of Vanity: “During the Renaissance, vanity was invariably represented as a naked woman, sometimes seated or reclining on a couch. She attends to her hair with comb and mirror“. It’s a harshly critical pictures, a warning sign.  Yet of course she is also one of the most beautiful woman in the entire art history.

But whether this work is critical or not, Bellini here also introduces a very novel strategy of depicting a mirror in the painting (or mirrors even, since we see two mirrors at work). From one side it is an already familiar Dark Side of the Moon; the background mirror allows us to see the back of her head, including the beautiful pearl brooch, a part of the pearl ornamented hair scarf (that resembles a peacock, by the way, another common symbol of vanity).

The puzzling beauty is created by the second, smaller hand-held mirror: she may be  employing this mirror to check her own hair/scarf, which she would not be able to see otherwise. But she may also be using using it to look at herself, to admire and contemplate. Or rather, as we understand, she would be oscillating between these two stances.  But in any case, she will stay immersed in a very particular space between herself and the mirrors, creating what I would call a Mirror Cocoon. Or, using the terms suggested by Bruno Latour in his Actor-Network Theory, they would form a Mirror Actant, an assemblage of person and technology that start manifesting own unique characteristics.

In her recent paper “Give me that glass, and therein will I read”: Women, Mirrors and Authenticity in Renaissance Portraiture [pdf, 26pp] Faye Tudor offered a wonderful description of this moment:

The woman is alone and uses the mirrors herself, with no-one assisting her at her toilette. This portrait, then, tries to embody the true, inward experience that Prater describes [Tudor refers here to the book by Andreas Prater Venus at her Mirror: Velazquez and the Art of Nude, 2002]. There is only one set of eyes in this painting and they are focused on herself: the viewer is excluded from her private moment and can only see what she feels appropriate to be revealed.

“She is in complete control of her image. She faces towards the viewer, revealing in full her voluptuous naked body, but still we cannot see what it is that she looks at in the hand mirror: but for the partial reflection of the back of her head, the mirror image has become the hidden but desired element. It is as if she offers the observer a complete view of her naked body in order to satisfy his voyeuristic needs so that she can continue in her undisturbed contemplation.

However, it is the view in the hand-mirror in which the spectator is interested precisely because it is concealed. Her eyes are focused elsewhere and the viewer cannot meet her gaze”.

“In this painting, therefore, the viewer is excluded. In fact, the viewer is actually encouraged to look away from the woman and out of the window to the left of her. There is no interplay here between reality and imagined reality: the viewer cannot see the mirror’s reflection and so can only imagine the reality” (pp. 6-7).

I couldn’t agree more with these observations of the ‘inward space’ and also of the intensive processes happening between her and the mirror(s). And I couldn’t disagree more with the arguments of the ‘exclusion’ of the viewer and his (viewer’s) inability to engage into ‘reality/virtuality’ of this Mirror Cocoon. Of course we are not excluded, but actively invited to participate in these transactions between the woman and her mirrors. The fact that we don’t see the reflection in the smaller mirror does not mean that we can’t see the whole Actant in action (in fact, it does help us to so, by creating a stronger suspense. I can’t remember whether it was Latour or one of the followers who gave this example – if we see a man with a gun in his hand, we of course perceive it as a very different actant than a man without a gun. But when we don’t see the gun while we know that it is in the man’s pocket, it created even more complex actant).

And nothing can confirm it better that the situation when the delicate balance is destroyed and we are ‘included’ in the picture, as the work from the notorious illustrates:

Art Mirror Strategy 3 – Mirror Cocoon. I’ve recently learned about very interesting book, Framing Consciousness in Art: Transcultural Perspectives, by Gregory Minissale, where the authors deals with ‘framing’ in a variety of cultural contexts (for example, by analyzing the famous ‘pictures in the pictures’). I believe here we also have a frame of some sort, but perhaps less tangible, less visible, but nevertheless very real.

Another version of is the Bellini depicted the very Venus here, with her indispensable mirror. Yet another possible version is that we see here the Whore of Babylon – compare this painting to the famous tapestry from Angers, for example, showing the Whore sitting and combing her hair:

Both Venus and the Whore had been often depicted wearing red or purple dresses.

PS: I wonder if someone known what it’s in this vessel? Oil – or ashes? And what’s laying on this plate? Grapes – or dirt?

Perhaps Bellini again plays his ambivalent games, forcing us to endlessly oscillate between pros and cons, as if between the real and the reflected (or in his case – between the reflection and the reflection of a reflection).

There is another aspect of the picture, that reflects (sic!) a few moments in the history of mirrors (and mirror making). Judging by the copy I have (quite pure one, I have to say), it’s difficult to say with any certainty, but it seems that we have two types of mirrors shown here, the rear mirror is still convex one, while a small hand-held mirror could be already flat.

I have already written, few times, in fact, that the patent for the manufacturing of flat mirrors was granted in Venice in 1507. By the time of when this painting was made (around 1515) such flat mirrors would be still novelty, a fashionable ‘gadget’ to be proud with. There is chance that Bellini was the first who depicted this new kind of flat mirrors.

This conclusion is implicitly confirmed by the way how the master depicted her arms: the left hand of a woman (or rather, her left elbow) looks a lot bigger than the right hand:

There is feeling that the master was trying to show two different types of reflections in different mirrors: the fact that flat mirrors give “truthful” reflection (right hand shown realistically), while convex mirrors distort the image, making it looking bigger (and so the left hand is shown almost grotesquely enlarged). This is just a hypothesis, I understand that I need to explore this issue more and further.

PS: I elaborate on this issue further here.

2 thoughts on “Donna con due specchi

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