Paris Bordone: In Search of Mirrors

The way how female body is depicted in the portraits of Paris Bordone can be compared to striptease mirror/poker of some kind; only the game lasted a life. There are no cards here, of course (and the mirrors are to find, too), but the striptease, at least of some sort, did occur.

The portraits above are of the fully dressed ladies, including their necklines, or décolletages. They are covered by the luxurious pieces, called partlets (the website tells about various designs of this important detail of the Venetian women’s dresses of the High Renaissance age, and a simple image search will reveal a wide diversity of modern reincarnations  of this detail).

With time the décolletages of Bordone become more revealing, too:

And at some point, very revealing:

Ok, my efforts to be mildly entertaining should be treated with irony, of course. Not everything was linear, Paris Bordone created relatively exposed female portraits in his earlier carrier too, as he did painted sober and modest works in his later age.  But the overall trend, toward more frivolous and exposed depiction of female body has been present not only in his works, but in general art movement of that age

Anyway, this topic itself is not so interesting for my theme; my theme is mirrors, and we don’t find any in these portraits. This is somewhat strange, because we do find at least a few mirrors in the paintings of Titian (which these works by Bordone otherwise strongly resemble).

I mention the painter’s name few times, and may be it’s time to tell a bit more about him. Paris Bordone was born in 1500 in Treviso, a small town just outside Venice, so we can assume that his artistic development took place in Venice, and under the influence of its famous masters, and above all, Titian.

It is known that for a short time Bordone worked in the Titian’s workshop, but he quit it relatively soon (according to Giorgio Vasari, it happened because Titian allegedly took Bordone’s work and presented as his own.) No matter how short was the training (or collaboration) with Titian, his influence can be seen in so many of the works by Bordone (in fact, the same Vasari also wrote that the main problem for Bordone was to develop own style different from Titian).

It is believed that Bordone borrowed a lot from Caravaggio, but perhaps even more from the mannerists of Florence. At some point, between 1538 and 1540, he travelled  to France (thus adding to the developments of the first wave of the School of Fontainebleau there – when I wrote my posting about SF№1I didn’t know about this).

Then he travelled to Germany, came back to Italy, where he worked in various Northern cities, but eventually returned to Venice, where he then worked till his death in 1570. Bordone was born ten years later than Titian, and died five year before the latter’s death, so his whole life was spent in the shadow of the Venetian patriarch. Many of his works had been attributed to Titian (perhaps some still are), and in general his reputation is of a second-class painter. The true (re)discovery of the artist started relatively recently, and I believe that after a couple of well-prepared serious exhibitions and a few book hew could become yet another first-class star of the Venetian Renaissance.

Again, all interesting, but where are the mirrors. In some of his works we see  the reflections – for example, in these Holy Conversations (1530):

The Conversations was a very popular genre at the time, where depicted were some of the Saints talking to each other: in this case, it is John the Baptist and Saint George (who apparently just killed his dragon, laying at his feet) with the Madonna.

It is on the St. George’s armor we see an interesting play of light, reflected in the curved surfaces:

Nice, but not a mirror in any sense. There is another painting with similar light effects, the so-called Knight with Two Pages:

It looks like the mirror has to appear somehow, somewhere… alas, but no mirrors

There is no mirrors in the painting of Venus and Mars:

And no mirrors depicted in the painting with ‘just lovers’ (although they are most likely some allegorical figures too):

Mirrors didn’t find their way into the scene with (nearly naked) Bathsheba:

And there no mirrors near sleeping (and completely naked) Venus:

There is a growing feeling that the mirrors of Paris Bordone play some kind of hide & seek game with us! Where are them?

For those who want to play Sherlock Holmes, I created a simple puzzle, from one of his paintings. The game is called “Find all three mirrors of Paris Bordone on a way to Egypt” (the pictures is also hyperlinked with a much larger image):

It is difficult to find a mirror in a dark room, especially if it’s not there. In case of Bordone the mirrors do exist in this paintings, but it’s not an easy job to find them there.

1. The first mirror of Bordone appears in the painting with an unremarkable name  “Women at the toilet”



Apparently, a more complex affair is at play here, but I do not quite understand what’s really going on. Is the guy trying to sell a mirror? Why so secretly? Perhaps, it is a counterfeit, or an illegally brought mirror from the Murano island?

In any case, we hardly see the mirror in the dark corner; and nothing is reflected there apart of a light blink. The woman in a center (in a red dress) is turned toward the mirror, but she hardly look at it; there are some signs of her deep introspective, self-absorbed stance, but it doesn’t seem be to cause, or mediated by the mirror.

Worth noticing, that it already a flat mirror, even if small. Titian will paint his famous Venus with (flat) mirrors much later, from 1555 to 1565, but he also had a few works with similar small flat mirror as early as in 1515 (they should have just appeared on the market by that time).

2. In the next picture (1550), the woman is alone:

and the mirror is also ‘alone’, hanging on a wall, and playing a very passive role. It again has some reflected in it, but that’s it. The woman is again half-turned toward the mirror… but her look is hardly directed at it. It is as if she eventually “bought” it from the vendor, and is not “learning to use”.

This painting is currently at the same museum (Kunsthistorisches Museum) in Vienna I just wrote about, and so the picture below is somewhat a homage to the same i_shmael:

3. The third mirror of Bordone is very strange (and interesting too because of its weirdness). We find this mirror in the painting of Cleopatra (who is just about to unleash a snake that would eventually kill her):

The mirror is quite large, and in a very rich frame. Yet it hands on a background, not playing any role in the composition, except, perhaps, emphasizing the high status of the lady (it should be very expensive, and affordable only to the queens). Perhaps the figures on its frame could tell more about its meaning in this picture, but I have to research further to figure it out. I’m currently working on a posting about the “mirrors of the Kings” (more “of the Queens”, of course), and this would be a good example of those.

The quality of the reproduction that I have now does not allow to say whether the mirror reflects something or not:

Probably not, especially if we judge by the previous mirrors of Paris Bordone. But what if yes? it would be an interesting twist, both for interpretation of this work, and his art in general.

But there is another interesting twist in this painting, again related to the theme of “revealing/concealing”, that Bordone was playing whole life. The twist is about “bare feet”, the thing we could hardly understand in our time, hyper-sexualized, and therefore a-sexual:

IN this painting Cleopatra puts her leg forward, in such a way that the dress covers it very tightly, almost revealing the leg’s shape. That is in itself should look very piquant, almost scandalous at the time, but here we see depicted even greater frivolity: Cleopatra here “shows her leg”, more precisely, she shows a tiny gap between the rim of her dress and the shoe. Today we would say “So what?”, but back then such a display was a fetish in its own right (you can read more about “shoe displays” in those days).

Three mirrors of Bordone so far; perhaps, the future will reveal more of them, and more about them.



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