Armstrong State University
Behind every portrait laid out on canvas lies a living, breathing subject. The Renaissance artists had a great task before them. Not only did they have to create an image, they had to recreate the world in which their subjects lived so that viewers of the portraits could tell what was important to their subjects and to the society at large. Thus, when in 1501−2, the humanist artist Giovanni Bellini painted Doge Lorenzo Loredan, the political and social leader of Venice; the artist had a complex portrait to create. He had two goals for the portrait: he sought to portray Loredan both as a human being and as a symbol of the Venetian state, who reflected the values of growth, community, and security which steered Venice along during these turbulent times.
The portrait painted in 1501 by Bellini in tempera on wood now hangs in the National Gallery of London.1 In the painting, Doge Loredan is shown dressed in clothes of his office. The robe is white and gold, ornamented with the sophisticated buttons that identify him as a Venetian noble. His red hat, called a corno, placed over a more modest linen cap, is also significant.2 Corno sounds like crown, so it seems like the overall message that the doge wanted to send to his people was that he was the “most supreme ruler.”3 It is clear from the portrait that the doge wanted to be remembered by his subjects as someone who would protect his city’s rich traditions at any cost.
In order to get at the spirit of this stunning portrait of this ideal ruler and to show what the portrait can teach today’s students, let us examine the world of Bellini’s subject and his city in detail. Venice is traditionally is known as the “lion city” because of its strong association with St. Mark, whose gospel begins with an encounter with a lion in a desert. St. Mark became the patron saint of Venice, and the lion became its symbol. In fact, the city derives its fame from the long-held belief that the bones of St. Mark lie beneath the Capello San Marco. The city itself was a rich blend of history, art, culture, religion, power politics, and Renaissance humanism. Venice was a city built out of the water, and thus it has always hovered on the brink of destruction at hands of the sea, which the city both loved and feared. In this hazardous environment, it was the responsibility of the doge to maintain a balance between the dual lions of individualism and community safety. In his book, Venice: Lion City, The Religion of Empire, historian and theologian Gary Willis described the complex cultural diversity of Venice. “It was a renaissance that respected and incorporated the best of the city’s early history. This place was rapacious and ruthless but in the service of a government that valued control of the governors as well as the governed.”4 According to Willis, Renaissance Venice was a unique blend of three cultures: Greek, Byzantine, and Gothic. During the Renaissance, Venice was a highly structured, war-like society because its very economic and political survival depended on sea trade and on the invasions in which Venetians pillaged cultural elements and goods from other, more established land-based cities to make them their own.5 In that sense, Venice was a true Renaissance city because, like the humanists, it incorporated the ancients of the past while reinventing its future in spite of the turmoil of the Dark Ages.
From this melting pot that was Venice emerged Bellini and his subject, the doge. From the beginning, Venetians put tremendous pressure on their doge, who had to both preserve the legacy of Saint Mark and build a naval and commercial empire. As head of both the church and state, Loredan ran the government and handpicked church officials. By tradition, the doge gained all this power and trust from his people because he had signed a contract to protect them and the relics that defined their unique culture.6 This contract delineated the Doge’s promise to safeguard both the city’s institutions and its rich ties, through their association with St. Mark, with the Catholic Church.
Many historians have pointed out that the role of the doge was highly complex. It was a balance between power and concession. In Venice Triumphant, Elizabeth Crouzet Pavan analyzes this seesaw phenomenon of dogal power. She recounts the story of a Frenchman who said in reference to the doge, “...He holds the duchy for a lifetime, and they can find nothing for which he can be undone, and he can do nothing without the presence of his councilors.”7 Pavan further suggests that the way in which the doge was chosen evolved over time as the state became more centralized and urban. At first, the election of the doge was basically a war among the nobility; whoever won the feud basically ruled unilaterally. However, as the city grew and changed, so did the number of people who influenced the doge. Of course, just because more people had greater influence on dogal policy did not mean that the elite suddenly lost all power. In fact, those with money did have a larger voice. However, after 1144, Venice was declared a commune, which essentially meant that the people gained a much larger piece of the political pie because they got to control how the doge used and maintained his power. His two advisors gained more legal power because of their greater influence in the Argeno, which was the Venetian court. In a primary source from the time, an observer describes the makeup and function of the Venetian court. Three prosecutors, called Avogadori, were elected every two years. They had the authority to arrest anyone on any charge. After the arrest these lawyers brought the accused to the doge and his advisors for ultimate judgment.8
In addition to scaling back the doge’s legal authority, the citizens even created a council to help choose the doge.9 This council eventually made it impossible for the doge to take much control of his own realm. For example, he was not allowed to travel, hold meetings with foreigners, or even open his own mail without his advisors in the room. These rules may have been a reaction to the abuses of power that had occurred in the past before the commune.10 However, for all gains that were made toward making Venice more democratic, the election council, which was meant to check the power of the doge, was still dominated by powerful nobility when Loredan came to power.
Lorenzo Loredan, who ruled as the Doge of Venice from 1501 to 1521, came from the patrician Loredan family, which had been involved, since 1370, in a power struggle over who would rule Venice. Two competing parties, the casa vecchie and casa nuove, fought each other for decades. After significant infighting with little result, the casa nuove, which included Lorenzo’s ancestors, eventually prevailed and established new rules on how new families could join the elite class. Eligibility was no longer solely based on patriarchic descent. Now a Venetian could be a patrician as long as one of his parents was a noble. This new rule allowed greater social mobility for all Venetians. In fact, these new regulations about eligibility for social promotion made Venice unique among its neighbors and kept internal social divisions from escalating into a civil war, as they had in other city-states.11
This was the political context in which Bellini began his portrait. Under the patronage system, it was Bellini’s job to create the image of the doge as national protector and as the stabilizer of Venice. In fact, in some ways, Lorenzo Loredan did live up to this image. As the doge, Loredan was intimately involved in several building projects on behalf of his people. He built many wharves and bridges to help connect his city to the rest of Italy.12 According to Pavan, community and togetherness were vital in Venice. Thus, the people worked together with the doge and the community to improve their city.13 While those developments during Loredan’s reign did seem positive, not all was well in the state of Venice. The Venetians were involved in the War of the League of Cambri, which was a struggle for survival between Venice and France. During this time, Venice was in crisis. Historian J. R. Hale recounts the effects of this crisis on the Venetian society. The Venetians had just lost a battle in early 1509 and thereby lost a significant amount of land to the French. After losing the battle of Agnadello, the Venetians appeared to descend into depravity. Parents refused to reign in wild children; men openly pursued other men as sexual partners and engaged in other activities, which, at the time, were considered morally reprehensible. The state was in peril. Few in Venice could to be inspired to fight for the republic. The doge and the nobility preferred to remain aloof from the war, but they wanted to keep the state safe. In addition, the Venetians blamed the doge and his council for corrupting the election process by refusing to allow votes to be cast by secret ballot. Perhaps that is why the doge, as depicted in Bellini’s great portrait, seems so conflicted. How could he preserve the state without getting too involved? How could he prevail without either getting blamed for the failure or being accused of overstepping his bounds?14
In fact, these problems were not unique to Loredan’s reign. Two generations later, Paolo Sarpi wrote a pamphlet advising Venetian leaders on how to retain their power in the face of crises. Sarpi believed that the Venetian noble class wielded too much power and remained unfairly free of taxes. He further believed that if the justice system functioned better and nobles were prosecuted and punished when they committed crimes, the republic would have been more stable.15 Although Sarpi wrote long after Loredan’s rule over Venice ended, this primary source document is still quite useful as an example of a humanist document, dispensing advice typical of the period. Political leaders like Loredan would have done well to look to books like these for insight into their own political problems.
The reality is that Lorenzo Loredan was caught in an impossible situation, as were many of his fellow Venetian doges. He was forced to juggle the legacy he was elected to preserve with his increasingly limited political power. Bellini’s portrait masterfully captures the trials of Loredan’s tenure. As the head of state in a complex, multicultural city, Loredan had to find ways to reconcile several conflicting values. He had to preserve the city’s rich religious history while ushering it into a new commercial era. Like Venice itself, the Doge was perched precariously on the edge of a roiling sea. He was charged with preserving the integrity of a city that grew out of the water, a city which created its identity by co-opting the cultural traditions of the lands it plundered. Finally, he had to lead his society in a time of war, while democratic challenges to his authority eroded the power of his office beneath his feet. In this case, both Bellini and the doge sought to protect the ideals of Venice, the doge safeguarding the actual city and Bellini preserving its memory in paint. Fundamentally, both tasks were the same because, after all, as Machiavelli suggested about leadership in The Prince, image is everything.16
Jessica Garten is a senior at Armstrong State University who will complete her coursework for a B.A. with Honors in June 2011. She is a history major with a concentration in European history with a specific interest in the women of the Italian Renaissance. Miss Garten has presented papers at three regional conferences since beginning her college August 2008. This summer Jessica plans to travel to Italy with her family to see the sights she has studied and dreamed of for a long time.
Jessica Garten, “The World of Doge Lorenzo Loredan (1436-1521) behind His Portrait,” Armstrong Undergraduate Journal of History 1, no. 1 (Spring 2011).