Bellini’s Mehmed II is not the tough old bird of the medals (one of them said to have been designed by Gentile) but a frail, worn-looking ruler. Mehmed’s head is tilted down ever so slightly, so that his nose seems longer and his face longer and thinner, and his chin disappears into the fuzzy length of his beard. His head is dwarfed by his turban; his entire body dissolves into his robe. He’s defined by the magnificence of his office — the framing arch and parapet, the cloth of honor — even as it consumes him. It’s not a conventionally flattering portrait; only a very wise ruler would have appreciated it. The same is true of Bellini’s portrait of Caterina Cornaro, which emphasizes her small features and short, thick neck and massive upper body but also the intelligence and achievement of a woman who at age 18 married the king of Cyprus and upon his death became that island’s ruler. It’s a cartoon and not an idealization, yet it pays tribute in the degree to which it details the tiny diamond pattern on her cloth-of-gold dress. Her expression is forthright; like Gentile in his self-portrait, she knows who she is and makes no apologies.
East meets West in the Gardner’s Seated Scribe, whose excellence is the best argument for its attribution to Bellini. Head and hands are mere accents to the turban and robe, the latter a watercolor wash of blue and gold and magenta and crimson; yet the face, with its pursed lips, has the individuality of Bellini’s self-portrait. It’s at once hazy and corporeal, west of Istanbul, east of Rome or Florence, the work of a major Venetian artist. The two brown-ink pen drawings the catalogue also attributes to Bellini, Seated Janissary and Seated Woman, show similar detail in their firmness of expression and luxuriance of dress. The catalogue acknowledges that a Muslim woman would not likely have sat for a Western male artist, even Mehmed’s de facto court painter, and suggests the Seated Woman is a European woman in Turkish apparel. East and West, art and life, blurred once again.
It’s ironic that an artist who made such individualistic portraits should be best known for three large-scale crowd scenes: The Procession in Piazza San Marco, The Miracle at the San Lorenzo Bridge, and Saint Mark Preaching in Alexandria (this last completed by Giovanni after Gentile’s death). Although Bellini didn’t just paint anonymous faces (he worked his own image into all three, Alfred Hitchcock style, and you can make out Giovanni in The Procession in Piazza San Marco and Caterina Cornaro in The Miracle at the San Lorenzo Bridge), these are triumphs of artistic organization and communal spirit, celebrations of Venetian faith and tradition that only look square and formal. Even Giovanni Bellini, with so much more surviving work than Gentile, is a mystery, and not just in his enigmatic Sacred Allegory. More classical than Giorgione or Titian, he seems less expressive, less “modern”— or is he just more inscrutable as he balances between flesh and spirit? As for Gentile, he’s summed up by the statue version of his seated scribe that sits at the entrance to the exhibition. Executed in 1995 by a former Gardner artist-in-residence, the late Juan Muñoz, the figure sits, at the artist’s direction, with his back to the viewer.