It took me a while to get into Renaissance painting. Then once I had, I couldn’t see enough of it. Museums and galleries where I would have previously rushed through the early rooms without glancing left or right suddenly became very enticing places, and it was like discovering a new author, where you are compelled to track down and read everything he/she has written.
Bellini’s Doge from the turn of the 15th and 16th centuries is one of the best around. I first encountered it in a game of Masterpiece, a wonderful board game from the 60s or 70s involving auctions of Old Masters with vast potential for squabbles, bluffs and deception. The reproduction didn’t make much of an impact on me as a child: it was just a painting of an ugly old man.
The first time I seriously viewed and considered it as an extraordinary work of art was when I was researching picture frames, and found a large reproduction of it in the book I was studying. For the first time, the startling beauty of the composition and colour harmonies really hit me. I felt quite overwhelmed by the apparently effortless simplicity of the image, but also its compelling abstract qualities. The terracotta strip at the base grounds the image, and is reflected by the hat band and warm hues of the face. The magical blue background is the counterpoint to the orange and golden-cream hues, but no reproduction can do the blue justice. When I first saw the painting for real, I stood for ages just gazing at the blue.
Then there is the technical virtuosity: the impeccable and exquisite rendering of the cope, and the face. There is a closely observed asymmetry to the features, which gives the Doge an enigmatic half-smile. What was Bellini trying to say with this?
It is in the National Gallery collection, and is a work not to be missed if you haven’t seen it in real life and get the chance to go there.