There was a respectful silence in the church, and apart from the occasional shuffling of hands to rub off the cold December air, the whole congregation stood very still as a young man began making his way up to the pulpit. He spoke of his uncle, Nicolò Marcello, who had died at 77 years of age after serving as doge for only 16 months. And yet, since taking up the dogal corno in August 1473, he had done far more than many had accomplished in much longer terms.
We can only guess the words his nephew spoke at the funeral, so we might as well start with what we do know. His portraits for instance.
We begin in the 1580’s with Jacopo Tintoretto’s son Domenico, who had the merit of completing a series of portraits of the doges which adorn the Sala del Maggior Consiglio in the Doge’s Palace, each with a white ribbon flowing around their bodies upon which we read a personal message from the doge telling us his accomplishments in office, a sort of dogal speech bubble. “ME POPULI PIETAS ET OPES EXPONERE MOVIT” is how Marcello’s ribbon begins, “the love for the people moved me to give up my riches and my life”. Indeed, he donated his whole estate to the poor and the needy of his city, in tune with what many say was his gentle and generous nature. A little surprising perhaps, given his peculiar taste for the extravagant and the luxurious; he was in fact the first doge to insist on wearing wholly golden robes during ceremonies, and on having trumpets exclusively made of silver. These novelties were commonly accepted gracefully given his able statesmanship and good-natured heart.
Let’s backtrack a century or so to 1479, when Gentile Bellini was sent to Constantinople on a mission to portray Sultan Mehmet II, a work that popularised him as the best portrait artist in Venice, and was then commissioned to do a series of portraits of the doges, many of which were unfortunately lost in a great fire that spread across the Doge’s Palace in 1557. Luckily, Gentile’s portrait of Nicolò Marcello was saved, though I think we would have been even luckier had his younger brother Giovanni tried his hand at it, as we might have learned more of Marcello’s character as Giovanni was clearly more talented, and surely more interested in showing a subject’s character through their exterior traits rather than just giving a faithful depiction of those traits.
In any case, Gentile’s work has all the characteristics of early Renaissance portraiture and it is plausible that the profile angle was directly inspired by old Roman coins, where the emperor’s head would be depicted from one side. The idea behind both coin and portrait was to simply showcase one’s status and power, which was to last through the ages and inspire pride in the eyes of one’s descendants and awe in those of the public. Quite fitting for a doge who was supposedly a distant descendant of an ancient Roman family, the gens Claudia-Marcella.
The numismatic link is also apt since Nicolò Marcello was famous for having introduced a new coin in the Venetian market, worth half a lira and called “marcello” in his honour, as it greatly helped in sanitising the dire financial situation the city had been stuck in for years. His face, ironically, did not appear on thecoin, because just before being elected doge, the correttori della promissione ducale, charged with defining the terms of dogal administration, had determined that no coin should henceforth ever represent a doge’s face, as had been the custom until then.
We are, however, fortunate that around 70 years later, Titian was able to see the portrait and have a crack at it himself. Marcello is still seen in profile, and this is not a small detail because amongst all of Titian’s surviving portraits, this is the only one where the subject is seated in this position, bust, head and eyes facing to the left, as if completely disinterested and even unaware of the artist – or rather, the viewer, like a photograph of a doge “caught in the act”, and the “act” is where Titian steers away from Bellini, as he uses a wider lens making the most of all that space to show the doge’s whole body, with particular attention to his arms and hands. His right arm is stretched out but almost concealed by the cloak if we were to look at it from the other side; the hand is stiff and angled horizontally as though prepared for a handshake, and Titian is telling us an essential aspect of who the doge really was; at heart he was a merchant, and indeed he had spent much of his early career travelling to foreign countries on commercial business, spending a good number of years in Damascus. And what is more merchant-like than an inconspicuous handshake?
Let us not misunderstand merchant to be synonymous with crafty, and we need only look at his expression to be reassured of this. Unlike Gentile Bellini, Titian gives some character to Marcello’s face, who in his own way looks decisive and straightforward, but does not have the sharp features of Doge Gritti as portrayed by Titian, and even has an inkling of a double chin that is so common with older – we might say harmless – men. He might gain our respect but perhaps does not command it as Gritti does, and looking at his lips we might think they are even working towards a warm smile that would certainly keep us on his side. All in all, he exudes an endearing firmness no good merchant would wish to be without.
Now, it might not be the purpose of artists to convey what the powerful in history were truly like, and many variables can come between reality and the artist’s work; but there is a feeling emanating from the portraits of Nicolò Marcello, that he had been a kind, reasonable and pragmatic person, who was certainly not thrifty in nature but also knew his duties came before his own pleasure. Not a bad start for any politician in any age.
By Ale Dowling