Some people turn out to be at the centre of a veritable web of stories. You think their appearance or their job title tells you all you need to know. But if you dig a little deeper, you constantly discover new facets of their personality and their place in society. Before you know it, you’ve put together a mini-history of Europe. Bernardo Bembo was that kind of person. We have to start somewhere, so why not with his portrait? You’ll find it in the KMSKA collection.

Hans Memling, Bernardo Bembo, staatsman en ambassadeur van Venetië
Bernardo Bembo, Venetian statesman and ambassador - Hans Memling, KMSKA

Here he is then, Bernardo Bembo. Although we didn’t know that for a long time. Art historians had to turn detective, arming themselves with books, archive records and a magnifying glass or microscope. Bit by bit, they figured out who this man was.

The first clues

What we see is a portrait of a standing man, turned slightly to one side. That’s revealing in itself, because three-quarter portraits were invented by the ‘Flemish Primitives’. Artists like Jan van Eyck (c. 1390–1441) and Petrus Christus (c. 1410–1475/1476) took a different approach to their Italian contemporaries. The latter painted their portraits in profile, like the heads on Roman coins. And when Italian Renaissance artists did finally adopt the angled profile, they did so in imitation of their northern colleagues. It’s a pose that feels a little more immediate too, while simultaneously narrowing down the date. Portrait art like this puts us in the 15th century.

His stubble is razor-sharp
The sun catches strands of hair.

Another difference between the Flemish Primitives and their Italian contemporaries is the technique they used. Jan van Eyck might not have invented oil paint, as traditionally claimed, but he did improve it in a way that enabled him to produce highly realistic and at once hyper-detailed results.

The man in this portrait is depicted with crystal clarity. So much so that you can count the fine hairs of his stubble. Or see how the sunlight catches strands of his voluminous hair. Not just anyone could paint like this, but Hans Memling (c. 1435–1494) could. It made him very popular with the social elite and with foreigners. Italians especially.

Italians in Bruges

The man wears a distinctive cap and fashionable clothes. It’s a 15th-century Italian outfit: a bareta (cap) and a toga (gown), with a loose collar above it. But surely the evidence so far has identified Hans Memling as the painter? And he worked in Bruges. The Italian look is not actually a problem: after all, Bruges had been a cosmopolitan trading metropolis since the 13th century, the northern equivalent to Venice and home to the world’s first financial exchange. The Dukes of Burgundy, the territory’s rulers, moved their principal residence from Dijon to Bruges, turning the Flemish city into a cultural hotspot too.

Like Venice, Bruges was a magnet for foreigners, including Italian merchants like Giovanni di Nicolao Arnolfini and his wife, chiefly remembered today for the portrait that Jan van Eyck painted of them.

Two important leads

The man in our painting is holding a coin, suggesting to art historians that he might have been a coin-cutter. But an artisan like that wouldn’t have been shown with an ancient coin depicting the head of Emperor Nero (37–68). And he probably couldn’t have afforded to commission a portrait. So perhaps he was a coin collector?

Behind the man we see a landscape with swans and a horseman. Hans Memling was one of the first to use scenery like this instead of a plain background. The landscape also includes a palm tree, while two laurel leaves can be made out in front.

A solitary palm in an otherwise non-exotic landscape.
A tree that was Bernardo Bembo’s emblem.
As well as two half-laurel leaves for the observant viewer.

Adding up these clues, we arrive at a coin collector with a penchant for palm trees and laurel. And that equals Bernardo Bembo (1433–1519), a humanist and collector of art, books and antique coins. This particular coin, a sestertius of Emperor Nero, was highly prized by collectors. It will have been Bembo’s best piece, which is why he holds it so ostentatiously. The coin is also a statement that he knew his classics and was a man of the world.

Bembo’s emblem, meanwhile, consisted of a palm tree and a laurel branch. The palm looks a little bereft here among the otherwise Northern European vegetation and so is more likely to have been a reference to Bembo than a realistic element. And the way the two laurel leaves are cut off is not because Memling cropped his compositions in an unusual way. Like Van Eyck, he often made the painting and its frame a single ensemble and so the leaves probably continued onto the original frame. This was later lost, leaving only half of the laurel leaves visible.

Bernardo Bembo served as the Venetian ambassador to the Burgundian court in Bruges from 1471 to 1474, the time of Duke Charles the Bold. In 1472, he signed the Treaty of Péronne, which bound Venice and Burgundy together for five years. The culturally refined Bembo might already have been aware of Memling’s reputation. Besides this fashionable portrait, he commissioned the artist to paint a diptych for him with John the Baptist and St Veronica. Because Memling not only produced near-photographic portraits, he was also famed for his religious scenes.

Memling’s club of gentlemen in caps and gowns.

If we zoom in on the portrait, we detect similarities with other portraits by Memling. His male clients could certainly count on a coiffure worthy of a shampoo advert. And the bareta and black gown are frequently found too. All the same, it is Bernardo Bembo who stands out among all these models. He looks us straight in the eye. His expression is just as dreamy as the others, yet he strikes up a genuine relationship with the viewer. Unusually so: it’s a trick that Memling only repeated in one other portrait.

Bernardo in brief

Bernardo Bembo eventually returned to Italy, taking his portrait with him. His time in Bruges was just one stop during an astonishing career marked by his political wanderlust. He served as Venetian ambassador to Florence, England and France. And besides his diplomatic work, he held a series of important administrative offices in various Italian cities. He was the Venetian delegate to the inauguration of successive popes, acted as public prosecutor and organized the return of the poet Dante’s remains to Florence, to fulfil a promise he made to Lorenzo de’ Medici. With a resumé like his, you pick up some famous connections. Bembo knew Leonardo da Vinci and was a good friend of Aldus Manutius, the Michelangelo of printing. Whenever a vacancy cropped up in Rome, no problem – Bernardo was your man. If he were alive today, he’d probably be on the board of 30 different corporations and agencies.

Travelling fame

Memling’s portraits of Italians earned him a considerable reputation in their home country. No other Flemish Primitive had such an impact on Italian art as he did. The resemblance to Sandro Botticelli’s Man with a Medal is indisputable, for instance, and Memling’s Italian contemporaries also borrowed entire landscapes as a background for their Madonnas.

Two portraits by Sandro Botticelli after Memling’s likeness of Bernardo Bembo. Sotheby’s auctioned the portrait of the young man with the icon in January 2021.

And Bernardo Bembo is an ambassador to this day, representing Hans Memling and his refined brushwork, as well as the KMSKA collection. He recently travelled in this capacity to the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. With his lustrous hair, prestigious coin and palm tree, Bembo was one of the Renaissance portraits in the exhibition Remember Me, which ran until 16 January 2022. And he is still very much remembered.