About this

Object details

Bernardo Bembo, Statesman and Ambassador of Venice
c. 1474
30 × 22 cm
Inventory number: 

More about this work

A man with black hair and clothing gazes out at the viewer. In his left hand he is holding up a Roman coin with the likeness of Emperor Nero. There is an extensive landscape in the background in which a rider has halted by a stretch of water on which swans are bobbing up and down. A close look reveals several tiny details, such as the man’s stubble, the flock of birds on the right and the stork on the left.

For a long time this portrait was thought to be by the Sicilian painter Antonello da Messina, but it is now agreed that it is by Hans Memling. He came from Seligenstadt in Germany, and worked in Bruges from 1465 to his death in 1494, at the time a major commercial centre with an international population. Memling produced altarpieces, but he was also a popular portraitist with elite merchants.

A sea of ink has been spilled on the identification of the sitter in this portrait, with several hypotheses being aired and then rejected. In the 19th century it was thought that the coin was the crucial clue, suggesting that the man was a medallist. On top of that his appearance and clothing indicated that he was a southerner, probably Italian. This led to him being identified as Nicolo di Forzore Spinelli or Giovanni de Candida, two Italian medal designers.

At the beginning of the 20th century, though, it was concluded that he was more probably a humanist who collected classical coins. Various clues point more particularly to Bernardo Bembo (1433-1519), a Venetian humanist and statesman. He had a large collection of coins and came from Italy, which chimes with his attire and attribute. The palm tree on the right and the laurel leaf at the bottom are probably allusions to his emblem, which consisted of a palm frond and a sprig of laurel. The clinching argument was his career, for from 1471 to 1474 he was the Venetian ambassador at the court of Duke Charles the Bold of Burgundy, who was often on military campaigns and sometimes stayed at Bruges. Bembo, then in his late thirties, may have met Memling around that time, for that matches the apparent age of the man in the portrait.

The painting is a progressive piece of work. Memling was one of the first portrait painters to depict his sitter out in the open air, with a landscape in the background. At the time, most artists chose a neutral background or an interior, possibly with a window. Memling’s innovative formula was soon adopted by his contemporaries, both in the Low Countries and Italy, which is where Bembo took his portrait after returning from the Burgundian court. One well-known example is Portrait of a young man with a medal of Cosimo de’ Medici by Sandro Botticelli, which is of a man before a landscape proudly holding a medal.

This portrait is not typical of Memling’s oeuvre, because the man is looking at the viewer. In most of the Memling’s portraits the sitter is gazing off into the distance.

Acquisition history

bequest of: ridder Florent van Ertborn, 1841

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