Jacometto Veneziano: Portrait of Alvise Contarini & a nun of San Secondo (1484-95)

(Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, USA)
A rather exquisite and enigmatic pendant painting by the Italian artist Jacometto Veneziano (active 1472–1497). The identity and their relationship is a matter of debate. A 16th century connoisseur identified the man as 'Alvise Contarini' but fails to mention the background of this man. The connoisseur identified the woman as 'a nun of San Secondo' (an Island with a Benedictine monastery near Venice) but this is disputed by scholars. Although the wimple-like headdress and the black dress may suggest a religious lifestyle, her bare shoulders make that seem doubtfull. On the reverse side of the male portrait has a chained roebuck with the Greek text AIEI, meaning “forever. the text which suggest fidelity and a married couple which would be doubtfull if the woman is a nun (the reverse of the female portrait is a grisaille of a resting deer). The suggestion by the connoisseur, Marcantonio Michiel, that the woman was a nun can't be rejected easily: Marcantonio was familiar with the two female monastries in Venice as two of his sisters were abbesses and he was aware of reforms at the San Secondo monastery. The small building on the left of the woman may be the San Secondo monastery. Both paintings were kept together in a boxlike frame in such a way that the male portrait was visible - you could lift up the male portrait which then would reveal the female portrait. This construction suggests a clandestine relationship of the pair. Other suggestions are that the male portrait was made postumously and that the woman is a widow. After the death of her husband she joined a covent and her social status could have allowed her an elegant and not very stricktly enviroment, as compared to the other nuns. The 'forever' text in this case would refer to their eternal love. A forbidden love, a widow, a married woman or a sister- we may never know the truth. Paintings from 1484-1495.

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