The Portrait of Valerio Belli is painted on a beautifully fashioned, round piece of walnut, meant to fit easily into the palm of the viewer’s hand. The reverse of the panel, which is turned to form patterns of concentric circles, bears two inscriptions. The first, written in a faint cursive script that may be contemporary with the painting, reads, Fatto dell'ano 1517 in Rom(...) / Rafael Urbinate. The second, inscribed on the inner molding of the reverse, RAFAEL VRBINATES PINXIT ROM(A?) 1517, is executed in halting capitals and was likely added at a later date. The recto of the panel has a gilt outer rim and a ring of raw walnut around the edge of the painted image, clearly the remnant of a framing element. This, and the elegant carved verso, suggests that the painting originally formed a type of portrait enclosed with a matching lid which fitted onto the now missing rim. This form of portable portrait, an object as much as a work of art, was not unknown in Italy, but was more common in the north, where they were known as “kapsel” portraits (for a transalpine example, see Hans Holbein’s Portrait of Philip Melancthon, circa 1529/32 in the Niedersächsische Landesgalerie, Hannover, which still retains its lid (C. Gardner von Teuffel, op. cit.). Raphael’s choice of this unusual format was clearly not accidental; the round form and the profile position of the sitter is meant to remind us of the sitter’s métier, and is—albeit an extremely elegant and rarefied one—a visual pun. As Christa Gardner von Teuffel writes, “the conceit of a medalic painted portrait of a famous medalist is worthy of Raphael” (C. Gardner von Teuffel, op. cit., p. 665). In fact, the idea is an extension of a then pervasive discussion amongst Renaissance artists, the paragone of painting and sculpture, pitting the superiority of one art form against another. In this Portrait of Valerio Belli, Raphael seems to indicate, if affectionately, that he is as competent as Belli himself in the medalist’s own discipline.
Although the inscriptions do not identify him, the sitter in the portrait can be identified unquestionably as the celebrated medalist and gem engraver, Valerio Belli (1468-1546). Born in Vicenza, Belli likely worked for a time in Venice before moving to Rome and soon became integrated into the city’s artistic and humanist literary circles. While the inscriptions date the portrait to 1517, Belli is not otherwise documented in Rome until the early months of 1520 (on this basis Jürg Meyer zur Capellen suggests 1520 as an alternative date for the painting’s conception, see J. Meyer zur Capellen, op. cit., p. 191; however, there is no reason to suggest that Belli might not have been in Rome before that date, as the inscription attests). His relationships with Michelangelo and the humanist scholar Pietro Bembo are well documented; Raphael and Belli would certainly have known each other through connections such as these, though sadly no contemporary records pertaining to their friendship survive today. It was not long before Belli’s impressive gemstone engravings gained him the attention and admiration of Pope Leo X, although it was under the patronage of Clement VII and later Paul III that Belli produced his most lauded works. Belli’s best known creation is the bronze medal bearing portraits on the recto and verso of his great friend Pietro Bembo, now in the National Gallery, Washington, DC (1957.14.979).
Belli’s likeness is preserved in numerous forms today. A medal bearing his self-portrait is known in several versions, the best of which is in the collection of the National Gallery, Washington, DC (fig. 1). There is also a drawing attributed to Parmigianino, in the Museum Boymans-van Beuningen, Rotterdam (fig. 2), and a marble relief in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, which shares much of the long provenance of this painting (fig. 3, see below for provenance). Raphael’s portrait is more naturalistic in its representation of Belli, yet the resemblance to the busts in the drawing and in both the metal and marble reliefs is unmistakable. Belli’s distinctive Roman nose, his broad brow and slightly hooded, deeply set eyes are faithfully recorded in each rendering. Each of the likenesses portrays Belli in profile, a format that was rare in portraiture of this period. Indeed, the Taubman panel is the only painting of this format in Raphael’s oeuvre and on the basis of the date of 1517 in the inscriptions, it is the earliest of the aforementioned portraits of the medalist.
The subsequent provenance of the portrait, descending in the Belli and Gualdo families of Vicenza, are also illustrative of the painting’s purpose and importance. Giovanni Gualdo the Elder, a distinguished connoisseur and humanist, was in the service of Cardinal Colonna in Rome, and part of the same group of Vincentine expatriates that Belli belonged to. The two were close, and in fact Gualdo was executor of the medalist’s estate at his death. Indeed, it was in this capacity that Gualdo had hoped to create a gallery of Belli’s works in their native city, a plan foiled by the acquisition of the sculptor’s studio by Cardinal Madruzzo. It becomes clear from a number of contemporary documents, however, that the Raphael portrait remained with the family until it passed into the collection of Gualdo’s own family.
Valerio Belli died in 1546, and it seems that the portrait almost certainly passed to his son Elio. Elio was himself an illustrious academic and doctor and was co-founder of Vicenza’s Accademia Olimpica, an institution for the veneration of the arts. He in turn bequeathed it to his son, Valerio Belli the Younger. Indeed, the portrait is first described in a 1598 inventory of items bequeathed by Valerio the Younger to his sister, Suor Lucilla:
“… tre scattolini con li retratti delli quondam signori Valerio il vecchio et signor Ellio, uno del signor Leoneda et l’atro del quondam signor Valerio iuniore” (J. Shearman, op. cit., p. 1427).
“…three little boxes with the portraits of the late signor Valerio the Elder and signor Ellio, one of signor Leoneda and the other of the late signor Valerio junior.”
The three scattolini with various portraits of members of the Belli family is confusing until one reads a slightly later reference to them. In an inventory of his collection written in 1643, Girolamo Gualdo the Younger describes the Portrait of Valerio Belli as being paired with a likeness of Belli’s son and heir, Elio:
“Gli altri doi [quadri] poi tondi, ma cornisati a oro, e che uno con l’altro si uniscono: uno è il ritratto di Elio Belis fatto da Gio. Antonio Fasolo; l’altro è il ritratto di Valerio suo padre, et è opera del miracoloso Urbinate, al quale pose il suo nome nella maniera solita da lui farsi: F.R.” (L. Puppi, op. cit.)
“The other two [paintings] also round, but framed in gold, and which unite together, one with the other: one is the portrait of Elio Belis [sic] made by Gio. Antonio Fasolo; the other is the portrait of Valerio his father, and is the work of the miraculous man from Urbino, who put his name in the usual manner that he did: F.R.”
Giovanni Antonio Fasolo was an artist active in Vicenza in the middle decades of the sixteenth century and was actually raised and educated in the Gualdo home there. It is unsurprising that the portrait of Elio would be by a separate hand; Elio was born in 1527, ten years after the inscribed dates on Valerio’s portrait and seven years after Raphael’s death. The two roundels would have had corresponding ridges around their circumference that slotted together like a box—“uno con l’altro”— enclosing the portraits within. Fasolo was the artist at hand to add an image of Elio to the existing Raphael portrait of his father—perhaps even on the original lid which may not have been otherwise decorated.
Gualdo the Younger described the painting again in 1650, this time elucidating the circumstances regarding its conception:
“Viveva in Roma in quei tempi Valerio Belis vicentino, intagliatore di gioie raro: questo essendo suo compare per una figlia che gli tene, gli fece il suo ritratto in un tondo di bosso di giro di 2 palmi, dove pose il suo nome F.R. (fecit Raphael), e questo mi trovo possedere.” (Ibid.)
“There lived in Rome at that time Valerio Belis the Vicentine, engraver of rare jewels: being a companion of his daughter, of whom he was fond, [Raphael] painted his portrait on a boxwood tondo, two palmi in circumference, where he put his name F.R (fecit Raphael), and this I find in my possession.”
Gualdo’s recorded measurement of “due palmi” is larger than the panel’s current dimensions and might be accounted for by the now absent framing element that once connected it to Elio’s portrait (Ibid.). In both the 1643 and 1650 inventories, Gualdo specifically notes the presence of a signature, F.R. (fecit Raphael) that is no longer visible today.
More recent research has shed light onto the subsequent provenance of the painting (together with its “mate” by Fasolo), from the Gualdo collection and almost unbroken until it entered the collection of the distinguished art historian Sir Kenneth Clark (see Provenance). In 1704, the aristocratic Venetian collector Giorgio Bergonzi noted in his own possession:
“due tondi uno di Rafael con il ritratto in profilo di Valerio Belli, l’altro del Fasol col ritratto d’Elio Belli, figlio di Valerio parimente in profilo”
“two tondo one by Raphael with the portrait in profile of Valerio Belli, the other by Fasolo with the portait of Elio Belli, son of Valerio and also in profile.”
Bergonzi had a large and magnificent collection of paintings in his palazzo in the parish of Sant’Apollinare, San Polo, Venice. In his inventory, he valued the two paintings at 100 ducats, and noted that they had belonged in the collection of Girolamo Gualdo the Younger, from whom he had also purchased the profile portrait in Carrara marble of Valerio Belli (now in the Victoria and Albert Museum; see above). Bergonzi’s untimely death in 1709 (he was crushed by a falling column in Padua on the 18th of June, 1709) transferred this vast collection of art to his heirs. Some items went to his family, but a large part of the collection was given to the Order of the Somaschi of the Salute and to the confraternity of the Poveri Vergognosi di Sant’Antonin. An inventory dated August 12, 1709 was drawn up after his death where the present panel and the portrait by Fasolo are again mentioned, although without identifying the sitters:
“140. 141. Due retrattini d’uomini, con soaza nera, in tola, tondi, uno del Fasol, l’altro viene da Raffael” (G. Gualdo, Giardino di Chà Gualdo, 1650, pp. 22, 54, Inventory of Giorgio Bergonzi, 12 August, 1709. The inventory is written in Venetian dialect with the word "soaza" meaning frame, and the word "tòla" for panel [standard Italian tavola])
“140. 141. Two small portraits of man, with a black frame, on panel, one by Fasolo, the other rendered by Raphael.”
These two paintings were allotted to the confraternity, although they were seemingly quickly acquired by Bergonzi’s brother-in-law, Bernardo Trevisan, a distinguished collector in his own right, whose wife Emilia had received the marble relief of Belli in her own lot. Apparently, the Trevisans had wanted to keep the Belli portraits together (Linda Borean, op. cit). Indeed, both the relief portrait and the two panel paintings next appear in England in the early twentieth century. The sculpture was acquired by the Victoria and Albert in 1932 from a Mrs. Noel, and the two paintings entered the collection of the famous art historian Sir Kenneth Clark before 1930. There, they remained together, until the portrait by Fasolo was stolen. The Raphael, however, remained with Clark until his death in 1983, and was one of the highlights of his posthumous sale at Sotheby’s, where it was acquired by Mr. Taubman.
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