Analog Facial Recognition
Beginning in 1925, Helen Clay Frick hired Italian photographers Mario Sansoni and Oreste Nesti to traverse Italy documenting in situ sculptures, paintings, and frescoes that other firms such as Anderson, Alinari, and Brogi had neglected to capture. On several occasions, staff of the Frick Art Reference Library requested photography of objects specifically related to works in The Frick Collection.
An example of one such request was recently discovered. A letter located in the Frick's archives from Lea Danesi Tolnay, a Paris-based consultant hired by Helen Frick, contains instructions relating to works to be photographed in Venice, among them the Tullio Lombardo monument to Doge Andrea Vendramin (r. 1476‒78) in SS Giovanni e Paolo (completed photographs illustrated above). The letter mentions that The Frick wanted "to have photographed the details numbered in red No. 2 through 11 if they are not covered by photographs listed above [by Alinari and Anderson].”
Ms. Tolnay wrote, “[e]specially we want a close-up of the statue of Vendramin (No. 10). This is important in connection with The Frick Collection portrait of Vendramin by Gentile Bellini.” Interestingly, the numbers referred to in this letter match up with a numbered tracing of the Vendramin monument by then-director Frederick Mortimer Clapp, just discovered in the Photoarchive. The tracing (illustrated above right) was stored alongside the finished photographs by Sansoni. Undoubtedly, the letter and the tracing predate the identification of the sitter in the Bellini portrait (illustrated at left) as Doge Giovanni Mocenigo.
Since 1933, when the photographs of the Vendramin monument were requested, scholars have convincingly identified the sitter of the Bellini portrait as Mocenigo. The Frick's 1968 catalog, Paintings in the Frick Collection, affirms this identification, pointing to the frieze of the doges in the Palazzo Ducale, in which Mocenigo’s “wrinkled brow and folds of flesh around the eye, mouth, and chin . . . would seem to be based directly on the [Bellini] painting."
In 2002 and 2004, the Photoarchive acquired photographs of Mocenigo’s tomb from Anne Schulz and Ralph Lieberman. These new images include multiple details of the doge’s face (one example illustrated at right), facilitating close comparison with the photographs by Sansoni. Together, the two sets of images allow for careful consideration of the tombs and their relationship to the Bellini portrait. Each monument contains two portraits: one, set into a lunette carved in high relief, depicts the doge kneeling in profile before Christ, and the second shows him lying in an open casket. Also designed by Tullio Lombardo, Doge Mocenigo’s tomb (at lower left) is installed in close proximity to that of Doge Vendramin in SS Giovanni e Paolo. This was not initially the case; Vendramin’s tomb was removed from the choir of the Servi friars in Venice and relocated in 1817.
Looking at these images from the 1930s and the early 2000s suggests the way in which “[a] photograph is rarely a work of individual seeing, but almost inevitably a (potential) unit in an archive,” as Susan Sontag wrote in a review of the exhibition catalog Italy: One Hundred Years of Photography, organized by the Alinari Archives in 1988. The photographs of these monuments are useful records in their own right, yet due to their precise renderings of the faces of the doges, they take on an additional function as aids in identifying the sitter in the Bellini portrait.
Top: Tullio Lombardo (ca. 1455‒1532), Monument to Doge Andrea Vendramin. Marble. SS Giovanni e Paolo, Venice
Middle right: Tracing of the Monument to Doge Andrea Vendramin by Frederick Mortimer Clapp
Middle left: Gentile Bellini (1429–1507). Doge Giovanni Mocenigo, 1478-1485. Tempera on poplar wood, 64.9 × 18.7 in. The Frick Collection (1926.1.02)
Middle right: Tullio Lombardo (ca. 1455‒1532), detail of Monument to Doge Giovanni Mocenigo. Marble. SS Giovanni e Paolo, Venice
Lower left: Tullio Lombardo (ca. 1455‒1532), Monument to Doge Giovanni Mocenigo. Marble.
SS Giovanni e Paolo, Venice