panel; 99 × 120 cm
Inscriptions: IACO. BAR. VIGEN / NIS. P. 1495 (in cartouche at bottom right); LI. R. LUC. BUR. (at top edge of book)
Naples, Museo di Capodimonte, inv. Q.58
Published at the beginning of the twentieth century (Venturi 1903), this painting became well known as Luca Pacioli’s portray, the famous mathematician from Borgo San Sepolcro, and because of its certain provenance from the ancient collections of the Montefeltro family and from the Ducal Palace in Urbino (Gronau 1903). The attribution has always been the source of a number of problems owing to the abbreviated inscription, taken as referring to Jacopo de’ Barbari, next to the date 1495 (Venturi 1903, p. 95; P.L. Leone de Castris, in Museo e Gallerie di Capodimonte 1999, pp. 62–64). This conclusion is highly debatable, but – as Angelini observes – the inscription has distracted critics from making a careful, objective stylistic analysis of the painting that would address its evident disparity with Jacopo de’ Barbari’s entire oeuvre. The painting is to be ascribed to an artist who was well-trained in Antonello’s technique and had a sound grasp of perspective. Rather than de’ Barbari, this outline might more closely apply to Jacometto Veneziano (Angelini 2012, pp. 132–136, with bibliography), an elusive painter who was a great miniaturist and portraitist. He died sometime just before September 1497 and is known to have moved in aristocratic and humanist circles in Venice, thanks above all to references in Marcantonio Michiel’s Notizia (Serafini 2004, pp. 110–112). The Naples painting would be a crucial addition to the few works that can be attributed with confidence to Jacometto, nearly all of which small portraits, often with mottos or emblems on the reverse, such as the Portrait of a Man in The National Gallery in London (cat. 37).
This is a “double portrait” that develops a compositional model introduced by Antonello and Giovanni Bellini, while also displaying a close relationship with the style of Pacioli. The figure behind the friar is probably the young duke of Urbino Guidubaldo da Montefeltro. This is supported by the presence in the foreground of the Summa de Arithmetica geometria, proportioni et proportionalità (Venice 1494), which Pacioli dedicated to Guidubaldo, as well as by the work’s provenance from Urbino. on the book stands a wooden dodecahedron, one of the five Platonic solids, said to represent the shape of the universe, which the mathematician had given the duke during his stay in Rome in 1489 (Angelini 2012, pp. 126–127). The artist displays great mastery of perspective and a thorough grounding in optical effects, enabling him for example to indulge in virtuoso cerebral experiments with a crystal rhombicuboctahedron hanging in mid-air to the right of the mathematician, whose inner faces reflect the Ducal Palace of Urbino (Di Teodoro 2014, p. 167).
The work was probably painted in Venice, a city with which Pacioli had a special relationship since his youth and where he returned in 1494 to supervise the printing of the Summa (in the preface he recalls his discussion on perspective with Gentile and Giovanni Bellini). He is shown in the centre of the painting as he explains a passage in Euclid’s Elements (possibly Book xiii), the chief object of his studies. Indeed, he published the Latin version in Venice (1509) (cat. 79), mentioning in the preface the great success of the lecture held in the church of San Bartolomeo at Rialto (11 August 1508), which was attended by Giovanni Giocondo, Battista Egnazio, Bernardo Bembo, Ambrogio Leone, Vincenzo Querini, Pietro Lombardo and Aldo Manuzio (Nardi 1963, p. 113; Lepori 1980, pp. 597–600), among others. There was great interest in the theory of proportions, fully explained by Pacioli in De divina proportione (Venice 1509, illustrated with contributions by Leonardo da Vinci and presented to Ludovico il Moro in 1498) (cat. 78). The correlations between proportions, especially as regards the golden section, are described as universal principles forming the basis of all disciplines, not only the liberal arts. As Aldus clearly showed, even the design of the page of a book and its individual compositional elements, namely the characters, brings into play questions of proportions: accompanying his treatise on architecture in De divina proportione, Pacioli included the precise geometric rules required to create the capital letters of the Latin alphabet used in epigraphs. In so doing, he was part of a tradition of research into the restoration of the highest models of classical epigraphy, joining such august figures as Alberti, Feliciano and Giovanni Giocondo, as well as Mantegna and later Dürer (Lowry 1991, ed. 2002, pp. 332–340; cf. Zamponi 2006a, pp. 58–59).