Small Bells, Big Meaning

doge01The buttons on the jacket of the doge of Venice are called campanoni d’ori, ‘big golden bells’, and if you’ve seen them once, they will never escape you. Venetian painting is Republican painting and the ceremonial cloak of the doge, the head of state, is also omnipresent. When I saw this picture of Doge Leonardo Loredan in London, I heard the knots tinkling, very softly. Tick, tick, ting, ting, as hollow wooden bells.

Loredan was the elected leader of the Venetian Republic from 1501 to 1521 (okay, chosen by two committees, not by the whole people). I tried to imagine how our own elected leaders in this cape would look like. That did not quite succeed.

doge02Doge Leonardo Loredan had the choice of three coats: white with gold, crimson or scarlet. The latter was only for mourning. From the 12th century until the collapse of the Republic in the 18th century the Venetian doge wore such a robe, and the details always meant something. When he stood still, he wore the golden bells on the front, like a statue, as in this painting that resembles a classical bust. When he moved, he pushed the buttons sideways, and if he was to appear as a warrior in armor, then he placed the row of bells on his right shoulder in chivalrous tradition. Everyone knew that, so everyone knew what was going on.

Maybe our elected leaders should still wear such a cloak, so we finally know what they’re up to …

Portrait of Doge Leonardo Loredan (1501-04) by Giovanni Bellini, in National Gallery, London.