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The Albi Strabo
A presentation of the iconography in the two miniatures attributed to the Italian Renaissance painter Giovanni Bellini, and which form part of the Albi Strabo manuscript


parallel lives

In 1459 the Venetian nobleman Jacopo Antonio Marcello despatched a precious gift to René d’Anjou, a Latin translation of Geographia, produced by Strabo (c.63 BC – c.24AD), the Greek geographer, philosopher and historian.


The translation from Greek to Latin was commissioned by Pope Nicholas V who employed Guarino of Verona, a famous professor and scholar, to undertake the task. However, when the Pope died the work was unfinished and Marcello stepped up to sponsor its completion.


Bound into the manuscript copy sent to René – referred to as the Albi Strabo – are three written dedications (epistles) and two full-page illustrations. Both illuminations (shown below) have many features which connect to the Petrus Christus painting known as A Goldsmith in his Shop, an indication that Marcello was familiar with the Petrus work and its hidden iconography, possibly even to the extent of the painting being in his possession after its completion in 1449, perhaps as an exchange gift for the many sent by the Venetian to René.

Albi, Médiathèque Pierre-Amalric, MS 77, fol. 3v, and MS 77, fol. 4r. © Réseau des Médiathèques de l’Albigeois

Very simply, the first illustration depicts Marcello receiving the Strabo translation from Guarino, while the second shows Marcello kneeling and presenting the copy to René of Anjou. In reality the second scene is imaginary as Marcello never met with René, according to historian Oren Margolis.


The two illustrations are ‘hinged’ on the spine to create a mirror or reflection effect, a transition from antiquity to modernity. The same technique is also used separately. Each illustration is divided vertically into two main groups and linked by a central figure.


Like the Petrus/René painting, the Strabo miniatures suggest that two people contributed with ideas for their composition and hidden iconography, Marcello and the painter Giovanni Bellini, although it is quite possible that Bellini added some personal details unrecognised at the time by Marcello who commissioned the work.


Just as in the Petrus painting some of Bellini’s figures represent more than one identity, perhaps intentionally and for the same reason that Petrus and his patron René chose to do so.


Parallelism is not just confined to literary works and conversations. The Greek essayist Plutarch (AD46 – AD120) produced “a series of biographies of famous men, arranged in tandem, to illustrate common moral virtues and failings”. The work is commonly referred to as Parallel Lives and was probably the inspiration for the multiple identities theme featured in both the Petrus and Bellini paintings.


The Bellini illuminations are also structured on parallel lines. Their single point perspective enables this with its emphasis on horizontal and vertical lines. 


Marcello, by imitating the parallel theme and mirroring some of the iconography from the Petrus painting, is intentionally flattering René in a very personal and disguised way, perhaps known only to a few people close to both men and, of course, the artist.

breaking open the seal


Just as the unfurled string of glass beads provided the key in the Petrus painting, a similar symbol instructs the viewer to ‘break open the seal’ in Bellini’s work. Marcello also applied an unfurling key in an earlier gift he sent to René in 1453 – the speech scroll between Venetia and the elephant. The three ‘unfurling’ symbols all refer to texts from Scripture. 


In the Bellini illumination the symbol is found in the capital feature on top of the throne, a heavenly scene of stars encased by an unfurled scroll above a green base representing the earth. It alludes to the Book of Revelation (Apocalypse) 6 : 12-17 and the breaking open of the sixth seal… “and the stars of the sky fell to the earth […] the sky disappeared like a scroll rolling up […] they said to the mountains and the rocks, ‘Fall on us and hide us away from the One who sits on the throne and from the anger of the Lamb’”


This Scripture passage is used to point to two Italian regions René lay claim to – both which were politically and geographically volatile – the kingdoms of Naples and Sicily. Their volatility and uncertainty is typified by two active volcanoes – Mount Vesuvius near Naples and Mount Etna in Sicily.


The sixth seal also refers to the sixth chapter in Strabo’s Geograhica which contains a section on Sicily. Elsewhere in the manuscript there is a section discussing volcanoes.


The flowing red curtain, in this instance, represents the red magma from a volcanic eruption. It is also yet another pointer to the Petrus painting and the red girdle that alludes to Christ’s blood shed on his cross which binds him to humanity. This reference to divinity also alludes to René’s claim (considered a divine right) to the Kingdom of Sicily which was granted to Charles, son of the French king Louis VIII, by Pope Clement IV in June 1265. 


At that time the kingdom incorporated the southern half of Italy and Naples, and the island of Sicily. The Sicilian Vespers, a successful rebellion in 1282, fragmented the kingdom into two, Naples and Sicily. In time René inherited titles to both kingdoms but only ever managed to briefly establish his control over Naples before he was ousted. His claim as King of Sicily was titular.


However, René and his son John, Duke of Calabria continued to pursue their title to Naples and Marcello’s gift is designed to impress on René that the Venetian diplomat, and so Venice, supported René’s legitimate claim to the kingdoms of Naples and Sicily. As heir apparent of Naples, John was given the title Duke of Calabria, an area which formed the southern part of Italy. John is the young man standing beside King René of Sicily seated on his symbolic throne.


Featured on the throne’s upright, aligned with René’s right shoulder, is a red tondo or roundel. It’s a symbolic ‘seal’ of approval for René’s claim to the throne as well as a link to the support and hereditary themes featured in the two illustrations. It also corresponds to the signatures depicted as ‘seals’ painted on the window lintel in the Petrus work. 


The roundel is also a link to the cover of the Strabo gift itself as well as to a famous Sicilian legend, and reveals second identities given to John of Calabria and the man behind him, Jean Cossa, René’s right-hand man and emissary.


The design on the book cover, coloured red and gold, features a geometric pattern constructed in and around the shape of a lens. This geometric reference is a second key that points to the ‘parallel’ or ‘tandem’ identities of the two men dressed in blue. Cossa now becomes Pope Clement IV, the ‘pontiff’ who not only placed Rene’s ancestor Charles on the throne of Sicily but was a patron of Roger Bacon, the English philosopher and Franciscan friar whose major written work Opus Majus included an important treatise on optics and geometry. Rene’s son John now assumes the identity of Roger Bacon with Pope Clement in support behind him.


A second reference to Pope Clement and his gift of kingship is seen in the inscription on the panel at the base of René’s throne – Clementiae. Its square shape is also another geometric reference to Roger Bacon. There are others.


So how does the lens shape on the book cover connect to the roundel on the upright? The word lens comes from lens-shaped seeds we know as lentils, and the roundel depicts a ring of red lentils. Sicily is famous for its lentils! But Bellini doesn’t stop there. A deeper connection is to be found – one that links to the theme of supporting kings and their kingdoms – one that relates to a famous Sicilian legend and also to the three-sided shape of the island referred to as the Trinacria.


As in the Petrus painting, Rene’s two hands and Marcello’s right hand form a triangle; the trianica is formed by three legs, alluding to the legend that Sicily is supported at its three corners by three legs or columns. However, a closer look at the red roundel on the column shows that it is fractured across its middle.


The lentils, the king and his crown, the fractured column, and the shoulder alignment all feature in the Sicilian legend of Colapesce.


Colapesce, a boy from Messina, loved staying in the water and would spend most of his days swimming. He resided in the water for so long that he slowly started to gain fish (Pesce) like characteristics, such as being able to swim underwater for long periods of time without needing air. When King Frederick II found out about the young boy and his talent, he sailed to visit him. When he met him, he tested the boy’s abilities by throwing his possessions overboard for the boy to retrieve. He gradually began diving deeper into the water, always returning with the king’s possessions. However, when the boy was asked to retrieve the kings crown, he noticed a peculiar sight under the water. He saw the island of Sicily being held and supported by three columns, one intact, the second slightly chipped and scratched, and the third was crumbling away, making Colapesce uneasy at the sight of it. When King Frederick asked the boy to retrieve his ring, Colapesce was worried he might not come back. Eventually he decide to go but asked for a handful of lentils, saying “If you see the lentils float to the surface then I will not be coming back.” After waiting a few days for Colapesce to return, the king looked into the water and saw his ring and lentils float to the surface. He then knew that Colapesce had chosen to take the broken column upon his shoulders to support Sicily. Sicilians claim that when the island shakes from earthquakes it is Colapesce, moving the island on his shoulder because he is tired. (Wikipedia)


Marcello’s bended knee points echoes back to the Petrus painting and the same symbol that helped identify Cossa. Here Marcello presents himself in the forefront of the illustration taking the place of Cossa as the emissary who can deliver René’s kingdoms of Naples and Sicily albeit in book form. Cossa, the perceived power behind René and his throne, can only squeeze his head in on the scene. 

a golden mirror


The base of the throne also links to the Petrus painting by its placement in the right hand corner – the same position as the goldsmith’s mirror. It serves a similar purpose, to reflect the patron of the painting – in this case Marcello in service as an emissary – and also  René portrayed as a lion and therefore king of his domain. In the Petrus mirror René is accompanied by his first wife Isabella who died in 1453, six years before the Strabo gift was sent to René. 


Note the mushroom shape of the tree rising from the high ground – another reference to Sicily and volcanic eruption. 


The rest of the image shows a rabbit removing a troublesome thorn from the lion’s paw. This parallels with not only the legend featured in the Petrus painting of St Eligius removing the leg of a troublesome horse (and Marcello’s red leg), but also the story of St Jerome removing a thorn from a lion’s foot during his time in the desert. St Jerome is also remembered for his translation of the Old Testament from Hebrew into Latin, and so a reference to the Strabo translation into Latin.


Here we are presented with another reflection by the artist Bellini: René in the role of St Jerome, both men in exile, both bibliophiles, both recognising that even in the desert times of life they are called to serve others, great and small – Marcello and René, Jerome and the lion, the lion and the rabbit. Bellini has undoubtedly drawn inspiration for this message from one of his own paintings, Jerome in the Wilderness, attributed to the Italian artist circa 1450 – and it is not the only reference Bellini makes to one of his own paintings in the Strabo manuscript.


Compare the composition of René to that of Jerome in Bellini’s earlier work: Both seated on volcanic rock flow, book in hand, facing their subject, one leg pointing forward, the other drawn back, and everything in reverse or mirrored, right to left. Even the right hand of René is shown pointing down while the left hand of Jerome points up. There are similarities, too, between the lion and Marcello figure: their upward gaze and subordinate position, the outstretched hand and paw, the wavy manes of hair, bodies clothed in gold, Marcello’s trailing leg and the lion’s tail behind. 


It has been queried why René is not shown in the Strabo illumination as the plump figure he certainly was and portrayed in other paintings. It can only be that Bellini wanted to draw attention to René’s slim shape to prompt this question and so make the connection to his own painting and draw attention to the comparison and match-up he was making to the ‘longing’ and perhaps fasting figure of St Jerome.


Another essayist who Bellini and probably Marcello intended to draw René’s attention to was the Roman philosopher Seneca the Younger. He served the emperor Nero for a time as a tutor and adviser. Seneca wrote a two-volume essay for Nero’s instruction titled De Clementia (On Mercy), evaluating the difference between a good ruler and a tyrant, and the relationship between ruler and subject. As an example of good rule and clemency Seneca referred to Augustus, Nero’s great, great grandfather. 


Unlike his predecessor Julius Caesar, Augustus renounced much of the insignia associated with the status and power of his position, the sceptre, the golden crown and purple toga. However, the Roman Senate decided to present him with a golden shield which was put on display in the meeting hall of the Curia. It bore the inscription: virtus, pietas, clementia, iustitia – valour, piety, clemency and justice.


It is these virtues and a golden shield that Bellini has attached to René’s throne to express Marcello’s acclaim for the King of Sicily, comparing with Augustus.

Three unfurlings... point to texts from Scripture.

The Strabo book cover and its lens-shaped design.

Double identities... Roger Bacon, Pope Clement IV, John of Calabria and Jean Cossa.

The roundel is aligned with King Rene’s shoulder for a reason.

The Trinacria symbol on Sicily’s flag, and alluded to by the shape of Marcello’s kneeling leg.


Giovanni Bellini self-portrait

Giovanni Bellini – St Jerome in the Wilderness, Barber Institute, Birmingham, UK


pagans, painters, poets, professors, prophets 

and a provveditore


I am indebted to Oren Margolis and his book, The Politics of Culture in Quattrocento Europe, René of Anjou in Italy (Oxford University Press), as a source and aid in helping to identify some of the relationships and figures in the two Bellini illuminations from the Strabo Manuscript.


Probably the most visual and obvious link to the Petrus painting and his goldsmith figure (aka St Eligius) is the red gown worn by Guarino presenting the Strabo manuscript to Marcello. As already mentioned, the figures in both of Bellini’s illustrations have two or more identities, so for Guarino read Elijah, the Old Testament prophet who St Eligius was named after. 


Guarino’s billowing robe, as do the sleeves of St Eligius in the Petrus painting, symbolises the time “Elijah went up to heaven in the whirlwind.” (2 Kings 2 : 11). Prophetically, Guarino, who was 84 years old at the time he presented the Strabo translation to Marcello, died soon after, on December 14, 1460.


Before Elijah was taken up to heaven he recruited a servant named Elisha by throwing his cloak over him. Later, when Elijah was eventually taken to heaven, his cloak fell to the ground for Elisha to pick up. Elisha then went to the bank of the Jordan and with Elijah’s cloak struck the water, and it divided right and left for Elisha to cross the river. This was a sign that the spirit of Elijah rested on his servant and was an answer to an earlier request Elisha had made of Elisha for a double share of his spirit.


To the right of Guarino is his son Battista. He followed in his father’s footsteps as a professor. He is robed in his academic gown. The straps of his hood are shaped as the letter Y or the Greek upsilon. Its symbolism did not go unnoticed by Pythagorus and the Roman writer Persius commented: “…the letter which spreads out into Pythagorean branches has pointed out to you the steep path which rises on the right.” Isidore of Seville later wrote: “Pythagorus of Samos formed the letter Y as an example of human life; its lower branch signifies the first stage, obviously because one is still uncertain and at this stage submits oneself either to the vices or the virtues. The fork in the road begins with adolescence. Its right path is arduous, but conducts to the blessed life; the left one is easier but leads to pernicious death.” 


Guarino ran a school in Ferrara which was, according to Oren Margolis, “a focal point for an international network of scholars and statesmen, many from noble backgrounds.”  Guarino, as a professor, has now handed the mantle of teaching to his youngest son Battista whose right hand is placed at the ‘crossroads’, signalling the importance of education for opening and deciding on paths to be taken in the future. There is also a document in Battista’s left hand, probably referring to the treatise he wrote in the same year the Strabo document is dated –1459, and titled: Concerning the Order and the Method to be Observed in Teaching and Reading the Classical Authors.


Guarino is seen stepping forward to Marcello to present the sponsor with the Strabo manuscript. Its cover (described by the poet Raffaele Zovenzoni as “bejewelled clothing”) is bound in red and gold, matching the colours of the mantle and colours worn by Marcello, and so matching the rite of passage – the double-spirit gift – transmitted from Elijah to Elisha. 

The ‘crossing’ of the Jordan by Elisha is reversed in the Bellini miniature. Guarino is the one with the rolled up purple mantle on his shoulder, a chaperon in the sense of a head cover, and chaperone as a supervisor or overseer. He is positioned as having passed through the triumphal arch, standing at the end of the winding, uphill road which has taken him to a new height, a ‘sacred way’. The triumphal arch with its rainbow dome and ‘trinitarian’ attic are all symbolic of heaven.


The Guarino to Elijah transition can be equated with Marcello portrayed in the role of Elisha, a servant covered, as the book, with Elijah’s mantle. Elisha became known as the “wonder-worker” for all the miracles he performed. Marcello, in his role as sponsor and provveditore – an overseer of the Strabo project  – was also considered somewhat of a ‘miracle-worker’ in one of the manuscript’s dedicatory letters when Guarino compared him to Hercules for taking on the project. 


The comparison of Marcello with Hercules infers that the Venetian was fathered by Zeus, the sky and thunder god in ancient Greek religion. Marcello’s collar carries a thunderbolt insignia. This corresponds to a similar mark on the collar of the man standing alongside Eligius in the Petrus painting. 


Marcello as a son of Zeus is a match up to the legend associating Zeus as the father of Alexander the Great


According to Plutarch, the ancient Greek biographer, Alexander’s mother Olympias, on the eve of the consummation of her marriage to Philip, dreamed that her womb was struck by a thunder bolt, causing a flame that spread "far and wide" before dying away. Sometime after the wedding, Philip is said to have seen himself, in a dream, securing his wife's womb with a seal engraved with a lion's image. Plutarch offered a variety of interpretations of these dreams: that Olympias was pregnant before her marriage, indicated by the sealing of her womb; or that Alexander's father was  Zeus. (Wikipedia)


Having depicted the thunderbolt on the collar around Marcello’s neck, Bellini makes a subtle reference to the shape of a collar formed by the two hands gripping the spine of the book. The cover’s lens-shaped design is a womb symbol. 


Alexander’s natural father, Philip II, king of Macedon, secured his wife’s womb with a seal, hence the emphasised right thumb of Marcello placed over the symbolic womb. Also, as a sponsor of the Strabo manuscript and Guarino’s patron, Marcello was effectively acting as a contractor. The contract with Guarino is sealed and signed off when the academic’s work is completed.


As to the lion’s image, Bellini uses the same method as Petrus did in his painting when he blended the faces of three lions into the pattern of the woman’s gown. Bellini has disguised the lion in Marcello’s mantle, producing further evidence that the hidden iconography in the Petrus work was known to Marcello and his circle.

down among the dolphins


The head resting on the right shoulder of Battista is Alexander. He has a cleft chin, an artistic device sometimes used to denote two personalities or two people. In this case the other person is Apollo which explains the backdrop. It represents Delphi, the ancient Greek sanctuary dedicated to Apollo who, according to legend, arrived there in the form of a dolphin.


Bellini has used the dolphin reference to illustrate how Marcello rescued Guarino and the unfinished Strabo project after the death of Pope Nicholas V, its previous patron. It relates to the legend of the Greek poet Arion who was rescued by a dolphin. He had been captured by pirates and knowing the fate that awaited him threw himself into the sea. A dolphin rescued Arion and carried him on his back to the shore and safety. 


There are other dolphin references. The first is the dolphin shape on the inside of Guarino’s ear. The second is the shortened or blunt nose belonging to Marcello. The blunt-nose dolphin is also distinguished by a distinct white marking behind the pectoral fin, and underneath Marcello’s right arm is seen the shape of a white fin and also the distinct badge marking of the Order of the Croissant, founded by René in 1448.


The dolphin is noted for its playfulness and perhaps Bellini was also in a playful mood when he abbreviated the word Croissant to just three letters – SAN – the italian abbreviation for saint!


Another playful feature of dolphins is their ability to pass and carry objects to each other with various parts of the body, hence the dolphin references applied to Marcello and Guarino and the transmission of the Strabo manuscript. But the genius of Bellini is probably best seen by ‘flipping’ the illustration upside down to recognise the dolphin shape of Guarino’s sleeve and head, the straps of the chaperon suggesting the fin and flippers, and the dolphin’s blunt nose and smiling face nudging the book towards Marcello! 

seeing double


The shoulder motifs appear in both illustrations, be it a head, hand, badge or mantle. They serve as connectors or demonstrate a relationship, as in the case of Alexander’s head placed behind the shoulder of Battista. This provides Guarino’s youngest son with another identity, that of the Roman general Scipio Africanus, illustrated by his dark face and the sceptre held in his left hand, a status symbol of authority known as a scipio.


Scipio’s inclusion refers to an occasion when René was likened to the Roman general following the presentation of an allegorical play in which a judgment was made by Minos, judge of the dead in the underworld, as to who was considered the best general out of Hannibal, Scipio and Alexander. Scipio was judged to be the greatest, ahead of Alexander and then Hannibal.


The young man wearing a blue jacket standing behind Marcello is his son Marco and the head on Marcello’s shoulder is the poet Raffaele Zovenzoni a one-time a student of Guarino. The fact that Zovenzoni’s head is connected to the head of Marco and his father is not without significance. Marcello was the major patron of the poet and Oren Margolis suggests that Zovenzoni may have penned the third dedication in the Strabo manuscript from Marcello to René. Margolis also explains that Zovenzoni tutored Marco and in a poem for his pupil “described the boy’s father as the man who ‘taught the Venetian barks how to ascend rocky places’”. This refers to the time Marcello was supposed to have transported war ships across mountains to Lake Garda.


Marco and Zovenzoni also have dual identities. Marco becomes the Croat / Hungarian poet Janus Pannonius, while Zovenzoni transforms into John the Baptist. Pannonius is attached to Zovenzoni as a school friend and was another student once tutored by Guarino.


Here, it seems, Bellini may be introducing a connection to some of his own work as he did with the painting of St Jerome in the facing illumination. Zovenzoni’s ‘beheaded’ appearance may allude to a portrait of the poet and also a tondo depicting the head of John the Baptist, possibly modelled on Zovenzoni. However both paintings are currently dated after Marcello had sent René the Strabo manuscript. The tondo is dated 1465-70, while the Zovenzoni portrait is dated circa 1467.


Bellini’s portrait of Zovenzoni shows him wearing a laurel crown, a distinction defining him as a poet laureate. In the Strabo illumination this is indicated by the poet’s laurel green shoulder. His head is placed on Marcello’s shoulder, perhaps suggesting the provveditore also saw himself as worthy of poetic tribute for his patronage and presentation of Strabo’s De Situ Orbis (A Description of the World). From this, the link can be made to John the Baptist, beheaded on the orders of King Herod Antipas at the request of Salome as a gift to the young woman who had pleased Herod and his court with her dancing and offered half his kingdom for doing so.


Bellini visually identifies the Baptist with three scriptural references from Matthew’s Gospel, either side of the thunderbolt on Marcello’s collar. The first two references are both contained in the numeral 38: (Matthew 3 :8) the Baptist reprimanding the group of Pharisees and Sadducees; (Matthew 14 : 3-8) the account of John the Baptist beheaded.


The third reference and another numeric interplay is the number 11 to the right of the thunderbolt symbol. It is hatched with horizontal lines representing the wind, in this instance a whirlwind, a reference to Elijah being taken up to heaven and also Jesus revealing that the beheaded Baptist was Elijah. (Matthew 11 : 1-11)


Another connection to the beheading of John the Baptist and Elijah is the horse legend associated with St Eligius and how one of the animal’s front legs was amputated, shoed, and then miraculously attached back on the horse. For the Baptist his beheading brought him new life.


The thunderbolt symbol is not clearly defined. It’s recognisable because of its association with a similar symbol used on the collar of the man standing next to St Eligius in the Petrus painting. Interpreting the collar as a coupling device, then thunderbolt links the numerals 38 and 11. And instead of the bolt symbol being applied just to Zeus, the sky and thunder god, a transition is made to God of the Old Testament and his ‘thundering’ voice – his word. The Scripture reference is appropriated to the Book of Job, chapter 38 when God finally answers Job and speaks about his creation and celestial wonders (René d’Anjou is said to have taken an interest astronomy). Verse 11 refers to the Creator’s command to the boundaries he sets for the seas: “Come thus far, I said, and no farther; here your proud waves shall break.” The boundary is the support wall for the arch alongside Marcello.

Two heads... Battista Guarino and Alexander the Great doubling up as Apollo.

Sealing the womb

Blending the lion’s face

A dolphin in Guarino’s ear

Marcello’s blunt nose

A white fin under Marcello’s arm

SAN for Saint

The dolphin flip

Bellini portraits – Raffaele Zovenzoni (?) as a poet laureate and John the Baptist

Scripture references on Marcello’s collar

painting panegyrics


Introducing Janus Pannonius into the composition has enabled Bellini to cross-reference relationships between figures and themes in the two illustrations and even other works. The poet’s first name serves to do this.


Wikipedia explains: In ancient Roman religion and myth, Janus is the god of beginnings, gates, transitions, time, duality, doorways, passages, and endings. He is usually depicted as having two faces, since he looks to the future and to the past. Janus presided over the beginning and ending of conflict, and hence war and peace. The doors of his temple were open in time of war, and closed to mark the peace. As a god of transitions, he had functions pertaining to birth and to journeys and exchange.


As a god of transitions and duality Janus has progressed from the start of the narrative (in the guise of Marco) to a central position in the line of thirteen figures, six either side of him. But even here Pannonius shapes into two more characters. He adopts the role of Elisha because Marcello now serves René, and he also shares a dual nature with the artist Andrea Mantegna (married to Giovanni Bellini’s sister Nicolosia), as he does in some of Mantegna’s work. Mantegna executed a double portrait of Pannonius with his friend Galeotto Marzio. According to Margolis, Pannonius responded in 1458 with a poem honouring Mantegna.

Did Bellini have this tribute in mind when making Pannonius a key figure in his illuminations? Is Giovanni painting his own panegyric to both men, Pannonius and Mantegna, paralleling Marcello’s tribute to René?


In the illumination showing Marcello presenting the Strabo manuscript to René, the group of three men to the left of Marcello are, at the top level of identities: Janus Pannonius, Andrea Mantegna and Giovanni Bellini. On a second level the three men are portrayed as a biblical group: Elisha, John the Baptist and Jesus Christ. There are also third and fourth levels of identities which I shall discuss later.


John the Baptist was raised in the hill country of Judah, while Elisha was from the Northern Kingdom of Israel (Samaria). They had once been joined as the United Kingdom of Israel and Judah. (Similarly, the Kingdom of Sicily – the lower part of Italy – had also separated into two kingdoms, the Kingdom of Naples and the Kingdom of Sicily (the island).


So the head of Mantegna (the Baptist) joined with the head of Pannonius (Elisha) can be seen to represent the merging of Judah with Samaria, confirmed by the Christ figure (with arms crossed, Greek X) whose mission served to encompass the people of both regions into his own kingdom. This twinning or bonding theme is present in other ways in both illustrations.


However, in the case of Mantegna and Pannonius there is a suggestion of a special bond between the two men for Mantegna has also included a similar head motif in some of his paintings, most notably The Adoration of the Shepherds, painted shortly after 1450 (MetMuseum, New York).


Portrait of a Man, c 1460-1470, attributed to Andrea Mantegna. The painting is considered by some to be a portrait of the humanist and poet Janus Pannonius. Note his cropped hair, square chin, red jacket and skull cap, features of the figure portrayed in one of Bellini’s Strabo miniatures.

National Gallery of Art, Washington DC.

shape-shifting shepherds

Briefly, the two adoring shepherds are Pannonius and Mantegna, and Bellini has reflected this pairing into the Strabo painting, except that there is a transition made from kneeling shepherds to a kneeling ‘wise man’ presenting his gift to René.


Mantegna is the man nearest with black hair. Pannonius is the man behind with cropped hair. Compare the genuflection stance of Mantegna the shepherd with the stance of Pannonius in the Bellini miniature. There is also a match with the exaggerated hump on Pannonius’ left shoulder as well as both figures holding a wide-rimmed black hat. And to answer the question why Pannonius is wearing very pointy footwear unlike the rest of his group, the answer is also discovered in the Adoration painting. Mantegna is wearing short black boots but they appear elongated by the shadow attached to the front foot and the spouting plant on the back foot. Bellini has again injected a dab of humour to his work.


King René is also wearing ‘pointy’ shoes; his left foot is directed at Marcello’s right knee, a reference to Mantegna’s knee in the Adoration painting. The comparison is that Marcello is kneeling before a king, as the two shepherds kneel before the new-born king, Mary’s child Jesus. 


The clincher to prove that Bellini has referenced Mantegna’s Adoration lies in three other features, the high-rise outcrop to the right of the shepherds coupled with the rising rocky ground on the approach to the Holy Family; and the ragged ends of the trousers worn by Pannonius. They are depicted as peeling tree bark, probably silver birch.


Form this we are taken back to Zovenzoni’s comment about Marcello: “the man who ‘taught the Venetian barks how to ascend rocky places’”


The final reference to the Adoration of the Shepherds is the tip of Pannonius’ sword pointing to his knee – a directive to Mantegna’s exposed left knee. It represents Sicily and emphasises the knee shape that forms one of the three corners of the island. Mantegna’s trousers are a blue-green sea colour. A closer inspection reveals the faint representation of a young man in the sea, above his head a crown in the shape of a ring. The shore line is a red lentil colour and dotted with lentil shapes. From this we come almost full circle to the Sicilian legend of Colapesce, the boy who stayed underwater to support one of the island’s fractured pillars. The pillar reference also recalls the system of underwater pillars supporting Venice.


These links could possibly open a new line enquiry about the providence of Mantegna’s Adoration of the Shepherds. Was it produced for Marcello? Coincidently, both the Adoration of the Shepherds and the Petrus Christus painting A Goldsmith in his Shop which link to the Strabo illuminations are housed at the MetMuseum in New York.


The shape of the genuflecting right leg of Pannonius is mirrored by the shape of René’s left leg which corresponds to the shape of Italy, hence the reason why René is wearing a boot, to represent the ‘boot’ end at the south of the country and the ‘pointy’ directing attention to Sicily. Notice also that the knee bends where Rome is approximately located, and so connects the completed translation to its original papal patronage. 


Returning to Zovenzoni’ comment, this is also expressed in another form on the figure on Pannonius in the Strabo illustration. First the pronounced, striped, black and white collar in the shape of a bird’s wing are the markings on a rock dove, the dove also being a symbol of peace, the rock reference to “rocky places”. The second connection to the comment is the shape of the elephant’s head with its ear, tusk, trunk and eyes blended into the right shoulder of the red jacket. This is likely a reference to the elephant illustration that depicted Marcello and formed part of the Life of St Maurice manuscript the Venetian provveditore sent in 1453 to Jean Cossa, and therefore René, appealing not to engage in war against Venice. So the elephant and rock dove as symbols of war and peace can be connected to the god Janus (Pannonius) “who presided over the beginning and ending of conflict”. And in Bellini’s miniature we see Janus overseeing the reconciliation between Marcello and René.


Pannonius is also depicted in the guise of Elisha, now serving Marcello who has transitioned into the role of the red-robed Elijah – Cossa in the Petrus painting – by mirroring the three-hand triangle and the Cossa bended knee symbol.


There is a reason why Pannonius has doffed his hat, and not just as respect for King René. It is so Bellini can conform his identity as Elisha. The Second Book of Kings (2 : 23-25)  relates an incident in the life of Elisha when he was travelling on the road to Bethel some small boys cam out from the town and jeered him. They mocked his baldness and called him “Bald-head”. Elisha turned on them and cursed them in the name of God. Then two she-bears came out of the wood and savaged 42 of the boys.

The skull cap represents Elisha’s bald head. The black fur hat is made of bearskin.

serpent slayers

Another reference Bellini makes to the Petrus painting is Pannonius gripping his sword hilt to match the man doing likewise standing next to the goldsmith. The hilt’s twisting pattern also refers to the similar design of the reliquary’s lid which forms into a serpent’s head. 


Rather awkwardly Bellini has attempted to create the impression of a second hand gripping the sword (count the fingers) and using the vent in the blue sleeve as a pointer to the right hand of the man standing next to Pannonius – in this instance, John the Baptist. The Baptist’s hand rests on the shoulder of the Christ figure signifying a relationship, John was a ‘cousin’ of Jesus. But Bellini is also making a connection to the snake-head in the Petrus painting and referring to the “brood of vipers” condemnation uttered against the Pharisees by both men in Matthew’s Gospel: 3 : 7 (by the Baptist) and 12 : 34, 23 : 33 (by Jesus).


Bellini has incorporated another scenario to link to the snakes theme and provide the Mantegna/Baptist figure with a third identity, that of Perseus. The journey begins in the facing illustration with the head depicting John the Baptist  resting on Marcello’s shoulder. The arch, a pathway, links to the headless Apollo resting on the shoulder of Battista (meaning Baptist). Battista has two connectors that link him to the Baptist figure in the second illustration: his purple colour robe and the comment of the poet Persius referring to the upsilon and taking the “right path to the blessed life” corresponding with the Baptist’s call: “Prepare a way for the Lord, make his paths straight.” (Matthew 3 : 3).


For Persius, read Perseus, a slayer of monsters and a sibling of Apollo, hence his placement next to the “god-protector from evil”. In the facing miniature the mythological figures now become the biblical figures of John the Baptist and Christ. It was Perseus who is remembered for cutting off the head of the Gorgan Medusa whose hair was entwined with snakes. Her look could turn people into stone and so Perseus viewed her reflection through his shining shield to approach and behead the monster.


And that is why we see the Baptist/Perseus figure looking downwards with Christ/Apollo in front as the shield. Perseus avoids eye contact with the actual Strabo presentation because the three-handed triangle shape mentioned previously represents the Trinacria symbol of Sicily which portrays the Medusa head. However, instead of snakes, Medusa’s hair is composed of three ears of wheat.


Apart from the shield given to him by Athena, Perseus was given other equipment to help him overcome Medusa, a sack for her head, a sword with a sickle attachment (harpe), a helm of darkness to hide, and winged sandals to fly.


The aforementioned vent on Perseus’ elbow is the harpe, his shadowy complexion is the helm of darkness, and his out-turned feet are his wings, reinforced by the black and white striped motif on his stockings, the same motif used to refer to the black and white collar wing seen on Pannonius. The sack for Medusa’s head? A bearskin hat covered in black snakes!


There is a fourth pairing associated with the Baptist/Christ duo – Julius Caesar and his adopted son and heir Augustus who became emperor. Augustus renounced some of the insignia flaunted by his predecessor that represented power: including his sceptre, crown and the purple toga, the colour depicted on the Caesar figure next to Augustus. Even the tribute shield bearing his name is hidden from his view.


Another interesting pairing is Apollo (patron god of Augustus) standing next to the palm tree. The palm is representative of triumph, a crown of victory and immortality. Palms were waved celebrating Christ’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem. Saints are often painted holding a palm as an attribute, signifying martyrdom and triumphal entry into heaven. The palm trunk ascends from the head of Marcello, perhaps another reference to his personal sacrifice on behalf of René as well as a pointer to the palm held by St Maurice, patron saint of the Order of the Croissant founded by René.


But this palm tree is also connected to Apollo and the legend of his pursuit of Daphne. Just as he was about to overtake her she called out to her father, the river god Ladon who then transformed her into a laurel tree. Even though he had been rejected by Daphne, Apollo made a vow to love her forever and used his powers to make the tree evergreen. Hence the evergreen palm tree and the laurel green arms of Apollo. 


In Christianity the evergreen laurel whose leaves never wilt symbolises the Resurrection and eternal life. The palm tree is also seen as a symbol of the ever Virgin Mary, notably because of its reference in The Song of SongsHow beautiful you are, how charming, my love, my delight! In stature like the palm tree, its fruit-clusters your breasts. (7 : 7)

Pannonius and Mantegna

Bark ascending rocky places and a ‘pointy’ shoe and shadow.

Island of Sicily and legend of Colapesce.

Two hands grip the sword, a vent depicts a harpe, and the twist pattern, is a reference to snakes and vipers.


Winged feet and hat for Medusa


Mother and Child, John the Baptist and St Elizabeth,

by Giovanni Bellini,

late 15th century,

Städelsches Kunstinstitut, Frankfurt/M

joining the sacre conversazione

I have shown so far that Bellini has cited three paintings in the two Strabo miniatures, as well as making several references to the Petrus work, A Goldsmith in his Shop: They are Andrea Mantegna’s Adoration of the Shepherds, and his own works depicting Jerome in the desert, and The Head of John the Baptist tondo.


There is also a reference to a painting by Bellini, which is said to have been completed in the late 15th century, known as Madonna and Child, John the Baptist and St Elizabeth.


From left to right is John the Baptist, the Child Jesus, his mother Mary, and the Baptist’s mother, Elizabeth.


The composition is not unusual – Bellini produced other similar paintings of the Mother and Child with saints either side. But what is noticeable is that a similar composition appears in one of the Strabo miniatures. 

The line-up is the Baptist (looking like the Mantegna figure), Christ with his arms crossed, the palm tree representing Mary, and the figure of René’s son John in the place of Elizabeth (her son also being named John). So did Bellini reference back to the Strabo miniature to produce his “sacra conversazione” twenty or more years later?


Compare the facial features and clothing of Elizabeth and John of Calabria. They bear a close resemblance. Even the clothes are of the same colour and John’s skull cap is echoed by the tight binding covering Elizabeth’s head. Both noses are long, both eyes look down, both chins are pronounced. And then there is Elizabeth’s right hand partially hidden behind Mary’s gown, as John’s hand is hidden behind his father’s jacket.


Perhaps the obvious clue that Bellini makes is the two figures are covered, head and body, in the same colour blue – the colour of the garment mentioned earlier and produced in Genoa, known as Blue Jean (John). As both the Baptist and Jesus were of similar age, it may have been wondered who the woman was next to Mary. Bellini has identified Elizabeth, mother of John the Baptist, in the later painting by linking back to the figure of René’s son John.

coming full circle

Geometry is knowledge of the eternally existent (Pythagoras)


Mentioned earlier was the geometric cover design of the Strabo manuscript which Marcello is seen presenting to René. The manuscript is a link between the right hands of the two men while René’s left hand on Marcello’s shoulder completes the shape of a triangle.


A similar shape occurs when René’s left hand is linked to two other hand-on-shoulder motifs, that of Mantegna’s on Bellini’s shoulder, and Cossa’s hand on the shoulder of René’s son John, as pictured right. The equilateral triangle is aligned centrally on the vertical trunk of the palm tree.


When a circle is drawn to touch the three points of the triangle, what was invisible now becomes a Trinitarian symbol representing three persons in one God. The symbol, coupled with the palm tree and its association with martyrdom, represents the Triumph of Eternity in Francesco Petrarch’s 14th century poem, The Great Triumphs.


In the facing miniature Bellini revealed a dolphin’s features when the figure of Guarino was flipped vertically. He does the same with the Trinitarian symbol. When it is flipped vertically and superimposed on itself, it shows a six-pointed star within the circle. Some may see this as The Star of David, but the symbol predates that description and is known as The Seal of Solomon. In Christianity it is referred to as The Creator’s Star, its six points standing for the six days of creation.


For creation read Earth, the globe resting on the shoulder of Marcello and supported by Pannonius and René, serving as  a reminder of Guarino’s praise for his patron when he compared Marcello with Hercules for taking on the Strabo project. 


the ‘eyes’ have it!

Returning to the other geometric symbol, the lens or womb shape on the cover of the Strabo document, this graphic can also be described in other ways, notably as a mandorla (almond in Italian), an outline frequently used by artists to frame the figure of Christ in Majesty. The geometric shape formed by two intersecting circles is also defined as a vesica piscis (fish bladder), hence the symbol Christians adopted as a sign of recognition and identity. A close look at the cover symbol reveals that inside the mandorla, is a pattern of fish scales and two ‘eyes’ inserted at the right hand point. Not only Christ in Majesty but also a reference to the legend of Colapesce described earlier, the boy who was able to stay underwater so long that his body  began to develop characteristics of a fish.


With all the geometric references in this illustration, it is not surprising that Bellini has included more in the facing miniature, the most obvious being the triumphal arch to match the Triumph of Eternity. The triangular pediment and arch underneath also combine to signify eternity – the Alpha (Α) and the Omega (Ω ). It may also be taken as a reference to the beginning and end of this particular stage of the journey for the Strabo translation, the fulfilment of the contract between Guarino and Marcello, as Atlas handing over the earth and sky to Hercules, the arch representing the earth, the pediment, the sky and the vault of heaven.


At first glance, the triumphal arch appears perfectly symmetrical, but it isn’t. The arched curve at the entrance and the sky come to a stop behind Guarino’s head and there is no follow-through as one would expect in a symetrical form. 


This asymmetrical effect is perfectly normal if understood that the entrance is narrower than the nearest side where Guarino stands. In one sense it is depicting Guarino as having arrived at his final destination through the narrow gate and is yet another reference to Matthew’s Gospel (7 : 13) and Christ’s teaching on the two ways: “Enter through the narrow gate, since the road that leads to perdition is wide and spacious, and many take it; but it is a narrow gate and a hard road that leads to life.” It also mirrors the Pythagorus reference to the Greek upsilon symbol worn by Guarino’s son, Battista: “Its right path is arduous, but conducts to the blessed life; the left one is easier but leads to pernicious death.”


However, Bellini has narrowed the view for another reason. Having presented a journey’s end and the ‘triumph of eternity’, he also alludes to God’s presence in the world through his voice, the Word, and the Catholic belief that Christ is truly present in the bread and wine made holy in the sacrifice of the Mass.


By making the entrance a narrow door, or window, looking out on the world Bellini has devised what is known as a hagioscope, sometimes refered to as a ‘squint’, an architectural opening in a wall of a church that allows worshippers to see the elevation of the Host during Mass.


Bellini portrays the true presence of Christ, invisible to the eye, with another Scripture reference. Notice that Guarino’s head looks down, not to Marcello or even the Strabo manuscript. The curved line of the arch sweeps over an almost invisible mark in the blue sky, the numeral 32, again from Matthew’s gospel.


In its simplest form, it points to Chapter 3, verse 2, and the Baptist’s call: “Repent, for the kingdom of God is close at hand” – in one sense the book De Situ Orbis in the hands of Guarino and Marcello; in another sense a possible reference to Guarino’s approaching death. However, the numeral serves as another more significant signpost. A white, vertical line, and a reminder of the Zeus thunderbolt on Marcello’s collar, is placed as a divider between the numbers 3 and 2. Dividing the numeral 32 in half results in 16, and that is the verse in the same chapter of Matthew’s Gospel which Bellini is directing the reader to:


As soon as Jesus was baptised he came up from the water, and suddenly the heavens opened and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove an coming down on him. And a voice spoke from heaven. “This is my Son, the Beloved; my favour rests on him.”


And in this statement the Holy Trinity is witnessed, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, reflecting not only God’s presence on earth and in heaven, but also the invisible Trinitarian symbol depicted in the facing miniature.


There is also a reason why the numeral 32 is small and blurred, especially the 2. It may require the observer to ‘squint’ to become more clearly defined, and so Bellini’s pointer to discovering the hagioscope reference.


However, the ‘squint’ reference also points to the main subject in both miniatures, the Strabo manuscript and it lens shape on the cover. ‘Strabo’ is Italian slang for squinting, derived from the condition known as strabismus, an abnormal alignment of the eyes. 


From this, another connection can be made to what appears to be an abnormal alignment of the two arches.

Guarino isn’t the only figure with eyes focused on the numeral 38. So has the Apollo figure, which connects him to the Christ figure in the facing miniature whose arms are folded wing-shaped to represent the Holy Spirit coming down on him.

By now it is becoming clear that Bellini has created a work of art that continually leads the observer’s eye in different directions to assimilate various narratives in the two scenes – up and down and up again; left to right and right to left. It’s as if the two illuminations represent a pair of eyes, the left and the right, each focusing and gathering information to process and converge. 

Vesica piscis and fish scales.

Christ in his Majesty.

Alpha and Omega symbols and the hagioscope.

The numeral 32 split by the lightening bolt.

The eyes of Guarino and Apollo focus on the sign in the sky.

seven scrolls

the scroll and its seven seals

I began this presentation by explaining that they key to unlocking the iconography in Bellini’s miniatures was found in the scroll atop of René’s throne, which alludes to the Book of Revelation (Apocalypse) 6 : 12-17 and the breaking open of the sixth seal, and how this links to the ‘unfurling’ symbols in two other works which connect Marcello with René.


Chapter 5 in the Book of Revelation starts with these words: “I saw at the right hand of the One sitting on the throne there was a scroll that had writing on back and front and was sealed with seven seals. The vision of the scroll is also referred to in Ezekiel, chapter 2.


Mention has also been made of other seal symbols featured in the two illustrations. However, there are also additional references which directly link to the description of the seven seals in Revelation broken by the Lamb (Christ).


1. The I saw the Lamb break one of the seven seals, and I heard one of the four animals shout in a loud voice like thunder, “Come”. Immediately a white horse appeared, and the rider on it was holding a bow; he was given the victor’s crown and he went away, to go from victory to victory (6 : 1-2)


The bow is the archway that bridges the heads of Apollo and Marcello. The bow and the victor’s crown (a laurel wreath) are both attributes of the Greek god Apollo, the inference being that Marcello has inherited these attributes for his patronage of the Strabo manuscript.


2. When he broke the second seal, I heard the second animal shout, “Come”. And out came another horse, bright red, and its rider was given this duty: to take away peace from the earth and set people killing each other. He was given a huge sword. (6 : 3-4)


This seal is portrayed by Guarino, the figure in red. The sword is the deep slash in his gown and explains the slash marks and swords in some of the other figures in the second miniature. Note the emphasised slash cuts on the Christ figure.


3. When he broke the third seal, I heard the third animal shout, “Come”. Immediately a black horse appeared, and its rider was holding a pair of scales; and I seemed to hear a voice shout from among the four animals and say, “A ration of corn for a day’s wages, and three rations of barley for a day’s wages, but do not tamper with the oil or the wine.” (6 : 5-6)


Guarino’s son Battista represents the third seal, dressed in black, his red mantle depicting the scales while his hand is being weighed. It also depicts the Greek letter Y, the upsilon, known as the Pythagoras letter, a reference to the ration of corn statement and similar  pronouncements made by the Greek philospher: “Step not over the balance… sit not on the corn ration”.


4. When he broke the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth animal shout, “Come”. Immediately another horse appeared, deathly pale, and its rider was called Plague, and Hades followed at his heels. (6 : 8)


This seal is illustrated by the combined figures of Janus Pannonius and Andrea Mantegna. Pannonius, is the pale figure, and was a ‘sickly’ poet who died at the young age of 38. Behind his left heel stands Mantegna who, in the guise of John the Baptist, is said to have entered Hades to preach to the souls there before the Harrowing of Hell.


5. When he broke open the fifth seal, I saw underneath the altar the souls of all the people who had been killed on account of the word of God, for witnessing to it. (6 : 9)


This refers to the holy martyrs, and is depicted by the palm tree. The palm is a symbol of martyrdom.


6. In my vision, when he broke the sixth seal, there was a violent earthquake and the sun went as black as coarse sackcloth; the moon turned red as blood all over, and the stars of the sky fell on to the earth like figs dropping from a fig tree when a high wind shakes it; the sky disappeared like a scroll rolling up and all the mountains and islands were shaken from their places. (6 : 12-15)


This is illustrated in the capital feature on top of the throne, a heavenly scene of stars encased by an unfurled scroll above a green base representing the earth. The flowing red curtain represents the red magma from a volcanic eruption.


7. Then I saw four angels, standing at the four corners of the earth, holding the four winds of the world back to keep them from blowing over the land or the sea or in the trees. Then I saw another angel rising where the sun rises, carrying the seal of the living God… (7 : 1-2)


The Lamb then broke the seventh seal, and there was silence in heaven for about half an hour. (8 : 1)


This is a silence of awe, the coming and presence of God, and is represented by the ‘hidden’ symbol of the Creator’s Star. The seal of the living God is the same symbol but represented as the Seal of Solomon which identifies the tribes of Israel, the seal put on the foreheads of the servants of God.


And that concludes this presentation, although I will make updates and add any further discoveries I become aware of.

Apollo’s bow is represented by the arch

Guarino’s son Battista, with Apollo behind him.

The pale Pannonius alongside Mantegna (aka John the Baptist), and the martyr’s palm tree

The scroll depicting the sixth seal

The Creator’s Star and also Solomon’s Seal

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