The painting represents a man with a snake wrapped around his arms coming out of a large shell held up by two other male figures.
In general, this type of representation has been given a negative meaning as a symbol of the unmasked Infamy, Slander or Falsehood. However, more recently the image has been interpreted in a positive key as the allegory of “Virtus Sapientia”, where the shell is a symbol of life and generation.
This panel is the only one accompanied with an inscription of the author’s signature “IOANNES-BELLINUS P.” on the pedestal of one of the three male figures. This suggests that this image was placed at the bottom right, at the end of the series.
The small panel is part of a series of four paintings that decorated a restelo, or restello, a cabinet with a mirror inserted in a frame that is decorated with a shelf, a fashionable item in Venice between the end of the 15th century and the first decades of the following century. The cabinet was used especially by women to store objects and beauty products. The fashion and the passion of the Venetians for this type of furniture was so strong that in 1489, shortly before Bellini decorated these panels, the Senate of Venice forbade its distribution and commission by the citizens.
The cabinets were often enriched with small panels like these, which represented themes of moral significance, as if to contrast the futility of the object with the seriousness of the message given by its decoration.
All Bellini’s panels are characterized by the influences of Nordic culture and very high artistic quality, taking in consideration also the difficulty of representing nature and anatomy in such small dimensions.
The other paintings, probably referable to a cabinet described as “restelo de nogera chon zerte fegurete dentro depinte di mano de misser Zuan Belino” which belonged to Vincenzo Catena, who donated it by testament to Antonio Marsili in 1530, depict other mythological and allegorical subjects such as Vanity, Wisdom and Fortune. However, the critics do not entirely agree even though most scholars tend to identify the four tablets with Fortune (Melancholy), Vanity, Perseverance and Falsehood.
After 1530 the cabinet, or perhaps only the panels, arrived in the Contarini collection where they remained until 1838, when Girolamo donated them to the Gallerie dell’Accademia in Venice. There they soon gathered the attention of artists and travelers who copied them faithfully, as in the case of the symbolist painter Gustave Moreau, when he was in Venice in 1858, and the writer Théophile Gautire, who had admired them before and described them in his Voyage en Italie.
The Venetian museum also preserves another panel depicting the allegory of Fortune, symbolized by a blindfolded harpy who is standing on two spheres and pouring a liquid from two amphoras that perhaps does not exist or is finished, according to an iconography that is very similar to Albrecht Dürer’s engraving from 1501-1503.
The panel was initially attributed to Bellini and then to Andrea Previtali, excluding the fact that it could be a part of Bellini’r restelo, that already had a panel representing the allegory of Fortune.
Bellini was born in Venice probably around 1430. He studied with his brother Gentile and his father Jacopo, who were known artists, but he also showed interest in Vivarini and especially in the work of his brother-in-law, Andrea Mantegna. He went to Padua from 1443 to 1453 where he was influenced by Donatello’s work, which can be seen in his works made in the 1460s with shallow lines in landscapes and figures and with bright and polished colours. Among them are the altarpiece of San Vincenzo Ferreri (SS. Giovanni and Paolo), the Crucifixion and the Transfiguration (Museum Correr), the Prayer in the Garden (National Gallery, London) and juvenile paintings of Madonna and Child and Pietà.
Bellini often softened the forms and preferred less harsh tones of colours, which can be seen in the altarpiece of Pesaro (Coronation of the Virgin, Museo Civico) of 1475. During this period, he also painted the Madonnas of Brera and Santa Maria dell’Orto, the Transfiguration of Capodimonte (1480 - 85) and the altarpiece of San Giobbe (1480) the Triptych of Frari (1488) where you can already see some typical 16th-century influences. The composition is large and solemn, peaceful and sweet, before the works of San Zaccaria (Madonna in the throne with saints, 1505) and San Giovanni Crisostomo (St. Jerome, 1513) where the form and colours are inspired by the works of Giorgione and Titian.
Bellini died in Venice in 1516.
The Accademia of Venice was founded in 1750 and the opening of the Gallerie dell’Accademia was linked to it with primarily educational purpose: in 1803 a decree established the need to adjoin a gallery next to the school that was used by the students who studied painting and sculpting.
In 1817 the gallery was opened also to the public. The gallery is located in the area of Dorsoduro, down by the Accademia bridge, in a complex including the church of Santa Maria della Carità, the Canonici Lateranensi convent and the Scuola Grande of Santa Maria della Carità, all situated in a single floor, divided into twenty-fours and covering 5537 square meters.
The first section of the collection includes the Presentation of the Virgin at the Temple and the Pietà by Titian (1538) and the Triptych of the Madonna della Carità by Antonio Vivarini and Giovanni d’Alemagna (1480).
The collection also includes essays by the students of the academy and a collection of plaster casts (hence the plural name, gallerie) which were put on display in the exhibition with success in 1817.
The collection was enriched with the paintings brought from defeated France and with the masterpieces that were left to the museum by great collectors. However, the paintings were always linked to the Venetian culture and this feature was tried to overcome for the whole 20th century. Among these works was the legacy of Felicita Reiner (in 1833, but only formalized in 1850), which included masterpieces such as Piero della Francesca’s St. Jerome, Giovanni Bellini’s Madonna and Child and Saints Catherine and Mary Magdalene. The legacy of Girolamo Contarini (1838) included 180 works, among them Madonna of the Small Trees and the Four Allegories by Bellini, and six paintings by Pietro Longhi.
The emperor Franz Joseph grew the collection with Nicolò di Pietro’s Madonna and Mantegna’s St. George, Memling’s Portrait of a Young Man and Giorgione’s Old Woman. The gallery was radically reorganized in 1895 by the director Giulio Cantalamessa. He excluded all the 19th century artists and for the first time the exhibition was organized chronologically. He coordinated the cycles of the School of St. Ursula by Vittore Carpaccio and the School of St. John the Evangelist by Cima da Conegliano, previously divided in various locations. Under the direction of Gino Fogolari (1905) the museum acquired other fundamental masterpieces, such as the Tempest by Giorgione and the Crucifixion by Luca Giordano and the Feast at the House of Simon by Bernardo Strozzi.
In the post-war period the museum performed various changes, for example Titian’s Assumption of the Virgin, which was supposed to be placed in a specially designed room, was returned to the Frari church in Venice instead. The 19th century works that were already excluded from the exhibition were sent to the deposit at the museum of Modern Art in Ca’ Pesaro and the foreign art in the Galleria Giorgio Franchetti in Ca’ d’Oro. In the 1940s’ Vittorio Moschini and Carlo Scarpa wanted to perform a modern reorganization of the museum, including the 19th century salons, but which resulted quite impractical in the end. In these years Francesco Guardi’s Fire in the Oil Depot of San Marcuola and Montagna’s St. Peter and Donor became part of the collection.
In 1987 director Sciré decided to increase the exhibition space opening the gallery on the fourth floor with the graphic collection and a new deposit was opened on the top floor of the Palladio building. In the same year the collection was enriched with two cherubs and two allegorical figures representing Justice and Patience, taken from Giorgio Vasari’s ceiling in a room of Palazzo Corner on the Grand Canal. Between 2001-2003 the gallery was renovated expanding the exhibition areas and adding modern lightning in the rooms.