A Portrait with a Deathly Secret

Memento Mori or "Don't Forget to Die"

This impressive portrait of a man in the prime of life has been attributed to the early career of Andrea Previtali, a painter from the Bergamo area called Cordeliaghi, because he was the son of a dealer in threads (corde) and needles (aghi).

But beneath the surface, this portrait has a secret; the artist actually painted both sides of the panel. While the front (or recto) shows this classic Renaissance portrait, the reverse (or verso) holds a surprise...

It is an image of Memento Mori (meaning: "remember to die"). These types of paintings typically featured a skull as a reminder of human mortality. In this panel, Cordeliaghi suspends a Latin inscription above the broken skull which balances precariously on its two remaining teeth.

The inscription reads: “This is the beauty, this the form that remains. This law is the same for all.”

MEMENTO MORI on verso of PORTRAIT OF A MAN by Andrea Previtali called Cordeliaghi (circa 1502)

According to the experts at the Museo Poldi Pezzoli, the painting is meant as a warning against the vanity of earthly beauty; almost a counterpoint to the intense vitality of the gaze of the man on the front.

Detail view of PORTRAIT OF A MAN - MEMENTO MORI (verso), circa 1502, by Andrea Previtali called Cordeliaghi (collection: Museo Poldi Pezzoli, Milan)
PORTRAIT OF A MAN - MEMENTO MORI (recto), circa 1502, by Andrea Previtali called Cordeliaghi 

To ensure viewers could see both sides of the panel it was originally set in a frame which probably rested on a rotating support, as indicated by the fact that the skull is upside down in relation to the portrait. Behind life, there is always death lurking around the corner.

Explore more examples of death in art:

- The Art of Day of the Dead
- Death: From Our Ancestors to the Artisans
- Funny Bones

Credits: All media
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