INTRODUCTION TO THE VENETIAN PAINTING SCHOOL. Giovanni and Gentile Bellini. Antonello da Messina

Because of its constant relations with the East, Venice had remained faithful to the Byzantine art. The city was actually more of a spiritual colony of Byzantium than another province of the new Italy of the Renaissance. The traveler, who admires the old paintings kept in the museums or in the frescoes of the Romanesque churches of Tuscany and Lazio, can appreciate how in the first half of the 13th century, the painters and sculptors before Giotto, Duccio and Cavallini began to experiment with new styles within the great scope of Italian art. Venice, on the contrary, did not participate in this movement. Giotto in the 14th century reached up to Padua; in the 15th century, Donatello and Verrocchio also carried out commissions in lands within the territory of the Most Serene Republic; but until after the fall of Constantinople it cannot be said that there was a true “Venetian” style in painting and sculpture.

Venice entered the art scene when, as the artistic environment of Tuscany was exhausted, painting and sculpture (represented by the works of Raphael and Michelangelo) produced in Rome fully mature art works. It was then that Venetian painters, full of fiery enthusiasm for color and the character of nature, perhaps even more than for the representation of form, rejuvenated Italian art propelling its evolution for another half century. In the last years of his life, Michelangelo was able to see Titian’s paintings. The old master, accustomed to the severe discipline of the Roman school, censured some of the liberties he saw in Titian’s drawing, but he couldn’t help but admire the rich magnificence of his colors. “Ah, if these people, like us, had had the ancient marbles in sight every day!”…, Michelangelo exclaimed with a certain suspicion of having been surpassed.

And yet, how many times when looking at a painting by Titian or Veronese, the thought goes back to classical antiquity! These artists suggest to us how the most esteemed paintings of classical antiquity must had looked like. The “Venus” of Giorgione and the “Flora” or the “Bacchanal” of Titian, with their paganism of forms and spirit, sometimes seem to us works from some Hellenic school that still survived and was able of mysteriously developed through the centuries. These works by Venetian artists were modern for their time and, at the same time, also ancient. Michelangelo thought only of sculptures and marbles; he didn’t know ancient painting, and neither did the Venetians, but they sought its inspiration in the same sources as the ancient Greeks did: in the love for human life, in the landscapes radiant with light and in the freedom of beauty, which the Greek artists so deeply appreciated.

The process that determined the independence from the norms stablished by the Byzantine art was slow. In the mid-15th century, Venetian painting was still Gothic; although some authors, such as Antonio Vivarini (active ca. 1440 – 1480) picked up certain elements of Florentine influence, and others, such as the elegant Carlo Crivelli (ca. 1430- ca. 1495), amidst boasts of naturalism, painted details of spacious and complicated monumentality.

The painting by Antonio Vivarini (also known as Antonio of Murano) can be placed between the late Gothic and the Early Renaissance traditions. His family worked producing glass at the islands of Murano (in the Venetian lagoon), and he was an active painter in the Republic of Venice. Antonio’s work shows influences of Gentile da Fabriano and Mantegna. His most celebrated paintings are the Virgin Enthroned and Child in the Heavenly Garden with the Doctors of the Church, the Coronation of the Virgin (both in the Gallerie dell’Accademia di Venezia) and Saints Peter and Jerome (in the National Gallery in London).

Saints Peter and Jerome, tempera on poplar panel, by Antonio Vivarini and Giovanni d’Alemagna, ca. 1440-1446, 140.3 x 45.7 cm (National Gallery, London). This panel once formed the left wing of a triptych painted by Antonio Vivarini and his brother-in-law Giovanni d‘Alemagna. Here, the artists show us two saints (Peter-left and Jerome-right) standing on a stone pedestal extravagantly carved with the saints’ names. As usual in this type of paintings, the saints hold their attributes (Peter the gilded keys and the Gospels, Jerome with cardinal attire and holding a book which in turn expels rays of light onto a model of a church he holds in his right arm, to show how Jerome’s works illuminated religious understanding).

Coronation of the Virgin for San Pantalon, egg tempera and gold on wood panel, by Antonio Vivarini and Giovanni d’Alemagna, 1444, 230 x 180 cm (Chiesa di San Pantaleone Martire, Venice). Originally placed on the high altar of the church of San Pantalon, it is now located on the left of the presbytery in the Chapel of the Holy Nail. The composition of the scene is notable for the artist’s elaborate architectural structuring of Paradise: its hierarchy of tiers hosts a full audience of prophets and saints that are witnessing the central event, Christ crowning the Virgin Mary as Queen of Heaven in the presence of God the Father and the dove of the Holy Spirit. This panel, executed in the International Gothic style, illustrates an important shift in the development of the Venetian polyptych, initially an ensemble of many separate panels combined within a frame (see picture below) to a unified pictorial space depicted on a single panel.
Virgin Enthroned and Child in the Heavenly Garden with the Doctors of the Church, Saints Augustine, Ambrose, Jerome, and Gregory, tempera on wood panel, by Antonio Vivarini and Giovanni d’Alemagna, 1446, 344 x 203 cm (Gallerie dell’Accademia, Venice). This polyptych was originally commissioned for the sala dell’Albergo (boardroom) in the Scuola Grande della Carità. In this large triptych Antonio Vivarini, with the assistance of his brother-in-law Giovanni d’Alemagna, reached a balance between the International Gothic tradition (by then in decline), and the Renaissance. Though a natural light falls on the holy figures, the Virgin still sits rigid like a Byzantine empress on a Gothic throne, surrounded by angels who are holding the poles of the high canopy that covers them. The saints Gregory and Jerome on the left and Ambrose and Augustine on the right, stand static in their heavy ecclesiastical garments shining with gold. The positioning of the saints and angels along the orthogonals reinforce the illusion of depth. The holy scene is enclosed by the marble walls with their Gothic fretwork, set in an improbable perspective. This work is undoubtedly the most complex and monumental executed by Antonio Vivarini and Giovanni d’Alemagna. Features of this polyptych such as the play on perspective, the softness of the flesh, and the use of vivid color suggest that Vivarini was familiar with Donatello’s works in Padua as well as the work of other Tuscan artists active in Veneto, who paved the way for the new style of altarpieces with a unified-space that was developed later by Andrea Mantegna and Giovanni Bellini.

The Venetian Carlo Crivelli still clung to the Late Gothic (International Gothic) sensibility, with a body of work exclusively religious in nature. He spent his first years as a painter in the Veneto, but most of his career developed in the March of Ancona (the modern region of Ancona in central-coastal Italy). Crivelli kept the tradition of painting only in tempera, even though oil painting was gaining more popularity, as well as on panel instead of canvas. His works are characterized by being placed in urban settings filled with jewel-like and elaborate allegorical details, the use of fruits and flowers as decorative motifs (usually depicted in lush pendant festoons), as well as the use of trompe-l’oeil. His forms were clearly delineated and he placed particular attention to detail. Crivelli’s painting production included images of the Madonna and Child, Pietás and altarpiece polyptychs, which were becoming unfashionable.

Madonna and Child, tempera and gold on wood panel, by Carlo Crivelli, ca. 1480, 36.5 x 23.5 cm (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York). This is one of Crivelli’s most detailed works, possibly inspired by Flemish painting. The extremely detailed background includes some figures wearing turbans (the infidels). Crivelli’s typical depiction of details in trompe-l’oeil are framing the central figures of the Virgin and Child. The apples (at the top) and fly (at the bottom left) are symbols of sin and evil and are opposed to the cucumber (top) and the goldfinch (held by baby Jesus), both symbols of redemption. As in his painting of Mary Magdalen (see picture below) Crivelli’s signature is on what looks like a small piece of paper (cartellino) attached to the watered-silk cloth with dots of wax.

Mary Magdalene, tempera on wood panel, by Carlo Crivelli, ca. 1480, 152 × 49 cm (Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam). Crivelli shows as a richly dressed and stoic Mary Magdalene, with extremely stylized hands and complicated hairdo. As usual, she is holding the jar of ointments. Mary seems to be standing beneath a niche imitating marble and with an embossed gold background, with decorative plants at the top (roses, pea plants, dandelions…), while she seems to stare at us with a timid smile. The artist’s signature is at the bottom of the painting in a cartellino: Opus Karoli Crivelli Venet (“Work of Carlo Crivelli Venetian”). The extremely worked details of garments and jewels remind us of the Netherlandish painting.

The Annunciation with St. Emidius, oil on wood panel transferred to canvas, by Carlo Crivelli, 1486, 207 x 147 cm (National Gallery, London). In 1482, Pope Sixtus IV granted the small city of Ascoli Piceno in the Marche ‘libertas ecclesiastica‘, the right to self-government free from direct papal rule. The news of this important notice reached Ascoli on 25 March, the feast day of the Annunciation, and since then this date was of central importance in the civic culture of the city. Four years later, Carlo Crivelli was commissioned by the Observant Franciscan convent of the Annunziata in Ascoli to paint an altarpiece of the Annunciation celebrating this important date. The painting was originally installed in the convent, most likely in the chapel of the Annunciate Virgin, in 1486. The civic purpose of this commission explains numerous features of this work unusual on the theme of the Annunciation, specifically the urban setting, which recalls contemporary Ascoli, and the presence of the city’s patron saint, Emidius, who is alongside the Archangel Gabriel offering a model of the city to its protector, the Virgin Mary. The apple sitting in the foreground in trompe l’oeil represents the forbidden fruit and the original sin; the cucumber symbolizes the promise of resurrection and redemption. The peacock on the balcony above Mary symbolizes immortality, because it was believed that its flesh never decayed, and the hanging oriental carpet was a decorative feature typical of religious paintings in the Northern International Gothic style. At the center of the bottom of the painting is the coat of arms of Pope Sixtus IV and at the left those of the local bishop, Prospero Caffarelli. The Latin words libertas ecclesiastica are inscribed at the base of the painting, referring to its original commission.

In the second half of the 15th century, Alvise Vivarini (1442 or 1453 – 1503 or 1505) was already a Renaissance author. He was the most important Venetian artist before the advent of Giovanni Bellini. His father was Antonio Vivarini, mentioned before. His works show more of the Renaissance spirit and much less of the late Gothic traditions of his predecessors, with great naturalism in the expressions, as well as realism in the treatment of the architectures and perspective. His portraits are also remarkable.

Virgin and Child Enthroned with Saints (Sacra Conversazione), tempera on wood panel, by Alvise Vivarini, 1480, 175 x 196 cm (Gallerie dell’Accademia, Venice). Originally placed in the Church of San Francesco in Treviso (Veneto), this painting was composed with geometrical symmetry: the two groups of saints, Louis of Toulouse, Anthony of Padua and Anne on the left and Joachim, Bernardino and Francesco Gioacchino on the right, face inwards towards the enthroned Virgin and Child. In their gestures immobilized by the cold light which comes from the top left-hand corner, the three-dimensional figures appear to form a kind of architecture the center of which is the throne, an structure made of cylinders and parallelepipeds, behind which the curtain falls heavily excluding from sight all natural elements apart from two small fragments of a cold, clouded sky seeing beyond the opened arches. Shadows are cast on the floor, a confirmation of the geometrical relationship between space and figures. Recent examination of the painting has revealed that the dark green curtain in the background was added at a later date. The panel is signed and dated on the dais of the throne on a small cartellino.
Portrait of a Man, oil on wood panel, by Alvise Vivarini, 1497, 62 x 47 cm (National Gallery, London). The artist’s signature and the date appear on the cartellino placed on the stone parapet. Behind the parapet a life-size, middle-aged man wearing a blue vest is depicted. His blue robe could indicate that he was a scholar or member of a confraternity. He wears a black hat that can barely be distinguished from the black background. While his body is turned at an angle, the subject’s face and especially his gaze are directed toward the viewer. The dynamic effect generated by this torsion is underscored by the way the sitter grasps his robe with his left hand. Vivarini has achieved to portray the individual features of the sitter with utmost realism and in great detail. The large size of the painting indicates that the portrait was destined for some official location. This is the only portrait that can be securely ascribed to Alvise Vivarini.

Resurrection, tempera on wood panel, by Alvise Vivarini, 1497-1498 (Church of San Giovanni in Bragora, Venice). In this painting, Alvise’s modeling of the human body reflects the influence of Antonello da Messina and represents an advance over the work of other members of his family. Here the figure of the risen Christ is directly imitated from Antonello’s St. Sebastian (see picture below).

Altarpiece of St. Ambrose, oil on wood panel, by Alvise Vivarini and completed by Marco Basaiti, 1503, 500 x 250 cm (Basilica di Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, Venice). This large altarpiece represents the triumph of St. Ambrose, patron saint of Milan, carrying a scourge in his right hand and a staff in his left. The knights in armor at his back support the sword and the cross. On his right stand St. John the Baptist, St. Sebastian and St. Louis IX, and on his left St. Gregory the Great, St. Augustine and St. Jerome. Behind the two groups of saints are two anonymous heads that may be the priors of the brotherhood. At the foot of the throne two angels are playing the lute and the mandola, these last were painted by Basaiti, as well as St. Sebastian, this because Vivarini wasn’t able to finish the panel before his death.

But the first great painters of the Venetian Renaissance are undoubtedly the Bellini brothers. Their father, Jacopo, a Venetian pioneer in the use of oil paint, was a painter of relative merit trained in Umbria. Giovanni (called Giambellino) and Gentile kept his father’s sketch book as a precious relic, bequeathing it to each other in their will. Their sister, Nicolosia Bellini, married Mantegna, and the young Giorgione, who was to be Titian’s teacher, was trained in the Bellini’s workshop. Thus, the two Bellini brothers are the link that joins the previous trends of Italian art with the new school that would develop in Venice.

The Bellini name filled Venice’s artistic scene throughout the second half of the 15th century. Gentile (ca. 1429 – 23 February 1507) seems to have been the older of the two brothers. He was named Gentile after his father Jacopo’s master, Gentile da Fabriano. From some documents we know that they had their workshop near Saint Mark, and Vasari almost made a novel of the endearing fraternal love they professed for each other. Both received very valuable commissions and received fixed salaries as official painters of the Most Serene Republic. Beginning in 1454, Gentile was the official portrait artist for the Doges of Venice. When Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II wrote to the Venetian Senate requesting a good painter, the Republic, perhaps in order not to let Giovanni go as he was then busy with commissions, sent instead Gentile to the new Ottoman capital, Istanbul, in 1479. “The Great Turk received Gentile Bellini,” says Vasari, “with great kindness, especially when he saw His portrait, so divinely reproduced…” Gentile returned the next year to Venice full of impressions and memories of the East; in the backgrounds of his paintings sometimes there are minarets and towers, and his crowds wear turbans as if they were in Cairo or Istanbul. Hence, Gentile is considered as one of the founders of the Orientalist tradition in Western painting. Many of Gentile’s works were large-scale paintings for public buildings, like those he executed for the Scuola Grande di San Giovanni Evangelista. This first Venetian painter, moved by the force of tradition, was still influenced by the old Byzantine school, which had become a stronghold of the Turks. Gentile still made, after his return, several genre paintings in which Carpaccio later had to specialize; on the occasion of some sacred scene, he painted perspective views of the city, streets and squares, and popular gatherings.

The Virgin and Child Enthroned, oil on wood panel, by Gentile Bellini, ca. 1475-1485, 121.9 x 82.6 cm (National Gallery, London). This is one of only two surviving images of the Virgin Mary and Christ Child painted by Gentile Bellini. Its large size suggests that it was probably the central panel of a large polyptych. The Virgin’s mantle is painted to resemble velvet woven onto cloth of gold in an elaborate pomegranate pattern. This originally Ottoman design was hugely popular for luxury fabrics in Italy. It was adopted by Italian weavers who in turn exported it to the eastern Mediterranean. The marble steps are covered with an oriental rug that resembles an Islamic prayer rug mat used by Muslims. Rugs like this date from around the mid-15th century and were popular in Italy as exotic luxury items. These precious textiles were used for display, not walked upon, and so its position under the Virgin’s feet is a sign of her majesty as well as an indication of her reverence. The colored marble and porphyry of the back of the throne reflect many religious buildings in Venice at the time, such as St. Mark’s Basilica. Gentile’s signature appears on an inscription placed on the base of the steps.
Portrait of Doge Giovanni Mocenigo, tempera on wood panel, by Gentile Bellini, ca. 1478, 63 x 46 cm (Museo Correr, Venice). This portrait dates from around 1478, the year Mocenigo was elected Doge.
Portrait of Mehmet II, oil on canvas, by Gentile Bellini, 1480, 70 x 52 cm (National Gallery, London). Gentile Bellini lived in Constantinople between 1479 to 1481, where he was sent in a diplomatic mission as a portraitist for the Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror. This portrait was the first work in which Gentile shifted the position of the sitter’s head and body away from pure profile (see picture before) toward the three-quarter view made fashionable by Antonello da Messina (see pictures below). Also, in an unusual variation on the illusionistic motif of the foreground parapet, Gentile framed the sitter in a classicizing Venetian archway and draped the high sill with a cloth of Ottoman embroidery richly studded with gold-thread and jewels. It is possible that the sultan commissioned the portrait as a diplomatic gift for Venice’s Doge. This painting also represents an historical record of the significant economic and diplomatic ties that existed between Venice and the Ottoman Empire during the 15th century. The lower left of the painting has the inscription “Victor Orbis” (“Conqueror of the World”). Another partial inscription remains in the painting iIn reference to Bellini’s artistry and the date of the painting (“…15th day of the month of November 1480.”) This work has suffered much bad restorations and over cleaning, now art historians agree that about 10% of what we see in this painting is done by Gentile’s hand. This particular portrait exerted a lasting influence on Ottoman painting. The small crowns depicted in the background probably symbolize the realms Mehmed’s reigned upon. 

Gentile died in 1507, nine years before his brother Giovanni, whose date of death we know from a note in Marino Sanuto’s (a Venetian historian) diary: “November 15, 1516. This morning we learned that Giovanni Bellini, the excellent painter, has passed away. His fame runs throughout the world, because, although he was old, he painted admirably. He has been buried in San Zanipolo [now the Basilica di Santi Giovanni e Paolo], in the same tomb as Gentile Bellini, his brother.”

Procession in Piazza San Marco, tempera and oil on canvas, by Gentile Bellini, 1496, 367 x 745 cm (Gallerie dell’Accademia, Venice). The Confraternity of the Scuola Grande di San Giovanni Evangelista in Venice, at the time one of the most important and wealthy Venetian confraternities, summoned the most respected Venetian painters of the period to paint nine canvases for the Great Hall of their headquarters representing the Miracles of the Holy Cross, telling of the story of the miracles performed by the fragment of wood from Jesus’ Cross. Of these nine canvases, only the one by Perugino has been lost, the other eight (executed between 1496 and 1501) all survived. Gentile Bellini painted three of these teleri (as they were known). The first is the one reproduced in the picture and represents the miraculous intervention of the Holy Cross in St. Mark’s Square on 25th April, 1444 on the occasion of the Feast of the Holy Cross. Gentile showed us an incomparable wide angle view of St. Mark’s Square and the ceremony that took place there. Looking at this painting, we still recognize much of the buildings on the square today. At the end of the square the Basilica of St. Mark’s glows with the gold of the marble decorations and the Veneto-Byzantine mosaics of which the only one surviving is the one above the arched doorway on the left. The Porta della Carta also stands splendid in its original gilded marble decorations, between the Basilica and the Palace of Doges. The ancient buildings reflect the reddish bricks of the floor of the square which remained until Tirali changed them for the present grey slabs of stone patterned with white marble in 1723. Gentile also applied particular attention to the representation of the procession. While the members of the government with the Doge at their head are at the right along side the campanile, the members of the Confraternity stand out in the foreground, dressed in the white garments of the Scuola. In the middle of the group escorted by candle-bearers a canopy covers the precious reliquary with the Holy Cross.
Miracle of the Cross at the Bridge of San Lorenzo, tempera on canvas, by Gentile Bellini, 1500, 323 x 430 cm (Gallerie dell’Accademia, Venice). This is the second of the three large canvases (see picture before) Gentile painted for the Great Hall of the Confraternity of the Scuola Grande di San Giovanni Evangelista in Venice commemorating the Miracles of the Holy Cross. This letero represents the Miracle of the Cross recovered from the canal of San Lorenzo. According to legend the miraculous event took place between 1370 and 1382 during the annual procession when the relic of the Holy Cross was carried from the Scuola to the church of San Lorenzo. When the procession was crossing the bridge in front of the church of San Lorenzo the relic was pushed into the waters of the canal by the crowd. The relic floated, miraculously eluding the grasp of all the faithful who dived into the canal to save it; all except Andrea Vendramin, the Grand Guardian of the Scuola. Though Gentile portrayed the scene with almost documentary fidelity, it appears to be seen through a watery light. The spectators include real contemporary figures: Caterina Cornaro, Queen of Cyprus, is the first woman on the left (standing, with a girl to her left) praying with a Rosary in hand, and in the group of gentlemen on the right Gentile included portraits of himself and his brother Giovanni. The streets of 15th century Venice then, with its buildings decorated with highly colored frescoes and painted plaster work, with its round chimney-pots and equally characteristic jutting grills, provide a colorful and poetically archaic setting for the event. All was placed as if inhabiting a magically still atmosphere, set against the deep green of the waters of the canal frozen forever in this moment of time. At the center of the composition is the Bridge of San Lorenzo, filled with people who are looking at the event; the fondamente (the roads which flank the Venetian channels) are also crowded, with some people coming towards the center on gondolas.
St. Mark Preaching in Alexandria, oil on canvas, by Gentile and Giovanni Bellini, 1504-1507, 347 × 770 cm (Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan). This huge canvas (telero) was also destined for the Scuola Grande di San Marco in Venice for their gathering house in the Campo San Giovanni e Paolo. This canvas is part of a cycle of paintings representing stories of the life of St. Mark that are today housed in the Pinacoteca di Brera and the Gallerie dell’Accademia in Venice. Gentile begun the painting in July 1504, but after his death in February 1507, it was completed by his brother Giovanni. The painting is rich with exotic Oriental elements adapted from real-life that Gentile had the opportunity to see during his trip to Constantinople (and possibly also Jerusalem) in 1479–1480. In this work, Gentile combined two distinct moments in time, one ancient and one contemporary to his life, as well as three different places, Alexandria, Venice, and a mountainous landscape filling the background. The layout of the composition is similar to those Gentile had done before for the teleri representing the Miracles of the Holy Cross (see pictures before). The canvas was cut at an unknown time: a strip along the top had been removed, reason why the buildings appear missing their tops. In the foreground we see a large gathering of contrastingly dressed individuals: the men are shown wearing caftans (large linen coats), frocks, cloaks, turbans, and immense hats, while the women are dressed in white from head to ankle-length veils. St. Mark (to the left, on a small podium), is preaching in a main square in Alexandria, to Muslims and some Venetian guests, including peers of the artist and Gentile himself. The large building behind resembles St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice. The obelisk placed directly above Mark symbolizes that the ancient Egyptians foresaw Christianity. The assumption of the canvas expresses a hope of reconverting Muslims to Christianity as Mamluk Egyptians are portrayed praying alongside St. Mark.

Giovanni Bellini (ca. 1430 – 26 November 1516), also born in Venice, left a large series of works. Although he was an artist of a passive temperament, by using slow-drying oil paints Giovanni obtained deep, rich tints and detailed shadings. The resultant sumptuous coloring of his works and the fluent, atmospheric landscapes he created greatly influenced the Venetian painting school, particularly the work of his pupils Giorgione and Titian. As also happened with the works of his brother Gentile, Giovanni’s great public works are now lost. At first, Giovanni imitated his brother-in-law Mantegna drawing strong, angular figures, which later in his career became softer; his last Madonnas have a charming youthful smoothness and the colors are already the clear and luminous ones typical of those associated with Venetian painting.

Dead Christ Supported by Two Angels (Pietà), tempera on poplar panel, by Giovanni Bellini, ca. 1460, 74 x 50 cm (Museo Correr, Venice). This painting has at the bottom in the center the spurious date of 1499 and the similarly spurious initials of Albrecht Dürer. The work in fact was attributed to Dürer until the end of the 19th century. It shows clear influences of the paintings by Mantegna, with the insistence in the use of bold outlines and the subtle and hard emphasis of the shaded areas reflecting a stone-like linear aspect. This is one of Giovanni’s earliest renditions of the theme of the Pietà.
Portrait of a Young Man in Senator’s Garb, oil on wood panel, by Giovanni Bellini, 1480-1500, 35 x 26 cm (Museo Civico, Padua). The composition of this portrait of an unidentified young man takes us to Flemish portraiture, specifically those by Hans Memling. Giovanni placed the sitter behind a marble parapet, a compositional device derived from Antonello da Messina’s work (see pictures below) in turn influenced by Flemish masters. Contrary to Antonello’s portraits, Giovanni placed his sitters against a sky blue background (rather than a dark one) and staring abstractly into the distance (and not directly looking at the viewer).
Transfiguration of Christ, oil on wood panel, by Giovanni Bellini, ca. 1487, 115 x 152 cm (Museo Nazionale di Capodimonte, Naples). In his version of the Transfiguration, Giovanni no longer portrays the event as supernatural, with the scene happening in a rather small hill (compared to the traditional version that included an imposing Mount Tabor). The scene develops during the afternoon, at the left we see a farmer leading an ox and goat past a monastery on a crag that is already darkening in the evening shadows. Christ stands in the center of the landscape, his hands and head silhouetted against the shining white clouds. The flanking figures of Moses and Elijah are shown in their traditional portrayal reflecting the majesty of the Old Testament. Before this central group the three apostles have fallen to the ground. A rudimentary fence made with thin branches, runs diagonally across the foreground, and immediately behind it we can peak at a rocky chasm, creating an explicit separation between the observer and the holy event. In this work we can appreciate Giovanni’s going past the norms of Gothic art and beyond the influence of is brother-in-law Mantegna. The work is signed IOANNES BELLINUS on a small cartellino hanging from the fence in the foreground.

San Giobbe Altarpiece, oil on wood panel, by Giovanni Bellini, ca. 1487, 471 x 258 cm (Gallerie dell’Accademia, Venice). This painting was executed for the church of San Giobbe in Venice and complemented, in an illusory way, the Lombardian architectural plan of the church. It has been one of Giovanni’s most celebrated works. It is believed that this was the first altarpiece by Giovanni painted with the new oil technique introduced by Antonello da Messina in Venice in 1475-1476. A coffered vault perspective encloses the composition, which is framed at the sides by pillars similar to the real sculpted ones of the altar where it was originally placed. The illusory pillars flank a deep niche, whose shady penumbra amplifies the space behind the holy group. The figures are modelled with a soft blending of colors, which in turn reflect the dim crepuscular lights coming from the apse, which is depicted like a gold byzantine style mosaic similar to those of St. Mark’s Basilica. The painting is signed on a cartellino placed just below the feet of the middle musician angel, “Ioannes Bellinus“. At the center we have the group of the Madonna and Child and below them are three angels playing musical instruments. The saints flanking the enthroned Mary are each met with an opposite, both physically and historically. From left to right: St. Francis, John the Baptist, and standing in prayer, the titular of the church, St. Job. Then, to the right of the throne are St. Dominic, St. Sebastian, and furthest to the right is Franciscan Bishop St. Louise of Toulouse. St. Francis, the only character not looking to the Christ child, looks directly at the viewer, welcoming him/her into the scene. The altarpiece was also a response to the devastating plague of 1485: both St. Sebastian and St. Job are associated with suffering and pain, and the Scuola di San Giobbe (who purportedly commissioned the painting) was originally a hospice that was built in response to a plague.

Giovanni Bellini was an interesting artist because of his relationships with the other transalpine schools of painting. Albrecht Dürer, on the occasion of his travels to Venice, became a friend and a regular member of his family circle. “Giovanni Bellini,” he said, “has praised me in front of various nobles and important characters, and is eager to have a painting of mine, even if he has to pay for it. He is an excellent man and, despite being very old, is still the best painter of this town.”

Frari Triptych, oil on wood panel, by Giovanni Bellini, 1488, 184 × 79 cm (Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, Venice). The triptych portrays the Madonna and Child Enthroned (in the center), Saints Nicholas and Peter (on the left) and Saints Mark and Benedict (on the right). Musical angles do their duty at the foot of the Madonna. The wooden frame was probably designed by Giovanni himself to match the panels: its “pilasters” give illusorily support to the ceiling of the open spaces at the sides in which the saints are placed. In the center, the Virgin, sitting on a high throne, is covered by a lighted golden apsidiole which recreates the same effect as that in the San Giobbe Altarpiece (see picture before). On the illusory mosaic of this small apse, a Latin invocation can be read: IANUA CERTA POLI DUC MENTEM DIRIGE VITAM: QUAE PERAGAM COMISSA TUAE SINT OMNIA CURAE (“Secure gateway to Heaven, guide my mind, lead my life, may everything I do be entrusted to your care”). Although apparently “archaic” in that the altarpiece still follows a polyptychal scheme (possibly on the request of the commissioner), the work constitute a further evolution of the San Giobbe Altarpiece painted the year before (1487). The similarities lie in, for example, the figure of the enthroned Virgin immersed in fine golden dust contrasted by the compact blue color of the mantle, which gives her volume and isolates her in her niche. But Giovanni’s innovations come in his study of light and space, this last being ingeniously resolved by suggesting at the sides a vast perspective depth by means of a thin strip of landscape. The altarpiece is signed and dated on the base of Mary’s throne.
Holy Allegory, oil on wood panel, by Giovanni Bellini, 1490-1500, 73 x 119 cm (Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence). The meaning of this enigmatic painting is still unresolved. According to various scholarly interpretations, it could represent: (1) a French allegorical poem of the 14th century (“Pilgrimage of the Soul”); (2) a Sacred Conversation; (3) an allegory of God’s four daughters (Mercy, Justice, Peace and Charity); (4) the vision of Paradise; and (5) a meditation on incarnation. This panel is considered as one of Giovanni’s most famous due to its complete tonal unity. It was in works like this that Giorgione took inspiration. The painting shows us a large terrace with the Madonna seated on a high throne on the left under a baldachin whose support is in the shape of a cornucopia (a symbol of her fertility). The baldachin has four steps, and on its side is a frieze with scenes of the myth of Marsyas, interpreted as a parallel with Jesus’ Passion. Mary is flanked by two unidentified female figures, which could represent two saints or two virtues. Occupying the terrace are a group of saints and cherubs. The terrace is placed nearby what seems to be a lake located in front of a rocky landscape. The saints include Saint John behind the balustrade and Saint Paul with the sword of martyrdom who seems advancing to the left towards a man with a turban perhaps symbolizing an infidel. The two semi-nude saints on the right are the hermit Onuphrius (other interpretations identify him with Job), characterized by his tanned skin, and the martyr Saint Sebastian, pierced with arrows. The child seated on a cushion in the center of the painting is possibly Jesus, also represented by the cross erected in the rocky background on the right. The cherubs offer baby Jesus fruits from the tree of life and knowledge placed at the center on a basin. The poetic landscape in the background is studded with buildings, animals and saints such as Anthony the Great, depicted to the right descending the stairs to meet the centaur who will lead him through the Thebaid desert to the Monastery of Saint Paul. On the shores we can also see a shepherd in a grotto. Due to its enigmatic nature, it is believed the painting was made for a refined élite, whose education allowed them to understand any subtle detail included in it.
Christ Blessing, tempera, oil and gold on wood panel, by Giovanni Bellini, ca. 1500, 59 x 47 cm (Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, Texas). Giovanni shows us a totally frontal Jesus Christ, raising his right hand while holding a red staff with the other. Christ’s wounds are slightly visible on his hand as well as his chest. The landscape in the background contains many motifs pointing to the Resurrection: the withered tree with the solitary bird on the left represent the Old Covenant, out of which the New Covenant will grow. The two rabbits in the lower left corner are symbols of regeneration, and the three robed figures in the right towards the back are the Three Marys. The bell tower in the distance signifies the message that salvation can be found through Christ and the Church.

Dürer painted the altar of the house of the German merchants in Venice, the Fondaco dei tedeschi, at the same time that Giorgione decorated the exterior of the house with frescoes. It is possible that Dürer often met there with the young Giorgione, but he would then only be one of those painters who, for the thoughtful German, “used their time nothing more than for singing and drinking.” Giovanni was the only painter in Venice of whom Dürer spoke sympathetically in his letters. And, indeed, Giovanni already had the “Venetian note” in his works, with a naivety of a primitive painter, that made him so extraordinarily interesting. His saints and virgins are younger Venetians than those later painted by Titian. In his backgrounds, the sky and the ground are treated with an exquisite love, sometimes a small tree shakes its thin branches at the impulse of the gentle breeze from the Alps of the Veneto.

Portrait of Doge Leonardo Loredan, oil on poplar panel, by Giovanni Bellini, ca. 1501-502, 61.4 × 44.5 cm (National Gallery, London). Doge Leonardo Loredan knows that he is being looked at, but he does not return our gaze. To do so would be to treat the viewer as an equal – but Loredan is the doge, the ruler of the Venetian Republic. Loredan appears to be scrutinizing something. The intensity of his gaze, which suggests his intelligence, is reinforced by the pale blue of his small, deep-set eyes. His stern attitude is balanced by the enigmatic expression of his mouth: the slightly deeper crease in the wrinkle to the right of his lips suggests that he is about to break into a wry, one-sided smile. It seems that in this portrait Giovanni Bellini wanted to show us all of the doge’s potential moods and dispositions, his capacity for severity and judgement as well as a sharp wit and openness to the truth. Before Giovanni, official portraits of Venice’s doges traditionally followed the normal conventions for rulers, showing them in strict profile. In this portrait, Giovanni has used the more contemporary three-quarter view, popularized in the city by artists like Antonello da Messina, to explore the sitter’s character. The result is that Giovanni achieved with this portrait realism and the depiction of psychological expression, as well as an absolute mastery of the oil paint technique. As in portraits by van Eyck and Antonello da Messina (see pictures below), Giovanni created the illusion that the sitter is lit by a strong light source coming from the left. This allows to show the facial features of the sitter, and to create the impression of three-dimensionality. Loredan was portrayed wearing the white robes he, as a Doge, would have worn on the most splendid occasions, and the contrast of white and gold of his brocade against the blue background makes him appear even more striking and dazzling. The pomegranate design of his clothing came from eastern Mediterranean textiles and was popular in Renaissance fabrics. The gentle curve of the horned corno ducale (the dogal cap) sweeps upwards gracefully breaking the verticality of the portrait. Giovanni’s signature is, again, in a cartellino placed at the center of the marble parapet. The general composition of the portrait resembles a Roman sculpted portrait bust.
San Zaccaria Altarpiece, oil on canvas transferred from wood panel, by Giovanni Bellini, 1505, 402 x 273 cm (San Zaccaria, Venice). Here Giovanni presents us with the Madonna and Child enthroned accompanied by (from left to right) Saints Peter (holding keys and book), Catherine (with the palm of martyrdom and the broken wheel), Lucia (with the palm of her martyrdom and the small bowl with her eyes) and Jerome (reading a book). An angel at the foot of the altar softly plays the violin. The altarpiece was commissioned in memory of Pietro Cappello. Giovanni was about 75 years old when he painted this. The composition and architectural setting of the painting is not fundamentally very different from the San Giobbe Altarpiece (see picture before): we see a niche-like apse surrounding the group of the enthroned Madonna and the saints who stand at her sides. From a spatial point of view, the painting becomes a continuation of the altar on which it is placed. But at the same time the landscape peeking from the sides, pours a light that softens and brightens the forms, giving at the same time some mellowness and richness to the treatment of color.

It also seems that Venetian art was influenced by Flemish painting through the art of Giovanni. This was because of the influx of Flemish works to Venice and through a direct personal influence he had with the arrival of a great painter to the Serenissima.

Madonna and Child, oil on wood panel, by Giovanni Bellini, ca. 1510, 50 x 41 cm (Galleria Borghese, Rome). This intimate vision of the Virgin and Child shows Giovanni’s soft treatment of color, though with chromatic intensity, and gentleness in the representation of gestures. Giovanni shows us here a more relaxed connection between mother and child, where the Madonna does not hold the child closely to her in an attitude of yearning affection, but seems to offer him quietly to the adoration of the spectator.
The Feast of the Gods, oil on canvas, by Giovanni Bellini with later additions by Titian and Dosso Dossi, 1514, 170 x 188 cm (National Gallery of Art, Washington). The Feast of the Gods was Giovanni Bellini’s last great painting and one of only a few that he executed on canvas. It was the first in a series of mythologies or bacchanals commissioned by Duke Alfonso d’Este to decorate the camerino d’alabastro, or alabaster study, of his castle in Ferrara. Giovanni was trained to paint on wooden panels, which require a very meticulous application of pigment, when he worked on canvas late in his career, he retained his tight, precise brushwork. According to the current interpretations, the painting illustrates a passage from Ovid’s Fasti (“The Feasts”), a long classical poem that recounts the origins of many ancient Roman rites and festivals. Here, Giovanni describes to us the banquet given by the god of wine, where happened an incident that embarrassed Priapus, the god of virility. At the right we see the nymph Lotis reclining against a tree, after she had drank some wine. Priapus, overcome by lust, tries to lift her clothes. His attempt was foiled when, according to Ovid, an ass (left) awakened the nymph and pushed Priapus away, moment when all the gods laughed at the incident. Seeing his pride wounded, Priapus took revenge by demanding the annual sacrifice of a donkey. We see the ass standing next to Silenus, a woodland deity who used the animal to carry wood, and we can see he was a follower of Bacchus, god of wine, since he wears a keg on his belt. Bacchus himself is represented as an infant kneeling before a barrel of wine and decanting the drink into a crystal pitcher. From left to right, the principal figures are: Silenus, a woodland god attended by his donkey and wearing an orange mantle; Bacchus, the infant god of wine crowned with grape leaves, Faunus or Silvanus, an old forest god wearing a wreath of pine needles and a pink robe; Mercury, the messenger of the gods carrying his caduceus or herald’s staff, sitting at the front; Jupiter, the king of the gods accompanied by an eagle, wearing a red robe and drinking from a goblet; an unidentified goddess holding a quince, a fruit associated in the ancient world with marriage and recommended for brides to increase their sexual appetites; Pan, at the back in profile, a satyr with a grape wreath who blows on his shepherd’s pipes; Neptune, the god of the sea sitting beside his trident harpoon and dressed in green and white; Ceres, the goddess of cereal grains with a wreath of wheat, standing at the back; Apollo, god of the sun and the arts, sitting and crowned by laurel, holding a Renaissance stringed musical instrument, the lira da braccio, while drinking from a silver goblet; Priapus, the god of virility and of vineyards with a scythe, used to prune orchards, hanging from the tree above him and looking down at Lotis; Lotis, one of the naiads*, a nymph of fresh waters who represents chastity, asleep against a tree at the right. These deities are waited upon by three naiads, nymphs of streams and brooks, and two satyrs, goat-footed inhabitants of the wilderness. On the distant mountain, which Titian added to Bellini’s painting, there are two more drunk satyrs and a hunting hound chases a stag. A pheasant in a tree on the right, above Priapus, was probably painted by Alfonso himself, an amateur painter. The painting is signed on a cartellino painted in the wooden bucket at the lower right corner: joannes bellinus venetus / p MDXIIII (“Giovanni Bellini of Venice, painted 1514”).

At this time a mysterious artist resided in Venice, Antonello de Messina (ca. 1430 – February 1479), who brought with him something of the deep realistic style of Flemish painting and whom, according to Vasari, also introduced the new medium of oil painting in Venice about 1473. Giovanni Bellini’s works sometimes recall something of Van Eyck in the angular robes of his Madonnas. But Giovanni’s works resemble even more Antonello’s paintings of bust-length portraits, serious, expressive, and full of strong personality, bringing to Venice the individual embodiment in portraiture. This is the feature that Giovanni owed to Antonello, whom had strong influences from Early Netherlandish painting, and from Naples and Sicily, where he was able to see Flemish panels that belonged to his master’s patron, Alfonso V of Aragon.

St. Jerome in his Study, oil on wood panel, by Antonello da Messina, ca. 1460, 46 x 36 cm (National Gallery, London). In this painting, most probably executed to attract commissions, Antonello tackles the complicated problems of accurately representing perspective with great mastery. The painting depicts human, natural and divine knowledge. St. Jerome is shown working in his study, a raised room without walls, with three steps and ceiling viewed through a wide opening, which seems to be set in a large Gothic building with a arcade on the right. The saint is accompanied by several elements with a symbolic meaning in the best style of the contemporary Flemish school, books, animals, pottery, etc., all painted with precise detail and accuracy. Antonello set the lightning so that the light rays coincide with the perspective axis, focusing on the saint’s torso and hands. The Saint’s “cell” with the writing desk is perfectly organized, with its furniture, shelves and other minute objects, such as the majolica vases for herbs. The geometrically tiled floor is a wonder in the representation of perspective, perfect in its geometric definition and the play of light and shadow that varies according to the source of illumination. In the foreground, on the left, a partridge alludes to the Truth of Christ, while the peacock recalls the Church and divine omniscience. On the ledge on which the saint’s desk sits, on the left is a white cat and more towards the center two potted plants: a geranium, a reference to the Passion of Christ, and a boxwood, which alludes to faith in divine Salvation. On the coffer behind St. Jerome is a cardinal’s hat. The lion in the shade on the right, coming from the arcade, alludes to the legend of Saint Jerome in the Wilderness when a limping lion came to him: he examined the lion’s injured foot and extracted the thorn, this cured the foot and the lion stayed with St. Jerome until his death. A wide and green landscape is seen through the windows opened at both sides at the back wall of the study.

The story of Antonello de Messina (born Antonello di Giovanni di Antonio) is still an enigma as many details of his life are still unknown. He was born in the Sicilian town of Messina (hence his appellative). It is believed that he had apprenticed in Rome before going to Naples, where Netherlandish painting was in fashion. In Naples he was a pupil of the painter Niccolò Colantonio. Antonello’s first portraits come from the late 1460s; they also show strong influences of Netherlandish paintings, with the sitter portrayed in bust-length, against a dark background, showing a full face or a three-quarter view. This type of portraits were a novelty in a time where most Italian painters followed the medal-style profile pose for individual portraits. In Antonello’s Portrait of a Man (National Gallery, London), the sitter is young, with a frank gaze.

It seems probable Antonello went to Bruges, but the only certainty is that he lived in Milan and that it was in Venice where he developed the maturity of his art. In 1475, Antonello went to Venice and remained there until the fall of 1476. During his stay in the city, Antonello placed more attention to the portrayal of the human figure, both its anatomy and expressivity, probably influenced by the works of Piero della Francesca and Giovanni Bellini. For this reason Antonello is included here within the circle of Venetian painters. Antonello died at Messina in 1479.

Crucifixion, oil on wood panel, by Antonello da Messina, 1475, 52.5 x 42.5 cm (Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten “Royal Museum of Fine Arts”, Antwerp). The painting represents Christ crucified between two evildoers, with Mary and John the Evangelist at their feet. In the lower left foreground, a small piece of parchment on a piece of wood broken off from the crucifix, has written in tiny characters 1475 Antonellus Messaneus me pinxit (“1475 Antonello da Messina painted me”). In the foreground, this Crucifixion is set in the traditional landscape of mount Calvary typical of the Flemish school. The real innovation of Antonello was the way in which he placed the crosses in the upper half as well as in the gestures and contortions of the two evildoers. The painting is divided into two zones: one, the lower half of the painting, densely populated and occupied by numerous details (mount Calvary and the landscape behind), second, the upper half, airy and open, with the crucified against the white and blue open sky.
Portrait of a Man, oil on poplar panel, by Antonello da Messina, ca. 1475-1476, 36 x 25 cm (National Gallery, London).
The portrait represents an unknown man, whose garments belonged to the middle-upper class. He wears a leather blouse, under which a white shirt is visible, and a red cloth cap. As a master of oil painting, Antonello used layers of color with graduations of tones to build up a realistic three-dimensional appearance of the sitter. The composition, with a strong light coming from the let, the three-quarter view and the dark background, departs from the traditional Italian portraiture of the time, and it is derived from the Flemish school, showing particular influences by Petrus Christus, whom Antonello knew personally in Italy. Today we know 12 portraits painted by Antonello, all are bust-length head-and-shoulders views of men mostly set against dark backgrounds.
The Dead Christ Supported by an Angel, oil on wood panel, by Antonello da Messina, 1475-1478, 74 x 51 cm (Museo del Prado, Madrid). The angel supporting Christ is not a passive observer, he experiences grief, as his moving and weeping facial expression says it; even he doesn’t dare to directly touch the body of Christ, he does it so by covering His back with a blue cloth in sign of respect. Antonello painted this work after his return to his homeland, Messina, which is the city visible in the background, though this painting points to many references related to Giovanni Bellini. Bellini painted versions of the Pietà that inspired Antonello to follow similar compositional references (the placement of Christ in the foreground for example), as well as iconographical ones (like the the inclusion of the angel). Here we see a conjunction of both Flemish and Italian painting: the technical virtuosity of meticulously representing subjects seen in the landscape and in Christ´s hair (Flemish tradition), with a monumental treatment of the anatomy and a concern for volume and perspective (Italian tradition).
Christ at the Column, oil on wood panel, by Antonello da Messina, ca. 1476-1478, 30 x 21 cm (Musée du Louvre, Paris). This small painting was executed for private devotion and represents a scene of the Flagellation of Christ. One of his last works, here we see how Antonello’s painting had completely assimilated the Early Netherlandish and Venetian traditions. Antonello commonly depicted the face of Christ in his art, however, in portraying Christ in the middle of his pain, in the moment in which the tortures have just begun, made Antonello to obtain an emotive impact that is sometimes lacking in other similar works. As typical of his work, Antonello devoted high attention to the depiction of details: the sweaty hair, the individual hairs of Christ’s beard, the half open mouth, in which teeth and tongue can be seen, the first drops of blood falling through Christ’s face, the perfectly transparent drops of sweat.
The Virgin Annunciate, oil on wood panel, by Antonello da Messina, ca. 1476, 45 x 34.5 cm (Palazzo Abatellis, Palermo). This famous painting shows Mary interrupted at her reading by the Angel of the Annunciation. Antonello shows us Mary as he did in his portraits: in three-quarter-length. The Virgin appears looking out of the picture, not at the viewer but an unseen presence, the archangel Gabriel which would be out of frame to the left. This unusual simple depiction of the Annunciation, including only the figure of Mary, allowed Antonello to dispense of the representation of lush brocade robes and gold background, as well as of complicated architectures typical of the subject. He shows us her simply as a young Jewish woman surprised by the archangel’s words. Her simple blue woolen mantle, with its few heavy folds, gives us a glimpse of the style of the High Renaissance, while the diagonally-placed simple wooden lectern seems to break out of the picture plane while opens it up to the viewer inviting him/her to the scene.

St. Sebastian, oil on canvas transferred from wood panel, by Antonello da Messina, 1477-1479, 171 x 86 cm (Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Dresden, Germany). This work already shows some Venetian influences in the painting of Antonello, plus that of the works by Piero della Francesca. In the typical Venetian background we see buildings, also Venetian, depicted in perspective. Saint Sebastian is seen, as tradition mandated, tied to a tree, partially nude, pierced by arrows and in a discreet contrapposto. The vanishing point is low on the horizon, so that the recession into space is sudden, emphasized by the foreshortened column fragment at the right foreground. Famous details of the painting include the man reclining on the floor on the left, the typical Venetian-style chimneys, the arcade and the monumental appearance of the buildings, and the debating pairs of men on the right side, forming an interesting mixing of late Gothic elements with Venetian, Flemish and high Renaissance ones. This painting was originally part of a triptych commissioned by the Scuola di San Rocca in the church of San Giuliano, an included a wooden statue of St. Roche, flanked by painted panels of St. Christopher and St. Sebastian. The statue and the painting of St. Christopher are lost.

Also related to the Venetian school was the great artist Andrea Mantegna, brother-in-law of the Bellini brothers, whose work we have discussed in detail in a previous essay. Mantegna greatly influenced Giovanni Bellini. In a letter to Elisabetta Gonzaga, in which she asked him for a painting of an ancient story or fable in the manner of Mantegna’s allegories, Giovanni excused himself by saying that his work could in no way be compared to that of his brother-in-law.

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Naiad: In Greek mythology, a type of female spirit, or nymph, presiding over fountains, wells, springs, streams, brooks and other bodies of fresh water.

2 thoughts on “INTRODUCTION TO THE VENETIAN PAINTING SCHOOL. Giovanni and Gentile Bellini. Antonello da Messina

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