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).
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
St. Sebastian, oil on canvas transferred from wood panel, by Antonello da Messina, 1477-1479, 171 x 86 cm (GemäldegalerieAlte 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.
Naiad: In Greek mythology, a type of female spirit, or nymph, presiding over fountains, wells, springs, streams, brooks and other bodies of fresh water.