Study Of Art – The Bellini

Jacopo Bellini. 1400?—1464?

Gentile Bellini. 1426?—1507.

Giovanni Bellini. 1428—1516.

The Vivarini were the conservative, the Bellini the progressive spirits in the art of Venice. Both Jacopo, the father, and Gentile, the older son, traveled widely. They were interested and active in all the new principles and methods of painting of their day, and added to technical skill the rare gift of genius.

Jacopo Bellini followed Gentile da Fabriano from his work in Venice to Florence, where he worked with him in 1423. He traveled through Italy, returning to Venice in 1430. For a number of years, about 1450, he was employed in Padua, where his daughter married Mantegna in 1453. Few of his paintings are left to us, a Madonna and Child in Venice and a beautiful one discovered in 1907, now in the Uffizi, Florence, being the best examples. He left, however, a sketch book, a precious possession mentioned in the wills of the family, which shows his universal interests and his great ability with his pencil. Two copies of this sketch book exist, one in the British Museum, and another, showing greater advancement, in the Louvre. In these sketches are seen compositions used later by Titian and Tintoretto, as well as by his sons.

Gentile Bellini studied under his father, but his work for some years shows the influence of Mantegna. In 1479 he was sent to Constantinople by the city of Venice in answer to the Sultan’s request for a good painter of portraits, remaining until 1490. His great processional scenes, painted after his return, contain many reminders of the Orient. His paintings and those of Giovanni in the Ducal Palace were destroyed by fire in 1577.

Giovanni Bellini, who owed his thorough training in his art to his father, was much influenced during his stay in Padua by Mantegna, on whom, in turn, he exercised a helpful influence. Each painted a picture of ” Christ in the Garden ” after a sketch in Jacopo’s book. A comparison of the three, all of them now in London, is of great interest. From Antonello he learned the use of oil as a medium, becoming a master of color.

He not only trained the youthful genius of Giorgione and Titian, but gained from them fresh inspiration in his old age. His work therefore never became hackneyed. His work for the republic included many portraits of Doges. His many religious pieces, especially his Madonna pictures, are characterized by deep sentiment and a high quality of reserve.

His kindly courtesy to Albrecht Dürer helped to make the German artist’s sojourn in Venice the happiest period of his life. His last works were the Glory of St. Jerome in S. Crisostomo, and the Feast of the Gods, for the Duke of Ferrara, completed by Titian, now in Alnwick Castle.


No. 323. Annunciation.

No. 324. Pegasus.

Louvre, Paris.

Drawings from Jacopo’s sketch book, showing in one his observation of the actual, in the other the play of his fancy, and in both the beauty and delicacy of his line.

323 is strongly reminiscent of Venice, though far from a direct copy. Note the colonnades and balconies, the well-head in the square and the woman carrying the jar of water on her head, the distant mountains of the mainland. The peacocks are among his frequent studies of animal life.

Of the decorative quality of 324 there is no need to speak; there is in it no touch of the grotesque so frequent in such flights of fancy. It is one of his contributions to the study of motion.

No. 332. Portrait of the Sultan Mohamet.

Layard Collection, Venice.

Canvas, somewhat under life size. Painted by Gentile in 1480 during his sojourn in Constantinople.

It was regarded in its day as ” a marvellous portrait.” The face is of enamel-like execution. There has been some repainting elsewhere.

This sympathetic portrait of the conqueror of Constantinople recalls, in the fine chiseling of the features, the Persian miniatures of other Mohammedan rulers, especially those of the succeeding century in India, Akbar and Shah Jehan. Note the placing of the head with its white turban within the ornamental framework.

No. 331. Portrait of Doge Loredano.

Lochis Collection, Carrara Gallery, Bergamo.

Oil on wood, nearly life size. Doubtfully ascribed to Gentile. Berenson catalogues it as an early work by Giovanni. C. and C. give it to Catena, who painted an altarpiece for Loredano in the Ducal Palace.

The figure is so placed that the profile is clear-cut against the dark background, while through the open window is a distant view of Venice. Compare 344.

No. 330. Procession on the Piazza San Marco.

Academy, Venice.

Canvas, 24 by 12 feet. Painted in 1496 for the Scuola di S. Giovanni Evangelista. This is an interesting representation of the Piazza in that day, and of the ceremonials which took place there. The ancient mosaics can be seen on the façade. Cf. 34 and Series G for earlier and present appearance. Gentile seems to have taken the liberty of pushing back the Campanile to the line of the building at the right, that the corner of the Ducal Palace may be seen.

The picture is remarkable, among work of that time in Venice, for its arrangement of masses of light and dark, and its distribution of figures in space so that the Piazza does not seem crowded, despite the suggested presence of hundreds of people. Note that the lines of the composition lead the eye to the doorway of St. Mark’s.

No. 333. Preaching of St. Mark in Alexandria.

Brera, Milan.

Canvas, figures about one-third life size. Commissioned in 1506 for the Scuola di San Marco; left unfinished at Gentile’s death, it was completed by Giovanni in 1507, in return for which Gentile willed him their father’s sketch book.

One of the first Italian pictures to attempt historic or local setting. Study the oriental details and the anachronisms. Note the massing of light and dark; the balance without complete symmetry. The costume of the women is like that of the women of Bethlehem today.

No. 334. The Dead Christ with Madonna and St. John.

Brera, Milan.

Tempera on wood, figures life size. Painted about 1460, showing still something of Mantegna’s influence. A comparison with Mantegna’s Dead Christ, 310, shows the different spirit of the two men. Perfect expression is far from secured, but there is great tenderness and pathos here. There are three other examples of this theme by Giovanni. Mr. Fry calls attention to the fact that up to 1460 his pictures dealt only with similar themes, from the Passion and the Transfiguration.

No. 337. Madonna of the Trees.

Academy, Venice.

Oil on wood, 1 foot 7 inches square, painted in 1487. This picture has been much injured by cleaning and repainting, especially noticeable in the hand (cf. 342) and the shoulder. It occupies the place of honor in the cabinet of the Academy devoted to Bellini and is in many ways his most beautiful and suggestive Madonna.

There is here a beauty quite removed from prettiness, great sensitiveness, and a queenly reserve, yet withal much sympathy. It is a picture with which one may live in daily association.

No. 335. Madonna, St. Paul, and St. George.

Academy, Venice.

Oil on wood, 2 feet 9 inches by 2 feet, painted in 1487.

No. 342. Mary Magdalen.

Academy, Venice.

The attendant saint in a panel similar in size and style to 335. St. Catherine stands at the left; both are faces of unusual beauty.

Compare the Madonna with 337 painted in the same year. Bellini’s Madonna is more youthful, less experienced, but of more intellectual and spiritual capacity than many types. Cf. Fra Lippo, Botticelli, Perugino, Raphael.

Note the lighting of the face of the Magdalen, the treatment of the hair, the study of reflected light on the armor of St. George.

Consider the relative advantage of these three arrangements, the Madonna unattended, the contrast he rugged male saints, the reinforcement of beauty by the attendant female saints.

No. 336. Madonna, Saints and Doge Barbarigo.

S. Pietro Martire, Murano.

Oil on wood, 10 feet 4 inches by 6 feet 6 inches. Painted in 1488. The doge is presented by St. Mark. St. Augustine stands on the other side. The picture remained in the Barbarigo palace until the death of the doge, when it was bequeathed to the Convent of S. Maria degli Angeli, Murano.

This is a stately ceremonial picture, more mundane than most of Bellini’s altarpieces. A delightful landscape from the hill country of Venezia is seen at the right.

No. 340. Madonna between Saints.

No. 341. Central panel.

Frari, Venice.

On wood, figures one-fourth life size, signed and dated 1488. SS. Nicholas and Benedict are on either side. This is the only example in which Giovanni Bellini has reverted to the medival form of altarpiece. It is still in its fine old frame, and the whole is perfectly preserved. The color is rich and harmonious, the figures full of dignity, the angel musicians most charming.

Compare the central panel with the entire altarpiece to see how much more stately and impressive is the effect of the triptych with its finely proportioned side panels. Notice the effect of the luminous semi-dome under which the Madonna sits. Consider the churchly quality of this monumental form.

No. 338. Madonna Enthroned with Saints.

No. 339. Madonna: detail.

S. Zaccaria, Venice.

Transferred to canvas, figures life size; painted in 1505 for the position which it now occupies, the architecture repeating that of the church, and giving a sense of spaciousness. The saints are Peter and Catherine, Jerome and Lucia, who stand with tranquil dignity on either side the marble throne, behind which a velvet curtain, hung across the iron girder so universal in Venetian churches, throws into relief the carved ornament of the top. The reflections on the mosaic apse, the hanging lamp, the glimpses on either side to the blue sky, are all calculated with the finest thought.

We have in this Madonna the same ideal as in the Madonna of the Trees, but she is here more tender, more sure of herself. The dignity of the triptych still remains, but the unity of the group has been secured. Notice especially the tranquil mood and the meditative detachment of the attendant saints.

Study these altarpieces together, noting the character of Bellini’s Madonna ideal, the development of his art, the vitality of his genius.

No. 343. Baptism of Christ.

S. Corona, Vicenza.

Oil on wood; figures life size. A late work. The atmosphere has been destroyed by cleaning. Early writers speak of its Giorgionesque quality. The figure of the Christ is done with much care, but lacks the usual vigor of Bellini’s work. If done in 1510, as is supposed,the painter’s age, 82, might well account for this. The angels are very charming.

Bellini seems here to have followed the design of a similar picture by Cima, the Baptism in S. Giovanni in Bragora, Venice, painted in 1494.

No. 346. Venus, Queen of the World.

Academy, Venice.

Wood, 8 by 10 inches. One of a series of five semi-classic scenes, probably painted for a cassone, of dainty technique and charming fancy.

No. 347. Religious Allegory.

Uffizi, Florence.

Usually placed late in Bellini’s work, but Mr. Fry inclines to date it before 1490. A learned investigator relates this picture to a poem written before Dante’s time. The court is the entrance to Paradise, the door guarded by Peter and Paul, where saints stand in contemplation, while souls in the form of children shake down the fruit of the Tree of Life. Some obscure allegory Bellini may have had in mind; his interest, however, was in color and light, in atmosphere and in wide spaces. This work foreshadows Giorgione in color, in the isolation of the figures, and in the sense of detachment and revery.

No. 344. Portrait of Doge Loredano.

National Gallery, London.

Loredano was in office from 1501 to 1521. Under his able rule Venice was one of the world powers.

Bellini’s portrait is a remarkable combination of the official and the personal. There is splendor of raiment, but harmoniously subdued, so that it does not distract attention from the face. While in 331 one notices chiefly the costume, here the impression is of the high minded ruler of the republic. It is one of the great portraits of the Renaissance.

No. 345. Two Portraits.

Louvre, Paris.

Traditionally the portraits of the Bellini brothers, but without foundation, more probably painted by Cariani. It is an interesting example of Venetian portraiture, quite in contrast in all its methods with that of Florence. Compare with Botticelli, 172, 174; with Ghirlandajo, 199, 206; with Filippino Lippi, 217; with Pollajuolo, 188, 190.