Venetian Painting – Alvise Vivarini

CONTEMPORARY with Giovanni Bellini were artists still firmly attached to the past, who were far from suspecting that he was to outstrip them.

One of Antonio de Murano’s sons, Luigi or Alvise Vivarini, grew up to follow his father’s profession, and was enrolled in the school of his uncle, Bartolommeo. The latter being an enthusiastic follower of Squarcione, Alvise was at first trained in Paduan principles. Jacopo Beliini’s efforts had done something to counteract the hard, statuesque Paduan manner, and had rendered Mantegna’s art more human and less stony, but Jacopo could not prevent Squarcionesque painters from importing into Venice the style which he disliked so much. Bartolommeo threw in his lot with the Paduans, and his school, especially when reinforced by Alvise, maintained its reputation as long as it only had to compete with local talent. The Vivarinis had now been firmly established in Venice for two generations, and were the best-known and most popular of her painters. Albert Dürer, on his first visit, admired them more than the Bellini. When, however, Gentile and his brother set up in Venice, a hot rivalry arose between them and the old Muranese School. The Bellini had come with their father from Padua, with all its new and scientific fashions. They had all the prestige of relationship with Mantegna, and they shared the patronage of his powerful employers. The striking historical compositions of Gentile were at once in demand by the great confraternities. Bartolommeo had never been very successful in his dealing with oil-painting, though he had dabbled in it for some years before Antonello da Messina came his way, but the perception with which the Bellini at once grasped the new technique gave them the victory. We have only to compare the formless contours of much of Bartolommeo Vivarini’s work, the bladder-like flesh-painting of the Holy Child, with the clear luminous colour and firm delicate touch of Gentile, to see that the one man is leagues ahead of the other.

Alvise Vivarini had more natural affinity with his father than with his uncle. He never becomes so exaggerated in his forms as Bartolommeo. The expression of his faces is much deeper and more inward, and he has some-thing of the devotional sweetness of early art. His first known work is an ancona of 1475 at Montefiorentino, in a lonely Franciscan monastery on the spurs of the Apennines. In the centre of the five panels the Madonna sits with her hands pressed palm to palm, in adoration of the Child asleep across her knees. The painter here follows the tradition of his father and uncle, especially in the Bologna altarpiece, in which they collaborated in 145 o. Four saints stand on either side, framed in Gothic panels ; it is all in the old way, and it is only by degrees that we see there is more sweetness in the expression, better modelling in the figures, and a slenderer, more graceful outline than the earlier anconæ can show. Only five years after this ancona at Montefiorentino, with its stiff rows of isolated saints, we have the altarpiece in the Academy ” of 1480,” which was painted for a church in Treviso, and here a great change is immediately apparent. The antiquated division into panels has disappeared, nothing is left of the artificial, Squarcionesque decorations, the attitudes are simple, and the scene is a united one. The Madonna’s outstretched hand, the suggestion of ” Ecce Agnus Dei,” makes an appeal which draws the attention of all the saints to one point, and it is made plain that the one idea pervades the entire assembly. The curtain, which symbolises the sanctuary, still hangs behind the throne, but the gold background is abandoned. Alvise has not indeed, as yet, imagined any landscape or constructed an interior, but he lightens the effect by two arched windows which let in the sky. The forms are characteristic of his idea of drawing the human figure ; they have the long thighs with the knees low down, which we are accustomed to find, and he constructs a very fine and sharply contrasted scheme of light and shade. There is no trace of the statuesque Paduan draperies. The Virgin’s brocaded mantle is simply draped, and the robes of the saints hang in long straight folds. No doubt Alvise, though nominally the rival of the Bellini, has more affinity with them, particularly with Giovanni, than with the Paduan artists, and as time goes on it is evident that he paints with many glances at what they were doing. In the altarpiece in Berlin he constructs an elaborate cupola above the Virgin, such as Bellini was already using. His saints are full of movement. In the end he begins to attitudinise and to display those artificial graces which were presently accentuated by Lotto.

In 1488 the two Bellini had for some time been employed in the Sala del Gran Consiglio by the Council of Ten. Alvise, with his busy school, had hoped, but hitherto in vain, to be invited to enter into competition with them.

At length he wrote the following letter :—–

To THE MOST SERENE THE PRINCE AND THE MOST EXCELLENT SIGNORIA—I am Alvise of Murano, a faithful servant of your Serenity and of this most illustrious State. I have long been anxious to exercise my skill before your Sublimity and prove that continued study and labour on my part have not been useless. Therefore offer, as a humble subject, in honour and praise of that celebrated city, to devote myself, without return of payment or reward, to the duty of producing a canvas in the Sala del Gran Consiio, according to the method at present in use by the two brothers Bellinii, and I ask no more for the said canvas than that I should be allowed the expenses of the cloth and colours as well as the wages of the journeymen, in the manner that has been granted to the said Bellinii. When I have done I shall leave to your Serenity of his goodness to give me in his wisdom the price which shall be adjudged to be just, honest, and appropriate, in return for the labour, which I shall be enabled, I trust, to continue to the universal satisfaction of your Serenity and of all the excellent Government, to the grace of which I most heartily commend myself.

The method at present in use was presumably the oil-painting established by Antonello, which was now being made use of to replace the decorations in fresco and tempera which Guariento, Pisanello, and Gentile da Fabriano had executed, and which were constantly decaying and suffering from the sea air and the dampness of the climate. The Council accepted Alvise’s offer with little delay, and he was told to paint a picture for a space hitherto occupied by one of Pisanello’s, and was given a salary of sixty ducats a year, something less than that drawn by Giovanni Bellini. Unfortunately his work, scenes from the history of Barbarossa, perished in the great fire of 1577.

Venice is rich in works which show us what sort of painter was at the head of the Muranese School at the time when it rivalled that of the Bellini. Alvise has two reading saints on either side of the altarpiece of 1480, and of these the Baptist is one of his best figures, ” admirably expressive of tension and of brooding thought.” It is large and free in stroke, and particularly advanced in the treatment of the foliage. Close by hangs a character-study of St. Clare ; type of a strenuous, fanatical old woman, one which belongs not only to the period, but will be recognised by every student of human nature. Formidable and even cruel is her unflinching gaze ; she is such a figure as might have stood for Scott’s Prioress, and looks as little likely to show mercy to an erring member of her order. In contrast, there is the exquisite little Madonna and Child” with the two baby angels, still shown as a Bellini in the sacristy of the Church of the Redentore. It is the most absolutely simple and direct picture of the kind painted in Venice. The baby life is more perfect than anything that Gian. Bellini produced, and if much less intellectual than his Madonnas, there is all the tender charm of the primitives, combined with a freedom of drapery and a softness of form which could not be surpassed. The two little angels are more mundane in spirit than those of the school of Bellini ; they have nothing of the mystical quality, though we are reminded of Bellini, and the painting is an exercise in his manner. In the sacristy of San Giobbe is an early Annunciation, which is now definitely assigned to Aivise. It has the old tender sentiment, and the carnations of its draperies are of a lovely tint. The priests of S. Giovanni in Bragora were great patrons of the school of the Vivarini, for here, besides several works by Bartolommeo and his assistants, is a little Madonna in a side chapel, which may be compared with the Redentore picture. The Mother sits inside a room, with the Child lying across her knees in the same pose. The two arched openings in the background of the 148o altarpiece have become windows, through which we look out on a charming landscape of lake and mountain. In the same church a Resurrection ” is not to be overlooked. It was executed in 1498, and some of the grace and beauty of the sixteenth century has crept into it. Against the pink flush of dawn stands the swaying figure of the risen Christ, and below appear the heads of the two guards, looking up, surprised and joyful. It is perhaps the very earliest example of that soft and sensuous feeling, that rhapsody of sensation which was presently to sweep like a flood over the art of Venice. What a time must the dawn of the sixteenth century have been when a man of seventy, and not the most vigorous and advanced of his age, had the freshness and youthful courage to greet it ; nay, actually to depict its magic and glamour as Alvise does in the ` Resurrection ‘ ! Giorgione is here anticipated in the roundness and softness of the figures, and in the effect of light. Titian’s Assunta is foreshadowed in the fervour of the guards’ expressions.” Alvise, if he never thoroughly mastered the structure of the nude, and if his forms keep throughout some touch of the archaic, some awkwardness in the thickness of the figures, with their round heads, long thighs, and uncertain proportions, is yet extra-ordinarily refined and tender in sentiment, his line has a natural flow and beauty, and the heads of his Madonnas and saints cannot be surpassed in loveliness.

His death came when the noble altarpiece to St. Ambrogio in the Frari was still unfinished, and it was completed by his assistant, Marco Basaiti. The execution is heavy and probably of Basaiti, but the venerable doctor is a grand figure, and the two young soldier saints on his right and left hand are striking examples of the beauty we claim for him. The architectural plan is very elaborate, but altogether successful. The group is set beneath an arched vault supported by columns and cornices. Overhead, behind a balustrade, is placed a coronation of the Virgin. The many figures are grouped so as not to interfere with each other, and the sword of St. George, the crozier of St. Gregory, and the crook of St. Ambrose break up the composition and give length and line. The faces of the saints are extremely beautiful, and the two angels making music below compare well with those of the Bellinesque School.

The portraits Alvise has left add to his reputation, and remind us of those of Antonello da Messina, particularly in the vital expression of the eyes, though they are without Antonello’s intense force. The Bernardo di Salla ” and the ” Man feeding a Hawk,” though some critics still ascribe them to Savoldo, have features which make their attribution to Alvise almost certainly correct. Indeed, the resemblance of Bernardo to the Madonna in the 1480 altarpiece cannot escape the most unscientific observer. There is the same inflated nostril, the peculiarly curved mouth, and vivacious eyes.

Among the followers of Alvise, Marco Basaiti, Bartolommeo Montagna, and Lorenzo Lotto are the most distinguished. Others less direct are Giovanni Buonconsiglio and Francesco Bonsignori, while Cima da Conegliano was for a short time his greatest pupil. We shall return to these later.


Berlin. Madonna enthroned, with six Saints. London. Portrait of Youth. Milan. Bonomi-Cereda Collection ; Portrait of a Man. Naples. Madonna with SS. Francis and Bernardino. Paris. Portrait of Bernardo di Salla. Venice. Academy : Seven panels of single Saints ; Madonna and six Saints, 1480. Frari : S. Ambrose enthroned. S. Giovanni in Bragora : Madonna adoring Child ; Resurrection and Predelle. Redentore. Sacristy : Madonna and Child, with Angels. Vienna. Madonna. Windsor. Man feeding a Hawk.