THE rising tide of feeling, the growing sense of the joy of life and the apprehension of pure beauty, which was strengthening in the people and leading up to the great period of Venetian art, flooded round Bellini and recognised its expression in him. He was more popular and had a larger following among the artists of his day than either Gentile or Carpaccio with their frankly mundane talent. Whatever Giovanni’s State works may have been, his religious paintings are the ones which are copied and adapted and studied by the younger band of artists, and this because of their beauty and notwithstanding their conventional subjects. Gentile’s pageant-pictures have still something cold and colourless, with a touch of the archaic, while Giovanni’s religious altarpieces evince a new freedom of handling, a modern conception of beautiful women, a use of that colour which was soon to reign triumphant. As far as it went indeed, its triumph was already assured ; as Giovanni advanced towards old age, it was no longer of any use for the young masters of the day to paint in any way save the one he had made popular, and one artist after another who had begun in the school of Alvise Vivarini ended as the disciple of Giovanni Bellini.
It was the habit of Bellini to trust much to his assistants, and as everything that went out of his workshop was signed by his name, even if it only represented the use of one of his designs, or a few words of advice, and was ” passed” by the master, it is no wonder that European collections were flooded with works, among which only lately the names of Catena, Previtali, Pennacchi, Marco Belli, Bissolo, Basaiti, Rondinelli, and others begin to be disentangled.
Only one of his followers stands out as a strong and original master, not quite of the first class, but developing his own individuality while he draws in much of what both Alvise and Bellini had to give. Cima da Conegliano, whose real name was Giovanni Battista, always signs himself Coneglianensis : the title of Cima, ” the Rock,” by which he is now so widely known, having first been mentioned in the seventeenth century by Boschini, and perhaps given him by that writer himself. He was a son of the mountains, who, though he came early to Venice, and lived there most of his life, never loses something of their wild freshness, and to the end delights in bringing them into his backgrounds. He lived with his mother at Conegliano, the beautiful town of the Trevisan marches, until 1484, when he was twenty-five, and then came down to Vicenza, where he fell under the tuition of Bartolommeo Montagna, a Vicentine painter, who had been studying both with Alvise and Bellini. Cima’s ” Madonna with Saints,” painted for the Church of St. Bartolommeo, Vicenza, in 1489, shows him still using the old method of tempera, in a careful, cold, painstaking style, yet already showing his own taste. The composition has something of Alvise, yet that something has been learned through the agency of Montagna, for the figures have the latter’s severity and austere character and the colour is clearer and more crude than Alvise’s. It is no light resemblance, and he must have been long with Montagna. In the type of the Christ in Montagna’s Pietà at Monte Berico, in the fondness for airy porticoes, in the architecture and main features of his Madonna enthroned ” in the Museo Civico at Vicenza, we see characteristics which Cima followed, though he interpreted them in his own way. He turns the heavy arches and domes that Alvise loved, into airy pergolas, decked with vines. He gives increasing importance to high skies and to atmospheric distances. When he got to Venice in 1492, he began to paint in oils, and undertook the panel of S. John Baptist with attendant saints, still in the Church of S. Madonna dell’ Orto. The work of this is rather angular and tentative, but true and fresh, and he comes to his best soon after, in the ” Baptism ” in S. Giovanni in Bragora, which Bellini, sixteen years later, paid him the compliment of copying. It was quite unusual to choose such a subject for the High Altar, and could only be justified by devotion to the Baptist, who was Cima’s own name-saint as well as that of the Church. Cima is here at his very highest ; the composition is not derived from any one else, but is all the conception of an ingenuous soul, full of intuition and insight. The Christ is particularly fine and simple, unexaggerated in pose and type ; the arm of the Baptist is too long, but the very fault serves to give him a refined, tentative look, which makes a sympathetic appeal. The attendant angels look on with an air of sweet interest. The distant mountains, the undulating country, the little town of Conegliano, identified by the castle on its great rock, or Cima, are Arcadian in their sunny beauty. The clouds, as a critic has pointed out, are full of sun, not of rain., The landscape has not the sombre mystery of Titian’s, but is bright with the joyous delight of a lover of outdoor life. As Cima masters the new medium he becomes larger and simpler, and his forms lose much of their early angularity. A confraternity of his native town ordered the grand altarpiece which is still in the Cathedral there, and in this he shows his connection with Venice ; the architecture is partly taken from St. Mark’s, the lovely Madonna head recalls Bellini, and a group of Bellinesque angels play instruments at the foot of the throne. Cima is, however, never merged in Bellini. He keeps his own clearly defined, angular type ; his peculiar, twisted curls are not the curls of Bellini’s saints, his treatment of surface is refined, enamel – like, perfectly finished, but it has nothing of the rich, broken treatment which Bellini’s natural feeling for colour was beginning to dictate. Cima’s pale golden figures have an almost metallic sharpness and precision, and though they are full of charm and refinement, they may be thought lacking in spontaneity and passion. To 1501 belongs the ” Incredulity of St. Thomas,” now in the Academy, but painted for the Guild of Masons. It is a picture full of expression and dignity, broad in treatment if a little cold in its self-restraint. Cima seems to have not quite enough intellect, and not quite enough strong feeling. However, the little altarpiece of the Nativity, in the Church of the Carmine in Venice, has. a richer, fuller touch, and this fore-shadows the work he did when he went to Parma, where his transparent shadows grow broader and stronger, and his figures gain in ease and freedom. He never loses the delicate radiance of his lights, and his types and his architecture alike convey something of a peculiarly refined, brilliant elegance.
Like all these men of great energy and prolific genius, Cima produced an astonishing number of panels and altarpieces, and no doubt had pupils on his own account, For a goodly list could be made of pictures in his style, but not by his own hand, which have been carried by collectors into widely – scattered places. His exquisite surface and finish and his marked originality make him a difficult master to imitate with any success. His latest work is dated 1508, but Ridolfi says he lived till 1517, and it seems probable that he returned to his beloved Conegliano and there passed his last years.
If Cima possessed originality, Vincenzo of Treviso, called Catena, gained an immense reputation by his industry and his power of imitating and adopting the manner of Bellini’s School. In those days men did not trouble themselves much as to whether they were original or not. They worked away on traditional compositions, frankly introducing figures from their master’s cartoons, modifying a type here, making some little experiment or arrangement there, and, as a French critic puts it, leaving their own personality to ” hatch out ” in due time, if it existed, and when it was sufficiently ripened by real mastery of their art. It is here that Catena fails; beginning as a journeyman in the Sala del Gran Consiglio, at a salary of three ducats a month, he for long failed to acquire the absolute mastery of drawing which was possessed by the better disciples of the schools. But he is painstaking, determined to get on, and eager to satisfy the continually increasing demand for work. His draperies are confused and unmeaning, his faces round, with small features, inexpressive button mouths, and weak chins, and his flesh tints have little of the glow which is later the prerogative of every second-rate painter. Yet Catena succeeds, like many another careful mediocre man, in securing patronage, and as the sixteenth century opened he gained the distinction from Doge Loredano of a commission to paint the altarpiece for the Pregadi Chapel of the Sala di Tre, in the Ducal Palace. He adapts his group from that of Bellini in the Cathedral of Murano, bringing in a profile portrait of the kneeling Doge, of which he afterwards made numerous copies, one of which was for long assigned to Gentile and one to Giovanni Bellini.
That Catena is not without charm, we discern in such a composition as his ” Martyrdom of St. Cristina,” in S. Maria Mater Domini, in which the saint, a solid, Bellinesque figure, kneels upon the water, in which she met her death, and is surrounded by little angels, holding up the millstone tied round her neck, and laden with other instruments of her martyrdom. Catena borrows right and left, and tries to follow every new indication of contemporary taste. For instance, he remarks the growing admiration for colour, and hopes by painting gay, flat tints, in bright contrast, to produce the desired effect.
It is evident that he made many friends among the rich connoisseurs of the time, and that his importance was out of proportion to his real merit. Marcantonio Michele, writing an account of Raphael’s last days to a friend in Venice, and touching on Michelangelo’s illness, begs him to see that Catena takes care of himself, as the times are unfavourable to great painters.” Catena had acquired and inherited considerable wealth ; he came of a family of merchants, and resided in his own house in San Bartolommeo del Rialto. He lived in unmarried relations with Dona Maria Fustana, the daughter of a furrier, to whom he bequeaths in his will 300 ducats and all his personal effects. As a careful portrait-painter, with a talent for catching a likeness, he was in constant demand, and in some of his headsthat of a canon dressed in blue and red, at Vienna, and especially in one of a member of the Fugger family, now at Dresden he attains real distinction. And in his last phase he does at length prove the power that lies behind long industry and perseverance. Suddenly the Giorgionesque influence strikes him, and turning to imbibe this new element, he produces that masterpiece which throws a glamour over all his mediocre performances ; his ” Warrior adoring the Infant Christ,” in the National Gallery, is a picture full of charm, rich and romantic in tone and spirit. The Virgin and the Child upon her knee are of his dull round-eyed type, the form and colours of her draperies are still unsatisfactory, but the knight in armour with his Eastern turban, the romantic young page, holding his horse, are pure Giorgionesque figures. Beautiful in them-selves, set in a beautiful landscape glowing with light and air, the whole picture exemplifies what surprising excellence could be suddenly attained by even very inferior artists, who were constantly associating with greater men, at a moment when the whole air was, as it were, vibrating with genius.
Catena was very much addicted to making his will, and at least five testaments or codicils exist, one of them devising a sum of money for the benefit of the School of Painters in Venice, and another leaving to his executor, Prior Ignatius, the picture of a ” St. Jerome in his Cell,” which may be the one in our national collection, which remained in Venice till 1862. It is painted in his gay tones, imitating Basaiti and Lotto, and brings in the partridge of which he made a sort of sign manual.
Cardinal Bembo writes in 1525 to Pietro Lippomano, to announce that, at his request, he is continuing his patronage of Catena : Though I had done all that lay in my power for Vincenzo Catena before I received your Lordship’s warm recommendation in his favour, I did not hesitate, on receipt of your letter, to add something to the first piece I had from him, and I did so because of my love and reverence for you, and I trust that he will return appropriate thanks to you for having remembered that you could command me.
Marco Basaiti was alternately a journeyman in different workshops and a master on his own account. For long the assistant and follower of Alvise Vivarini, we may judge that he was also his most trusted confidant, for to him was left the task of completing the splendid altarpiece to S. Ambrogio, in the Frari. His heavy hand is apparent in the execution, and the two saints, Sebastian and Jerome, in the foreground, have probably been added by him, for they have the air of interlopers, and do not come up to the rest of the company in form and conception. The Sebastian, with his hands behind his back and his loin cloth smartly tied, is quite sufficiently reminiscent of Bellini’s figure of 1473 to make us believe that Basaiti was at once transferring his allegiance to that reigning master. In his earlier phase he has the round heads and the dry precise manner of the Muranese. In his large picture in the Academy, the ” Calling of the Sons of Zebedee,” he produces a large, important set piece, cold and lifeless, without one figure which arrests us, or lingers in the memory. ” The Christ on the Mount’ is more interesting as having been painted for San Giobbe, where Bellini’s great altarpiece was already hanging, and coming into competition with Bellini’s early rendering of the same scene. Painted some thirty years later, it is interesting to see what it has gained in “modernness.” The landscape and trees are well drawn and in good colour, and the saints, standing on either side of a high portico, have dignity. In the ” Dead Christ,” in the Academy, he is following Bellini very closely in the flesh-tints and the putti. The putti, looking thought-fully at the dead, is a motif beloved of Bellini, but Basaiti cannot give them Bellini’s pathos and significance ; they are merely childish and seem to be amused.
In 1515 Basaiti has entered upon a new phase. He has felt Giorgione’s influence, and is beginning to try what he can do, while still keeping close to Bellini, to develop a fuller touch, more animated figures, and a brilliant effect of landscape. He runs a film of vaporous colour over his hard outlines and makes his figures bright and misty, and though underneath they are still empty and monotonous, it is not surprising that many of his works for a time passed as those of Bellini. Though he is a clever imitator, ” his figures are designed with less mastery, his drawing is a little less correct, his drapery less adapted to the under form. Light and shade are not so cleverly balanced, colours have the brightness, but not the true contrast required. In landscape he proceeds from a bleak aridity to extreme gaiety ; he does not dwell on detail, but his masses have neither the sober tint nor the mysterious richness conspicuous in his teacher . ,. . he is a clever instrument.” Both Previtali and Rondinelli were workers with Basaiti in Bellini’s studio. Previtali occasionally signed himself Andrea Cordeliaghi or Cordella, and has left many unsigned pictures. He copies Catena and Lotto, Palma and Montagna ; but for a time his work went forth from Bellini’s workshop signed with Bellini’s name. In 1515, in a great altar-piece in San Spirito at Bergamo, he first takes the title of Previtali, compiling it in the cartello with the monogram already used as Cordeliaghi. There are traces of many other minor artists at this period, all essaying the same manner, copying one or other of the masters, taking hints from each other. The Venetian love of splendour was turning to the collection of works of art, and the work of second-class artists was evidently much in demand and obtained its ‘need of admiration. Bissolo was a fellow-labourer with Catena in the Hall of the Ducal Palace in 1 492 ; he is soft and nerveless, but he copies Bellini, and has imbibed something of his tenderness of spirit.
It will be seen frôm this list how difficult it is to unravel the tale of the false Bellinis. The aster’s own works speak for themselves with no uncertain voice, but away from these it is very difficult to pronounce as to whether he had given a design, or a few touches, or advice, and still more difficult to decide whether these were bestowed on Basaiti in his later manner, or on Previtali or Bissolo, or if the teaching was handed on by them in a still more diluted form to the lesser men who clustered round, much of whose work has survived and has been masquerading for centuries under more distinguished names. It is sometimes affirmed that the loss of originality in the endeavour to paint like greater men has been a symptom of decay in every school in the past. It is interesting to notice, therefore, that in every great age of painting there has always been an undercurrent of imitation, which has helped to form a stream of tradition, and which, as far as we can see, has done no harm to the stronger spirits of the time.