Venetian Painting – Gentile Bellini And Antonello Da Messina

WHAT, then, is the position which art has achieved in Venice a decade after the middle of the fourteenth century, and how does she compare with the Florentine School ? The Florentines, Fra Angelico, Andrea del Castagno, and Pesellino were lately dead. Antonio Pollaiuolo was in his prime, Fra Lippe, was fifty-four, Paolo Uccello was sixty-three. But though the progress in the north had been slower, art both in Padua and Venice was now in vigorous progress. Bartolommeo Vivarini was still painting and gathering round him a numerous band of followers ; Mantegna was thirty, had just completed the frescoes in the Eremitani Chapel and the famous altarpiece in S. Zeno ; and Gentile and Giovanni Bellini were two and four years his seniors.

Francesco Negro, writing in the early years of the sixteenth century, speaks of Gentile as the elder son of Jacopo Bellini. Giovanni is thought to have been an illegitimate son, as Jacopo’s idow only mentions Gentile and another son, Niccolo, in her will. There is every reason to believe that, as was natural, the two brothers were the pupils and assistants of their father. A Madonna ” in the Mond Collection, the earliest known of Gentile’s works, shows him imitating his father’s style ; but when his sister, Niccolosia, married Mantegna in 1453, it is not surprising to find him following Mantegna’s methods for a time, and a fresco of St. Mark in the Scuola di San Marco, an important commission which he received in 1466, is taken direct from Mantegna’s fresco at Padua.

As the Bellini matured, they abandoned the Squarcionesque tradition and evolved a style of their own ; Gentile as much as his even more famous brother. Gentile is the first chronicler of the men and manners of his time. In 1460 he settled in Venice, and was appointed to paint the organ doors in St. Mark’s. These large saints, especially the St. Mark, still recall the Paduan period. They have festoons of grapes and apples hung from the architectural ornaments, and the cast of drapery, showing the form beneath, reminds us of Mantegna’s figures. But Gentile soon becomes an illustrator and portrait painter. Much of his work was done in the Scuola of St. Mark, where his father had painted, and this was destroyed by fire in 1485. Early, too, is the fine austere portrait of Lorenzo Giustiniani, in the Academy. In 1479 an emissary from the Sultan Mehemet arrived in Venice and requested the Signoria to recommend a good painter and a man clever at portraits. Gentile was chosen, and departed in September for Constantinople. He painted many subjects for the private apartments of the Sultan, as well as the famous portrait now in the possession of Lady Layard. It would be difficult for a historic portrait to show more insight into character. The face is cold, weary, and sensual, with all the over-refined look of an old race and a long civilisation, and has a melancholy note in its distant and satiated gaze. The Sultan showed Gentile every mark of favour, loaded him with presents, and bestowed on him the title of Bey. He returned home in 1493, bringing with him many sketches of Eastern personages and the picture, now in the Louvre, representing the reception of a Venetian Embassy by the Grand Vizier. Some five years before Gentile’s commission to Constantinople Antonello da Messina had arrived in Venice, and the spread and popularisation of oil-painting had hastened the casting off of outworn ecclesiastical methods and brought the painters nearer to the truth of life. Antonello did not actually introduce oils to the notice of Venetian painters, for Bartolommeo Vivarini was already using them in 1473, but he was well known by reputation before he arrived, and having probably come into contact with Flemish painters in Naples, he had had better opportunities of seizing upon the new technique, and was able to establish it both in Milan and in Venice. A large number of Venetians were at this time resident in Messina: the families of Lombardo, Gradenigo, Contarini, Bembo, Morosini, and Foscarini were among those who had members settled there. Many of these were patrons of art, and probably paved the way to Antonello’s reception in Venice. At first all the traits of Antonello’s early work are Flemish : the full mantles, white linen caps and tuckers, the straight sharp folds and long wings of the angels have much of Van Eyck, but when he gets to Venice in 1475, its colour and life fascinate him, and a great change comes over his work. His portraits show that he grasped a new intensity of life, and let us into the character of the men he saw around him. His ” Condottiere,” in the Louvre, declares the artist’s recognition of that truculent and formidable being, full of aristocratic disdain, the product of a daring, unscrupulous life. The ” Portrait of a Humanist,” in the Castello in Milan, is classic in its deepest sense ; and in the Trivulzio College at Milan an older man looks at us out of sly, expressive eyes, with characteristic eyebrows and kindly, half-cynical mouth. It was not wonderful that these portraits, combined with the new medium, worked upon Gentile’s imagination and deter-mined his bent.

The first examples of great canvases, illustrating and celebrating their own pageants, must have mightily pleased the Venetians. Scenes in the style of the reception of the Venetian ambassadors were called for on all hands, and when the excellence of Gentile’s portraits was recognised, he became the model for all Venice. When his own and his father’s and brother’s paintings perished by fire in 1485, he offered to replace them ” quicker than was humanly possible” and at a very low price. Giovanni, who had been engaged on the external decorations, was ill at the time, but the Signoria was so pleased with the offer that it was decided to let no one touch the work till the two brothers were able to finish it. Gentile still painted religious altarpieces with the Virgin and Child enthroned with saints, but most of his time was devoted to the production of his great canvases. Some of these have disappeared, but the ” Pro-cession ” and ” Miracle of the Cross,” commissioned by the school of S. Giovanni Evangelista, are now in the Academy, and the third canvas, executed for the same school, ” St. Mark preaching at Alexandria,” which was unfinished at the time of his death, and was completed by his brother, is in the Brera.

These great compositions of crowds bring back for us the Venice of Gentile’s day as no verbal description can do. There is no especial richness of colour ; the light is that of broad day in the Piazza and among the luminous waterways of the city. We can see the scene any day now in the wide square, making allowance for the difference of costume. The groups are set about in the ample space, with the wonderful cathedral as a background. St. Mark’s has been painted hundreds of times, but no one has ever given such a good idea of it as Gentile—of its stateliness and beauty, of its wealth of detail ; and he does so without detracting from the general effect, for St. Mark’s, though the keynote of the whole composition, is kept subservient, and is part of the stage on which the scene is enacted. The procession passes along, carrying the relics, attended by the waxlights and the banners. Behind the reliquary kneels the merchant, Jacopo Salo, petitioning for the recovery of his wounded son. Then come the musicians ; the spectators crowd round, they strain forward to see the chief part of the cortège, as a crowd naturally does. Some watch with reverence, others smile or have a negligent air. The faces of the candle-bearers are very like those we may see to-day in a great Church procession : some absorbed in their task, or uplifted by inner thoughts ; others looking curiously and sceptically at the crowd. Gentile tries in his crowds to bring together all the types of life in Venice, all the officials and the ecclesiastical world, the young and old. With a few strokes he creates the individual and also the type ;—the careless rover ; the responsible magistrate ; the shrewd, practical man of business ; the young men, full of their own plans, but pausing to look on at one of the great religious sights of their city. In the ” Finding of the Cross” he produces the effect of the whole city en fête. It was a sight which often met his eyes. The Doge made no fewer than thirty-six processions annually to various churches of the city, and on fourteen of these occasions he was accompanied by the whole of the nobles dressed in their State robes. Every event of importance was seized on by the Venetian ladies as an opportunity for arraying themselves in the richest attire, cloth of gold and velvet, plumes and jewels. Gentile has massed the ladies of Queen Catherine Cornaro’s Court around their Queen upon the left side of the canal. The light from above streams upon the keeper of the School, who holds the sacred relic on high. All round are the old, irregular Venetian houses, and in the crowd he paints the variety of men he saw around him every day in Venice. Yet even in this animated scene he retains his old quattrocento calm. The groups are decorously assisting : only here and there he is drawn off to some small detail of reality, such as an oarsman dexterously turning his boat, or the maid letting the negro servant pass out to take a header into the canal. The spectators look on coolly at one more of the oft-seen, miraculous events. The committee, kneeling at the side, is a row of unforgettable portraits, grave, benign, sour, and austere, with bald head or flowing hair. In this composition he triumphs over all difficulties of perspective ; our eye follows the canals, and the boats pass away under the bridge in atmospheric light. All the joy of Venice is in that play of light on broad brick surfaces, light which is cast up from the water and dances and shimmers on the marble façades.

Gentile made his will in 1502, as well as others in 1 5o5 and i 506. He left word that he was to be buried in S. Giovanni e Paolo, and begged his brother Giovanni to finish the work in the Scuola, in return for which he is to receive their father’s sketch-book. The unfinished piece is the ” St. Mark preaching at Alexandria,” and it shows Gentile still developing his capacity as a painter. It is pale in colour but brilliant in sun-light. The mass of white given by the head-dresses of the Turkish women is cleverly subdued so as not to detract from the effect of the sunlight. The thronged effect of the great square is studied with more than his usual care, and the faces have all the old individuality. The foremost figures in the crowd have a colour and richness which we may attribute to Giovanni’s hand.

Gentile was always fully employed, and the detailed paintings of functions became very popular ; but he was a far less modern painter than his brother, and, in fact, they represent two distinct artistic generations, though Gentile’s work was so much the most elaborate and, as the quattrocento would have thought, the most ambitious.

Gentile is essentially the historic painter, yet his is a grave, sincere art, and he has an unerring instinct for the right incidents to include. He cuts out all unseemly trivialities, his actors are stern, powerful men, the treatment is historic and contemporary, but not gossipy. We realise the look of the Venice of his day, in all its tide of human nature, but we also feel that he never forgot that he was chronicling the doings of a city of strong men, and that he must paint them, even in their hours of relaxation and emotion, so as to convey the real dignity and power which underlay all the events of the Republic.

We gather from his will and that of his wife that they had no children, which perhaps makes the more natural the affectionate terms upon which he remained all through his life with his brother. Their artistic sympathies must have differed widely. Gentile’s love for historical research, for costume and for pageants, found no echo in the deeper idealism of Giovanni—indeed, his offer of the famous sketch-book, as an inducement to the latter to finish his last great work, seems to hint that it was an exercise out of his brother’s line ; but he knew that Giovanni was a great painter, and did not trust it, as we might have expected, to his assistants, Giovanni Mansueti and Girolamo da Santacroce.


London. S. Peter Martyr, Portrait. Milan. Brera : Preaching of St. Mark. Venice. Doge Lorenzo Giustiniani ; Miracle of True Cross ; Procession of True Cross ; Healing by True Cross. Lady Layard. . Portrait of Sultan.

Antonella da Messina.

Antwerp. Crucifixion, 1475. Berlin. Three Portraits. London. The Saviour, 1465 ; Portrait ; Crucifixion, 1477. Messina. Madonna and Saints, 1473. Paris. Condottiere. Milan. Portrait of a Humanist. Venice. Academy : Ecce Homo. Vicenza. Christ at the Column.