Venetian Painting – Giovanni Bellini (continued)

IN 1497 the Maggior Consiglio of the Venetian Republic appointed Bellini superintendent of the Great Hall, and conferred on him the honourable title of State Painter. In this capacity he was the overseer of all public works of painting, and was expected to devote a part of his time to the decoration of the Hall. Sansovino enumerates nine of his historical paintings, which had been painted before the State appointment, all having reference to the visit of Pope Alexander ; but though he must have been much engrossed, he seems to have suspended the work from time to time, for between I485 and 1488 he painted the large altarpiece in the Frari, that at San Pietro in Murano, and the one in the Academy, which was painted for San Giobbe. Of these three, the last shows the greatest advance and is fullest of experiment. The Madonna is a grand ecclesiastical figure. It has been said with truth that it is a picture which must have afforded great support and dignity to the Church. The Infant has an expression of omniscience, and the Mother gazes out of the picture, extending invitation and encouragement to the advancing worshippers. The religious feeling is less pro-found ; the artist has been more absorbed in the contrast between the beautiful, youthful body of St. Sebastian and that of St. Giobbe, older but not emaciated, and with the exquisite surface that his now complete mastery of oil-painting enabled him to produce. This tech-nique has evidently been a great delight, and is here carried to perfection ; the skin of St. Sebastian gleams with a gloss like the coat of a horse in high condition. Everything that architecture, sculpture, and rich material can supply is borrowed to enhance the grandeur of the group ; but the line of sight is still close to the bottom of the picture, and if it were not for the exquisite grace with which the angels are placed, the Madonna would have a broad, clumsy effect. The Madonna of the Frari is the most splendid in colour of all his works. As he paints the rich light of a golden interior and the fused and splendid colours, he seems to pass out of his own time and gives a foretaste of the glory that is to follow. The Murano altarpiece is quite a different conception ; instead of the seclusion of the sanctuary, it is a smiling, plein air scene : the Mother benign, the Child soft and playful, the old Doge Barbarigo and the patron saints kneeling among bright birds, and a garden and mediaeval townlet filling up the background, for which, by the way, he uses the same sketch as in the Pesaro picture. It says much for his versatility that he could within a short time produce three such different versions.

Among Bellini’s most fascinating achievements in the last years of the fifteenth century are his allegorical paintings, known to us by the Pélerinage de l’Âme ” in the Uffizi and the little series in the Academy. The meaning of the first has been unravelled by Dr. Ludwig from a mediæval poem by Guillaume de Guilleville, a Cistercian monk who wrote about 1335, and it is interesting to see the hold it has taken on Bellini’s mystic spirit. The paved space, set within the marble rail, signifies, as in the Salvator Mundi,” the Paradise where souls await the Resurrection. The new-born souls cluster round the Tree of Life and shake its boughs. The poem says :

There is no pilgrim who is not sometimes sad Who has not those who wound his heart, And to whom it is not often necessary To play and be solaced And be soothed like a child With something comforting. Know that those playing There in order to allay their sorrow Have found beneath that tree An apple that great comfort gives To those that play with it.

This translation is by Miss Cameron Taylor.

This may be an allusion to sacramental comfort. St. Peter and St. Paul guard the door, beside which the Madonna and a saint sit in holy conversation. A very beautiful figure on the left, wrapped in a black shawl, requires explanation, and it has been suggested that it is the donor, a woman who may have lost husband and children, and who, still in life, is introduced, watching the happiness of the souls in Paradise. SS. Giobbe and Sebastian, who might have stepped out of the San Giobbe altarpiece, are obviously the patron saints of the family, and St. Catherine, at the Virgin’s side, may be the donor’s own saint. This picture, with its delicious landscape bathed in atmospheric light, is a forerunner of those Giorgionesque compositions of ” pure and unquestioning delight in the sensuous charm of rare and beautiful things ” in which the artistic nature is even more en-grossed than with the intellectual conception, and within its small space Bellini seems to have enshrined all his artistic creed. The allegories in the Academy are also full of meaning. They are decorative works, and were probably painted for some small cabinet. They seem too small for a cassone. They are ruined by over-painting, but still full of grace and fancy. The figure in the classic chariot, bearing fruit, in the encounter between Luxury and Industry, is drawn from Jacopo’s triumphant Bacchus. Fortune floats in her barque, holding the globe, and the souls who gather round her are some full of triumphant success, others clinging to her for comfort, while several are sinking, overwhelmed in the dark waters. ” Prudence,” the only example of a female nude in Bellini’s works, holds a looking-glass. Hypocrisy or Calumny is torn writhing from his refuge. The Summa Virtus is an ugly representation of all the virtues ; a waddling deformity with eyes bound holds the scales of justice ; the pitcher in its hand means prudence, and the gold upon its feet symbolises charity. The landscape, both of this and of the ” Fortune,” resembles that which he was painting in his larger works at the end of the century. Soon after 1501 Bellini entered into relations with Isabela d’Este, Marchioness of Gonzaga. That distinguished collector and connoisseur writes through her agent to get the promise of a picture, ” a story or fable of antiquity,” to be placed in position with the allegories which Mantegna had contributed to her ” Paradiso.” Bellini agreed to supply this, and received twenty-five ducats on account. He seems, however, to have felt that he would be at a disadvantage in competing with Mantegna on his own ground, and asks to be allowed to choose his subject. Isabela was unwillingly obliged to content her-self with a sacred picture, and a ” Nativity ” was selected. She is at once full of suggestions, desiring to add a St. John Baptist, whom Bellini demurs at introducing except as a child, but in April 1504 the commission is still unaccom plished, and Isabela angrily demands the return of her money. This brings a letter of humble apology from Bellini, and presently the picture is forwarded. Lorenzo of Pavia writes that it is quite beautiful, and that though Giovanni has behaved as badly as possible, yet the bad must be taken with the good.” The joy of its acquisition appeased Isabela, who at once began to lay plans to get a further work out of Bellini, and in 1505 Bembo wrote to her that he would take a fresh commission always providing he might fix the subject. From the catalogue of her Mantovan pictures we gather that the picture ” sul asso ” (on panel) represented the B.V., il Putto, S. Giovanni Battista, S. Giovanni Evangelista, S. Girolamo, and Santa Caterina.”

The great altarpieces which remain strike us less by their research, their preoccupation with new problems of paint or grouping, than by their intense delight in beauty. Bellini was now nearly eighty years old, and in 1504 the young Giorgione had proclaimed a revolution in art with his Castelfranco Madonna. In composition and detail the Madonna of San Zaccaria is in some degree a protest against the Arcadian, innovating fashion of approaching a religious scene, of which the Church had long since decided on the treatment, yet Bellini cannot escape the indirect suggestion of the new manner. The same leaven was at work in him which was transforming the men of a younger generation. In this altarpiece, in the Baptism at Vicenza, in others, perhaps, which have perished, and above all in the hermit saint in S. Giovanni Crisostomo he is linked in feeling and in treatment with the later Venetian School.

The new device, which he adopts quite naturally, of raising the line of sight, sets the figures in increased depth. For the first time he gives height and majesty to the young Mother by carrying the draperies down over the steps. He realises to the full the contrast between the young, fragile heads of his girl-saints and the dark, venerable countenances of the old men. The head of S. Lucy, detaching itself like a flower upon its stem, reminds us of the type which we saw in his Watcher in the sacred allegory of the Uffizi. The arched, dome-like niche opens on a distance bathed in golden light. Bellini keeps the traditions of the old hieratic art, but he has grasped a new perfection of feeling and atmosphere. Who the saints are matters little ; it is the collective enjoyment of a company of congenial people that pleases us so much. The Baptism ” in S. Corona, at Vicenza, painted sixteen years later than Cima’s in S. Giovanni in Bragora, is in frank imitation of the younger man. Christ and the Baptist, traditional figures, are drawn without much zest, in a weak, conventional way, but the artist’s true interest comes out in the beauty of face and gesture of the group of women holding the garments, and above all in the sombre gloom of the distance, which replaces Cima’s charming landscape, and which keys the whole picture to the significance of a portent. In the enthronement of the old hermit, S. Chrysostom himself, painted in 1513, Bellini keeps his love for the golden dome, but he lets us look through its arch, at rolling mountain solitudes, with mists rising between their folds. The geranium robe of the saint, an exquisite, vivid bit of colouring, is caught by the golden sunset rays, the fine ascetic head stands out against the evening sky, and in the faces of the two saints who stand on either side of the aged visionary Bellini has gone back to all his old intensity of religious feeling, a feeling which he seemed for a time to have exchanged for a more pagan tone.

In 1507, at Gentile’s death, Giovanni undertook, at his brother’s dying request, to finish the ” Preaching of St. Mark,” receiving as a recompense that coveted sketch-book of his father’s, from which he had adopted so many suggestions, and which, though he was the eldest, had been inherited by the legitimate son.

In the preceding year Albert Dürer had visited Venice for the second time, and Bellini had received him with great cordiality. Dürer writes, ” Bellini is very old, but is still the best painter in Venice ” ; and adds, ” The things I admired on my last visit, I now do not value at all.” Implying that he was able now to see how superior Bellini was to the hitherto more highly esteemed Vivarini.

At the very end of Bellini’s life, in 1514, the Duke of Ferrara paid him eighty-five ducats for a painting of ” Bacchanals,” now at Alnwick Castle ; which may be looked upon as an open confession by one who had always considered himself as a painter of distinctively religious works, that such a gay scene of feasting afforded opportunities which he could not resist, for beauty of attitude and colour ; but the gods, sitting at their banquet in a sunny glade, are almost fully draped, and there is little of the abandon which was affected by later painters. The picture was left unfinished, and was later given to Titian to complete. In his capacity as State Painter to the Republic, it was Bellini’s duty to execute the official portraits of the Doges. During his long life he saw eleven reigns, and during four he held the State appointment. Besides the official, he painted private portraits of the Doges, and that of Doge Loredano, in the National Gallery, is one of the most perfect presentments of the quattrocento. This portrait, painted by one old man of another, shows no weakening in touch or characterisation. It is as brilliant and vigorous as it is direct and simple. The face is quiet and unexaggerated ; there is no unnatural fire and feeling, but an air of accustomed dignity and thought, while the technique has all the perfection of the painter’s prime.

In 1516 Giovanni was buried in the Church of SS. Giovanni and Paolo, by the side of his brother Gentile. To the last he was popular and famous, overwhelmed with attentions from the most distinguished personages of the city. Though he had begun life when art showed such a different aspect, he was by nature so imbued with that temperament, which at the time of his death was beginning to assert itself in the younger school, that he was able to assimilate a really astonishing share of the new manner. He is guided by feeling more than by intellect. All the time he is working out problems, he is dominated by the emotion of his subject, but his emotion, his pathos, are invariably tempered and restrained by the calm moderation of the quattrocento. The golden mean still has command of Bellini, and never allows his feelings, however poignant, to de-generate into sentimentality or violence.


Bergamo. Lochis : Madonna (E.).

Morelli : Two Madonnas.

Berlin. Pietà (L.) ; Dead Christ.

Florence. Uffizi : Allegory ; The Souls in Paradise (L.). London. Portrait of Doge (L.) ; Madonna (L.) ; Agony in Garden (E.) ; Salvator Mundi (E.).

Milan. Brera : Pietà (E.) ; Madonna ; Madonna, 1510.

Mond Collection. Dead Christ ; Madonna (E.).

Murano. S. Pietro : Madonna with Saints and Doge Barbarigo, 1488.

Naples. Sala Grande : Transfiguration.

Pesaro. S. Francesco : Altarpiece.

Rimini. Dead Christ (E.).

Venice. Academy : Three Madonnas ; Five small allegorical paintings (L.) ; Madonna with SS. Catherine and Magdalene ; Madonna with SS. Paul and George ; Madonna with five Saints.

MuseoCorrer: Crucifixion (E.); Transfiguration (E.); Dead Christ ; Dead Christ with Angels.

Palazzo Ducale, Sala di Tre : Pietà (E.).

Frari : Triptych ; Madonna and Saints, 1488.

S. Giovanni Crisostomo: S. Chrysostom with SS. Jerome and Augustine, 1513.

S. Maria dell’ Orto : Madonna (E.).

S. Zaccaria : Madonna and Saints, 1505.

Vicenza. S. Corona : Baptism, 1510.