Venetian Painting – Giovanni Bellini

THE difference between Gian. Bellini and his accomplished brother, that which makes us so conscious that the first was the greater of the two and which sets him in a later artistic generation than Gentile, is a difference of mind. Such pageant-pictures as we hear that Giovanni was engaged upon have all been destroyed. We may suspect that their composition was not particularly congenial to him, and that the strictly religious pictures and the small allegorical studies, by which we must judge him, were more after his heart. It is his poetic and ideal feeling which adds so strongly to his claim to be a great artist ; it was this which drew all men to him and enabled him so powerfully to influence the art of his day in Venice.

Jacopo’s wife, Anna, in a will of 1429, leaves everything to her two sons, Gentile and Niccolo. Giovanni was evidently not her son, but Vasari speaks of him as the elder of the two, so that it is very possible that he was an illegitimate child, brought up, after the fashion that so often obtained, in the full privileges of his father’s house. Documents show that Jacopo Bellini was living in Venice in 1437, first near the Piazza, and afterwards in the parish of San Lio. He was a member of S. Giovanni Evangelista, and probably one of the leading artists of the city. His two sons helped him in his great decorative works, and also went with him to Padua, where he painted the Gattamalata Chapel. Their relative position is suggested by a document of 1457, which records that the father received twenty-one ducats for ” three figures, done on cloth, put in the Great Hall of the Patriarch,” only two of which were to go to the son. In 1459 Gian. Bellini’s signature first appears on a document, and at about this time we may suppose that he and his brother began to execute small commissions on their own account. On these visits to Padua the intimacy must have sprung up, which led to Mantegna’s marriage in 1453 with Jacopo’s daughter. At Padua, too, Bellini, in company with Mantegna, drank in the inspiration left there by Donatello, the greatest master that either of them encountered. It was the humanistic and naturalistic side of Donatello which touched Giovanni Bellini, more than all his classic lore. It chimed in, too, with his father’s graceful and fanciful quality, and there is no doubt that the Venetian painters soon exercised a marked influence on Mantegna. They “fought for him with Squarcione,” and even in the Eremitani frescoes he begins to lose his purely statuesque type and to become frankly Renaissance. In the later scenes of the series a pergola with grapes, a Venetian campanile and doorway replace his classic towers and arches of triumph. In the “Martyrdom of St. James” the couple walking by and paying no attention whatever to the tragic event, are very like the people whom Gentile introduces in his backgrounds.

There are few documents more interesting in the history of art than the two pictures of the “Agony in the Garden,” executed by the brothers-in-law, about 1455, from a design by Jacopo in the British Museum sketch-book. Jacopo draws the mound-like hill, Christ kneeling before the vision of the Chalice, the figures wrapt in slumber, and the distant town. In few pictures up to this time is the landscape conceived in such sympathy with the figures. As we look at this sketch and examine the two finished compositions, which it is so fortunate to find in juxtaposition in the National Gallery, we surmise that the two artists agreed to carry out the same idea and each to give his version of Jacopo’s suggestion, and very curious it is to see the rendering each has produced.

Mantegna has made use of the most formal and Squarcionesque contours in his surroundings. The rocks are of an unnatural, geological structure.

The towers of Jerusalem are defined in elaborate perspective, and a band of classic figures fills the middle distance. The sleeping forms of the disciples are laid about like so many draped statues taken from their pedestals. The choir of child angels is solid and leaves nothing to the imagination, and if it were not for the beautifully conceived Christ, the whole composition would leave us quite unmoved. On the other hand, we can never look at Bellini’s version without a fresh thrill. He, like Mantegna, has followed Jacopo’s scheme of winding roads and the city ” set on a hill,” and has drawn the advancing band of soldiers ; but, independent of all details, he gives us the vision of a poet. The still dawn is breaking over the broadly painted landscape, the rosy shafts of light are colouring the sky and casting their magic over every common object, and, lonely and absorbed, the Sacred Figure kneels, wrapt into the Heavenly Vision, which is hardly more definite than a stronger beam of light upon the radiance. One of the disciples, at least, is a successful and natural study of a tired-out man, whose head has fallen back and whose every limb has relaxed in sleep. Bellini is less assured, less accomplished than Mantegna, but he is able to touch us with the pathos of both natural and spiritual feeling.

Even earlier than this picture, critics place the ” Crucifixion ” and ” Transfiguration ” of the Museo Correr and our own Salvator Mundi.”

In 1443, when Giovanni was a young man of four or five and twenty, San Bernardino had held a great revival at Padua, and the whole of Venice had thronged to hear him. It is very possible, as Mr. Roger Fry suggests in his Life of Bellini, that Giovanni’s emotional temperament had been worked upon by the preacher’s eloquence, and the very poignant feelings of love and pity which his early art expresses were the deliberate consequence of his sympathy with the deep religious mysteries expounded.

In the two pictures in the Correr, Bellini is still going with the Paduan current. In both we have the winding roads so characteristic of his father, but the rocks in the Transfiguration ” have the jointed, arbitrary character of Mantegna’s and the draperies are plastered to the forms beneath ; yet the figures here have a beauty and a dignity which no reproduction seems able to convey. The feeling is already more imposing than the execution. Christ and the two prophets tower up against the belt of clouds, the central figure conveying a sense of pathetic isolation ; while below, St. John’s attitude betrays a state of tension, the feet being drawn up and contorted. This picture prepares us for the overwhelming emotion we find in the Redeemer ” and the group of Pietàs. The treatment of the Christ was a development of the early motif of angels flying forward on either side of the Cross, but here the sacred blood pouring into the chalice is also sacramental and connected with the Intensified religious fervour which had led to the foundation of the Franciscan and Dominican orders, illustrations of which are met with in the miniatures and wood-engravings of fifteenth-century books of devotion. The accessories, the antique reliefs, the low wall, the distant buildings, have an allegorical meaning underlying each one, and common to trecento and, in a less degree, to quattrocento art. Paradise regained is signified by the paved court with the open door, in contradistinction to the Hortus Clausus, or enclosed court ; the type of the old covenant. In one of the bas-reliefs Mucius Scaevola thrusts his hand into the fire, the ancient type of heroic readiness to suffer. The other represents a pagan sacrifice, foreshadowing the sacrifice upon the Cross. Figures in the background are leaving a ruined temple and making their way towards the new Christian city, fortified and crowned with a church tower, and in the midst of all this symbolism, Christ and the attendent angel are placed, vibrating with nervous feeling.

During the next few years, Bellini devotes himself to two subjects of the highest devotional order. These are the Madonna and Child, the great exercise in every age for painters, and the Pietà, which he has made peculiarly his own.

Close by, at Padua, Giotto had left a rendering of the last subject, so full of passionate sorrow that it is hardly possible that it should not, if only half consciously, have stimulated the artistic sensibilities of the most sensitive of painters ; but Bellini’s pathos shrinks from all exaggeration. He conceives grief with the tenderest insight. His interest in the subject was so intense that he never left the execution to others, and though not a single one bears his signature, yet each is entirely by his own hand. Besides the Pietà at Milan, which is perhaps the best known, there is one in the Correr Museum, another in the Doge’s Palace, and yet others at Rimini and at Berlin. The version he adopts, which places the Body of Christ within the sarcophagus, was a favourite in North Italy. Donatello uses it in a bas-relief (now in the Victoria and Albert Museum), but whether he brought or found the suggestion in Padua nothing exists to show. Jacopo has left sketches in which the whole group is within the tomb, and this rendering is followed by Carpaccio, Crivelli, Marco Zoppo, and others. It is never found in trecento art, and is probably traceable to the Paduan impulse to make use of classic remains.

Giovanni Bellini’s Pietàs fall into two groups. In one, the Christ is placed between the Virgin and St. John, who are embodiments of the agony of bereavement. In the other, the dead Redeemer is supported by angels, who express the amazement and grief of immortal beings who see their Lord suffering an indignity from which they are immune.

Mary and St. John inside the sarcophagus shows that they are conceived mystically ; Mary as the Church, and St. John as the personification of Christian Philosophy—a significance frequently attached to these figures. Such a picture was de-signed to hang over the altar, at which the mystical sacrifice of the Mass was perpetually offered.

In his treatment of the Brera example Bellini has shaken off the Paduan tradition, and is forming his own style and giving free play to his own feeling. The winding roads and evening sky, barred with clouds, are the accessories he used in the ” Agony in the Garden,” but the figures are treated much more boldly ; the drapery falls in broad masses, and scarcely a trace is left of sculpturesque treatment. Careful as is the study of the nude, everything is subordinated to the emotion expressed by the three figures : the helpless, indifferent calm of the dead, the tender solicitude of the Mother, the wandering, dazed look of the despairing friend. Here there is nothing of beautiful or pathetic symbol ; the group is intense with the common sorrow of all the world. Mary presses the corpse to her as if to impart her own life, and gazes with anguished yearning on the beloved face. Bellini seems to have passed to a more complex age in his analysis of suffering, yet here is none of the extravagance which the primitive masters share with the Caracci : his restraint is as admirable as his intensity.

In the Rimini version the tender concern and questioning surprise of the attendant angels contrast with the inert weight of the beautiful dead body they support. Their childish limbs and butterfly wings make a sinuous pattern against the lacquered black of the ground-work, and Mr. Roger Fry makes the interesting suggestion that the effect, reminiscent of Greek vase-painting, and the likeness of the Head of Christ to an old bronze, may, in a composition painted for Sigismondo Malatesta, be no mere accident, but a concession to the patron’s enthusiasm for classic art.

In 1470 Bellini received his first commission in the Scuola di San Marco. Gentile had been employed there since 1466 on the history of the Israelites in the desert. Bellini agreed to paint The Deluge and the Ark of Noah ” with all its attendant circumstances, but of these, except from Vasari’s descriptions, we can form no idea. These great pageant-pictures had become identified with the Bellini and their following, while the production of altarpieces was peculiarly the province of the Vivarini. Here Bellini effected a change, for sacred subjects best suited the re-strained and simple perfection of his style, and afforded the most sympathetic opening for his idealistic spirit. For the next twenty years or more, however, he was unavoidably absorbed in public work, for we hear of his being given the direction of that which Gentile left unfinished in the Ducal Palace when he went to the East in 1479. In 1492, Giovanni being ill, Gentile super-intended the work for him, and in that year he was appointed to paint in the Hall of the Grand Council, at an annual salary of sixty ducats. Other commissions were turned out of the bottega he had set up with his brother in 1471, and between that year and 1480 he went to Pesaro to paint the important altarpiece that still holds its place there. It is in some ways the greatest and most powerful thing that Bellini ever accomplished. The central figures and the attendant saints have a large gravity and carefully studied individuality. St. Jerome, absorbed in his theological books, an ascetic recluse, is admirably contrasted with the sympathetic, cultured St. Paul. The landscape, set in a marble frame, is a gem of beauty, and proves what an appeal nature was making to the painter. The predella, illustrating the principal scenes in the lives of the saints around the altar, is full of Oriental costumes. The horses are small Eastern horses, very unlike the ponderous Italian war- horse, and the whole is evidently inspired by the sketches which Gentile brought back on his return from Constantinople in 1481.

Looking from one to another of the cycle of Madonna pictures which Bellini produced, and of which so many hang side by side in the Academy, we are able to note how his conception varied. In one of the earliest the Child lies across its Mother’s knee, in the attitude borrowed. from his father and the Vivarini, from whom, too, he takes the uplifted hands, placed palm to palm. The earlier pictures are of the gentle and adoring type, but his later Madonnas are stately Venetian ladies. He gives us a queenly woman, with full throat and stately poise, in the Madonna degli Alberi, in which the two little trees are symbols of the Old and New Testament ; or, again, he paints a lovely intellectual face with chiselled and refined features, and sad dark eyes, and contrasts it dramatically with the bluff St. George in armour ; and there is another Madonna between St. Francis and St. Catherine, a picture which has a curious effect of artificial light.