Venetian Painting – Jacopo Bellini

WHILE Venice was assimilating the spirit of the school of Squarcione, which in the next few years was to be rendered famous by Mantegna, another influence was asserting itself, which was sufficient to counteract the hard formalism of Paduan methods.

When Gentile da Fabriano left Venice, he carried with him, and presently established with him in Florence, a young man, Jacopo Bellini, who had already been working with him and Pisanello, and who was an ardent disciple of the new naturalistic and humanist movement. Both Gentile and his apprentice were subjected to annoyance from the time they arrived in Florence, where the strict regulations which governed the Guilds made it very difficult for any newcomer to practise his art. The records of a police case report that on the 11th of June 1423 some young men, among them, one, Bernabo di San Silvestri, the son of a notary, were observed throwing stones into the painter’s room. His assistant, Jacopo Bellini, came out and drove the assailants away with blows, but Bernabo, accusing Jacopo of assault, the latter was committed to prison in default of payment. After six months’ imprisonment, a compromise of the fine and a penitential declaration set him at liberty. The accounts declare that Gentile took no steps to be of service to his follower ; but Jacopo soon after married a girl from Pesaro, and his first son was christened after his old master, which does not look as though they were on unfriendly terms. Jacopo travelled in the Romagna, and was much esteemed by the Estes of Ferrara, but he was back in Venice in 1430. He has left us only three signed works, and one or two more have lately been attributed to him, but they give very little idea of what an important master he was.

His Madonna in the Academy has a round, simple type of face, and in the Louvre Madonna, which is attributed but not signed, it is easy to recognise the same arched eyebrows and half-shut, curved eyelids. In this picture, where the Madonna blesses the kneeling Leonello d’ Este, we see how Pisanello acted on Jacopo and, through him, on Venetian art. The connection between the two masters has been established in a very interesting way by Professor Antonio Venturi’s discovery of a sonnet, written in 1441, which recounts how they painted rival portraits of Leonello, and how Bellini made so lively a likeness that he was adjudged the first place. The landscape in the Louvre picture is advanced in treatment, and with its gilded mountain-tops, its stag and its town upon the hill-side, is full of reminiscences of Pisanello, especially of the ” St. George ” in S. Anastasia. We come upon such traces, too, in Jacopo’s drawings, and it is by his two sketch-books that we can best judge of his greatness. One of these is in the British Museum ; the other, in the Louvre, was dis-covered not many years ago in the granary of a castle in Guyenne. These drawings reveal Jacopo as one of the greatest masters of his day. He is larger, simpler, and more natural than Pisanello, and he apparently cares less for the human figure than for elaborate backgrounds and surroundings. Many of his designs we shall refer to again when we come to speak of his two sons. His ” Supper of Herod ” reminds us of Masolino’s fresco at Castiglione d’ Olona. He sketches designs for numbers of religious scenes, treated in an original and interesting manner. A Crucifixion ” has bands of soldiers ranged on either side, an ” Adoration of the Magi ” has a string of camels coming down the hill, the executioners in a ” Scourging ” wear Eastern head-dresses. In a sketch for a Baptism of Christ ” tall angels hold the garments in the early traditional way ; on one side two play the lute and the violin, while the two on the other side have a trumpet and an organ. He has sketches for the Ascension, Resurrection, Circumcision, and Entombment, repeated over and over again with variations, and one of S. Bernardino preaching in Venice (where he was in 1427). Jacopo delights even more in fanciful and mythological than in sacred subjects. A tournament with spectators, a Faun riding a lion, a ” Triumph of Bacchus” with panthers, are among such essays. The fauns pipe, the wine-god bears a vase of fruit. His love of animals is equal to that of Pisanello, and S. Hubert and the stag with the crucifix between its horns is directly reminiscent of the Veronese. His horses, of which there are immense numbers, sometimes look as if copied from ancient bas-reliefs. His treatment of single nude figures is often poor and weak enough, and his rocks have the flat-topped, geological formation of the Paduan School, but no one who so drank in every description of lively scene about him could have been in any danger of becoming a mere archeological type, and it was from this pitfall that he rescued Mantegna. To judge by his drawings, Jacopo did not overlook any source of ;art open to him ; he delights in the rich research of the Paduans as much as in the varieties of wild nature and all the incidents of contemporary life first annexed by Pisanello. He is often very like Gentile da Fabriano, he makes raids into lJccello’s domains of perspective, he is frankly mundane and draws a revel of satyrs and centaurs with a real interpretation of the lyrical and pagan spirit of the Greeks, and he has an idealism of the soul, which found its full expression in his son, Giovanni. We cannot call Jacopo Bellini the founder of the Venetian School, for its makings existed already, but it was his influence on his sons which, above all, was accountable for the development of early excellence. His long, flowing lines have a sweep and a fanciful grace which form an absolute antidote to the definite, geometrical Paduan convention. In Jacopo we see the thorough assimilation of those foreign elements which were in sympathy with the Venetian atmosphere, and while up to now Venice had only imbibed influences, she was soon to create for herself an artistic milieu and to become the leader of the movement of painting in the north of Italy.


Jacopo Bellini.

Brescia. Annunciation and Predelle.

Verona. Christ on Cross.

Venice. Academy : Madonna.

Museo Correr : Crucifixion.

London. British Museum : Sketch-book.

Paris. Madonna and Leonello d’ Este : Sketch-book.