Venice Academy – Room XV – Sala Di Gentile Bellini

GENTILE BELLINI, all of whose works owned by the Academy are in Room 15, was born about 1426, and, as has been said, was a pupil of his father Jacopo. His earliest training was in Padua, where he worked with his father, brother, and Mantegna, and in his portrait of Doge Lorenzo Giustiniani, in the Academy, can be seen the Paduan rather than the Venetian elements. It is a good deal ruined by time and the restorer, but is still full of dignity, of power, almost of severity. M. Alexandre says that one sees in it ” la superbe froideur” of the school of Padua.

Gentile’s was a different art from that of his brother; different, indeed, from any that Venice, or Italy herself, had till then known. It was an art that largely confined itself to the external aspect of things. It had a realism, and showed an observation of nature and surroundings far beyond that of any other of the school of Venice up to his day. He had not the sweetness, nor the power, nor, perhaps, the imagination of his brother Giovanni. He had, however, a very fine feeling for values, a sense of harmony in colour, and, for the day, an unusual and extensive knowledge of the principles of perspective. He combined groups and handled crowds upon his panels with both ease and distinction. He is especially known for his pictures of pageants, and if he does not achieve the glow and brilliance, the movement and colour, the grouping and composition, of that later, greater painter of Venetian feast and pageant, Veronese, it is rather because of the limitations necessitated by the time in which he lived than by his own inherent abilities. He was sober, self-contained, and dignified, and his pictures, so far as the ravages of time and the restorer can permit one to judge, show a delicate justness in tone combination and tone juxtaposition that speak as well for his sanity as for his colour sense.

From contemporary records it is evident that Gentile was highly esteemed in his own day. It was he who was sent as representative painter when the Sultan of Turkey begged for the loan of one of the best artists of Venice. His stay of a year or so under the orders of Mehemet gave him a chance to study the Oriental in his own surroundings, and, after his return home, he often introduced Oriental costumes into his pictures of contemporary life.

The three great scenes in this room, illustrating legends of the relic of the True Cross, were painted for the Scuola di S. Giovanni Evangelista. The two least injured by washing and repainting are the Procession in the Piazza of San Marco and the Miracle of the Holy Cross, in which the shrine of the relic is saved from the waves by a priest of the order.

The first gives an exact representation of the Piazza di S. Marco as it was in the fifteenth century. San Marco, the base of the Campanile, and the Doge’s Palace, the Colonnade, all the exquisite detail of sculptured marble and ornament, the beautiful mosaics over the portals of the church, just as they were before the alterations of the seventeenth and eighteenth century, are all portrayed with a scrupulous fidelity which makes the scene valuable as an historical document, if for nothing else. Not less carefully has Gentile depicted the crowds that number into the hundreds, and yet little more than make a border for the great square. The costumes, the head-dresses, the postures of these many individuals, are as exactly accurate as if each were a portrait, and the pose, gesture, and movement of all are almost as natural as if a kodak had snapped the scene. Almost, only, because some of the figures are too short and dumpy and show, in a certain crudeness of construction, the primitive school from which Gentile sprung.

Across the front of the picture is the long line of white-robed priests guarding the canopy under which is carried the sacred relic. The procession has started from the archway between S. Marco and the Ducal Palace, and the end of it is still seen emerging from there. It then winds up the piazza by the Campanile and the houses that were then next it, turns to the left, across the square, down into the other side. The thronging populace makes a solid bank, in front of which the procession marches, and in the many faces watching the train Gentile has shown that he was well worthy of the fame accorded him as portrait-painter. Farther back in the Piazza are many others, priests, beg-gars, gay gallants, prince and princess, and ladies in waiting, all in the rich Venetian robes of the period, all in positions as diverse as natural. Here and there are traces of archaism, but, although one may not fully agree, one can understand why Crowe and Cavalcaselle should have said of the picture, ” There is no doubt that this is the most important extant work of the Venetian school previous to the advent of Titian.”

Scarcely less remarkable, though in parts more primitive, is the other, the Miracle of the Holy Cross. Here again are the crowds of people, this time with more women among them. Here are the marble houses, with perspective and architecture both so true and realistic. Again it is a Pro-cession of the Holy Cross, now crossing the little three-arched bridge over one of the smaller canals. The bridge occupies the middle distance, and makes a curved horizontal line across the composition. The narrow street at the base of the houses on the left, next to the canal, as well as the bridge itself, is packed with men, women, and children. All are gazing at the water. The holy relic has dropped into the waves, and while gondolas have been put off to search for it, others among the faithful have cast themselves bodily into the water to capture it. According to the tradition, however, the Holy Cross would allow no one to touch it except Vendramin, the head of the Order. And in the middle of the picture, almost in the immediate foreground, is the priest, apparently walking through the water, holding the relic above his head. There is something of the grotesque in this floating figure, but nevertheless the really great attributes of Gentile’s art can be seen here also.

Another Miracle of the Cross, in the same room, has been so changed from its original condition, both by age and by the vandal called restorer, that there is practically nothing left to show what it once was.

There are other pictures here illustrating other legends of the relic of the True Cross, by Mansueti and Bastiano, but, though of later date than those by Gentile, they are more archaic in treatment and far less interesting in conception.

Giovanni Mansueti was born near 1450, and he, as well as Bastiano, was called by the Brotherhood of S. Giovanni Evangelista to decorate their Scuola. He was an imitator of Gentile Bellini, and he also recalls Carpaccio, though in neither case does he ever approach his example. He did not draw very well, his figures were short and awkward, and he never expressed the variety of action and movement so characteristic of Gentile. Partly from his great fondness for introducing Oriental costumes into his compositions, it is supposed that he may have gone with Gentile to Constantinople. In one of the .pictures in the Academy he signs himself a pupil of Giovanni Bellini. His colour was generally dry and hard, with little of the brilliance of Carpaccio.

According to Crowe and Cavalcaselle, his most masterly composition is one of the episodes in the Life of St. Mark, which is in that part of Room 15 once the apse of the old Gothic church. This was in the School of St. Mark, and shows the people of Alexandria listening to the Disciple preaching in a temple. The same critics quoted above say that ” there is no picture, not excepting the Baptism of Anianus in the Brera, in which Mansueti more nearly approaches Carpaccio.” It represents a square, or place in Alexandria, surrounded by houses with balconies. A crowd of Venetians and Orientals are about, some on foot, some on horse-back. At the left, in the middle distance, St. Mark is seen in prison, visited by Christ, accompanied by an angel. The other incident, which gives its name to the picture, is also in the middle distance, and shows a temple where St. Mark is preaching to the people crowding about. This is, perhaps, the best bit of the whole. At the right, upon a throne, is an Oriental magistrate.

These diverse incidents, disconnected as they are in time and place of happening, have a certain coherency in arrangement that makes them seem not entirely unrelated parts of a fairly well-balanced composition.

St. Mark Healing Anianus, also in the apse, has been greatly hurt by restoration. The scene is sup-posed to take place in Alexandria again. Anianus, a cobbler, who has wounded himself with an awl, is sitting in the centre of the marketplace, and by him, holding his wounded hand, stands St. Mark, dressed in a tunic and cloak of blue. On the knees of Anianus are the shoes he was working upon.

Around are a number of assistants and spectators in turbans and Oriental costumes ; at the left are two knights, and next to a reclining camel a mer-chant and two customers. In the background is a two-storied building, and on the stairways a number of people listening or looking on. On the first floor of this building, in a large hall with columns are an official and his court, and the second-story balconies are crowded with spectators. This, like the other, was painted for the Scuola of S. Marco.

Near this is the Healing of the Daughter of Benvenuto, which has been wrongly attributed to Lazzaro. It shows the entrance and approach to a beautiful Venetian palace, as well as the interior of one of its large rooms. This double view is obtained by omitting the front wall of the house. Below, at the foot of the stairs which lead to the second story, is a crowd of Venetians, and drawn up to the curbing a couple of gondolas. The stair-way, too, is lined with people, and in the room above are her mother and father holding candles and other watchers about the bed of the blind girl. The legend is that the daughter of Niccolô Benvenuto da San Paolo was blind, having no pupils to her eyes, and that she was healed by a blessed candle which had been burned before a relic of the True Cross.

His perspective here is remarkably good, and the architectural surroundings are executed with a correctness and nicety of finish hardly excelled by Gentile Bellini himself. The attitudes and movements of the figures, also, are simply and truthfully indicated.

The Burial of an Unbeliever illustrates the legend which relates that a member of the Brother-hood of S. Giovanni Evangelista expressed doubts during his life of the marvellous powers of the relic of the True Cross. When he himself was dead, and the funeral cortège with the cross started on its way, the whole procession was stopped at the church door by some invisible but unconquerable power, which prevented any further progress. Not till another cross was brought and the relic carried back to its own altar could the procession move forward.

The picture shows the funeral train crossing a wooden bridge over the little canal leading to the piazza in front of the church. At the open door of the sanctuary at the right, the procession, with its priests and mourners, was halted. In front, crowds of Venetians kneel or stand gazing. On the bridge, at the extreme left end, a young man stands bareheaded, with a scroll in his hand, on which is written, ” Opus Joannis D. Masuetis, Veneti, Rute Sententium, Bellini Discip.” The figure is supposed to represent Mansueti, and he thus avows himself both a pupil of Bellini and a firm believer in the truth of the story he is depicting.

Lazzaro di Sebastiano, a fellow worker with Mansueti in the Scuola di S. Giovanni Evangelista, was born near 1450, and died probably in the neighbourhood of 1508. Padua is generally regarded as his birthplace, and it has been supposed that he was a pupil of Carpaccio. It is more likely that he worked with Alvise Vivarini, and also with Giovanni Bellini. He never showed much originality or strength, but he was well known, and had an honourable position in Venice, where he was a member of the College of S. Girolamo. It has been said of him that he was always ” vulgar and realistic and of a melancholy dryness in colour,” but that he gave to his figures, ” after falling under the influence of Venice, something more nearly al-lied to delicacy and slenderness, and he entered into the spirit of the changes introduced by the application of oil mediums.”

One of his best works is the Gift of the True Cross, in Room 15, in which he is shown as an imitator of Gentile Bellini.

In the background is the porch of the church S. Giovanni Evangelista. In front of this, Philip of Massari kneels, presenting to priests of the Order the holy relic. Under the portico three monks are kneeling, back to, clad in richest ecclesiastical trappings. From right and left come the brothers, bearing lighted tapers. In the foreground in the square are a number of assistants, and right and left, again, upon the steps, Venetian patricians. The portico is surmounted by a terrace, on which are seen many assistants, and which leads, at the left toward a church, at the right toward a house, on the balcony of which a woman is standing. In this picture the influence, not alone of Gentile, but also of Carpaccio and even of Mansueti, is evident.