Venice Academy – Room XVIII – Sala Di Giovanni Bellini

If the Vivarini of Murano were the first of the Venetians to make any successful attempt to throw off the yoke of the Byzantine traditions, another school was to achieve a more complete and lasting freedom, a freedom which was to land it, almost with one bound, among the great schools of painting of all time. Jacoba or Jacopo Bellini, whose Mother and Child is in this room, was the father of the founder of this greater school, if, indeed, he may not be called the founder himself. Like Antonio Vivarini, Jocobo was a pupil of Gentile da Fabriano, following that master in his travels, and once, at least, getting into prison for belabouring some of Gentile’s enemies. Born somewhere near 1400, Jacobo was in Padua for a number of years, where, in his workshop, he had many assistants, among them being his two sons, Gentile and Giovanni, as well as Mantegna, who later married his daughter Niccolosia. What he really could accomplish, and how considerable an advance his art was over that of contemporary Venetian painters, is best indicated in his sketch-book now in the British Museum. In that, the studies for individual figures, the sketches for compositions, the drawings of statues, the bits of architecture, all show the artist’s attempt to go to nature for guidance, and show too that he not infrequently overcame the Greek tendencies and traditions to a considerable extent. The few ex-tant paintings that are unquestionably his are all too much restored to demonstrate his ability as a painter.

This is the case with the Madonna and Child here, which has been so thoroughly repainted that little of the original surface can be discerned. The Madonna, a half-length figure, her mantle sage green lined with dead leaf colour, holds her arms about the baby who is seated on a round cricket on a stone parapet before her. He is dressed in a crimson tunic, with a border made of Oriental characters in gold. In his left hand is an apple, and his right is raised in benediction. Making the border of the halos about their heads are also Oriental letters of gold. The Madonna’s face is a very long oval with half-closed, heavy-lidded eyes and eyebrows highly arched. Numberless cherubim painted on a black background are behind the two.

The inscription, ” Opus Jacobi Bellini, Veneti,” is on the frame, not on the work itself, but the frame is probably of the same date as the picture. Only in the general lines of this painting can Bellini’s hand be discerned.

According to Vasari, Giovanni Bellini was older than his brother Gentile. It is pretty definitely settled now that in reality he was a year or two younger, — the date of Gentile’s birth being usually placed at 1426, and Giovanni’s at 1427 Or 1428. Gianbellini, as he is called in contemporary records, was the greatest Venetian master of the fifteenth century. More than that, he was the teacher of Giorgione and Titian, and in his later works can be found the source of the heights reached by the Venetian school in the sixteenth century. Like Gentile, his first teacher was his father, and like Gentile also, his earliest work was strongly Paduan in character. More than any other one thing which helped to direct his efforts can be counted the influence of Mantegna. Each owes much to the other, but, at least for all the earlier part of his life, Giovanni is more indebted to Mantegna than to any one else, and more than the Paduan is to him. No painter, perhaps, shows a more continuous and unfailing progress, throughout, too, so long a life, as Gianbellini. That it was a very slow progress, that only bit by bit, sometimes almost imperceptibly, did he advance to the step beyond present achievement, is due possibly to a certain slowness of assimilation, not to any lack of inherent ability. For Bellini’s genius was not merely industry and per-severance. No labour, ever so hard or protracted, could alone produce the glorious masterpieces of Bellini’s middle and later life. His ripening was slow, but it was the ripening of perfect fruit, — and each stage of it had its own beauty, its own charm, and held within it the promise of the future perfection. The man never seemed to be at the limit of his powers. Perhaps the greatest fascination of his greatest pictures is the sense they convey that there is no ” last word ” of their creator. Wonder-fully beautiful as they are, there is none of that finality about them that leads one to say, with a hint of disappointed satiety at the completeness, ” Here is as far as he can go. Never again can he exceed that result.” Rather, each work seems to hint of greater and more perfect possibilities, with-out in the least diminishing its own glories. And surely nothing in art is more inspiring than to remember how, an old man of eighty, with laurels heaped upon his brow, at an age when even great genius can and does claim rest, — even then his unquenchable spirit could not let him pause. Giorgione, a mere boy, a pupil of his own, was beginning to show an art that, growth of his as it was, was giving promise of being able to achieve far more than the old Venetian had yet accomplished. That was enough for Bellini. Most would not even have seen a new ideal. Bellini at once perceived that here was something beyond him, and began to study the young Giorgione !

Bellini, of all the painters of Venice, has the truest, deepest, most touching piety. Without ex aggeration, with a calmness that is seldom moved to tragic flutters, he has a devoutness, a religious spirit, that no other Venetian ever approaches. If not one of the greatest of draughtsmen, his drawing was sufficiently solid and actual, and no other painter in Venice, as well as all the rest of Italy, ever equalled the golden tone of his palette. There is something about the flesh as Gianbellini painted it that no one else has expressed. It has a glow that seems to come from within and spread through the flesh. There is no analyzing it. It seems as if it was something that had been breathed into it. Even Titian in the height of his power, though perhaps as rich or even more powerfully pulsing in gorgeous tones, is never quite like Gianbellini.

Of Bellini’s ten pictures, all of the Madonna and Child, which are in the Academy, nine are in this room. Many of them are much repainted, two of the earliest being so thoroughly done over that there can be only guessing as to their first condition.

One of these, the Virgin on a Throne with the Sleeping Child on Her Knees, has some indication of the Paduan character it must have first shown, and the other, with the Madonna holding the Child upright on a parapet before her while he makes the sign of blessing, may not be by Bellini at all. If his work, it was of his earliest days, and in spite of the villainous repainting also shows the Paduan influences.

The Madonna and Child with the Glory of Cherubs was painted probably at the end of what is called his second period, when, as Mr. Fry observes, ” his aim was to obtain perfectly modulated transitions of tone within a precise contour.” It, too, has been much repainted. The Madonna is a half-length figure, standing behind a rampart or wall. She holds the Child on her left knee, gazing at him with tenderness, one hand coming up on to his back, the long fingers of the other delicately pressing against his chest. He has on a one-piece garment, with low sleeves and tiny trousers, both pulled far up, showing arms and legs nearly bare. His whole regard is given to the six fat little cherubs up in the sky, who seem to be singing for his special enjoyment. Behind is a landscape with low-lying hills and a curving, twisting, tree-bordered river.

The realism of the chubby babe, with his mouth open in true baby style while he intently watches the angelic chorus, and the depth of tenderness in the Mother’s face, make this a very lovely picture. It is painted in tempera, and Mr. Fry says of it that there is in it a ” conscious attempt at a strange effect of light, this time of early dawn, the pale apricot glow in the sky indicating the exact moment when the white of the Virgin’s head-dress becomes luminous, though the flesh is still in tone.”

A similar type of face has the Madonna with St. George and St. Paul. There is the same slightly irregular nose, tip-tilted a bit, the usual finely drawn, but not thin eyebrow, the dimpled chin, and the mouth which is perhaps a trifle wide. Here the shadows about the eyes and the corners of the mouth show the sadness creeping more strongly upon her. Still more marked is her resemblance to the Madonna with the Two Trees, nearby. Her position, the way she hold’s the baby, and her general appearance are almost identical in the two pictures.

She is a half-length figure, standing behind a red marble rampart, upon which she holds upright the Child. Back of her is a red drapery, the sky showing beyond. At the right is St. George, at the left, St. Paul. Both are slightly behind her, her own ample robes covering more than half of their figures. St. Paul is bearded and bald, his fine lips close set, his eyes quiet, turned a little to his left, his right hand grasping his sword, an intentness that is wholly without nervousness manifest in his whole body. St. George, turned three-quarters to the left, is a tremendous figure, his short neck, clean-shaven face, and mighty chest suggesting the Arena or Wall Street rather than saintly vocation. A critic has remarked of his suit of armour that it has a ” mysterious quality . . . which is very different from Alvise’s straightforward and merely workmanlike painting of a similar motive in his Berlin altar-piece.”

There is a sense of pause, of waiting, in the whole picture that is hard to define, but can be clearly felt. The watchful guard of the two saints, the lifted countenance of the Madonna, her deep, questioning, mournful eyes, all suggest a moment of tension, as real as it is unobtrusive.

The Madonna with the Two Trees, which Crowe and Cavalcaselle assign to about the year 1487, according to Morelli could not have been painted before 1504. The exquisite atmospheric feeling in the tonal relations, the freedom in the modelling, especially, perhaps, in the beautiful little body of the babe, would seem to be evidence supporting Morelli’s contention.

Before a flat drapery of light green, with a narrow red border, is the half-length figure of Mary, standing behind a wall, of which only the very top shows. As has been said, her position, face, figure, and the way she holds the Child are practically the same as in the Madonna with St. George and St. Paul. The pose of the baby is also almost identical, except that here his head is turned a little more toward his left shoulder and is by this very placing much more natural. Except for pose, however, there is little similarity between the two babies. With this one, Bellini shows far greater softness of texture, freedom of modelling, and looseness of handling, besides vastly more life and vitality. As Crowe and Cavalcaselle say, ” Bellini certainly never so completely combined relief with transparence, or golden tinge of flesh with a rich harmony of tints.”

Not less notable is the Mother, whose noble dignity and gracious benignity are no more marked than her patient resignation, her self-surrender. The soft crimson-toned mantle, with its edge of golden embroidery, falls over her head and arms and shoulders, exposing a bit of the white veil across the forehead and at the neck. Behind the two, on each side of the green curtain, a landscape is visible, with the two tall, slender trees, that, rising to the height of the Child, give their name to the panel. The lighting here is simple, unforced, answering perfectly the needs of the composition. The draperies are equally effective, and the quiet repose of the whole picture is only slightly broken by the eager, wide-eyed gaze of the little Christ. Mary’s eyes are lowered, the pupils hardly showing, and, though they are turned downward to the baby, she seems rather to be looking beyond than at him.

The Madonna with St. Catherine and Mary Magdalen, like so many of the other Bellini Ma-donnas, is depicted standing behind a wall or coping, and both she and her two attendants are half-length figures. Her right arm is about the baby, who is seated on a white cushion on the wall, his head thrown back against his mother’s shoulder, his eyes lifted heavenward, his left hand out-stretched resting on her left. Mary is in a violet-toned robe, a blue mantle coming over her head, and showing her white veil falling on to her fore-head. She is in nearly full-face, her eyes turned to the left. At the right is Mary Magdalen, in a green dress and red mantle, the low corsage bordered with rows of pearls. Her hands are crossed on her bosom, her golden curls covering her ears and coming over her shoulders. At the left is Catherine, in a yellow robe with black figures and a brown mantle, strings of pearls ornamenting her dark hair. Her hands are folded before her, and she is gazing with adoration at the baby Jesus.

The lighting in this picture is as if Bellini got his effects by some artificial means. The brilliance of the colours, the warmth of the flesh-tones, the rather strange chiaroscuro, are all admirably ex-pressed, with a surety and ease of handling that, if not quite so free as in the Madonna with the Two Trees, indicates at least that the picture was certainly no earlier in date than 1448. The whole panel glows with a warmth and richness of colour and light unequalled before Bellini’s day and perhaps never surpassed even by his own greatest pupils.

In discussing this work, Mr. Fry says that the model of the Madonna was evidently the same as for the Frari Bellini, and goes on to add that ” the way in which the local colours are all modulated to a single key of rich golden brown is an anticipation of Titian’s art of arousing the sensations of colour by a varied monochrome. Here, for in-stance, so perfectly is the key kept throughout, that the periwinkles in St. Catherine’s hair appear blue, though the actual pigment is almost brown gray.”

There are in this room five little paintings by Bellini that are supposed to have been executed for the adornment of some marriage chest or other ornamental coffer. They are allegories, the subjects of which are disputed points. Until lately they have been supposed to represent Bacchus and Mars, Venus, Fortune, Truth, and Calumny. The figures are about eight inches high, painted apparently in tempera on wood. ” In them,” as one critic says, ” can be seen the study of the antiques treasured in the museums of Venetian palaces,” and they are full of the spirit of Titian’s later bacchanals.” It is now thought that perhaps they are allegories of mediæval subjects. Truth has been called Prudence, and Venus again, Fortune.

The first shows Bacchus, if it be he, in a chariot drawn by three nude baby sprites, offering a basket of fruits to Mars, if it be he, again, who is walking beside him, his yellow mantle flying in the wind. The background is a landscape.

Venus, now sometimes called Fortune, is shown in profile, sitting in a slender boat which is being forced through the waves by some unseen power. She is dressed in a loose, sleeveless robe of white, and she helps support on her left knee a huge globe, which rests also on the shoulders of a little Love standing before her. Two other little Cupids are climbing into her lap, another is standing blowing on some pipes near the bow, and two more are frolicking in the waves beside the boat.

Truth, or Prudence, stands in an arched recess by an open window. She is entirely nude, and is said to be Bellini’s only nude female figure. Turned three-quarters to the left, with head in nearly full face, she is standing on a round, drumlike base, resting on a stone foundation. In her right hand she holds a round mirror, to which she is pointing with her left. At her feet two little Loves are leaning against the round base, one playing on a horn, and below them, at the right, is another, with a wreath on his head and a little mantle over his shoulders, playing on a drum.

Fortune is a winged figure, the upper part of the body a woman, the lower a huge bird whose feet rest on two golden balls. In each hand she carries a slender pitcher, and over her eyes is a yellow bandage. Behind her is a broad reach of landscape with winding stream, houses, and hills.

In Calumny, in the foreground, are two men, one standing at the left, mounted on a step, and leaning on a staff, the other, at the right, holding up an enormous shell. From the end of this a nude man is sprawling, while a serpent twists about his arms. The landscape background has a château in the distance. ‘

These little panels are painted with the gaiety, the lightness, the esprit of a great man at play. Their colour is charming beyond words, with a freshness and delicacy that add to their fairylike quality. The handling, of miniature fineness, is not at all tight or hard.