by Roderick Conway Morris

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Uffizi, Florence
Giovanni Bellini's 'Sacred Allegory' is included in the exhibition, 'Giovanni Bellini,'
at the Scuderie del Quirinale in Rome.

Bellini, the Venetian Master and a Father of the Renaissance

By Roderick Conway Morris
ROME 11 December 2008


Even during his lifetime Giovanni Bellini's work was the subject of superlatives. In 1506, Dürer wrote that Bellini 'is very old, but still the best in painting.' By then the Venetian artist was probably in his mid-to-late sixties (his exact date of birth is not known). And, fully aware of his own genius, Dürer was not in the habit of making flattering remarks about other painters.

Bellini seldom set foot outside Venice. His only likely trip outside the Veneto was to install an altarpiece in Pesaro, further south on the Adriatic coast.

A high proportion of his major works remain in Venice, including the Frari tryptych and his San Zaccaria altar painting, which Ruskin went so far as to call the two best pictures in the world.

The Pesaro altarpiece, temporarily reunited with its crowning finial of the 'Lamentation of Christ' (now belonging to the Vatican Museums) provides a suitably impressive opening to 'Giovanni Bellini' at the Scuderie del Quirinale.

The last gathering of the master's work on this scale was in 1949, in Venice. The curators of the current Rome exhibition, Mauro Lucco and Giovanni Carlo Federico Villa, have managed to borrow more than 60 pictures from nearly 50 collections on both sides of the Atlantic, about half the known works generally agreed to be by Bellini. (The show at the Scuderie del Quirinale continues until Jan. 11.)

Important absentees are inevitable, such as the great Venetian altarpieces. But there is here, along with the altarpiece from Pesaro (painted in the 1470s), the monumental and stylistically very different 'Baptism of Christ' altar painting from Vicenza, executed more than 30 years later. Slightly surprisingly, there are no examples of his classic 'Pietas.'

Bellini's intriguing early portrait of Georg Fugger (now in Pasadena) and his exceptionally fine one of Doge Leonardo Loredan (at the National Gallery in London) are also not included in the show, nor is his fascinating late nude 'Young Woman at her Toilette,' unique in his œuvre (now at the Belvedere in Vienna).

'The Feast of the Gods' from the National Gallery in Washington is absent, but the unusual Mantegnesque grisaille 'The Continence of Scipio' from the same collection is here, as is the extraordinary 'Drunkenness of Noah' (from Besançon in France), produced not long before Bellini's death in 1516, and once described by the Italian art historian Roberto Longhi as 'the first work of modern painting.'

When Dürer acknowledged the supremacy of Bellini, he had had the opportunity to encounter the Venetian's works spanning half a century, during two extended visits to the lagoon. What must have struck the German artist and still strikes us today is Bellini's phenomenal ability to renew his art at every stage of his career.

At various points he was influenced by Byzantine and Gothic art, painting from the Low Countries, the sculpture of Donatello and Tullio Lombardo, the works of Mantegna, Antonello da Messina and Dürer himself. Yet while absorbing these influences, Bellini remained supremely and unmistakably himself.

He was a brilliant teacher - famous for his kindness to his students - and was the artistic father of all the great 16th-century Venetian painters, from Giorgione, Titian and Tintoretto to Cima da Conegliano, Sebastiano del Piombo and Lorenzo Lotto, and countless artists beyond Venice's shores. His openness to ideas and to fellow artists, even those much younger than himself, enabled him to be the most constantly innovative of the age.

He never ceased to experiment with materials and techniques, as recent, increasingly sophisticated scientific analysis has confirmed. The Pesaro altarpiece is an early example of his employment of oils, which he came to use extensively. However, he never abandoned tempera, typically building his images with many layers of color, using a range of binding agents in the same picture.

Bellini's fluid, experimental approach made it possible for him to achieve astonishing verisimilitude in depicting not just his human subjects and their attire, but light, landscape, plants, meadows, trees, animals, clouds - the natural world in its exhilarating richness and variety. It was above all Bellini who was responsible for raising the status of landscape in Italian art and revealing its symbolic potency.

It was he who first realistically represented the light effects of dawn breaking in his 'Agony in the Garden' (in London), which was both an immediate and wonderfully observed response to nature and a mystical celebration of the new dawn of the Resurrection.

The artist revolutionized western art by replacing the traditional polyptychal altarpiece, in which the figures were divided into separate compartments, with a single unified space. This arrangement was immediately embraced by Antonello da Messina for an altarpiece on his arrival in Venice from Sicily in 1475, and was subsequently universally adopted.

The Venetian Republic was aware that it had in Bellini an outstanding national treasure. He was appointed head of the team charged with executing a vast new cycle of paintings for the Doge's Palace, the seat of government. The task occupied him on and off for nearly 40 years, but the results were lost in the great fire of 1577. He was made official state painter in 1483 and exempted from taxes.

Meanwhile, he worked for private patrons at various levels, from patricians to the native citizen classes to modest religious confraternities. Continual demands for his services in Venice, and the freedom he enjoyed to create works in his own manner, made it unnecessary for him to accept commissions from elsewhere.

The humanist Cardinal Pietro Bembo warned Isabella d'Este, the marchesa of Mantua, who was pressing Bellini to provide her with a picture for her study, that the artist was 'accustomed always to follow his own path in painting,' and she never succeeded in persuading him to deliver what she had in mind.

The majority of Bellini's surviving portraits, predominantly of aristocratic young Venetian men, were seemingly destined for domestic rather than public display. Nonetheless, they tend to have a certain formality and detachment in contrast to the more intimate character studies of Antonello da Messina.

Even his famous portrait of Doge Loredan was probably primarily intended for his family rather than as an official image. At first glance it looks a rather severe study of dignified serenity and authority. But the minute expressiveness of the lips hint at a vitality, even a warmth of personality, belied by the apparent stiffness of the pose.

None of the sitters for the most captivating of Bellini's smaller devotional pictures - his series of Madonnas with Child - is known by name, nor is it known to whom the paintings originally belonged. It is characteristic of Bellini's ability to synthesize disparate influences that their format was inspired both by Byzantine and Flemish painters, and many have land- and skyscapes of breathtaking vibrancy and beauty.

These images are among the most stupendous of his works. They are intense studies of young women (and indeed infants), realistic yet embodying intimations of the divine, utterly individual yet universal images of the pathos of the human condition.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024