( Originally Published 1955 )
Of the two sons of the Venetian painter Jacopo Bellini (see), Gentile (the older) is the less interesting, partly because fewer of his works are preserved than of Giovanni, but also because unlike Giovatnni (see) he adhered to a patriotic and historical kind of art that did not lead to new horizons. He has, however, left a valuable record of the appearance of Venice and some of its illustrious citizens, and his voyage to the Near East is a reminder of the close connections between Venice and the Orient. His -first signed work is his portrait in 1465 of Beato Lorenzo Giustiniani (Venice Academy), the Venetian patriarch. He also signed a set of painted organ shutters representing four saints (Museum of San Marco). The style of these is closer to Mantegna than anyone else. Though it is assumed that the Bellini sons received their earliest training from their father, they must also have been in close contact with Mantegna, who was their brother-in-law. In 1466 Gentile was commissioned to paint two scenes from Exodus for the Scuola Grande of San Marco. In 1469 he was knighted and made a count of the Palatinate by Emperor Frederick III. In 1474 he was charged for life with the care of paintings in the grand council chamber of the Doge's palace. With Giovanni he painted battle scenes (destroyed in a fire in 1577) in this palace. In 1479, at the request of the Sultan of Constantinople for a. good portrait painter, Gentile was chosen, and soon sailed for the Near East. The only certain work preserved from his sojourn in Constantinople is a portrait of the Sultan (London). From his return in 1480 until his death in 1507 many documents attest to his activity in Venice. Besides those mentioned, the only thoroughly documented portrait is of Caterina Cornaro, Queen of Cyprus (Budapest museum), painted late in his career. A number of profile portraits of Venetian Doges are attributed to his earlier period, notably two in the Corre:r museum, Venice, and the Andrea Vendramin in the Frick Collection. Gentile's turn from the profile.to the three-quarterview portrait may reflect the visit of Antonello da Messina to Venice in 1475-76. Two altarpieces of the Madonna (one in Berlin and one in London) are signed by Gentile. His most interesting and perhaps most important works are four large canvases painted late in his career. Three of these (Venice Academy) represent the Miracles of the Reliquary of the Holy Cross and are dated 1496, 1500 and c.1501. The subject matter is little more than a patriotic excuse to paint the familiar places of Venice peopled with Gentile's contemporaries. Many figures are no doubt portraits and two of the compositions feature Andrea Vendramin. The pictures are somewhat rigidly and monotonously composed, but their color is rich, unified in tone, and luminous. They reveal an interest in architecture and perspective comparable to Jacopo Bellini's. The fourth canvas, the Preaching of St. Mark in Alexandria (Brera) was begun by Gentile in 1504, and completed by his brother Giovanni. In it, Gentile was able to make use of his knowledge of Oriental architecture and costumes. The brightness of color and fine effect of light in this picture make it more pleasing than the others and it has been suggested that these qualities may result from the collaboration of Giovanni.