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Giovanni Bellini (c.1430-1516)

( Originally Published 1955 )

Considered the greatest Venetian painter of the fifteenth century. His life was long, his output prodigious, and his style was decisive not only for his famous pupils Titian and Giorgione but for the direction taken by Venetian painting in the sixteenth century. He may be called the founder of the Venetian High Renaissance style. The illegitimate son of Jacopo (see), he was born about 1430, and is first heard of as a painter in 1460 and 1464, when he worked with his father and his brother Gentile (see) on decorations (now lost) in Padua and Venice. He presumably received his training from his father and must have been in close contact with his Paduan brother-in-law Mantegna in his early years. In 1471 he is recorded as maintaining a studio in Venice with his brother. He took over from Gentile the care of paintings in the Doge's palace in 1479 when Gentile went to Constantinople, and continued the cycle of battle pictures Gentile had begun there (destroyed by fire in 1577). From this time on many documents and dated works indicate that he lived continuously in Venice. At Gentile's death in 1507 he completed the picture of St. Mark Preaching which Gentile had begun for the Scuola di San Marco. In his late years he was held in great esteem, had many commissions, and was extremely influential among the younger generation of painters. In 1506 Diirer wrote from Venice that Giovanni Bellini was very old but was still the greatest of them all. The last work he dated was painted in 1515.

Bellini's work presents a clear and gradual evolution of style from the precise approach to nature of the fifteenth century to the monumental and poetic treatment of the High Renaissance. He is justly famous for his emphasis on and skillful handling of color and light, and for the grace, gentleness and devotional character of his figures and compositions. He changed from tempera technique to oil in mid-career, and his use of the latter medium established its predominance in Venetian art thereafter. He probably knew this technique before the visit to Venice of Antonello da Messina, the painter once credited with having introduced it in Italy. With one notable exception near the end of his life, Bellini's painting was almost exclusively of sacred subjects. His early style was closely related to that of Andrea Mantegna, but differs from it in his greater emphasis on color and light, and in his more emotional and less scientific expression in both figures and landscape. Important examples of this period (the 1470's) are the Agony in the Garden (London), the Lamentation in the Brera, Milan (the greatest of many on this theme), the Coronation of the Virgin (Ducal Palace, Pesaro), the Transfiguration (Naples), and the Resurrection (Berlin). By the 1480's he had developed a mature and completely personal style, softer and more luminous than his early work, with greater freedom of movement of figures in space. The great altarpieces of this period make use of architectural settings within which figures are bathed in light and atmosphere. Three altarpieces may be singled out: the "San Giobbe" altar (Venice Academy), painted in the mid-1480's; the altar of 1488 in San Pietro Martire, Murano, and, of the same year, the altarpiece of the church of the Frari, Venice. All of these represent the Madonna flanked by saints in architectural settings. Also of this period is the well-known allegorical panel, inspired by a religious poem, sometimes called the "Madonna of the Lake" (Uffizi). In Bellini's late works (1500 and after), his compositions become still more harmonious and monumental, with broader forms and more open space, and richer and softer handling of color. Landscape, always important, becomes a regular, idyllic touch in his work, and relates it closely to what his pupils Giorgione and Titian were doing at the same time. The Madonna and Saints in the church of San Zaccaria, Venice, of 1505, is a truly High Renaissance work, evolved out of the altarpieces of his middle period. A Baptism of Christ in Santa Corona, Vicenza, makes particularly broad use of landscape. Bellini's one great profane work, the Feast of the Gods (Washington), completed in 1514, was painted for Alfonso d'Este of Ferrara. It is an allegorical and rather reserved bacchanal, in which classical antiquity is blended with Renaissance poetry in the most characteristic Venetian manner. It is generally agreed that Titian assisted the aging master in this work; the left half of the landscape is believed to be his. A few portraits by Bellini are extant, and many more are attributed to him. The most celebrated is that of Doge Leonardo Loredano in the London National Gallery. He also painted innumerable devotional pictures of the Madonna and Child, noted for their variety and grace. Works by Bellini are to be found in museums and collections throughout the Western world. Important examples in the United States, besides the Feast of the Gods, are an early Madonna Adoring the Sleeping Child (Metropolitan), and the St. Francis in Ecstasy (about 1480), now in the Frick Collection.

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