1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Bellini
BELLINI, the name of a family of craftsmen in Venice, three members of which fill a great place in the history of the Venetian school of painting in the 15th century and the first years of the 16th.
I. Jacopo Bellini (c. 1400-1470-71) was the son of a tinsmith or pewterer, Nicoletto Bellini, by his wife Franceschina. When the accomplished Umbrian master Gentile da Fabriano came to practise at Venice, where art was backward, several young men of the city took service under him as pupils. Among these were Giovanni and Antonio of Murano and Jacopo Bellini. Gentile da Fabriano left Venice for Florence in 1422, and the two brothers of Murano stayed at home and presently founded a school of their own (see Vivarini). But Jacopo Bellini followed his teacher to Florence, where the vast progress lately made, alike in truth to natural fact and in sense of classic grace and style, by masters like Donatello and Ghiberti, Masaccio and Paolo Uccello, offered him better instruction than he could obtain even from his Umbrian teacher. But his position as assistant to Gentile brought him into trouble. As a stranger coming to practise in Florence, Gentile was jealously looked on. One day some young Florentines threw stones into his shop, and the Venetian pupil ran out and drove them off with his fists. Thinking this might be turned against him, he went and took service on board the galleys of the Florentine state; but returning after a year, found he had in his absence been condemned and fined for assault. He was arrested and imprisoned, but the matter was soon compromised, Jacopo submitting to a public act of penance and his adversary renouncing further proceedings. Whether Jacopo accompanied his master to Rome in 1426 we cannot tell; but by 1429 we find him settled at Venice and married to a wife from Pesaro named Anna (family name uncertain), who in that year made a will in favour of her first child then expected. She survived, however, and bore her husband two sons, Gentile and Giovanni (though some evidences have been thought to point rather to Giovanni having been his son by another mother), and a daughter Nicolosia. In 1436 Jacopo was at Verona, painting a Crucifixion in fresco for the chapel of S. Nicholas in the cathedral (destroyed by order of the archbishop in 1750, but the composition, a vast one of many figures, has been preserved in an old engraving). Documents ranging from 1437 to 1465 show him to have been a member of the Scuola or mutual aid society of St John the Evangelist at Venice, for which he painted at an uncertain date a series of eighteen subjects of the Life of the Virgin, fully described by Ridolfi but now destroyed or dispersed. In 1439 we find him buying a panel of tarsia work at the sale of the effects of the deceased painter Jacobello del Fiore, and in 1440 entering into a business partnership with another painter of the city called Donato. About this time he must have paid a visit to the court of Ferrara, where there prevailed a spirit of free culture and humanism most congenial to his tastes. Pisanello, the first great naturalist artist of north Italy, whose influence on Jacopo at the outset of his career had been only second to that of Gentile da Fabriano, had been some time engaged on a portrait of Leonello d’Este, the elder son of the reigning marquis Niccolo III. Jacopo (according to an almost contemporary sonneteer) competed with a rival portrait, which was declared by the father to be the better of the two. In the next year, the last of the marquis Niccolo’s life, we find him making the successful painter a present of two bushels of wheat. The relations thus begun with the house of Este seem to have been kept up, and among Jacopo’s extant drawings are several that seem to belong to the scheme of a monument erected to the memory of the marquis Niccolo ten years later. He was also esteemed and employed by Sigismondo Malatesta at the court of Rimini. In 1443 Jacopo took as an articled pupil a nephew whom he had brought up from charity; in 1452 he painted a banner for the Scuola of St Mary of Charity at Venice, and the next year received a grant from the confraternity for the marriage of his daughter Nicolosia with Andrea Mantegna, a marriage which had the effect of transferring the gifted young Paduan master definitively from the following of Squarcione to that of Bellini. In 1456 he painted a figure of Lorenzo Giustiniani, first patriarch of Venice, for his monument in San Pietro de Castello, and in 1457, with a son for salaried assistant, three figures of saints in the great hall of the patriarch. For some time about these years Jacopo and his family would seem to have resided at, or at least to have paid frequent visits to Padua, where he is reported to have carried out works now lost, including an altar-piece painted with the assistance of his sons in 1459-1460 for the Gattamelata chapel in the Santo, and several portraits which are described by 16th-century witnesses but have disappeared. At Venice he painted a Calvary for the Scuola of St Mark (1466). His activity can be traced in documents down to August 1470, but in November 1471 his wife Anna describes herself as his relict, so that he must have died some time in the interval.
The above are all the facts concerning the life of Jacopo Bellini which can be gathered from printed and documentary records. The materials which have reached posterity for a critical judgment on his work consist of four or five pictures only, together with two important and invaluable books of drawings. These prove him to have been a worthy third, following the Umbrian Gentile da Fabriano and the Veronese Pisanello, in that trio of remarkable artists who in the first half of the 15th century carried towards maturity the art of painting in Venice and the neighbouring cities. Of his pictures, an important signed example is a life-size Christ Crucified in the archbishop’s palace at Verona. The rest are almost all Madonnas: two signed, one in the Tadini gallery at Lovere, another in the Venice academy; a third, unsigned and long ascribed in error to Gentile da Fabriano, in the Louvre, with the portrait of Sigismondo Malatesta as donor; a fourth, richest of all in colour and ornamental detail, recently acquired from private hands for the Uffizi at Florence. Plausibly, though less certainly, ascribed to him are a fifth Madonna at Bergamo, a warrior-saint on horseback (San Crisogono) in the church of San Trovaso at Venice, a Crucifixion in the Museo Correr, and an Adoration of the Magi in private possession at Ferrara. Against this scanty tale of paintings we have to set an abundance of drawings and studies preserved in two precious albums in the British Museum and the Louvre. The former, which is the earlier in date, belonged to the painter’s elder son Gentile and was by him bequeathed to his brother Giovanni. It consists of ninety-nine paper pages, all drawn on both back and front with a lead point, an instrument unusual at this date. Two or three of the drawings have been worked over in pen; of the remainder many have become dim from time and rubbing. The album at the Louvre, discovered in 1883 in the loft of a country-house in Guienne, is equally rich and better preserved, the drawings being all highly finished in pen, probably over effaced preliminary sketches in chalk or lead. The range of subjects is much the same in both collections, and in both extremely varied, proving Jacopo to have been a craftsman of many-sided curiosity and invention. He passes indiscriminately from such usual Scripture scenes as the Adoration of the Magi, the Agony in the Garden, and the Crucifixion, to designs from classic fable, copies from ancient bas-reliefs, stories of the saints, especially St Christopher and St George, the latter many times repeated (he was the patron saint of the house of Este), fanciful allegories of which the meaning has now become obscure, scenes of daily life, studies for monuments, and studies of animals, especially of eagles (the emblem of the house of Este), horses and lions. He loves to marshal his figures in vast open spaces, whether of architecture or mountainous landscape. In designing such spaces and in peopling them with figures of relatively small scale, we see him eagerly and continually putting to the test the principles of the new science of perspective. His castellated and pinnacled architecture, in a mixed medieval and classical spirit, is elaborately thought out, and scarcely less so his groups and ranges of barren hills, broken in clefts or ascending in spiral terraces. With a predilection for tall and slender proportions, he draws the human figure with a flowing generalized grace and no small freedom of movement; but he does not approach either in mastery of line or in vehemence of action a Florentine draughtsman such as Antonio Pollaiuolo. Jacopo’s influence on the development of Venetian art was very great, not only directly through his two sons and his son-in-law Mantegna, but through other and independent contemporary workshops of the city, in none of which did it remain unfelt.
II. Gentile Bellini (1429-1430-1507), the elder son of Jacopo, first appears independently as the painter of a Madonna, much in his father’s manner, dated 1460, and now in the Berlin museum. We have seen how in the previous year he and his brother assisted their father in the execution of an altar-piece for the Santo at Padua. In July 1466 we find him contracting with the officers of the Scuola of St Mark as an independent artist to decorate the doors of their organ. These paintings still exist in a blackened condition. They represent four saints, colossal in size, and designed with much of the harsh and searching austerity which characterized the Paduan school under Squarcione. In December of the same year Gentile bound himself to execute for the great hall of the same company two subjects of the Exodus, to be done better than, or at least as well as, his father’s work in the same place. These paintings have perished. For the next eight years the history of Gentile’s life and work remains obscure. But he must have risen steadily in the esteem of his fellow-citizens, since in 1474 we find him commissioned by the senate to restore, renew, and when necessary replace, the series of paintings, the work of an earlier generation of artists, which were perishing from damp on the walls of the Hall of the Great Council in the ducal palace. This was evidently intended to be a permanent employment, and in payment the painter was to receive the reversion of a broker’s stall in the Fondaco dei Tedeschi; a lucrative form of sinecure frequently allotted to artists engaged for tasks of long duration. In continuation of this work Gentile undertook a series of independent paintings on subjects of Venetian history for the same hall, but had apparently only finished one, representing the delivery of the consecrated candle by the pope to the doge, when his labours were interrupted by a mission to the East. The sultan Mahommed II. had despatched a friendly embassy to Venice, inviting the doge to visit him at Constantinople and at the same time requesting the despatch of an excellent painter to work at his court. The former part of the sultan’s proposal the senate declined, with the latter they complied; and Gentile Bellini with two assistants was selected for the mission, his brother Giovanni being at the same time appointed to fill his place on the works for the Hall of the Great Council. Gentile gave great satisfaction to the sultan, and returned after about a year with a knighthood, some fine clothes, a gold chain and a pension. The surviving fruits of his labours at Constantinople consist of a large painting representing the reception of an ambassador in that city, now in the Louvre; a highly finished portrait of the sultan himself, now one of the treasures, despite its damaged condition, of the collection of the late Sir Henry Layard; an exquisitely wrought small portrait in water-colour of a scribe, found in 1905 by a private collector in the bazaar at Constantinople and now in the collection of Mrs Gardner at Boston; and two pen-and-ink drawings of Turkish types, now in the British Museum. Early copies of two or three other similar drawings are preserved in the Städel Institute at Frankfurt; such copies may have been made for the use of Gentile’s Umbrian contemporary, Pinturicchio, who introduced figures borrowed from them into some of his decorative frescoes in the Appartamento Borgia at Rome.
A place had been left open for Gentile to continue working beside his brother Giovanni (with whom he lived always on terms of the closest amity) in the ducal palace; and soon after 1480 he began to carry out his share in the great series of frescoes, unfortunately destroyed by fire in 1577, illustrating the part played by Venice in the struggles between the papacy and the emperor Barbarossa. These works were executed not on the wall itself but on canvas (the climate of Venice having so many times proved fatal to wall paintings), and probably in oil, a method which all the artists of Venice, following the example set by Antonello da Messina, had by this time learnt or were learning to practise. The subjects allotted to Gentile, in addition to the above-mentioned presentation of the consecrated candle, were as follows: the departure of the Venetian ambassadors to the court of Barbarossa, Barbarossa receiving the ambassadors, the pope inciting the doge and senate to war, the pope bestowing a sword and his blessing on the doge and his army (a drawing in the British Museum purports to be the artist’s original sketch for this composition), and according to some authorities also the gift of the symbolic ring by the pope to the victorious doge on his return. These works received the highest praise both from contemporary and from later Venetian critics, but no fragment of them survived the fire of 1577. Their character can to some extent be judged by a certain number of kindred historical and processional works by the same hand which have been preserved. Of such the Academy at Venice has three which were painted between 1490 and 1500 for the Scuola of St John the Evangelist, and represent certain events connected with a famous relic belonging to the Scuola, namely, a supposed fragment of the true cross. All have been, much injured and re-painted; nevertheless one at least, showing the procession of the relic through St Mark’s Place and the thanksgiving of a father who owed to it the miraculous cure of his son, still gives a good idea of the painter’s powers and style. Great accuracy and firmness of individual portraiture, a strong gift, derived no doubt from his father’s example, for grouping and marshalling a crowd of personages in spaces of fine architectural perspective, the severity and dryness of the Paduan manner much mitigated by the dawning splendour of true Venetian colour—these are the qualities that no injury has been able to deface. They are again manifest in an interesting Adoration of the Magi in the Layard collection; and reappear still more forcibly in the last work undertaken by the artist, the great picture now at the Brera in Milan of St Mark preaching at Alexandria; this was commissioned by the Scuola of St Mark in March 1505, and left by the artist in his will, dated 18th of February 1507, to be finished by his brother Giovanni. Of single portraits by this artist, who was almost as famous for them as for processional groups, there survive one of a doge at the Museo Correr in Venice, one of Catarina Cornaro at Budapest, one of a mathematician at the National Gallery, another of a monk in the same gallery, signed wrongly to all appearance with the name of Giovanni Bellini, besides one or two others in private hands. The features of Gentile himself are known from a portrait medallion by Camelio, and can be recognized in two extant drawings, one at Berlin supposed to be by the painter’s own hand, and another, much larger and more finished, at Christ Church, Oxford, which is variously attributed to Bonsignori and A. Vivarini.
III. Giovanni Bellini (1430-1431-1516) is generally assumed to have been the second son of Jacopo by his wife Anna; though the fact that she does not mention him in her will with her other sons has thrown some slight doubt upon the matter. At any rate he was brought up in his father’s house, and always lived and worked in the closest fraternal relation with Gentile. Up till the age of nearly thirty we find documentary evidence of the two sons having served as their father’s assistants in works both at Venice and Padua. In Giovanni’s earliest independent works we find him more strongly influenced by the harsh and searching manner of the Paduan school, and especially of his own brother-in-law Mantegna, than by the more graceful and facile style of Jacopo. This influence seems to have lasted at full strength until after the departure of his brother-in-law Mantegna for the court of Mantua in 1460. The earliest of Giovanni’s independent works no doubt date from before this period. Three of these exist at the Correr museum in Venice: a Crucifixion, a Transfiguration, and a Dead Christ supported by Angels. Two Madonnas of the same or even earlier date are in private collections in America, a third in that of Signor Frizzoni at Milan; while two beautiful works in the National Gallery of London seem to bring the period to a close. One of these is of a rare subject, the Blood of the Redeemer; the other is the fine picture of Christ’s Agony in the Garden, formerly in the Northbrook collection. The last-named piece was evidently executed in friendly rivalry with Mantegna, whose version of the subject hangs near by; the main idea of the composition in both cases being taken from a drawing by Jacopo Bellini in the British Museum sketch-book. In all these pictures Giovanni combines with the Paduan severity of drawing and complex rigidity of drapery a depth of religious feeling and human pathos which is his own. They are all executed in the old tempera method; and in the last named the tragedy of the scene is softened by a new and beautiful effect of romantic sunrise colour. In a somewhat changed and more personal manner, with less harshness of contour and a broader treatment of forms and draperies, but not less force of religious feeling, are the two pictures of the Dead Christ supported by Angels, in these days one of the master’s most frequent themes, at Rimini and at Berlin. Chronologically to be placed with these are two Madonnas, one at the church of the Madonna del Orto at Venice and one in the Lochis collection at Bergamo; devout intensity of feeling and rich solemnity of colour being in the case of all these early Madonnas combined with a singularly direct rendering of the natural movements and attitudes of children.
The above-named works, all still executed in tempera, are no doubt earlier than the date of Giovanni’s first appointment to work along with his brother and other artists in the Scuola di San Marco, where among other subjects he was commissioned in 1470 to paint a Deluge with Noah’s Ark. None of the master’s works of this kind, whether painted for the various schools or confraternities or for the ducal palace, have survived. To the decade following 1470 must probably be assigned a Transfiguration now in the Naples museum, repeating with greatly ripened powers and in a much serener spirit the subject of his early effort at Venice; and also the great altar-piece of the Coronation of the Virgin at Pesaro, which would seem to be his earliest effort in a form of art previously almost monopolized in Venice by the rival school of the Vivarini. Probably not much later was the still more famous altar-piece painted in tempera for a chapel in the church of S. Giovanni e Paolo, where it perished along with Titian’s Peter Martyr and Tintoretto’s Crucifixion in the disastrous fire of 1867. After 1479-1480 very much of Giovanni’s time and energy must have been taken up by his duties as conservator of the paintings in the great hall of the ducal palace, in payment for which he was awarded, first the reversion of a broker’s place in the Fondaco dei Tedeschi, and afterwards, as a substitute, a fixed annual pension of eighty ducats. Besides repairing and renewing the works of his predecessors he was commissioned to paint a number of new subjects, six or seven in all, in further illustration of the part played by Venice in the wars of Barbarossa and the pope. These works, executed with much interruption and delay, were the object of universal admiration while they lasted, but not a trace of them survived the fire of 1577; neither have any other examples of his historical and processional compositions come down, enabling us to compare his manner in such subjects with that of his brother Gentile. Of the other, the religious class of his work, including both altar-pieces with many figures and simple Madonnas, a considerable number have fortunately been preserved. They show him gradually throwing off the last restraints of the 15th-century manner; gradually acquiring a complete mastery of the new oil medium introduced in Venice by Antonello da Messina about 1473, and mastering with its help all, or nearly all, the secrets of the perfect fusion of colours and atmospheric gradation of tones. The old intensity of pathetic and devout feeling gradually fades away and gives place to a noble, if more worldly, serenity and charm. The enthroned Virgin and Child become tranquil and commanding in their sweetness; the personages of the attendant saints gain in power, presence and individuality; enchanting groups of singing and viol-playing angels symbolize and complete the harmony of the scene. The full splendour of Venetian colour invests alike the figures, their architectural framework, the landscape and the sky. The altar-piece of the Frari at Venice, the altar-piece of San Giobbe, now at the academy, the Virgin between SS. Paul and George, also at the academy, and the altar-piece with the kneeling doge Barbarigo at Murano, are among the most conspicuous examples. Simple Madonnas of the same period (about 1485-1490) are in the Venice academy, in the National Gallery, at Turin and at Bergamo. An interval of some years, no doubt chiefly occupied with work in the Hall of the Great Council, seems to separate the last-named altar-pieces from that of the church of San Zaccaria at Venice, which is perhaps the most beautiful and imposing of all, and is dated 1505, the year following that of Giorgione’s Madonna at Castelfranco. Another great altar-piece with saints, that of the church of San Francesco de la Vigna at Venice, belongs to 1507; that of La Corona at Vicenza, a Baptism of Christ in a landscape, to 1510; to 1513 that of San Giovanni Crisostomo at Venice, where the aged saint Jerome, seated on a hill, is raised high against a resplendent sunset background, with SS. Christopher and Augustine standing facing each other below him, in front. Of Giovanni’s activity in the interval between the altar-pieces of San Giobbe and of Murano and that of San Zaccaria, there are a few minor evidences left, though the great mass of its results perished with the fire of the ducal palace in 1577. The examples that remain consist of one very interesting and beautiful allegorical picture in the Uffizi at Florence, the subject of which had remained a riddle until it was recently identified as an illustration of a French medieval allegory, the Pèlerinage de l’âme by Guillaume de Guilleville; with a set of five other allegories or moral emblems, on a smaller scale and very romantically treated, in the academy at Venice. To these should probably be added, as painted towards the year 1505, the portrait of the doge Loredano in the National Gallery, the only portrait by the master which has been preserved, and in its own manner one of the most masterly in the whole range of painting.
The last ten or twelve years of the master’s life saw him besieged with more commissions than he could well complete. Already in the years 1501-1504 the marchioness Isabella Gonzaga of Mantua had had great difficulty in obtaining delivery from him of a picture of the “Madonna and Saints” (now lost) for which part payment had been made in advance. In 1505 she endeavoured through Cardinal Bembo to obtain from him another picture, this time of a secular or mythological character. What the subject of this piece was, or whether it was actually delivered, we do not know. Albrecht Dürer, visiting Venice for a second time in 1506, reports of Giovanni Bellini as still the best painter in the city, and as full of all courtesy and generosity towards foreign brethren of the brush. In 1507 Gentile Bellini died, and Giovanni completed the picture of the “Preaching of St Mark” which he had left unfinished; a task on the fulfilment of which the bequest by the elder brother to the younger of their father’s sketch-book had been made conditional. In 1513 Giovanni’s position as sole master (since the death of his brother and of Alvise Vivarini) in charge of the paintings in the Hall of the Great Council was threatened by an application on the part of his own former pupil, Titian, for a joint-share in the same undertaking, to be paid for on the same terms. Titian’s application was first granted, then after a year rescinded, and then after another year or two granted again; and the aged master must no doubt have undergone some annoyance from his sometime pupil’s proceedings. In 1514 Giovanni undertook to paint a Bacchanal for the duke Alfonso of Ferrara, but died in 1516; leaving it to be finished by his pupils; this picture is now at Alnwick.
Both in the artistic and in the worldly sense, the career of Giovanni Bellini was upon the whole the most serenely and unbrokenly prosperous, from youth to extreme old age, which fell to the lot of any artist of the early Renaissance. He lived to see his own school far outshine that of his rivals, the Vivarini of Murano; he embodied, with ever growing and maturing power, all the devotional gravity and much also of the worldly splendour of the Venice of his time; and he saw his influence propagated by a host of pupils, two of whom at least, Giorgione and Titian, surpassed their master. Giorgione he outlived by five years; Titian, as we have seen, challenged an equal place beside his teacher. Among the best known of his other pupils were, in his earlier time, Andrea Previtali, Cima da Conegliano, Marco Basaiti, Niccolo Rondinelli, Piermaria Pennacchi, Martino da Udine, Girolamo Mocetto; in later time, Pierfrancesco Bissolo, Vincenzo Catena, Lorenzo Lotto and Sebastian del Piombo.