Son of Jacopo and brother of Gentile, both Venetian painters, Giovanni’s early works reveal that he was trained in his father’s atelier, and also that he independently studied the works of Alvise Vivarini. His sister, Nicolosia, was married to Andrea Mantegna in 1453. Although Bellini was strongly influenced by Mantegna, he diluted the severe manner of drawing with his own personal style. Bellini’s studies, first of all, focused on light as we can in the Agony in the Garden (National Gallery, London), the San Vincenzo Ferrer Polyptych in the church of Santi Giovanni e Paolo in Venice, and in the Brera Pietà (1465 circa). The works from the eighth decade include the Pesaro Altarpiece (1472-1474) that used to be in the church of San Francesco in Pesaro, a grandiose painting with a clear spatial arrangement which reveals a knowledge of Flemish painting techniques and the teachings of Piero Della Francesca. In 1479 he replaced his brother Gentile who was working on the Hall of the Great Council in Venice and in 1483 he was appointed the official painter of the Venetian Republic. The San Giobbe Altarpiece, the Barbarigo Altarpiece (church of San Pietro Martire, Murano) and the Frari Triptych date from the middle of his artistic career and they all combine a noble grandiosity of the image with a constant psychological characterization of the figures. In those years the artist directed a flourishing atelier that produced countless variations on the religious theme of the Virgin and Child against a background of delicate landscapes. Bellini’s Sacred Allegory (Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence) is generally dated around the end of the fifteenth century. At the beginning of the new century he was a careful observer of the innovations brought to Venetian artistic circles by the new generation of painters from Sebastiano del Piombo to Titian, from Giorgione to Lotto. The results of his receptiveness can be seen in the San Zaccaria Altarpiece (1505), in the San Giovanni Crisostomo Altarpiece as well as in the secular paintings such as the Feast of the Gods (1514, National Gallery, Washington, D.C.) that he did for Alfonso d’Este, Duke of Ferrara.
Transfiguration of Christ
In this painting, that was the door of the silver altarpiece on the high altar of the church of San Salvatore in Venice, Bellini narrated an episode from the life of Christ, and selected the one that more than any other heralds the Passion. The luminous transformation on Mount Tabor is also a clear manifestation of the dogma of the incarnation of the Father in the Son: Christ, along with Moses and Elijah, appears before the apostles Peter, John and James to signify the passage of the testimony of the Old Testament prophets to the protagonists of the New Testament. This is one of the most brilliant examples of the young artist’s work, especially in his rendering of the draping and landscape that reveal clear signs of the influence of Donatello and Mantegna in Padua.
The Blood of the Redeemer
In this painting, we see Christ, with a long stream of blood flowing from his side, standing within a marble enclosure graced with classical reliefs, that is set against a bleak landscape animated by gaunt human figures. An angel at his feet holds the chalice that will contain the holy liquid. Like the many variations on the theme of the Pietà and the Resurrection of Christ, the subject readily lends itself to private prayer by stimulating compassion and submission in the faithful. The artist placed his emphasis on sentimentality and pathos and created the Italian model of the image for meditation that had already been established in the Flemish tradition.
This painting is sort of a watershed between Bellini’s early works that were strongly influenced by his father, Jacopo, and Mantegna and his mature works. It was done for the main altar of the church of San Francesco in Pesaro. In the central panel, that depicts Christ crowning the Virgin Mary between saints Paul, Peter, Jerome and Francis, Bellini reveals his mastery of perspective and lighting in an arrangement with perfect classical equilibrium. He places the figures in an essential space, the depth is rendered by the inlaid marble floor, while we see a hilly landscape behind the saints. The predella and lateral pilasters, to which at least two other artists put their hands are narrative and iconic. Scholars are still divided as to whether the Lamentation Over the Dead Christ in the Vatican Museum was part of this altarpiece.
St. Francis in the Desert
This painting is built on a rigorous exegesis of Old Testament and Franciscan sources. The saint, standing on Monte della Verna (perhaps an instant before the angel descended to give him the stigmata) is portrayed, through an apparatus of unequivocal symbols such as the young Moses, Elijah, and Christ, as the supreme guide of the elect. The extraordinary care in the rendering of the landscape is a hymn to the beauty and harmony of creation, before which Francis and the painter humbly bow. Because of the profound religiosity it emanates, its iconographic wealth, and its high technical quality this painting is one of the finest achievements of Renaissance art.Iconography
San Giobbe Altarpiece (Madonna with the Child, Saints and Angels)
This altarpiece that portrays the Virgin with the Child, three musical angels and saints Francis, John the Baptist, Job, Dominic, Sebastian and Louis of Toulouse was placed in the second chapel on the right in the Franciscan church of San Giobbe. It was probably an ex voto after the plague of 1478. This was the only occasion in his artistic career that Bellini placed the scene in the apse of a church, completely removed from the landscape and arranged the figures in articulated poses. The protagonist is the Virgin Mary enthroned, proclaiming the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, a topic of violent discord between Franciscans and Dominicans. The presence of St. Dominic, intent on studying to acquire what the other saints had received by merely contemplating the Virgin, is a clear signal on the part of the client to participate in the fiery debate.
This painting was commissioned by Nicolò, Marco and Benedetto Pesaro when their mother, Franceschina, died. It was meant to be placed in what should have become the family chapel. Therefore, it has the name-saints of the male members of the noble family (the three sons and their father, Pietro). In the central panel the commemorative intent combines with Franciscan praise of the immaculate conception of Mary: the Mother of Christ is portrayed in a glory of music and light while the inscription on the vault of the apse begs for her intervention with heaven, St. Benedict holds – and shows – the passage from Ecclesiastes that provides the dogma with its conceptual basis and scriptural authority.
According to a scheme he had already used in other paintings for private devotions, Bellini organized a mise-en-scène within a large terrace, laden with ideas and opportunities for meditation. The saints (Job and Sebastian within the enclosure, and Paul with a sword, Joseph affectionately adoring the Child, Anthony Abbot on the right descending from the retreat), the Christ Child seated on the funereal cushion), the Innocents playing around the Tree of Life, Mary enthroned as Sedes Sapientiae, flanked by two Virtues contain meanings that the viewer/patron will succeed in interpreting through the difficult journey of study and faith. The shepherd sleeping in the grotto and other distant figures enliven the splendid lake landscape that is backed by distant cliffs. Degas, who was fascinated by the painting, copied it during a Florentine sojourn between 1858-1859.
San Zaccaria Altarpiece
This painting was, for a long time, the definite model for the altarpiece: Lorenzo Lotto, Titian, Sebastiano del Piombo and Pordenone were compelled to compare their own works with it, in a sense, and they often did so in polemic terms. The altarpiece is dominated by symmetry. Nearly everything on the sides of the central axis, that coincides with the perpendicular to the lamp and strikes the center of the marble throne, is a mirror image. In the prominence granted to the figures of Peter and Jerome – the efficient official (who does not have to study the sacred texts to interpret the word of God) and the organized intellectual (who places the experience of his studies and critical reflections at the service of the Church) – Bellini renders a dual homage to the ecclesiastic organization. The “reduced” form with only four saints and one angel gives the painting a greater sense of space with respect to the San Giobbe Altarpiece and it also is enhanced by the natural light that weakly penetrates the scene from the sides.
St. Jerome at his Meditations
Bellini portrayed the saint alone in his retreat, with the sole company of the sacred texts many times. In the background of this painting we can clearly see the forms of a modern, perhaps Venetian, building. The artist gave the protagonist the role of paladin of the contemplative life, of the intellectual experience reserved to the elect few to be consummated in solitude. In this painting Bellini reveals outstanding qualities in his rendering of the details and in the perspective as he developed the skillful contrast of the land and marine landscapes.Iconography
Saints Jerome, Christopher and Louis of Toulouse
This is one of the finest examples of a painted altarpiece that was done in complete freedom ten years after the death of Giogio Diletti who had commissioned it. Bellini placed St. Christopher and St. Louis of Toulouse beneath the arch of a Byzantine church that opens onto the bare rock inhabited by St. Jerome. Each character represents a model of Christian life: the ascetic contemplation of the hermit (Jerome) the apostolate of the humble among the people (Christopher), the institutional endeavors of the prelates (Louis). Thus the artist emphasized the equivalence of the active and the contemplative life on the journey towards salvation. Two years earlier the young Sebastiano del Piombo had painted the altarpiece dedicated to the titular saint in the same church.
The Feast of the Gods
This painting was commissioned by Alfonso d’Este, duke of Ferrara for his private room in the family castle. It is one of few secular paintings that Bellini produced – Isabella, the duke’s sister had repeatedly asked him to do a mythological subject. The painting reveals obvious awkwardness: Bellini did not fully succeed in rendering the liveliness of the banquet of the gods with Priapus plotting to ravish the sleeping nymph Lotis. Unsatisfied, he returned to the painting again and again, but after his death Titian modified the landscape on the left in an attempt to reconcile it with his “bacchanals” (painted between 1518 and 1523 for the same place).The episode is based on Ovid’s Fasti and portrays Priapus on the right creeping up on the sleeping Lotis, but the ass of Silenius begins to bray, and the awakens the nymph and saves her. All around, the gods have succumbed to the effects of the wine: Jupiter has the eagle beside him, Neptune caresses Cybele with his right hand and Ceres with the left, Mercury is slouched over the barrel, while the boy with the vine leaves on his head is the young Bacchus.
The Drunkenness of Noah
The originality of the arrangement and painting technique had prompted modern scholars to attribute this piece to Lorenzo Lotto and Titian. Actually, it was the aged Bellini’s last masterpiece. He was still capable of “renewing” himself in the use of less balanced and composed emotional registers. The subject (the drunken Noah derided by his wicked son Ham because of his obscene nudity, and modestly covered by his good sons Shem and Japheth) represents the extreme manifestation of the crisis of the principle of authority and takes on a clear political meaning: it condemns the offences of the ignorant, evil subject in relation to the wise governor. The strong naturalistic charge and the fusion of the tones that are foreign to most of Bellini’s works had caused this painting to be attributed to Giorgione’s circles for a long time.Iconography