Skip to main contentAccessibility feedback

Giacomo Bellini

Artist (ca. 1400-1471)

Click to enlarge

Bellini, GIACOMO (JACOPO), father of Gentile and Giovanni Bellini, b. about 1400; d. 1471. Interest in him arises mainly from the fact that he was the teacher of his sons who were the chief founders of the Venetian school of painting. The paintings produced by Giacomo Bellini which are still in existence are unimportant and few in number. His interesting sketch-book proves, however, his industry and power of observation. It contains copies of antique statues and reliefs, drawings portraying Biblical stories and Christian legends, and sketches from nature and life which are executed with animation and show a sense of perspective in the composition. He was a competitor in art of the painters of the Vivarini family who came from the neighboring island of Murano; Antonio and Bartolommeo Vivarini opened a studio in Venice but they were excelled by the Bellinis. Giacomo Bellini had worked under Gentile da Fabriano in his native city and at Florence. He had also been employed at other places, especially at Padua, where he came under the influence of the classic and plastic tendencies of Squarcione. His sons at an early age became his assistants at Venice.

GENTILE BELLINI, (b. about 1427; d. 1507). He was the elder of the brothers. He also had been in Padua and painted at first in the style of Squarcione, Donatello, and Mantegna; this style was good in conveying individuality, but it was weak in composition and somewhat clumsy. The painting containing the four heroic-sized figures of Saints Mark, Theodore, Jerome, and Francis, the picture of the patriarchs surrounded by ecclesiastics and angels, a Madonna with the benefactors of a religious foundation, and a bust-portrait of the doge belong to this period. At first Gentile worked mainly in partnership with his father and brother, as at Padua in the Cappella di Gattamelata. But after the father retired, Gentile’s fame soon exceeded that of the elder Bellini. He painted eight pictures in the Scuola di San Giovanni Evangelista at Venice in continuation of his father’s work “The Miracle of the Holy Cross”. Three of these pictures, painted between 1490-1500, are preserved in a damaged condition at the Academy of Venice. These pictures bear throughout the characteristic peculiarities of the Venetian school of painting. They are filled with figures from real life, which are clearly modeled, each figure having its own individuality; the religious processions are stately, the architecture which appears is of great splendor, and skill is shown in the perspective of lines and atmosphere.

The “Sermon of St. Mark at Alexandria“, now at Milan, which Giovanni completed after the death of his brother, equals those just mentioned in worth. It also shows a large number of figures skillfully grouped, an over-elaborate architectural back-ground, much pomp in the scene depicted, brilliant light, and great richness of color. The Oriental costumes added a new grace to the painting. In 1479 Gentile had gone to Constantinople on the recommendation of the Signory, who had been requested by the Sultan Mohammed II to send him a. portrait-painter. Gentile painted the Sultan and other important personages. He brought home a great many sketches, including one of the Sultan and the Dowager Sultana in sitting posture. The journey to Constantinople was not only instructive but greatly increased the fame of the painter. Among the fruits of this trip are a portrait (in the Layard collection at Venice) giving the head and shoulders of Mohammed, and the canvas “Reception of the Venetian Ambassadors by the Grand Vizier”, now in the Louvre. The visit to Constantinople had, however, interrupted another large undertaking. In 1474 Gentile had been honored with the commission to restore the paintings in the Great Council Chamber of the doge’s palace and to add to their number. Earlier artists had painted for the hall a series of pictures on a large scale representing scenes from the history of Venice. Gentile after his return from Constantinople, in company with his brother, went on with the work. The seven pictures they produced were destroyed in the fire of 1577. In his middle and later period Gentile abandoned tempera and painted in oil.

GIOVANNI BELLINI (b. about 1428; d. 1516) carried the new form of art to its greatest height. He was greatly influenced by the tendencies which have been mentioned; of these the style of his father and of the Paduan school had the most effect upon him. Mantegna was his brother-in-law. Another painter who strongly affected him was Antonello da Messina. Messina was the first person in Italy to understand the Flemish method of painting in oil, and towards the end of his life he spent several years (1474-76) in Milan and Venice. The surroundings of Venetian life and the realistic direction which Venetian art had taken gave the Venetian painters a keen perception of the charm of color, so that even the short time during which Messina was with them sufficed to lead them into a new path. The genius of Giovanni Bellini enabled him to obtain the full benefit of the new stimulus; at the same time other painters, Bartolommeo and Luigi Vivarini, Gentile Bellini, and other men, also took up the new technic. The use of the new medium produced a softness of outline and an improvement in the modeling which tempered the hardness of the Paduan style and obtained beautiful effects in color. Giovanni had more feeling and a keener spiritual insight than his brother, and his style gradually developed until he attained a perfect harmony of drawing, perspective, drapery, light, and color.

His two Pietas, in Venice, produce a deep effect on the mind, yet they betray a striking harshness which becomes at times even ugliness, showing that the characteristic qualities of his style had not yet developed into a harmonious beauty. The painting at Berlin of the “Angels Mourning over Christ” although in the relief style, is noble, tender, and rich in color. The feeling of devotion loses nothing here through the realistic portrayal of all the details. A peculiarity of these pictures is the upright position of the dead body of Christ. The smaller pictures of the Madonna appear at all stages in the development of the artist. Notwithstanding their large number they show no real repetition; at times the expression of Mother and Child is very earnest, at times strange, then again it is lovely and perfectly natural. In one of them the Child listens in a most winning way to the song of the angels and looks upward with open mouth in childlike astonishment, while the Mother is absorbed in her Infant.

The carefully worked out details of these pictures are not too obtrusive. Giovanni preferred half-length figures even when a number of saints were grouped together; as, for example, in the pictures which represent Mary Magdalen and St. Catherine, or St. Paul and St. George, in company with the Madonna. Similar to these is the fine picture “The Presentation of Jesus in the Temple“. Mary offers the Child to the high-priest over a table while the aged Simeon and Joseph worship. Giovanni did not. attempt to solve, even in his larger works, such difficult problems of perspective and of the gradation of light and shade as his brother undertook. He had, however, learned from his brother the entire art of the distribution of light and shade and applied it with more skill to bringing out the inner feeling of a composition. Unfortunately we are not able to judge of his style in historical work as we are in the case of his brother. His historical compositions, seven in all, were painted for the Great Council Chamber of the doge’s palace. He worked on these from. 1479 until his death; at times the work was done in conjunction with his brother, at times he had the aid of other men. The paintings were all destroyed by fire in 1577. Two duplicates remain of the portraits of the doges, painted in the same place, and these’ show his skill in portrait-painting. His masterpieces, however, are his great devotional and altar pictures.

Giovanni’s artistic powers entered their period of highest development in 1479. In this year he completed the first large oil painting produced at Venice. In a niche which rises in arched form over pilasters is enthroned the Madonna holding with a solemn, earnest expression the Divine Child. The Child stretches out its little hands towards the worshipping sufferer, Job, who is thus honored as a patron of the Church. Near Job stands St. Francis, farther back is John the. Baptist, to the right are St. Sebastian, St. Dominic, and Bishop Leo. At the foot of the throne are angels playing musical instruments, above in the curve of the arch are cherubim and the inscription, “Ave virginei flos intemerate pudoris”. The Virgin herself seems to be thrilled by the solemn inspiration of the moment and raises her left hand as if in warning not to disturb the music of the angels. Deep devotion is expressed on all the faces. A large picture of the year 1488 at Murano in which St. Martin presents the Doge Barbarigo to the enthroned Madonna.

suffers somewhat from a mechanical symmetry. Nevertheless the same musical tone prevails in it,. together with great richness of coloring and costume. On each side is seen a beautiful landscape in the distance. By means of the action represented a greater unity is obtained in this canvas than in the one just mentioned, and much more still than in the Madonna of San Zaccaria, Venice (1505). In the latter the enthroned Madonna holding the Child is surrounded by Saints Catherine, Peter, Jerome, and Lucia. Each one of the saints is separately absorbed in devotion while an angel at the foot of the throne softly touches the strings of his instrument in accompaniment to the spirit of adoration. Here also the feeling produced by the music creates the unity of the whole composition and the painting is a wonderful expression of adoring worship. The scene is laid in a beautiful renaissance structure the arches of which are adorned with mosaics.

One can perceive the unity of composition attained by means of this spirit of devotion and music of the angels even in those canvases where the surrounding saints stand in separate niches. Such, for example, is the picture where four saints are represented on the wings of an altar-piece in the church of Santa Maria dei Frari at Venice (1488). The Mother and Child are enthroned in the middle space; at their feet two boy-angels are playing cheerfully on the lute and flute. A lighter, although by no means a jarring impression, is made by this triptych. The separated positions of the saints, to whom an altar and a church had been consecrated, recalls the practice of the older painters. By uniting the saints in the same space and giving them an outer as well as an inner relation to one another Bellini created the so-called “Satre Conversazioni”, or “the Societies of Saints”. It was not necessary that the personages should belong to the same historical time, as they receive in the altar-piece a new, ideal life. The spirit of devotion inspired by the Madonna and her Divine Child unites them sufficiently but the more so when a new bond of union arises from the action indicated in the composition, such as, in many cases, the beautiful music or even the effect produced by light and shade.

A couple of pictures should be mentioned in which Giovanni, whom time never robbed of the freshness of his imagination, set for himself problems in landscape-painting. In 1501 he painted a “Baptism of Christ” in which the art of Giorgione and Titian seems to be apparent. The scene is laid in a romantic mountain-valley lighted by the evening sunshine. Three kneeling angels are the witnesses. The influence of younger painters is very evident in a picture having the same tone as the one just mentioned, the picture of St. Jerome. Giovanni continued to learn even when he was old, although he was properly more often the teacher and never obscured his own individuality of style. St. Jerome, in this picture, is seated on a great rock in front of a mountain landscape and is absorbed in the study of the Scriptures. In the foreground, on an eminence, stands St. Augustine absorbed in thought, and on the other side is St. Christopher holding the Child Jesus. These three mighty men of Christianity may also be considered as bound together by an inner spiritual unity. In the “Death of Peter the Martyr” there is a prospect to right and left from the forest out over a city and mountains. Such vistas are always important features in the genre pictures for which Giovanni had a strong liking. Giovanni had little taste for mythological scenes and his few canvases of this kind do not need mention.


Did you like this content? Please help keep us ad-free
Enjoying this content?  Please support our mission!