Giovanni Bellini, the soul of Venice

The style of the Venetian painter Giovanni Bellini became that of the city, whose cosmopolitanism during its ‘imperial age’ inspired his breadth of vision.

Madonna and Child between St. John the Baptist and a saint by Giovanni Bellini
Madonna and Child between St. John the Baptist and a saint by Giovanni Bellini ( Venice 1434/1439 - 1516 ) Credit: Peter Horree / Alamy

Giovanni Bellini was the most Venetian of artists. His rich, sensuous colours, his realism, and his landscapes paved the way for the great masters of the Serenissima’s golden age, and embodied the luxurious colorito that was to define its visual imagination for centuries to come. Yet, as a new exhibition at the Musée Jacquemart-André in Paris reveals, it is impossible to understand Bellini – or the ‘Venetian-ness’ of his achievement – without recognising the debt he owed both to mainland Italy, and to the wider world.

Much of Bellini’s early life is shrouded in mystery. His birth is a puzzle. For a long time, it was thought that he was born in around 1435, the illegitimate son of the painter Jacopo Bellini. But documents recently uncovered by Daniel Wallace Maze, author of Young Bellini (Yale, 2021), suggest that he may have been born a decade earlier than previously supposed – and was actually Jacopo’s half-brother, rather than his son. Of his youth and apprenticeship, we know almost nothing. Most likely, he entered Jacopo’s workshop when he was eleven or twelve; but unlike his Florentine contemporary, Donatello, who was already signing his own pieces at fifteen, Bellini has left few traces. Even the chronology of his earliest works is uncertain. Although St. Jerome in the Wilderness (c.1450) has long been regarded as his earliest securely attributable work, this, too, has been challenged – and the dating of many others is dubious at best.

Not until around 1453 did Bellini begin to emerge from the shadows. But even at this early stage, his horizons were already reaching far beyond the Venetian lagoon. Jacopo had trained in the workshop of Gentile da Fabriano, and never made any secret of the debt he owed the great Florentine artist – even going so far as to name his son, Gentile, after the master. From him, Jacopo familiarised himself with the international gothic style then sweeping Western Europe. This was characterised by its serene figures, flowing lines, and acute, almost miniaturistic, attention to detail. In Jacopo’s workshop, Giovanni, too, absorbed its influence. It’s clearly present in two of the first works you see in this exhibition: The Birth of the Virgin and The Annuniciation (c.1453), each painted under Jacopo’s guidance, and possibly with Gentile’s assistance. There are the same elongated forms and voluptuous fabrics; and, had they not been commissioned for a Venetian fraternity, you could easily believe they had come from a church in Florence.

That same year, 1453, the first of two decisive events took place in Bellini’s life. Although we do not know the exact date, it was most likely then that Jacopo’s eldest daughter, Nicolosia, married the painter Andrea Mantegna. At twenty-two years old, Mantegna was almost exactly the same age as Giovanni – if not a little younger – but he was already establishing himself as one of the most daring artists in nearby Padua. Inspired by Donatello, his style was distinguished by a statuesque monumentality that recalled classical models; over the coming decades, it would find its way into Giovanni’s work, too. Understandably, he was a little uncertain at first. In the Virgin and Child (c.1457-8), he struggled to give his figures the necessary weight without compromising their ‘gothic’ poise. But by the time of his marriage to Ginevra Bocheta, in around 1465, his confidence was unmistakable.

This placed Bellini at the cutting edge of Renaissance art, and quickly brought him success. Commissions came pouring in. His earliest dated portrait was of Jörg Fugger, one of Europe’s richest bankers; and, in the years that followed, wealthy patrons from across Europe would beat a path to his door. Yet Bellini was not one to rest on his laurels – or to rely on any single influence. All the while he was studying with Mantegna, he was careful to keep up with other trends.

Just then, the Byzantine style was in fashion. Venice had long enjoyed strong cultural ties with the Byzantine Empire; but since the fall of Constantinople, its bonds had acquired a fresh significance. Greek-speaking exiles flooded into the city; and Venice soon found itself locked in a bitter rivalry with the Ottoman Empire for dominance of the Eastern Mediterranean. Imitating Byzantine religious art was a means, not just of burnishing Venice’s imperial credentials, but also of discreetly asserting its place as the defender of the Christian faith against the Muslim threat – and Bellini was ready to oblige. Ever adaptable, he endowed his own works with Byzantine reminiscences, discreet enough not to seem forced, but immediately recognizable to those who knew. In the Virgin and Child (1452-3), for example, the monumentality of Mantegna is combined with a golden background and the direct, formalised idealism of the Byzantine world to produce a scene of arresting, but unworldly, intimacy.

Yet Bellini seems to have lacked a style of his own. Though he had harnessed his influences to great effect, he was still struggling to make them work for him, rather than the other way around. His manner varied from painting to painting; and, when looking at some of the earlier pieces in this exhibition, it is sometimes difficult to pick out a common thread from amid the sea of disparate references.

All that changed when Antonello da Messina arrived in Venice in 1475 – the second, and arguably the most important, event in Giovanni’s artistic career. A native of Sicily, Antonello had quit his native land, first for Rome and then for Naples. According to Giorgio Vasari, it was there that he encountered the new technique of oil painting. Until the early fifteenth century, most artists had used tempera. Made from egg whites, tempera allowed for great precision, but lacked vibrancy and tended to result in a rather ‘flat’ finish – a fact which invariably placed limitations on composition. In around 1430, however, the Dutch artist Jan van Eyck had stumbled across a new idea. By mixing his pigments with oil, instead of egg whites, he produced a paint capable of expressing far greater contrast and colour. When Antonello saw one of Van Eyck’s works in the royal collection in Naples, he immediately recognised its potential. Quickly mastering its techniques, he harnessed it to produce portraits of unparalleled naturalism – and, in Venice, became one of its most effective proselytes.

Bellini may already have begun to experiment with oils in the early 1450s; but it was only after meeting Antonello that he seems to have fully appreciated its possibilities. Here, at last, was a medium that would allow him to weld all his influences into a single, unified whole – and to bend them to his will. No-where is this more clearly displayed than in the Madonna and Child with St. John the Baptist and a Female Saint (c.1500). You can still see the flowing lines of International Gothic, the statuesque solidity of Mantegna, even a hint of Byzantine other-worldliness; but Bellini’s use of oils (mixed, in this case, with a bit of tempera) gives the whole an altogether more satisfying depth, richness, and harmony. The landscape is realistic, almost to the point of being recognisable; the figures seem to be transported from the sacred realm into our own; and the viewer is absorbed into the scene, almost without realising it. The illusionism is vertigo-inducing – and the achievement even more so.

Bellini would never stop picking up new influences. Even in his later years, he was still learning new things, even from younger artists like Cima da Conegliano – and the comparison between their works is among this exhibition’s most intriguing features. But his position was already unassailable. In 1483 he was made the official painter of the Venetian Republic. He became the favoured artist of Doge Leonardo Loredan; and his pieces adorned almost every major church and institution in the city. Though up-and-coming artists like Titian and Giorgione might have preferred subtle tones to his fondness for clean lines, they were always in his shadow. His style became Venice’s style. When Albrecht Dürer visited Venice in 1506, he found the aged Bellini in frail health, but still indisputably ‘the greatest in painting’. His death, ten years later, was marked like that of a statesman. According to Vasari, Venetians ‘honoured him… with sonnets and epigrams, just as he had honoured his country when alive’. In a rare mark of esteem, he was buried in the church of Ss. Giovanni e Paolo – where traditionally the funerals of doges were held.

It might seem ironic that this most distinctively Venetian of painters should have owed so much to so many diverse influences – and that his style should have been so deeply marked by Florentine, Paduan, Byzantine, and Dutch models. But this is precisely what made him so distinctively Venetian. Between the 1430s and the 1520s, Venice was at the peak of its ‘imperial age’. Though fiercely proud of its uniqueness, and even more jealous of its independence, its prosperity was founded on its cosmopolitanism. During Giovanni’s lifetime, it became one of the greatest powers on the Italian mainland; it annexed Cyprus; it struggled in vain to hold the Greek ports of Coron and Modon; and its galleys plied routes from Antwerp to Beirut. So many nationalities thronged its squares that the ‘rough accents of the Venetians’ could hardly be heard above ‘the babel of strange tongues’. Its horizons were vast – and growing by the day. If Giovanni had not existed, Venice would have had to invent him; for in his works, he succeeded in capturing its very essence – its cosmopolitanism and vibrancy, its pride and its breadth of vision. Indeed, as this exhibition shows, the sheer range of his influences made him not just the Venetian artist par excellence, but the very soul of Venice itself.

Giovanni Bellini: Crossed Influences, runs at the Musée Jacquemart-André, Paris, until July 17.


Alexander Lee