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Tuesday, June 11, 2013

The Bellini Family

Madonna with Child, ca. 1430,
Jacopo Bellini
As you are reading this I shall be winging my way across the Atlantic toward my yearly close encounter with European art and architecture, this year's destination being Venice, Naples, and Rome. Naples and Rome I've seen before (though neither in as great a depth as I'd like). The highlight of this trip will be three days in Venice, the Academia (museum), San Marco, and Peggy Guggenheim's collection of modern art. When one talks about Venetian art, the one name that tends to rise to the top is Bellini. Starting around the early 1400s with the painter patriarch of the clan, Jacopo Bellini followed by his sons, Giovanni and Gentile, as well as his son-in-law Andrea Mantegna, during the remainder of the century, the family has been nearly synonymous with the best the island city has to offer in the way of art.
Giovanni Bellini, ca. 1460
Jacopo, the father, was born around 1400, his sons in 1429 and 1430, Mantegna in 1431. The two Bellini boys literally grew up in their father's workshop. Mantegna trained as an apprentice in the workshop of Francesco Squarcioni in nearby Padua, where Jacopo may have taught perspective. It wasn't until around 1453 when the young Mantegna hooked up with the Bellini boys and, more specifically, their sister, Nicolosia. While Mantegna's work is more Florentine in appearance and influence (as is Jacopo's), the Bellini sons are pure Venice, and in fact they were primarily responsible for bringing Renaissance painting to northern Italy. The brothers worked so intimately over the course of their lifetimes, their work is often difficult to distinguish, though Giovanni seems to be considered today the more outstanding of the two. During his lifetime, however, Gentile was regarded as the best portrait artist in Venice. His portrait of the Doge of Venice (below, right), stands head and shoulders (no pun intended) above his brother's self-portrait (above, right, though, in all fairness, there was a span of 40 years between them).

Doge Leonardo Loredan, 1501-05,
Gentile Bellini
Arguably, the single most important factor in bringing the Bellini name to the forefront of Venetian painting was their early adoption of the then brand new medium of oil painting. Giovanni Bellini's early work up through the 1460s is all egg tempera on wooden panels (or frescoes). They are almost exclusively of religious scenes and rather scarce. A great deal of his most important work, and that of his brother, perished in the disastrous Doge's Palace fire of 1577. From around 1480, and for much of the remainder of his career, Giovanni was placed in charge of restoration and preservation of the Doge's Palace collection of paintings, though he did, somehow, find time to complete a series of six or seven large-scale works depicting various wars in which the city-state of Venice had been involved. Unfortunately, every one of these disappeared in the 1577 fire. His Madonna and Child from 1480 is typical of his mature work in oil.

Madonna and Child, 1480,
Giovanni Bellini, after he found oil.
Around the same time as Giovanni Bellini went to work as an art conservator, brother Gentile's work took on an exotic, western oriental flavor as he was sent by the Venetian government to Constantinople as part of a peace settlement with the Turks and as a cultural ambassador. There he painted the Turkish sultan, Mehmed II and several other Greek and Turkish personages. Ironically, these foreign works give us the best picture of Gentile's work simply because they have survived. In later years he is said to have influenced Titian, though this later artist is believed to have become disenchanted with his master's dry style and turned to Giovanni Bellini and later Giorgione. Gentile died in 1507, his brother in 1516 at the age of 87. The San Zaccaria Altarpiece (bottom) from 1505 is probably his final work.

San Zaccaria Altarpiece, 1505, Giovanni Bellini

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