The Italian painter Giovanni Bellini (ca. 1435-1516) introduced the Renaissance style to his native Venice. His importance can scarcely be overemphasized in that he brought Venetian painting up to date and set it on the path that led to the art of Titian.
Giovanni Bellini was the youngest member of an important artistic family. His father, Jacopo, was a painter who had been apprenticed to Gentile da Fabriano, the leading Italian painter of the International Gothic style. Jacopo is best remembered today for his sketchbooks, which he passed on to his artist sons, Gentile and Giovanni. Niccolosa, Jacopo's daughter and eldest child, married Andrea Mantegna in 1453; this marriage brought into the Bellini family one of the most important painters in 15th-century Italy. Gentile, as eldest son, assumed direction of his father's studio and enjoyed widespread fame as one of Venice's leading painters. It was he, for instance, who was sent to Constantinople to answer Sultan Mohammed ll's summons for a painter.
Giovanni, probably born about 1435, has sometimes been thought to have been illegitimate, a notion that stems from the omission of his name from his mother's will. This viewpoint is not widely held today. Little is known of Giovanni's early years. His name first appears in a document of 1459. He was married to Ginevra Bocheta, and they had at least one child, a son, Alvise.
After 1470 there are numerous documents relating to Giovanni's activities. One record of 1483 mentions that he was named pittore del dominio (painter of the domain), probably in recognition for his work in the Doge's Palace. Other documents relate specifically to his commissions. A letter dated Nov. 29, 1516, mentions that the death of Giovanni Bellini was revealed that day.
Giovanni's artistic heritage extended beyond the limits of his family. He seems to have derived little from his father's art beyond occasional motifs. Giovanni collaborated with Gentile on some projects but was relatively little influenced by his brother's style. In 1460 Giovanni was working in Padua, perhaps with Mantegna, who unquestionably exerted a strong influence on him. In Giovanni's early works, such as the Agony in the Garden and the Transfiguration, there are direct parallels with Mantegna's art, especially in the severely foreshortened figures and the evocative rocky landscapes. Giovanni's presence in Padua, furthermore, would explain the marked influence of Donatello, which can be detected in his early work. Donatello had been in Padua to model the monumental equestrian statue of Gattamelata and to erect the sculptured high altar for the church of S. Antonio. Similarities can be recognized between Giovanni's Pietà in Venice and his masterful Pietà in Milan and Donatello's relief of the Dead Christ on the altar in S. Antonio. Moreover, Giovanni's type for the Christ Child would seem to owe something to Donatello's putti.
There is evidence that Giovanni traveled at least as far south as Pesaro on the Adriatic Sea. The impressive altarpiece Coronation of the Virgin (1469) would support such a trip. It is possible that there Giovanni may have met Piero della Francesca, who was working in nearby Urbino. He would certainly have seen Piero's work in Rimini and Ferrara, way-stops on the road between Venice and Pesaro. Piero's synthesis of form with color and light anticipated Giovanni's work in the same direction.
Of the profoundest significance in the development of Giovanni's style was the appearance of Antonello da Messina in Venice in 1475-1476. Antonello had mastered the oil-paint technique perfected earlier in the century in Flanders. Antonello's major work in Venice, the altarpiece (now dismembered) for the church of S. Cassiano, may be seen as a forerunner of Giovanni's impressive altarpieces.
Bellini's Mature Style
The altarpiece for the church of S. Giobbe (ca. 1490; now in the Academy, Venice) is a good introduction to Giovanni's fully developed Renaissance style. The Madonna Enthroned is posed on a dais before an apse. At her feet are music-playing angels; on either side are saints arranged in the familiar sacra conversazione manner. The figures exist by virtue of colored light, which fills the painting with an atmosphere that is nearly palpable. Heroic in scale, the S. Giobbe altarpiece established an ideal that was to inspire Venetian painters down to Titian. Other major altarpieces include the Madonna with Saints for S. Maria dei Frari, Venice (1488); the altarpiece for S. Pietro Martire, Murano (1488); the Baptism of Christ in Sta Corona, Vicenza (ca. 1500); the Ascension of the Virgin in S. Pietro Martire, Murano (ca. 1501-1504); the altarpiece in S. Zaccaria, Venice (1504-1505); and the altarpiece in S. Giovanni Crisostomo, Venice (1513).
Giovanni painted numerous Madonna and Child pictures. Most, like the Madonna of the Trees (1478), depict the half-length Madonna supporting the Child on a balustrade across the foreground, with a fabric hanging just behind her head. Sometimes, as in this example, slivers of landscape are seen on either side of the fabric hanging.
Like all Venetian painters, Giovanni executed portrait commissions. Among the finest are the glowing portrait of the doge Leonardo Loredan and the so-called Condottiere.
Noteworthy pictures of saints include St. Francis (ca. 1478) and the panels St. Jerome Reading in Florence, London, and Washington, D. C. The panoramic St. Mark Preaching in Alexandria was begun by Gentile and completed by Giovanni after Gentile's death in 1507. The Martyrdom of St. Mark was begun by Giovanni in 1515 and finished after his death by Vittore Belliniano, his pupil.
Giovanni also painted a few nonreligious pictures. The Allegory (ca. 1500) is significant for its beautiful landscape and quiet air. The group of five small allegories in the Academy, Venice, may have adorned a mirror frame. The masterpiece among Giovanni's secular works is the Feast of the Gods (1514); after Bellini's death Titian repainted portions of the landscape background. The Feast of the Gods creates a calm, rather pastoral mood compared with the more lusty pagan expressions of the same theme painted by Titian.
Bellini painted literally hundreds of works; more than 300 survive. With them he brought Venetian painting abreast of the more progressive work being done in Rome.
Further Reading on Giovanni Bellini
Philip Hendy and Ludwig Goldscheider's monograph, Giovanni Bellini (1945), is useful. See also Rodolfo Pallucchini, Giovanni Bellini (1959; trans. 1963). For general background see Cecil Gould, An Introduction to Italian Renaissance Painting (1957), and Frederick Hartt, History of Italian Renaissance (1970).