Born sometime between 1431 and 1436, and active for more than half a century until shortly before his death in 1516, the painter Giovanni Bellini was raised in a family of artists and lived his entire life in the midst of progressive artistic culture in the north of Italy. His father was Jacopo Bellini, his brother was Gentile Bellini, and his brother-in-law was Andrea Mantegna. Bellini’s cousin, Leonardo Bellini, was an eminent manuscript illuminator.
Active as an independent artist as early as the mid- to late 1450s (he is first documented in 1459), Bellini nonetheless continued to work on collaborative projects with his father and brother well into the 1460s. Aside from possible trips outside of Venice to Romagna, the Marches, Verona, and Vicenza (evidence of buildings from these localities appear in his paintings) and his association with Padua and northern Italian court culture in Mantua via Mantegna, Bellini was exclusively identified with Venice. There he lived, married a woman named Ginevra, had a son called Alvise, and worked for the remainder of his life as a painter and as a fully invested member of Venetian society. He was a member of various confraternities, including the Scuola di S. Cristoforo dei Mercanti and the Scuola Grande di S. Marco. Bellini’s association with the Venetian state was of long-standing duration, dating from his completion in 1479 of a cycle of history paintings in the Doge’s Palace (destroyed in 1577).
In the culture and business of Venetian painting, Giovanni was initially overshadowed by his brother Gentile. Yet by the late 1470s and early 1480s, particularly after 1479 when Gentile departed Venice for an appointment as painter to the court of Muhammad II in Constantinople, Giovanni came into his own and rapidly became the most active, highly regarded, and influential painter of late-fifteenth- and early-sixteenth-century Venice. His workshop, engaging several generations of apprentices and future independent masters, was among the largest, if not the largest on the whole of the Italian peninsula.
In addition to his impact on his immediate workshop and on a group of largely unknown minor masters (often called the Belliniani), Bellini’s extensive influence was felt by celebrated contemporaries such as Cima di Conegliano, Marco Basaiti, Bartolomeo Montagna, and Vincenzo Catena as well by major artists of the next generation like Palma Vecchio, Giorgione, and Titian. An artist who worked in just about every vein of Venetian art from portraiture to altarpieces, private devotional works to major history paintings, religious and mythological allegories, Bellini is important for the transitional role he played in the movement of the Venetian tradition from egg tempera to oil painting. As a result, his artistic production ranges from works characterized by strongly linear and clearly delineated forms inspired by Donatello and Mantegna at mid-fifteenth century to works in his later career that are characterized by more loosely painted atmospheric effects possible through multiple oil glazes in a manner that would reach fruition with the younger artists of the next generation, most notably Giorgione and Titian.
By the time of his death in 1516, Bellini was firmly regarded as the best painter in Venice. So pivotal was Bellini’s role in Venetian painting that in 1506 Albrecht Dürer, then resident in Venice from the north of Europe, referred to him as “very old, but still the best in painting.” This high level of praise continued after Bellini’s death when the Venetian diarist Marin Sanudo wrote that “despite [Bellini’s] great age he still painted excellently.” Historians now credit Bellini for his pivotal role in transforming Venetian painting from a regional style of little more than local import to a school of international importance.
In part, Bellini’s reputation in Venice was founded on a series of major altarpieces for local churches that mark the pivotal role that the artist played in transforming this religious form from a still late medieval, multipart assemblage of figures against a gold ground to a single panel pictorial field with figures set in monumental architecture and continuous and deep landscape space. Arguably, Bellini’s high reputation during his lifetime was even more firmly established by the voluminous production by his own hand and those of his workshop in producing smaller works of religious subject matter that served for either or both private devotion and the early artistic collecting of the Venetian middle to upper classes. These works included a number of half-length versions of the Suffering Christ or, Pietà, or Ecce Homo theme, and more than 80 variations on the half-length Madonna and Child composition. Roughly a third of Bellini’s entire known oeuvre that amounts to around 100 objects are half-length Madonna and Child compositions. So well regarded was Bellini’s production of Madonna and Child compositions that in 1515, the year before the artist’s death, the Venetian state sent one of these works (now lost or unidentified) as a diplomatic gift to King Francis I of France.
Bellini is typical of Venetian artists and, for that matter, Italian artists of the Renaissance in that his artistic production, like that of his workshop, was almost exclusively given over to the production of works of art of a religious and specifically Christian theme. Indeed, Bellini’s few nonreligious works, such as his various portrait commissions and his late The Feast of the Gods of 1514 for Alfonso d’Este, Duke of Ferrara (Washington, D.C., National Gallery of Art), are clearly the exception to the rule that his reputation predominantly stands on his religious works. Much more in evidence are, as mentioned above, his altarpieces and his smaller works depicting the dead Christ and the Madonna and Child. These are joined by several works that depict the lives of Christ, St. Francis, and St. Jerome. Bellini never executed an Old Testament scene for the Scuola di S. Marco, for which he signed a contract in 1470, and he only began his share of the work on the Life of St. Mark cycle, again for the Scuola di S. Marco, after the death of his brother Gentile in 1507 (St. Mark Preaching in Alexandria; Milan, Brera).
Bellini’s religious works, therefore, are Christian, but not exclusively biblical, and despite one moment of iconographic conservatism when he objected to the insertion of a figure of St. John the Baptist into a Nativity scene commissioned by Isabella d’Este, Marchesa of Mantua, the artist’s treatments of biblical subject matter are not strictly or narrowly descriptive of the biblical narrative. His approach was to translate the biblical subject matter into his own artistic idiom by situating his generally traditional treatment of biblical subjects into bucolic and poetic landscape settings of his own invention. These contexts are complete in many cases with background edifices and townscapes, and they are punctuated with characters that populate the distant ground but do not necessarily explicate the biblical subject in any direct manner or set it in any historical or even archaizing context. Rather, those invented, nonbiblical contexts serve to transport the biblical and its narrative from the distant there and then of the Holy Land to a generalized contemporary present that attracts attention to its lush, verdant landscape but as a whole defies specific topographical identification. These inventions of context also create in these works an overall meditative mood for an imagined presence and meditative purpose of the viewer/worshipper; in Bellini’s works of explicit biblical subject matter, the result is likewise a transformation of biblical narrative per se into a form of pictorial meditation on a subject and an implied presence of a viewer/worshipper whose purposes before the work of art are at once and inseparably aesthetic and devotional.
This is particularly the case with Bellini’s many Madonna and Child compositions in which the artist creates a kind of liminal presence of the sacred figures between deep bucolic spaces behind and an imagined viewer/worshipper before the object. The result is not necessarily that the biblical is absent from the nonnarrative image; the biblical is instead transformed from an immediate historical source to a flexible though vague historical reference for an image that operates wholly, aesthetically, and phenomenologically in the moment as both representation of actual or imagined divine events and reception of those events by those who beheld and/or made use of these works for religious purposes.
The historical and cultural context of Bellini as a painter of modified and deeply personalized and transposed biblical subjects resides in the deep history of medieval Christianity and in the connection of Bellini’s workshop to contemporary cultural and religious influences from the north of Europe. Much more so than any of his predecessors, contemporaries, or successors in Venetian painting, Bellini produced works that were latter-day responses to and continuations of the Byzantine icon tradition via the humanistic and naturalistic perspectives of the Italian Renaissance. The Byzantine icon tradition, while centuries old by the time of Bellini’s period of productivity, was still a current and accessible idiom in the larger Mediterranean reach and eastern extension of fifteenth- and early-sixteenth-century Venice. More local still, Byzantine icons were abundant in Venice itself, and trade in these religious objects remained a major feature of the Venetian picture trade even deep into Bellini’s life in the Renaissance. Like the many works in that tradition, Bellini’s depictions of the dead Christ and his representations of the Madonna and Child are resonant images that were evidently intended to bring forth the power of the idea of their subject—and not the subject itself as physically manifest—while acknowledging in their combined iconic and aesthetic presence the reciprocal presence and cultural/cultic gaze of a viewer/worshipper.
Equally accessible to Bellini was the more recent tradition of religious painting and the production of personal devotional images in the north of Europe, specifically in Flanders. Contemporaneous with the continuing importation of Byzantine icons, early Netherlandish paintings were also sold and collected in fifteenth- and early-sixteenth-century Venice. The influence of these works can be noted in Bellini’s use of oil paint and in both the detailed and atmospheric qualities of his background landscapes. Bellini’s indebtedness to the north of Europe, and especially to small devotional works in the tradition of Jan van Eyck, Rogier van der Weyden, Gerard David, Hans Memling, and their followers, is located also in his composing of figures close to the picture plane with evident engagement with the viewer/worshipper.
Finally, in concert with the various artistic influences on Bellini’s work from the north, there is an evident direct or indirect influence on the artist of the contemporary religious practice and philosophy of devotio moderna (literally, “modern devotion”). Stemming from the widely read Imitation of Christ (ca. 1418) by the Flemish theologian Thomas à Kempis, the devotio moderna encouraged readers not to look exclusively for symbolism in religious narratives but to practice immersing themselves emotionally in the stories and protagonists in the works before their eyes. In Italy, the Venetian Ludovico Barbo in his Method of Prayer and Meditation from around 1440, followed Thomas à Kempis’s example and similarly directed readers to envision themselves participating in sacred narratives.
It would be too simplistic and forced to argue that Bellini produced and the patrons/collectors of his works experienced the master’s art in direct response to either Thomas à Kempis or Ludovico Barbo’s ideas on prayer, meditation, and engagement with biblical experience and religious narrative. Nonetheless, Bellini’s works came into the Venetian cultural milieu in an era in which the devotio moderna had currency. The nonliteral approach in Bellini’s works to biblical narrative and personages, their meditative quality, and their compositional structure that acknowledges the presence of the viewer/worshipper before the object are all aspects that are consistent with this new approach to spiritual engagement that the devotio moderna offered and encouraged.
The Bible as sacred book does enter quite literally into Bellini’s oeuvre less as source for imagery than as represented object held in the hands of various saints that are painted in several of the artist’s major altarpieces. One of these inclusions is the Bible that is held and read by the figure of St. Jerome in Bellini’s San Zaccaria Altarpiece of 1505 (San Zaccaria, Venice). In that work St. Jerome stands to the right of the holy grouping centered on the Madonna and Child; Jerome’s concentration is deep and directed to his Bible.
In the previous century Leon Battista Alberti instructed painters to include at least one figure that looks out to the spectator and draws that spectator’s attention to the key narrative or sacred focus of the image or istoria. In Bellini’s work there is no Albertian chorus figure of sorts who stands beckoning between the animate outside and the fictive, represented figures and their action within the sacra conversazione of the altarpiece. Instead, it is arguably St. Jerome whose steady and silent focus on his Bible serves this same function, capturing with quietude the attention of the viewer/worshipper who stands outside the altarpiece within the nave of the Venetian church that still to this day houses this celebrated work.
Doubtless the inclusion of this Bible-reading saint is informative of how the Bible was present and had meaning for the artist, his patrons, and the viewers of these works of religious art in early-sixteenth-century Venice. Just what precisely this inclusion of the Bible and its reception may have meant for contemporaries will forever escape full discernment, but it is worth noting that by the time that Giovanni Bellini painted his San Zaccaria Altarpiece, the Bible in Venice had become an increasingly present, replicated, and perhaps changed object by means of the new revolution of the printing industry in that town.
Not surprisingly, early Venetian printers brought out from their presses numerous editions of the Bible, and it is worth underscoring that Bellini’s altarpiece dates from just half a decade after the close of the incunabular moment of early printing in Venice. How intriguing it is that neither we nor, it could be argued, Bellini’s contemporaries can really tell whether the Bible held by St. Jerome is a printed version or a manuscript. Standing before Bellini’s altarpiece in San Zaccaria, and with the viewer/worshipper beckoned into its imagery through the silent but magnetic present of a Bible-reading St. Jerome, one cannot help but wonder whether for Bellini’s contemporaries the Bible itself as a time-honored but then changing object was as much a significant subject within the painting as was the Madonna and Child at its center.
[See also RENAISSANCE VISUAL ART.]
- Belting, Hans. Giovanni Bellini, Pietà: Ikone und Bilderzählung in der venezianischen Malerei. Frankfurt: Fischer Taschenbuch Verlag, 1985.
- Goffen, Rona. Giovanni Bellini. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1989.
- Humfrey, Peter. “Giovanni Bellini.” In The Dictionary of Art, edited by Jane Turner, et al., Vol. 3, pp. 657–669. London: Macmillan, 1996.
- Humfrey, Peter, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Giovanni Bellini. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004.
- Robertson, Giles. Giovanni Bellini. New York: Hacker Art Books, 1981.
- Tempestini, Anchise. Giovanni Bellini. Milan: Electa, 2000.
Roger J. Crum