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Title: Bellini - Masterpieces in Colour Series
Author: Hay, George
Language: English
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Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

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    ARTIST.                AUTHOR.
  VELAZQUEZ.             S. L. BENSUSAN.
  REYNOLDS.              S. L. BENSUSAN.
  TURNER.                C. LEWIS HIND.
  ROMNEY.                C. LEWIS HIND.
  GREUZE.                ALYS EYRE MACKLIN.
  BELLINI.               GEORGE HAY.
  LEIGHTON.              A. LYS BALDRY.
  RAPHAEL.               PAUL G. KONODY.
  TITIAN.                S. L. BENSUSAN.
  MILLAIS.               A. LYS BALDRY.
  TINTORETTO.            S. L. BENSUSAN.
  LUINI.                 JAMES MASON.
  VAN DYCK.              PERCY M. TURNER.
  RUBENS.                S. L. BENSUSAN.
  WHISTLER.              T. MARTIN WOOD.
  HOLBEIN.               S. L. BENSUSAN.
  CHARDIN.               PAUL G. KONODY.

            _In Preparation_

  J. F. MILLET.          PERCY M. TURNER.
  CONSTABLE.             C. LEWIS HIND.
  RAEBURN.               JAMES L. CAW.
  BOUCHER.               C. HALDANE MACFALL.
  WATTEAU.               C. LEWIS HIND.
  MURILLO.               S. L. BENSUSAN.

               AND OTHERS.

[Illustration: PLATE I.--VIRGIN AND CHILD. (Frontispiece)

This picture is interesting, apart from its fine colour and drawing, on
account of the landscape background. It will be remembered that Bellini
was one of the first artists to introduce landscape into his pictures of
the Virgin. In the Academy at Venice.]








     I. Virgin and Child                        Frontispiece
          In the Academy at Venice
    II. The Doge Loredano                                 14
          In the National Gallery, London

   III. Angel playing a Lute                              24
          In the Academy at Venice

    IV. Madonna with the Holy Child Asleep                34
          In the Academy at Venice

     V. Pieta                                             40
          In the Brera Gallery at Milan

    VI. Allegory: The Barque of Love                      50
          In the Academy at Venice

   VII. Madonna and Child                                 60
          In the Academy at Venice

  VIII. Madonna and Child                                 70
          In the Brera Gallery at Milan



From the standpoint of the biographer, it is to be regretted that more
of the great Italian artists of the fifteenth century were not
associated with the Church. In the days of the most interesting activity
of painters and sculptors, the capacity to write was rarely met beyond
the monasteries and few people took the trouble to record any impression
of notable men in the early years of their career. We are apt to forget
that, for one artist whose name is preserved to us to-day, there are a
score of men whose work has perished, whose very names are forgotten. In
middle life, or in old age, when commissions from Popes or Emperors had
attracted the attention of the world at large to the best men of the
time, there might be some chronicler found to make passing but
invaluable reference to those of his contemporaries whose names were
common in men's mouths, but such notes were made in very haphazard
fashion, they were not necessarily accurate, and might be founded upon
personal observation or rumour, or even upon the prejudice that was
inevitable when Italy was a congerie of opposing states. Latter-day
historians grope painfully and conscientiously after the scanty records
of great painters, searching the voluminous writings of men who have
little to say, and very little authority for saying anything about the
great personalities of the art world of their time. It is not
surprising, under these circumstances, that despite much search the
record of many lives that must have been fascinating cannot be found. We
learn more of the man from his work than we can hope to learn from any
written record and, as the taste for studying pictures grows, so all the
internal evidence of a man's thought and ways of life accumulates and
the message that underlies canvas and stands revealed in colour and line
to the trained eye, is translated for the benefit of a curious
generation. We learn to know what manner of man the painter was from
the models he chose, the portraits he painted, the qualities and nature
of his landscape, the expression of his joy in light and air, his
feeling for flowers and birds. By a process of synthetical reasoning we
come to see, though it be as in a glass, darkly, the picture that every
man paints, from the years of his activity to the last year of his
sojourn among mortals--that is the portrait of himself. Doubtless we are
often misled, because as each critic, artist or layman, finds in the
picture a reflection of what he takes there, it remains difficult to
arrive at definite conclusions upon which all men can agree about any
painter. Happily the effort pleases our own generation, and as there are
many great men who flourished in the fifteenth century and have left
their pictures to be their sole monument, there is no lack of work.
Naturally in this curious and inquisitive age there are some who would
rather discover a well authenticated story about an artist's life than
an unexpected masterpiece from his hand, but then the appeal of letters
is always more widespread than that of paint. It is always pleasant to
endeavour to supply a want, but it is only fair to remember that in
writing about people whose life story was not preserved by their
contemporaries, the path is strewn with pitfalls.


This picture, which is of bust length and life size, is one of the ten
examples of Giovanni Bellini in the National Gallery, and is perhaps the
most important example of the artist as a portrait painter. The Doge
wears his state robes and cap of office, and the picture is signed on a

In dealing with the Italians from the days of Cimabue to Clovio, it has
been the custom to depend very largely upon the works of Giorgio Vasari,
and to rely for later and more accurate information upon the volumes
written by Crowe and Cavalcaselle, passing from them to Morelli and
Berenson. Vasari, to whom the students of Italian art, down to the
middle of the sixteenth century, are so deeply indebted, was born in
1512, and lived for more than sixty years. He was a painter and
architect, related to Luca Signorelli, and engaged for a great part of
his life upon work in Arezzo. He was a great copyist, a painstaking
writer, and never did critic wield a milder pen if he chanced to be
writing of Florentine art, or a more prejudiced one if he dealt with
things of Venice. He was first a patriot and then a critic. One night,
he tells us, a friend of Monsignore Giovio expressed a wish to add to
his library a treatise on men who had distinguished themselves in the
arts of design, from the time of Cimabue down to the year of the
conversation. Vasari undertook the work and founded it, he says, upon
notes and memoranda which he had made from the time when he was a boy.
The compilation was finished about the year 1547, it was written at a
time when the painter was very busy with commissions. He did his best in
a certain prejudiced fashion, and the result for all its defects is very
valuable. Naturally enough Vasari had not too large a share of the gifts
required for his task, nor had he the necessary facts before him for
writing really reliable history. Much that he wrote was accepted _faute
de mieux_, but modern researches have necessitated a revision of very
many estimates that Vasari formed for us, together with a considerable
portion of his facts, and we have learned to understand something of the
source and direction of his prejudices.

The literary union of Crowe and Cavalcaselle, who started their joint
work in the latter half of the nineteenth century, with better
equipment of facts and a larger measure of critical insight, has been
far more valuable, and a complete popular edition of their work revised
by sympathetic and well qualified writers is greatly to be desired; but
in no case can we regard a volume devoted to the biographies of scores
of artists as being altogether reliable. The spirit of study is abroad,
to-day men will devote more time to the life story of a comparatively
obscure artist than they would have given fifty years ago to
half-a-dozen painters of European reputation. It is not easy, one might
almost say it is not possible, to tell succinctly the story of men who
have left no clear record and were not regarded by their contemporaries
as fit and proper subjects for a biography. At best we can study the
available sources of information, and use such measure of judgment as
is in us to construct a reasonable and likely narrative. To delve in all
manner of likely and unlikely places, to study and make allowances for
the prejudices of the time, to rely upon the painted canvas to confirm
or confute the printed word--these are the tasks of the conscientious
biographer who must not be ill content if, after sifting an intolerable
amount of chaff, he can find a few forgotten grains of corn.



Giovanni, or Gian Bellini as he is generally called, the subject of this
brief record and appreciation, is one of the most fascinating painters
of the fifteenth century. He has left many a lovely picture to the
world, but alas he was no diarist, he had no Boswell, and there are gaps
in the history of his life that will never be filled up. In the vast and
unexplored region of Italian archives there may be some facts that
research will bring to light, but at present we know very little, and
can only be grateful that the story of his life is not shrouded
altogether in the mist that obscures so much of the personal history of
eminent Venetians in the fifteenth century.

"When zealous efforts are supported by talent and rectitude, though the
beginning may appear lowly and poor, yet do they proceed constantly
upwards by gradual steps, never ceasing nor taking rest until they have
finally attained to the summit of distinction." In this fashion Giorgio
Vasari, who in those admirable but unreliable "Lives," seldom fails to
speak kindly and enthusiastically of artists whom neither he nor his
friends had occasion to dislike, begins his account of the house of
Bellini. He passes on to deal in detail with Jacopo Bellini, the father
of that Giovanni with whose life and work it is proposed to deal briefly
in this place. Of the father little is known, but he is said to have
lived in the shadow of St. Mark's great Cathedral in Venice, and to have
worked under some of the Umbrian masters in the Ducal Palace. He must
have served and studied in the studio of Gentile da Fabriano in days
when Fra Angelico had not reached the Convent of San Marco; there is
evidence, too, that he travelled and painted portraits. The date of his
death is as uncertain as the year of his birth. It is said that the new
paganism held more attractions for him than the old faith, and that the
most of his commissions were from the great and flourishing secular
institutions of the Republic. Little is left of his pictures, but a few
delightful sketches are preserved in Paris and London and, but for the
larger fame of his sons, Jacopo Bellini would doubtless have been
forgotten to-day, and such work as is left would be attributed by
leading critics to different masters.

Gentile Bellini seems to have been born between 1425 and 1430 and the
date of Giovanni's birth is not known definitely. It may be associated
with the year 1430.


This is a detail from an altar-piece formerly in the Church of San
Giobbé. The work is now in the Academy of Venice.]

At this time it must be remembered that Venice was on the road to her
ultimate decline. Costly wars with Milan and Florence had seriously
damaged the Exchequer, the fratricidal sea-fights with Genoa had cost a
wealth of human life and treasure and, although Venice had annexed
nearly a dozen provinces in half a century, the outlay had been out of
proportion to the results. At the same time, the Venetians did not know
that their splendid state was on the downward road. The new route to
India was unknown. Columbus and Diaz had yet to withdraw the sea-borne
commerce of the world from Venice to Spain, and so bring about the
commercial ruin of the Republic, and the Republic, with her maritime
trade and her wealth of spoils from the East, could furnish endless
material for the artists who were rising in her midst. Everywhere there
was colour in abundance, the "Purple East" cast a broad shadow upon the
Adriatic. Then, again, it is worth remarking that the Venetian painters
did not concern themselves, as their Florentine brothers did, with
matters lying beyond the scope of their canvas, they did not dally with
architecture or sculpture in the intervals of picture painting. In
short, pictures represented the tribute of Venice to the arts, and this
concentration was not without its influence upon the work done.
Literature did not flourish, because the city reared few literary men
and the tendency of the citizens was towards pleasure rather than study.
All could admire a picture at a time when few could read a book, and the
spirit of the Renaissance, fluttering over the Venetian Republic, had
done little more than waken its people to a sense of the beauty of the
human form. Although in the days when Gian Bellini was a little boy, the
terror of the Turkish invasion was upon the eastern end of the
Mediterranean, it had hardly reached Venice or, if it had, only through
the medium of envoys and kings who came to ask the assistance of the
Republic to keep the Turk from Constantinople. To these appeals the
response of Venice in those days could not be very efficacious, but the
envoys added a more flamboyant note to the city's colouring, and served
an artistic if not a political purpose.

Vasari tells us that Jacopo Bellini painted his pictures not on wood,
but on canvas. "In Venice," he writes naïvely, "they do not paint on
panel, or if they do use it occasionally they take no other wood but
that of the fir, which is most abundant in that city, being brought
along the river Adige in large quantities from Germany. It is the custom
then in Venice to paint very much upon canvas, either because this
material does not so readily split, is not liable to clefts, and does
not suffer from the worm, or because pictures on canvas may be made of
such size as is desired, and can also be sent whithersoever the owner
pleases, with little cost and trouble." Perhaps Vasari overlooked the
effect of sea air upon open frescoed walls, although that effect was
clear enough to the Venetians. But Jacopo, for all that he painted upon
canvas, and was employed by some of the leading Venetian guilds, makes
no outstanding figure upon the page of the art history of Venice. He
seems to have lived prosperously, honourably, and intelligently, to have
caught the earliest possible reflection of the growing spirit of
paganism, thereby incurring the anger and mistrust of the Church party
that had regarded painting as the proper intermediary between faith and
the general public, to have pleased his state employers in Venice and
Padua, and then to have died rather outside the odour of sanctity,
leaving an honourable name behind him, and children who were destined to
spread its fame far and wide.

Students of Gian Bellini's life and work can see that only a part of the
father's teaching fell upon fruitful soil. Jacopo Bellini, as we have
seen, was a man in whom the early religious spirit that the Renaissance
did much to cloud over was of small account, but the pagan revival that
found so many adherents in Florence and Venice, towards the close of the
fifteenth century, left young Gian Bellini almost untouched. We shall
see that the commissions offered by wealthy patrons, who had no love for
sacred subjects, were either rejected, or were accepted and not
fulfilled. It is surely permissible to believe that the teaching of
early days had a lasting influence upon the outlook of the two
Bellinis, and strengthened them in the determination to do work that
appealed as much to their heart as to their hand. Certainly they
followed conscience where it led them. In the case of Gian Bellini, with
whom we are mostly concerned here, it is interesting to see that his
long life, passed as it was in the very critical time that embraced the
fall of Constantinople and the League of Cambrai, was completely free
from cloud. His mind was formed very early. He worked strenuously,
carefully, and in the fashion that pleased his conscience, till within a
very short time of his death, and the serenity of his spirit, clearly
revealed in a series of exquisite pictures, was untouched by all that
happened in the world around him.

Changes came thick and fast upon Venice in the years when Bellini was
hard at work, and new ideas were receiving acceptance on every hand.
The Renaissance, with its revival of pagan thought in the train of
learning, scattered new ideas throughout the Venetian studios. Bellini's
pupil and successor Titian could depict pagan goddess and Christian
Deity with equal facility. Giorgione was travelling along the same paths
when death overtook him, but Gian Bellini, while he continued to make
progress in his art, refused to make any concession to the pagan spirit,
and with one possible exception in the case of the Bacchanals, a picture
painted for the Duke of Ferrara, now in the Alnwick Castle Collection,
his last pictures were as devout in thought and feeling as the first.

It seems strange, perhaps, to express doubts about a picture that bears
the painter's signature, and has been freely accepted as the work of his
hands, but we must not forget that the fifteenth-century painters in
Italy were the directors of a school as well as the tenants of a studio.
The Bellini and Vivarini families were at the head of Venetian painters,
and consequently the best students of the time were attracted to their
studios, content to mix colours, prepare canvases, and paint the less
important parts of a commissioned picture. After a time they even
painted pictures, and signed them with the master's name. We have
certain facts in connection with the Ferrara picture, and few facts are
to be found in the case of any others. It is on record that Bellini took
an unfinished picture to Ferrara, completed it under the eye of the
Duke, and received eighty-five ducats for it. The question becomes
whether this is the picture now at Alnwick that Titian finished, because
those who know it say that the background has a landscape of the
familiar Titian kind, with glimpses of Cadore and Pieve, where the
younger painter was born. We are left, then, with the almost certain
knowledge that Titian painted a part of the "Bacchanal" picture, and
that the other part is opposed in sentiment to Bellini's theories of
art. So the sceptics do not lack a measure of justification.


This is one of the most beautiful of the painter's studies of a familiar
theme, and appeals to the spectator from the literary as well as the
artistic side. The original is in the Venice Academy.]

In the latter days of his life Bellini's studio became something like a
factory, and there seems very little reason to doubt that some of his
clever pupils like Bondinelli, Bissolo, Marconi, Catena and others were
allowed to sign, with the master's name, "Ioannes Bellinus," pictures
that had no more than the slightest acquaintance with the master's
brush. One of the most distinguished of our modern critics, Mr. Bernhard
Berenson, attended an exhibition of Venetian pictures held in London a
few years ago, and found that the great majority of the pictures
attributed to Bellini were by his pupils. He pointed out then that the
signature upon which the unfortunate owners were accustomed to lean was
no better than a broken reed. Bellini, of course, was not the only
offender in this respect. His great pupil Titian copied the master's
fault, and there is on record a letter from Frederic, Duke of Mantua,
asking Titian to send out work that has his touch as well as his
signature. With these facts before us, it becomes permissible to doubt
whether Bellini, in the last years of a long life devoted to sacred
work, elected to turn aside, and yield deliberately to the pagan
movement he had opposed so long. We can find no other work of his hand
that is directly opposed to his theories of religious art, though it is
fair to remember that he had a very active mind, and even responded to
the influence of his own great pupils Titian and Giorgione.



It is not easy to say how far a great painter reflects his time and how
far he influences it. Tradition and surroundings must needs count for
much, but their exact value is not easy to estimate. Indeed the
influence of a man is often strongest upon the generations that succeed
to his own, for no hints are left of the doubts and difficulties that
beset the master. The attitude of the Venetians towards art in the
fifteenth century, when Gian Bellini started his work, differed from
that of the Florentines by reason of the splendid isolation of Venice.
The State was a law to herself; she instituted her own customs, she
ruled her own life. Her wars had less effect than her commercial
victories upon those of her citizens who turned their thoughts towards
art, the stress and strife beyond her boundaries left her artists
comparatively untouched. The wider significance of the Renaissance
hardly reached her, her people were not only pleasure-loving, but
self-centred. Happily, Jacopo Bellini was by way of being a traveller
and his experiences were not lost upon his children. He knew Florence
and worked in the city at a time when her great men were beginning to
rise in all their lasting glory, he may have seen Brunelleschi himself
at work upon the Duomo. He knew Padua, where the tradition of Giotto was
very strong, though that great master himself had long passed away,
and so he brought to the art he practised in his own city something
of the technique of the new movement, as well as the very definite touch
of the pagan sentiment that was to be developed in all its beauty by his
son's pupils Titian and Giorgione. The effect of his travels, limited
though they were, was very lasting, and though Gian Bellini did not see
life as his father had seen it, his work paved the way for the masters
whose work was in some aspects greater than his. In his early days
Venice had no very distinctive art. What there was seems to have been
ecclesiastical in thought and extremely formal in design. It was the
appeal of the clericals to a people who could neither write nor read,
but although a State may erect boundaries and may devote itself to the
enjoyment of prosperity, those who care for the claims of art cannot
escape altogether from the forces that are at work in surrounding
cities. One of the chief forces at work in Northern Italy was the
revival of learning that seems to have marched side by side with the
discovery of personal beauty. The Church had kept beauty in the
background, the Renaissance brought it to the canvas of every artist.
Bellini turned the discovery of personal beauty to the service of the

[Illustration: PLATE V.--PIETA

This fine example of the master's art may be seen at the Brera Gallery
in Milan.]

Students of the life of Fra Angelico know that a Dominican preacher
exercised a very great effect upon the painter's life, and was
responsible for sending him, at a very early age, to the great Convent
of the Dominicans at Fiesole. There he was received as a brother, and
from the shelter of the cloister he gave his art message to the world,
his story being preserved to us at the same time because the progress of
the Dominicans was recorded. A few years later Giovanni Bellini, then a
boy newly in his teens, would seem to have fallen under a very similar
influence. He was not fourteen when St. Bernardino came to Padua and
preached the doctrine of godliness and Jew-baiting to a people who were
not ill-disposed towards asceticism. In the fifteenth century a boy of
fourteen was a man. The Pope made Cardinals of lads who were still
younger and many, who have left their names written large in Italian
history, were married when they were fifteen. Gian Bellini would have
been assisting his father in the decoration of the Gattemelata Chapel of
Padua at the time and there is no doubt that St. Bernardino's addresses
impressed him very deeply. To be sure he did not go into a religious
house after the fashion of Fra Angelico, but he turned his thoughts
towards religion, and for the rest of his long life his brush was kept
almost exclusively for the service of sacred art. The tendencies towards
paganism that his father is known to have shown held no attraction for
him. He sought to express the beauty of the New Testament stories, and
it is hard to find throughout all Italy an artist whose achievements in
that direction can vie with his, for Gian Bellini brought sensuous
beauty and rare qualities of emotion to canvas for the first time in the
history of painting.

In those early days of the middle century there were two acknowledged
leaders of painting in the world that young Bellini knew. The first was
his father, who is said to have studied in the studios of Gentile da
Fabriano (1370 to 1450), and that of Pisanello who was born somewhere
about the same time as da Fabriano, and died a year later. It is worth
noting that Jacopo Bellini called one of his sons Gentile after his
earliest master, though whether Gentile or Giovanni was the elder son
remains uncertain. Mr. Roger Fry, who writes with great authority upon
the subject, is of opinion that Gian may have been a natural son of
Jacopo, and in those days when Popes had "nephews" in abundance, and the
marriage vow was more honoured in the breach than the observance, very
little stigma attached to illegitimacy. The other great painter of Gian
Bellini's time was the Paduan painter Squarcione, who presided over a
large and flourishing school in his native city, and did work that was
quite as good as that of his contemporaries. He adopted as his son a lad
from Padua or Mantua named Andrea Mantegna, who was destined to take
such high rank among the painters of the Venetian School.

Although Padua and Venice were in a sense rivals, there seems to have
been a very friendly understanding for many years between Squarcione and
Jacopo Bellini, so that Gian and Gentile were able to watch the progress
of the Paduan master and his pupils, and to decide for themselves how
much they would accept, and what they would reject of the teaching. In
early years these influences must have been of great value to the
painter, but happily they were not destined to be lasting, for when
Gian's sister married Andrea Mantegna, Squarcione quarrelled with his
adopted son, and the intimacy with the Bellini family came to an end.
This is as it should have been in the best interests of Gian Bellini's
art, for when he returned to Venice and settled down there permanently,
he was able to follow his own ideas, and free himself from what was bad
in the influence of the stiff, formal, and lifeless school of Padua.

Venice must have been a remarkable city in those years. To-day it
stimulates the imagination as few cities in Europe can do, then it must
have been one of the wonders of the world. There are some striking
accounts of the city written in the latter part of the fifteenth
century, and though space does not permit any quotation at length, one
brief paragraph will not be out of place. Philippe de Comines, envoy of
Charles VIII., came to Venice in 1494, and recalled his impressions of
that city in his memoirs. "I was taken along the High Street," he
writes, "they call it the Grand Canal, and it is very broad, galleys
cross it; and it is the fairest street, I believe, that may be in the
whole world, and fitted with the best houses; the ancient ones are
painted, and most have a great piece of porphyry and serpentine on the
front. It is the most triumphant city I have ever seen, and doth most
honour to ambassadors and strangers. It doth most wisely govern itself,
and the service of God is most solemnly performed. Though the Venetians
have many faults, I believe God has them in remembrance for the
reverence they pay in the service of His Church." This brief tribute to
the charm of Venice is of special value because it helps us to
understand why the Venetians were not strenuous seekers after knowledge,
why their painters did no more than paint, and why their response to the
humanities was so small. It explains the decorative quality of Bellini's
pictures, the splendour of their colours. Pageantry and ceremonial
were the great desires of Venetian life, the man who could add to the
lustre of a State procession along the splendid water-way of the Grand
Canal was more to them than the scholar who had written a treatise that
moved the more learned Florentines to admiration. Life was so full of
pleasure, so varied in its appeals, that the Venetians could not spare
time, or even develop the will to study. They had raised the old cry
"panem et circenses" and, in the days of Gian Bellini, there was no lack
of either. History is full of records that reveal other nations in a
similar light, philosophers have drawn the inevitable conclusions--and
the trend of life is no wise altered.


This is one of a little series of panel pictures by Bellini that may be
seen in the Academy at Venice. The others depict Evil, Fate, Luxury, and
Zeal, and Prudence. This picture is sometimes called "Venus ruling the
World," but such a title seems rather foreign to the painter's own

Under Bellini, painting lost the conventions that had been regarded as
correct or inevitable in Squarcione's studio, and Gian's pictures bear
the same relation to those of the Paduan, and his pupil, as Newman's
writing bears to bad eighteenth-century English prose. But despite all
developments in the technique of his art, Gian Bellini's painting
remained quite constant to the mood that St. Bernardino had induced.
Doubtless, had his gifts been of another kind, he would have entered the
Church, he would have dreamed dreams and seen visions that would not
have found such world-wide expression while, being an artist, inheriting
artistic traditions from his father, living in the centre of the small
world of Venetian and Paduan painters, he expressed his beautiful
emotions in fashion that has not weakened its claim upon us in more than
four hundred years. The glamour of Venetian life, the extraordinary
beauty of the city that was his home, the splendour and the pageants
that were part of a Venetian life, the intensity of the colour that
surrounded him on all sides--some of it belonging to Venice by right,
and even more, brought to her shores by the ceaseless traffic of the
sea--all these things developed and deepened the emotion that was to
find so exquisite an expression from his brush. To him, as to Fra
Angelico, faith was a real and living thing, and like the great monk who
died at ripe age while he was yet a boy, Gian Bellini became a lover of
the world in its most picturesque aspect, accepting without hesitation
the traditional explanation of its creation.

Naturally enough his appeal to the artist is founded upon a dozen
considerations, mostly technical, his appeal to the layman is direct and
spontaneous. A countryman who has never seen a studio can respond to
the exquisite beauty of Bellini's Virgins and Children, can feel the
charm of the sunshine that fills the air and lights sea and land, can
recognise the infinite glamour of the roads that wind away into the
mysterious distance of the background, can enjoy the rich, almost
sensuous, colouring. Perhaps had Bellini taken the vows, a great part of
these beauties would have been lost, the infinite variety of lovely
women and children could hardly have been secured. As a Venetian, and a
pleasure lover, he could not have responded, as Fra Angelico did, to the
restricted life and rigid discipline of a religious order.

It was not easy for Gian Bellini to devote himself entirely to sacred
subjects if he wished to earn a living by his brush, because his father
had stood outside the Church. In those days, too, the best churchwork
was in the hands of one family, the Vivarini, whose monopoly was hardly
likely to be disturbed by an artist who could show no better credentials
than a connection, legitimate or illegitimate, with a painter whose
feeling was distinctly pagan. Jacopo Bellini, for all that he was a most
admired artist, had no claims upon the Church, and does not seem to have
received many commissions from it. Various wealthy societies in Venice
had been accustomed to employ him to decorate their halls with work
that, as we have said before, has been lost, and their guilds or
_scuole_ would doubtless have given Gian all the work he wished to do
had he been satisfied to do it.

He could not choose for himself. St. Bernardino had chosen for him in
those years when his mind was most impressionable. Gian Bellini's hand
was doubtless to be seen in Padua where he assisted his father, and his
earliest independent work is to be found in the Casa Correr at Venice,
where one finds a "Transfiguration," a "Crucifixion," and two "Pietas."
He painted portraits, one from our own National Gallery is to be seen
here. This is a picture of the Doge, Leonardo Loredano, who held office
from 1501 to 1521.

The early pictures reveal Bellini at the parting of the ways. His
figures have many of the defects of the School of Padua. His knowledge
of anatomy is decidedly small, he lacks confidence in himself, and yet
it is not difficult to recognise that the painter is moving into a new
country, that his presentation of sacred subjects is developing on lines
that must add considerably to their artistic value and to the permanence
of their appeal.

An amusing story is told of the way in which young Bellini acquired his
knowledge of oil painting. He is said to have assumed the dress of a
Venetian nobleman, and to have gone to the studio of a popular artist of
the time, under pretext of having his portrait painted. While the
artist, one Antonello of Messina, was busily engaged upon his portrait,
Bellini is said to have watched the process very carefully and to have
secured the much needed lesson. It is more than likely that the story is
untrue, but it has obtained a large measure of credence.

His first big altar-piece is said to have been done for the altar of St.
Catherine of Sienna, and after one or two other church paintings had
been accomplished, Giovanni was commissioned to decorate the great
Council Hall of Venice with historical paintings. But it is well to
remember that altar painting never ceased to interest him, his greatest
achievements having been accomplished for churches. There are few things
in art more beautiful than Gian Bellini's altar-pieces. Ruskin has paid
a special tribute to the "Virgin and Four Saints" in the church
dedicated to St. Zaccaria, father of the Baptist. He says that the
Zaccaria altar-piece, and the one in the Frari, by the same master, are
the two finest pictures in the world. Of the big works, however, nothing
remains, Gentile being the only one of the family who is represented
to-day by pictures painted on a very large scale. Vasari tells us that
Gian painted four pictures in fulfilment of a commission, one
representing the Pope Alexander III. receiving Frederic Barbarossa after
the abjuration of the Schism of 1177, the next showing the Pope saying
Mass in San Marco, another representing his Holiness in the act of
presenting a canopy to the Doge, and the last in which the Pontiff is
presented with eight standards and eight silver trumpets by clergy
assembled outside the gates of Rome. These subjects or some of them had
been painted by one Gueriento of Verona when Marco Corner was Doge.
Petrarch had written the inscriptions for them, but they had faded, and
in later years Tintoretto painted his "Paradiso" over the damaged
frescoes. There is a story to the effect that Giovanni and Gentile
Bellini had promised the councillors that their pictures should last two
hundred years; as a matter of fact, they would seem to have been
destroyed by fire within half that period.


This picture shows the centre figures of a very famous painting by
Bellini in the Academy at Venice in which the Madonna and Child are seen
between St. Catherine and St. Mary Magdalen. The faces most delightfully
painted are full of spiritual grace and the colouring is exquisite.]

The style of the picture commissioned makes its own significant
commentary upon the times. It was always considered advisable to stir
in the Venetians appreciation for State ceremonial, which encouraged so
much of the pageantry associated with Venetian life and, even if
Giovanni Bellini had no keen taste for such work, he could not refuse a
commission that would establish his name among his fellow countrymen.
To-day the Sala del Maggior Consiglio holds pictures by Titian, Paul
Veronese, and other artists who followed closely upon Gian Bellini's



Shortly after the Council Hall pictures had been undertaken, in 1479, to
be exact, the Sultan, Mohammed II., conqueror of Constantinople, wished
to have his portrait painted, and applied to the Doge of Venice to send
him a competent artist to do the work. It should be remembered that the
Sultan had been waging a successful war upon Venice, and that in January
1479 the State had ceded Scutari, Stalimene, and other territory and had
agreed to pay an indemnity of 200,000 ducats, with a tribute of 10,000
ducats a year for trading rights and the exercise of consular
jurisdiction in Constantinople. Naturally the success of the Turks, who
had taken Constantinople in 1454, was making a very great impression
throughout Europe, and Venice had striven to the uttermost to rouse the
Powers to concerted action, but in those days nobody was anxious to
trust the Republic. These are matters, of course, that pertain to
history rather than art, but it is curious to remember that throughout
the times when the watchers from St. Mark's Tower saw the reflected
glare of burning cities, when the security of Christian Europe was
threatened seriously, when plagues were devastating Venice, Gian Bellini
seems to have gone on his way all undisturbed, painting his pictures in
the most leisurely fashion, and the fact that art stood right above
politics and strife is clearly shown in the action of the Sultan in
sending to Venice for a good artist as soon as peace had been restored.
There seems to have been some question of sending Gian because his
brother was busily engaged on other work in the Ducal Palace, but after
a while it was decided to send Gentile, who painted a portrait of the
Sultan that found its way afterwards into the Layard Collection in
Venice. Some surprise has been expressed that the Sultan should have
allowed any one to paint his portrait, because portrait painting is
forbidden by the Koran[1], but Mohammed II. was a man of very advanced
ideas and he not only gave sittings to Gentile Bellini, but treated him
with the greatest favour, dismissing him with many marks of approval and
great gifts. Among the presents brought back to Venice by the painter
were the armour and sword of the great Doge Dandolo, who had been buried
in the year 1205 in the private chapel in St. Sophia. Mohammed II. had
caused the great tomb to be destroyed, but he sent the great patriot's
armour back to its native land. Vasari tells us that the meeting between
the brothers on Gentile's return to Venice was most affectionate.

  [1] Mohammed said: "If ye must make pictures, make them of
      trees and things without souls. Verily every painter is
      condemned to hell fire."

This journey to Constantinople would seem to have added to the
reputation of the house of Bellini, and to have increased the demand for
portraits by both brothers. This, in its way, would doubtless have led
to the multiplying of school pieces. History has very little to tell of
the progress of the brothers during the years that followed. We know
that the Doge Loredano, whose portrait has been painted by Gian Bellini,
succeeded to his high office in 1501, that Titian would have been
working in Bellini's studio then, and that Bellini himself was in the
enjoyment of what was known as a broker's patent, and was official
painter to the State. His was the duty of painting the portrait of every
Doge who succeeded to the control of Venetian affairs during his term of
office, and he also painted any historical picture in which the Doge had
to figure. There was a salary attached to the office, and the work was
quite light. As far as we can tell Gian Bellini was still averse from
painting secular subjects. He was now an old man, but he had made great
progress in his work, conquering many of the difficulties of
perspective, shadow, and colouring that had baffled his predecessors.
The pageants demanded by the great Mutual Aid Societies (_Scuole_) from
the artists in their employ, he would seem to have left to his brother
Gentile, for these pictures had a big political purpose to serve, and
they demanded the travel, the experience, and the mood that Gian lacked.
His brush was sufficiently occupied with altar-pieces and portraits of
distinguished Venetians, now, alas, lost to the world.

One incident that is not without its instructive side in this connection
is recorded in the year 1501, when Isabella, Duchess of Mantua, sent
her agent in Venice to Gian Bellini to arrange with him to paint a
secular subject. The old painter, now in the neighbourhood of his
seventieth year, accepted money on account, and then turned his thoughts
to other things. The agent worried him from time to time with little or
no effect, and wrote despairing letters to the Duchess to convey
Bellini's various excuses. Not until 1504, when the Duchess was
proposing to take legal action, was the picture finished, and then it
does not seem to have been what was required. At the same time it must
have been a work of great merit, because a year later we find the
Duchess commissioning another picture, and asking for a secular subject,
which the old painter after much hesitation refused to paint.


This picture is from the Brera Gallery in Milan and is held by many of
the painter's admirers to be his finest presentment of the Mother and
the Son. It is certainly a work of most enchanting beauty, one to which
the eye turns again and again.]

Happily Isabella d'Este was not only a voluminous letter writer, but
her correspondence has been preserved, and some forty letters were
written in connection with the Bellini picture, by the lady whom
Cardinal Bembo called "the wisest and most fortunate of women," and of
whom a poet wrote, "At the sound of her name all the Muses rise and do
reverence." She had seen Bellini's work, and had admired it in Venice,
before she asked a friend, one Signor Vianello, to secure a picture for
her _camerino_. At first the old painter raised objections, says
Vianello. "I am busy working for the Signory in the Palace," he said,
"and I cannot leave my work from early morning until after dinner." Then
he asked for 150 ducats and said he would make time, then he came down
to 100 ducats and accepted 25 on account Then as has been explained, he
declared that he could not undertake the class of subject that the
Duchess wanted, and Isabella wrote to say that she would accept anything
antique that had a fine meaning. Vianello writes in reply to say that
Bellini has gone to his country villa and cannot be reached, and the
correspondence and the years pass, until at last the Duchess gets quite
cross and writes, "We can no longer endure the villainy of Giovanni
Bellini," and goes on to instruct her agent to make application to the
Doge, Leonardo Loredano, the one whose portrait, painted by Giovanni
Bellini, is in our National Gallery, to commit the old painter for
fraud. To this action Bellini responds by showing Vianello that he has a
"Nativity" three parts finished, and after a time he sends it to the
Duchess together with a very humble letter of apology, that the lady is
good enough to accept. She even writes, "Your 'Nativity' is as dear to
us as any picture we possess."

In 1506 Albert Dürer was in Venice where he declares that he found the
Venetians very pleasant companions, and adds with sly sarcasm that some
of them knew how to paint. At the same time he records his fear lest any
of them should put poison in his food, but speaks in high terms and
without suspicion of Gian Bellini who had praised his work and offered
to buy a picture. All these things are small matters enough, but
unhappily the records of Bellini's life are so scanty that it is hard to
find anything more until the year 1513 when Gian Bellini, well over
eighty, found his position as official painter challenged by his pupil
Titian, who presented a petition to the Council of Ten, stating _inter
alia_ that he was desirous of a little fame rather than of profit, that
he had refused to serve the Pope, and that he wanted the first broker's
patent that should be vacant in the Fondaco de' Tedeschi on the same
conditions as those granted to Messer Zuan Bellin.[1] The work that was
being done was the restoration of the Great Hall of the Council, and the
painting had been in progress for some forty years, Gian Bellini and two
pupils being now engaged upon it. There is no doubt that this
application by Titian annoyed Bellini's friends and pupils, and even to
us it seems a little unreasonable and in bad form to clamour so eagerly
for a place that was already occupied. But it would seem to have been
the custom of the time to apply early for any privilege of this kind,
for we find in later years that Tintoretto applied for Titian's place
long before the older master's capacity for working had come to an end.

  [1] This was the Venetian way of spelling Gian Bellini's name.

Bellini's friends were successful, although it would appear that the old
painter's progress had been too slow completely to satisfy the Council
of Ten. In the following year Titian, who had been allowed to start
work, was told that he must wait until older claims were satisfied, the
expenses of his assistants were disallowed, and his commission came to
an end. In the autumn of that year Titian brought another petition to
the Council, asking once more for the first vacant broker's patent, and
mentioning the fact that Bellini's days could not be long in the land.
Just about this time the Venetian authorities seem to have held an
inquiry into the progress of the work that was being done in the Hall of
the Great Council, only to find that the amount of money they had spent
should have secured them a far larger amount of work than had been
accomplished. It is hardly surprising that these inquiries should have
become necessary, there must have been a great laxity in the State
departments in the years following the working out of the plans that had
been made by France, Austria, Spain, and the Pope at Cambrai. In the
last few years Venice had been fighting for her life, Lombardy had
passed out of her hands, Verona, Vicenza, and Padua had followed. The
Republic had even been forced to seek aid from the Sultans of Turkey and
Egypt, and although Venice was destined to emerge from her troubles and
light the civilised world a little longer there is small cause for
wonder if, in the times of exceptional excitement, her statesmen had not
given their wonted attention to the progress of the arts. Doubtless Gian
Bellini's leisurely methods and failing strength were accountable for
the slow progress of the pictures in the Council Hall, and Titian took
advantage of the fact to send in a third petition, offering to finish
some work at his own expense, but he had no occasion to take much more

On November 29, 1516, Gian Bellini died, well on the road to his
ninetieth year, "and there were not wanting in Venice," says Vasari,
"those who by sonnets and epigrams sought to do him honour after his
death as he had done honour to himself and his country during his life."
One cannot help thinking that half-a-dozen pages of biography would have
been worth a bushel of sonnets.

With Gian Bellini the last great painter of purely religious subjects
passed away. He had stood between art and paganism. Perhaps the younger
men found him narrow and pedantic, but it is certain that so long as
Gian Bellini was the leading painter of Venice it was not easy for
pictures to respond to the ever growing demands that followed the
Renaissance. Now the road was clear, painting was to reach its highest
point in the work of Giorgione and Titian, and was then to decline
almost as rapidly as it had risen.

Gian Bellini for all the wide influence that he exerted, not only upon
contemporary painting, but upon sculpture too, sent very little work out
of Venice. Examples are to be seen in cities that are comparatively
close at hand, Rimini, Pesaro, Vicenza, Bergamo, and Turin, but his
genius seems to have been too completely recognised in his own city for
his work to travel far afield, and the portrait of himself in the Uffizi
Gallery is no more than a pupil's work with a studio signature. One of
his last undisputed paintings was for the altar of St. Crisostom in
Venice. It is said that he painted it at the age of eighty-five. After
death his fame suffered by the rise of those stars of Venetian painting,
Titian, Giorgione, and Tintoretto, and throughout three centuries his
work was held in comparatively small esteem, perhaps because it was
often judged by the studio pictures with the forged signatures. As late
as the middle of the nineteenth century nobody seemed quite to know the
real pictures from the false ones, but with the rise of critics like
Crowe, Morelli, and Berenson a much better state of things has been
established. Copies and student works have been separated from the
originals, careful study of technique and mannerism has made clear a
large number of points that were doubtful and in dispute, and although
the process of separating the sheep from the goats has reduced
considerably the number of works that can be accepted as genuine, the
gain to the artist's reputation atones for the loss.

The plates are printed by BEMROSE DALZIEL, LTD., Watford

The text at the BALLANTYNE PRESS, Edinburgh

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