Giovanni Bellini and Titian’s The Feast of the Gods is one of the greatest Renaissance paintings in the United States by two fathers of Venetian art. In this illustration of a scene from Ovid's Fasti, the gods, with Jupiter, Neptune, and Apollo among them, revel in a wooded pastoral setting, eating and drinking, attended by nymphs and satyrs. According to the tale, the lustful Priapus, god of fertility, stealthily lifts the gown of the sleeping nymph Lotis, as seen in the painting. A moment later, he will be foiled by the braying of Silenus' ass and the assembled deities will laugh at Priapus' misadventure.
The Feast was the first in a series of mythologies, or bacchanals, commissioned by Duke Alfonso d'Este to decorate the camerino d'alabastro (alabaster study) of his castle in Ferrara. Bellini completed it two years before his death in 1514. Years later, the Duke commissioned two reworkings of portions of Bellini’s canvas. Dosso Dossi made an initial alteration to the landscape at left and added the pheasant and bright green foliage to the tree at upper right. Most famously, Bellini’s student, Titian, made a second set of alterations, painting out Dosso’s landscape with the dramatic, mountainous backdrop now seen, leaving only Dosso’s pheasant intact. It is possible that Titian wished to harmonize the Feast with the other, later paintings he also created for the camerino at the Duke’s behest. The figures and elements of the bacchanal were untouched by the later artists and remain Bellini’s own. The original tonalities and intensity of the colors have recently been restored, and the painting has regained its sense of depth and spaciousness.
lower right on wooden tub: joannes bellinus venetus / p MDXIIII
Probably commissioned by Alfonso I d'Este, Duke of Ferrara [d. 1534); by inheritance to his son, Ercole II d'Este, Duke of Ferrara [d. 1559]; by inheritance to his son, Alfonso II d'Este, Duke of Ferrara [d. 1597]; by inheritance to his cousin, Cesare d'Este, Duke of Ferrara; confiscated 1598 from the Castello at Ferrara by Cardinal Pietro Aldobrandini [d. 1621], Rome, when he was acting as Papal Legate and recorded in his inventory of 1603; by inheritance to his nephew, Cardinal Ippolito Aldobrandini [d. 1638], Rome, and recorded in his inventory of 1626; by inheritance to his niece, Olimpia Aldobrandini Borghese Pamphilj [d. 1681], Rome, and recorded in her pre-1665 inventory and 1682 posthumous inventory; by inheritance to her son, Giovan Battista Pamphilj Aldobrandini [d. 1710], Rome; Aldobrandini heirs, until the line became extinct in 1760; by inheritance 1769 to Paolo Borghese Aldobrandini [d. 1792], Rome; by inheritance to his nephew, Giovan Battista Borghese Aldobrandini [d. 1802], Rome; purchased 1796/1797 by Pietro Camuccini [1761-1833] for the collection of his brother, Vincenzo Camuccini [1771-1844], Rome; presumably by inheritance to Vincenzo's son, Giovanni Battista Camuccini [1819-1904], Rome; sold 1853 with the entire Camuccini collection through Antonio Giacinto Saverio, Count Cabral, Rome, to Algernon Percy, 4th duke of Northumberland [1792-1865], Alnwick Castle, Northumberland; by inheritance to his cousin, George Percy, 5th duke of Northumberland [1778-1867], Alnwick Castle; by inheritance to his son, Algernon George Percy, 6th duke of Northumberland [1810-1899], Alnwick Castle; by inheritance to his son, Henry George Percy, 7th duke of Northumberland 1846-1918], Alnwick Castle; sold 16 June 1916 to (Thomas Agnew & Sons, London) on joint account with (Arthur J. Sulley and Co., London); inheritance from Estate of Peter A.B. Widener by gift through power of appointment of Joseph E. Widener, Elkins Park, Pennsylvania, after purchase in 1921 by funds of the estate; gift 1942 to NGA.
- British Institution, London, 1856, no. 48, as The Gods feasting on the Fruits of the Earth.
- Fiftieth Anniversary Exhibition, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1920, unnumbered catalogue.
- Tiziano [NGA title: Titian: Prince of Painters], Palazzo Ducale, Venice; National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1990-1991, no. 19, repro.
- Titian, The National Gallery, London; Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid, 2003, no. 15, repro.
- Bellini, Giorgione, Titian, and the Renaissance of Venetian Painting, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, 2006-2007, no. 32, repro., fig. 7 in brochure.
- Hartshorne, Rev. C.H. A Guide to Alnwick Castle. London, 1865: 62.
- Paintings in the Collection of Joseph Widener at Lynnewood Hall. Intro. by Wilhelm R. Valentiner. Elkins Park, Pennsylvania, 1923: unpaginated, repro., as by Giovanni Bellini.
- Valentiner, Wilhelm R., ed. Unknown Masterpieces in Public and Private Collections. London, 1930: n.p., pl. 18.
- Paintings in the Collection of Joseph Widener at Lynnewood Hall. Intro. by Wilhelm R. Valentiner. Elkins Park, Pennsylvania, 1931: 106, repro., as by Giovanni Bellini.
- Tietze, Hans. Meisterwerke europäischer Malerei in Amerika. Vienna, 1935: 73, repro. (English ed., Masterpieces of European Painting in America. New York, 1939: 73, repro.).
- Works of Art from the Widener Collection. Foreword by David Finley and John Walker. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1942: 5, as by Giovanni Bellini.
- Cairns, Huntington, and John Walker, eds., Masterpieces of Painting from the National Gallery of Art. New York, 1944: 62, color repro., as by Giovanni Bellini.
- Paintings and Sculpture from the Widener Collection. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1948 (reprinted 1959): 14, repro., as by Giovanni Bellini.
- Einstein, Lewis. Looking at Italian Pictures in the National Gallery of Art. Washington, 1951: 74-78, repro., as by Giovanni Bellini.
- Walker, John. National Gallery of Art, Washington. New York, 1956: 24, color repro., as by Giovanni Bellini.
- Shapley, Fern Rusk. Comparisons in Art: A Companion to the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. London, 1957 (reprinted 1959): pl. 45
- Shapley, Fern Rusk. Later Italian Painting in the National Gallery of Art. Washington, D.C., 1960 (Booklet Number Six in Ten Schools of Painting in the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.): 22, color repro., as by Giovanni Bellini.
- The National Gallery of Art and Its Collections. Foreword by Perry B. Cott and notes by Otto Stelzer. National Gallery of Art, Washington (undated, 1960s): 6, as by Giovanni Bellini.
- Walker, John. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. New York, 1963 (reprinted 1964 in French, German, and Spanish): 144, repro.
- Summary Catalogue of European Paintings and Sculpture. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1965: 12, as by Giovanni Bellini.
- Cairns, Huntington, and John Walker, eds. A Pageant of Painting from the National Gallery of Art. 2 vols. New York, 1966: 1:154, color repro., as by Giovanni Bellini.
- European Paintings and Sculpture, Illustrations. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1968: 5, repro., as by Giovanni Bellini.
- Fehl, Philipp. "The Worship of Bacchus and Venus in Bellini's and Titian's Bacchanals for Alfonso d'Este." Studies in the History of Art vol. 6 (1974):38, 42-55, 58, 61, 79, repro.
- European Paintings: An Illustrated Summary Catalogue. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1975: 22, repro., as by Giovanni Bellini.
- Shapley, Fern Rusk. Catalogue of the Italian Paintings. 2 vols. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1979: I:38-47, II:pl. 26, 26A, 26B
- Sutton, Denys. "Robert Langton Douglas. Part III." Apollo 109 (June 1979): 431-431 [149-150].
- Watson, Ross.The National Gallery of Art, Washington. New York, 1979: 29, pl. 13.
- Alsop, Joseph. The Rare Art Traditions: The History of Art Collecting and Its Linked Phenomena Wherever These Have Appeared. Bollingen series 35, no. 27. New York, 1982: 92, fig. 34.
- Walker, John. National Gallery of Art, Washington. Rev. ed. New York, 1984: 201, no. 239, color repro.
- European Paintings: An Illustrated Catalogue. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1985: 41, repro.
- Bull, David and Plesters, Joyce. "The Feast of the Gods: Conservation, Examination, and Interpretation." Studies in the History of Art 40 (1990).
- Gingold, Diane J. and Elizabeth A.C. Weil. The Corporate Patron. New York, 1991: 91-92, 164-165, 200-201, color repro.
- Kopper, Philip. America's National Gallery of Art: A Gift to the Nation. New York, 1991: 198, 203, color repro.
- National Gallery of Art, Washington. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1992: 31, repro.
- Rearick, W. R. "From Arcady to the Barnyard." Studies in the History of Art 36 (1992): repro. no. 17.
- Tempestini, Anchise. Giovanni Bellini: catalogo complete dei dipinti. Florence, 1992: 9, 290-295, no. 103.
- Anderson, Jaynie. "The Provenance of Bellini's Feast of the Gods and a New/Old Interpretation." Studies in the History of Art 45 (1993): 264-287, repro. no. 10.
- Brown, David Alan. "The Pentimenti in The Feast of the Gods." Studies in the History of Art 45 (1993): 288-299, repro. no. 1, 2, 5, 7, 10.
- Bull, David. "The Feast of the Gods: Conservation and Investigation." Studies in the History of Art 45 (1993): 366-373, repro. no. 1-4, 6-9.
- Holberton, Paul. "The Pastorale or Fete champetre in the Early Sixteenth Century." Studies in the History of Art 45 (1993): 245-255, repro. no. 9.
- Manca, Joseph. "What is Ferrarese about Bellini's Feast of the Gods?" Studies in the History of Art 45 (1993):300-313, repro. no. 1, 2.
- Plesters, Joyce. "Examination of Giovanni Bellini's Feast of the Gods: A Summary and Interpretation of the Results." Studies in the History of Art 45 (1993): 374-391, repro. no. 1, 2.
- Sheard, Wendy Stedman. "Antonio Lombardo's Reliefs for Alfonso d'Este's Studio di Marmi: Their Significance and Impact on Titian." Studies in the History of Art 45 (1993): 317, 320.
- Steinberg, Arthur. "Blurred Bloundaries, Opulent Nature, and Sensuous Flesh: Changing Technological Styles in Venetian Painting, 1480-1520." Studies in the History of Art 45 (1993): 212-213.
- Humphrey, Peter. Painting in Venice. New Haven, 1995: 144-146, col. fig. 104.
- Tansey, Richard G. and Fred S. Kleiner. Gardner's Art Through the Ages. 10th ed. Fort Worth, 1996: 776-777, color fig. 23.57.
- Goffen, Rona. Titian's Women. New Haven and London, 1997: no. 67, repro.
- Wilkins, David G. and Bernard Schultz and Katheryn M. Linduff. Art Past-Art Present, New York, 1997, no. 6-3, repro.
- Cheney, Liana de Girolami. "Love and Death." In Encyclopedia of Comparative Iconography: Themes Depicted in Works of Art, edited by Helene E. Roberts. 2 vols. Chicago, 1998: 1:527.
- Gibson, Sarah S. "Bacchnalia/Orgy." In Encyclopedia of Comparative Iconography: Themes Depicted in Works of Art. Edited by Helene E. Roberts. 2 vols. Chicago, 1998: 1:100.
- Mack, Rosamund E. Bazaar to Piazza: Islamic Trade and Italian Art, 1300-1600. Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London, 2002: 105-106, fig. 106.
- Pächt, Otto. Venezianische Malerei des 15. Jahrhunderts: die Bellinis und Mantegna. Munich, 2002: 235-236, fig. 211.
- Gregori, Mina, ed. In the Light of Apollo: Italian Renaissance and Greece. 2 vols. Exh. cat. National Gallery and Alexandros Souzos Museum, Athens, 2003-2004: 1:329.
- Hand, John Oliver. National Gallery of Art: Master Paintings from the Collection. Washington and New York, 2004: 84-85, no. 61, color repro.
- Santucci, Paola. Su Andrea Mantegna. Naples, 2004: 210.
- Bacchi, Andrea and Luciana Giacomelli, eds Rinascimento e passione per l'antico: Andrea Riccio e il suo tempo. Exh. cat. Castello di Buonconsiglio. Trento, 2008: 360.
- Giovanni Bellini. Exh. cat. by Mauro Lucco and Giovanni Carlo Federico Villa. Scuderie del Quirinale, Rome, 2008-2009. Milan, 2008: 52 fig. 1 (detail), 61-64, fig. 9, 99 fig. 13 (detail), 306, 308.
- Variano, John. Wine--A Cultural History. London, 2010: 120, 121, fig. 53.
- Campbell, Stephen J. and Michael W. Cole. Italian Renaissance Art. New York, 2013: 402-403, color fig. 13.46.
Explore This Work
“I shall have contributed only the body (corpo) and Your Excellency shall have contributed the soul (anima), which is the most worthy part that there is in a painting....”
Perhaps Titian’s letter was meant simply to flatter, but his words—and this painting—point to the powerful role played by Renaissance patrons. To modern sensibilities it seems unthinkable that anyone would order significant parts of a work by Giovanni Bellini—father of the Venetian Renaissance—painted over, but that is just what Alfonso d’Este did. Twice. Ultimately Titian, painter to popes and princes, and a student of Bellini’s, brought Feast of the Gods to its current state. In a real sense, though, Alfonso must equally be counted among its “artists.” Feast of the Gods is not only the most important mythological painting from the Renaissance in North America, but it is also perhaps the most intriguing.
It was commissioned for Alfonso’s private study in Ferrara, called the camerino d’alabastro. This was a retreat where the duke could admire his collection of ancient medals and statuettes and enjoy pastoral scenes of gods and goddesses reveling in the delights of love and nature. Paintings such as Feast of the Gods, which illustrates a ribald episode from Ovid, appealed both to Alfonso’s taste for the sensual and to his interest in antiquity. Working with a humanist scholar, the duke originally conceived an entire suite of bacchanals painted by the finest artists of the day, including Raphael and Michelangelo (whose commissions never materialized). All were to celebrate Bacchus and Venus, the gods of wine and love. Feast of the Gods was the first of the works to be completed, in 1514. It was the last major painting by Bellini, who was almost 90 years old when he finished it. As Albrecht Dürer said, he was “very old, but still the best there is.” It was Bellini who first mastered the luminous color that would be the glory of Venetian painting for centuries to come.
When Bellini died two years later, Alfonso turned to Titian, the most brilliant of Bellini’s pupils, and to his own court artist, Dosso Dossi, to complete his bacchanal project. In all, four of the camerino bacchanals are known today. When the camerino was dismantled in 1598, an inventory listed “a painting by Bellini with a landscape by Titian.” Clearly, this referred to the Feast of the Gods, and closer examination shows two distinct artists at work. Compare the background on the left and right sides. On the right, a screen of tree trunks is thinly painted with the same detailed precision that is found in the figures. This is Bellini’s meticulous style. On the left, wild mountain terrain, animated with tiny satyrs and running stags, is brushed with Titian’s freer style. Art historians had long concluded that Alfonso asked Titian to “touch up” Feast of the Gods, probably to harmonize it with his own bacchanals.
But x-ray and infrared studies reveal that Titian had not been the first to alter Bellini’s original composition. Bellini’s once-continuous screen of trees below Titian’s mountain had already been replaced on the left side by a low hill set with classical buildings. In all likelihood this change had been made by Dosso to satisfy the duke’s taste for antiquity. Dosso also added bright green foliage to Bellini’s trees on the right. Of all Dosso’s contributions, it is only this foliage—and the pheasant sitting somewhat awkwardly in its midst—that Titian left unaltered in his own later campaign of repainting. Did Alfonso, an amateur painter who was reported to fancy pheasants, paint the bird himself? Did Alfonso “picture” himself in another way as well? Some evidence suggests that Feast of the Gods contains cryptic references to the duke’s marriage to Lucrezia Borgia, perhaps even portraits of the couple.
About the Artists
Giovanni Bellini was probably born in Venice around 1430. Part of an illustrious family of artists that included his father Jacopo, brother Gentile, and brother-in-law Andrea Mantegna, he was among the first artists in Italy to master the new techniques of painting with oils, producing the luminous color that would characterize Venetian art for centuries to come. He fully absorbed the Renaissance innovations made by artists in Florence and remained open to new influences during his long career. Bellini was also a generous teacher—his pupils included Giorgione and Titia
Early in his career he devoted himself—and his busy workshop—to the production of religious paintings, including large altarpieces and smaller devotional images, especially images of the Virgin and Child, whose iconlike serenity and dignity drew on Venice’s Byzantine tradition. Throughout his life religious paintings continued to make up the largest part of Bellini’s output. All of his religious figures—as well as the sensitively painted landscapes they inhabit--are suffused with light and imbued with a spiritual presence.
Bellini was also a prolific portraitist, particularly during the 1480s and 1490s, helping to popularize a genre that was virtually unknown until the 1470s. Most of Bellini’s portrait subjects exhibit a reserved and somewhat generalized appearance, more reflective of their dignity and status than of personality. He worked for Venice’s patricians as well as for wealthy merchants and their religious confraternities. He also received major public commissions from the Venetian Republic. Despite pressures from powerful patrons for works celebrating themes from antiquity, Bellini resisted painting mythological subjects until late in life. When he did, he approached their unfamiliar erotic elements—not a natural fit for his more formal style—directly and with humor, taking cues from younger painters.
In a career that spanned more than 70 years, Tiziano Vecellio, called Titian in English, was the greatest force in Venetian Renaissance painting. Probably born around 1490 in the town of Cadore in the Italian Alps, Titian moved at an early age—perhaps as young eight or nine years old—to Venice to study art there. After training briefly with a mosaicist, he entered the workshop of Giovanni Bellini, the leading painter of his generation. Titian was influenced not only by Bellini’s rich color but by the lyrically elusive pastoral and mythological scenes of fellow Bellini pupil Giorgione.
By 1510 Titian had established himself as an independent master, and after Bellini’s death he was appointed official painter to the Venetian Republic. Following a succession of commissions for the courts of Ferrara, Mantua, and Urbino, Titian’s fame spread internationally. His patrons included the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, Philip II of Spain, Francis I of France, and Pope Paul III.
Titian was a master in all genres: he produced dignified and insightful portraits, Madonnas of modesty and charm, playfully joyous mythological pictures, sensuous nudes, and meditative religious works. He took from Bellini a typically Venetian approach to color, his early works often juxtaposing brilliant contrasting hues. After about 1530, the year of his wife’s death, Titian more often worked within a more narrow tonal range, using subtle glazes to create complex nuances of color. During the last 20 years of his life, Titian's handling of paint grew looser, opening up a wider gamut of expressive possiblities. Thin glazes appear along with heavy impasto, each a mark of the artist’s own presence on the canvas.
Titian died in 1576, as an outbreak of the plague roiled through Venice, but it is not known if he died of the disease. He was buried in Santa Maria Glorisa dei Frari, where his dramatic altarpiece, The Assumption of the Virgin, had been installed nearly 60 years before.