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Giovanni Bellini

Venetian, c. 1430/1435 - 1516


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Giovanni Bellini was the leading artistic figure of fifteenth-century Venice. Throughout his long career he incorporated disparate influences in the creation of his own harmonious and serene style: from the gilded Byzantine images that surrounded him in Venice, to the modern manner of Giorgione and Titian. Equally, he absorbed the expressiveness of Donatello in Padua and of his own brother-in-law, Andrea Mantegna; the spatial logic of Piero della Francesca; and the luminous realism of Antonello da Messina s oil technique. He was widely admired by contemporaries, including Dürer, who noted in 1506 that Giovanni was still the best of the Venetian painters and a very affable man.[1]

The son of Jacopo Bellini and brother of Gentile, Giovanni was born into a family of artists. Much controversy surrounds his year of birth; he was thought by Vasari to have died at the age of ninety, making him the elder brother. However, more reliable contemporary evidence suggests that he was, in fact, younger than Gentile (b. after 1429), which would mean he was born in the early 1430s. Questions have also been raised concerning his possible illegitimacy: unlike his two brothers Niccolò and Gentile, Giovanni is not mentioned in the 1471 will of Jacopo's wife, Anna Rinversi. Whatever the circumstances of his birth, Giovanni was certainly trained in his father's workshop and participated in important family commissions, including the now-lost Gattamelata altarpiece for the church of the Santo, Padua, dated 1460, which is reported to have been signed by Jacopo, Gentile, and Giovanni Bellini. The Saint Vincent Ferrer altarpiece for the church of Santi Giovanni e Paolo, Venice (c. 1464-1468) was probably Giovanni's earliest large-scale commission.

Early in his career Giovanni's paintings, both large altarpieces and small devotional panels, were primarily of religious subjects. Among the latter he seems to have had a special affinity for "Madonna and Child" compositions, which he produced in innumerable variations and for which his workshop became justly renowned. His portraits of well-to-do Venetians also found particular favor. In 1479 Giovanni started to work on a cycle of history paintings, begun by his brother Gentile, for the doge's palace. These now-destroyed canvases occupied the artist for several years; it is likely that the Barbarigo votive picture of 1488 (Murano, San Pietro Martire), in which Doge Agostino Barbarigo appears as a stately, if pious, donor, reflects the same artistic aims. Only late in life did Giovanni represent the new type of classical subjects, most notably the Feast of the Gods now at the NGA.

A quintessentially Venetian artist, Giovanni is not known to have left his city, though he may have visited nearby Padua and Pesaro; he can be seen as the founder of the golden age of Venetian painting. Before Giovanni Bellini, Venetian painters, conservative and Byzantinizing, had languished behind the bold achievements of the Florentines. A master in the expressive rendering of light and color, it was Giovanni who, having absorbed the lessons of the central Italians, established the tradition in which Giorgione, Titian, Tintoretto, and Veronese later flourished.

[1] Goffen 1989, 268, document no. 52.

Artist Bibliography

Goffen, Rona. Giovanni Bellini. New Haven and London, 1989.
Tempestini, Anchise. Giovanni Bellini. Catalogo completo dei dipinti. Florence, 1992. French ed. Paris, 1992.
Humfrey, Peter. "Giovanni Bellini." In The Dictionary of Art. Edited by Jane Turner. 34 vols. New York and London, 1996: 3:657-669.
Tempestini, Anchise. Giovanni Bellini. Milan, 1997. English ed. trans. by Alexandra Bonfante-Warren and Jay Hyams. New York, 1999.
Boskovits, Miklós, and David Alan Brown, et al. Italian Paintings of the Fifteenth Century. The Systematic Catalogue of the National Gallery of Art. Washington, D.C., 2003: 51.

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