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Venetian Painting in the Early Renaissance


In the mid-1400s, Venice was the most powerful city in Italy, made rich by nearly a thousand years of commerce, mostly in goods from the East. Its navy ruled the Mediterranean as if it were a Venetian lake. By the end of the fifteenth century, however, the city's fortunes had begun to change. Venice lost both territory and trade after the fall of Constantinople in 1453. Later, Portuguese naval exploration around the tip of Africa drew still more traffic away from Venetian-controlled overland routes. Increasingly the city's future lay with the West. Despite the renown of its ambassadors and spies, however, Venice's position weakened.

Venice nevertheless maintained its prestige and legendary splendor. Venetian artists first established an international reputation during these years. Grounding their art in the senses, they appealed to the eye -- and the spirit -- through brilliant color, glowing light, and the beauties of nature. Long ties with Byzantium had left a lingering preference for gold mosaics and iconlike images of the Virgin, but by the 1470s Venetian painters had absorbed the renaissance innovations of Florence and central Italy. Through the city's preeminence in the oriental trade for spices and luxury goods, Venice's artists had always enjoyed access to the finest and most costly pigments. Greater contact with northern Europe now introduced them to the new technology of oil painting, which had recently been perfected in the Low Countries.

Oil paints are slow drying and can be blended. Built up in translucent layers, they capture and reflect light in a way that the flat opaque colors of tempera paints cannot. Italian artists were quick to adopt the new medium, and in the works of Venetian painter Giovanni Bellini its full potential was realized. There, for the first time, is found the sensuous, luminous color that would characterize Venetian painting for centuries to come.

Cima da Conegliano, Italian, c. 1459 - 1517 or 1518, Madonna and Child with Saint Jerome and Saint John the Baptist, c. 1492/1495, oil on panel, Andrew W. Mellon Collection, 1937.1.33

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Antonello da Messina probably painted this work during his eighteen-month visit to Venice, at which time, it was once thought, he introduced Venetian artists to oil paints. It is now known that they were using oils well before Antonello's arrival. For many years Italian merchants returning from business in the Low Countries had brought home Netherlandish oil paintings. An eager market for these highly detailed and naturalistic works already existed -- probably this prospect led Antonello north to Venice in the first place -- and Venetian painters themselves were experimenting with the new medium. Nevertheless, Antonello does seem to have exerted a strong influence: Venetian painting simply looked different after his stay than it had before. Probably his contribution was to teach techniques for using oils. Before his arrival Venetian painters had sometimes applied oils in alternating layers with tempera or brushed them on with the same short parallel strokes they used for opaque colors. These practices effectively blocked the full ability of oil paint to capture and reflect light, which is achieved only when translucent pigments are built up in thin, blended layers.

Antonello da Messina, Italian, c. 1430 - 1479, Madonna and Child, c. 1475, oil and tempera on panel transferred from panel, Andrew W. Mellon Collection, 1937.1.30

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Giovanni Bellini painted half-length images of the Virgin and Child throughout his long career. This one, with its somber color and avoidance of decoration, resembles the focused intensity of an icon. The austerity of this image, which markedly contrasts with the city's celebrated luxury, is a legacy of Byzantine art, a tradition that was reinforced when displaced Greek artists immigrated to Venice following the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks in 1453.

The Virgin possesses the ethereal geometry of a Byzantine madonna. Compare her delicate, oval face and arched brows, long nose and small chin, with the more robust features of Antonello's Mary. In contrast, Bellini's Virgin seems removed from everyday existence. Although the child moves actively in her arms, his focus seems distant, directed perhaps to his future suffering and death on the cross. The featureless background and the front parapet separate the holy figures from our own world. Their presence is not a physical but a spiritual one, and their image compels and concentrates the viewer's meditation. Mary and Jesus seem to glow with interior illumination.

Giovanni Bellini, Italian, c. 1430/1435 - 1516, Madonna and Child, c. 1480/1485, oil on panel, Samuel H. Kress Collection, 1939.1.352

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Beginning in the mid-1300s, an official portrait of each new doge, the elected head of the Venetian republic, was hung in the room where the city's governing council met. Paintings commissioned by Venice's religious confraternities sometimes also included likenesses of the society's leading members. Single portraits of private individuals, however, were virtually unknown until the 1470s. Venetians credited their new popularity to Bellini. His portraits spawned such demand for likenesses of family members that his contemporaries reported it common to see the faces of four generations in a single household.

The individualized features of this young man are carefully defined but do not reveal much about his personality. In fact, all of Bellini's portraits of young men share a reserved dignity but deny a more penetrating look into the sitter's character.

Venetian men of both the patrician and the citizen classes wore a long, simple black robe, a small black hat, and a stole over the shoulder or sometimes, as here, over the head. Red gowns worn by senators were also prescribed for certain ceremonial occasions.

Giovanni Bellini, Italian, c. 1430/1435 - 1516, Portrait of a Young Man in Red, c. 1480, oil and tempera on panel, Andrew W. Mellon Collection, 1937.1.29

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A bearded and balding man with sun-browned skin, dressed only in a strip of robin’s egg-blue fabric around his shoulders and hips, sits reading a book on a rock in front of a craggy cave, set in a landscape with stone buildings and a body of water in this vertical painting. The man, Saint Jerome, faces our left in profile, his head bowed towards the open book propped on the rock next to him farther from us. His hair and beard are parchment-white, and he has a prominent brow ridge, a long, hooked nose, and sunken cheeks. His arms and legs are sinewy and his torso seems muscled. The blue cloth is knotted over his left shoulder and wrapped around his hips. A lion lays next to Saint Jerome’s rock in the lower right corner, its face towards us with mouth slightly open. There is a rectangular pool lined with brick-like stones at Saint Jerome’s feet, and the cave behind him has a jagged, narrow, vertical entrance with rocky outcroppings above and to our left, over the pool. A stone arch spans the top edge of the painting, enclosing the scene below. Other animals appear around Saint Jerome, including a lizard near the pool; two rabbits, white and brown, on a rocky protrusion across from Saint Jerome to our left; squirrel on the grassy top of the cave entrance; and a black bird in the barren branches of a tree growing from the rocks above the cave. Beyond a low hill of grass topped by a bush or tree, a cluster of golden-brown stone buildings, some in ruins, spread down a hillside to the water’s edge. Across the water to our right, deep in the distance, white buildings line the horizon, which comes about two-thirds of the way up this painting. A few puffs of white clouds float along the waterline against a vivd, azure-blue sky above, which is enclosed by the ragged, stone arch over Saint Jerome.

Saint Jerome is often depicted on small devotional panels like this one. Because he had translated the Bible into Latin, the saint was a favorite of Renaissance humanists and was often shown reading in a study. Other depictions showed him in the wilderness, living as a hermit and beating his breast in penance. Here the two types are combined.

In fact, the elderly saint and his lion companion, shifted to the lower right, occupy only a small area of the painting. The landscape commands center stage, filled with a distant view and abundant life, all washed with a radiant light. Many of the plants and animals have various symbolic meanings—the rabbits, for example, could serve as reminders of lust or Christian meekness. Rather than intending that we "read" them as symbols, perhaps Bellini means us to see them simply as part of a vast and rich nature.

Perhaps, paradoxically, it was because Venice was so intensely urban—it was a largely artificial environment constructed on pilings and scant marshy ground—that its artists developed into such evocative landscape painters. Their approach, in contrast to contemporaries elsewhere, was more intuitive than scientific: they responded to, rather than recorded, nature.

Giovanni Bellini, Italian, c. 1430/1435 - 1516, Saint Jerome Reading, 1505, oil on panel, Samuel H. Kress Collection, 1939.1.217

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Close to us, a bearded, balding man leads a donkey carrying a woman and child to our right against a hilly landscape in this horizontal painting. All three people have pale white skin and halos. The man has a gray beard and hair and wears a royal blue tunic under a ruby red robe. He leans on a walking stick and looks back at the donkey. The woman riding the donkey wears a blue and gold brocade-like cloak covering her head and body. She has a straight nose, small pink lips, and she looks towards the infant she holds close to her body. The baby wears a white garment and reaches towards the woman’s face with one hand and turns to look over his shoulder towards us. The path they walk on is lined with grass and carefully painted plants. A river runs parallel to the path in the middle distance. The horizon line comes about two-thirds of the way up the painting is lined with green trees, blue mountains, and a few buildings to our left. Wispy white clouds sweep across an azure blue sky streaked with peach near the horizon.

Mary and Joseph's flight with Jesus to escape Herod's slaughter of the Hebrew babies is recounted in the gospel of Matthew. The subject is often found on predellas, the small scenes at the base of altarpieces, but this painting is too large to be a predella panel. Nor is it likely to have been the central section of an altarpiece—those were usually meditative, devotional images rather than narrative ones like this. Perhaps it was made for a religious confraternity. Such scuole were among the most important patrons of Venetian painters. They commissioned Carpaccio's best-known works—large bustling scenes that are full of anecdotal detail and provide valuable information about life in Renaissance Venice. Here, the distant village and covered boat gliding past offer a hint of Carpaccio's delight in storytelling.

While Bellini began to use layered oil glazes to soften the edges of his forms, the younger Carpaccio continued to favor a harder (and increasingly old-fashioned) line. In this case, though, it enhances his narrative purpose: hard contours accentuate the gait of the ass and the long stride of Joseph, and they help frame the Virgin and Child in a way that almost enthrones them on their humble mount. In contrast, the luminous undersides of the clouds reveal the influence of Bellini's treatment of light.

Vittore Carpaccio, Italian, c. 1465 - 1525/1526, The Flight into Egypt, c. 1515, oil on panel, Andrew W. Mellon Collection, 1937.1.28

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Never completed, this painting was probably intended to be cut into three separate sections following the lines of the architecture and then used in the predella of an altarpiece. Located closer to the viewer's eye than an altarpiece's central panel, predellas were usually decorated with a series of small narrative scenes recounting events from the life of Christ, the Virgin, or the saints.

At the left, Mary appears to be about four years old. She enters the temple to undertake a life of service in fulfillment of a vow made by her aging parents. The broken column alludes to a legend that earthquakes rocked the temple when Christ was born. In more general terms the column symbolizes how Christ's birth will usher in a new era of Grace to replace the Old Testament Law. In the center, Mary is wed to Joseph. He was identified as God's choice to be her husband when the rod he held -- and which is still in his hands -- sprouted with new life. At the right, the Archangel Gabriel announces to Mary that she will bear the son of God.

Benedetto Diana, Italian, c. 1460 - 1525, The Presentation and Marriage of the Virgin, and the Annunciation, 1520/1525, oil on panel,  Samuel H. Kress Collection, 1961.9.70

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Mother of the emperor Constantine, Saint Helena journeyed to the Holy Land, where she found the True Cross, the cross of the crucifixion, which she holds here. Scenes of saints in landscape settings like this were something of a specialty of the artist.

Cima had moved to Venice by the mid-1480s but always remained in close contact with his hometown of Conegliano on the mainland. The town's castello and other landmarks appear in the background of this small devotional panel. Almost all of Cima's paintings include idyllic landscapes that recall the mountainous region of his home.

Cima formed his artistic style early in life and never deviated from it. Even though his clear colors and meticulous detail became a bit old-fashioned, his work remained popular with Venetian patrons, especially the more conservative ones. In the 1490s, when Bellini became occupied with decorations for the doge's palace, Cima became the leading painter of altarpieces in Venice. He is sometimes referred to as a "rustic" Bellini for his direct and ingenuous figures, which he posed with greater casualness than Bellini, relaxing the imposing symmetry of Bellini's compositions. The informality and greater sense of movement exhibited by Cima's figures influenced Titian and other Venetian artists of the next generation.

Cima da Conegliano, Italian, c. 1459 - 1517 or 1518, Saint Helena, c. 1495, oil on panel, Samuel H. Kress Collection, 1961.9.12

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