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Giovanni Bellini's Last Works

David Alan Brown, National Gallery of Art, Department of Italian Paintings
Ailsa Mellon Bruce National Gallery of Art Sabbatical Curatorial Fellow, June 1–September 30, 2012

Giovanni Bellini (c. 1430–1516) worked to the very end of a long career that left an indelible mark on Venetian painting. Bellini’s longevity and indefatigable devotion to his art created a problem for art historians, however, for he is one of those Quattrocento masters, like Pietro Perugino (c. 1446/1450–1523) or Luca Signorelli (c. 1445–1523), who remained active well into the period we call the High Renaissance. But while his colleagues became irrelevant, Bellini, in the first decades of the sixteenth century, continued to be creatively vital. Indeed, he flourished as never before. Giorgio Vasari and other early writers, nevertheless, failed to distinguish Bellini’s late work from the rest of his production. Focused on Titian as the quintessential “old age” artist, later scholars have also paid little attention to Bellini’s late works as a separate phase in his career. Such studies as there are treat everything he painted after the turn of the century as a whole and in approximation to Giorgione (c. 1477/1478–1510), who, according to Vasari, invented the “maniera moderna” in Venice.

Six women, eight men, two satyrs, and one child gather in pairs and trios in a loose row that spans the width of this painting, against a landscape with craggy rocks, cliffs, and trees in this nearly square painting. Most of the people face us, and the men, women, and child have pale skin while the two satyrs, who have men’s torsos and furry goat’s legs, have darker, olive complexions. Most of the men wear voluminous, knee-length togas wrapped in short robes in shades of white, topaz blue, grass green, coral orange, or rose pink. Most of the women wear long, dress-like garments in tones of shell pink, apricot orange, or lapis blue over white sleeves. For all but one woman, their garments have fallen off one shoulder to reveal a round, firm breast. To our left of the group, the child kneels at a tapped barrel, filling a clear glass pitcher with amber colored liquid. The child’s blond hair is wrapped in a ring of green leaves, and they wear a cobalt blue jumper over a white shirt with blousy sleeves. Behind the child, an older, bearded man wraps one arm around a gray donkey. His right hand, on our left, gestures toward the metal urn a satyr balances on his head to our left. A group of three men and one woman sit and recline around a second satyr to our right of the donkey. The satyr balances a wide, flaring blue-and-white dish on his head and one woman standing next to him holds a similar bowl and looks toward him. In front of the satyr, a man wearing a smooth, rounded, metal cap and holding a staff with intwined snakes at the top reclines and looks toward our right at a woman sleeping on the far side of the group. Behind him, a bearded man wearing a crown of laurel leaves, next to a large black bird, drinks from a cup. Next to this group, at the center, a man sitting on the ground looks toward a woman kneeling next to him, as he places his hand between her upper thighs. She looks toward the sleeping woman. Behind this pair, a nude, bearded man, with a ring of leaves around his head sits in the shadows facing our right, head bent as he plays a flute with one hand. Two women, one holding a jug on her head, stand to our right of the musician as a third woman in this area attends to a man sitting on the ground and drinking from a shallow, metal cup. His other hand holds the neck of an instrument resembling a violin, which is seen through the legs of the final standing man, to our right. The standing man hunches over and looks down at the sleeping woman, who reclines with her head resting in her left hand, on our right. One of her knees is bent and the other leg extends straight in front of her. The standing man lifts the hem of her dress as he looks at her sleeping face. Several objects are strewn on the rocky, dirt ground in front of the group, including a wide, wooden bucket with a piece of paper affixed to its front to our right, a glass goblet, a pitchfork, a large blue and white ceramic dish filled with grapes and small, yellow fruits, and an overturned cup near the center. Cliff-like, craggy rocks rise suddenly behind the group to our left, filling much of the sky opposite a tall grove of leafy, dark green trees to our right. A few puffy white clouds float across the vivid blue sky. The slip of paper on the barrel has been inscribed, “joannes bellinus venetus p MDXIIII.”

Giovanni Bellini, Titian, The Feast of the Gods, 1514/1529, oil on canvas, Widener Collection, 1942.9.1

The book I am writing argues that, to be properly understood, Bellini’s pictures from the last decade and a half of his life must be divided into two separate categories. Those he undertook during his final years constitute a distinct group that differs significantly from his previous works in style, support, subject matter, and mood. Bellini did not choose the subjects of his last paintings, which were stipulated by patrons; but in a period in which he relied more and more on assistants, his decision to undertake and personally conceive and execute the last works points to a special commitment on his part to their creation. Taken as a group, the final pictures reveal an artist driven to excel still further, to explore new territory, and, in a burst of creativity, realize his final achievement.

According to my fellowship proposal, during June–September 2012 I was to begin writing my book. Every scholar knows that new ideas often occur in the process of writing, and I expected that to be the case, particularly as I had begun working on the project more than a decade ago. But I decided first to review the notes and bibliographic materials I had gathered and filed away over the years. As I sifted through these, culling, highlighting, and rearranging them, I began to realize that my present understanding of Bellini’s last works—and thus the concept for the book—were actually quite different from what I had proposed to CASVA a year earlier. For that reason I chose to reorganize my material and to refine the concept—a hypothesis that seeks to explain why Bellini painted his last pictures and how, personally conceived and executed, they differ from his vast studio production. Thanks to the review process, the arguments to be advanced in the book are, I believe, more persuasive. The Feast of the Gods (National Gallery of Art, Washington; partly repainted by Titian), dated 1514, and the other works that followed it in rapid succession can be shown to display a greatly expanded range of subject matter and a new degree of inventiveness and creative energy.

Bellini, Giovanni
Italian, 1430 - 1516
Titian
Italian, 1490 - 1576
Giovanni Bellini and Titian
The Feast of the Gods
1514/1529