Giovanni Bellini | Biography, Art, & Facts

Introduction

Giovanni Bellini was an influential Italian Renaissance painter and a prominent member of the Bellini family of Venetian painters. While it was originally believed that Jacopo Bellini was his father, this relationship is now questioned. Bellini’s older brother, Gentile Bellini, was more highly regarded during his lifetime, but Giovanni is now considered to be the more famous of the two. Bellini was known for revolutionizing Venetian painting by using clear, slow-drying oil paints that allowed for rich colors and detailed shading. His influence was particularly felt by his pupils Giorgione and Titian, who went on to become important figures in the Venetian painting school. Bellini’s style was characterized by sensuousness and vivid landscapes, which helped to shape the aesthetic of the Renaissance period.

EARLY LIFE

Giovanni Bellini was born and raised in Venice, though the identity of his biological father is uncertain. He was brought up in the household of Jacopo Bellini, who was long believed to be his father but is now thought to be his much older brother. Giovanni lived and worked closely with his elder brother Gentile, and their early works have been linked to those of their brother-in-law Andrea Mantegna.

Tempera Paintings

Giovanni’s early paintings were executed in tempera and characterized by a romantic sunrise color effect, as seen in his St. Jerome in the Desert. He later transitioned to a more personal style, with less harsh contours and a broader treatment of forms and draperies, as seen in his Dead Christ paintings, which were a frequent theme for him.

In 1470, Giovanni received his first appointment to work with Gentile and other artists in the Scuola di San Marco, where he was commissioned to paint a Deluge with Noah’s Ark. However, none of his works from this period, whether painted for schools, confraternities, or the ducal palace, have survived.

The Transfiguration

During the decade following 1470, Giovanni Bellini created several significant works. The Transfiguration, now in the Capodimonte Museum in Naples, was likely completed during this period. This painting demonstrates Bellini’s greatly ripened powers and a much calmer spirit than his earlier works in Venice.

The Coronation of the Virgin in Pesaro

Another significant work from this period is the great altarpiece of the Coronation of the Virgin in Pesaro. This piece represents Bellini’s earliest effort in a form of art that had previously been dominated in Venice by the Vivarini school.

Like many of his brother Gentile’s public works from this time, much of Giovanni’s great public works have been lost. For example, his famous altarpiece painted in tempera for a chapel in the church of S. Giovanni e Paolo perished in a fire in 1867 along with Titian’s Peter Martyr and Tintoretto’s Crucifixion.

Role as Conservator of Doge’s Palace Paintings

Giovanni Bellini’s role as the conservator of the paintings in the great hall of the Doge’s Palace took up much of his time and energy after 1479-1480. This commission was of great importance and is evident in the payment Giovanni received. He was awarded the reversion of a broker’s place in the Fondaco dei Tedeschi and a fixed annual pension of eighty ducats. In addition to repairing and renewing the works of his predecessors, he was commissioned to paint several new subjects, but none of them survived the fire of 1577.

While his historical and processional compositions have not survived, a considerable number of his religious works, including altarpieces and simple Madonnas, have been preserved. These works show his gradual mastery of the new oil medium introduced in Venice by Antonello da Messina around 1473. The intense emotions and devout feelings of his earlier works gradually gave way to a more worldly, yet noble serenity and charm. The figures, their architectural framework, the landscape, and the sky are invested with the full splendor of Venetian color. The Virgin and Child become commanding and tranquil, while the attendant saints gain power, presence, and individuality. Groups of singing and viol-playing angels complete the harmony of the scene.

It appears that there was a gap of several years during which Giovanni Bellini was likely occupied with his work in the Hall of the Great Council before he produced two similar altarpieces – the San Giobbe Altarpiece and the one at the church of San Zaccaria in Venice. Both paintings belong to the Holy Conversation type, which typically depicts the Madonna and various saints in conversation. In both works, the Madonna is seated on a throne, flanked by classical columns, and placed under a golden mosaicked half dome that resembles the Byzantine architecture of St. Mark’s Basilica. The similarity between the two paintings highlights the evolution of Bellini’s style during the final decade of the 15th century.

In the San Zaccaria piece, the Madonna is surrounded by St. Peter on her left holding his keys and the Book of Wisdom, while the virginal St. Catherine and St. Lucy are on her right, each holding a martyr’s palm and her implement of torture. St. Catherine has a breaking wheel, while St. Lucy holds a dish with her eyes. St. Jerome, with a book symbolizing his work on the Vulgate, stands in front of the throne.

Evolution of Bellini’s Style

In terms of style, the lighting in the San Zaccaria piece is softer and more diffused, contrasting the San Giobbe piece seems almost sharp. Bellini’s use of oil had matured, and the holy figures appear to be enveloped in still and rarified air. The San Zaccaria is widely considered the most beautiful and imposing of all of Bellini’s altarpieces and is dated to 1505, a year following Giorgione’s Madonna of Castelfranco.

Some of Bellini’s other late altarpieces with saints include those of San Francesco della Vigna at Venice, which dates to 1507, La Corona at Vicenza, a Baptism of Christ in a landscape from 1510, and San Giovanni Crisostomo at Venice of 1513.

There are only a few remaining works that show Giovanni’s activity during the period between the altarpieces of San Giobbe and San Zaccaria. Unfortunately, the majority of his output during this time was destroyed in the fire at the Doge’s Palace in 1577. In the last decade or so of his life, Giovanni was overwhelmed with commissions, often receiving more requests than he could fulfill. In fact, between 1501 and 1504, the marchioness Isabella Gonzaga of Mantua had difficulty obtaining a painting of the Madonna and Saints from him, even though she had made a partial payment in advance for the work. Regrettably, this particular painting is now lost.

Between the altarpieces of San Giobbe and San Zaccaria, Giovanni Bellini’s activity is not well documented, and only a few minor works survive. However, in the last decade of his life, he was besieged with more commissions than he could complete. In 1505, the marchioness Isabella Gonzaga of Mantua tried to obtain another painting from him, but it is not known whether he delivered it or not. In 1507, Giovanni’s brother Gentile died, and he completed the painting of the Preaching of St. Mark, which his brother had left unfinished.

Albrecht Dürer, who visited Venice for the second time in 1506, described Giovanni Bellini as still the best painter in the city, full of all courtesy and generosity toward foreign brethren of the brush. In 1513, Giovanni’s position as the sole master in charge of the paintings in the Hall of the Great Council was threatened by one of his former pupils, Titian, who desired a share of the same undertaking. Titian’s application was granted, rescinded, and then granted again, causing some annoyance to the aged master. In 1514, Giovanni undertook to paint The Feast of the Gods for Duke Alfonso I of Ferrara, but he died in 1516 before completing it.

Death

Giovanni Bellini passed away on November 29, 1516, and the exact date was recorded by Marin Sanudo in his diary. Bellini was buried in the Basilica di San Giovanni e Paolo, which was a customary burial site for the doges.

Giovanni Bellini had a successful career both artistically and worldly. He began his long career in the Quattrocento styles but matured into the progressive post-Giorgione Renaissance styles. He lived to see his school surpass that of his rivals, the Vivarini of Murano. His influence was propagated by a host of pupils, two of whom, Giorgione and Titian, equaled or even surpassed their master. Bellini outlived Giorgione by five years; Titian challenged him, claiming an equal place beside his teacher. Other pupils of the Bellini studio included Girolamo Galizzi da Santacroce, Vittore Belliniano, Rocco Marconi, Andrea Previtali, and possibly Bernardino Licinio.

Conclusion

Bellini played a significant role in the development of the Italian Renaissance, incorporating aesthetics from Northern Europe. He introduced the pala, or single-panel altarpieces, to Venetian society with his work Coronation of the Virgin. He was influenced by Antonello da Messina and contemporary trends, such as oil painting, and was able to master the Antonello style of oil painting and surface texture. Bellini used this skill to create a refined and distinctly Venetian approach to painting that blended new techniques with Venetian and Byzantine traditions of iconography and color to create a spiritual theme not found in Antonello’s pieces. He experimented with the use of color and atmosphere in oil painting and used religious symbolism through natural elements, such as grapevines and rocks.

Bellini died on November 29, 1516, and was buried in the Basilica di San Giovanni e Paolo, a traditional burial place of the doges. His contributions to art led to the naming of the Bellini cocktail in his honor. Spanish Museums own a scarce, but high-quality, presence of his works, such as The Virgin and Child between Two Saints at the Prado Museum, the Nunc Dimittis at the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, and the Saviour at The Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando.

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