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Art in Renaissance Venice
Art in Renaissance Venice

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2 Two devotional paintings

In his correspondence of 1506 with Pirckheimer, Dürer had singled out for special mention among the Venetian artists that he had encountered the senior figure of Giovanni Bellini. Giovanni appreciated Dürer’s skill, publicly praised him and even asked to buy a picture from him. In turn, Dürer included a quotation from Giovanni’s San Giobbe altarpiece of c.1480 in his Madonna of the Rose Garlands, in the shape of the lute-playing angel in the centre foreground. Dürer commented to Pirckheimer that, in his judgement, though of advancing years, Giovanni was ‘still the best painter of them all’. 24 Giovanni Bellini, born before 1440 and generally regarded by art historians as the foremost fifteenth-century Venetian painter, was a member of a family of artists: a workshop headed by his father Jacopo (c.1400–70/1), and including his elder brother Gentile. 25 In this section I shall consider two devotional paintings by Giovanni Bellini – the Madonna Greca of c.1470 and the San Giobbe altarpiece as a way of bringing into focus certain broader features of art in Venice. It is a standard claim within the discourse of Renaissance art history that Venetian art is distinctive. The contrast most frequently drawn is with Florence, and it focuses on the particular range of effects associated with Venetian painting, especially the relative priority accorded to colour over form and design, and a resulting appeal to the senses rather than the mind. Emotionally expressive effects produced by colour and painterly brushwork are identified as the key characteristics of Venetian Renaissance art. Fully evident in the sixteenth-century work of figures such as Titian and Tintoretto, these features emerge in the late fifteenth century with Giovanni Bellini. The reasons are partly technical (to do with the use of oil paint), partly historical (to do with the dual legacy of Venice’s relations with its eastern trading partners and with the northern Gothic tradition) and partly geographical (to do with Venice’s location).

It is claimed of Venice’s location, for example, that the misty quality of the Venetian atmosphere is not conducive to an interest in sharply defined forms, or that the constant flickering of light on water makes for a fascination with the more evanescent effects of painting, an interest in the painting as an affective surface rather than as a window onto some depicted scene. These questions of sensibility are largely unresolvable, but certain aspects of Venetian art are undeniably attributable to the environment. One of the central forms of Italian Renaissance art is the public mural decoration, painted in fresco on plaster, But Venice is built in the sea; in its damp climate, fresco does not survive. However, it was the city’s maritime situation that meant Venetian art was open to cultural influences from the East – and one of the most important of these influences came from Byzantium. Two of the central categories of Byzantine art, both of which bear on the Bellini pictures, are mosaics and icons. 26

From its earliest days until the twelfth century, Venice had stood at the western limit of the Eastern Christian Empire, centred on Byzantium. 27 The first permanent Venetian trading post was established in Byzantium in 1082, though commercial links had existed long before that. However, as the Byzantine Empire declined and that of Venice expanded, the balance of power and influence gradually changed, until crisis point was reached in 1204. In that year the Venetian Doge succeeded in diverting the Fourth Crusade from its destination in the Holy Land to Constantinople. After a siege, the city was ruthlessly sacked. As a consequence, huge amounts of booty made their way to Venice, ranging from jewels, metalwork, and both bronze and marble sculptures to porphyry columns and sheets of marble for use in the decoration of buildings.

The basilica of San Marco is the single most important transmitter of Byzantine influence into Venetian culture. It was first established in the ninth century to house the relics of Venice’s patron saint, Saint Mark, which were transferred to the city from Alexandria in 829. Both in its external architectural form and its interior, San Marco is distinct from the conventions of Italian and northern churches alike, with their characteristic decorative schemes either of fresco or stained glass. San Marco began to assume its present form in the late eleventh century, based directly on the plan of the church of the Holy Apostles in Constantinople, that is, a Greek cross with five domes marking each arm and the central crossing point. Thereafter, it was in a continuous process of expansion and embellishment until the fifteenth century and beyond. Mosaic decoration had started in the late eleventh or early twelfth centuries, but a surge of work followed in the wake of the capture of Constantinople. In addition to the four life-size bronze horses of classical antiquity, shipped over and set above the main entrance, the domes, arches and vaults of the interior were decorated with mosaics by artists called from Constantinople, often working with glass tesserae actually brought back for the purpose (Figure 5). The effect is to suffuse the dimly lit interior with an atmospheric golden glow, as if the biblical scenes occupy a different realm elevated above the mundane world of the human spectator. Mosaics depict episodes from both the Old and New Testaments, including many related to Egypt, where Saint Mark preached. Outside, more mosaics above the portals told the story of the transportation of the saint’s relics from Alexandria to Venice (today, only one remains). A further important example of the spoils from Constantinople, and the single most venerated image in the church, is the tenth-century icon of the Madonna Nikopoia, the ‘bringer of victory’ (Figure 6). This image of the Virgin and Child in the hodegetria pose was not only displayed on the high altar on important feast days but was also used as a talisman to ward off the enemies of Venice during times of crisis, just as it had previously been used in Byzantium. 28 In addition to the pictorial mosaics and the icon, Byzantine effects were present throughout San Marco in the many columns in marble and porphyry, as well as sheets of coloured, patterned marble, stripped from Constantinople and used to decorate the walls and the elaborately patterned floor.

Figure 5 Unknown Italian, The Creation of the World to The Expulsion from Eden in the Genesis Cupola, thirteenth century, Atrium Mosaic, San Marco, Venice. Photo: Cameraphoto Arte Venezia/Bridgeman Art Library.
Figure 6 Anonymous, Blessed Virgin Nikopoia, from altar of north transept of San Marco, tenth century, tempera on panel, framed with enamelled gold and jewels. Photo: © 1999 Scala, Florence.

Constantinople was retaken by the Greeks from Venetian domination after less than 60 years, and a new dynasty secured: the Palaiologans. By the time of Bellini’s paintings, however, two centuries later, not just Italy but the whole of Christendom was convulsed by news of the final collapse of the Byzantine Empire. Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks, under the leadership of Mehmet II, in 1453. Despite calls for a new crusade to repel the infidel, there was in fact no collective response. One of the immediate effects for Venice, however, was an increase in the numbers of the Greek community there, as Christian refugees fled from Muslim expansion. The result of the influx of scholars, coupled with a rapid expansion of the printing industry, was that in the second half of the fifteenth century Venice became the main centre of Greek learning in the West.

For the Florentine Giorgio Vasari, writing in the sixteenth century, his sense of a ‘rebirth’ of the arts was defined explicitly against ‘the ancient manner … of these Greeks’. First Cimabue and then Giotto ‘banished completely that rude Greek manner’ – that is, with ‘the outlines that wholly enclosed the figures, and those staring eyes, and the feet stretched on tiptoe, and the pointed hands, with the absence of shadow and the other monstrous qualities of those Greeks’. The grip of illusionism has been powerful in the post-medieval western tradition. Influenced by contemporary humanism and its commitment to a truthful description of nature, Vasari seems never to have entertained the idea that there was a reason for the exaggerated eyes and the outlines of Byzantine art. The sense that a complex and evolved history informs Byzantine painting, concerning the role of art in relation to the overarching dictates of the Greek Orthodox Church, is swamped by a creative misreading which regards its formal characteristics simply as failed verisimilitude. For Vasari, the achievement of the Florentine Renaissance consisted precisely in the fact that ‘the Greek manner … was wholly extinguished’. 29

In Venice, however, the situation was less clear-cut. Giovanni Bellini’s half-length Madonnas, painted for private devotion, are a constant of his long career, stretching from c.1460 to the second decade of the sixteenth century. As a form, they are consciously archaic, evoking the spirituality of Byzantine models – none more so than the Madonna Greca (Figure 7). The darkness of the colouring and the sobriety of the forms coupled with the overall stasis of the composition are immediately suggestive of the icon – an effect heightened in this case by the Greek lettering naming the Mother of God. An important compositional device reinforces the mood suggested by the facial expressions of mother and child. In many early Renaissance paintings, the Virgin is positioned in front of a rich cloth of honour, often suspended on cords. Here, the red cords are merely suggested, and the cloth falls in a dark monochrome – so dark, in fact, that a spatial ambiguity is set up. Instead of a dark plane set against a deep spatial volume (for example of sky), the black rectangle can be read as a void, an effect heightened if the Greek letters are seen as being inscribed on a flat surface (for example, a frame around a window). Taken together, the subdued colours, the Virgin’s sad, withdrawn expression and the dark ground, be it plane or space, contribute to an overall mood of reflective melancholy. The purpose of these half-length Madonnas is to inspire solitary meditation, lifting it out of a particular time and place, devoid of secular or narrative distractions. The Madonna Greca perhaps retains something of the Byzantine hodegetria pose, the Child being not so much the subject of a maternal embrace as seeming to be presented to the viewer. The aim is to bring to mind an anticipation of Christ’s eventual sacrifice. The image of the Child is meant to evoke pietàs, in which the dead Christ is supported by the Virgin and saints. Rona Goffen writes: ‘Bellini’s conception is essentially iconic: simple, emotionally restrained, psychologically distant.’ Most important, she concludes, ‘the austerity of mood, as of image, associates his works with the Byzantine tradition’, in effect rendering them ‘the Western equivalent of the icons of the East’. 30

Figure 7 Giovanni Bellini, Madonna Greca, c.1470, panel, 82 × 62 cm, Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan. Used with the permission of the Ministero Beni e Attività Culturali. Photo: © 1990 Scala, Florence.

Early fifteenth-century Venetian painting had been defined by a mix of Byzantine and the International Gothic style: an art that, although distinct from the Byzantine, was nonetheless an art of surface rather than depth, of linearity, and of emphatic, even luxurious, decorative effects. Gothic began to enter Venetian art in the fourteenth century through the church-building programme associated with the religious orders of the Franciscans and Dominicans. It offered a new dynamism, a contemporary inflection on the more static and timeless values of the prevailing Byzantinism that seems to have chimed with the vigorous mercantile capitalism that was beginning to emerge.

Jacobello del Fiore’s depiction of an allegorical figure of Venice as Justice, painted for the civil penal court of the Palazzo Ducale in 1421, is a case in point (Figure 8). The two flanking figures of the Archangels Michael and Gabriel are simply not intended to be spatially or volumetrically credible representations of the human body in action, as the dual Tuscan revolution of humanism and perspective was beginning to demand. Jacobello’s picture space is barely defined – a blue void in which the figure of the Virgin/Venice/Justice, with her sword and scales, perches on a throne flanked by two lions, the whole ensemble having a rather ‘tilted’ effect on a low plinth. The central space of Justice’s throne has only the most rudimentary relationship to the scenes depicted on either side, with Michael arching balletically above a writhing dragon, a somewhat plumper Gabriel hovering to the right, coherence established only by a common low horizon line. In both ‘wings’, the values of surface effect and vividness take precedence over spatial verisimilitude. The great twist of Michael’s figure in particular enlivens the left-hand panel, echoing the sinuous curls of the scroll. His extravagant armour is further embellished with golden embossing; a red and green cloak is tied nonchalantly around his neck, as Justice is dispensed. Invisible in illustration, the gold parts of the picture are raised in relief, or in the case of the tripartite arch placed over the painted image, to establish a lateral, linear animation to the composition as a whole. Although the sophisticated tension of these Gothic effects in the work of artists such as Jacobello and his eminent contemporary Gentile da Fabriano (who spent time in Venice around 1410 contributing decorations to the Doge’s Palace) needs to be distinguished from the hieratic immobility of the Byzantine, the art historian Peter Humfrey points out that such Gothic richness struck a chord with the Venetians, ‘whose aesthetic tastes would have been formed by their experience of the gilded splendour of San Marco, and also of travel to the Levant’. 31

Figure 8 Jacobello del Fiore, Triptych of Justice, 1421, tempera on panel, triptych, 208 × 194 cm (centre), 208 × 133 cm (left hand: Archangel Michael), 208 × 163 cm (right hand: Archangel Gabriel), Accademia, Venice. Used with the permission of the Ministero Beni e Attività Culturali. Photo: © 2001 Scala, Florence.

The family workshop was the organisational basis of Venetian art, and in the fifteenth century, the main rival to the Bellini was the Vivarini studio, comprising Antonio, his brother Bartolomeo, his brother-in-law Giovanni d’Alemagna and his son Alvise. However, whereas the Bellini seem to have been open to the new approaches concerning the representation of space and volume coming from Tuscany, a more ambiguous response characterises the Vivarini. Towards the end of the century, Alvise developed an interest in spatial coherence and solid form, but overall the Vivarini workshop continued to embody a traditional Gothic-influenced approach for much longer (Figure 9); in the case of Bartolomeo this persisted until his death in the 1490s. The polyptych format, the lack of concern with coherent spatial illusion, and the copious use of gold on both the Gothic frame and the backgrounds to the figures would all have contributed to the highly traditional effect of such painting – something which in all probability points not merely to relatively conservative attitudes on the part of the artists, but to a continuing taste for the older established forms on the part of their patrons and audiences in the Veneto.

Figure 9 Antonio Vivarini, Pesaro Polyptych, 1464, panels, 105 × 30 cm (lower tier), 80 × 50cm (upper tier, centre). Pinacoteca, Vatican, Rome. Photo: © 1990 Scala, Florence.

This Gothic-Byzantine use of gold was one of the key signifiers against which the Tuscan Renaissance was defined. 32 No less a figure than Leon Battista Alberti writes in the 1430s: ‘There are some who use much gold in their istoria. They think it gives majesty. I do not praise it.’ He goes on to make the point that even in the case of a subject involving copious amounts of gold – in his example, Dido of Carthage – the artist should renounce its use, ‘for there is more admiration and praise for the painter who imitates the rays of gold with colours’. 33 As Michael Baxandall pointed out, Florentine quattrocento art shifted the criterion of artistic value from ‘the value of precious material on the one hand’ to ‘the value of skilful working of materials on the other’. This, moreover, was no small matter, but ‘the centre … the most consistently and prominently recurring motif in everybody’s discussion of painting and sculpture’. 34

Jacopo Bellini seems to have encountered these new ideas in Ferrara, around 1440. In 1438–9 Ferrara was the initial site of the great conference on the unification of the Orthodox and Catholic Churches intended to provide a united front against the inexorable rise of Islam. Alberti was a member of the papal delegation, and manuscript copies of his book came into the possession of humanist intellectuals at the Ferrarese court, where in 1441 Bellini was involved in a competition to paint the portrait of the duke, Lionello d’Este. Most of Jacopo Bellini’s painted oeuvre has been lost. Surviving examples indicate a transitional mix of Gothic elements – a relative flatness of both figures and space, and inconsistencies of scale – combined in the landscape backgrounds with a naturalism derived from northern painting (Figure 10). However, in two large albums of drawings which he made between the 1440s and 1460s, Jacopo experimented more thoroughly than any Venetian contemporary with Florentine perspective, and with the achievement of consistent spatial illusion (Figure 11). 35 These interests must have permeated the Bellini workshop, and affected the development of his sons Gentile and Giovanni.

Figure 10 Jacopo Bellini, Virgin and Child with Lionello d’Este, c.1440, panel, 60 × 40 cm, Louvre, Paris. Photo: © RMN/Daniel Arnaudet.
Figure 11 Jacopo Bellini, Feast of Herod, c.1440–5, from the Louvre Book of Drawings, RF1484r, DAG, Louvre, Paris. Photo: © RMN/Gérard Blot.

The increasingly naturalistic effects that were being sought were further enhanced by a new medium, oil paint. This underscores a further element in the ‘collage’ of Venetian art, namely influences deriving from northern art. Both Jacopo Bellini’s Virgin and Child with Lionello d’Este of c.1440 and Giovanni’s Madonna Greca of c.1470 were painted in egg tempera. The rather dry effect of this medium was surpassed for effects of depth and luminosity by the oil medium, which had been developed in the north by Jan van Eyck and others from the 1430s onwards. Such paintings quickly had an impact in Venice when they began to arrive in the late fifteenth century as a by-product of increased levels of trade between Venice and the north. 36 Although there is evidence that Giovanni Bellini was experimenting with oil around 1474–5, the most important stimulus to its widespread adoption was the appearance in Venice in 1475–6 of the Sicilian painter Antonello da Messina. Sicily also had trading links with the north, and Antonello had already mastered the Flemish technique of oil painting in works such as Saint Jerome in his Study of c.1474 (Figure 12). It seems to have been the first-hand experience of Antonello’s work that facilitated the full-scale breakthrough into the use of oil paint as an expressive medium that came to characterise Venetian painting from Giovanni Bellini on into the sixteenth century.

Figure 12 Antonello da Messina, Saint Jerome in his Study, c.1474, oil on panel, 46 × 37 cm, National Gallery, London. © The National Gallery, London.

The painted panel of the San Giobbe altarpiece is almost five metres high, and two and a half metres wide (Figure 13). Originally it would have been raised quite high off the ground, above and behind the altar, within an imposing architectural frame. The visual match between the physical pilasters of this setting and the painted ones behind the Virgin and saints enhances the lifelikeness of the scene, as if it is taking place in a space just beyond that occupied by the viewer. Bellini’s use of the oil medium in combination with perspective and anatomy derived from his father (as well as the example of Andrea Mantegna, who had married into the Bellini family while working in nearby Padua in 1453) results in a spatial illusion more comprehensive than anything yet achieved in Venetian art. This illusion, moreover, is of a physical continuity from the mundane to divine, which is quite at odds with Byzantine views. This combination of the Florentine perspectival armature and the Flemish oil medium is the key to the painting’s effects – effects which came to be seen as paradigmatically Venetian. Bellini does not reproduce the sculptural effects (in the sense of static, or ‘carved’) nor the intellectual effects (in the sense of rationally conceived) of Florentine painting of the period. By mastering the oil medium to reproduce the effects of light on different surface textures, Bellini is able to satisfy the traditional Venetian taste for sensuous effects and rich materials without, as in the preceding Gothic style, allowing surface patterning to dominate over a convincing sense of three-dimensional depth.

Figure 13 Giovanni Bellini, San Giobbe altarpiece, c.1480, panel, 471 × 258 cm, Accademia, Venice. Used with the permission of the Ministero Beni e Attività Culturali. Photo: © 2000 Scala, Florence.

The single, flexible medium of oil paint produces effects of candlelight on gilded surfaces (as in the almost impressionistic dabs of white and light yellow in the golden half-dome), an illusion of the presentness of flesh, of matt textile and shiny marble. Bellini is using his up-to-date techniques to represent a setting which simultaneously depicts contemporary Renaissance architecture – the pilasters, capitals, architrave and coffered barrel vault – and conveys strong echoes of the antique. The Madonna’s pose is hieratic and Byzantine, while the represented half-dome evokes the basilica of San Marco. In effect heeding Alberti’s admonishment to use painterly skill to reproduce the effects of light on gold, Bellini uses modern oil paint to represent light glinting on the gold tesserae of Byzantine mosaic. Even the flat Byzantine cherubim which surround the mosaic depicting the story of Genesis in the atrium of San Marco are reproduced in Bellini’s coherent evocation of spatial depth. The result is that the archaic is shifted away from its negative connotation in Vasari – where it signifies the static, the old-fashioned, the inept – towards a positive connotation of depth and continuity. The painting is made in Venice, understood as the modern, cosmopolitan, entrepôt for goods and ideas in equal measure; it is made of Venice, conceived as ancient and rooted, in unbroken spiritual continuum with the archetypal Christian city of Constantinople.