WHERE there is a foundation of ability, no matter how vile or base the beginning may appear, steady progress is invariably made until the zenith of glory is attained, without any pause by the way. This is clearly shown in the base and humble origin of the house of the Bellini and in the rank to which they afterwards attained by means of painting.
Jacopo Bellini, painter of Venice, was a pupil of Gentileda Fabriano. 1 In comparison with that same Domenico who taught oil-painting to Andrea del Castagno, although he took great pains to achieve excellence in the art, he did not acquire fame in it until after the departure of Domenico from Venice. Being then left without arival in that city, his credit and renown steadily increased, and he became so excellent that he was the most famous in his profession. To preserve this renown in his house, and to augment it, he had two sons, devoted to the arts and possessing great ability, the one Giovanni, the other Gentile, named after Gentile da Fabriano, his dear master, who had been like a loving father to him. When these boys were grown, Jacopo himself taught them the principles of design with all diligence. But it was not long before they both far surpassed him, to the delight of their father, who incited them to endeavour to surpass each other, competing as the Tuscans did, so that Giovanni should beat him, then Gentile both of them, and so on.
The first things which brought fame to Jacopo were the portraits of Giorgio Cornaro and of Catherine, Queen of Cyprus; a picture which he sent to Verona of the Passion of Christ with many figures, including his own portrait, and a Story of the Cross, said to be in the Scuola of S. Giovanni Evangelista. All these and many others were painted by Jacopo with the aid of his sons. The last one was painted on canvas, the almost invariable practice in that city, where they seldom employ wood panels of poplar as is done elsewhere. This wood, which grows along rivers or other waters, is extremely soft and excellent for painting upon, as it holds firmly together when joined with glue. But in Venice they do not make panels, or, if they do, they are of fir, which is abundant there, being brought down from Germany by the River Adige in great quantities, while a great deal also comes from Sclavonia. It is thus the custom of Venice to paint on canvas; either because it does not split and is not worm-eaten, or because pictures can be made of any size desired, or else for convenience, as is said elsewhere, so that they may be sent anywhere with very little trouble or expense. Whatever the cause, Jacopo and Gentile, as I have said above, made their first works on canvas, and afterwards Gentile by himself added seven or eight pictures to the Story of the Cross, representing the Miracle of the Cross of Christ, which the Scuola keeps as a relic. This miracle was as follows: The cross having fallen by some accident from the Ponte della Paglia into the canal many men threw themselves into the water to recover it, owing to their reverence for the wood of the True Cross, but it was the will of God that no one was found worthy to take it except the warden of the school. In treating this story; Gentile represented the Grand Canal in perspective, with many houses, the Ponte della Paglia, the Piazza of S. Marco, and a long procession of men and women following the clergy. He also represented many in the water, others ready to jump in, several half-immersed and other fine and varied attitudes, including the warden who recovers it. Great pains and diligence were displayed by Gentile in this work, as we see by the countless figures, the numerous portraits, the foreshortening of the distant figures and the portraits notably of almost all the members of the Scuola or company at that time. He finished by doing the restoration of the Cross to its place, including many fine incidents; all these pictures, painted on canvas, greatly increasing his reputation. After this Jacopo retired, and each of the brothers devoted himself to his art. I will say no more about Jacopo, because his works were not remarkable compared with those of his sons, and not long after they left him he died, so that I consider it best to speak at length of Giovanni and Gentile only.
Although the brothers lived apart, they bore such a respect for each other and for their father that each one declared himself to be inferior to the other, thus seeking modestly to surpass the other no less in goodness and courtesy than in the excellence of art. The first works of Giovanni were some portraits which gave great satisfaction, especially that of the Doge Loredano, although some say that it is Giovanni Mozzenigo, brother of that Piero who was doge long before Loredano. 2 Giovanni next made a large picture for the altar of St. Catherine of Siena in the church of S. Giovanni, 3 representing Our Lady seated, with the Child, St. Dominic, St. Jerome, St. Catherine, St. Ursula and two other Virgins, with three beautiful children standing at the Madonna's feet and singing from a book. Above them he represented the inside of the vaulting of a building, which is very fine. This work was among the best which had been produced in Venice up to that time. In the church of S. Jobbe he painted the altar-picture with excellent design and fine colouring, representing the Virgin seated somewhat higher in the midst, with the Child, St. Job and St. Sebastian, both nude figures, and St. Dominic, St. Francis, St. John and St. Augustine hard-by. 4 Below are three children playing various instruments with much grace. This picture not only excited great admiration when it was new, but it has always been praised as a most beautiful work.
Moved by these admirable works, it occurred to some noblemen that it would be well to employ such rare masters to decorate the hall of the great council with paintings descriptive of the magnificence and greatness of their marvellous city, its achievements in war, its enterprises, and other matters worthy of such celebration, as a reminder to succeeding generations, who would derive both pleasure and instruction from scenes appealing alike to the eye and to the mind. Here they would see representations of illustrious lords made by skilful hands as well as the notable deeds of men worthy of undying renown. Accordingly the Government allotted this task to Giovanni and to Gentile, whose reputation increased daily, with instructions to begin as soon as possible. 5 It is only right to mention, however, that long before this Antonio Viniziano had begun to paint the same hall, as I have said in his Life, and had finished a large scene, but was forced to abandon it by the envy of some malignant persons, and so he never carried out that honourable task.
Now Gentile, being more accustomed to paint on canvas than in fresco, or for some other cause, so contrived it that the work should not be painted in fresco but on canvas. The first thing which he did was the Pope presenting to the doge a candle to be carried in a solemn procession then about to take place. In this work Gentile pictured the whole of the exterior of S. Marco, and represented the Pope in his pontificals, followed by numerous prelates, the doge standing, and accompanied by a number of senators. In another part he first did the Emperor Barbarossa graciously receiving the Venetian envoys, and then where he is angrily preparing for war, containing many fine perspectives and countless portraits executed with the utmost grace. In the following scene he painted the Pope exhorting the doge and Venetian senators to arm thirty galleys at the common expense to go and fight with Frederick Barbarossa. The Pope is seated on a pontifical throne in his rochet, with the doge at his side and many senators below. In this scene also Gentile drew the piazza and façade of S. Marco, but in another manner, and the sea with such a multitude of men upon it as to be a veritable marvel. The same Pope occurs again standing in his robes and blessing the doge, who appears armed, with many soldiers behind him, ready to set out. Behind the doge is a long line of nobles, and in the same part the palace and S. Marco are drawn in perspective. This is among the best works of Gentile, although there is another representing a naval battle which is more remarkable for invention and for the countless number of galleys, where multitudes of men are fighting, showing that he was no less acquainted with naval warfare than with painting. In this work he depicted a number of galleys involved together with the soldiers fighting, boats drawn in perspective, with the fury, force and strength of the soldiers in fighting, men dying in various ways the cleaving of the water by the galleys, the confusion of the waves and every kind of naval armament. This endless variety shows the boldness, skill, invention and good judgment of Gentile, everything being excellent in its kind while the whole forms an admirable composition. In another scene he represented the joyful reception accorded by the Pope to the doge on his return after the victory, presenting him with a gold ring to espouse the sea, as his successors have done every year, and still do in sign of the true and perpetual lordship over it which they have earned. In this he made a portrait of Otto, the son of Frederick Barbarossa, kneeling before the Pope; the doge having many armed men behind him, while cardinals and nobles stand behind the Pope. Only the poops of the galleys appear in this scene, and over the admiral's galley is a gilded Victory seated, wearing a gold crown on her head, and holding a sceptre in her hand.
The paintings on the other side of the hall were allotted to Gentile's brother Giovanni, but as his arrangement depends on work already begun there by Vivarino and left unfinished, I must say something of this artist. The portion of the hall not given to Gentile was partly entrusted to Giovanni and partly to Vivarino, in order that competition might induce them to do better. Accordingly Vivarino began his section, 6 starting next to the last scene of Gentile, where Otto offers his services to the Pope and the Venctians to go and procure peace between them and his father Frederick, and this being granted, sets out, dismissed on his parole. In this scene, besides many noteworthy things, Vivarino painted an open church in perspective, with steps and many persons. In the foreground is seated the Pope surrounded by senators, while Otto kneels before him and pledges his honour,. Next to this Vivarino did the arrival of Otto and his father’s joyful reception, with a fine perspective of buildings. Barbarossais seated, while his son kneels and holds his hand, a number of Venetian nobles hard-by being portraits from life, showing how well the artist imitated Nature. Poor Vivarino would have completed the remainder of his section with great praise, but it pleased God that he should die, worn out by his toil and by bad health, so that he did no more, and even what he had done was not completed, and it was necessary for Giovanni Bellini tore touch it in some places.
Giovanni had himself begun four scenes which followed those just mentioned. In the first he made the Pope in S. Marco, drawing the church as it then was, offering his foot to Frederick Barbarossa to kiss. But whatever the cause, this first scene of Giovanni was treated much more forcefully and incomparably better by the master Titian. Giovanni then represented the Pope saying Mass in S. Marco, and then standing between the emperor and the doge and granting a plenary and perpetual indulgence to all who visit that church at a certain time, notably at the Ascension. He made the interior of the church, the Pope standing on the steps leading to the choir, dressed in his pontifical robes, and surrounded by a multitude of cardinals and nobles, composing a full, rich and beautiful scene. In the painting beneath this the Pope stands in his rochet, and is giving a canopy to the doge, after having presented one to the emperor and reserved two for himself. In the last scene painted by Giovanni here presents the arrival at Rome of Pope Alexander, the emperor and the doge. Outside the gates the clergy and all the Roman people have come to present eight standards of various colours and eight silver trumpets, which are handed by the Pope to the doge, that he and his successors may preserve them as a memento. Here Giovanni drew Rome in perspective, taken some distance off, a large number of horse and foot, with banners and other signs of joy floating from the castle of S. Angelo. As these works of Giovanni gave great satisfaction, and they are truly excellent, he was immediately employed to paint all the rest of the hall, when his death took place, for he was then an old man.
As I have spoken of nothing hitherto except this hall, so as not to interrupt the narrative, I will retrace my steps somewhat and speak of other works. Among them is a picture now on the high altar of S. Domenico 7 at Pesaro. In the chapel of St. Jerome in the church of S. Zaccaria at Venice there is a picture of Our Lady with many saints, executed with great diligence, containing a building painted with great judgment. In the sacristy of the Minorites, called Cagrande, 8 in the same city, there is another by his hand of good design and manner. Yet another is in S. Michele, at Murano, a monastery of the Camaldo line monks; and in the old church of S. Frailcesco della Vigna,of the bare-footed friars, there was a picture of a dead Christ. This was so beautiful that Louis XI. of France took a great fancy to it, and as he made an earnest request to have it, the owners were obliged to gratify him, though they did so unwillingly. Another work of Giovanni was put in its place, but not so good or so well executed as the first one. Some, indeed, believe that it was painted by Giovanni's pupil, Girolamo Mocetto.
In the brother-hood of S. Girolamo there is a much-admired work of small figures by the same Bellini while the house of M. Giorgio Cornaro contains a similar fine picture, with Christ, Cleophas and Luke. In the hall already spoken of, but at another time, he painted the scene where the Venetians discover some pope in the monastery della Carita, who had taken refuge in Venice, and had long served the monks as a cook. Into this scene he introduced a number of portraits and other fine figures. Not long after this the Grand Turk happened to see some portraits brought by an ambassador, which filled him with wonder and amazement, and although paintings are prohibited by the Mahommedan laws he gladly accepted them, ceaselessly praising the artist and his work and, what is more, requesting that the master should be sent for. The senate, reflecting that Giovanni was of an age at which he could not support hardships, and unwilling to deprive their city of such a great man, especially as he was at the time employed upon the hall of the great council, decided to send his brother Gentile, who would, they thought, do as well. 9 Accordingly Gentile was safely taken in their galleys to Constantinople, and on being presented by the ambassador of the Signoria to Mahommed, he was received graciously and highly favoured as being something novel, especially as he presented the prince with a lovely picture, which he greatly admired, wondering how a mortal man could possibly possess such divine talent as to be able to express natural things so vividly. Gentile had not long been there before he painted the emperor himself so well that it was considered a miracle. After the emperor had seen many examples of his art he asked Gentile if he would like to paint his own portrait. Gentile replied in the affirmative, and in a few days he had made a wonderful likeness of himself with the aid of a mirror. When the portrait was shown to the prince he was amazed, feeling convinced that the artist had been assisted by some divine spirit, and if such things had not been forbidden among the Turks by their laws, he would never have allowed Gentile to go. Whether he feared that murmurs might arise, or for some other reason, the emperor sent for Gentile one day, and after thanking him and praising his excellence, he asked him to name any favour which he desired; and it would immediately be granted to him. Gentile, being a modest and worthy man, asked for nothing but a letter of recommendation to the senate and government of his native Venice. This was written in the warmest possible terms, after which Gentile was dismissed with noble gifts and the honour of knighthood.
Among other gifts and privileges accorded to him by the lord of the country, a golden chain worked in the Turkish fashion and weighing 250 gold crowns was placed on his neck, and it is still in the possession of his heirs at Venice. Leaving Constantinople, 10 Gentile enjoyed a prosperous voyage back to Venice, where he was joyfully received by his brother Giovanni and almost all the city, everyone being delighted at the honour rendered to his skill by Mahommed. When he went to pay his respects to the doge and the senate he was graciously received and commended for having accomplished their wish in giving so much gratification to the emperor. In order to show their consideration for that prince's letter of recommendation, they decreed to him a provision of 200 crowns a year, which was paid to him until the end of his life. After his return Gentile produced but few more works. At length, when nearly eighty years of age, and after having executed the above-mentioned works and many others, he passed to the other life, and was honourably buried by his brother in S. Giovanni e Paolo in the year 1501.
Giovanni, who had always loved his brother tenderly, being thus left alone, still continued to work, old as he was, and as he was employed to paint portraits, it became a practice in that city that every man of any note should have his portrait painted either by Giovanni or by some other. Hence all the houses of Venice contain numerous portraits, and several nobles have those of their ancestors to the fourth generation, while some of the noblest go even farther back. The custom is an admirable one, and was in use among the ancients. Who does not experience the utmost satisfaction in seeing the likeness of his ancestors, especially of those who have been distinguished in Politics, for worthy deeds in war and peace, in letters or other honourable employments; moreover the portraits are in themselves ornamental. To what other end did the ancients place the images of their great men in public places, with laudatory inscriptions, except to kindle those who come after to virtue and to glory 11 Giovanni painted for M. Pietro Bembo, before he went to visit Pope Leo X., a portrait of his mistress so finely that he earned a mention in the verses of this second celebrated Venetian, just as Simon of Siena had been celebrated by Petrarch, as in the sonnet: O imagine mia ceilate and flura, where at the beginning of the second quatrain he says:
Credo che'l mio Bellini con la figura, etc.
And what greater reward can our artists desire for their labours than to be celebrated by the pens of illustrious poets. Thus Titian has been sung by the learned M. Giovanni della Casa in the sonnet beginning:
Ben veggo io Tiziano, in forme nuove;
and in the other:
Son quest Amor le vaghe treccie bionde.
And was not Bellini numbered among the best painters of his age by the renowned Ariosto at the beginning of Canto XXXIII. of the Orlatido Furioso? But to return to the works of Giovanni, that is to say to the chief ones, for it would take too long to mention all the pictures and portraits which are in the houses of the Venetian nobles and in other places of that state. In Rimini he made a Pieta for Sig. Sigismondo Malatesta, borne by two children, a large picture now in S. Francesco in that city. 12 Among other portraits he drew that of Bartolommeo da Liviano, 13 a captain of the Venetians.
Giovanni had many pupils, because he taught all with pleasure. Among them, sixty years ago, was Jacopo da Montagna, who closely imitated his style, as his works in Padua and Venice show. But the one who imitated him most and who did him the greatest honour was Rondinello da Ravenna, of whom he made great use in all his works. This pupil painted a picture in S. Domenico at Ravenna and another in the Duomo, which is considered a fine example of that style. But his best work was that in the Carmelite church of S. Giovanni Battista in the same city, where, besides a Madonna, he painted a St. Albert of that order, the head being very fine, and the whole figure much admired. Benedetto Coda of Ferrara was also with Giovanni, though he did not profit much by the association. He lived at Rimini, where he painted many pictures, and left a son Bartolommeo, who did the same. It is said that Giorgio da Castelfranco began by studying art with Giovanni, as well as many others, of the Trevisano and Lombardy, whom I need not mention.
At length, when Giovanni had attained to the age of ninety years, he died of old age, leaving an immortal name by the works which he produced in his native Venice and elsewhere. He was buried in the same church and in the same tomb where he had previously laid his brother Gentile. There was no lack at Venice of those who endeavoured to honour him when dead with sonnets and epigrams, just as he had honoured his country when alive.
At the time, when the Bellini were at work or shortly before, Giacomo Marzone' painted a number of things in Venice, and among others one in the chapel of the Assumption in S. Elena, representing the Virgin with a palm, St. Benedict, St. Helena and St. John, but in an old-fashioned style, the figures standing on the tips of their toes, after the manner of the painters who lived in the time of Bartolommeo da Bergamo.1 Variously conjectured to be Frisoni or Foscardi.2 Gentile only did three of them, which are all in the Accademia, Venice. The Miracle of the Cross was painted in 1500.3 Mocenigo was doge 1478-85, Loredano 1501-21.4 i.e. Zanipolo. The picture was destroyed by fire in 1867 together with Titian's St. Peter Martyr.5 Now in the Accademia, Venice.6 Gentile began the work in 1474 and Giovanni carried it on in1479, when his brother went to Constantinople. It was destroyed by fire in 1577.7 Alvise Vivarini, in 1488.8 Rectius S. Francesco.9 Known as the Frari.10 1479. But Gentile was the elder and it was he who was first engaged upon the Great Hall.11 November 1480.12 Now in the Gallery, Rimini.13Rectius Alviano.