Photo credit: Glasgow Museums
Family of Venetian painters who played a dominant role in the art of their city for three-quarters of a century. Jacopo (b Venice, c.1400; d Venice, 1470/1) was the father of Gentile and Giovanni and father-in-law of Mantegna. He was a pupil of Gentile da Fabriano, with whom he probably worked in Florence in the early 1420s (although the documentation is equivocal). From the 1430s he carried out a number of prestigious commissions in north Italy, including a fresco of the Crucifixion in Verona Cathedral (1436) and (after defeating Pisanello in competition) a portrait of Leonello d'Este in Ferrara. However, all these works have perished, and his surviving pictures are mainly fairly simple and traditional representations of the Madonna and Child, of which only one is dated (1448, Brera, Milan).
Attractive though they are, they do little to suggest why he achieved such high esteem in his day, and a better indication of his quality and originality as an artist can be gained from his drawings. Two large, bound volumes of these survive (BM, London, and Louvre, Paris); together they contain almost 300 drawings, mainly finished compositions, some of them very elaborate. They show that he was keenly alert to new ideas, and many of them are remarkable for bold perspective effects, conveying an exhilarating sense of space. The volumes were inherited by Jacopo's sons, who used them as quarries for ideas.Gentile (b Venice, c.1430/5; bur. Venice, 23 Feb. 1507) is generally thought to have been the elder son, although the evidence for this (and for his birthdate) is inconclusive. He presumably trained with his father, and is known to have collaborated with him around 1460. By 1465 he was working independently, and for the next 40 years he was one of the leading painters in Venice. As with his father, however, most of the major works on which his reputation was based have perished. They included a good deal of decorative work in the Doges' Palace, Venice, and erotic scenes painted for the harem of Sultan Mehmet II, when Gentile worked at his court in Constantinople in 1479–81; his portrait of Mehmet, however, survives (albeit much restored) in the National Gallery, London. The most famous of his extant works are probably the Procession of the Relic of the True Cross (1496) and the Miracle at Ponte di Lorenzo (1500), two huge canvases (Accademia, Venice) crowded with anecdotal detail of contemporary Venetian life. They were painted for the Scuola di S. Giovanni Evangelista. Gentile's last work, St Mark Preaching in Alexandria (1504–7, Brera, Milan), is another immense work in similar vein, painted for the Scuola di S. Marco; it was unfinished at his death and was completed by his brother Giovanni.Giovanni (b Venice, c.1430/5; d Venice, ?29 Nov. 1516) was far and away the most important member of the family—one of the greatest and most influential artists of the Renaissance. During his long and prolific career he transformed Venice from a city that was provincial in terms of its painting into a centre rivalling Florence and Rome in significance. He not only brought Venetian painting a prominence it had never known before, but also gave it a distinctive character, expressing himself through colour, light, and atmosphere in a way that contrasted with the traditional Florentine preoccupation with line, and he was a direct inspiration to the numerous Venetian painters of the following generation who trained in his studio. His importance in Venetian art is indeed so great that Kenneth Clark considered that ‘No other school of painting is to the same extent the creation of one man.’ In spite of his fame, his career is in general poorly documented. He seems to have lived a life of uneventful devotion to his art, rarely if ever leaving the Veneto, and there are only scraps of biographical information about him. Few of his paintings bear a date or can be convincingly dated on external evidence. Therefore his development can usually be followed only in broad outline rather than precise detail, as—over a period of more than half a century—he moved from a sharp, linear manner with roots in the Middle Ages to a style of mellow breadth and classical dignity.Giovanni was presumably trained by his father Jacopo, but the major influence in his formative years was that of his brother-in-law, Mantegna. This—and Bellini's own originality—are made clear by a comparison of their celebrated pictures of the Agony in the Garden, both painted about 1460–5 and both now in the National Gallery, London. The compositions are closely related, both deriving from one of Jacopo's drawings, but there is great difference in treatment, particularly of the landscape: Mantegna's is sharp, precise, and analytical, Bellini's is lyrical and atmospheric. Another important influence on him was Antonello da Messina, who was in Venice in 1475–6: Bellini admired not only his mastery of the new technique of oil painting (of which he too became a consummate exponent), but also his lucid handling of space and form. To the end of his long life he continued to absorb new ideas: from the year before his death dates the dreamy Woman with a Mirror (1515, KH Mus., Vienna), which is strongly influenced by Giorgione, who was young enough to be his grandson. But despite his borrowings, Bellini always remained distinctly himself, for he had an extraordinary ability to assimilate ideas and blend them into a harmonious synthesis: as the Bellini specialist Jennifer Fletcher put it, ‘Some artists invented more but none perfected so much.’ His genius remained undiminished by advancing years, and it is easy to credit the remark made by Dürer on his visit to Venice in 1505–7 that although Bellini was ‘very old’ he was still ‘the best painter’. (Dürer's account of his meeting with Bellini gives a rare—and very favourable—glimpse of his personality: whereas other Venetian artists were hostile to the German visitor and jealous of his skills, the great man treated him with courtesy and respect.)Bellini painted fine portraits, of which the Doge Leonardo Loredan (c.1501–4, NG, London) is the best-known example, and a few mythologies and allegories, notably The Feast of the Gods (1514, NG, Washington; altered after his death by Titian). Like his brother Gentile, he also painted several scenes from Venetian history (destroyed) in the Doges' Palace. However, he was above all a religious painter. His most characteristic subject was the Madonna and Child, and only Raphael has rivalled him in the beauty and variety of his treatment of the theme, ranging from the wistful melancholy of The Madonna of the Meadow (c.1510, NG, London), one of the loveliest examples of his ability to bring together figures and landscape in perfect harmony, to the monumentality of the San Zaccaria Altarpiece (1505, S. Zaccaria, Venice), perhaps the grandest of all sacre conversazioni. Another favourite subject was the Dead Christ, which was particularly suited to the combination of gravity and tenderness at which he excelled (Dead Christ Supported by Angels, c.1465–70, NG, London). He rarely attempted subjects with a strong narrative element, as he was much more interested in atmosphere than action. This concern with the evocation of mood was one of his most important legacies to his pupils. From about 1490 almost all the painters who became eminent in Venice during the next generation (including Giorgione, Sebastiano del Piombo, and Titian) are either known to or believed to have trained in his workshop. Bellini also had some influence in Florence, via Fra Bartolommeo, who visited Venice in 1508.
Text source: The Oxford Dictionary of Art and Artists (Oxford University Press)