- Short Name:
- Date of Birth:
- Date of Death:
- Nov 1516
- Oil, Tempera
- Figure, Landscapes
- Art Movement:
- Venice, Italy
Giovanni Bellini is often considered to be the father of the Venetian Renaissance. His unparalleled rendering of color and light helped usher in a period of overwhelming creativity in Venice, and arguably all of Europe. He was known for his religiously impassioned images of the Madonna and Christ, as well as his ability to convey the subtlest of human emotions.
Bellini was born and died in Venice during a time when the La Serenissima, or Venetian Republic, was a formidable trading power and crossroads of Europe. During his life, Venice remained an integral player in Mediterranean and even world trade.
Although he may never have ventured far from Venice, Bellini was by no means isolated from other artists. Rather, he studied the style of Northern European painters and welcomed visitors from all across Europe. As he aged, he even took cues from his pupils in order to further hone his skills.
Virgin and Child
Giovanni Bellini was born into a renowned family of painters around the year 1430. His father, Jacopo, was instrumental in bringing the Italian Renaissance to Venice and sought to ensure that his sons, Giovanni and Gentile, would become great painters too.
Giovanni and his elder brother, Gentile, probably began their careers as assistants in their father's workshop, learning valuable skills and techniques from him and his pupils. One of these pupils, the Paduan painter, Andrea Mantegna, would become Bellini's brother-in-law and a great influence on his early artwork.
Once Bellini had made a name for himself through his portraits and stunning portrayals of Biblical events, he began to abandon the older paint style of tempera in favor of oil paints around the 1470s. The use of oil paints helped unleash Bellini's eye for color and light and his paintings took on an even more life-like quality.
Many of his altarpieces are so detailed and convincing, it is said, that people sitting in the back pew can feel the emotion etched on the face of each subject.
It was also during this time that Bellini was offered a prestigious position at the Doge's Palace in Venice. He painted panels in the palace's great hall, portraits and altarpieces, and oversaw further work for the rest of his life.
Bellini painted actively up until his death at the age of almost 90 in 1516. During the last fifteen years of his life, he was inundated with commissions to paint his breathtaking altarpieces, portraits and mythologies - all with careful attention to landscape detail.
Although he was a master painter, considered by many to be the best in Venice, Bellini was always eager to learn new styles and techniques from younger painters and his students, and he worked to hone his skills until his death.
Thanks to his ready absorption of outside influences, it should be no surprise that Bellini's style and technique was progressive for the duration of his life, though always maintaining the careful attention to color and expressiveness he is best known for.
Bellini's early work, often typified by the painting Saint Jerome in the Desert, is still very similar to his father's and brother-in-law's, with its visibly delineated figures and rocky landscapes.
In line with Mantegna's work, Bellini also began to employ the use of foreshortening and robustly sculptural figures. With these, however, Bellini's own reverence for nature and imaginative use of light are clearly apparent. He may even have been the first Italian artist to capture dawn in a painting.
In the vein of conventional painting at the time, Bellini employed the use of egg tempera to render his images. Artists had used this type of fast-drying paint, comprised of pigment and egg yolk, almost exclusively during the Middle Ages in Europe.
This kind of paint made blending colors and adding depth to images difficult. Although it served the propose of putting color to canvas, as the Renaissance took hold and painters became more interested in capturing the likenesses of the physical world around them, rather than representing a long-dead saint, the limitations of tempera paint became apparent.
When Antonello da Messina introduced Bellini to the vastly versatile oil paints artists were using in Northern Europe, Bellini's style soared. It's as if Bellini had been born for the sole purpose of rendering images in oil.
With oil, Bellini's keen eye for color and light had found the perfect outlet and he could better represent living, breathing subjects.
Rather than championing the style he mastered in his younger years, Bellini endeavored to keep up with the times in his later years. Taking cue from younger artists and his own pupils, Bellini began to place a greater emphasis on secular images of mythology and landscapes, and experimented with a more atmospheric style.
His deftness at representing life-like images is apparent in his portrait of the Doge Leonardo Loredan. The shimmering silk fabric of the Doge's clothing and his austere countenance have been delivered through a collaboration between oil paints and Giovanni Bellini's talent.
Presumably Bellini's first exposure to painting was facilitated by his well-known father. Both Bellini and his brother assisted their father in his workshop and were given lessons of their own.
Jacopo introduced Bellini to artistic concepts from Tuscany, such as spatial illusion and experiments with perspective.
Bellini's brother-in-law, Andrea Mantegna, was one of the earliest influences on Bellini's professional career. Originally a student of archeology, Mantegna's figures were supremely structural with bold contour lines. His influence on Bellini is most apparent in Bellini's Agony in the Garden, which was probably modeled from one of Mantegna's own paintings by the same name.
Byzantine Art & Christianity:
Bellini was a devout Christian and used his paintings as an outlet for his religious devotion. One of his favorite themes seems to be the images of the Madonna and the Passion. These images were revered not only for their aesthetic grace, but also for their deep religious feeling. The depiction of religious icons is a tradition founded in Byzantine religious art, and was clearly a huge influence on Bellini and many of his contemporaries.
Messina and Northern Style:
In the 1470s, Bellini received a visit from Antonello da Messina, a Sicilian artist who's credited with disseminating the use of oil paints throughout Italy.
Oil painting was pioneered by Flemish painter Jan Van Eyck, and allowed for painters to blend colors more freely, lending their paintings a far greater depth and luminosity than they previously demonstrated.
A hallmark of Venetian painting soon became the exhalation of sensuality and atmosphere over form and shape. Many of Bellini's works throughout his career demonstrated a careful attention to the surrounding Venetian landscape, and as his career progressed, he emphasized more diaphanous and naturalistic forms.
Self Portrait, Dürer
Bellini was a master painter with many pupils and followers, though perhaps his most famous and influential follower was the Venetian artist Titian.
During his long life, Bellini gathered a respectable crop of followers and admirers. The German painter, Albrecht Dürer, not only praised Bellini's skill as "the best painter of them all," but was also greatly touched by his kindness.
Bellini supposedly openly praised Dürer's skill to a noble man and commissioned the young artist to paint something for him - the equivalent of a glowing letter of recommendation.
Two of his most notable pupils, Giorgione and Titian, would go on to revolutionize Venetian painting. Other painters Bellini is said to have trained in his workshop include Bartolomeo Veneto, Marco Bello, Francesco Bissolo, Cristoforo Caselli, Vincenzo Catena, Pietro Duia, Lattanzio da Rimini, Rocco Marconi, Marco Marziale, Filippo Mazzola, Girolamo Mocetto, Pier Maria Pennacchi, Pietro degli Ingannati, Andrea Previtali, Niccolò Rondinelli, Vincenzo dalle Destre and Vittore Belliniano.
Due to the huge number of commissions Bellini received during his life, we can surmise that he was famous throughout Italy in more than just art circles. At the time of his death he was in the midst of working on The Feast of the Gods, which was commissioned by Alfonso I d'Este, Duke of Ferrera.
After Bellini's death, his followers and students continued to pursue art along the path blazed by their master, and continued to push the envelope of Venetian painting. Titian especially sought to outdo his former master, which could easily have lead to rapid development of Venetian painting during the next generation. Bellini's deep appreciation of nature and color, for instance, was adopted and carried further by his student Titian.
Bellini's popularity among art critics varied somewhat throughout the centuries, but today, as during his lifetime, he is widely revered for his innovation, skill and pivotal role in bringing the Renaissance to Venice.
Early in Bellini's career, his skill was often compared to that of his elder brother, Gentile, who was also a well-respected Venetian painter. No records show that this was a problem for Bellini, but rather could have helped him gain notoriety. In fact, Bellini often collaborated with his brother on projects at the Doge's Palace, and eventually became the head of such projects.
Bolstered by the Doge's patronage, and his own shift in style to the use of oil paints, Bellini's reputation as a master painter soared. Late in his life, Bellini was still lauded as one of the best painters in Venice, possibly the best.
In the decades following Bellini's death, critics of the 16th century reversed their previous praise of the artist. Many, such as Lodovico Dolce, recognized Bellini's skill but usually declared him to have been completely outdistanced by his former pupil, Titian.
17th Century & 18th Century:
Guided by Dolce's assessment, many 17th and 18th century critics relegated Bellini's position to that of mere facilitator of greatness, rather than one of greatness itself. A few, however, viewed Bellini as instrumental in bringing Renaissance painting to Venice and founding the Venetian school.
It wasn't until the 19th century that Bellini's work was once again critically acclaimed, thanks greatly to his champion, John Ruskin, who went as far as to declare Bellini's Frari triptych and San Zaccaria altarpiece as the two best paintings in the world.
When Ruskin restored Bellini to his place at the helm of the Venetian Renaissance, the way was paved for 20th century critics to rediscover some of his lost or forgotten works and analyze his work and inspiration in unprecedented detail.
To find out more about Bellini and his paintings please select from the following recommended sources.
• Aikema, Bernard & Brown, Beverly Louise. Renaissance Venice and the North: Crosscurrents in the Time of Dürer, Bellini and Titian: Thames & Hudson, 2000
• Batschmann, Oskar. Giovanni Bellini. Reaktion Books, 2008
• Christiansen, Keith & Weppelmann, Stefan. The Portrait in Renaissance Italy: From Donatello to Bellini. Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2011
• Fry, Roger Eliot. Giovanni Bellini. BiblioBazaar, 2008
• Lowry, Elizabeth. The Bellini Madonna. Quercus Publishing Plc, 2009
• Tempestini, Anchise. Giovanni Bellini. Abbeville Press Inc. , 1999