Detail. Giovanni Bellini. Feast of the Gods.
ENTERPRISES that are founded on excellence, although their beginnings often appear humble and mean, keep climbing higher step by step, nor do they ever halt or take rest until they have reached the supreme heights of glory: as could be clearly seen from the poor and humble beginning of the house of the Bellini, and from the rank to which it afterwards rose by means of painting. Jacopo Bellini, a painter of Venice, having been a disciple of Gentile da Fabriano, workedin competition with that Domenico who taught the method of coloring in oil to Andrea dal Castagno; but, although he labored greatly to become excellent in that art, he did not acquire fame therein until after the departure of Domenico [Domenico Veneziano] from Venice. Then, finding himself in that city without any competitor to equal him, he kept growing in credit and fame, and became so excellent that he was the greatest and most renowned man in his profession. And to the end that the name which he had acquired in painting might not only be maintained in his house and for his descendants, but might grow greater, there were born to him two sons of good and beautiful intelligence, strongly inclined to the art: one was Giovanni, and the other Gentile, to whom he gave that name in tender memory of Gentile da Fabriano, who had been his master and like a loving father to him. Now, when the said two sons had grown to a certain age, Jacopo himself with all diligence taught them the rudiments of drawing; but no long time passed before both one and the other surpassed his father by a great measure, whereat he rejoiced greatly, ever encouraging them and showing them that he desired them to do as the Tuscans did, who gloried among themselves in making efforts to outstrip each other, according as one after another took up the art: even so should Giovanni vanquish himself, and Gentile should vanquish them both, and so on in succession.
The first works that brought fame to Jacopo were the portraits of Giorgio Cornaro and of Caterina, Queen of Cyprus; a panel which he sent to Verona, containing the Passion of Christ, with many figures, among which he portrayed himself from the life; and a picture of the Story of the Cross, which is said to be in the Scuola of San Giovanni Evangelista. All these works and many others were painted by Jacopo with the aid of his sons; and the last-named picture was painted on canvas, as it has been almost always the custom to do in that city, where they rarely paint, as is done elsewhere, on panels of the wood of that tree that is called by many oppio and by some gattice. This wood, which grows mostly beside rivers or other waters, is very soft, and admirable for painting on, for it holds very firmly when joined together with carpenters' glue. But in Venice they make no panels, and, if they do make a few, they use no other wood than that of the fir, of which that city has a great abundance by reason of the River Adige, which brings a very great quantity of it from Germany, not to mention that no small amount comes from Sclavonia. It is much the custom in Venice, then, to paint on canvas, either because it does not split and does not grow worm-eaten, or because it enables pictures to be made of any size that is desired, or because, as was said elsewhere, they can be sent easily and conveniently wherever they are wanted, with very little expense and labor. Be the reason what it may, Jacopo and Gentile, as was said above, made their first works on canvas.
To the last-named Story of the Cross Gentile afterwards added by himself seven other pictures, or rather, eight, inwhich he painted the miracle of the Cross of Christ, which the said Scuola preserves as a relic; which miracle was as follows. The said Cross was thrown, I know not by what chance, from the Ponte della Paglia into the Canal, and, by reason of the reverence that many bore to the piece of the Cross of Christ that it contained, they threw themselves into the water to recover it; but it was the will of God that no one should be worthy to succeed in grasping it save the Prior of that Scuola. Gentile, therefore,representing this story, drew in perspective, along the Grand Canal, manyhouses, the Ponte della Paglia, the Piazza di San Marco, and a long procession of men and women walking behind the clergy; also many who have leapt into the water, others in the act of leaping, many half immersed, and others in other very beautiful actions and attitudes; and finally he painted the said Prior recovering the Cross. Truly great were the labor and diligence of Gentile in this work, considering the infinite number of people, the many portraits from life, the diminution of the figures in the distance, and particularly the portraits of almost all the men who then belonged to that Scuola, or rather, Confraternity. Last comes the picture of the replacing of the said Cross, wrought with many beautiful conceptions. All these scenes, painted on the aforesaid canvases, acquired a very great name for Gentile.
Afterwards, Jacopo withdrew to work entirely by himself, as did his two sons, each of them devoting himself to his own studies in the art. Of Jacopo I will make no further mention, seeing that his works were nothing out of the ordinary in comparison with those of his sons, and because he died not long after his sons withdrew themselves from him; and I judge it much better to speak at some length only of Giovanni and Gentile. I will not, indeed, forbear to say that although these brothers retired to live each by himself, nevertheless they had so much respect for each other, and both had such reverence for their father, that each, extolling the other, ever held himself inferior in merit; and thus they sought modestly to surpass one another no less in goodness and courtesy than in the excellence of their art.
The first works of Giovanni were some portraits from the life, which gave much satisfaction, and particularly that of Doge Loredano, although some say that this was a portrait of Giovanni Mozzenigo, brother of that Piero who was Doge many years before Loredano. Giovanni then painted a panel for the altar of Santa Caterina da Siena in the Church of San Giovanni, in which picture,a rather large one, he painted Our Lady seated, with the Child in her arms, and St. Dominic, St. Jerome, St. Catherine, St. Ursula, and two other Virgins; and at the feet of the Madonna he made three boys standing, who are singing from a book, a very beautiful group. Above this he made the inner part of a vault in a building, which is very beautiful. This work was one of the best that had been made in Venice up to that time. For the altar of San Giobbe in the Church of that Saint, the same man painted a panel with good design and most beautiful coloring, in the middle of which he made the Madonna with the Child in her arms, seated on a throne slightly raised from the ground, with nude figures of St. Job and St. Sebastian, beside whom are St. Dominic, St. Francis, St. John, and St. Augustine; and below are three boys, sounding instruments with much grace. This picture was not only praised then, when it was seen as new, but it has likewise been extolled ever afterwards as a very beautiful work.
Certain noblemen, moved by the great praises won by these works, began to suggest that it would be a fine thing, in view of the presence of such rare masters, to have the Hall of the Great Council adorned with stories , in which there should be depicted the glories and the magnificence of their marvelous city,her great deeds, her exploits in war, her enter prises, and other things of that kind, worthy to be perpetuated by painting. in the memory of those who should come after,to the end that there might be added, to the profit and pleasure drawn from the reading of history, entertainment both for the eye and for the intellect, from seeing the images of so many illustrious lords wrought by the most skillful hands, and the glorious works of so many noblemen right worthy of eternal memory and fame. And so Giovanni and Gentile, who kept on making progress from day to day, received the commission for this work by order of those who governed the city, who commanded them to make a beginning as soon as possible. But it must be remarked that Antonio Viniziano had made a beginning long before with the painting of the same Hall, as was said in his Life, and had already finished a large scene, when he was forced by the envy of certain malignant spirits to depart and to leave that most honorable enterprise without carrying it on further.
Now Gentile, either because he had more experience and greater skill in painting on canvas than in fresco, or for some other reason, whatever it may have been, contrived without difficulty to obtain leave to execute that work not in fresco but on canvas. And thus, setting to work, in the first scene he made the Pope presenting a wax candle to the Doge, that he might bear it in the solemn processions which were to take place; in which picture Gentile painted the whole exterior of San Marco, and made the said Pope standing in his pontifical robes, with many prelates behind him, and the Doge likewise standing, accompanied by many Senators. In another part he represented the Emperor Barbarossa; first, when he is receiving the Venetian envoys in friendly fashion, and then, when he is preparing for war, in great disdain; in which scene are very beautiful perspectives, with innumerable able portraits from the life, executed with very good grace and amid a vast number of figures. In the following scene he painted the Pope exhorting the Doge and the Signori of Venice to equip thirty galleys at their common expense, to go out to battle against Frederick Barbarossa. This Pope is seated in his rochet on the pontifical chair, with the Doge beside him and many Senators at his feet. In this part, also, Gentile painted the Piazza and the facade of San Marco, and the sea, but in another manner, with so great a multitude of men that it is truly a marvel. Then in another part the same Pope, standing in his pontifical robes, is giving his benediction to the Doge, who appears to be setting out for the fray, armed, and with many soldiers at his back; behind the Doge are seen innumerable noblemen in a long procession, and in the same part are the Palace and San Marco, drawn in perspective.
This is one of the best works that there are to be seen by the hand of Gentile, although there appears to be more invention in that other which represents a naval battle, because it contains an infinite number of galleys fighting together and an incredible multitude of men, and because, in short, he showed clearly therein that he had no less knowledge of naval warfare than of his own art of painting. And indeed, all that Gentile executed in this work,the crowd of galleys engaged in battle; the soldiers fighting; the boats duly diminishing in perspective; the finely ordered combat; the soldiers furiously striving, defending, and striking; the wounded dying in various manners; the cleaving of the water by the galleys; the confusion of the waves; and all the kinds of naval armament; all this vast diversity of subjects, I say, cannot but serve to prove the great spirit, art, invention, and judgment of Gentile, each detail being most excellently wrought in itself, as well as the composition of the whole. In another scene he made the Doge returning with the victory so much desired, and the Pope receiving him with open arms, and giving him a ring of gold wherewith to espouse the sea, as his successors have done and still do every year, as a sign of the true and perpetual dominion that they deservedly hold over it. In this part there is Otto, son of Frederick Barbarossa, portrayed from the life, and kneeling before the Pope; and as behind the Doge there are many armed soldiers, so behind the Pope there are many Cardinals and noblemen. In this scene only the poops of the galleys appear; and on the Admiral's galley is seated a Victory painted to look like gold, with a crown on her head and a scepter in her hand.
The scenes that were to occupy the other parts of the Hall were entrusted to Giovanni, the brother of Gentile; but since the order of the stories that he painted there is connected with those executed in great part, but not finished, by Vivarino, it is necessary to say something of the latter. That part of the Hall which was not done by Gentile was given partly to Giovanni and partly to the said Vivarino, to the end that rivalry might induce each man to do his best. Vivarino, then, putting his hand to the part that belonged to him, painted, beside the last scene of Gentile, the aforesaid Otto offering to the Pope and to the Venetians to go to conclude peace between them and his father Frederick; and, having obtained this, he is dismissed on oath and goes his way. In this first part, besides other things, which are all worthy of consideration, Vivarino painted an open temple in beautiful perspective, with steps and many figures. Before the Pope, who is seated and surrounded by many Senators, is the said Otto on his knees, binding himself by an oath. Beside this scene, he painted the arrival of Otto before his father, who is receiving him gladly; with buildings wrought most beautifully in per perspective, Barbarossa on his throne, and his son kneeling and taking his hand, accompanied by many Venetian noblemen, who are portrayed from the life so finely that it is clear that he imitated nature very well. Poor Vivarino would have completed the remainder of his part with great honor to himself, but, having died, as it pleased God, from exhaustion and through being of a weakly habit of body, he carried it no further, nay, even what he had done was not wholly finished, and it was necessary for Giovanni Bellini to retouch it in certain places.
Meanwhile, Giovanni had also made a beginning with four scenes, which follow in due order those mentioned above. In the first he painted the said Pope in San Marco,which church he portrayed exactly as it stood,presenting his foot to Frederick Barbarossa to kiss; but this first picture of Giovanni's , whatever may have been the reason , was rendered much more lifelike and incomparably better by the most excel lent Tiziano. However, continuing his scenes, Giovanni made in the next the Pope saying Mass in San Marco, and afterwards, between the said Emperor and the Doge, granting plenary and perpetual indulgence to all who should visit the said Church of San Marco at certain times, particularly at that of the Ascension of Our Lord. There he depicted the interior of that church, with the said Pope in his pontifical robes at the head of the steps that issue from the choir, surrounded by many Cardinals and noblemen,a vast group, which makes this a crowded, rich, and beautiful scene. In the one below this the Pope is seen in his rochet, presenting a canopy to the Doge, after having given another to the Emperor and keeping two for himself. In the last that Giovanni painted are seen Pope Alexander, the Emperor, and the Doge arriving in Rome, without the gates of which the Pope is presented by the clergy and by the people of Rome with eight standards of various colors and eight silver trumpets, which he gives to the Doge, that he and his successors may have them for insignia. Here Giovanni painted Rome in somewhat distant perspective, a great number of horses, and an infinity of foot soldiers, with many banners and other signs of rejoicing on the Castle of SantU Angelo. And since these works of Giovanni, which are truly very beautiful, gave infinite satisfaction, arrangements were just being made to give him the commission to paint all the rest of that Hall, when, being now old, he died.
Up to the present we have spoken of nothing save the Hall, in order not to interrupt the sequence of the scenes; but now we must turn back a little and say that there are many other works to be seen by the hand of the same man. One is a panel which is now on the high altar of San Domenico in Pesaro. In the Church of San Zaccheria in Venice, in the Chapel of San Girolamo, there is a panel of Our Lady and many saints, executed with great diligence, with a building painted with much judgment ; and in the same city, in the Sacristy of the Friars Minor, called the "Ca Grande," there is another by the same man's hand, wrought with beautiful design and a good manner. There is likewise one in San Michele di Murano, a monastery of Monks of Camaldoli; and in the old Church of San Francesco della Vigna, a seat of the Frati del Zoccolo, there was a picture of a Dead Christ, so beautiful that it was highly extolled before Louis XI, King of France, whereupon he demanded it from its owners with great insistence, so that they were forced, although very unwillingly, to gratify his wish. In its place there was put another with the name of The same Giovanni, but not so beautiful or so well executed as the first; and some believe that this substitute was wrought for the most part by Girolamo Moretto, a pupil of Giovanni. The Confraternity of San Girolamo also possesses a work with little figures by the same Bellini, which is much extolled. And in the house of Messer Giorgio Cornaro there is a picture, likewise very beautiful, containing Christ, Cleophas, and Luke.
In the aforesaid Hall he also painted, though not at the same time, a scene of the Venetians summoning forth from the Monastery of the Carita a Pope--I know not which--who, having fled to Venice, had secretly served for a long time as cook to the monks of that monastery; in which scene there are many portraits from the life, and other very beautiful figures. No long time after, certain portraits were taken to Turkey by an ambassador as presents for the Grand Turk, which caused such astonish and marvel to that Emperor, that, although pictures are forbidden among that people by the Mahometan law, nevertheless he accepted them with great good-will, praising the art and the craftsman without ceasing; and what is more, he demanded that the master of the work should be sent to him. Whereupon the Senate, considering that Giovanni had reached an age when he could ill endure hardships, not to mention that they did not wish to deprive their own city of so great a man, particularly because he was then engaged on the aforesaid Hall of the Great Council, determined to send his brother Gentile, believing that he would do as well as Giovanni.
Therefore, having caused Gentile to make his preparations, they brought him safely in their own galleys to Constantinople, where, after being presented by the Commissioner of the Signoria to Mahomet, he was received very willingly and treated with much favor as something new, above all after he had given that Prince a most lovely picture, which he greatly admired, being well-nigh unable to believe that a mortal man had within himself so much divinity, so to speak, as to be able to represent the objects of nature so vividly. Gentile had been there no long time when he portrayed the Emperor Mahomet from the life so well, that it was held a miracle. That Emperor, after having seen many specimens of his art, asked Gentile whether he had the courage to paint his own portrait; and Gentile, having answered "Yes," did not allow many days to pass before he had made his own portrait with a mirror, with such resemblance that it appeared alive.
This he brought to the Sultan, who marveled so greatly thereat, that he could not but think that he had some divine spirit within him; and if it had not been that the exercise of this art, as has been said, is forbidden by law among the Turks, that Emperor would never have allowed Gentile to go. But either in fear of murmurings, or for some other reason, one day he summoned him to his presence, and after first causing him to be thanked for the courtesy that he had shown, and then praising him in marvelous fashion as a man of the greatest excellence, he bade him demand whatever favor he wished, for it would be granted to him with out fail. Gentile, like the modest and upright man that he was, asked for nothing save a letter of recommendation to the most Serene Senate and the most Illustrious Signoria of Venice, his native city. This was written in the warmest possible terms, and afterwards he was dismissed with honorable gifts and with the dignity of Chevalier. Among other things given to him at parting by that Sovereign, in addition to many privileges, there was placed round his neck a chain wrought in the Turkish manner, equal in weight to 250 gold crowns, which is still in the hands of his heirs in Venice.