Gentile Bellini
Biography of Early Renaissance Venetian Painter.

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Procession of the True Cross
in St Mark's Square (1496)
Venice Academy Gallery.

For an idea of the pigments used by
Gentile Bellini in his painting,
see: Renaissance Colour Palette.

Gentile Bellini (c.1429-1507)

One of the most successful Old Masters in the Renaissance art of Venice, Gentile Bellini was renowned for his view-paintings (vedute) of the city, and his Renaissance portraits of the Venetian Doges and other notables. his father Jacopo, brother Giovanni and brother-in-law Andrea Mantegna were all outstanding painters of the early Renaissance in Venice.

The Bellini Family
At the beginning of the fifteenth century, Venice strengthened her position by taking control of the local towns of Padua, Verona, and Vicenza and established strong commercial contacts with Milan and Mantua. By the mid-15th century, this growing Venetian confidence led to greater artistic and architectural contacts with Florence. At this point, the most famous painters in Venice were the Bellini family, led by Jacopo Bellini (c.1400-1470). A former pupil of Gentile da Fabriano (c.1370-1427), Jacopo was one of the earliest Old Masters in Venice to develop a keen interest in perspective and the practice of oil painting. His workshop was immensely popular, inundated by orders for altarpiece art and portraits. He also had two talented sons, Gentile and, most notably, Giovanni Bellini (c.1430-1516) and son-in-law Andrea Mantegna.

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Early Life

Like his brother, Gentile learned all about drawing, tempera and oil painting, and colour pigments under his father, with whom he continued to work until his early 30s. It wasn't until about 1465 that he began working independently. Although today, he is thought to have been outshined by his younger brother Giovanni, at the time he was considered one of the top exponents of Early Renaissance painting in Venice. One of his earliest surviving portraits, itself one of the oldest surviving oil panel paintings in Venice is The Blessed Lorenzo Giustinian (1445, Gallerie dell'Accademia, Venice). For more about Bellini family involvement in religious painting, see: Venetian altarpieces (c.1500-1600).

About 1466 he began receiving official commissions from the city authorities of Venice - many of which, including a number of the major works upon which his reputation rests, have not survived, including a significant number of decorative paintings for the Doges Palace - and in 1469 he was awarded the title of Count-Palatine by Emperor Frederick III. In 1474 Gentile Bellini became the official portrait artist for the Doges of Venice.



At the end of the 1470s he was despatched as Venetian cultural ambassador to the Ottoman capital of Constantinople, where he executed a range of erotic pictures for the harem of Sultan Mehmet II (1479-81). Sadly these works have perished, but his portrait of Mehmet himself (Mohammed II, 1480, National Gallery, London) has survived, as has a watercolour portrait of a young Turkish scribe (Gardner Museum, Boston). At any rate, the trip was a great success. According to the 16th century Renaissance biographer Giorgio Vasari (1511-74) Mehmet "could hardly understand how any mortal could possess the divine skill of imitating nature so vividly." For more about portraiture, see: Venetian Portrait Painting (c.1400-1600).

Historical Paintings of Venice

As well as his acute portrait art, notably his portraits of the Venetian Doges, Gentile Bellini is best known today for masterpieces of Venetian painting such as Procession of the Relic of the True Cross in St Mark's Square (1496) and the Miracle at San Lorenzo Bridge (1500) (both in the Gallerie dell'Accademia, Venice), two enormous canvases filled with rich details of contemporary Venetian life, which were commissioned for the Scuola Grande di San Giovanni Evangelista. For details of drawings by Renaissance artists in Venice, see: Venetian Drawing (c.1500-1600).

Although the subject of the Procession of the Relic of the True Cross in St Mark's Square (1496) is ostensibly the miraculous recovery of a dying young man, the real focus of the picture is the procession, especially the space of St. Mark’s square and the St Mark's Basilica, with its glittering Byzantine domes and mosaics. Similarly, Bellini's Miracle at San Lorenzo Bridge (1500) is more about contemporary Venetian life than it is about the event of the miracle. Characterized by their schooled use of perspective, calm contours, narrative detail and restrained colours, these two paintings establish Gentile as one of the great view-painters (vedutisti) of quattrocento (15th-century) and cinquecento (16th-century) Venice. He was a major influence on younger contemporaries like Vittore Carpaccio (c.1465-1525/6), and an important forerunner of the Venetian topographical expert Canaletto. Sadly, all Bellini's other large-scale historical scenes were destroyed by a fire in the Doges' Palace in the late 1570s. In addition to his paintings, Bellini sketched some of the best drawings of the Renaissance.

Other Famous Works

Other famous paintings by Gentile Bellini include: Portrait of Doge Giovanni Mocenigo (1478, Frick Collection, New York), The Virgin Mary with Donors (c.1450, SMPK Gemaldegalerie Berlin), San Lorenzo Giustiniani (1465, Gallerie dell' Accademia, Venice), Madonna Enthroned with Child (1475-1485, National Gallery, London), Portrait of Queen Caterina Cornaro (c.1500, Szepmuveszeti Muzeum, Budapest), and the unfinished St Mark Preaching in Alexandria (1505, Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan).

Paintings by Gentile Bellini can be seen in many of the best art museums throughout the world, notably the Venice Academy Gallery.

For later members of the Venetian School, see also biographies of Jacopo Tintoretto (1518-1594) and Paolo Veronese (1528-1588).

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