San Zaccaria Altarpiece by Giovanni Bellini

San Zaccaria Altarpiece by Giovanni Bellini

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San Giobbe Altarpiece

The work can be seen as an example of Sacra conversazione (Holy Conversation), where Mary is sitting on a tall marble throne, and she's holding the Child. At Mary's feet, there are 3 musician angels, while at her side, there are 6 saints, in symmetrical positions. On the left, there's Saints Francis, John the Baptist plus Job. Saints Dominic, Louis of Toulouse and Sebastian are seen on the right. The child's features are the same as the ones in the Contarini Madonna, which is housed in the art museum called Accademia Gallery in Florence.

The upper part of the painting features a perspective coffered ceiling, which is flanked with pillars that are copies of the original ones at the altar which was the original. There is a dark niche behind the Madonna. A gilt mosaic decoration, made in the Venetian style, is in the latter's half-dome. By including Byzantine architectural and traditional Venetian elements in the altarpiece scenery, he managed to please his patrons. He did this by including established practices while at the same time introducing new artistic components to the society.

San Giobbe Altarpiece is among the masterworks of Giovanni's mature period, and it was painted for the 2nd left altar of the 15th-century Roman Catholic church, Church of St Job in Venice. The altarpiece was most likely inspired by Antonello da Messina's San Cassiano Altarpiece, then he absorbed and further developed this work's innovations. However, the dating of the painting by Giovanni is not certain, such dependency can't be proved. This is one of Bellini's most famous works, a claim that was made as earlier during De Urbe Sito, which is a description of Venice that Marco Antonio Sabellico made (1487 to 1491).

Saints Sebastian and Job depiction indicates that the picture was might be produced in connection with the 1487 plague. The dating of this work is disputed and ranges between the early 1470s and the late 1480s. In 1581, Jacopo Sansovino wrote that the work for this altarpiece was the first time Bellini used oil painting, implying an earlier date, closer to the altarpiece by Antonello. Yet, most scholars have disputed this claim. San Giobbe Altarpiece stayed in the Church of St Job until 1814 to 1818.


Early career Edit

Giovanni Bellini was born in Venice. The painter Jacopo Bellini has long been considered Giovanni's father, but the art historian Daniel Wallace Maze has advanced the theory that Jacopo was in fact his elder brother. [5] Giovanni was brought up in Jacopo's house, and always lived and worked in the closest fraternal relation with his brother Gentile. Up until the age of nearly thirty we find in his work a depth of religious feeling and human pathos which is his own. His paintings from the early period are all executed in the old tempera method: the scene is softened by a new and beautiful effect of romantic sunrise color (as, for example, in the St. Jerome in the Desert).

In a changed and more personal manner, he drew Dead Christ pictures (In these days one of the master's most frequent themes e.g. Dead Christ Supported by the Madonna and St. John, or Pietà). with less harshness of contour, a broader treatment of forms and draperies and less force of religious feeling. Giovanni's early works have often been linked both compositionally and stylistically to those of his brother-in-law, Andrea Mantegna.

In 1470 Giovanni received his first appointment to work along with his brother and other artists in the Scuola di San Marco, where among other subjects he was commissioned to paint a Deluge with Noah's Ark. None of the master's works of this kind, whether painted for the various schools or confraternities or for the ducal palace, has survived.

Maturity Edit

To the decade following 1470 must probably be assigned the Transfiguration now in the Capodimonte Museum of Naples, repeating with greatly ripened powers and in a much serener spirit the subject of his early effort at Venice.

Also likely from this period is the great altar-piece of the Coronation of the Virgin at Pesaro, which would seem to be his earliest effort in a form of art previously almost monopolized in Venice by the rival school of the Vivarini.

As is the case with a number of his brother, Gentile's public works of the period, many of Giovanni's great public works are now lost. The still more famous altar-piece painted in tempera for a chapel in the church of S. Giovanni e Paolo, where it perished along with Titian's Peter Martyr and Tintoretto's Crucifixion in the disastrous fire of 1867.

After 1479–1480 much of Giovanni's time and energy must also have been taken up by his duties as conservator of the paintings in the great hall of the Doge's Palace. The importance of this commission can be measured by the payment Giovanni received: he was awarded, first the reversion of a broker's place in the Fondaco dei Tedeschi, and afterwards, as a substitute, a fixed annual pension of eighty ducats. Besides repairing and renewing the works of his predecessors he was commissioned to paint a number of new subjects, six or seven in all, in further illustration of the part played by Venice in the wars of Frederick Barbarossa and the pope. These works, executed with much interruption and delay, were the object of universal admiration while they lasted, but not a trace of them survived the fire of 1577 neither have any other examples of his historical and processional compositions come down, enabling us to compare his manner in such subjects with that of his brother Gentile.

Of the other, the religious class of his work, including both altar-pieces with many figures and simple Madonnas, a considerable number have been preserved. They show him gradually throwing off the last restraints of the Quattrocento manner gradually acquiring a complete mastery of the new oil medium introduced in Venice by Antonello da Messina about 1473, and mastering with its help all, or nearly all, the secrets of the perfect fusion of colors and atmospheric gradation of tones. The old intensity of pathetic and devout feeling gradually fades away and gives place to a noble, if more worldly, serenity and charm. The enthroned Virgin and Child (such as the one at left) become tranquil and commanding in their sweetness the personages of the attendant saints gain in power, presence and individuality enchanting groups of singing and viol-playing angels symbolize and complete the harmony of the scene. The full splendour of Venetian color invests alike the figures, their architectural framework, the landscape and the sky.

High Renaissance Edit

An interval of some years, no doubt chiefly occupied with work in the Hall of the Great Council, seems to separate the San Giobbe Altarpiece, and that of the church of San Zaccaria at Venice. Formally, the works are very similar, so a comparison between serves to illustrate the shift in Bellini's work over the last decade of the 15th century. Both pictures are of the Holy Conversation (sacred conversation between the Madonna and Saints) type. Both show the Madonna seated on a throne (thought to allude to the throne of Solomon), between classicizing columns. Both place the holy figures beneath a golden mosaicked half dome that recalls the Byzantine architecture in the basilica of St. Mark.

In the later work Bellini depicts the Virgin surrounded by (from left): St. Peter holding his keys and the Book of Wisdom the virginal St. Catherine and St. Lucy closest to the Virgin, each holding a martyr's palm and her implement of torture (Catherine a breaking wheel, and Lucy a dish with her eyes) St. Jerome, with a book symbolizing his work on the Vulgate.

Stylistically, the lighting in the San Zaccaria piece has become so soft and diffuse that it makes that in the San Giobbe appear almost raking in contrast. Giovanni's use of the oil medium had matured, and the holy figures seem to be swathed in a still, rarefied air. The San Zaccaria is considered perhaps the most beautiful and imposing of all Giovanni's altarpieces, and is dated 1505, the year following that of Giorgione's Madonna of Castelfranco.

Other late altarpiece with saints include that of the church of San Francesco della Vigna at Venice, 1507 that of La Corona at Vicenza, a Baptism of Christ in a landscape, 1510 and that of San Giovanni Crisostomo at Venice of 1513.

Of Giovanni's activity in the interval between the altar-pieces of San Giobbe and San Zaccaria, there are a few minor works left, though the great mass of his output perished with the fire of the Doge's Palace in 1577. The last ten or twelve years of the master's life saw him besieged with more commissions than he could well complete. Already in the years 1501–1504 the marchioness Isabella Gonzaga of Mantua had had great difficulty in obtaining delivery from him of a picture of the Madonna and Saints (now lost) for which part payment had been made in advance.

In 1505 she endeavoured through Cardinal Bembo to obtain from him another picture, this time of a secular or mythological character. What the subject of this piece was, or whether it was actually delivered, we do not know.

Albrecht Dürer, visiting Venice for a second time in 1506, describes Giovanni Bellini as still the best painter in the city, and as full of all courtesy and generosity towards foreign brethren of the brush.

In 1507 Bellini's brother Gentile died, and Giovanni completed the picture of the Preaching of St. Mark which he had left unfinished a task on the fulfillment of which the bequest by the elder brother to the younger of their father's sketch-book had been made conditional.

In 1513 Giovanni's position as sole master (since the death of his brother and of Alvise Vivarini) in charge of the paintings in the Hall of the Great Council was threatened by one of his former pupils. Young Titian desired a share of the same undertaking, to be paid for on the same terms. Titian's application was granted, then after a year rescinded, and then after another year or two granted again and the aged master must no doubt have undergone some annoyance from his sometime pupil's proceedings. In 1514 Giovanni undertook to paint The Feast of the Gods for the duke Alfonso I of Ferrara, but died in 1516.

He was interred in the Basilica di San Giovanni e Paolo, a traditional burial place of the doges.

Both in the artistic and in the worldly sense, the career of Bellini was, on the whole, very prosperous. His long career began with Quattrocento styles but matured into the progressive post-Giorgione Renaissance styles. He lived to see his own school far outshine that of his rivals, the Vivarini of Murano he embodied, with growing and maturing power, all the devotional gravity and much also of the worldly splendour of the Venice of his time and he saw his influence propagated by a host of pupils, two of whom at least, Giorgione and Titian, equalled or even surpassed their master. Giorgione he outlived by five years Titian, as we have seen, challenged him, claiming an equal place beside his teacher. Other pupils of the Bellini studio included Girolamo Galizzi da Santacroce, Vittore Belliniano, Rocco Marconi, Andrea Previtali [7] and possibly Bernardino Licinio.

Bellini was essential to the development of the Italian Renaissance for his incorporation of aesthetics from Northern Europe. Significantly influenced by Antonello da Messina and contemporary trends such as oil painting, Bellini introduced the pala, or single-panel altarpieces, to Venetian society with his work Coronation of the Virgin. Certain details in this piece, such as breaks in the modeling of figures and shadows, imply that Bellini was still working to master the use of oil. This painting also differs from previous Coronation scenes as it appears as a "window" to a natural scene, and excludes the typical accompanying Paradise hosts. The simple scenery allows viewers to relate with more ease to the scene itself than before, reflecting Alberti's humanist and inventio concepts. [8] He also used the disguised symbolism integral to the Northern Renaissance. Bellini was able to master the Antonello style of oil painting and surface texture, and to use this skill to create a refined and distinctly Venetian approach to painting. He blends this new technique with Venetian and Byzantine traditions of iconography and color to create a spiritual theme not found in Antonello's pieces. The realism of oil painting coupled with the religious traditions of Venice were unique elements to Bellini's style, which set him apart as one of the most innovative painters in the Venetian Renaissance. [9] [10] [11] As demonstrated in such works as St. Francis in Ecstasy (c. 1480) and the San Giobbe Altarpiece (c. 1478), Bellini makes use of religious symbolism through natural elements, such as grapevines and rocks. Yet his most important contribution to art lies in his experimentation with the use of color and atmosphere in oil painting.

The Bellini cocktail is named in his honor.

Spanish Museums own a scarce but high-quality presence of his Works. The Prado Museum owns a Virgin and child between two Saints, with the collaboration of the workshop. [12] The Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum preserves a Nunc Dimittis, [13] and The Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando holds a Saviour. [14]

San Zaccaria Altarpiece by Giovanni Bellini

Giovanni Bellini, born in Venice, is credited as one of the greatest Venetian painters of the late-fifteenth and early-sixteenth centuries. He is considered to have revolutionized Venetian painting, moving it towards a more sensuous and colouristic style. His lavish coloring and fluent atmospheric landscapes had a great effect on the Venetian painting school, and especially on other artists such as Giorgione and Titian. Bellini made a name for himself in his work primarily through the production of religious images and altarpieces. He painted a vast collection of artwork depicting Mary and Child, of which over sixty of his original paintings still survive to this day. Perhaps his most famous painting is the San Zaccaria Altarpiece, located above a side altar in the Church of San Zaccaria in Venice.

The San Zaccaria Altarpiece may be the most important example of a “sacra conversazione” scene in Italian Renaissance painting, which became a common theme in Venetian artwork. The “sacred conversation”, is a type of picture showing the Virgin Mary and the Christ Child among various saints. Depending on the pantings’ intent, sometimes these saints seem to communicate with each other, and sometimes the intent is for them to communicate with us, the viewers. While other artists depicted the sacra conversazione before Bellini, he treated this style of painting with a particular attention to delicacy, colors, realistic forms, and architectural space. In the San Zaccaria Altarpiece, the mood is one of contemplation as all the figures are reserved as they stand beside the Virgin and Child.

This particular painting scene often shows a gathering of religious figures who did not live simultaneously at the same point in history. For example, in the altarpiece, we see St. Peter on the left, dressed in blue and orange robes, holding onto keys with his left hand, and a book in his right. Next to him is St. Catherine of Alexandria who is identified by the palm branch she holds. On the right, St. Jerome is depicted reading a book, and next to him is St. Lucy, who is known for having her eyes gouged out, (which is thought to be a punishment for her Christianity).

A typical stylistic element for Venetians at the time was the concept of pyramidal figures. Bellini used this in his composition for this work. Here, the most important figures are the Virgin and Christ Child, who form the top of the pyramid. Another important stylistic element used by Bellini is the expression of architecture. By following the wall behind the group, we can see it forms a rounded curve topped with a semidome, similar to the architectural style of a church. In considering this, it seems Bellini placed the Virgin and Child within sacred painted architecture in much the same way that a church altar would be placed in the building, signifying their importance. Additionally, there are other “Easter eggs” in this painting, with just one example being the egg above the Virgin’s head, which symbolizes rebirth.

Upon just glancing at this painting, one wouldn’t understand or could possibly see all of the symbolism and important stylistic elements Bellini used to craft this artwork. However, upon looking closer and doing some research, it can be seen that there’s more to this painting than typically meets the eye.

San Zaccaria Altarpiece Giovanni Bellini (1505)

The San Zaccaria Altarpiece (Madonna Enthroned with Child and Saints) is a painting, executed in 1505, by the Italian Renaissance painter Giovanni Bellini. Now is located in the church of San Zaccaria, Venice.

The painting may be the most important example of a sacra conversazione scene in Italian Renaissance painting. The sacra conversazione, was a type of picture showing the Virgin Mary and the Christ Child among various saints from different periods of time. Sometimes these saints seem to communicate with each other, and sometimes with us, the viewers. This painting, Bellini treated with a particularly high level of delicacy, vibrant colors, realistic forms, and illusionistic architectural space. In the San Zaccaria Altarpiece, the mood is one of quiet and restrained contemplation as all the figures are demure as they stand beside the Virgin and Child as the angel performs a serenade with a violin at their feet.

The composition Bellini used for the painting draws upon the Renaissance tradition of pyramidal groupings of figures. Here, the most important figures are the Virgin and Christ Child, who form the apex of the pyramid. For Bellini, the painted, fictive architecture complements the high degree of realism and saturated colors to create a serene scene which is ripe for contemplation.

This art piece is directly connected to the theme of realism because itself is realistically painted. There are emotions on people faces, that make us feel the feelings they felt. There are also other characteristics of the Realism’s paintings in the time of renaissance shown, such as depth and symmetry of the place… There are also vibrant colors, realistic forms, and illusionistic architectural space. Plus, Bellini also used one-point linear perspective… Furthermore, as a symbol that we can connect to the real life can be taken that Madonna protects her child in her arms, as every mother will do in reality. Thus, the painting completely connects to the theme of realism.

I chose this painting because the saints are from different periods of time, and shows some kind of difference of what have I seen till now… The girl playing the violin gives us some sense of calmness.

I made the discovery of Giovanni Bellini’s famous San Zaccaria Altarpiece (1505) through another artwork – Thomas Struth’s photograph of the altarpiece – San Zaccaria, Venice (1995) – on display at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. It is a sign of the times that Struth’s artistic cross-referencing of Bellini has resulted in a renewed interest in the old master and in photography itself which is now a postmodern art form par excellence, having taken the place of painting.

Struth’s photograph presents a random scene from the Venetian church of San Zaccaria with worshippers sitting in the pews and tourists admiring the church interior. In its centre is Giovanni Bellini’s translucent San Zaccaria Altarpiece, also known as Madonna Enthroned with Child and Saints, which clearly dominates the space.

The work is set in a large niche, depicting a sacra conversazione (holy conversation) within a well established scheme: the Virgin and Child enthroned, a musician angel on a step and four saints placed symmetrically at the sides. They are: St. Peter the Apostle, St. Catherine of Alexandria, St. Lucy and St. Jerome.

With variations in the attendant saints, this is a fairly common genre of Venetian and indeed Italian art of the Quattrocento and the Cinquecento. In this case, the Virgin and Child radiate palpable tranquility way beyond the apse in which they are ensconced.

Bellini’s mastery of perspective and the Venetian technique of colorito, the two-dimensional canvass is transformed into a three-dimensional optical illusion. Struth’s photograph, in turn, amplifies this effect by incorporating into the picture all of the modern-day worshippers and tourists who become part of the same meditative moment.

The two artworks thus coexist side by side. Whereas Bellini’s perspective is testimony to his genius as a Renaissance painter, Struth’s added perspective is an innate feature of modern photography. The luminous Venetian light is captured by simultaneously by Bellini’s application of colorito and Struth’s supreme photographic skill.

In the final analysis, Struth’s photographic reference to the great altarpiece underscores Bellini’s timeless relevance: 590 years after its creation, people are still coming to pray beside the altarpiece and admire it and Struth finds this important enough to immortalise the scene in another art form. After all, seeing Bellini’s masterpiece through another artwork for the very first time got me drawn to it – and who knows how many thousands more.

How To Read Paintings: Bellini’s San Zaccaria Altarpiece

With its lagoons and waterways that shimmer under a brilliant Adriatic light, with its buildings and sometimes stinking water (that always makes me think of the pestilence in Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice), the city is a landscape transformed like no other.

There are few places like Venice, and not least because of the art. It’s rare to find these days, but in Venice you can still see paintings that hang in the position for which they were made. The history of Venice lives like so few other cities do.

One such painting is Giovanni Bellini’s San Zaccaria Altarpiece, painted in 1505 when the artist was in his early seventies — Bellini’s exact birth year remains a matter of debate. The Victorian art critic John Ruskin judged the painting one of “the two best pictures in the world.” (The other was the Madonna of the Frari Triptych, also by Bellini.)

What is immediately gripping about the San Zaccaria Altarpiece is the elegant sense of space Bellini has created. The illusion is of an architectural apse, a small chapel space with columns on either side and capped by a dome covered in mosaics. The Virgin Mary is sat on the throne in the center, surrounded by saints. See how the white marble of the throne, along with Mary’s white shawl, and above all, the luminosity of the Christ Child, makes the middle of the painting bloom.

Also, just look at the way Bellini has angled the light so it flows across the scene from left to right, thereby allowing a soft shadow to fall behind Christ to his right, setting him forward and emphasizing his outline. It is easy to overlook these details, but they make all the difference.

Behind the throne, the architectural recess is modeled in three-dimensions and glows soft yellow-ocher, allowing the rest of the scene to occupy a plane that is set-forward, almost crossing over into our real-world space. It is a triumph of the painting that none of these effects look forced. The blend of colors — the reds, golds, blues and greens of the robes, and the subtle whites of the architecture — give the whole work a finely-spun richness. It is in the subtly of this richness that Bellini’s originality lies.

Analysis of the San Zaccaria Altarpiece

Giovanni Bellini's beautiful and delicate San Zaccaria Altarpiece (Madonna and Child Enthroned with Saints Peter, Catherine, Lucia and Jerome) is one of the great Venetian altarpieces of the 16th century. Like Titian's majestic Assumption of the Virgin (1516-18) in the Church of Saint Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, it is one of a dwindling number of altarpieces which are still in situ in the city. Bellini was responsible for a large number of religious paintings featuring the Virgin and Child, of which more than 60 survive to this day. The differing tones of colour which appear in the painting suggest the influence of Giorgione (1477-1510), while the illusionistic architectural space comes from the praxis of the Florentine Renaissance - for an early example of the technique see The Holy Trinity (1428) by Masaccio - and the meticulous detail derives from Bellini's appreciation of Netherlandish Renaissance art, exemplified bythe work Jan van Eyck and others. The painting is important because it illustrates Bellini's mastery of the Madonna and Child genre.

The altarpiece depicts an architectural niche, complete with domed ceiling, in which the Madonna and Child sit enthroned, flanked by Saint Peter the Apostle, Saint Catherine of Alexandria, Saint Lucy and Saint Jerome, plus a musician angel sitting on a step in the centre. This sort of picture - saints and angels grouped around an Enthroned Madonna - is known as a "sacred conversation" (sacra conversazione) - a form of Christian art pioneered by Giotto (1267-1337) and his followers, but properly established during the Renaissance in Florence by the likes of Fra Angelico (1400-55), Fra Filippo Lippi (1406-69) and Domenico Veneziano (1410-61). The idiom was mastered by Piero della Francesca (1420-92) and Raphael (1483-1520), but above all by Giovanni Bellini, whose sacra conversazione pictures are characterized by slightly more meditative and detached holy figures, as demonstrated by those in the San Zaccaria Altarpiece.

The compositional and architectural structure is similar to Bellini's previous works, like the San Giobbe Altarpiece (1487, Venice Academy Gallery), but it features a few new motifs, including the openings decorated with landscape, possibly inspired by The Virgin and Child Enthroned in a Chapel (1500, British Royal Collection) by Alvise Vivarini (c.1442-1503). Bellini placed the figures in an apse with side openings in order to make the light entering the picture appear more like daylight. Bellini's Renaissance colour palette - see in particular the richly coloured robes - and use of light is reminiscent of Giorgione's mood and style.

Composition and Iconography

The figures of the Virgin and the saints are vividly drawn, although their dignity and individual characteristics are preserved, along with a simple symmetry. (See also Venetian Drawing 1500-1600.) The end result is a grouping of five figures plus the Christ-child, all of whom appear self-contained but are very much aware of the divine presence.

Bellini based his composition on the standard 'pyramid' grouping popular in Renaissance art, placing the most important figures - the Virgin and Child - at the apex of the pyramid. The other figures - none of whom were alive at the same time as the others - are given clear identifying characteristics. Saint Peter (1st century) is on the left, attired in blue and orange robes, clutching the keys to the kingdom - see also: Christ Handing the Keys to Saint Peter (1482, Sistine Chapel) by Perugino. Standing next to him is Saint Catherine of Alexandria (4th century), clearly identified as a martyr due to the palm branch she is holding. The broken wooden wheel which can be seen at her side alludes to the first unsuccessful attempt to kill her, after which she was beheaded. Next in line is Saint Lucy (4th century), noted for being blinded because of her faith, who holds a bowl containing her two eyes. (For a similar motif, see: the St Lucy Altarpiece (Uffizi, Florence) by Domenico Veneziano. And on the far right is Saint Jerome (5th century), responsible for the Latin version of the scriptures, who is shown reading a book. For more about religious symbolism, see: Biblical Art (c.315-present).

Renaissance Altarpieces Explained

For an interpretation of other altarpieces (triptychs, polyptychs etc.) of the Renaissance era, see the following articles:

• Ghent Altarpiece (1425-32) St Bavo Cathedral, Ghent.
Netherlandish Renaissance altarpiece by Jan van Eyck.

• Descent From the Cross (Deposition) (c.1435-40)Prado, Madrid.
Netherlandish Renaissance altarpiece by Roger van der Weyden.

• Isenheim Altarpiece (c.1515) Unterlinden Museum, Colmar.
German Renaissance polyptych by Matthias Grunewald.

• Sistine Madonna (1513-14) Gemaldegalerie Alte Meister, Dresden.
Italian Renaissance altarpiece by Raphael.

• The Transfiguration (1518-20) Pinacoteca Apostolica, Vatican.
Italian Renaissance altarpiece by Titian.

Giovanni Bellini (1430-1516)

San Zaccaria Altarpiece (1505)
Madonna and Child Enthroned with
Sts Peter, Catherine, Lucia & Jerome.
Church of San Zaccaria, Venice.
One of Giovanni Bellini's greatest and
most influential religious paintings.

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

One of the greatest, most influential Old Masters of Renaissance art, Giovanni Bellini was a major influence on Venetian painting and on the transformation of Venice from a minor artistic centre to a powerhouse of the Italian Renaissance rivalling Florence and Rome in importance. In particular, he established a distinct school of High Renaissance painting, based on a more sumptuous, colouristic style. By employing clear, slow-drying oil paints, he was able to create deep, sensuous tints, tones and detailed shadings, and thus produce outstanding religious paintings and portraits, as well as wonderful atmospheric landscapes. The best painter of the Renaissance in Venice, his methods had a great impact on his contemporaries and pupils, such as Giorgione (1477-1510), Sebastiano del Piombo (1485-1547) and Titian (c.1485/8-1576). In addition to this, he created some of the best drawings of the Renaissance. Famous paintings by Giovanni Belli include: Transfiguration of Christ (c.1480, Museo di Capodimonte, Naples) Portrait of Jorg Fugger (1474, Galleria Palatina, Palazzo Pitti, Florence) Ecstasy of St. Francis (c.1480, Frick Collection, New York) Sacred Allegory (c.1490, Uffizi Gallery, Florence) Portrait of Doge Leonardo Loredan (1501, National Gallery, London) the San Zaccaria Altarpiece (1505, Venice) and Madonna of the Meadow (1510, National Gallery, London).

For a discussion about the
meaning of art, see: What is Art?

For top creative practitioners, see:
Best Artists of All Time.

Giovanni Bellini was born in Venice into a family of Early Renaissance artists - his father was Jacopo Bellini (c.1400-1470), his brother was Gentile Bellini (1429-1507), and his brother-in-law was Andrea Mantegna (1430-1506). Like his brother Gentile, he learned drawing and painting, as well as the rudiments of oils, in his father's workshop. His early works - mostly religious art - were generally panel paintings executed in a rather stiff Byzantine style, using tempera, and conveyed a degree of religious intensity.

Influence of Andrea Mantegna

During this early period in Giovanni Bellini's life, the greatest influence on his painting was his brother-in-law, Andrea Mantegna. Bellini's Crucifixion (1455) in the Correr Museum in Venice, demonstrates how well he had absorbed Mantegna's lessons, notably in the foreshortening of Christ's body and the treatment of the rocks on which the Cross is planted. At the same time Giovanni's own artistic personality emerges strongly in the way that the drama of the Crucifixion is humanized by its setting, with Christ's body shown against a river landscape in the light of dawn. In the famous Pieta (1460, Pinacoteca di Brera Milan) Mantegna's smooth marble is converted by Bellini into suffering flesh.

The Pieta foreshadows the masterpiece of the decade 1460-70, the Polyptych of St Vincent Ferrer (1464, Venice, Church of SS. Giovanni and Paolo). The painting is notable for its use of light, which glows from the top to bottom of the figures of the saints, outlining them with an incisiveness and energy that recall some aspects of the work of Andrea del Castagno (c.1420-57). The figure of St Christopher is set in a landscape with the sun low on the horizon, against the setting sun, the river banks are reflected, in perspective, like the sky, in the transparent water of the river. It is this passion for man and nature that separates Bellini from Mantegna, from whom he took his use of space but not his brother-in-law's schematization and concern for architectural detail.

Influence of Piero della Francesca

Bellini was himself drawn instead towards the work of Piero della Francesca (1420-92), in which the laws of perspective were put at the service of exalted ends. Piero's influence can be plainly seen in the Coronation of the Virgin (Pesaro Museum) which some authorities date around 1473 and others between 1470 and 1471. Space is no longer divided up, as it is in the polyptychs of the period, instead, unified by linear perspective, it draws together in a new way the buildings, the figures, the throne and the landscape. A knowledge of the works of Piero della Francesca was obviously essential to this maturing of Giovanni's art and, like the arrival of Antonello da Messini in Venice in 1475 (see below), it was decisive for the future course of Venetian painting. It was the conjunction of these two circumstances that, around 1475, brought the Early Renaissance to Venice and led to the original work of the last quarter of the century - see, for instance, works by Carpaccio (1460-1525/6), Cima di Conegliano (1460-1517/8) and Bartolomeo Montagna (1450-1523). Note: For details of drawings by Renaissance artists in Venice, see: Venetian Drawing (c.1500-1600).

Religious Frescoes and Altarpieces

For most of his painting career, Giovanni Bellini concentrated on religious works of art (fresco murals and altarpiece art), except for occasional examples of portrait art, like his famous Portrait of Doge Leonardo Loredan (1501). In 1470, he was appointed along with his brother and other artists to produce a cycle of decorative paintings for the Scuola di San Marco. This was followed by a series of great historical fresco paintings for the Chamber of the Grand Council in the Doge's Palace. Unfortunately, there are no surviving works from the Scuola di San Marco, and all Giovanni's (and Gentile's) mural painting in the ducal palace were destroyed in the catastrophic fire of 1577. Giovanni's still more famous tempera altarpiece in the church of S. Giovanni e Paolo was destroyed, along with Titian's Peter Martyr and Tintoretto's Crucifixion, in a fire in 1867. For more about Giovanni Bellini's talent for religious painting, see: Venetian altarpieces (c.1500-1600).

Medium of Oil Painting

Giovanni Bellini was one of the first Venetian painters to devote himself to the medium of oil painting. After 1475, he forsook tempera and painted almost exclusively in oils, a medium in which he rapidly became a consummate master, in a similar class to the Florentine Leonardo Da Vinci. The likely reason for this fascination with oils was the visit of the Sicilian artist Antonello da Messina (c.1430-1479), who arrived in Venice in 1475-6, having absorbed the latest oil painting techniques in Naples, a city dominated artistically by the school of Flemish painting and by the Netherlandish Renaissance. His paintings combined Italian skill in anatomy and composition, with Dutch realism, and glowed with a rich intensity. Giovanni Bellini's genius enabled him to transfer these attributes to his new works, while giving his figures an expression of peaceful contemplation. As one Bellini expert has said: "Some artists invented more but none perfected so much." In addition, he continued to innovate and keep up to date, borrowing and then harmonizing ideas from his pupils and contemporaries.

In any event, Antonello da Messina's visit galvanized Bellini, whose oil paintings began to exude a new luminosity and richness. (For more, see: Venetian Portrait Painting 1400-1600.) Subtle tonal variation becomes more evident and a new atmospheric quality enters his work. For example, his wonderful background landscape painting, as seen in many of his pictures of the Madonna, make him the most important Italian landscape painter of the Early Renaisance. These lovingly explored landscape backgrounds of Giovanni, dominated by deep greens and by skies which, clear at dawn, become lightly tinged at sunset, are less systematic in their classicism than those of Mantegna. The spectator will discover in them feelings that have nothing to do with Mantegna's restricted world. Thus, in The Agony in the Garden (c.1460, National Gallery, London), which is derived from Mantegna's painting on the same subject (1457, Tours Museum), Bellini brings the landscape to live by his lively feeling for colour and light, while retaining the geological structure inspired by Mantegna.

The Resurrection of Christ (Staatliche Museen, Berlin) can be dated around 1480, as can St. Jerome Reading in the Countryside (National Gallery, London) and St Francis in Ecstasy (New York, Frick Collection). In these works Bellini continued to give formal expression to the relationship between man and nature, filling the rational space of the Tuscans with the infinite variety of the Italian landscape and the entire range of human feeling (for instance, that of maternity in his many studies of the Madonna and Child). Furthermore, each detail has its part to play in the overall arrangement of space. In Lamentation over the Body of Christ (c.1485-1500, Uffizi, Florence) Bellini first deploys ideas that he was to elaborate in a group of works painted a little later. The picture has been described as, on the one hand "a strictly measured perspective painting", with bold planes inspired by Antonello and, on the other, as "an enlarged space, no longer empty but enriched with an atmosphere that sweetens the relationships between the volumes". The perfectly calculated distribution of space in the Frari Triptych (1488, Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, Venice) reveals the influence of its abstraction and the geometric rigour of its volumes at the same time, in The Transfiguration (c.1480-5, Capodimonte Museum, Naples), a new luminosity fills the composition and softens the outlines of the planes. In the closed universe of the San Giobbe Altarpiece (1487, Venice Academy Gallery) the light, full of shadows and golden reflections from the mosaics, envelops the volumes and humanizes everything that Bellini took from Antonello.

Bellini's search for a more regular, more solemn and monumental space was accompanied by an attempt to achieve greater pictorial effects, and his works of this period - see, for instance, the Barbarigo Altarpiece (1488, San Pietro Martire, Murano) - prefigure the tendencies of the 16th century. The series of paintings of the Madonna and Child, dating from around 1490, shows a striking mastery of Renaissance space and an apparently inexhaustible inventiveness comparable to that of the early portraits of Titian.

From his various stays in the Veneto, Romagna and the Marches, Bellini brought back a vision of medieval walled towns, encircled by fertile hills, and of rivers spanned by ancient bridges - a vision that offers the most profound insight into the Italian landscape. In it one can follow the course of the past, with campaniles from Ravenna found side by side with Roman campaniles and Gothic towers. It is a historical landscape based entirely upon the natural landscape, in which nature itself, like those hills arranged by the hand of man, takes on a meaning that is also historical. The bright colours and the detail, stemming from Piero della Francesca, are less the outcome of a quest for realism than a very lively awareness of the world. The spatial volumes appear to be produced naturally from the play of light, while the rigorous perspective plan is concealed by the free orchestration of tones.

The Sacred Allegory (c.1490, Uffizi Gallery, Florence) heralds the new century. Works such as this and the Pieta (1505, Accademia, Venice), the Madonna of the Meadow (1510, National Gallery, London), The Baptism of Christ (1500-2, Church of S. Corona, Vicenza) and The San Zaccaria Altarpiece (1505, Church of S. Zaccaria, Venice) may have inspired Durer to label Bellini as the most important Venetian painter of his day. Bellini's landscapes from this period take on an autumnal lyricism and the figures in them acquire a new freedom. In the altarpiece of San Zaccaria they seem to come alive in the glowing luminosity of the apse, while the colour, steeped in shadow and light, here equals that of Giorgione at his most inspired. (See also: Titian and Venetian Colour Painting c.1500-76.)

Although extremely busy during the 1480s, 1490s and 1500s, most of this output has not survived. In 1507 Gentile Bellini (Giovanni's brother) died, and bequeathed their father Jacopo's substantial book of designs to Giovanni, on condition that he completed Gentile's unfinished picture St Mark Preaching in Alexandria (1505, Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan). This condition was duly met.

The works of Giovanni Bellini's last years - Madonna and Child Blessing (1510, Pinacoteca di Brera) the S. Giovanni Crisostomo Altarpiece (1513, Church of S. Giovanni Crisotomo) are stamped with the monumentality and the pictorial qualities of the works of his young contemporaries, Giorgione and Titian. Bellini, who was one of the originators of the new style, adapted himself perfectly to it - see: Woman with a Mirror (1515, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna). His classicism made no distinction between the sacred and the profane and was not affected by the new taste for classical or secular subjects. Rather, these themes allowed him to counter the too systematic classicism of the new generation. From his Drunkennes of Noah (c.1515-16, Besancon Museum) there emerges a profoundly youthful attachment to life, an abandonment to existence, the strawberry-red of the drapery, the living, gilded flesh of Noah as he lies sprawled out on his back, the tender green of the grass, the cup touched by the dusty light, are set against a background of vines and autumnal foilage. His classicism remains the same in this provocative, naturalistic affirmation, which only in his old age developed its uncompromising character. There are few other examples of such an evolution as Bellini's - of an artist who took Venetian painting from the lifelessness of the end of the Gothic era to the threshold of modern painting.

Bellini remained busy to the very end. He continued to be deluged with commissions well into his 70s, and was still heavily involved in supervising the paintings in the Hall of the Great Council in the Doge's palace. In 1514 he agreed to paint The Feast of the Gods for the Duke Alfonso I of Ferrara, but died in 1516.

Reputation and Legacy

During his life, he was recognized as the leading painter of his period, being described by the great German painter and printmaker Albrecht Durer (1471-1528), during his 1506 visit to Venice, as "the best painter of them all." The Renaissance biographer Giorgio Vasari was equally convinced of Giovanni Bellini's greatness.

Giovanni Bellini played a vital role in the development of the Venice School, not least in his use of Northern Renaissance aesthetics. He pioneered the utilization of oil paints, enabling the enhanced colours and atmospheric effects which later became the hallmark of Venetian painting, and introduced elements of Northern Renaissance religious symbolism. He did all this while also blending Byzantine art with that of the quattrocento. His pupils may have included Vittore Carpaccio (c.1465-1525/6), and did include Giorgione (1477-1510), Titian (1485-1576), and Fra Bartolommeo (1472-1517) (in 1508), as well as Vittore Belliniano, Andrea Previtali, Rocco Marconi, Jacopo da Montagna, Rondinello da Ravenna, Girolamo da Santacroce, and Benedetto Coda of Ferrara. For a general view, see also: Legacy of Venetian Painting on European art

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

Selected Works by Giovanni Bellini

Paintings by Giovanni Bellini can be seen in many of the best art museums throughout the world. Here is a short selection of his most important works.

Painting Terms
See: Diptych (2-panel picture) Triptych (3-panel picture) Polyptych (multi).

Most Famous Paintings

• Transfiguration (c.1455-1460) Museo Correr, Venice
• Agony in the Garden (c.1459) National Gallery, London
• Transfiguration of Christ (c.1480) Capodimonte Museum, Naples
• Portrait of Jorg Fugger (1474) Galleria Palatina, Palazzo Pitti, Florence
• St. Francis in Ecstasy (c.1480) Frick Collection, New York
• Sacred Allegory (c.1490) Uffizi Gallery, Florence
• Portrait of Doge Leonardo Loredan (1501) National Gallery, London
• Madonna of the Meadow (1510) National Gallery, London
• Saints Christopher, Jerome and St Augustine (1513) S. Giovanni Crisostomo
• Feast of the Gods (1514) National Gallery of Art, Washington DC
• Woman with a Mirror (1515) Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

- Madonna with Child (1450-1555) Civico Museo Malaspina, Pavia
- Madonna with Child (c.1455) Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
- Dead Christ Supported by Madonna/St John (1455) Accademia Carrara
- Crucifixion (c.1455) - Tempera on wood, Museo Correr, Venice
- Pieta (1460-5) Pinacoteca di Brera Milan
- Dead Christ Supported by Two Angels (Pietà, c. 1460) Museo Correr, Venice
- Dead Christ in the Sepulchre (c.1460) Museo Poldi Pezzoli, Milan
- Blessing Christ (c.1460) Louvre Museum, Paris
- The Blood of Christ (c.1460) National Gallery, London
- Madonna and Child (1460-1464) Civiche Raccolte d'Arte, Milan
- Madonna with Child Blessing (1460-1464) Gallerie dell'Accademia, Venice
- Madonna with Child (Greek Madonna, 1460-1464) Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan
- Madonna and Child (1460-1464) Accademia Carrara, Bergamo
- Presentation at the Temple (1460-1464) Galleria Querini Stampalia, Venice
- St. Sebastian Triptych (1460-1464) Gallerie dell'Accademia, Venice
- Nativity Triptych (1460-1464) Gallerie dell'Accademia, Venice
- Head of the Baptist (1464-1468) Musei Civici, Pesaro
- Polyptych of S. Vincenzo Ferrer (1464-1468) Basilica dei Santi Giovanni
- Pesaro Altarpiece (1471-1474) Musei Civici, Pesaro
- Pieta (1472) Doge's Palace, Venice
- Dead Christ Supported by Angels (c. 1474) Pinacoteca Comunale, Rimini
- Madonna Enthroned Adoring the Sleeping Child (1475) Gallerie dell'Accademia
- Madonna with Child (c.1475) Museo di Castelvecchio, Verona
- Madonna with Child (c.1475) Santa Maria dell'Orto, Venice
- Madonna in Adoration of the Sleeping Child (c.1475) Contini Bonacossi
- Madonna with Blessing Child (1475-1480) Gallerie dell'Accademia, Venice
- Portrait of a Humanist (1475-1480) Civiche Raccolte d'Arte, Milan
- Resurrection of Christ (1475-1479) Staatliche Museen, Berlin
- St. Jerome Reading in the Countryside (1480-1485) National Gallery, London
- Madonna Willys (1480-1490) Sao Paulo Museum of Art, Sao Paulo, Brazil
- Madonna and Child (1480-1490) Accademia Carrara, Bergamo
- Madonna of Red Angels (1480-1490) Gallerie dell'Accademia, Venice
- Portrait of a Young Man in Red (1490) National Gallery of Art, Washington DC
- Madonna degli Alberetti (1487) Gallerie dell'Accademia, Venice
- Madonna and Child (1485-1490) Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
- San Giobbe Altarpiece (c. 1487) Gallerie dell'Accademia, Venice
- Madonna with Child and Sts. Peter and Sebastian (c.1487) Louvre, Paris
- Frari Triptych (1488) Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, Venice
- Barbarigo Altarpiece (1488) San Pietro Martire, Murano
- Sacred Conversation (1490) Prado Museum, Madrid
- Allegories (c.1490) Gallerie dell'Accademia, Venice
- Lamentation over the Body of Christ (c.1500) Uffizi Gallery, Florence
- Angel Announcing and Virgin Annunciated (c.1500) Gallerie dell'Accademia
- Portrait of a Young Man (c.1500) Musee du Louvre, Paris
- Portrait of a Young Senator (1500) Uffizi Gallery, Florence
- Baptism of Christ (1500-1502) Santa Corona, Vicenza
- Head of the Redeemer (1500-1502) Gallerie dell'Accademia, Venice
- Madonna & Child with St. John the Baptist (1504) Gallerie dell'Accademia
- Sermon of St. Mark in Alexandria (1504-1507) Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan
- Holy Conversation (1505-1510) Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, Madrid
- San Zaccaria Altarpiece (1505) San Zaccaria, Venice
- Pieta (1505) Gallerie dell'Accademia, Venice
- Madonna & Child with SS Peter, Catherine, Luisa, Jerome (1505) S. Zaccaria
- St. Jerome in the Desert (1505) National Gallery of Art, Washington DC
- The Assassination of Saint Peter Martyr (1507) National Gallery, London
- Continence of Scipio (1507-1508) National Gallery of Art, Washington DC
- Murder of St. Peter the Martyr (1509) Courtauld Gallery, London
- Madonna and Child Blessing (1510) Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan
- Madonna with Child (c.1510) Galleria Borghese, Rome
- Young Bacchus (c.1514) National Gallery of Art, Washington DC
- Portrait of Teodoro of Urbino (1515) National Gallery, London
- Deposition (c.1515) Gallerie dell'Accademia, Venice
- Drunkennes of Noah (c.1515) Musee des Beaux-Arts, Besancon

• For profiles of the major art styles/movements/periods, see: History of Art.
• For more biographical details about famous Venetian Renaissance painters, see: Homepage.

Northern Italy: Venice, Ferrara, and the Marches

Venetian painting is characterized by deep, rich colors and a strong interest in the effects of light.

Beginner&rsquos guide: Venice in the 15th century

Venice is a cluster of islands, connected by bridges and canals.

Venice was a very wealthy city, with a strong merchant class that helped shape its culture. Ships from the East brought luxurious, exotic pigments, while traders from Northern Europe imported the new technique of oil painting. Since oil dries slowly, the colors could be blended together to achieve subtle gradations.

Venetian art, an introduction

Figure (PageIndex<30>): Saint Mark&rsquos Square and the Doge&rsquos Palace seen from the water, Venice (Italy) (photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Venice &ndash another world

Petrarch, the fourteenth-century Tuscan poet, called Venice a &ldquomundus alter&rdquo or &ldquoanother world,&rdquo and the city of canals really is different from other Renaissance centers like Florence or Rome.

Venice is a cluster of islands, connected by bridges and canals, and until the mid ninteenth century the only way to reach the city was by boat. In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries Venice suffered numerous outbreaks of the plague and engaged in major wars, such as the War of the League of Cambrai. But it also boasted a stable republican government led by a Doge (meaning &ldquoDuke&rdquo in the local dialect), wealth from trade, and a unique location as a gateway between Europe and Byzantium.

The Venetian Style

Figure (PageIndex<31>): Giovanni Bellini, San Zaccaria Altarpiece, 1505, oil on wood transferred to canvas, 16&prime 5-1/2&Prime x 7&prime 9&Prime (San Zaccaria, Venice) (photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Painting in Early and High Renaissance Venice is largely grouped around the Bellini family: Jacopo, the father, Giovanni and Gentile, his sons, and Andrea Mantegna, a brother-in-law. Giorgione may have trained in the Bellini workshop and Titian was apprenticed there as a boy.

The Bellinis and their peers developed a particularly Venetian style of painting characterized by deep, rich colors, an emphasis on patterns and surfaces, and a strong interest in the effects of light.

Figure (PageIndex<32>): Saint Mark&rsquos Basilica, Venice, begun 1063, Middle Byzantine

While Venetian painters knew about linear perspective and used the technique in their paintings, depth is just as often suggested by gradually shifting colors and the play of light and shadow. Maybe Venetian painters were inspired by the glittering gold mosaics and atmospheric light in the grand Cathedral of San Marco, founded in the 11th century? Or maybe they looked to the watery cityscape and the shifting reflections on the surfaces of the canals?

Oil paint

The Venetian trade networks helped to shape local painting practices. Ships from the East brought luxurious, exotic pigments, while traders from Northern Europe imported the new technique of oil painting. Giovanni Bellini combined the two by the 1460&rsquos-70&rsquos. In the next few decades, oil paint largely supplanted tempera, a quick-drying paint bound by egg yolk that produced a flat, opaque surface. (Botticelli&rsquos Birth of Venus is one example of tempera paint, which you can learn more about here).

Figure (PageIndex<33>): Giorgione, The Adoration of the Shepherds, 1505/1510, oil on panel, 35 3/4 x 43 1/2&Prime / 90.8 x 110.5 cm (National Gallery of Art)

To achieve deep tones, Venetian painters would prepare a panel with a smooth white ground and then slowly build up layer-upon-layer of oil paint. Since oil dries slowly, the colors could be blended together to achieve subtle gradations. (See this effect in the rosy flush of the Venus of Urbino&rsquos cheeks by Titian or in the blue-orange clouds in Giorgione&rsquos Adoration of the Shepherds&mdashabove). Plus, when oil paint dries it stays somewhat translucent. As a result, all of those thin layers reflect light and the surface shines. Painting conservators have even found that Bellini, Giorgione, and Titian added ground-up glass to their pigments to better reflect light.

Venetian painting in the 16th century

Figure (PageIndex<34>): Paolo Veronese, The Dream of Saint Helena, c. 1570, oil on canvas, 197.5 x 115.6 cm (The National Gallery, London)

Over the next century Venetian painters pursued innovative compositional approaches, like asymmetry, and they introduced new subjects, such as landscapes and female nudes. The increasing use of pliable canvas over solid wood panels encouraged looser brushstrokes. Painters also experimented more with the textural differences produced by thick versus thin application of paint.

In the Late Renaissance Titian&rsquos mastery was rivaled by Tintoretto and Veronese. Each attempted to out-paint the other with increasingly dynamic and sensual subjects for local churches and international patrons. (Phillip II of Spain was particularly enamored with Titian&rsquos mythological nudes.) The trio transformed saintly stories into relatable human drama (Veronese&rsquos The Dream of St. Helena), captured the wit and wealth of portrait subjects (Titian&rsquos Portrait of a Man), and interpreted nature through mythological tales (Tintoretto&rsquos The Origin of the Milky Way).

Additional resources:

Bellini, Giorgione, Titian, and the Renaissance of Venetian Painting

Smarthistory images for teaching and learning:
Figure (PageIndex<35>): More Smarthistory images&hellip

Oil paint in Venice

Video (PageIndex<10>): A review of fresco and tempera and the development of the use of oil paint by artists in Venice.

Smarthistory images for teaching and learning:
Figure (PageIndex<36>): More Smarthistory images&hellip

Ca&rsquo d&rsquoOro

Figure (PageIndex<37>): View of a Venetian canal

Venice, an outlier

When we think of the Italian Renaissance, we think of cities like Florence, Siena, and Milan where artists took an interest in reviving the traditions of classical antiquity. Venice, in contrast, remained something of an outlier. Whereas Florence, Siena, and Milan recalled their Greco-Roman past, Venice looked to its Byzantine history (as part of the eastern Roman Empire), which extended from the classical period up through the more recent medieval era.

Other Italian cities were also embroiled with political unrest even well into the High Renaissance (beginning in the late fifteenth century) rivaling families vied for power, warring for control, and killing or imprisoning their enemies. Venice&rsquos more stable political climate and defensible island setting made it different from the other major cities in fifteenth-century Italy.

Figure (PageIndex<38>): Ca&rsquo d&rsquoOro, 1422-1440, Venice

Venice&rsquos unique position also made for a unique architecture. By the fifteenth century, it was a very wealthy city, with a strong merchant class that helped shape its culture. The city&rsquos wealthiest families had the means and desire to build impressive palaces for themselves in the tradition of prominent civic architecture such as the fourteenth-century Palazzo Ducale on St. Mark&rsquos Square. These powerful patrons constructed buildings as a way to express their wealth and importance and the Ca&rsquo d&rsquoOro (above) is a perfect example.

Figure (PageIndex<39>): Palazzo Ducale (Doge&rsquos Palace), Venice, 1424

House of gold

Bartolomeo and Giovanni Bon are credited with the decoration for the Ca&rsquo d&rsquoOro, built for Marin Contarini, of the prominent Contarini family. The building borrows its style from the Palazzo Ducale (the palace of the elected ruler of Venice), albeit on a smaller scale, but what it loses in size it makes up for in ornamentation. The building was known as the Ca&rsquo d&rsquoOro&mdash&ldquoHouse of Gold&rdquo&mdashbecause its façade originally shimmered with gold leaf, which has since faded away. You can&rsquot get much more opulent than a golden house! Even with the gold leaf no longer in place, it is still possible to get a good sense of the richness of this gem of a building.

Figure (PageIndex<40>): Ca&rsquo d&rsquoOro façade diagram Figure (PageIndex<41>): Michelozzo, Palazzo Medici, Florence, 1445-60 Figure (PageIndex<42>): Lower loggia, middle and upper balconies, Ca&rsquo d&rsquoOro, 1422-1440, Venice

Like the Palazzo Ducale, the Ca&rsquo d&rsquoOro is much more open than many of the palaces built in other parts of Italy at this time. Unlike the Palazzo Medici in Florence, for example, the Ca&rsquo d&rsquoOro is not fortress-like structure built with massive rusticated stones.

Also like the Palazzo Ducale, it is divided into three distinct stories: a lower loggia (covered corridor) of pointed arches open to the water, a middle balcony with a balustrade (railing) and quatrefoils (four-lobed cutout), and a top balcony with another balustrade and fine stone openwork.

The result is a delicate, ornate building that seems almost like a work of sculpture. Each level of the façade is increasingly ornate and intricate towards the top. The increased ornamentation on each story creates a vertical emphasis however, that verticality is matched by the equally strong horizontal emphasis provided by the two balustrades on the upper balconies and the large cornice at the roofline.

We also see a precise harmony to the division of space. The lower loggia has a wide arch at its center, which is symmetrically flanked by narrower arches. In the balcony above, two arches fit in the space directly above the wide central arch of the lower loggia.

The arrangement of columns and arches in the upper two balconies perfectly corresponds with one another: column over column, arch over arch. The façade&rsquos harmonious arrangement suggests the architects in Venice had similar interests to those of the classicizing architects working in Florence.

Uniquely Venetian

Yet, we cannot describe the Ca&rsquo d&rsquoOro simply in terms of Renaissance palace architecture. It is a distinctly Venetian building in its incorporation of Byzantine, Islamic, and Gothic elements. This blending together of architectural styles in a uniquely Venetian style had already occurred in the Palazzo Ducale, but this is perhaps an even better example of that phenomenon.

Figure (PageIndex<43>): View from middle balcony, Ca&rsquo d&rsquoOro, 1422-1440, Venice

Patterned colored stones, in the tradition of Byzantine architecture, fill the flat wall space of the façade. As in the Palazzo Ducale, the ornamental details on the arcade and balconies combine Islamic and Gothic elements. In the Ca&rsquo d&rsquoOro, though, the ornamentation pops because of its intense detail, set within the patterned stone walls. All of the different forms of ornament are combined within the same area of the façade.

Figure (PageIndex<44>): Gothic quatrefoils atop columns on second story balcony, Ca&rsquo d&rsquoOro, 1422-1440, Venice Figure (PageIndex<45>): Ca&rsquo d&rsquoOro, 1422-1440, Venice

The five Gothic quatrefoils of the second story balcony stand atop slender columns. They stand out as distinct sculptural elements carved on all sides. In the upper balcony, pointed arches borrow from Islamic architecture in their distinct horseshoe shape and from Gothic architecture in their elongated, pointed form. Tracery connects every other column, creating an elegant interwoven effect. Within that interweaving, smaller pointed arches connect neighboring columns to one another, and these arches are multi-lobed, also in the tradition of Islamic architecture. Above each column there is a delicate cutout that mimics the quatrefoils in the level below. The open carving of the upper balconies in fact resembles the ornate screens common in Islamic architecture. This is repeated in the ornamentation of the windows to either side of the balcony on the second story.

In spite of its complexity and its many sources of inspiration, the building is unified and neither over-the-top nor visually chaotic. The Ca&rsquo d&rsquoOro&rsquos varied elements come together in spectacularly unique fashion. The building embodies a distinct architecture all its own in early Renaissance Venice, one not merely imitative of Byzantium, the Gothic North, or Islam. Venetian architects brought these different elements together in new and surprising ways, making a building such as the Ca&rsquo d&rsquoOro tremendously important.

Additional resources:

This building at the Venetian Ministry of Cultural Heritage

Palazzo Ducale

Figure (PageIndex<46>): View of St Mark&rsquos campanile (left) and Palazzo Ducale (right) from the lagoon, Venice

Venice in the 14th century

Today, we think of Italy as a unified country. But in the fourteenth century, the major urban centers of Italy were largely unstable. Wars were common. Rivaling families sought to oust their opponents&mdashoften by violent means&mdashand seize power for themselves. This is why so much civic architecture of the Renaissance period is imposing and fortress-like. Buildings like Florence&rsquos Palazzo Vecchio (below)&mdashwith its thick, tall walls and defensive crenellations (gaps at the top of the wall for shooting)&mdashwere the standard for civic buildings in Italy well into the fifteenth century.

Figure (PageIndex<47>): Arnolfo di Cambio, Palazzo Vecchio, 1299-early 1300s, Florence

Things were different in Venice. The city was politically more stable than other Italian centers, and it was also naturally protected from invasion by its favorable setting in a lagoon on the Adriatic Sea. As a result, Venice&rsquos architecture did not need to be as defensive as the architecture of neighboring regions. This allowed for greater experimentation in architectural form evident in the Palazzo Ducale, constructed beginning in 1340, for the elected ruler of Venice.

A new palace for the doge

Fourteenth-century Venice was an oligarchy, meaning that it was ruled by a select group of elite Venetian merchants. The main elected ruler was called the &ldquodoge,&rdquo and his residence was&mdashmuch like the White House in the United States&mdasha private residence and also a place for official business. Although there was already a residence for Doge Gradenigo in the 1340s, the system of government changed afterwards so that more people were involved in governmental activities. This required more space than was available in the existing palace, the great council (a political body consisting of the nobility) voted to extend the palace. Workers began construction in 1340 and continued into the early part of the fifteenth century.

Figure (PageIndex<48>): Palazzo Ducale, 1340 and after, Venice

The Palazzo Ducale sits in a prominent location. It is adjacent to the Basilica of St. Mark (Venice&rsquos cathedral church), on St. Mark&rsquos Square. The Ducale also overlooks the lagoon, which was a major point of entry into the city. Its prominent location made it (and continues to make it) an important symbol of Venetian architecture. It offered visitors one of their first impressions of the city.

Delightfully open

Figure (PageIndex<50>): Lower loggia, second level balcony, and third level, Palazzo Ducale, 1340 and after, Venice

The building appears delightfully open and ornamental precisely because it is able to forego many elements of defensive architecture. The façade includes three levels: a ground-level loggia (covered corridor) defined by an arcade of pointed arches. The second level contains an open balcony which features a prominent balustrade (railing) that divides the first and second stories.
Like the lower loggia, the balcony features pointed arches, though here with the addition of delicate quatrefoils (four-lobed cutouts) just above them.
A stone wall completely encloses the third and uppermost level of the façade and is punctuated by a row of large, pointed windows.

In many respects&mdashespecially in its horizontal emphasis and three-story façade&mdashthe exterior of the Palazzo Ducale exhibits features that emerged in the Renaissance architecture of Florence during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. One could argue that this building anticipates those trends. Undoubtedly, in the Palazzo Ducale, we see a degree of the harmony and rhythm that we associate with later Italian Renaissance architecture.

Figure (PageIndex<51>): Third level Byzantine patterned stone and second level balcony quatrefoils atop columns, Palazzo Ducale, 1340 and after, Venice

Crossroads of Byzantium, Islam, and Gothic Europe

However, the Palazzo Ducale is actually more representative of the unique position of Venice in the fourteenth century. Venice occupied a geographical location that was inherently defensible, and the city was uniquely situated in terms of its proximity to other cultures. Venice once belonged to the Byzantine Empire (the eastern part of the Roman Empire), but by the fourteenth century, it was an independent republic. Yet, it still had strong cultural and artistic links to Byzantium, partially because Venice was a robust center of trade with the East. The city absorbed many of the traditions of Islamic art and culture by virtue of contact with Islamic traders, artisans, and goods. Similarly, Venice&rsquos location at the northern edge of the Italian peninsula meant that it was closer to the Gothic centers of northern Europe than Italian cities farther to the south, such as Florence. It took longer to shake the Gothic habit, so to speak.

Figure (PageIndex<52>): Lower loggia pointed arches and second level balcony tripartite lobes and columns, Palazzo Ducale, 1340 and after, Venice

We see the architectural heritage of each of these distinct cultures in the Palazzo Ducale. The upper story of the façade features a diamond pattern of colored stone, a technique that was a hallmark of late Byzantine architecture. The openwork (lattice-like carving) and arcades of the bottom two levels combine Islamic and Gothic influences. Pointed arches and quatrefoils were typical features on Gothic buildings, but the pointed arches bow out beneath their peaks, in the manner of Islamic horseshoe arches. We also see tripartite lobes within the arches of the balcony that resemble a similar trend in Islamic architecture. As a result of its unique cultural and geographic position, fourteenth-century Venetian architecture&mdashas exemplified by the Palazzo Ducale&mdashis a beautiful hybrid of Byzantine, Islamic, and Gothic cultures, which are all bound together within a blossoming Venetian Renaissance architectural tradition.

Additional resources:
Smarthistory images for teaching and learning:

Figure (PageIndex<53>): More Smarthistory images&hellip

Devotional confraternities (scuole) in Renaissance Venice

Figure (PageIndex<54>): Scuola grande di S. Marco e chiesa SS. Giovanni e Paolo, Venice, photo: Mark Edward Smith, by permission © Mark Edward Smith

Venetian Society and the scuole

The Republic of Venice lasted for almost one thousand years (from the eighth to the eighteenth century). Its exceptional stability was due not only to its geographical position (in the middle of a protective lagoon) and its effective political system, but also to its social structure and the stabilizing presence of the scuole.

The scuole were confraternities, or brotherhoods, founded as devotional (religious) institutions, that were set up with the purpose of providing mutual assistance. They provided an important guarantee against poverty and played a crucial role in protecting individuals and families in need. The scuole were supported by a tax levied on each member and on the bequests of wealthy brothers. These donations and earnings were then used to help all the members and their families. The scuole also depended on the state, which exercised a protective and supervisory role. Each scuola had a patron saint and a statute with its own symbols and emblems.

In the fifteenth century, more than two hundred such scuole existed, among which six were scuole grandi (large scuole). By then the initial religious role had shifted to a more civic purpose. The scuole grandi included individuals who had diverse occupations and could afford spectacular meeting-houses, while the scuole piccole (small scuole), could be purely corporate. Even foreigners, in order to overcome the lack of protection by the State, and to strengthen their national or religious identity, founded several scuole piccole. These were all dissolved (but one) with the Napoleonic invasion in 1797&mdashthe year that marked the end of the Venetian Republic.

Figure (PageIndex<55>): Scuola di San Giorgio degli Schiavoni (with paintings by Vittore Carpaccio), Venice, photo: Mark Edward Smith, by permission © Mark Edward Smith

Social structure

In Venice there were three distinct social classes:

The patricians were drawn from the nobility and were the ruling class. They represented about 5 percent of the population and were the only ones eligible to hold positions at a high political level.

The next 5 percent were known as citizens. Citizens were divided into two categories: those who were Venetian by birth and those who became citizens after a lengthy process of naturalization (similar to green card status in the United States). Professionals, employees of the bureaucracy and merchants usually qualified as citizens. Though Citizens did not hold political power, they could exert some influence through the scuole, where the most distinguished members held significant positions.

Working class
The working class included artisans, small traders, other workers, and seamen. These people were not necessarily poor, just as the patricians were not necessarily rich. The working class also had their own scuole.

The Teleri

The scuole served an important role in the patronage of Venetian art. Along with altarpieces, they commissioned large narrative painting cycles (teleri). The subject matter of the teleri (telero &mdashsingular) was always religious but they also carried secular and civic connotations. The charm of these large paintings lies in the fact that they tell stories that unfold step by step. Because the imagination of the artists and their narrative skill was combined with their patron&rsquos instructions&mdashand there are even instances when members of a scuola required they were included in the paintings, teleri provide a fascinating visual journey that allows us to appreciate and understand Renaissance Venice. What follows are a few outstanding examples with brief descriptions.

Figure (PageIndex<56>): Gentile Bellini, Procession in St Mark&rsquos Square, 1496, tempera on canvas, 347 x 770 cm (Gallerie dell&rsquoAccademia, Venice)

Gentile Bellini, Procession in St Mark&rsquos Square, 1496

The Scuola Grande di San Giovanni Evangelista (a large scuola dedicated to St. John the Evangelist) commissioned paintings that narrate the miracles made by the relic of the True Cross that was in its possession. This sacred fragment was carried through the streets of the city each year on April 25 for the feast of St. Mark (patron saint of the city). In Venice, processions had great civic and religious meaning creating continuity season after season, virtually unchanged over time.

This painting, by the great Venetian artist Gentile Bellini, depicts a miracle. In the midst of the procession, in the foreground, is a man in prayer. He is a merchant from Brescia who, having arrived in Venice for business, received the terrible news that his beloved son was in critical condition from a blow to his head. The next day, the man, aware of the powers of the True Cross, went to attend the ceremony, and when the famous relic passed in front of him, he knelt before it as a sign of devotion. When he returned home, he found his child miraculously healed.

The protagonists of the procession are in the foreground: the scuola&rsquos brothers (members) are dressed in white the procurators (the office of procurator of St Mark&rsquos was the second most prestigious appointment in the Venetian government after that of Doge) and senators of the Republic wear red gowns. The patricians and the citizens wear black. The members of the scuola carry a canopy to protect the reliquary that holds the sacred relic as it is carried through St. Mark&rsquos Square (the religious and political heart of the city).

Figure (PageIndex<57>): Reliquary (detail), Gentile Bellini, Procession in St Mark&rsquos Square, 1496, tempera on canvas, 347 x 770 cm (Gallerie dell&rsquoAccademia, Venice)

St. Mark&rsquos Square is reproduced in Bellini&rsquos painting with a wide-angle view in striking detail, providing a remarkable visual document of the square at the end of the fifteenth century. To open up the scene, the artist moved the bell tower to the right. St. Mark&rsquos Basilica, sparkling with its Byzantine gold (gold also lights up the reliquary in the foreground), functions as a backdrop. The square is populated by a cosmopolitan mix of people elegantly dressed in the fashion of the time: some young people in multicolored stockings, a group of Jews, a number of Turks wearing turbans, as well as merchants and children. On the left, women look out from the windows and colorful carpets are displayed from balconies as a sign of celebration.

Figure (PageIndex<58>): Vittore Carpaccio, The Healing of the Madman, 1496, tempera on canvas, 365 x 389 cm (Gallerie dell&rsquoAccademia, Venice)

Vittore Carpaccio, The Healing of the Madman, 1496

Carpaccio portrayed another miracle of the True Cross for the Scuola Grande di San Giovanni Evangelista. The artist presents the passage of the miracle from the procession on the bridge (whose members are in white) to the main event that takes place in the Patriarch of Grado&rsquos palace on the upper left. The Patriarch is seen raising the relic before a possessed man who fixes a glassy-eyed stare on it, and who will be miraculously cured. The miracle is in progress, a dramatic moment made even more authentic by the fact that the scene takes place in a marginal position within the composition. The white tunics of the procession members surround the scene, while all around life unfolds quietly, and it seems that few are aware of what is happening. Here Venice itself is not just the background but a dominant theme of the painting.

One can see the Rialto Bridge (the financial heart of the city) as it was then, constructed in wood, with a row of shops on each side, while below the Grand Canal (the main waterway of the city) is animated by gondolas and their gondoliers. In the distance, among the colorful palaces and the characteristic chimneys, daily life is in full swing. A woman beats a carpet, another hangs the laundry, a mason fixes a roof. In the lower section several men in turbans confirm the diversity of those who visited the Rialto market.

Figure (PageIndex<59>): Gentile Bellini and Giovanni Bellini, Saint Mark Preaching in a Square of Alexandria in Egypt, 1504-07, oil on canvas, 347 x 770 cm (Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan)

Gentile Bellini, St Mark Preaching in Alexandria, Egypt, 1504-07

The Scuola Grande di San Marco commissioned Gentile Bellini to paint St. Mark Preaching in Alexandria, Egypt, but the artist died before the painting was completed, so it was finished by his brother Giovanni Bellini (who, like Gentile, had never been to Alexandria). For the costumes and architectural details, Gentile drew inspiration from his stay in Constantinople and from travelers&rsquo accounts. The layout of the painting is reminiscent of Procession in St. Mark&rsquos Square, where the figures in the foreground are represented in profile.

Figure (PageIndex<60>): Saint Mark (detail), Gentile Bellini and Giovanni Bellini, Saint Mark Preaching in a Square of Alexandria in Egypt, 1504-07, oil on canvas, 347 x 770 cm, (Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan)

The saint, who will become the patron saint of Venice, preaches from a small podium placed between the scuola brothers and the Arabs, while in the background stands a great temple whose façade, divided into three parts, brings to mind the meeting house of the Scuola Grande di San Marco, the Basilica of San Mark and the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople. Nearby is an obelisk engraved with hieroglyphics and several minarets. In the square, alongside the inhabitants, a number of exotic animals stroll by, including camels and giraffes.

Figure (PageIndex<61>): Vittore Carpaccio, Arrival of the Ambassadors from the Saint Ursula cycle, 1490-96, tempera on canvas, 278 x 589 cm (Gallerie dell&rsquoAccademia, Venice)

Vittore Carpaccio, Arrival of the Ambassadors, 1490-96

At the end of the fifteenth century, Vittore Carpaccio was commissioned by the Scuola Piccola di Sant&rsquoOrsola (a small scuola dedicated to Saint Ursula) to paint a cycle of nine paintings on the Life of Saint Ursula, taken from the popular medieval book, the Golden Legend by Jacopo da Varagine. With his vivid imagination he had no difficulty creating a northern scene (Brittany and Germany) set in the fourth century, often with elements drawn from an imaginary city reminiscent of fifteenth-century Venice. In the story, the ambassadors approached the father of Ursula in Brittany asking for the hand of his daughter on behalf of the English prince Ereo. After consulting her father, the girl accepted, on the condition that Ereo be baptized at the end of a long pilgrimage to Rome. After the baptism, on the way back to Cologne, the married couple ran into the king of the Huns who fell in love with Ursula. She rejected the proposals of the bloodthirsty ruler, preferring death instead.

The story begins with the Arrival of the English Ambassadors, where we see a large room represented with no front walls, while in the background we see buildings in the Venetian style and details of city life. Carpaccio skillfully employs perspective while maintaining the frieze-like structure typical of Venetian narrative paintings. The telero includes two consecutive moments. The first episode displays the ambassadors approaching the king this scene unfolds behind a railing left accessible by an open gate. The following episode takes place in Ursula&rsquos bedroom where she receives the message from her father. The room is simple but includes a devotional painting testifying to the pious character of the young girl.

Figure (PageIndex<62>): Vittore Carpaccio, Saint George and the Dragonfrom the cycle: Episodes from the Life of Saints Jerome, George and Triphun, 1502, tempera on canvas, 141 x 360 cm (Scuola di San Giorgio degli Schiavoni, Venice)

Vittore Carpaccio, Saint George and the Dragon, 1502

Carpaccio was also summoned by the Scuola di San Giorgio degli Schiavoni (Dalmatians) to depict the cycles of Saint George and Saint Jerome, still in-situ today. The cycle of Saint George is also taken from the Golden Legend. In the narrative, Selene, a city in Libya, was oppressed by a terrible dragon that fed off the meat of boys and girls and terrorized the town with threats of death and destruction. When it was the king&rsquos daughter&rsquos turn to be devoured, Saint George, on his steed, intervened swiftly, injured the dragon and then led it into the town before killing it in front of everyone. Thanks to the surprising liberation from the dragon, the knight persuaded the king and his people to be baptized.

In the combat scene with the dragon, the background is delineated to the left by a city, represented by several minarets, an obelisk, an equestrian statue, exotic palm trees and a castle typical of the Veneto (the region in northern Italy that was ruled by the city of Venice). On the other side we see the African princess, with a fair complexion and elegantly dressed in European-style clothing, looking on calmly, with her hands folded. In the foreground, the scene runs along the diagonal of the lance of Saint George who struggles valiantly with the dragon on a ground strewn with the remains of tortured bodies.


The complex narratives depicted in these paintings represent important religious events and miracles&mdashyet directly or indirectly, they are simultaneously preoccupied with the complexity, diversity, and beauty of Renaissance Venice. They also point us to the critical role played by the scuole in both the life and art in the Most Sererene Republic of Venice.

Additional resources

Patricia Fortini Brown, Venetian Narrative Painting in the Age of Carpaccio(New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998).

Augusto Gentili, Le storie di Carpaccio (Venice: Marsilio,1996).

Peter Humfrey, Painting in Renaissance Venice (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995).

Brian Pullan, Rich and Poor in Renaissance Venice: The Social Institutions of a Catholic State to 1620(Oxford, 1971).

Brian Pullan, &ldquoThe Scuole Grandi of Venice: Some Further Thoughts,&rdquo in Christianity and the Renaissance: Image and Religious Imagination in the Quattrocento, ed. T. Verdon and J. Henderson (Syracuse, NY, 1990), pp. 272&ndash301.

Lorenza Smith, Venice: Art and History (Verona: Arsenale, 2011).

Aldo Manuzio (Aldus Manutius): inventor of the modern book

Figure (PageIndex<63>): Map of Venice, 1486, from Bernhard of Breidenbach, Sanctae peregrinationes, printed in Mainz by Erhard Reuwich (Bibliothèque nationale de France)

Venice as a center of print culture

For centuries, Venice served as one of Europe&rsquos main cultural and commercial centers and as the most important intermediary between Europe and the East. The city&rsquos political stability and wealth, combined with its extensive international relationships and rich cultural and artistic life, proved to be fertile ground for the establishment of the printing press.

In the second half of the fifteenth century, when printed books gradually began to substitute for handwritten manuscripts, Venice was the European capital of the printing press. The invention of movable type in Germany in the mid-1400s ushered in a sea change, placing Venice on a par with modern-day Silicon Valley. Both of these creative environments resulted from a powerful combination of invention, technology and economic power. According to the scholar Vittore Branca, at the end of fifteenth century, an estimated 150 typographers operated in Venice, far more than the 50 or so that were active in Paris at that time. In the last five years of the century, Branca estimates that one-third of the volumes printed in the world originated from Venice.

Figure (PageIndex<64>): Plate showing the operation of a printing press, from Chants royaux sur la Conception, couronnés au puy de Rouen de 1519 à 1528, 16th century (Bibliotheque nationale de France)

Unsurprisingly, this flourishing industry generated wealth, cultural interest, and the diffusion of a new trend known as &ldquobibliomania&rdquo&mdashdefined as a passionate enthusiasm for collecting and owning books. Readers and collectors from all over the world sought out the books of Venetian printers, who skillfully adapted production to demand. These printers created an inventory that was extraordinary in its variety, thanks also to the freedom of press granted by the government. It was in Venice that the first printed edition of the Koran was published, along with the first printed Talmud.

Books, booksellers, and bookstores

Anyone strolling through the bustling streets of Venice in the late 15th century would encounter bookstores whose windows displayed beautiful book frontispieces while catalogues of the books available either hung from the jamb of the door, or were available inside, on the counter. It was common practice for the bookseller to offer the loose pages of a book in a package which the buyer would subsequently arrange to have bound in accordance with his or her taste and financial means.

Bookstores soon became places where scholars, intellectuals, collectors, and book lovers gathered to discuss new editions, exchange information, and converse with the bookseller who often was also the publisher and the printer. The invention of movable type spawned an industry that led to the creation of a new professional figure, the printer-publisher, and a new business, the publishing house. The publishing house developed its own structure, investors, and also required legal advisors, due to the emergence of copyright issues.

Figure (PageIndex<65>): Portrait of Aldo Manuzio, n.d., print, 105 x 81 mm (Deutsches Buch- und Schriftmuseum, Deutsche Nationalbibliothek Leipzig)

Aldo Manuzio

&ldquoVenice is a place that is more similar to the rest of the world than to a city,&rdquo Aldo Manuzio wrote in a preface to one of his books. He arrived in Venice in 1490, driven by his profession as a Greek and Latin tutor. Manuzio was a humanist from a small town in central Italy, and it was probably his interest in books that brought him closer to the world of the printing press.

Manuzio was one of the first publishers in a modern sense. In a short time, he transformed the concept of the book in Europe thanks to his typographical innovations and to his unique editorial vision. He did this by founding and overseeing the Aldine Press, with the help of technicians, scholars, investors, as well as with political support. Aldine Press books were marked by a famous emblem depicting an anchor and dolphin and were known throughout the world for their accuracy, beauty, the superior quality of the materials employed, and their cutting-edge design.

Figure (PageIndex<66>): Erasmus of Rotterdam, Adagiorum chiliades, Aldine Press, 1508 (Bibliothèque Municipale, Tours, France). The Aldine Press emblem is visible at the bottom of the page.

Manuzio&rsquos original intention was to spread Greek language and philosophy to a wider public. He subsequently produced books in Latin and Italian, publishing famous editions of Dante and Petrarch, as well as work by of some of his contemporaries, such as Erasmus. Over two decades Manuzio published 130 editions, 30 of which were first editions of Greek writers and philosophers.

Aldine editions stood out: from the first pages, Manuzio impressed the reader through the use of prefaces discussing his editorial work, his intentions and projects. In the preface, he would occasionally invite the reader to find and to report any errors in the text, thus actively engaging the reading public.

Figure (PageIndex<67>): Francesco Colonna, Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, published by Aldo Manuzio, 1499, book with woodcut illustrations, 29.5 × 22 × 4 cm (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

The inventor of the modern book

Many of the elements that Manuzio introduced, or eliminated, in the conception of his editions are innovations that have become embedded in today&rsquos books. Notably, he gave a new look to the printed page: the pages of Manuzio&rsquos books featured harmonic proportions between the size of the fonts, the printed section, and the white border, according to precise mathematical principles&mdashreflecting a major theme in Renaissance culture.

Manuzio also introduced page numbers and made reading more fluid by clarifying the disorganized punctuation that prevailed at the time. He added a period at the end of the sentence and was among the first to adopt the use of the comma, apostrophe, accent, and semicolon in the ways they continue to be used today. In order to recreate the familiar effect of handwriting, he also invented what is now known in English as the &ldquoitalic font,&rdquo named after it&rsquos Italian provenance.

Figure (PageIndex<68>): Epistole di santa Caterina da Siena, published by Aldo Manuzio, 1500 (Biblioteca Universitaria di Bologna). This is the first example of italic type (printed within the book on the left), which was developed for Manuzio by the typographer Francesco Griffo.

One of Manuzio&rsquos most striking inventions was the printing of small-format books, the ancestors of our modern pocket-sized publications. Small religious volumes were already in circulation, but Manuzio&rsquos revolutionary idea was to publish both classics and modern works in the small format.

Figure (PageIndex<69>): Sophocles, Tragaediae septem cum commentariis, 1502, published by Aldo Manuzio (Biblioteca Universitaria di Bologna).

It can be argued that through this innovation Manuzio also invented a new audience. With pocket-sized books, reading became an intimate moment, an activity that could be enjoyed while traveling, lying in bed, or sitting on a garden bench. For the first time, the book became a manageable, easy to carry, and relatively inexpensive object, therefore it became accessible to a larger audience comprised not only of scholars, but also of aristocrats and members of the upper middle class. The small books immediately became very fashionable and conferred a certain status, as we can see in many portraits of the time.

Figure (PageIndex<70>): Left: Lorenzo Lotto, Portrait of Laura da Pola, 1543-44, oil on canvas, 90 x 75 cm (Pinacoteca di Brera) Right: Titian, Portrait of Jacopo Sannazaro, c. 1514-18, oil on canvas, 85.7 x 72.7 cm (Picture Gallery, Buckingham Palace, The Royal Collection Trust)

Sweeping away barbarism with books

The Aldine editions had a significant impact in Europe, imparting new momentum to the book market and creating a larger audience, that in turn stimulated culture and led to the spread of ideas. Erasmus praised Manuzio&rsquos objective to &ldquobuild a library that would have no boundary but the world itself.&rdquo Indeed, the power of a book is that it enables its readers to live many lives and to deepen their understanding of the entire world without ever needing to leave their homes. By reviving the classics and publishing modern works with rigor and beauty, Aldo Manuzio wished&mdashin what has proven to be a timeless quote&mdashthat &ldquoit could be possible to defeat weapons with ideas and to sweep away barbarism with books.&rdquo

Digital catalog for the Aldo Manuzio exhibition at the Gallerie dell&rsquoAccademia di Venezia

Guido Beltramini, Aldo Manuzio: il Rinascimento di Venezia (Marsilio, 2016)

Lodovica Braida, Stampa e cultura in Europa (Laterza, 2003)

Mario Brunetti, L&rsquoAccademia Aldina, in Rivista di Venezia, VIII, 1921

Carlo Dionisotti, Aldo Manuzio umanista e editore (Edizioni il Polifilo, 1995)

Gian Arturo Ferrari, Libro (Bollati Bolingheri, 2014)

Leonardas Vytautas Gerulaitis, Printing and Publishing in Fifteenth-Century Venice (American Library Association, 1976)

Paul Grendler, Schooling in Renaissance Italy: Literacy and Learning, 1300&ndash1600 (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989)

Mario Infelise, Aldo Manuzio: La costruzione del mito(Marsilio, 2016)

Mario Infelise, Manuzio, Aldo, il Vecchio, Dizionario Biografico degli Italiani &ndash Volume 69, Istituto dell&rsquoEnciclopedia italiana Treccani, 2007

Jill Kraye, The Afterlife of Aldus: Posthumous Fame, Collectors and the Book Trade (Warburg Institute, 2018)

Martin Lowry, The World of Aldus Manutius: Business and Scholarship in Renaissance Venice (Cornell University Press, 1979)

Aldo Manuzio, Humanism and the Latin Classics, edited and translated by John N. Grant (Harvard University Press, 2017)

Giovanni Mardersteig, Aldo Manuzio e i caratteri di Francesco Griffo da Bologna, in Studi di bibliografia e storia in onore di Tammaro De Marinis (1964)

Saving Venice

Video (PageIndex<11>): A conversation about the issues facing Venice and efforts to save the historic city, with Lisa Ackerman, Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer, World Monuments Fund and Steven Zucker

Additional resources:

Robert C. Davis, Garry R. Marvin, Venice, the Tourist Maze: A Cultural Critique of the World&rsquos Most Touristed City (University of California Press, 2004)

Smarthistory images for teaching and learning:
Figure (PageIndex<71>): More Smarthistory images&hellip

Carlo Crivelli

Carlo Crivelli, The Annunciation with Saint Emidius

Video (PageIndex<12>): Carlo Crivelli, The Annunciation with Saint Emidius, 1486, egg and oil on canvas, 207 x 146.7 cm (The National Gallery, London)

Figure (PageIndex<72>): Carlo Crivelli, The Annunciation with Saint Emidius, 1486, egg and oil on canvas, 207 x 146.7 cm (The National Gallery, London)

Aside from Cosimo Tura, Carlo Crivelli was the most delightfully odd late Gothic painter in Italy. Born in Venice, he absorbed the influences of the Vivarini, the Bellini, and Andrea Mantegna to create an elegant, profuse, effusive, and extreme style, dominated by strong outlines and clear, crisp colors&mdashperhaps incorporating just a whiff of early Netherlandish manuscript style. By 1458 he had left Venice to work in the Marches (the fertile plains south of the Appenines) in and around the port city of Ancona on the Adriatic. As a seaside painter, he could be credited with inventing a second Adriatic style that stands in stark contrast to the soft, suffused colors and gentle contours of Giovanni Bellini.

Figure (PageIndex<73>): Carlo Crivelli, detail of The Annunciation with Saint Emidius, 1486, egg and oil on canvas, 207 x 146.7 cm (The National Gallery, London)

The subject matter

This Annunciation is signed and dated 1486, so it was an early commission in his adopted territory. The narrative is deceptively simple the angel Gabriel interrupts the Virgin, engaged in reading and prayer, to announce that she will become the mother of the son of God. The actual event, the incarnation, occurs through words rather than actions, and to be recognizable as a dramatic encounter there are a variety of poses that the Virgin assumes to signify her reaction, from humble acceptance to visible consternation. Crivelli&rsquos version rather peculiarly places Gabriel outside the Virgin&rsquos home, accompanied, in another unusual variation on the theme, by St. Emidius.

Figure (PageIndex<74>): Gabriel and St. Emidius (detail), Carlo Crivelli, The Annunciation with Saint Emidius, 1486, egg and oil on canvas, 207 x 146.7 cm (The National Gallery, London)

Emidius is the patron saint of the town of Ascoli Piceno, and Crivelli painted this altarpiece for the city&rsquos church of the Santissima Annunciazione (the Holy Annunciation). A proud citizen, Emidius seems to have hurried to catch up to Gabriel to proudly show off his detailed model of the town, which he holds rather gingerly, as though the paint hasn&rsquot quite dried.

The fact that Gabriel and the Virgin do not share the same space is unusual, but doesn&rsquot seem to disrupt the delivery of the message. We see the descent of the Holy Spirit has penetrated the frieze of the building, through a conveniently placed arched aperture, into the room where Mary kneels receptively. The inclusion of Emidius brings the miracle of the incarnation home, and this corner of the city is depicted in the kind of deep perspective of contiguous spaces that one sees later in Dutch Baroque domestic scenes, such as Pieter de Hooch&rsquos At the Linen Closet.

Figure (PageIndex<75>): Carlo Crivelli, detail of The Annunciation with Saint Emidius, 1486, egg and oil on canvas, 207 x 146.7 cm (The National Gallery, London)

The variety of figures in the background on the left of the painting lend an atmosphere of spontaneity and the hubbub of everyday life at the top of the staircase a little girl peeks around a column, a group of clerics are engaged in conversation and, in the upper mid-ground, two figures stand on the footbridge above the arch, one reading a just-delivered message (echoing the Annunciation).

Figure (PageIndex<76>): Carlo Crivelli, detail of The Annunciation with Saint Emidius, 1486, egg and oil on canvas, 207 x 146.7 cm (The National Gallery, London)

The inscription along the base of the painting reads &ldquoLibertas Ecclesiastica&rdquo (church liberty), and refers to Ascoli&rsquos right to self-government, free from the interference of the Pope, a right granted to the town by Sixtus IV in 1482. The news reached Ascoli on 25 March, the Feast of the Annunciation, which is probably the message the official in black is reading.

Figure (PageIndex<77>): Carlo Crivelli, detail of The Annunciation with Saint Emidius, 1486, egg and oil on canvas, 207 x 146.7 cm (The National Gallery, London) Figure (PageIndex<78>): Carlo Crivelli, detail of The Annunciation with Saint Emidius, 1486, egg and oil on canvas, 207 x 146.7 cm (The National Gallery, London)

To the right of the two figures on the bridge, the bases of a crate and a potted plant extend out over the wall just far enough to suggest they could, with a little nudge, topple onto the head of a figure below who, oblivious, shades his eyes to better see the penetrating irradiation of the Holy Spirit entering the wall. He is the witness inside the painting, we are the witnesses outside the painting.

Figure (PageIndex<79>): Piero della Francesca, Annunciation, 1452&ndash66, fresco, 329 x 193 cm (San Francesco, Arezzo)

The spatial composition of the overall painting is actually quite traditional, hearkening back to the Annunciation fresco of Piero della Francesca at the church of San Francesco in Arezzo in both the surface of the painting is essentially vertically bisected by the architecture, while the right half is squared by the horizontal division between the lower room and upper balconies of the Virgin&rsquos dwelling. What is spectacularly different here is Crivelli&rsquos architectural articulation, which consists of an entire dictionary of all&rsquoantica elements, made more dramatic by the profusion of materials from which the buildings are made.

The white columns carry gilded capitals, the entablature is elaborated by a red marble frieze, both are illusionistically &ldquocarved&rdquo with running reliefs of floral, vegetal, and acanthus decoration, springing from beautiful vases, and the frieze is further punctuated with putto heads, lending a sense of animation to the scene. Adding to the ornamentation are egg-and-dart and curious floral dentils, varied marbles, a carved imperial profile relief encircled by a wreath, and crenellations along the farthest wall.

Figure (PageIndex<80>): Carlo Crivelli, detail of The Annunciation with Saint Emidius, 1486, egg and oil on canvas, 207 x 146.7 cm (The National Gallery, London)

Luxurious costumes

All the major characters wear luxurious costumes, painted to resemble gold and silver embroidered brocades. Gabriel wears a large gold medallion, on a heavy chain, studded with cabochon jewels. Emidius wears a bishop&rsquos mitre similarly jeweled, with a large jeweled clasp on his golden cope. The Virgin wears a jeweled head-band and a dress modestly trimmed with pearls along the top of the bodice. Gabriel&rsquos feathered epaulettes echo his glorious wings, which deserve an essay of their own. The elegant delicacy of Crivelli&rsquos linear style can be seen best in the elongated, pale hands of the Virgin, floating at the ends of her arms, lightly folded across her breast in supplication.

A splendid interior

Rather than occupying a sparsely furnished monastic cell, the Virgin is depicted in a splendidly arrayed interior that echoes the magnificence of the palace exterior. Red and green pillows and blankets embroidered with gold thread cover her bed, with its sweep of red silk curtain, similarly embroidered in gold.

Figure (PageIndex<81>): Carlo Crivelli, detail of The Annunciation with Saint Emidius, 1486, egg and oil on canvas, 207 x 146.7 cm (The National Gallery, London)

The objects on the shelf above the bed are made of a variety of materials, from the gold candle holder to the barely fluted glass carafe which holds clear water, a sign of Mary&rsquos purity. The grain of the wood in the prie-dieu runs vertically, in contrast to the horizontal grain of the base of the bed, which helps to create the shallow recession in which the Virgin kneels on a splendid carpet.

Figure (PageIndex<82>): Carlo Crivelli, detail of The Annunciation with Saint Emidius, 1486, egg and oil on canvas, 207 x 146.7 cm (The National Gallery, London)

A sense of cosmopolitanism

At the level of the balcony, Crivelli draws our eye to another carpet, this one displayed draped over the balustrade, and yet another is draped above the arch in the background. Carpets such as these were a major Italian import from the eastern Mediterranean, and used here they lend a cosmopolitan air to the city. The presence of a splendidly feathered peacock, another exotic import, reminds us that carpets from the eastern Mediterranean were coveted luxury items brought in through trade, and they lend an air of cosmopolitanism to the overall scene.

Figure (PageIndex<83>): Carlo Crivelli, detail of The Annunciation with Saint Emidius, 1486, egg and oil on canvas, 207 x 146.7 cm (The National Gallery, London)

A pickle and an apple?

Of course, the objects that attract the most attention in this painting are the cucumber and apple, placed right in the center foreground of the painting, above the inscription. The cucumber, in fact, seems to project out of the painting and teeter into our space, breaking the fictive wall and blurring the line between a space of miracles and our everyday world. The apple can be taken to symbolize original sin, the source of our fall, the forbidden bite setting into motion the whole reason for the Annunciation. In all fairness, the National Gallery calls the cucumber a gourd (which does sound more Biblical), since cucumbers are part of the gourd family, and leaves it at that, there being neither a Holy Cucumber nor a Holy Gourd. Alas, here we enter the realm of speculation. One school of thought, absent any evidence, is that apples symbolize female sin and cucumbers symbolize male sin. I&rsquoll leave it to you to work out why. Could it be a marrow? Marrows do appear in the Bible, as in Psalm 63:5: &ldquoMy soul shall be satisfied as with marrow and fatness and my mouth shall praise thee with joyful lips.&rdquo That seems rather appropriate. The controversy rages on.

Additional resources:

Stephen John Campbell, &lrmC. Jean Campbell, &lrmFrancesco De Carolis, Ornament and Illusion: Carlo Crivelli of Venice (Paul Holberton Publishing, 2015)

Ronald Lightbown, Carlo Crivelli (Yale University Press 1st Edition edition, 2004)

Smarthistory images for teaching and learning:
Figure (PageIndex<84>): More Smarthistory images&hellip

Gentile Bellini, Portrait of Sultan Mehmed II

Figure (PageIndex<85>): Gentile Bellini, Portrait of Sultan Mehmed II, 1480, oil on canvas, 69.9 x 52.1 cm, The National Gallery London. Layard Bequest, 1916. Currently on loan to the Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

The afterlife of a painting

In a portrait attributed to the Italian artist Gentile Bellini, we see Sultan Mehmed II surrounded by a classicizing arcade, with a luxurious embroidered tapestry draped over the ledge in front of him. Gentile, already an accomplished portraitist from Venice, painted the sultan&rsquos likeness when he spent 15 months in Constantinople at the court of the Ottoman sultan Mehmed II around 1480 on behalf of the Venetian Republic.

Today this famous portrait belongs to the National Gallery of Art, London. It has had many &ldquoafterlives,&rdquo that is, many ways it has been re-interpreted and understood since it was produced nearly 550 years ago.

Figure (PageIndex<86>): Circle of Gentile Bellini (?), Portrait of Sultan Mehmet II with a Young Man, c. 1500?, oil on panel, 33.4 x 45.4 cm (purchased at Christie&rsquos London by the Municipality of Istanbul in June 2020)

For example, in June of 2020, the Municipality of Istanbul spent over a million dollars at auction for a double portrait featuring the face of Sultan Mehmed II and a young man. The painting is mysterious: it is uncertain who painted it, when, or where, and the identity of the second figure is unknown. The image of the sultan, however, is based on Bellini&rsquos well-known London picture, and the reputation of the mystery painting&mdashas well as Istanbul&rsquos risky purchase&mdashdepends on its fame. This is just the most recent, and ongoing, of the London portrait&rsquos &ldquoafterlives,&rdquo which are the subject of this essay. Before exploring them, however, we must begin with the original painting and its production.

Figure (PageIndex<87>)

A Venetian travels to paint Sultan Mehmed II

When the London portrait was created, Mehmed was sultan of the Ottoman empire, and ruled from Constantinople (now Istanbul), the city that had been the capital of the Byzantine empire until Mehmed conquered it in 1453. (The Ottomans were Muslim, the Byzantines were Orthodox Christians, and European rulers were faithful to the Church in Rome, or to what we now call Catholicism&mdashand these divergent creeds were no small matter.) Even today, Mehmed is known in Turkish as &ldquoFatih,&rdquo or &ldquoconqueror.&rdquo In addition to being a warrior and politician, he was a great patron, bringing artists and architects together to write, paint, and build. When he petitioned the Venetians to send him artists skilled in portraiture, they sent Gentile Bellini, who seems to have had rare access to the private spaces of Mehmed&rsquos palace. The London portrait is believed to have been produced there, and was probably transported to Italy soon after Mehmed&rsquos death in 1481&mdashby whom is unclear.

The painting resembles many other European portraits of the day, and is dramatically different from contemporary Ottoman portraiture. A single figure, bust-length and life-sized, poses in elaborate dress that reveals his rank and wealth. He is not quite in profile but turned ever so slightly forward, a visual strategy that, along with the carved stone arcade, gives a sense of depth and creates the illusion that the sultan actually sits before us. That illusion is disrupted by the flat, black background and six crowns that seem to float behind him, symbols either of his territorial rule or his place in the chronology of Ottoman sultans. Gentile signed the architectural plinth with his name and date, as a kind of painterly proof of his status as an eyewitness to the sultan (who was often hidden from view) and of the truthfulness of this image.

Why would Mehmed commission such a picture? The answer likely lies in his general curiosity as a patron. We know he studied classical languages, was fascinated by maps, and followed the latest advancements in military architecture. He collected coins and medals, and was aware of their power to glorify a ruler through the circulation of his image. In addition, Mehmed&rsquos interest in portraiture suggests he was up-to-date on some of the most revolutionary things that were happening in Italian painting&mdashin particular, new attempts to depict the world as if it were seen through a window, to paraphrase the contemporary art theorist Leon Battista Alberti. Commissioning a skilled Venetian artist to paint a life-sized, illusionistic portrait might have been a test of just what, exactly, this new form of image making could do.

Figure (PageIndex<88>): Gentile Bellini, Mehmet II, c.1480 (later casting), bronze, 9.38 cm (Samuel H. Kress Collection, National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.) Figure (PageIndex<89>): Master of the Vienna Passion (attributed), El Gran Turco (The Great Turk), c.1470, engraving (Kupferstichkabinett, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

Two points need to be clarified before we move on. First, the London portrait is sometimes considered the first &ldquorealistic&rdquo representation of a Turk to arrive in Europe (most images of the time were demonizing stereotypes, like &ldquoThe Great Turk&rdquo engraving in Berlin). Yet it is misguided to assume Mehmed was focused on advancing European knowledge of foreigners. If, as is possible, he intended to circulate his image through copies of Gentile&rsquos portrait, his goals were fame and power, not ethnographic instruction. Second, the equally misguided notion that Islam forbids naturalistic imagery also needs correcting: such imagery had a long tradition, especially in illuminated manuscripts, and was often acceptable outside religious contexts. Moreover, for sultans, rules and norms did not apply.

Mehmed&rsquos portrait in Italy

How and when Gentile&rsquos portrait of Mehmed arrived in Italy is another of its mysteries. In all probability, it landed in Venice shortly after the sultan&rsquos death in 1481, and this is what the Ottomans thought&mdashthey even sent a delegate there to recover lost portraits of the sultans one hundred years after Gentile&rsquos trip east (they failed, returning with modern works instead, including the one by an artist in the circle of Veronese). But the painting now in London did not come to light until hundreds of years later, in 1865, when it was purchased from an impoverished nobleman by the British explorer, collector, and eventual ambassador to Constantinople, Austen Henry Layard. Layard&rsquos own circumstances offer an excellent introduction to the reception of Gentile&rsquos painting in the modern era.

Figure (PageIndex<90>): Circle of Paolo Veronese, Portrait of Sultan Mehmed II, 1578 or later, oil on canvas, 69 x 54 cm (Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen, Munich)

Like Gentile, Layard traveled to the Ottoman court in a diplomatic position, meeting privately at the palace with the reigning sultan, Abdülhamid II. As a young man, Layard had excavated, published, and sent back to London a trove of Assyrian artifacts from Nineveh (in modern Iraq), and had authored several illustrated volumes about his experiences.

In these roles, Layard was an archetypal &ldquoOrientalist,&rdquo someone whose status, power, and actions depended on a colonial imbalance between Europe and the Near East. On occasion, Layard even played at &ldquoOriental,&rdquo donning headscarves and swords. As a collector, he was particularly proud of his portrait of Mehmed, which he immediately recognized as the famous lost work by Gentile Bellini. But what did he see when he looked at it, hanging in his Venetian palace among assorted fragments of Assyrian architecture? Might he have seen his own experiences as ambassador reflected back at him? One journalist of the period suggested as much, but we can only speculate&mdashrecognizing at the very least how different Layard&rsquos interactions with the picture were from that of Mehmed.

Figure (PageIndex<91>): Lowering the Great Winged Bull, lithograph, frontispiece to Austen Henry Layard, Nineveh and its Remains (London, 1849)

By 1915, Gentile&rsquos portrait had been at the center of two other conversations that again reframe its meaning. The first has to do with definitions of national patrimony, a topic that is very much in the news today. Layard had willed his collection, which hung in Venice, to the National Gallery in London. But on the death of his widow, Enid, in 1912, the Gallery found itself up against several recent Italian laws that aimed to keep the greatest &ldquoItalian paintings&rdquo in Italy. Gentile&rsquos portrait of Mehmed was among them: it &ldquowas regarded [by the Italians] somewhat as the Athenians regarded the Elgin Marbles,&rdquo wrote the British ambassador to Italy, making reference to the Greek sculptures that are still at the center of patrimony controversies. That the portrait was painted in Constantinople for an Ottoman patron by a traveling Venetian, that it was an inherently global object, was not mentioned. But these claims offer another way of thinking about Gentile&rsquos picture&mdashand presented a significant obstacle to its transport to London as well. (How the painting got out of Italy and into England in 1916 lay in the legal fine print.)

The second, equally philosophical controversy involved its status as a portrait. Layard left his collection to the National Gallery, but, in a clumsy turn of phrase, his will opened the door for his nephew to claim rights to all of his portraits. Both sides took legal action, bringing in experts to decide just what, exactly, constitutes a portrait. The surviving dossier reads like art theory crossed with intellectual property law and the observations of a private eye. Debate centered on questions of intent, interpretation, and continuity (&ldquoonce a portrait, always a portrait&rdquo?) on whether there is a distinction between historical portraits and family portraits and on how Layard organized, wrote about, and displayed his collection. Gentile&rsquos image of Mehmed was the star witness, the one painting the antagonists consistently tussled over.

Again the National Gallery won, and hung the portrait prominently in its entrance hall. Over the next century, however, its fortunes swung dramatically, along with shifting understandings of conservation and authenticity (problematic, since only an estimated 10% of the paint is original to Gentile&mdashover time, the canvas was damaged and was on several occasions repainted), as well as evolving attitudes within museums about how and why certain paintings are valued over others. After being one of the museum&rsquos prize acquisitions, Gentile&rsquos picture spent decades in the lower level galleries for &ldquoproblem works.&rdquo In 2009, it was moved across London to the Victoria and Albert Museum where, along with carpets, ceramics, and metalwork, it is now part of a gallery dedicated to art and trade in the early modern Mediterranean. These shifting appraisals say more about the frames of interpretation than they do about the painting itself that, aside from the abrasions of time, has not changed.

The portrait today

In 1999, Gentile&rsquos portrait of Mehmed traveled to Istanbul to star in a one-painting show that drew huge audiences and attention. &ldquoWe have seen this picture so many times, in so many schoolbooks and on so many walls over so many years that it&rsquos really imprinted on our brains,&rdquo one Turkish viewer told an American reporter. For many, aware of Mehmed&rsquos broad patronage and support of a Venetian painter, the image signified a tight bond to Europe. Notably, it was also in 1999 that Turkey made its first petition for membership in the European Union.

Figure (PageIndex<92>): Entry to the Panorama Museum, Istanbul, September 2018 (photo © the author)

In the two decades since, however, relations between Turkey and the West have soured, and Ottoman imagery, including that of Mehmed II, has been coopted in Turkey by more conservative political forces to stand for a separatist, nationalistic identity. In this &ldquoneo-Ottoman&rdquo framework, Gentile&rsquos picture takes on new meaning, with emphasis on the sultan as &ldquoFatih,&rdquo conqueror&mdashthus it is this face that welcomes visitors to Istanbul&rsquos new Panorama 1453 Conquest Museum, which celebrates the Ottoman taking of the city from the Byzantines centuries ago. The same face also appears on magnets, notebooks, tote bags, and countless internet memes, in a thoroughly contemporary stew of humor, nationalism, and entrepreneurship.

Is this painting exceptional in the many permutations of meaning we give to it? Probably not. Gentile Bellini&rsquos portrait of Sultan Mehmed II is more likely an object lesson in how many lives a single artwork can take on, and of the value to be found in deep looking and extended research.



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