Jeffrey Meyers

Giovanni Bellini

The Venetian painter Jacopo Bellini taught his two sons, Giovanni and Gentile, who both surpassed him as artists. Gentile was sent to Constantinople to paint the Ottoman sultan Mehmet II, ruler of Venice’s traditional enemy in the eastern Mediterranean. Giovanni (1438/40-1516), who spent his entire life in that watery city, sometimes collaborated on major works with his father and brother. 

Peter Humfrey says very little about Giovanni’s personal life. His wife Ginevra died in 1489; his son and only child Alvise, who was not a painter, died in 1498; Gentile died in 1507. As the presiding genius of Venetian painting, Giovanni had a prosperous workshop and was well respected. In 1508 he was appointed to judge Giorgione’s frescoes for the headquarters of the German merchants in Venice.

Giovanni’s main subjects were the Virgin and Child, Crucifixion, saints and portraits. His drawings were often more vivid than his paintings. Humfrey notes that Giovanni bridged the wide gulf from the ornamental ‘late Gothic style prevalent in his youth to the [classical] “Maniera moderna” of Giorgione and Titian.’ To achieve a greater intensity of colour, he also changed from using egg tempera on panel to oil on canvas. He often depicted birds and animals in a poetic landscape. His textures ranged from silky white and gold brocade to the metallic gleam of a sword and the glowing surface of coloured marble.

Giovanni’s main rival was his older brother-in-law Andrea Mantegna, born in 1431. Mantegna excelled in craftsmanship and invention, Giovanni in pictorial narrative and colouring. But when we compare their work on the same subject Mantegna always seems superior. Giovanni’s martyred St. Sebastian, ensconced in the niche of an altarpiece, seems dreamily unaware of the arrows that pierce his body. Mantegna’s twisted, muscular, bleeding saint is tied to a marble pillar and wears an agonized expression. Behind him, in a vivid rocky landscape, a road winds toward a white hill town, some icy mountains and a cotton-cloud sky.

St. Anthony Abbot, hermit and ascetic of Egypt, appears in the St. Sebastian triptych. Clutching a red-tasselled cup in his strong right hand and a wooden cane in his rather wooden left hand, he’s hunched over and turns his head to the right. He wears a black cap, black cape and heavy monk’s robe, and stands before a golden background. His face is dark, his brow furrowed, his beard long, white and pointed. His fierce look conveys the spiritual austerity of a Greek icon.

In Giovanni’s ‘Agony in the Garden’, three sleeping disciples form a triangle with each other below and with Christ above. Facing away from the viewer, He kneels on a rock above them and prays to an ethereal angel in the sky. In the middle ground, a band of Roman soldiers approach to arrest their victim. Humfrey observes that Mantegna’s ‘Agony’ has architectonic rigour in its design, polished hardness in its forms and heroic grandeur in its mood. Mantegna’s rocks are fearsome – his angelic ‘Putti’ balanced by a menacing bird of prey on the branch of a tree are more substantial, his soldiers more threatening, his walled city closer and more solidly portrayed.

Giovanni fares better when he stands alone. In the ‘Pietà’ he poignantly portrays Christ’s suffering in his closed eyes, mournful mouth and emaciated chest. The tearful Virgin, pressing her face to her son, places her right hand above the spear wound in His chest while His lifeless right arm hangs over her red sleeve and touches His tomb. St. John holds His extended left arm and claw-like fingers and places his own right hand around the corpse and under the fatal wound. On each side of Christ, the Saint’s, Mark and Nicholas, kneel, pray and grieve.

The four versions of Giovanni’s ‘St. Jerome in the Desert’ shows his artistic progress from 1460 to 1505.  In his first, comparatively crude picture, the long-haired, white-bearded, toga-clad, barefoot saint sits on a rock. His left hand holds an open book, his raised right hand preaches to a seated lion, facing him with open mouth, extended paw and a serpentine tail. In the second (Ashmolean Museum, Oxford), the now-bald Jerome reads a book on a lectern while the lion peers out from behind a rock, and the village in the middle ground features an arched bridge and waterfall. Humfrey notes the influence of Van Eyck in

the plants sprouting from fissures in the rocks, the stream full of little pebbles gushing from the inside of the cave, and the birds silhouetted against the bright sky. 

In the increasingly complex third painting, the details are clearer, the rocks deeply cracked, the walled and towered town much closer. ‘His hermitage is neatly organized with basic comforts, including water,’ Humfrey writes, ‘and he is accompanied not just by his faithful lion, but by other harmless animals, [lizard and deer] and birds.’ The fourth version is the best. Jerome, muscular but now bent, wears a blue toga that matches the deep blue sea and sky in the background. The tame lion lies half-hidden at his feet and there’s another arched bridge beneath a nearby town. The overhanging rocks seem protective and in the centre two frolicking rabbits add a gentle touch. While translating the Hebrew Bible into Latin, undisturbed by the traditional scorpions and wild beasts, Jerome is more suburban than ascetic.

Humfrey includes a comparative illustration of Antonello da Messina’s magnificent ‘St. Jerome in his Study’. The learned saint, with a vastly improved diet, has moved to more comfortable and luxurious quarters. Richly dressed in a white-sleeved shirt, red skullcap and heavy robe that falls to the ground, he sits erect and in profile at the centre of the painting. Personal objects humanize the farsighted saint, who holds an open book at arm’s length. His feather pen and inkpot appear on a wooden desk set on a raised stage. His shoes lie on the elaborately tiled floor. He’s surrounded by potted plants, a hawk and peacock and, on the shelves above him, decorated jars and boxes, some manuscripts and a substantial library of about twenty books. A rich landscape appears through a wood-framed window on the left and through a high vaulted arcade on the right.  Tiny birds fly above him in the luminous sky. It’s a perfectly peaceful setting for his serious work, all painted with exquisite Flemish detail. Antonello exemplifies William Blake’s belief that ‘the more distinct, sharp and wiry the bounding line, the more perfect the work of art.’

‘St. Francis in the Desert’ (Frick Collection, New York), one of Giovanni’s greatest works, is indebted to the precise and vivid details of his contemporary Antonello. The tall thin saint, wearing the brown monk’s robe of his order, looks toward heaven. In an ‘Imatatio Christi’, he reveals his compassionate stigmata with open palms and extended barefoot. He has built, on the right, a little rustic oratory with tall poles supporting overhanging vines. It features a slanting wooden desk, red-bound book and skull as a ‘Memento mori’.  A donkey, who’s carried the saint to his rocky retreat that sprouts plants from every crevice, stands in the middle ground near a shepherd and his flock. In the background, a town with several high towers appears below a fortified castle on a hill.

Henry James, subject of a painting by John Singer Sargent, remarked, ‘there is no greater work of art than a great portrait.’ Giovanni also excelled in this genre.  In ‘De Pictura’, Leon Battista Alberti described the value of portraits, which not only depicted the living but also immortalized the dead:

Inherent in painting is the fact that the dead seem still to be alive many hundreds of years later so that we can look at them over and over again, admiring immensely and procuring great enjoyment for ourselves. . . . It is therefore certain that the form of a person who is long since dead can live a long life thanks to painting.

In stunning portraits, Giovanni contrasts and interprets the characters of two unidentified young men.  One is dressed in bright clothes, has feminine features and a dreamy expression. The other wears dark garments, has a masculine face and severe look. The subject of Giovanni’s ‘Portrait of a Man’ (1485), painted in three-quarter profile, has widely spaced eyes, a narrow nose, thin lips and smooth skin. His fashionable long blond hair falls to his eyebrows and curls down to his shoulders. He wears a black cap and red gown with a black stole over one shoulder. Standing behind a marble parapet and in front of a greyish-blue background, he gazes reflectively into space. The subject of the second ‘Portrait of a Young Man’ (1485-90) is more virile and serious. Dressed in a black cap and gown, with a slice of white shirt showing at his neck, he also has long (dark) hair dropping down to his shoulder. He looks to the left and—in contrast to the earlier portrait—has thicker eyebrows, larger grey eyes, a stronger nose and a five-o’clock shadow.

The ‘Portrait of Fra Teodoro as St. Dominic’ is more vivid and complex. The contemporary Dominican monk, a friend of Giovanni, displays the attributes of his founder. He has a halo, holds a stem of lilies and a red leather-bound book, with gold corners and clasp and ‘Sanct Dominic’ written on the front white label. Standing before a green curtain decorated with red cherries and white flowers, he’s dressed in a black cap and stiff, high-collared black gown. His lined face has a sad and world-weary expression, and he seems to be gazing into eternity.

The ‘Portrait of Doge Leonardo Loredan’ (National Gallery, London) is Giovanni’s masterpiece. Humfrey writes that the sitter, facing front, is ‘seen in bust-length and three-quarter view behind a marble parapet, looking off to the left.’ The Doge ‘wears the essential costume of his regal office: the white skullcap (“camauro”), horned cap (“corno”), and cape (“restagno”) decorated with large golden buttons (“campanoni”). . . . He is shown as benign but remote, and as an embodiment of the Most Serene Republic he appears as much an effigy as a man.’ Giovanni signed the parapet ‘IONNES BELLINUS.’  The delicate white strings of Loredan’s cap frame his wise and distinguished, severe but just face.

Despite Humfrey’s subtitle, this book is much more than a simple introduction. Drawing on his lifetime’s absorption with Venetian art, he provides the essential social and historical background as well as sophisticated and scholarly analyses. The handsome book, with 195 colour illustrations, includes brief but incisive inserts on specialized subjects: workshops, altarpieces, Dominicans, patricians and patrons.  Printed in blue, they interrupt the text (sometimes in the middle of a word) instead of appearing at the end of the chapters.

It’s gratifying to learn that Giovanni and the younger Albrecht Dürer generously admired each other’s work during the German’s visits to Venice. Giovanni praised him to colleagues, said he wanted to buy a work by Dürer and would pay well for it. Dürer reciprocated by calling Giovanni ‘still the best in painting.’ In a useful chapter on Giovanni’s afterlife, Humfrey reproduces Turner’s ‘Depositing of John Bellini’s Three Pictures in La Chiesa Redentore’. He also quotes John Ruskin’s belief that Giovanni was ‘equally great in feeling and in colour’ and that his San Giobbe altarpiece was ‘one of the greatest [Christian] pictures ever painted.’


        Jeffrey Meyers, FRSL, has published The Enemy: A Biography of Wyndham Lewis and Wyndham Lewis: A Revaluation (both 1980).

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