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Giovanni Bellini Photo

Giovanni Bellini

Venetian Painter

Born: c. 1430 - Venice
Died: 1516 - Venice
"[Bellini's] expression of certain emotions is as poignant as any in the whole range of art, but it is never ecstatic or excessive; with him sorrow is never desperate, compassion never effeminate, nor does the tenderest affection ever verge on sentimentality"
Roger Fry Signature

Summary of Giovanni Bellini

Few artists in the history of painting can match the contribution of the Venetian, Giovanni Bellini. Bellini can be credited with bringing a humanistic quality to his religious and mythical scenes. He was also at the vanguard of developments in oil painting and, having dispensed of the egg and water tempera method, he used oil paints to evoke a heightened sense of scenic ambience. Whereas the painted landscape was generally viewed with a stuffy distain by the artistic elite, Bellini treated it with a respect and attention to detail that brought it, though much later, a new generic credibility. And, quite apart from his own magnificent contribution to the canon of the Renaissance, he tutored Titian who, remarkably, even surpassed his grand and graceful Venetian master.


  • Though a loyal son of Venice, Bellini was open to outside influences from within Italy and from Northern Europe. His work bears the influence of new ideas in anatomical perspective as well as a willingness to test the artistic possibilities for oil paint, newly exported into Italy through the port of Venice.
  • For a man of such hardy Christian convictions, Bellini was resolved to using painting to convey the nuances of the human figure. His figures, both mortal and sacred, were painted thus with a lightness of touch that brought a new human tenderness to his religious and mythical parables.
  • Bellini's experiments with oils only added to the general elegance of his work. He perfected through oils a technique that allowed for the most subtle gradations of color. His sophisticated paintings set the bar by which others would be judged.
  • Unlike so many of his contemporaries, Bellini shows great respect for the natural landscape. The natural world was typically designed to add dramatic effect to the painted narrative, but there was a sparseness to Bellini's landscapes that were based on the open countryside in which he grew up.
  • In addition to his subtle rendering of costume and skin pigmentation, Bellini was able to add to the meteorological ambience of his scenes through his great mastery of light and color.

Biography of Giovanni Bellini

Detail of <i>St. Francis in Ecstasy</i> (1480)

With his intense exploration of earthly space and natural light, Bellini’s work is masterful. Leading UK art critic Jonathan Jones has even described the Venetian master as a rival to Leonardo da Vinci himself.

Important Art by Giovanni Bellini

The Agony in the Garden (1458-60)

This painting depicts the common religious theme of Christ's time of prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane before being taken prisoner by the Roman soldiers as a result of Judas' betrayal. In this version Christ kneels at a rock mound in prayer, while the disciples, Peter, James and John, sleep on the ground behind him. Visible in the clouds above the kneeling Jesus is an angel, holding aloft a cup and paten as symbols of Christ's sacrifice to come. Beyond these foreground figures, in the distance, winding their way along the road, are the Roman soldiers with Judas in the lead. Bellini's fine religious parable acts also as an excellent example of his respect for the natural landscape.

The topography of this painting recalls the sparse open countryside of the Lombardi region. Bellini had grown up in natural surroundings like this and his love for nature married well with his fervent religious beliefs. Despite never travelling further than Mantua, he was however aware of the discoveries in perspective and drawing being made in Florence thanks to his father Jacopo's travels. This new learning inspired Bellini to render the natural world around him with a realism and religious devotion not seen before. Indeed, he chose to depict landscapes with which he was familiar rather than imagine elaborate and idealised scenes.

This painting is often compared to an earlier painting on the same subject by his brother in law, Mantegna, whose landscape is, by comparison, dramatic, somewhat cramped and heavily populated by angels and soldiers in close proximity. Bellini exchanges Mantegna's spires of Jerusalem for small hill top towns, much closer in reality to the settlements found in the countryside around Venice at the time. The sparseness of the countryside allows the procession of soldiers to be placed further back into the distance thereby generating a powerful sense of impending fate; the calm as the storm clouds gather in the distance.

Another remarkable aspect of this painting is Bellini's rendering of the tantalizing dawn light. The pink warmth of the rising sun is almost tangible as it catches the river and rocks and floods into the broad valley beyond the viewer. The light ripples over the back of Jesus's robes with an iridescence enhanced by the addition of gold to the blue. By continuing to harness light and color in this way, Bellini earned his reputation as the master at generating atmosphere.

Pieta (1460)

Pieta (1460)

Pieta depicts the dead body of Christ being held up by Mary and Joseph. His wounds from the sword and his crucifixion are still fresh. The three figures are positioned in the central foreground with an obscured (by the three figures) rural landscape unwinding behind them.

This painting is significant because it marks Bellini's move away from the stylistic practices of Mantegna and the Paduan school. It shows the artist exploring his own, more serene and intimate style; a style that was softer than that seen in his previous paintings. His open low-lying landscape is suffused with natural light and opened up yet further by the horizontal fleeting clouds and sky. The stiffly-wrapped drapery of his costumes is replaced by far softer, more sweeping, folds. The grace these peripheral changes add to the image support an intimacy of feeling between the mother and her dead son (for there can be no higher love than that between mother and only son) which is immensely powerful in its tenderness. This was an aspect of Bellini's work that becomes a recognizable feature in his paintings to come. Also noticeable here are the beginnings of his ability to infuse classical themes and compositions with personal interpretation. Though he has a vital compositional function as a third party in the triptych, the somewhat stilted figure of Joseph (when compared to Mary) is still clearly absorbed in personal grief.

The fervour of religiosity so keenly depicted in Bellini's earlier work has dissipated and become something more refined and humanistic. As the art historian Roger Fry put it, "The sorrow which Bellini has here conceived is divine only in its excess of humanity." It is the simple, universal and agonising loss of a mother the viewer feels here over the loss of an ardent disciple. This is, in part, thanks to the development of the artist's rendering of the human figure. The move away from an emphasis on line and contour, towards more modelled planes and shading gives dead weight to Christ's arms and softness to his skin, he is almost ready to slump out of the image.

The Sacred Conversation (c.1487)

The Sacred Conversation (c.1487)

This altarpiece was originally painted for the church of St Giobbe in Venice. It depicts the common religious theme of The Virgin Mary in consultation with a group of saints and a heavenly gathering. In this particular painting the saints depicted are, from left to right, St Francis, St John, St Job, St Dominic, St Sebastian and St Louis. At the base of The Virgin's throne sit three angels with musical instruments.

This painting was the first example of The Sacred Conversation set within the architecture of a Venetian church. Previously, the divine group were set within a heavenly setting, whereas here Bellini brings them right down to earth. In its original place within the church of St Giobbe, the painting would have been surrounded by pillars similar to those within the space of the painting creating the illusion that The Virgin, Christ and all the saints were within reach of the worshipper. This effect would have been intensified by the familiar architecture of the painting, which is so reminiscent of the interior of St Mark's Basilica, the greatest church in Venice. The gold of the cupola and the marble that lines the walls behind the Madonna are both very recognisable features of The Basilica and, having been looted from Constantinople in the 13th century, were also symbolic of Venetian international power. This use of an architectural setting for biblical scenes went on to influence many future religious painters, notably Fra Bartolomeo in his Mystic Marriage of St Catherine in 1512, now held in the Accademia in Florence.

The warmth of the golden light within this picture may well have been inspired by the sacred and mysterious light of the Basilica generated by the vast quantities of gold on its walls. The atmosphere is certainly one of the reasons this picture is worth noting. By this point Bellini is painting more and more in oil and in this example he uses oil to layer thin layer upon thin layer, giving richness and depth to the light suffusing the scene.

Despite the inviting gesture of St Francis and the delicate rendering of the largely naked figures of St Job and St Sebastian, there is still a removed and slightly distant nature to Bellini's figures here. He is still conforming to the idea of representing a type with the saints, rather than a personality, though this was to change dramatically later on in his career. Here though there is a feeling that he is still displaying his mastery of the skills of lifelike representation and that something of the raw emotion of his earlier Pieta has been sacrificed in the study of St Sebastian's technical positioning and the Madonna's austere expression.

Influences and Connections

Influences on Artist
Giovanni Bellini
Influenced by Artist
Friends & Personal Connections
Friends & Personal Connections
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Content compiled and written by Nancy Nicholson

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Anthony Todd

"Giovanni Bellini Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Nancy Nicholson
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Anthony Todd
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First published on 14 Mar 2019. Updated and modified regularly
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