The Accademia Galleries of Venice: Giovanni Bellini and His Workshop

The early Renaissance... After having described some primitives in our former blog post (link: The Primitives ), let us continue our tour of the Accademia Galleries with another artistic period: Early Renaissance.
Venice, literally in love with the flowery gothic style, which perfectly matched its light atmosphere suspended between water and air, had quite a few problems to accept the coming up Renaissance issues. It took a special, genial artist to open the way to the transition between these two different periods as far as painting is concerned: Giovanni Bellini.

Giovanni Bellini

Giovanni was one of Jacopo Bellini’s sons, as well as Gentile Bellini’s brother, both of which were painters. He started to work in his father’s workshop at a young age. But living in Venice, crossroad of different people and different cultures, put him quite soon in contact with several artistic influences: starting from the gothic and the Byzantine taste, he got in touch with the Flemish experience and its love for the littlest details, ending up with the Tuscan innovations brought along by Donatello, who worked in Padua for a while in the 15th century, and with the Paduan experience of Andrea Mantegna, who would soon become his brother in law.
Consequently, Giovanni became a really versatile painter, who was always eager to learn, to change relevant elements of his style, as he would do for example at a very old age after meeting the young German painter Albrecht Dürer.
At the Accademia Galleries we can admire several amazing masterpieces by this incredible master. We will choose only a few for this post, perfectly knowing, however, that this is not enough to give a full idea of such a complex subject.
Saint Job’s Atarpiece

Saint Job’s Altarpiece was painted for St. Job’s Church in 1487, and it is definitely one of Giovanni Bellini’s best masterpieces.
The Virgin Mary is sitting on a throne with Baby Jesus, surrounded by several saints. The expression on her face is inscrutable. All the saints are anatomically perfect, all of them can be easily recognized by the symbols they hold. The two saints that mostly attract our attention are undoubtedly Saint Job, the prophet to whom both the church and the altarpiece are dedicated, and the magnificent Saint Sebastian, a saint of great importance in Venice during the epidemics.
The scene, known as Sacred Conversation although it seems to be pervaded by silence, takes place in a chapel which really reminds of St. Mark’s Basilica, being decorated with polychrome marbles on the walls and with golden mosaics on the half dome.
The impression of three-dimensionality is really impressive. Originally, this impression was even greater, thanks to the marble frame that surrounded the painting, which bas-reliefs were identical to those painted within the panel on the sides.
The Holy Mary of the Little Trees

One of the subjects that made Bellini quite famous was the representation of the Holy Mary with Baby Jesus. Among the numerous works with this subject, the Holy Mary of the Little Trees is one of our favourites.
Bellini’s Madonnas are always graceful, sweet and yet sad or doubtful about the destiny of the little son. Their faces are so beautiful that they immediately attract the viewers’ attention. Nonetheless, they are not simply the representation of the female beauty: these paintings are generally full of symbolism, as the little trees of this masterpiece, which might refer to the passion and eventually the resurrection of Christ.
On this panel we can clearly read the signature of the painter, as well as the year when it was done, on the parapet that divides the scene from the real space that the viewers occupy.

Madonna with Baby Jesus between Two Female Saints

This Madonna and Jesus between Two Female Saints is a majestic work of art: here Bellini shows all his virtuoso skills playing with the light. We can actually say that the real issue with this painting is light itself. It’s a warm kind of light, coming from the bottom; it lights up only the figures, leaving the background totally dark.
It becomes almost irrelevant trying to understand who the two Saints are at the sides of the Holy Mary, since our attention is captured by the luminous impressions that underline a face or a detail.
This choice is really partial and does not describe all the variety of paintings by Bellini that are preserved in this museum.

Cima da Conegliano: Was He Really a Minor Painter?

We do not have a lot of historical documents concerning Giambattista Cima from Conegliano. Conegliano, where Cima was born, is a little medieval city in the hills not far from Venice. Cima moved from the Venetian mainland to the Capital, which was not only a major economic and commercial centre, but also a place of great importance from an artistical and a cultural point of view.
He was active in Venice in the same years as Giovanni Bellini, and he was probably one of Bellini’s pupils at the beginning. In his works, however, we can also perceive influences from other painters of that period.
For a long time he was considered a minor painter of the Venetian Quattrocento, while today several art critics agree that he played instead a great role in the artistic panorama of those years… Of course, Bellin’s star was too bright at that time and it did cast some shadow on Cima. Nonetheless he was a painter of great importance, as we can witness by taking a look at his marvellous Madonna of the Orange Tree, painted between 1496 and 1498 for the church of Santa Chiara in Murano.

Madonna of the Orange Tree
The characters, i.e. the Virgin Mary with Baby Christ between two saints and with St. Joseph and the donkey in the background, suggest that the subject portrayed could be the Holy Family Flying to Egypt. Anyway, beyond the meaning of the figures themselves, what is strikingly beautiful is the landscape, so accurate in its details, similar to the those you could find in the coeval Flemish paintings. It had been Antonello da Messina who had brought to Venice the Flemish experience…
On the background, as usual in Cima’s works, on top of a hill there stands a medieval castle, which reminded the painter of the castle of his hometown.

Vittore Carpaccio: an Exceptional Storyteller

Vittore Carpaccio was born in Venice in the 15th century and started his career in an artistical panorama that was entirely dominated by Giovanni Bellini. Yet he was able to become quite appreciated in the city. Several brotherhoods or guilds, such as the Albanians’ Brotherhood, St. Ursula’s Confraternity, Scuola Grande di San Giovanni Evangelista…), commissioned to this master several large canvases, in which Carpaccio instilled all his narrative ability.

St. Ursula Meets the Pagan Prince, from the Stories of St. Ursula
Carpaccio was a real storyteller: with a great deal of details, he would tell the stories of meetings, events, vicissitudes of Saints who, at a closer look, would appear to be so similar to the Venetians of those days.
Also the settings and the landscapes show some sort of a Venetian atmosphere, and frequently in the faces of the figures, so well characterized, we can recognize real portraits of relevant people who Carpaccio had come in contact with.
It is not quite simple to explain these works of art… actually, the paintings themselves give us hints about the stories they want to tell us, they let us dive into a historical period of lost ages, where we can detect so many elements of contemporary Venice.
Come with us and discover the thousand shades of the Early Renaissance in Venice: it will be for sure a memorable experience!

You might be also interested in the following guided tours and posts: 

The Accademia Galleries  (section: Classical tours)

From gothic to renaissance. (section: Unusual tours

A customized kids tour in Venice: a prince, a princess and a pope: Saint Ursula's story. (section: Blog)

Our guided and private tours of Venice. (section: Blog)