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Rediscovering the Bellinis

Giovanni Bellini

by Rona Goffen
Yale University Press, 347 pp., $60.00

In Renaissance Italy art was often a family business, and no family of painters was more successful than the Bellini. Jacopo Bellini, who was born about 1400, was the foremost painter in Venice in the decades around 1450. His sons Gentile and Giovanni acquired an even greater reputation, as did his son-in-law Andrea Mantegna. Today the fame of Giovanni has overshadowed that of his brother and his father, partly because many more of his paintings are extant. But Jacopo too has retained a special place in the history of art, not so much on account of his pictures, most of which seem rather derivative, but because he left two books of drawings, one now in the Louvre and the other in the British Museum, which are quite unlike any other surviving works of art from the fifteenth century.

The books are roughly the same size, slightly over sixteen inches high and about a foot wide. The one in Paris is of parchment, with most of the drawings in ink, while that in London is of high-quality paper, and almost all the drawings are in leadpoint. Originally each volume probably contained a hundred double-sided pages. Virtually the whole of the London book has survived, but about thirteen pages of the volume in Paris are missing.

Although usually called sketchbooks, the two books are rather different from other works normally categorized in this way, typically consisting of drawings of figures, animals, decorative features or antique fragments which could be reemployed in the workshop. Several sheets from such a book, indeed, were bound into the Paris volume. Evidently they were included by Jacopo because he wanted to use the parchment, not because he wanted to preserve the earlier drawings, though in the event he did not erase them all. He even made a few sketches of the same kind, for example some studies of lions, one of which was later used by Giovanni Bellini in an early painting; but most of his drawings consist either of single figures or small groups of figures occupying most of a page, or of multifigure narrative compositions, usually with very elaborate architectural settings.

Since virtually all Venetian narrative paintings of the mid-fifteenth century have disappeared, these drawings have a particular interest. What gives them an added attraction is that they are not just preliminary sketches for pictures, but highly finished and carefully considered designs in their own right. They are the only known group of such drawings from this period.

Very few people are able to see the original drawings. The Louvre book is still bound as a single volume and would be damaged by repeated handling. The sheets of the British Museum book are mounted separately, but they cannot be displayed because leadpoint is particularly susceptible to light. Scholars have therefore usually had to study Jacopo’s sketchbooks in reproductions published about eighty years ago, which are available only in specialist libraries. A new facsimile of the Paris book appeared in 1984, and now the art historian Colin Eisler has reproduced all the drawings in both books, which for the first time have been combined in a single volume. Although these reproductions are less than full-size, in other respects they are superior to anything else available. This is mainly because the London drawings, many of which are very faint, have been photographed with an infrared technique that reveals details which were previously almost invisible. For the Paris drawings, too, new color transparencies have been made.

Eisler’s book thus makes the sketch-books accessible in a new way. But he has done much more than this. He has produced a full-scale monograph on Jacopo, with an account of his career, a catalog of the paintings, and a digest of documents. Most of the book, though, is taken up with the drawings. These are reproduced not according to their sequence in the sketchbooks, but grouped by subject. In the accompanying commentary Eisler discusses the possible relationship between drawings and lost paintings by Jacopo; he also considers the links with Renaissance art in Northern Italy, and with other aspects of Italian life, such as chivalry.

The text bears witness to the author’s wide reading and his extensive knowledge of Venetian fifteenth-century art. He is undogmatic and consistently fair-minded in his summaries of other scholars’ ideas. But the book is an unwieldy accumulation of facts, observations and hypotheses, and the decision to examine the drawings according to subject matter often leads to repetition and unfocused speculation. The inconclusiveness of much of the analysis is in a way appropriate, for one of the things that emerges most clearly is just how little we know about Venetian art in the middle years of the fifteenth century; and these drawings simply compound the problem, because their relationship to contemporary paintings is so difficult to define. Eisler himself believes that the parallel is quite close, since he assumes that one of Jacopo’s main concerns was to represent particular subjects, in other words that he was producing what amounted to pictures in another medium. But before this view can be accepted it is important to establish just why these books were made.

Eisler does not provide a full answer. He recognizes that neither volume is really like a conventional sketchbook, but he seems inclined to accept the view of Francis Ames-Lewis, that they “are the sole surviving examples of what was probably standard studio property,” and that the drawings were produced by Jacopo “for his own interest and self-conscious concern with his own abilities,‌a record to be inherited by later generations of a family workshop and to establish an artistic tradition in compositional design.” There is little evidence, however, that Renaissance artists worked in quite this way. What was transmitted from painter to painter was a maniera, a style, normally understood as a distinctive way of representing figures, especially physiognomy and drapery, not a particular approach to composition.

Moreover, the sketchbooks contain few examples of the most common themes of Italian painting, representations of individual saints or groups of saints in a non-narrative context. In the two books there is only one image of the Madonna, and she is shown full-length and standing, which is relatively unusual in pictures. Equally, it is difficult to believe that the narrative compositions were made as models for other painters. Had that been Jacopo’s purpose, why did he produce no fewer than eight drawings of the Flagellation of Christ, a subject only rarely requested by patrons? Why were the main protagonists in his drawings so often shown inconspicuously in the distance, wholly overshadowed by the architecture? And why did he make so many studies of figures fighting, or on horseback, or in mythological guise—drawings that have no recognizable narrative content and that seem not to belong to the standard repertoire of fifteenth-century painting at all? Small wonder that Eisler’s discussion of the possible relationship with contemporary Venetian paintings is so inconclusive.

Another view of these drawings is that they are autonomous works of art, indeed perhaps that they are the first examples of Venetian capricci, initiating a tradition that was to lead to Guardi and Tiepolo. Although something of such an attitude is surely reflected in some pages of the Paris book, with their very elaborate penwork, as a general explanation it is anachronistic and unconvincing. Renaissance artists may sometimes have produced works for their own pleasure, but the labor involved in these two books seems quite disproportionate to such a hedonistic purpose. Yet they were evidently not made as products for sale. Both were inherited by Gentile Bellini, who probably took the Paris book to Constantinople in 1479 and later bequeathed the London volume to his brother.

Important clues to the function of the sketchbooks are contained in an appendix to Eisler’s book written by Albert Elen, who gives an analysis of their original structure. The one in the British Museum was made from fifty large sheets of expensive paper manufactured in the same mill at the same period, very probably by the same man. This suggests that the paper was acquired by Jacopo in a single batch, and therefore that this sketchbook is not just an accumulation of drawings made for different purposes at different times, but is the result of a single conscious decision. Elen also shows that when Jacopo made the drawings the paper was probably already sewn into separate quires of five folded sheets each. As one might expect, most of the more elaborate or finished drawings were on recto pages, though sometimes the design was subsequently extended on the adjacent verso. Some at least of these versos were drawn after the quires were bound together as a single volume. Whether the bound sequence of quires corresponds to the order in which they were completed is unclear, but each one has a distinctive character and the final arrangement does not seem to be entirely random. Toward the front of the book there were mostly studies of large individual figures or figure groups. In the middle there tended to be more emphasis on the setting, whether architecture or landscape, and toward the end a much greater concern with elaborate exercises in perspective.

Why then did Jacopo make the London book? If not as a model book for the studio (and even the use of an impermanent technique like leadpoint seems to argue against that), or as a product for sale or for his own pleasure, then there seems only one obvious alternative—for his own instruction. Jacopo is thought to have been trained by Gentile da Fabriano, one of the foremost exponents of the so-called International Gothic style. Some of the paintings most often ascribed to him certainly look very like those of Gentile, but in the sketchbooks that debt is much less evident. Instead, as scholars have repeatedly observed, the drawings have much more in common with Florentine art, particularly in the treatment of perspective but also to a lesser degree in the figure style. It was probably in the 1440s that Jacopo was first exposed to a significant amount of this art, when several Florentines worked in Venice and Padua. He seems, therefore, to have been one of those rather unusual Renaissance painters who worked in one idiom until he was middle-aged and then tried to come to terms with a new style based on very different principles. I believe that he made the London book specifically for this purpose. The drawings differ in subject matter and approach from paintings of the period because they were made as exercises, not as preparatory studies for pictures. Usually Jacopo chose traditional subjects as a starting point, because this would have been a natural thing to do, but sometimes he did not bother. And he used leadpoint on paper, because it allowed him to make corrections.

The Paris book, which is not completely filled, probably reflects a later stage in Jacopo’s process of self-education, although he may well have begun it before he finished the London volume. Some of the drawings were made in silverpoint, which cannot be erased, and this in itself suggests a greater self-confidence on Jacopo’s part. At the same time, he seems to have become more flexible in his approach: in the British Museum book Jacopo consistently made drawings with the base line parallel to the bottom of the page, whereas in the Louvre drawings he varied his procedure, often making designs in landscape format, with the base line parallel to the spine. Several of the compositions in Paris are very closely related to drawings in the London book and in general they seem to be more accomplished; the treatment of perspective is more confident, the architectural space more complex, the figures less wooden, and there is a greater interest in architectural and decorative elements derived from classical antiquity. It must, however, be admitted that some of these features may not be due to Jacopo at all, because almost all the outlines of the Paris drawings were later reinforced in ink, and these additions were the work of several hands. It is also the case that the drawings in the second half of the Paris book are the ones that most closely resemble those in London. At first sight this might indicate that the Louvre book was the earlier of the two. But the argument depends on the assumption that the pages at the front of the book were drawn first. It is equally likely that when the individual quires were bound together the ones containing the latest and most accomplished drawings were placed at the beginning of the volume.

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