• Email
  • Print

Rediscovering the Bellinis’: An Exchange

In response to:

Rediscovering the Bellinis from the July 19, 1990 issue

To the Editors:

I’m glad that Charles Hope thinks I can “write perceptively and accurately” about style in Giovanni Bellini, but I take issue with other aspects of his review [“Rediscovering the Bellinis,” NYR, July 19]. As Mr. Hope himself admits, he has little sympathy for the contextual, cultural approach to art now taken by many leading American and European scholars, and exemplified in my book. Thus he suggests that nothing can be said about a painting unless specifically stated by its painter. But it is surely arguable that most painters never bothered to articulate the established beliefs and common-places of their time. It seems unnecessarily reductive, therefore, to argue, as Mr. Hope does, that the commonplace identification of the Christ Child with the Eucharist cannot be pertinent to Bellini’s work because the artist never wrote about it. The idea was so prevalent that Bellini could hardly have avoided it.

Mr. Hope’s positivism also makes him unduly restrictive about my treatment of Bellini’s early painting of St. Jerome. Because Voragine’s Golden Legend biography of the saint mentions all of the animals, including the lion, associated with Jerome, Mr. Hope considers that Voragine explains Bellini’s painting sufficiently and that the letter of St. Jerome that I quote is irrelevant. But it is not the animals that distinguish Bellini’s poetic vision of the saint from other works representing the same subject; it is the artist’s understanding of Jerome’s spiritual state, which the saint himself described best in the letter I quoted.

It is quite true that I unaccountably erred in specifying Chapter 24 of Ecclesiasticus as the text held by St. Benedict in the Frari altarpiece, despite my long acquaintance with the letters “M” and “O,” clearly painted by Bellini to identify the prologue and first chapter. Even so, the error does not disprove my main argument about the painting. Mr. Hope insists that the Frari triptych cannot be an altarpiece celebrating the Virgin’s immaculacy (her freedom from Original Sin). But the Frari is a Franciscan church, and the Franciscans were the great champions of the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, for which Ecclesiasticus was a fundamental source. As a Franciscan church, furthermore, the Frari had no interest whatsoever in advertising the Benedictine Rule, to which Mr. Hope sees a reference. When St. Benedict wants to refer to his monastic rule in other images, he holds a copy of the text of the rule—and not Ecclesiasticus. In Bellini’s Franciscan setting, the relevance of this text to the friars’ faith in the Immaculate Conception is logical, and it is corroborated by other historical, art historical, and theological evidence.

Characteristically, Mr. Hope also discounts Ovidian elements in Bellini’s Feast of the Gods, dismissing the artist’s association with humanists because “the evidence points in the opposite direction.” What evidence is that? As my book makes clear, the artist had numerous connections among the humanists; Pietro Bembo, for example, was a friend and admirer.

Rona Goffen
Distinguished Professor of Art History
Rutgers University
New Brunswick, New Jersey

To the Editors:

Charles Hope’s theory that the sketchbooks of Jacopo Bellini were a method of self-instruction for the middle-aged artist is not only thought-provoking but compelling.

Only one of Mr. Hope’s bases for this theory does not ring true: the supposed impermanency of leadpoint. He writes that because the medium is particularly susceptible to light, it is unlikely that the sketchbooks were intended as modelbooks for future generations of studio artists. Although Hope is right to be skeptical of the modelbook account of Bellini’s sketchbooks, it can’t be said that leadpoint is light-sensitive.

If this medium could be said to have an enemy, it would not be light but urban air, since acidity can cause corrosion of lead metal. However, even this occurrence is unlikely since a thin line of lead will not behave like a smooth deposit of the metal that is even several millimeters wide. The latter has a far more even expanse of surface area to be affected and reacts accordingly. Moreover, leadpoint is usually executed on a calcium ground which would somewhat mitigate any acidity caused by its environment. All in all, leadpoint is an admirably stable medium, as drawing media go.

It may be said in support of Mr. Hope’s larger argument that had the books been typical studio furniture and used like modelbooks, it is likely that they would not have come down to us in the relatively pristine condition in which we find them today.

Pia DeSantis Pell
Senior Paper Conservator
National Gallery of Art
Washington, DC To the Editors:

Charles Hope’s review of two books on Jacopo and Giovanni Bellini is marked by his usual “straightforward” approach to art history; it is also filled with enough errors of fact and judgment to warrant some clarification and comment.

Hope’s tendency to deny Renaissance artists any particular leadership in their culture (cf. his “real” Leonardo, whose views “now seem disappointingly prosaic” [NYR, August 17, 1989] ends by barring them entirely from participation in that culture—the old Giovanni Bellini being denied any serious contact with classical tradition. That tendency leads Hope to repeat the no longer tenable thesis that Titian sensualized Bellini’s otherwise chaste figures in the Feast of the Gods, transforming modest mortals into bawdy gods. This notion has been effectively ruled out by the recent restoration conducted by David Bull at the National Gallery of Art: “it was concluded,” Bull writes in his published report, “that the figures and their various accessories had all been painted by Bellini.” Hope’s forced effort to dissociate Bellini from “the scholarly values of the humanists” has led him seriously astray.

Hope’s limited understanding of the ways images function and carry meaning results in a peculiarly narrow view of iconography. With regard to the Immaculate Conception, he reveals a rather naive belief in a single, canonic image type for this doctrine and, apparently, an expectation of “explanatory inscriptions” on monumental altarpieces. His peculiarly tortured and self-contradicting argument regarding the Frari triptych concludes with the bald assertion that the Franciscan altarpiece “has nothing to do with the Immaculate Conception.” But Ecclesiasticus 1, the text held open by Benedict, begins with the declaration that “All wisdom comes from the Lord, and remains with him forever,” and it is precisely the equation of the Virgin with Divine Wisdom that traditionally provided the major textual base for the doctrine of Mary’s Immaculacy, her eternity. From a Mariological point of view, Ecclesiasticus sounds its basic theme, which will be refined in Chapter 24, from the outset. Timor Domini, the section about the fear of the Lord that Hope asserts makes the painted book a reference to the Benedictine rule, is revealed only incompletely in Bellini’s Bible and is clearly secondary to Origo sapientiae.

Still more perverse, especially coming from a student of Venetian art, is Hope’s treatment of the San Giobbe altarpiece and his denial of its particular Venetian resonance. Here, his literalism extends to visual allusion when he states that the painting “does not reproduce any part of San Marco” and can have no relationship, to the ducal basilica since “Saint Mark is not included among the saints.” He can hardly pretend that the veined marble revetment of the walls of Bellini’s painted apse and the golden mosaic half-dome above are commonplaces in Venetian church architecture. The combination of golden mosaics and dark mirrored marble slabs is particularly distinctive of San Marco itself. The marble is singled out for extensive description by Francesco Sansovino in his great guide to Venice of 1581, not only for the refinement of the workmanship but for the miraculous images that appear in the veined patterns of the stone, and he recalls that Albertus Magnus had thought them worthy of notice. In the altarpiece Bellini deliberately contrasts this rich Byzantine interior space with the Renaissance architectural detail of the supporting pilasters, which so famously relate to those of the actual frame of the altar in the church of San Giobbe, thereby distinguishing the higher sacred realm.

In the effort to maintain his rigidly positivist standards, Hope tries to dismantle a central tenet of the myth of Venice. Here again, an a priori stand—denying the link between religious art and political ideas, “more a product of the ingenuity of historians than of any solid contemporary evidence”—blinds him to the visual and monumental documents: “No one has shown, for example, that the Annunciation was any more common as a subject in Venice than elsewhere, and no one has produced a representation of this story with an inscription linking the theme to the foundation of the city.” Carried away by his own negative enthusiasm, Hope seems to have forgotten examples with which he is presumably familiar. Among the many public, and political, celebrations of the Annunciation we might cite: (1) the facade sculpture of San Marco itself; (2) Guariento’s fresco of Paradise above the ducal throne in the Great Council Hall of the Ducal Palace; (3) the Annunciation that takes place across the span of the Rialto Bridge; (4) Bonifazio de’ Pitati’s Annunciation triptych for the Camera degli Imprestidi of the Ducal Palace, where God the Father and the Holy Spirit soar above Piazza San Marco; (5) Giovanni Merlo’s monumental engraving of 1656, a panoramic view of Venice crowned by the Annunciation.

By such means, pictorial and allusive, Venice proclaimed its own divine sanction. According to the standard legend, Venice was founded on the date of the Annunciation, March 25th. Upon the ruins of the fallen, pagan empire of Rome a new republic was born in humility and in Christian liberty. March 25th thus initiated a new era of political as well as theological grace. These mythic associations found clearer articulation in the 15th century, especially in the encomiastic texts of humanists like Bernardo Giustiniani (De origine urbis Venetiarum), and still further diffusion in the vernacular panegyrics of the 16th, including Sansovino’s Venetia città nobilissima et singolare. The civic dimensions of the Annunciation were annually demonstrated on the feast day itself, when the triumphal procession of the doge and the signoria put the government and the very idea of Venice on public display. Hope’s search for “solid contemporary evidence” must have been perfunctory indeed.

Beyond the stubborn positivism of his stance, his professed faith in texts and documents—as though these records revealed some truth beyond the need of interpretation—Hope’s attitude represents an unfortunate hermeneutic model. Denying the possibilities of meaning in images, he would have us retreat from interpretive engagement and responsibility. Consistently evacuating pictures of meaning, he diminishes them and reduces the achievement of their makers to the narrow boundaries of his own imagination. Lacking any critical, let alone poetic, dimension, his brand of art history can only seem flat and prosaic; in his hands the art of the past becomes impoverished. Your readers—and art history—deserve better. David Rosand
Columbia University
New York City

Charles Hope replies:

I fear that I unwittingly misled Rona Goffen, and no doubt other readers, at one point in my review. Her claim that I had suggested “that nothing can be said about a painting unless specifically stated by its painter” seems to be based on my remark, in connection with the notion that the infant Christ in images of the Madonna and Child is to be identified with the Eucharistic host, that “one will look in vain for such an idea among Italians who have written about their own art over the past four centuries.” I was not referring here just to painters writing about their own pictures, but to all Italians writing about Italian art. All Catholics of course believe that the host is the body and blood of Christ, though the Corpus Domini is conventionally represented by the adult, not the infant Christ. Whether they ever regarded Christ in paintings as a sort of wafer is another matter, but if this attitude was at all widespread, we should surely find some allusion to it in the large body of writing about art produced by Italians in the four centuries since the publication of Vasari’s Lives. After all, these writers grew up in the traditions of Italian Catholicism. But none of them, so far as I am aware, even hints that paintings of the Madonna and Child are to be understood in this way. Nor have I found any indication of such an attitude in any Renaissance text, whether by an artist or a patron, a layman or a cleric, Positivist or not, I am reluctant to accept that this way of thinking about representations of the Christ child with his mother was at all prevalent in the Renaissance until someone produces clear allusions to it in Italian texts written between 1300 and, say, 1950. Again, Professor Goffen seems to have misunderstood my discussion of the early St. Jerome. I was unhappy that she had misrepresented what Jerome had written and that she made no reference to a conspicuous element of the composition, a lion whose paw is pierced with a large thorn. This feature is explained by Voragine, whom Goffen did not mention. I am surprised that she does not think that Voragine, explains Bellini’s painting sufficiently, since he even includes translations of the very passages from Jerome’s letter that she considers so significant.

In writing about the Frari picture, Goffen stated: “Bellini’s two inscriptions—in the apse and in Benedict’s Bible—make clear that the subject of the altarpiece is the Immaculate Conception.” In my review I pointed out that the inscription in the apse does not refer to the Immaculate Conception and does not come, as she supposed, from an Office of the Immaculate Conception, and that she had misidentified the text in Benedict’s Bible. It is not clear whether it is this part of my argument that David Rosand considers “peculiarly tortured and self-contradicting,” or rather my assertion that Bellini’s picture looks wholly unlike other altarpieces of the Immaculate Conception. He seems surprised at the notion of explanatory inscriptions on such altarpieces. They are present, and very prominent, in all the best-known examples produced in Italy around 1500—Carlo Crivelli’s panel now in the National Gallery, London; Francia’s picture in San Frediano, Lucca; the variant by a follower of Ghirlandaio in the museum at Lucca; Piero di Cosimo’s panel in San Francesco, Fiesole; and the altarpiece by Signorelli and assistants in the Museo Diocesano, Cortona. This list could easily be extended.

Professor Rosand also taxes me with “a rather naive belief in a single, canonic image type for this doctrine.” Such a belief would be naive indeed, but I do not hold it. I do however believe that people can now and could in the past identify the subject matter of religious paintings because certain iconographic features tend to be associated with certain themes. In an Annunciation scene one normally finds the Virgin, who is usually but not always reading, the angel Gabriel, who may or may not hold a lily, and sometimes God the Father. In representations of the Immaculate Conception the Virgin is normally shown without her son; she is not enthroned, but, especially in later examples, frequently stands on a crescent moon; she is often singled out by God the Father; she may be accompanied by Old Testament figures and/or saints who advocated the doctrine of her immaculacy; and there may be inscriptions that allude explicitly to this doctrine. In Bellini’s picture the only one of these elements present is an inscription, but it is so difficult to decipher that even Goffen failed to identify it correctly; and although, as Rosand points out, Ecclesiasticus I did have a bearing on the issue of the Virgin’s immaculacy, I have not managed to find a single representation of the Immaculate Conception in which it appears. It is not even included among the seventy inscriptions in the astonishing Allegory of the Immaculate Conception by Juan de las Roelas in Valladolid. It is quite true, though, that Benedict is usually shown with a text of the Benedictine rule, not with a Bible, as Goffen observes. She herself gives a very adequate explanation of why he was not represented in this way here: it would have been inappropriate in a Franciscan church.

Rosand is quite right that the architecture of Bellini’s San Giobbe altarpiece does not correspond to what one finds in fifteenth-century Venetian churches. But Bellini and his contemporaries were not trying to show church interiors as such in their altarpieces. Otherwise they would hardly have included landscape at the sides, as they so often did. Their intention, presumably, was to provide a fitting architectural setting for the Virgin and saints. In their painted buildings they certainly included those features which contemporaries regarded as particularly splendid—mosaic and marble revetments. Mosaic, indeed, became an almost indispensable element in these pictures, not, I think, because the artists always wanted to evoke San Marco, but because the opulence of mosaic fits so well with the description of the Heavenly Jerusalem in the Book of Revelation. At the same time, I see no reason to suppose that Bellini’s architecture was a deliberate reaction against contemporary ideals. Venetian architects might well have liked mosaic vaults in their churches; but this was out of the question because the Venetian mosaicists were all employed full time at San Marco, as they had been for centuries. And those architects certainly had no hesitation in using marble when they had the chance. The most notable instance is the church of the Miracoli, which is clad in marble throughout, inside and out, and it is very close in date to the San Giobbe altarpiece. Moreover, if the setting of the San Giobbe altarpiece was intended to allude to San Marco, the same would presumably be true of other Venetian altarpieces which include similar features. The most striking example is Cima’s Montini altarpiece of about 1507. Here again we find marble revetment, and a mosaic which is copied from one in San Marco. But in this instance, evidently, no reference to San Marco was intended. The picture was painted for Parma, a city outside Venetian territory, and the patron was a sophisticated cleric who had no links with Venice.

Rosand’s views about the possible significance of the Annunciation in Venetian art are well known, and I read them with care before writing my review. He is certainly aware that a rather more skeptical approach has recently been adopted by Wolfgang Wolters, one of the foremost authorities on Venetian political imagery. Rosand is perhaps less aware of the problems surrounding the supposed date of the foundation of Venice. Already in 1275 Martin da Canal stated that Venice was founded “in the year of the incarnation of Our Lord Jesus Christ 421.” At that period, and indeed much later, it was normal to date years from either the incarnation (March 25) or the nativity (December 25) of Christ. The first person to suggest that the foundation occurred on March 25 was the Paduan Jacopo Dondi, writing in the 1330s. But in 1342 the exact date was evidently still unknown in Venice, because in the short chronicle which he wrote in that year Andrea Dandolo, who was the greatest Venetian historian of the fourteenth century and who was soon to be elected doge, merely stated that the city was founded in 421. Shortly afterwards Dandolo wrote another chronicle, this time including Dondi’s date, but he did not indicate that it had any special significance. Dandolo is the major source for later Venetian historians, but according to the next Venetian chronicle, traditionally attributed to Pietro Giustinian and otherwise closely based on Dandolo, the city was founded in April 421; and Flavio Biondo, in the middle of the fifteenth century, gave a different date entirely.

So far as I know, the first writer to point out the possible significance of the date of March 25 was Marcantonio Sabellico. In his history of Venice, published in 1487, Sabellico remarked that although some might think it did not matter on what day the city was founded, he believed that the choice of March 25 had been “very useful.” On that day Adam had been created and Christ had been conceived; thus nature had acted “most nobly” on March 25 not once, but twice—and, it is implied, could do so again. Bernardo Giustinian, whose study of the origins of Venice was published in 1493, went further, claiming that it was God’s will that the Venetians had founded their city on such an auspicious day. The idea was echoed by several sixteenth-century panegyrists of Venice, who must have used Giustinian’s book as a convenient source. But it is questionable how much importance even then was commonly attached to the date of March 25. In his guidebook of 1581, when describing the ceremonies undertaken by the doge on the major feast days of the church, Francesco Sansovino certainly noted that Venice had been founded on the day of the Annunciation, but in the chronological table at the back of the book, he then gave three alternative dates for the foundation of the city, none of them 421 or indeed March 25. All of which suggests that even if the standard date had a certain resonance in Venice after the publication of Sabellico and Giustinian, it is hardly plausible that it had any relevance to the San Giobbe altarpiece, which was painted before 1487 and which anyway does not include a representation of the Annunciation.

Rosand and Goffen both take exception to my discussion of the Feast of the Gods, although for slightly different reasons. Rosand’s claim that I repeated “the no longer tenable thesis that Titian sensualized Bellini’s otherwise chaste figures” is odd, because I did not mention Titian anywhere in my review. I refrained from stating who had made the changes to the figures for a boringly positivist reason: when I wrote my review the report on the restoration was not yet available to me, so it seemed unwarranted to speculate whether Bellini himself was responsible or not. In any case, this is not relevant to the main issue, namely the relationship between the picture and the texts of Bonsignori and Ovid. Goffen and I agree that Bonsignori was Bellini’s “primary text” (her italics): initially the priest Argesto, who is dressed in red, was meant to be seen tying his donkey to a tree, and this detail comes from Bonsignori alone. Later Bellini painted out the tree, lowered the drapery of the women and, it seems, added the attributes of the gods. For reasons at which we can only guess, Bellini started off painting a feast of mortals, and ended up painting a feast of gods. It is possible that someone told him that Bonsignori had got the story wrong, and that Ovid’s accounts in the Fasti involved gods, not mortals. But it seems quite impossible that Bellini studied the Fasti with any care, that he “collated Bonsignori’s commentary with the Ovidian text,” as Goffen maintained, simply because there are such obvious discrepancies between the text and the painting.

In my review I nowhere denied that Bellini was acquainted with humanists: I criticized Goffen for attempting “to associate Bellini with the scholarly values of the humanists” (italics added). It was because she exaggerated the degree of humanist involvement in the project, I believe, that she failed to recognize how little the painting has to do with Ovid’s text or the relevant commentaries; and for the same reason she even proposed that Bellini consulted the original text of the Metamorphoses as well as Bonsignori’s paraphrase. Thus she associated the figure of the child Bacchus with some passages in the Metamorphoses, particularly one in which Bacchus is described as a “boy…whose weapons are scented locks, soft garlands,” but she did not quote the next line, which reads: “purple and gold inwoven in embroidered robes.” Bellini’s figure wears a plain blue garment over a white chemise.

Regarding the more general points raised by Rosand in his last paragraph, I think that it would be common ground between us that in interpreting texts and documents of the past, and for that matter paintings too, he places greater reliance on his imagination than I do on mine.

I am grateful to Ms. DeSantis Pell for setting me right on the characteristics of lead-point. Like most art-historical mistakes, my error was due not to lack of imagination, but to ignorance.

  • Email
  • Print