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…

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